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In my search for answers to life's questions I experienced just what is felt by a man lost in a forest.
He reaches a glade, climbs a tree, and clearly sees the limitless distance, but sees that his home is not and cannot be there; then he goes into the dark wood and sees the darkness, but there also his home is not.
So I wandered n that wood of human knowledge, amid the gleams of mathematical and experimental science which showed me clear horizons but in a direction where there could be no home, and also amid the darkness of the abstract sciences where I was immersed in deeper gloom the further I went, and where I finally convinced myself that there was, and could be, no exit.
Yielding myself to the bright side of knowledge, I understood that I was only diverting my gaze from the question. However alluringly clear those horizons which opened out before me might be, however alluring it might be to immerse oneself in the limitless expanse of those sciences, I already understood that the clearer they were the less they met my need and the less they applied to my question.
“I know,” said I to myself, “what science so persistently tries to discover, and along that road there is no reply to the question as to the meaning of my life.” In the abstract sphere I understood that notwithstanding the fact, or just because of the fact, that the direct aim of science is to reply to my question, there is no reply but that which I have myself already given: “What is the meaning of my life?” “There is none.” Or: “What will come of my life?” “Nothing.” Or: “Why does everything exist that exists, and why do I exist?” “Because it exists.”
Inquiring for one region of human knowledge, I received an innumerable quantity of exact replies concerning matters about which I had not asked: about the chemical constituents of the stars, about the movement of the sun towards the constellation Hercules, about the origin of species and of man, about the forms of infinitely minute imponderable particles of ether; but in this sphere of knowledge the only answer to my question, “What is the meaning of my life?” was: “You are what you call your ‘life'; you are a transitory, casual cohesion of particles. The mutual interactions and changes of these particles produce in you what you call your “life”. That cohesion will last some time; afterwards the interaction of these particles will cease and what you call “life” will cease, and so will all your questions. You are an accidentally united little lump of something. that little lump ferments. The little lump calls that fermenting its ‘life'. The lump will disintegrate and there will be an end of the fermenting and of all the questions.” So answers the clear side of science and cannot answer otherwise if it strictly follows its principles.
From such a reply one sees that the reply does not answer the question. I want to know the meaning of my life, but that it is a fragment of the infinite, far from giving it a meaning destroys its every possible meaning. The obscure compromises which that side of experimental exact science makes with abstract science when it says that the meaning of life consists in development and in cooperation with development, owing to their inexactness and obscurity cannot be considered as replies.
The other side of science — the abstract side — when it holds strictly to its principles, replying directly to the question, always replies, and in all ages has replied, in one and the same way: “The world is something infinite and incomprehensible part of that incomprehensible ‘all'.” Again I exclude all those compromises between abstract and experimental sciences which supply the whole ballast of the semi-sciences called juridical, political, and historical. In those semi-sciences the conception of development and progress is again wrongly introduced, only with this difference, that there it was the development of everything while here it is the development of the life of mankind. The error is there as before: development and progress in infinity can have no aim or direction, and, as far as my question is concerned, no answer is given.
In truly abstract science, namely in genuine philosophy — not in that which Schopenhauer calls “professorial philosophy” which serves only to classify all existing phenomena in new philosophic categories and to call them by new names — where the philosopher does not lose sight of the essential question, the reply is always one and the same — the reply given by Socrates, Schopenhauer, Solomon, and buddha.
“We approach truth only inasmuch as we depart from life”, said Socrates when preparing for death. “For what do we, who love truth, strive after in life? To free ourselves from the body, and from all the evil that is caused by the life of the body! If so, then how can we fail to be glad when death comes to us?
“The wise man seeks death all his life and therefore death is not terrible to him.”
And Schopenhauer says:
“Having recognized the inmost essence of the world as will, and all its phenomena — from the unconscious working of the obscure forces of Nature up to the completely conscious action of man — as only the objectivity of that will, we shall in no way avoid the conclusion that together with the voluntary renunciation and self-destruction of the will all those phenomena also disappear, that constant striving and effort without aim or rest on all the stages of objectivity in which and through which the world exists; the diversity of successive forms will disappear, and together with the form all the manifestations of will, with its most universal forms, space and time, and finally its most fundamental form — subject and object. Without will there is no concept and no world. Before us, certainly, nothing remains. But what resists this transition into annihilation, our nature, is only that same wish to live — Wille zum Leben — which forms ourselves as well as our world. That we are so afraid of annihilation or, what is the same thing, that we so wish to live, merely means that we are ourselves nothing else but this desire to live, and know nothing but it. And so what remains after the complete annihilation of the will, for us who are so full of the will, is, of course, nothing; but on the other hand, for those in whom the will has turned and renounced itself, this so real world of ours with all its suns and milky way is nothing.”
“Vanity of vanities”, says Solomon — “vanity of vanities — all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation commeth: but the earth abideth for ever. . . . The thing that hath been, is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there anything whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. there is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after. I the Preacher was King over Israel in Jerusalem. And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. . . . I communed with my own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me over Jerusalem: yea, my heart hath great experience of wisdom and knowledge. And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.
