Is nihilism a subgroup of absurdism
Is belief necessary for man to survive / why is existentialism valued when it is unfounded?
Do I need faith to avoid falling into nihilistic despair?Is life as tragic as it is painted by these people?
Tolstoy argues yes. Below is my attempt to explain his reasoning as I think this is the best way to answer your question.
Originally he thought that the meaning of life was to experience happiness, by which he seems to mean sensual pleasure. Some people experience happiness through intellectual activity, and his argument stands when that is included in the definition of happiness. At the time when Tolstoy was in crisis, he had a lot of money, was an elite in his society, and had a very active social life. It was easy for him to find happiness. The problem was death.
We will all die regardless of what we experience or do. From the perspective of a person's entire life, from birth to death, a person who, due to their circumstances, seldom experiences happiness is synonymous with a person whose life is regularly filled with happiness. Both still died and both experience the same thing after death: nothing.
Today or tomorrow sickness and death will come (and they have already arrived) to those who are dear to me and me, and nothing will remain but the stench and the worms. Sooner or later, whatever my actions may have been, they will be forgotten and no longer exist. (P. 31)
Because of this, he thought life was meaningless. The degree of happiness experienced does not change the ultimate outcome of our life, and therefore it is in vain to achieve this end. The purpose of experiencing happiness is illusory. It is something that people who have not seen life from this broader perspective can do because they fail to see the futility of their actions, but once you have seen life from this broader perspective you cannot return to a meaningless life .
The delusion of joie de vivre that had previously stifled my fear of the dragon [death] no longer deceived me. No matter how many times I am told: you cannot understand the meaning of life, do not think about it, but live, I cannot do it because I have already done it for too long. Now I can't help but watch day and night how they haunt me and lead me to my death. That's all I can see cause it's the only truth Everything else is a lie. (P. 32)
The futility has been compounded by the fact that our ability to achieve happiness is greatly influenced by our birth (that is, circumstances that are completely beyond our control). Tolstoy had a "good" birth as he had access to many resources that could make him happy. The average person in feudal Russia had very little access to happiness and suffered a lot. In addition, random events can completely negate our ability to achieve happiness. Environmental disasters, disease, wars, etc. can destroy our wealth, our bodies and our brains, and often these events can happen regardless of what we do. Hence, not only is it irrelevant to find happiness at the end of our lives, but it is heavily random and beyond our control during our lives.
What about avoiding pain? If our ability to maximize happiness is limited, are we at least in control of avoiding pain? Yes, but by suicide. Since we experience nothing, pleasure, and pain after death, the point of minimal pain is after death. Since we can commit suicide at any time, even if our physical capabilities are limited by not eating, we have far more control over our ability to minimize pain than we do to maximize happiness.
Tolstoy believed that there are four solutions that people typically follow to address the pointlessness of life (see Chapter 7):
- Ignore it altogether or avoid ever being exposed to the possibility of realizing our futility in seeking happiness
- While we know that the meaning of life is meaningless, we instead focus on the now, the immediate joy that we can experience in each of our actions
- commit suicide
- Stay hopeless, depressed, and live the rest of your life like this
Tolstoy refused 1 because he could not become ignorant.
I couldn't learn anything from them [the ignorant] because we can never stop knowing what we know (p. 45).
He declined 2, which he saw as a way to just pretend to do option 1 because he couldn't:
I couldn't imitate these people because I didn't share their boredom of imagination, couldn't artificially create them in myself. (P. 46)
He turned down 3 because he wasn't strong enough, so he stuck to option 4:
People in this category know that death is preferable to life, but since they lack the strength to act rationally and quickly end the deception by killing themselves, they seem to be waiting for something. This is the flight from weakness because if I know something better and it's within my reach, why not give in? (P. 46)
Note that I am not saying that he rationally chose to become depressed. Rather, he was already very concerned about the supposed futility of life and tried to determine the logical possibilities by reading the lives and ideas of many others. These were the four options he had come up with.
Tolstoy considered further and finally concluded that the whole question of the meaning of life was problematic. This led to his solution that connecting to the Eternal avoids the problem of death. If our lives are somehow eternal, then our actions have meaning (that is, they affect no matter when or how we die).
