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Leo Tolstoy and The Silent Universe
Frank Martela relates how science destroyed the meaning of life, but helps us find meaning in life.
If you had everything else you wanted but your life lacked meaning, would it still be worth living? For the rich Russian count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), the towering author of such classics as War and Peace and Anna Karenina, this was not a merely theoretical question. This was a matter of life and death: “Why should I live?… What real indestructible essence will come from my phantasmal, destructible life?” was the question he asked himself. In his autobiography, My Confession (1882), he wrote that as long as he was unable to find a satisfactory answer to the question of meaning, “the best that I could do was to hang myself.” What makes ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ such a powerful question that inability to deliver a satisfactory answer can push a person to the brink of a suicide?
When I started investigating the history of the question, the first surprise was how recent it actually is. We often think of it as an eternal question asked since the dawn of mankind; but actually, the first recorded usage of the phrase the ‘meaning of life’ in English took place as recently as 1834, in Thomas Carlyle’s highly influential novel Sartor Resartus: “Our Life is compassed round with Necessity; yet is the meaning of Life itself no other than Freedom, than Voluntary Force.”
Before asking the question, Carlyle’s protagonist goes through the classic steps of an existential crisis. First came loss of religious faith: “Doubt had darkened into Unbelief… shade after shade goes grimly over your soul… Is there no God, then?” Without God, the universe becomes cold and silent: “To me the Universe was all void of Life, of Purpose, of Volition: it was one huge, dead, immeasurable Steam-engine, rolling on, in its dead indifference, to grind me limb from limb.” In a mechanistic universe void of any transcendental values, nothing seems to matter any more.
For Tolstoy, the existential crisis stage was marked by being constantly tormented by the question ‘Why?’ He attended to his estate. But why? Because then his fields would produce more crops. But why should he care? Whatever he did, whatever he accomplished, sooner or later, all would be forgotten. Sooner or later, he and everyone dear to him would die and there would be, as he wrote, “nothing left but stench and worms.” Since everything vanishes and is finally utterly forgotten, what’s the point of struggling?
Leo Tolstoy by Sergei Produkin-Gorski 1908
Grasping Hold of Meaning as it Slips Away
There seems to have been something in the air in the nineteenth century that made the question of meaning so salient as to deserve its own phrase. The German Romantics appear to have gotten there first, with Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis using the phrase der Sinn des Lebens at the turn of the nineteenth century. They were a key influence on not only Carlyle but also on Søren Kierkegaard and Arthur Schopenhauer – and through Schopenhauer, on Friedrich Nietzsche – all of whom played a key role in transforming this esoteric expression into the household phrase for existentialist-type questions that it is today.
The nineteenth century saw many transformations in Western societies, starting with the Industrial Revolution. But I would venture to say that the key force behind the existential crises of Carlyle, Tolstoy, and others was the emerging atheistic worldview encouraged by science. Living in what Carlyle himself called ‘an Atheistic Century’, the author had lost touch with the stern Calvinist faith his parents had enjoyed. He laments how the ‘Torch of Science’ now burns so fiercely that “not the smallest cranny or doghole in Nature or Art can remain unilluminated” (Sartor Resartus).
Similarly, as regards Tolstoy, it seems no accident that just a few months before writing in his diary that “life on earth has nothing to give” while plunging head-first into existential crisis, Tolstoy had been reading about physics, pondering the concepts of gravity, heat and how a ‘column of air exerts pressures’. In understanding more about the cold laws of nature, he lost his faith in the transcendent. He notes how he “sought in all the sciences” but “far from finding what I wanted, became convinced that all who like myself had sought in knowledge for the meaning of life had found nothing.” In a world governed by the mechanistic laws of nature, there was no longer room for purpose.
More than a century after the deaths of Carlyle and Tolstoy, the atheistic worldview has penetrated our way of seeing the world to an even greater degree. But do we have the answer to the question of meaning that they so desperately sought?
I am afraid we don’t. In fact, research shows that it is exactly we citizens of wealthy, developed countries who struggle to find meaningfulness. In 2013 Professors Shigehiro Oishi and Ed Diener wrote an analysis of a unique survey conducted by Gallup for the journal Psychological Science which included 142,000 respondents across 132 nations around the world. It’s one of the broadest surveys on well-being and happiness ever conducted. Their first finding didn’t come as a surprise: people in wealthier nations were on average more satisfied with their lives. However, investigating the relation between wealth and perceived meaning in life, Oishi and Diener found exactly the opposite pattern: people in the wealthier nations were more prone to report that their life lacked an important purpose or meaning. Indeed, wealthy nations such as France, Japan, or the UK were among those where the fewest people said that their life had an important purpose, while poor countries such as Togo, Senegal, and Sierra Leone were on top of the list as regards meaningfulness. Lack of meaningfulness has been linked in several researches to increased thoughts of suicide. Oishi and Diener found that lack of religious belief, leading to a perceived lack of meaning, was a key explanation for why wealthy nations see more suicides on average. This makes it all the more a burning issue to answer this question: how can one find meaning in life in a secularized society?