“I said in my heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure: and behold this also is vanity. I said of laughter, It is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it? I sought in my heart how to cheer my flesh with wine, and while my heart was guided by wisdom, to lay hold on folly, till I might see what it was good for the sons of men that they should do under heaven the number of the days of their life. I made me great works; I builded me houses; I planted me vineyards; I made me gardens and orchards, and I planted trees in them of all kinds of fruits: I made me pools of water, to water therefrom the forest where trees were reared: I got me servants and maidens, and had servants born in my house; also I had great possessions of herds and flocks above all that were before me in Jerusalem: I gathered me also silver and gold and the peculiar treasure from kings and from the provinces: I got me men singers and women singers; and the delights of the sons of men, as musical instruments and all that of all sorts. So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem: also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever mine eyes desired I kept not from them. I withheld not my heart from any joy. . . . Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit from them under the sun. And I turned myself to behold wisdom, and madness, and folly. . . . But I perceived that one even happeneth to them all. Then said I in my heart, As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me, and why was I then more wise? then I said in my heart, that this also is vanity. For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten. And how dieth the wise man? as the fool. Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit. Yea, I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun: seeing that I must leave it unto the man that shall be after me. . . . For what hath man of all his labour, and of the vexation of his heart, wherein he hath laboured under the sun? For all his days are sorrows, and his travail grief; yea, even in the night his heart taketh no rest. this is also vanity. Man is not blessed with security that he should eat and drink and cheer his soul from his own labour. . . . All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous and to the wicked; to the good and to the evil; to the clean and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth and to him that sacrificeth not; as is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one event unto all; yea, also the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead. For him that is among the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.”
So said Solomon, or whoever wrote those words.77Tolstoy's version differs slightly in a few places from our own Authorized or Revised version. I have followed his text, for in a letter to Fet, quoted on p. 18, vol. ii, of my “Life of Tolstoy,” he says that “The Authorized English version [of Ecclesiastes] is bad.'—A.M.
And this is what the Indian wisdom tells:
Sakya Muni, a young, happy prince, from whom the existence of sickness, old age, and death had been hidden, went out to drive and saw a terrible old man, toothless and slobbering. the prince, from whom till then old age had been concealed, was amazed, and asked his driver what it was, and how that man had come to such a wretched and disgusting condition, and when he learnt that this was the common fate of all men, that the same thing inevitably awaited him — the young prince — he could not continue his drive, but gave orders to go home, that he might consider this fact. So he shut himself up alone and considered it. and he probably devised some consolation for himself, for he subsequently again went out to drive, feeling merry and happy. But this time he saw a sick man. He saw an emaciated, livid, trembling man with dim eyes. The prince, from whom sickness had been concealed, stopped and asked what this was. And when he learnt that this was sickness, to which all men are liable, and that he himself — a healthy and happy prince — might himself fall ill tomorrow, he again was in no mood to enjoy himself but gave orders to drive home, and again sought some solace, and probably found it, for he drove out a third time for pleasure. But this third time he saw another new sight: he saw men carrying something. ‘What is that?' ‘A dead man.' ‘What does dead mean?' asked the prince. He was told that to become dead means to become like that man. The prince approached the corpse, uncovered it, and looked at it. ‘What will happen to him now?' asked the prince. He was told that the corpse would be buried in the ground. ‘Why?' ‘Because he will certainly not return to life, and will only produce a stench and worms.' ‘And is that the fate of all men? Will the same thing happen to me? Will they bury me, and shall I cause a stench and be eaten by worms?' ‘Yes.' ‘Home! I shall not drive out for pleasure, and never will so drive out again!'
And Sakya Muni could find no consolation in life, and decided that life is the greatest of evils; and he devoted all the strength of his soul to free himself from it, and to free others; and to do this so that, even after death, life shall not be renewed any more but be completely destroyed at its very roots. So speaks all the wisdom of India.
These are the direct replies that human wisdom gives when it replies to life's question.
“The life of the body is an evil and a lie. Therefore the destruction of the life of the body is a blessing, and we should desire it,” says Socrates.
“Life is that which should not be — an evil; and the passage into Nothingness is the only good in life,” says Schopenhauer.
“All that is in the world — folly and wisdom and riches and poverty and mirth and grief — is vanity and emptiness. Man dies and nothing is left of him. And that is stupid,” says Solomon.
“To life in the consciousness of the inevitability of suffering, of becoming enfeebled, of old age and of death, is impossible — we must free ourselves from life, from all possible life,” says Buddha.
And what these strong minds said has been said and thought and felt by millions upon millions of people like them. And I have thought it and felt it.
So my wandering among the sciences, far from freeing me from my despair, only strengthened it. One kind of knowledge did not reply to life's question, the other kind replied directly confirming my despair, indicating not that the result at which I had arrived was the fruit of error or of a diseased state of my mind, but on the contrary that I had thought correctly, and that my thoughts coincided with the conclusions of the most powerful of human minds.
It is no good deceiving oneself. It is all — vanity! Happy is he who has not been born: death is better than life, and one must free oneself from life.
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