Tolstoy spent his entire life looking for meaning. As a young man he was a nihilist and an atheist, but was too much of an intellectual to ignore the doubts that continued to nettle him. Whenever he thought that his scientific, philosophical, and historical inquiries were over, another doubt arose.
History seemed to provide the firmest ground for an amoral nihilism; and in his second Epilogue to War and Peace he presented strong arguments for the repetitive cycles of history which were a result of human nature. The results of the battles of the Russian campaign had far less or nothing to do with Napoleon’s orders than the herd mentality (to use Nietzsche’s phrase) of his troops who could attack, retreat, or defend as much to do with their fear of death, their patriotism, their obedience, and especially the powerful collectivity of their brigade. They were indeed ‘a band of brothers’ who, once they sensed the collective fear, courage, or righteous anger of their fellow soldiers, they acted accordingly.
The movement of nations is caused not by power, nor by intellectual activity, nor even by a combination of the two as historians have supposed, but by the activity of all the people who participate in the events, and who always combine in such a way that those taking the largest direct share in the event take on themselves the least responsibility and vice versa.This sentiment neutered The Great Man Theory of history according to Tolstoy, because no one man’s achievements or failures could possibly be attributed to him. Tolstoy’s conviction was less an acknowledgment of the role of any leader’s subordinates in determining historical outcomes than an understanding of human behavior, the nature of collective action, and the predetermined factors which influence it.
Napoleon’s failure at the Battle of Borodino was not because of any strategic shortcomings on his part, but because he had a cold – or so went the French rationalization; and the great man had a cold because his valet had forgotten to bring his waterproof boots. As a result Napoleon caught a bad cold, couldn’t think clearly, and lost some of his famous military acumen and judgment.
The story only begins there. The valet forgot to bring the Emperor’s boots because of a preoccupation with his wife who had found out about his dalliance with a barmaid in Nantes by a piece of information provided by the tart herself who had been promised far more than the valet was ever prepared to give.
One could go back much farther in this sordid history – to his wife’s beleaguering parents; to his own lack of fidelity and honest which he had learned from his wayward father, et cetera, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. Any action taken by any individual is conditioned by the past – a chain of events which, when combined and interlinked with others, becomes an impossible tangled puzzle, and impossible to solve. All that Tolstoy knew was that there was more to the weight of history than the obvious role of historical events in shaping the present.
The better we are acquainted with the physiological, psychological, and historical laws deduced by observation and by which man is controlled, and the more correctly we perceive the physiological, psychological, and historical causes of the action, and the simpler the action we are observing and the less complex the character and mind of the man in question, the more subject to inevitability and the less free do our actions and those of others appear.
The Battle of Borodino www.en.wikipedia.org
For Tolstoy, if every action had millions of antecedents – random events colliding and producing other random events like billiard balls – then not only were the actions of individuals neutered but so was history itself devoid of meaning or promise.
Tolstoy was not alone in his thinking. Many centuries before Shakespeare wrote his Histories, and as the critic Jan Kott has observed, if one were to lay them down in chronological order, one would be struck by their repetitive similarity. Although people and places changed, their motivations did not. Human nature, ineluctable and inescapable, was behind all actions; and once one act of human aggression, territorial acquisition, act of jealousy or spite took place, there was no stopping its repercussions.
Shakespeare found history fascinating exactly because it had no inherent meaning – it was a familiar stage on which to place unique characters and to create a dramatic or comedic context within which they could do their random acts to the audience’s delight.
Is the search for meaning only an academic subject, pored over by philosophers whose works are never read? Hardly. Everything we see seems to tell us that there is no absolute meaning to life. If there were, we would see social and moral progress – a trajectory towards an attainable goal. If history not only repeats itself but recurs in the most obviously predictable ways - i.e. with the same self-interested pursuit of wealth, power, and territory – and if this behavioral pattern is found at every level of human society from family to tribe to community to region to country, then how could anyone ascribe meaning to any particular action, event, or era?
Nevertheless, the search for meaning is the most common feature of human intelligence. There must be a reason for misery, penury, and our short, unhappy lives.
Konstantin Levin, one of the characters in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is amazed by the irony of it all. Human beings were created with wit, intelligence, insight, creativity, energy, and will; but live only a few decades only to spend eternity in the cold, hard ground of the steppes.
Dostoevsky understood Man’s need to find meaning in a brutal world; and his character Ivan Karamazov takes the returned Christ to task for promising him celestial paradise if and only if he chose wisely and well. Ivan, the Grand Inquisitor, says that in defying the Devil in the desert and refusing his three temptations, Christ betrayed humanity. Men only want miracles, mystery, and authority, the Inquisitor said. They cannot bear the responsibility of free will and the difficult choices between right and wrong; and therefore will quickly fall into the clutches of the Church.
There can be no meaning in life, said Ivan, if Christ deliberately consigned man to a life of suffering with only the promise, not the guarantee, of salvation; and no starving, homeless, and unclothed man can never think beyond his needs. If in a time of perpetual suffering there can be no meaning and only a venal, corrupt, and manipulative Church to offer fee-for-service solace arrogates to itself the rule of spiritual law, then the search or need for meaning is not academic, only useless.
Nietzsche had the right idea. He never grappled with meaning, and knew right off that there was none to be had. The only sensible action in such a meaningless world is to respond in kind – act amorally and exert the will which is the only validation of the individual possible.
Every aspect of human society has meaning behind it. Billions still buy the notion of divine salvation, are inspired by it, and acting according to it. Others with a more secular leaning, invest the same spiritual meaning in issues of climate change, civil rights, social and economic inequality. In fact there are no more true believers than political progressives who reject nihilism out of hand, see progress as possible and imminent, and believe in a better world.
Even atheists can’t leave well enough alone. They may reject God but cannot give up the search for non-spiritual meaning. Atheism has gotten so popular that its conferences can only be held in the mega-centers of San Diego, Washington, and Miami. It is all about community, belonging, friendship, and common commitment. What else is this but meaning?
On a very personal level, no one is excused from morose existential thoughts. Life at times, if not miserable, can seem deadening. Making it through another day at the office, at the lunch counter, at the dinner table, in the armchair, and in bed is often more painful that physical torment. “What’s the point?”, we ask.
This existential angst increases with age of course. As we see the light at the end of the tunnel dimming, and we still know nothing, have done nothing, are doing nothing, we wonder what happened. We never led the life we expected, accomplished but a fraction of our goals, and will soon spend eternity in the cold, hard ground. “Too soon old, too late schmart”, goes the Yiddish expression.
There are only two choices as we get older. Either return to God’s embrace for better or worse and see what comes; or accept death as the most fitting end of a meaningless life.
Ivan Ilyich, the main character in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich finally accepts death and the irrelevance of his life. “We all die alone”, he says, reflecting what he now understands to be the insignificance of friends, family, and community at the moment of extinction. There was no meaning there, he finally accepts.
It seems to matter little whether we believe that God does exist and his existence gives meaning and purpose to the world; whether we believe God does not exist and that we are no more than billiard balls randomly ricocheting on the felt; whether we are happy Epicureans eating, drinking, and being merry; or morose worriers. We all to our dying day cannot let meaning escape our grasp.
Few of us can accept the fact that not only is life meaningless but the search for meaning is just as preposterous – a chimera, a rainbow, an illusion.
This is not to say that we are consumed by inquiry every live-long day. Far from it. That’s what Kinder, Küche, Kirche and Metro, Boulot, Dodo are all about. Being slavish to a routine life has its benefits. We can tire ourselves out with work and boredom and sleep soundly.