Life and Death and More Life: Leo Tolstoy on Science, Spirituality, and Our Search for Meaning

“A caterpillar sees itself shrivel up, but doesn’t see the butterfly which flies out of it.”

Life and Death and More Life: Leo Tolstoy on Science, Spirituality, and Our Search for Meaning

“How can a creature who will certainly die have an understanding of things that will exist forever?” asks the poetic physicist and scientific novelist Alan Lightman on the pages of his exquisite inquiry into the nature of existence. We can’t, of course — but out of those creaturely limits, out of our longing to transcend them, arises our eternal hunger for meaning, arises everything we might call art. This is what Nick Cave saw in his beautiful meditation on music and feeling in an age of artificial intelligence.

Cave and Lightman were alive a century ago, just as Cave was dying. Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828–November 20, 1910) — one of the vastest intelligences our species has produced, and one of the most deeply and therefore fallibly human — collided with this question on the pages of his final journals, included in the altogether revelatory Last Steps: The Late Writings of Leo Tolstoy (public library).

Leo Tolstoy

Two decades after the uncommonly brilliant and prematurely death-bound Alice James wrote in her journal that “[dying] is the most supremely interesting moment in life, the only one in fact when living seems life,” Tolstoy writes in his:

I’m beginning to get used to regarding death and dying not as the end of my task, but as the task itself.

One night, he dreams about “a clear, simple refutation of materialism comprehensible to all”; one morning, he wakes up filled with self-pity, feeling disgusted with himself. He follows the tides as they roll. His seventy seventh year is now in midwinter. He has outlived twice the life expectancy for a Russian peasant and began his life on a strong search for meaning.

Two things were very clear when I woke-up: (1) I’m a worthless man. This is what I mean. (2) It would be a good thing for me to end my life, which I believe sincerely.

He considers the meaning and the making of meaning. In one of the most poignant entries from the journal, and in one of the most titanic acts of character a human being can perform, Tolstoy — a deeply spiritual man — scrutinizes his own blind spot as he considers the mutual blindnesses of science and spirituality, blinkered by the irreconcilable fact of our materiality and our hunger for meaning:

People, including myself, who believe in the spiritual life are denying the necessity and importance of studying the material life. This is evidently impossible to prove. In just the same way, those who only recognize the physical life completely deny the spiritual life and all deductions based on it — deny, as they say, metaphysics. But it is now absolutely clear to me that both are wrong, and both forms of knowledge — the materialistic and the metaphysical — have their own great importance, if only one doesn’t wish to make inappropriate deductions from the one or the other. Materialistic knowledge that is based upon observation of outside phenomena can be used to deduce scientific data. generalizations about phenomena, but one should not deduce any guiding principles for people’s lives, as the materialists — Darwinists for example — have often tried to do. From metaphysical knowledge based on inner consciousness one can and should deduce the laws of human life — how should we live? What is the purpose of our existence? — the very thing that all religious teachings do; but one should not deduce, as many people have tried to do, the laws of phenomena and generalizations about them.

These two types of knowledge each have their purpose and function in a specific area.

This is one of several illustrations that show how nature works, taken from a French nineteenth-century physics textbook. Available as a printed copy.

Tolstoy addresses the core of dying and living in another essay.

Constant creation is the essence of life, Creation of new and higher forms. If this occurs, or if it goes backwards (i.e. If existing forms are lost or destroyed it means that new forms, invisibly to us, begin to take shape. We see what is outside us, but we don’t see what is within us, we only feel it (if we haven’t lost our consciousness, and don’t take what is visible and external to be the whole of our life). A caterpillar sees itself shrivel up, but doesn’t see the butterfly which flies out of it.

Supplement with Radiolab creator Jad Abumrad’s soulful commencement address about monarch butterflies and the meaning of life and Alan Lightman on what makes life worth living, then revisit Einstein’s dialogue with the Indian poet Tagore about science and spirituality and Tolstoy on kindness and the measure of love.

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