Tolstoy's Depression and the Limits of Reason
For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow. Ecclesiastes 1:18
By 1880, Leo Tolstoy had it all. He was the celebrity author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Income from his estates and royalties from his writing made him fabulously wealthy. He was still strong and healthy for a man over fifty. He had a devoted wife who had given him several children. He was a success in life by just about any measure, yet he was thinking seriously about hanging himself.
The great Russian author embodies what I've always seen as the intellectual's greatest vulnerability: a drift toward nihilism. Humanity's most gifted minds - an exclusive club Tolstoy belongs to - run the risk of seeing things a little too clearly. Uncomfortable truths can emerge: science and reason can argue persuasively against God; if there is no God, then there is no meaning; if there is no meaning, then what is the point? Knowing this can be a burden too great to bear for some.
Tolstoy's writing resonates because it gets at the complexities and contradictions of being human while still confronting these truths. Some of his best-known characters are seekers of meaning. Take, for example, Pierre's long and frustrating search for purpose in War and Peace, or Levin's similar journey in Anna Karenina.
Anna's doomed affair with Count Vronsky works because it's more than just another soppy romance. It goes beyond that. It's also a tale of what happens when the heedless passion of falling madly in love subsides and is replaced by domestic routine, jealousy, betrayal, and suffocating societal norms. "Happily ever after" only exists in bad romance novels and Tolstoy knew this.
However, that same insight into the human condition pushed Tolstoy into a deep moral crisis when he was around fifty. All that worldly success, he wondered, but what was the point? None of it was lasting. What was the meaning of life? What was the point of it all if he, like everyone else, was someday going to die? How does one reconcile the apparent irrationality of God with human reason?
These questions tormented Tolstoy for years leading up to the mental breakdown that took him to the point of suicide. His search for meaning would consume the rest of his life.
These were Tolstoy's questions, and his life depended on answering them.
Tolstoy framed his dilemma by relating an old eastern fable. A traveler on the steppes finds himself pursued by a ferocious wild animal. To escape, he climbs down into an empty well but then sees a dragon down at the bottom ready to devour him. So he clings to a branch growing from the crevices of the shaft. Safe for the moment, the traveler nevertheless finds himself stuck between the dragon at the bottom and the wild beast at the top. Drops of honey on the branches offer some sweet sustenance, though not much. To make it worse, he looks up and sees two mice, one white, the other black, gnawing away at the base of the branch. Hanging suspended in this well, he feels his arms begin to tire. Meanwhile, the branch weakens as the mice relentlessly nibble away. Either from fatigue or the branch finally snapping, the traveler knows his time is running out and that he is doomed, one way or another.
The dragon at the bottom of the well is Death. The mice chewing the branch represent the passing of time. The honey drops are life's small pleasures that distract us momentarily from our plight.
Awareness of this existential predicament drove Tolstoy to depression and thoughts of suicide. To him, suffering and death made life undeniably evil. He framed it thus:
"My question, the one that brought me to the point of suicide when I was fifty years old, was a most simple one that lies in the soul of every person, from a silly child to a wise old man. It is the question without which life is impossible, as I had learned from experience. It is this: what will come of what I do today or tomorrow? What will come of my entire life?"
How do people cope?
Tolstoy listed four ways.
First are those who are ignorant of the questions Tolstoy was troubled by. They never dwell on such things as meaning and purpose. They go with the flow. Here you find both the young who imagine they are immortal and the dim-witted who live animal-like lives of non-reflection. They immerse themselves in the fleeting pleasures of life, at least until something finally happens that makes them notice the dragon down below. By then, it's too late.
Tolstoy's fictional representation of this type of person is the title character in the novella The Death of Ivan Ilich. Ivan lived a spiritually empty middle-class life with nary a thought about his own mortality. That is, until one day after he fell from a ladder and began to feel a faint ache in his gut. The ache worsens and finally kills him a few months later, but only after much psychological and physical suffering. The Death of Ivan Ilich details Ivan's increasingly panicked awareness of his fading mortality and how psychologically unprepared he is to face death.
"The syllogism he [Ivan] had learned from Kiesewetter's Logic: 'Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,' had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius - man in the abstract, but certainly not as applied to himself."
Ivan's terror is relatable because we can see ourselves in him. We vicariously experience what he is experiencing, and that makes it feel a little too real, a little too close to home. That's Tolstoy's gift as a writer. He had a profound ability to convey some sense of our shared universal experience with his writing.
The second group is what he calls the Epicureans. These are the sunny day philosophers, the Christmas day Christians, and those who somehow find genuine uplift from shallow inspirational memes posted on social media. The epicureans intellectually understand that life has no overarching meaning. Instead of sinking into despair as Tolstoy did, they gorge themselves on as many of life's pleasures as they can. "Live life to its fullest!" or "Live life with no regrets!" and "Live for the moment!" are this group's vacuous mottos.
