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The Meaning of Life

The Meaning of Life (I)

Antony Flew on Tolstoy’s obsession.

Inspectors of schools in the United Kingdom, under the Direction of OFSTED, the Office for Standards in Education, are charged with reporting on the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils in the state schools which they inspect. The primary school of which my wife serves as a Governor was recently inspected, and the Inspectors qualified their generally strongly favourable report by faulting the school for its failure to ensure the satisfactory spiritual development of its pupils. She tried but failed to persuade her fellow Governors to request enlightenment on what that key expression ‘spiritual development’ was supposed to mean and how its referent was to be identified.

Undeterred by this failure she herself put the question to OFSTED, and was rewarded by the receipt of the definition provided in OFSTED’s Framework for Inspection (revised 1993 edition). This runs: “Spiritual development relates to that aspect of the inner life through which pupils acquire insights into their personal existence which are of enduring worth. It is characterised by reflection, the attribution of meaning to experience, valuing a non-material dimension and intimations of an enduring reality.”

After assuring the reader that “‘Spiritual’ is not synonymous with ‘religious’” OFSTED proceeded to make comments which are hard to reconcile with that assurance. “Spiritual development… is concerned with how an individual acquires beliefs and values, especially on questions about religion, whether life has purpose, and the basis for personal and social behaviour… it is therefore also about what a school provides… to help individuals to make sense of these questions… or even to questions about the universe.”

I am at a loss to make any suggestions at all which might help primary school teachers in their efforts to satisfy Inspectors that they have succeeded in promoting the spiritual development of their pupils.1 But for an understanding of how questions about the meaning of life can arise, how they are to be understood, and how they ought to be answered we cannot do better than to turn to Leo Tolstoy’s A Confession. This was the first work of the period of his intensive study of the Gospels, after the completion of War and Peace and Anna Karenina and before the return to fiction with The Death of Ivan Ilyich and The Power of Darkness.

In it he tells us that marriage swept all cosmic concerns out of his head: “The new conditions of happy family life completely diverted me from all search for the general meaning of life … So another fifteen years passed … But five years ago something very strange began to happen to me … I experienced moments of perplexity and arrest of life, as though I did not know what to do or how to live … They were always expressed by the questions: What is it for? What does it lead to?” (A Confession, trans. by A. Maude, OUP 1940).

Tolstoy’s phrasing here is more apt than he realised. For interpreted as requests for information his questions would seem pointless. It would therefore be better to construe them simply as symptoms of the syndrome which he labels ‘arrest of life’. For, he explains “Before occupying myself with my Samara estate, the education of my son, or the writing of a book, I had to know why I was doing it.” (p.16: emphasis original).

So far so good. It is often entirely reasonable to ask oneself why one is doing what one is doing. But Tolstoy in this phase of “perplexity and arrest of life” would not take an answer for an answer. To all the replies which came into his mind he responded again: “What of it? What for?” Thus he asks himself why he is making plans for the education of his son. The obvious reply is that he wants to do his best for the boy. Since this is both what he wants to do and what he ought to do it is hard to see what further or better reason there could be for doing what he is doing.

But the reason why none of these obvious answers seemed to Tolstoy sufficient or even relevant is that for him all his ordinary desires, affections and satisfactions had lost their power and appeal. Precisely this is the syndrome (“arrest of life”) of which these obsessively reiterated interrogatives are symptomatic or even constitutive: “I could find no reply at all. The questions would not wait. They had to be answered at once, and if I did not answer them it was impossible to live.” (p.17).

Once we recognise Tolstoy’s obsessional, insatiable questioning as symptomatic of a condition which is, quite literally, diseased, we become able to appreciate that we should see him as a patient asking for a cure of that condition. The crucial passage is one in which Tolstoy reports that “My life came to a standstill … there were no wishes the fulfilment of which I could consider reasonable … The truth was that life is meaningless … It was impossible to … avoid seeing that there was nothing ahead but suffering and real death … complete annihilation.” (pp.17-18).

In this passage what begins as an essay in clinical autobiography develops pretensions to the provision of a wider insight into the depths of the supposedly universal human situation. Tolstoy is sliding from the merely autobiographical, “there were no wishes the fulfilment of which I could consider reasonable”, to the ostensibly objective conclusion that suffering and mortality really must withdraw all reasonableness from every attempt to satisfy any ordinary human desire.

It is the notion of the meaninglessness of life which appears to provide the crucial middle term. If life is meaningless, then there can be no desires the fulfilment of which can be reasonable. But, if there is nothing ahead but “suffering and real death”, then life must be meaningless.

But sometimes, as in the present argument, this expression ‘life is meaningless’ is construed so as to mean only and precisely that, as a matter of fact, life actually does end in “suffering and real death – complete annihilation.” Whatever plausibility this argument may have depends on interpreting this crucial middle term ambiguously. The basic sense for Tolstoy is that in which to say that life is meaningless just is to say that there are no human desires the fulfilment of which would be reasonable. But sometimes, as in the present argument, this expression ‘life is meaningless’ is so construed as to mean only and precisely that, as a matter of fact, life does end in “suffering and real death – complete annihilation.”

There is a price to be paid even for interpreting the expression “the meaninglessness of life” unequivocally, as meaning that “there is nothing ahead but suffering and real death – complete annihilation.” For if we give the words this meaning then any attempt to press the question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’, must amount to a prejudicial insistence that after all we do not really suffer and die – or, at any rate, not finally. Similarly, to lament the meaninglessness of life will not be to lament something which may or may not be the tragic consequence of our mortality and passibility. Instead it will be to express distress over just those very facts of the human condition.

But the result of using the expression “the meaninglessness of life”, as Tolstoy does, ambiguously is to make it seem as if some reason had been given for taking it that the only deep and truly adequate response to the facts so characterised is a final, decisive “arrest of life” by suicide. That is the conclusion which Tolstoy proceeds to draw. Happily for all his future readers he himself was saved from taking this course by getting religion.

Elsewhere2 I have examined the development of Tolstoy’s subsequent – shall we say? – salvation argument. But here it is sufficient to conclude by insisting, to put it very gently, that it is at least equally rational to react in the diametrically opposite way to the same fundamental facts of the human condition. Consider the words of a character in a work by a far less distinguished novelist: “You don’t realise how much more noble it is, how much more tragic and yet exhilarating … to have a life ephemeral but infinitely precious, precious because it is the only life we have.”

© Professor Antony Flew 1999

Antony Flew is a leading British analytic philosopher famed for his attacks on God and religion. He is currently Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Reading.

1 But anyone curious as to how OFSTED came to be required to inspect spiritual development and at all levels of school education, might learn something from Antony Flew and Fred Naylor Spiritual Development and all that Jazz (York: Campaign for Real Education, 1996).

2 In Chapter 12 of my God, Freedom and Immortality (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1984).

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