Tolstoy, Russell, Camus, and the Pursuit of Ultimate Meaning

To what must our lives be anchored to find meaning and purpose? In My Confession, the great Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy, described the emptiness of his life, even though he possessed everything. At first, he had been satisfied with the arts, his writing and the esteem he had obtained. Gradually, however, as he found that he couldn’t answer the most basic questions about life, he began to seek its ultimate meaning:


So long as I believed that life had some sense, although I was not able to express it—the reflections of life of every description in poetry and in the arts afforded me pleasure, and I was delighted to look at life through this little mirror of art; but when I began to look for the meaning of life…[it was] painful to me. It was all right for me to rejoice so long as I believed in the depth of my soul that life had some sense. But when I knew that life was meaningless and terrible, the play…could no longer amuse me. No sweetness of honey could be sweet to me.
No matter how much one should say to me, “You cannot understand the meaning of life, do not think, live!” I am unable to do so…Now I cannot help seeing day and night, which run and lead me up to death. I see that alone, because that alone is the truth. Everything else is a lie.
A profound sense of meaninglessness replaced whatever joy he had had. But was this just a matter of Tolstoy’s personal and pathological need? In contrast, Bertrand Russell, the late British mathematician and atheistic philosopher, confronted the same meaningless reality, but insisted that he was able to create his own meaning despite the powerful, impersonal, and meaningless forces that surrounded him. In A Free Man’s Worship, Russell describes how he was able to carve out a refuge of meaning and civility in the face of meaninglessness:
In action, in desire, we must submit perpetually to the tyranny of outside forces; but in thought, in aspiration, we are free, free from our fellow men, free from the petty planet on which our bodies impotently crawl, free even, while we live, from the tyranny of death. Let us learn, then, that energy of faith … which enables us to live constantly in the vision of the good; and let us descend, in action, into the world of fact, with that vision always before us.
Evidently, it was enough for Russell to simply be connected to himself. He was able to found meaning in the richness of his experiences and feelings:
I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy—ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy…This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered to me.
Tolstoy was unable to find this oasis of contentment. However, he observed that his own emptiness was reflected in the rest of the privileged class:
In contradistinction to what I saw in our circle, where all life passed in idleness, amusements, and tedium of life, I saw that the whole life of these [peasant] people was passed in hard work, and that they were satisfied with life. In contradistinction to the people of our circle, who struggled and murmured against fate because of their privations and their suffering, these people [of faith] accepted diseases and sorrows without any perplexity or opposition, but with calm and firm conviction that it was all for good…the more intelligent we are, the less do we understand the meaning of life and the more do we see a kind of bad joke in our suffering and death, these people live, suffer, and approach death, and suffer in peace and more often in joy…A calm death, a death without terror or despair is the greatest exception in our circle…{while a] joyless death is one of the greatest exceptions among the masses…people who…had understood the meaning of life.
For Tolstoy, the contrast between his own circle and the believing masses was so sharp that it was easy for him to see that it was their faith—the very thing he lacked—that made all the difference. He concluded,
[Faith] gives the finite existence of man the sense of the infinite—a sense which is not destroyed by suffering, privation, and death. Consequently in faith alone could we find the meaning and possibility of life.
Ironically, it was the peasant masses who possessed the mental glue necessary to connect the discordant dots of life by attaching them to something higher. It reminded me of something I had read in a biology text. Heart cells would beat independently and discordantly until the heart imposed its reign over the individual cells, bringing harmony. But why are the privileged classes sometimes content? Tolstoy understood that this “contentment” was only temporary:
A person could live only so long as he was drunk; but the moment he sobered up, he could not help seeing that all that was only a deception, and a stupid deception at that.
Russell’s inebriation had lasted longer than Tolstoy’s. However, he too would have to encounter sobriety. Some years later, Russell conceded,
I wrote with passion and force because I really thought I had a gospel. Now I am cynical about the gospel because it won’t stand the test of life. (Os Guinness, The Journey, 106)
It reminded me of an atheist’s testimony. He claimed that coming to atheism gave him freedom. He was now the captain of his own ship. If there wasn’t any standard to judge him, no one could any longer point an accusing finger at him. He was free to create his own reality. But in a world without rules, one choice is no better than the next. It’s like playing chess without rules. Every move becomes meaningless. Tolstoy came to the only choice left open to him:
I saw that all that was mere pampering of the appetites, and that no meaning could be found in it; but the life of all the working masses…presented itself to me in its real significance. I saw that that was life itself and that the meaning given to this life was truth, and I accepted it.
The French novelist and essayist, Albert Camus, was also stalked by the meaninglessness of life. In his essay, Myth of Sisyphus, he detailed the philosophical struggle that this created:
Does its [life’s] absurdity require one to escape it through hope or suicide—this is what must be clarified, hunted down, and elucidated, while brushing aside all the rest. Does the Absurd dictate death? This problem must be given priority over others.
While the apparent absurdity of life turned Tolstoy into a seeker and Russell into a “creator” of his own meaning, it turned Camus into a defiant rebel:
That revolt gives life its value. Spread out over the whole length of a life, it restores its majesty to that life.
Camus decided that confronting the absurdity of life was his most honorable response. He would stare it down and shake his fist in defiance:
Suicide is a [cowardly] repudiation…The absurd is his extreme tension [or trial], which he maintains constantly [in mind] by solitary effort, for he knows that in that consciousness and in that day-to-day revolt he gives proof of his only truth, which is defiance.
Courage to face the meaninglessness for what it is gave Camus’ life “majesty,” but did it? If life is devoid of meaning, how could his defiance have meaning? How could it be any more than merely an expression of his anger and pride that he alone had the courage to confront the absurd? Camus was connecting to nothing higher than himself. Denying any higher meaning, he tried to give life meaning by rebelling against it. It’s like trying to believe that a rape is actually a romance.
On the other hand, Tolstoy understood that if his life was no more than a chance conglomeration of particles which was doomed to be blown asunder, life could have no meaning, no matter how hard he struggled to invent that meaning. He confessed,
I want to know the meaning of my life, but the fact that it is a particle of the infinite not only gives it no meaning, but even destroys every possible meaning.
Although it’s been reported that, towards the end of his life, Camus would sit anonymously in the back of a church service, we don’t know if he ever stopped shaking his fist. In 1960, at the age of 47, Camus died in a car accident. Some speculate that this had been his act of resignation to the suicide he had so vigorously rejected.
We were not placed here to create our own meaning in isolation from the rest of reality. This is no more reasonable than trying to satisfy our need for friendship through an imaginary friend. We were designed to search for meaning, without which alcohol becomes our constant companion.
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