These people eat, drink, and are merry, even if tomorrow they will die, for they steadfastly believe that tomorrow is never today. And if they are literally correct about this curious truism, they end up spiritually bankrupt nonetheless, suitable only for sunny days and calm seas. When the storm comes, they blow away. If the first group is utterly ignorant of Tolstoy's questions, this second group simply chooses to ignore them.
After all, why dwell on such dark and depressing subjects when so much fun is to be had? Consider for a moment our society's almost desperate tendency to shunt any reminders of death and suffering out to the margins. The elderly, the most apparent standard-bearers of our fatal eventuality, are placed in nursing homes and forgotten. The sick are expected to keep their suffering private with an appropriately decorous stoicism. After all, who wants to be dragged down by someone else's suffering? Keep it to yourself! Such things get in the way of my pursuit of pleasure.
Most people today belong to one of these first two groups, but Tolstoy added two more.
His third kind of escape is through strength and energy, but not in the way you may imagine. What Tolstoy means here is not only having the courage to see the meaninglessness of life but then having the strength of actually ending it. In other words, suicide was the most worthy response to a life devoid of ultimate meaning.
If that sounds strange, remember that this is the worldview of despair. It makes little sense to those who have not experienced the black hole logic that suicidal depression can bring. Also, don't forget that Tolstoy was narrating from just such a state of mind. Only in this condition, I believe, does the suicide of an otherwise healthy and prosperous person seem to make some kind of dark, warped sense.
Finally, the fourth means of escape is through weakness. Instead of having the strength to commit suicide, the weak person clings to life, even while fully aware that it is not worth living. These people - and Tolstoy considered himself one of them for several years - live in a near-constant state of despair at life's absurdity. They continue to go through the motions of life, even if they know it's all for nothing. Here again, one finds a category that makes sense to someone suffering from depression.
Except for the suicidal perspective, which Tolstoy found strangely aspirational, the other three represented various chronological phases in his life. When he was young, questions of ultimate meaning never entered his mind. Later, when they did, death remained abstractly remote enough that he could still bask in the pleasures of life without worrying about the future. Only later, as Tolstoy approached middle age and the specter of death loomed ever larger, did he come to a crossroads. Which decision would it be: the strength of committing suicide or the weakness of muddling on long after hope had vanished?
So what is the way out of this predicament?
Tolstoy quickly dismissed science as a dead end. It was great at answering questions about the nature of the universe but worthless at answering questions of meaning. In fact, when pushed, science could only admit that there was no overarching meaning. Dead atoms become living atoms before returning to dead atoms once again, forever and ever, amen. Those atoms are a 'You' for only a short while. Science says there is no meaning, no eternal life, no happily ever after. Lights out.
What about the great religious traditions of the world? Surely they could offer some consolation. Organized religions all had answers to Tolstoy's questions, true, but only for those comfortable with irrationality and contradictions. This was a non-starter for Tolstoy, who held reason as one of our best tools for unraveling the mysteries of existence.
That is not to say that he didn't try to embraced organized religion. For several years he said the prayers and participated in the rituals of the Orthodox Church. But that nagging voice of reason in his head kept pointing out the many obviously false claims the Church insisted were undeniably true.
His razor-sharp mind quickly sniffed out any absurdities in religious doctrine. He reasoned that Catholics, Muslims, the Orthodox, Protestants, and Mormons were equally convinced of their faiths' doctrines' absolute truth. Can they all be right? Is only one of them true? If so, then how to adjudicate? Or, instead, would it stand to reason that they are all wrong?
He understood that competing truths, no matter how aspirationally noble, would treat competitors as heresies to be eradicated from the minds of men, lest their souls suffer after death. This was the logic of religious violence that Tolstoy knew had plagued each of the great faiths. Eventually, belief gave way to doctrines, and doctrines had to be enforced, often by violent coercion.
So, no, not here either were the answers he was looking for. However, Tolstoy believed that religion was on the right track, even if it always resorted to unthinking dogma and theological hocus-pocus to keep the flock in order.
Still, he was sobered by the gloomy conclusions others had reached when they asked the same questions he was asking. He studied several of the world's greatest thinkers and found that they had reached his conclusions through a similar process of reasoning: life is meaningless; existence is suffering; death is the permanent annihilation of ourselves. Surely then there must be something to them?
Buddha and Socrates had reached this conclusion.
The Stoics, who embraced indifference to steel themselves against these truths, did as well.
Arthur Schopenhauer's entire philosophy is based on the understanding that we are nothing but blindly pulsating wills, devouring, consuming, fornicating, in a constant and vain effort to sate ourselves.
