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.”
By Maria Popova
“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. Nick Cave intuited this in his lovely meditation on music, feeling, and transcendence in the age of artificial intelligence.
A century before Cave and Lightman, as he lay 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).
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 rides the waves as they come. In the midwinter of his seventy-seventh year, having outlived the life expectancy of a Russian peasant twofold and having begun his life with a fierce search for purpose, he writes:
I woke up, and two things became especially and absolutely clear to me: (1) that I am a very worthless man. I say this absolutely sincerely, and (2) that it would be good for me to die, and that I would like to do so.
Along the way, he reckons with the meaning of life and with our 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:
Normally people (myself included) who recognize the spiritual life as the basis of life deny the reality, the necessity, the importance of studying the physical life, which evidently cannot lead to any conclusive results. 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. From materialistic knowledge based on the observation of external phenomena one can deduce scientific data, i.e. 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? why are we living? — 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.
Each of these two kinds of knowledge has its own purpose and its own field of activity.
In another entry, which reads like the metaphysical counterpart to the science of entropy, Tolstoy confronts the crux of living and dying:
Life is continual creation, i.e. the formation of new, higher forms. When this formation comes to a stop in our view or even goes backwards, i.e. when existing forms are destroyed, this only means a new form is taking shape, invisible to us. 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.
Complement 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.
Published August 4, 2022