Image © Venantius J Pinto 2020. To see more art, please visit flickr.com/photos/venantius/albums
The Two Elements of Meaning
Luckily, both philosophical and psychological research on the topic of meaning has proliferated in recent decades, and an answer has started to emerge.
First we must separate two issues: the meaning of life, and meaning in life. The first is about life in general or as a whole, reflected in questions such as ‘Why does the universe exist?’ or ‘Does humanity have a purpose?’ This is the sort of question that lost its answer as a result of scientific naturalism. In a secular cosmos, in a Godless universe governed by natural laws, there simply isn’t any room for meaning.
However, when I instead ask about meaning in life, I am asking about what makes my life meaningful to me. Where do I find purpose to guide my life? This question is not about universal value, but identifying what things and goals I personally find valuable. In other words, what makes me feel that my life is worth living?
Everyone answers this question differently. People and places meaningful to one person mean nothing to another. Certain spots in a forest close to where I spent most of my childhood summers are virtually sacred to me. For anybody else, its just trees, moss, and stones. Yet as we have started to gain more knowledge about human psychological makeup and the elements of human motivation, two general themes have been identified that tend to enhance meaningfulness for almost everyone.
First, when one is able to contribute to something bigger than oneself, this is felt as deeply meaningful. One’s life is then valuable not only to oneself, but is connected to something grander. Think about Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln or Mahatma Gandhi. What unites them is that they fought for a cause much greater than their personal lives.
Psychological research supports this notion. For instance, in my own research, I had people play a simple computer game under two conditions. One group just played the game; the other group was told that their game-playing gathers money for the United Nations World Food Programme. Not surprisingly, the latter group found the game more meaningful. Contribution has also been shown to play a key role in explaining what makes work meaningful. When we say “I enjoy my current work, but would like to do something more meaningful”, what we typically yearn for is to have more positive impact through our work.
So to a significant degree, meaning in life is about making yourself meaningful to other people. However, there does seem to be more to meaning than contribution.
In one of the most influential essays on meaning written in the last fifty years, The Meaning of Life (1970), the philosopher Richard Taylor talks about a ‘strange meaningfulness’ relating to being able to do the things where one’s interests lie, and so satisfying the “inner compulsion to be doing just what we were put here to do.”
Imagine being a cardiologist who performs complex surgical heart operations and accordingly saves people’s lives on a daily basis. Sounds like highly meaningful work, right? Not so fast. Psychologist William Damon tells how he met a cardiologist who was miserable to the point of not getting out of bed in the morning. He felt that surgery was not his thing; that he was doing it just to please other people. He needed to find a job that, instead of making his parents happy, could make himself happy.
The point is, meaningfulness is not only about connecting to other people. It is just as much about connecting with oneself. One must feel that one is able to follow one’s own values, pursue one’s own interests, express who one truly is. Instead of conforming to external expectations, meaningful living requires you to follow your heart.
Psychological research supports this notion too. For instance, research by Professor Rebecca Schlegel and her colleagues has demonstrated that a key source of meaningfulness is authentic self-expression. When the researchers asked people to write about their ‘true self’, the length of these stories (which works as an indication of how much people are in touch with their authentic selves) predicted how meaningful those people found their lives to be. The same was not true when people were asked to write about their ‘usual selves’ or how they behaved in the presence of others. Their social self was not closely correlated with meaning.
How to Make Your Life Meaningful
So the most reliable pathways through which to experience meaningfulness seem to be expressing yourself and contributing to the well-being of other people. Don’t be obsessed with success, or even happiness. Both these pursuits are prone to leave you feeling empty. Instead, think about in which activities and roles you are able to be authentic, then think about how this self-expressive activity or role could be used to contribute to others. This is the recipe for a meaningful existence. After finding your own specific recipe for that, you can then allow the success or happiness to happen as a side-product of this more existentially healthy pursuit.
Of course, how these two elements get satisfied depends on an individual’s interests, values, skills, and situation in life. One person might use their talents for public speaking (self-expression) to fight for a cause close to their heart (contribution). Another could be playing guitar (self-expression) while taking delight in the joy they bring to their audience (contribution). A hospital janitor might enjoy the concrete results (self-expression) of upholding the hygiene levels crucial to patient safety in a hospital (contribution). And for many, parenting is a channel for both self-expression and contribution. The same goes for many hobbies, and especially for volunteering work. Everyone thus has to find the way of expressing themselves and contributing that best suits them and their life situation. Even Leo Tolstoy. In the midst of his existential crisis, he felt that the last ‘two drops of honey’ that kept him anchored to this world were ‘my love for family and for my writing’. In other words, contribution and self-expression.
© Frank Martela 2020
Frank Martela is a Finnish researcher specializing in the philosophy and psychology of meaning in life. His book A Wonderful Life: Insights on Finding a Meaningful Existence was published this year by HarperCollins.