I asked: What is the meaning of life beyond time, beyond space and beyond cause? And I answered the question: "What is the meaning of my life in time, space and cause?" The result was that after long and arduous thought I could only answer: none. (P. 52)
Whatever answer the belief gives, regardless of which belief or to whom the answers are given, such answers always give an infinite meaning to the finite existence of man; a meaning that is not destroyed by suffering, privation, or death. (P. 54)
Although Tolstoy uses the term belief here, I emphasized the idea of eternity because I think it fits better with his definition of belief:
Faith is a knowledge of the meaning of human life, the consequences of which are that humans do not kill themselves, but live. Faith is the power of life. If a man is alive, he has to believe in something. If he didn't believe there was something to live for, he wouldn't be living. If he does not see and understand the illusion of the finite, he will believe in the finite. If he understands the illusion of the finite, he must believe in the infinite. It is impossible to live without faith. (P. 54)
His special connection to the Eternal was through Jesus Christ, but I don't believe his reasoning in A confession goes a lot in explaining why this particular compound is the best or preferred. The strength of his argument mainly speaks for the need for a connection to eternity.
It is also important to realize that although he became a Christian, he was harshly critical of the Christian Church. And not just any church, but all organized Christianity:
I turned first to believers in my own circle, scholars, Orthodox theologians, elderly monks, theologians of the newest types of Orthodoxy, and even the so-called new Christians who taught salvation through belief in salvation. ... I couldn't accept the beliefs of these people. I saw that what they considered to be faith did not explain the meaning of life but rather obscured it, and that they themselves expressed their faith not as an answer to the question of life that led me to believe, but for other reasons it did were strangers to me. (P. 57)
So his argument is not "without faith in Jesus life is meaningless", but "only a connection to the infinite gives life meaning".
How are his beliefs not dismissed as stupid at this time?
Hopefully you can see that Tolstoy's argument is a general one that does not depend on a specific time and place. The purpose of obtaining happiness (seeking pleasure and avoiding pain) is still seen as a purpose in life, and therefore its reasoning remains relevant. Another purpose could be sought, but then we come back to the problem of death (ie the problem of finite actions). Life for one's family, life for self-perfection, life for intellectual affairs and the advancement of science, life for the development of mankind, etc., can all be viewed with the same argument as the effects of all measures taken to pursue these ends cause this to eventually disappear. These goals, actions, and effects are all finite in nature.
Why do we give it credibility?Why is it celebrated?
For a person coming from an environment where religious belief is already in place to some extent, it can be comforting that someone who is richer, smarter, and more worldly successful has come to a familiar outcome. So it is easy to celebrate your controversy in circles that are already accessible to religious belief as essential to life (although it largely rejects organized religion as a whole).
For philosophers, his reasoning can be celebrated because it encourages people to reflect on the meaning of life, provides an example of the need for that reflection, and provides a step-by-step sequence of how he got to that point. Its logic (which is covered in far greater detail in the book than what I have included here) is a useful case study of why some people accept nihilism and how to reject nihilism.
However, it is likely to be made believable because most people in the past did not use logic to make decisions, but instead rely on supposedly obvious signs of credibility (e.g., worldly success and / or fame, intellectual ability, authority, etc. ) and then agree with whatever that person said. We had neither the ability nor the time to examine arguments in detail, use logic, ponder the argument for ourselves, or relate it to our experiences and engage in reflection. Tolstoy was a very famous and successful writer for his time, and his financial success, intellectual prowess, and writing skills were greatly appreciated. This gave him credibility for his philosophical arguments. Is that a valid reason for credibility? Maybe, but we often have difficulty judging what makes a person credible or reliable, especially when we don't know what area someone claims credibility in.
I strongly recommend that you read Tolstoy's work, use it as a mirror to reflect on the purpose in your own life, and decide whether it is believable. My description here is biased, but so is Dr. Peterson. The only way to overcome this bias is to see the original for yourself.
Quotations are from Jane Kentish's 1987 Penguin Classic translation, entitled Leo Tolstoy: A Confession, and other religious writings.
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