Even the author of Ecclesiastes mused on the ramifications of a godless existence.
The list could go on; there are so many philosophical and spiritual systems out there, all created by powerful minds reasoning their way to these dark conclusions. Yet, Tolstoy himself felt that reason was still the best tool in his search for meaning; in fact, it was the only tool he used for a long time. Still, at the back of his mind was a creeping realizing that reason was the very thing keeping him from a breakthrough. "Rational knowledge, as presented by the learned and the wise, negates the meaning of life."
And, "Rational knowledge had led me to recognize that life is meaningless. My life came to a halt and I wanted to kill myself."
It's not hyperbole to claim that Tolstoy was saved from suicide by the humble Russian peasant or at least the idealized version he believed in. He realized these simple working people were not vexed by questions of meaning but instead guided by an unquestioning faith in God. They alone, Tolstoy felt, lived real lives of pure Christian faith.
"The ordinary working people around me were the Russian people and it was to them that I turned, and to the meaning, they give to life. This meaning, if it is possible to describe, is as follows. Every person comes into the world through the will of God. And God created man in such a way that each of us can either destroy his soul or save it. Man's purpose in life is to save his soul; in order to save his soul, he must live according to God. In order to live according to God one must renounce all the comforts of life, work, be humble, suffer, and be merciful."
This was Tolstoy's leap of faith, and he would spend the rest of his life trying to reconcile the irrational demands of that uncomfortable faith with the requirements of reason. It wasn't easy for him. He admired the Russian peasants for their illiteracy and ignorance. This allowed them to accept Church doctrine without rationality getting in the way. Questions of meaning didn't come up because they did not have the education or intellectual tools to even ask those questions. Life was just life, and God was the ultimate reason for it. That's it, but it seemed to work fine for them. But Tolstoy could never do that because rationality was thoroughly intertwined into his being.
Tolstoy was also too honest with himself to accept every bit of theology the Church preached. He wrote that "...it was obvious that the truth was interwoven with fine threads of falsehood, and that I could not accept it as such."
His great insight was to reach an uneasy compromise between faith and reason. Reason was indispensable, but would only get him so far. Only faith could take him the rest of the way. Some things will never be known to us, neither through tools of science nor reason. This is the brick wall that rationality eventually runs into. Tolstoy was convinced that only faith could overcome this barrier, that only simple, unfailing trust in God's plan could soothe the troubled soul.
As he puts it, "I want to understand in such a way as to be brought to the inevitably inexplicable. I was to realize that all that is inexplicable is so, not because the demands of my intellect are at fault (they are correct and apart from them I can understand nothing), but because I can recognize the limits of my intellect."
This is an intellectually honest answer and reminds me of Paul Klee's painting "The Limits of Reason," a framed copy of which hangs in my dining room. I've been thinking about this painting a great deal while writing this essay. To me, it captures the beauty and contradictions of the human gift of reason, so powerful, so sublime, so capable of unlocking the mysteries of the universe. And yet, also so limited. Human reason can only take us so far.
Beyond that, something else is needed, and if not, then acceptance of reason's limits is the only right answer. Tolstoy understood this, though it took him most of a lifetime to unwrap the meaning of this insight. That he ended up following a highly personalized and stripped-down version of Christianity should not diminish in any way his achievement. Both rationality and irrationality are two poles in the same tent. The two are needed to uphold a belief in God or anything transcendental. Embracing only the former can lead to nihilism while blindly accepting only the latter can lead to religious fanaticism.
At the bottom of Klee's painting (see below) are lines, angles, and other geometric shapes. These are abstract representations of all that the human intellect has achieved through logic, reason, science, and mathematics. If you look closely, you can even make out a human face, revealing that the sum of human intellectual achievement is just that, a magnificent reflection of ourselves. We can't help but see ourselves in our thinking. No matter how much pride we may rightly feel at the accomplishments of reason, it still blinds us to other possibilities.
At the top of the painting hovers a perfect red circle. This is the realm beyond the rickety constructs of human reason, a place impossible to conceptualize in human terms. Among the lines representing all of the achievements of human reason, only a single one finds its way up through the darkness to touch the edge of that sublime circle.
Perhaps one in a billion ascends to touch this transcendental orb hanging mysteriously above it all - maybe Christ did, perhaps Buddha and Laozi as well, and quite possibly other visionaries like Van Gogh and Socrates, just to name a few. What they brought back from that mystical realm made the world a richer place.
I would also like to imagine that Tolstoy made it too, or came closer than most.
Tolstoy, Leo. A Confession and Other Religious Writings. Penguin, 2005.
Tolstoy, Leo. Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy. Harper Perennial, 1987.