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Zarathustra’s Answer to Leo Tolstoy’s Despair

Leo Tolstoy (1908)
Leo Tolstoy (1908)

“My question, the one that brought me to the point of suicide when I was fifty years old, was a most simple one that lies in the soul of every person, from a silly child to a wise old man. It is the question without which life is impossible, as I had learnt from experience. It is this: what will come of what I do today or tomorrow? What will come of my entire life?

Expressed another way the question can be put like this: why do we live? Why do I wish for anything, or do anything? Or expressed another way: is there any meaning in my life that will not be annihilated by the inevitability of death that awaits me?”

Leo Tolstoy, Confessions (1879), Chapter 5

Our lives, our nations, our cultures, the intellectual life of globalizing world – including its various competing and conflicting religions and philosophies – are permeated, at a deeper level, by uncertainty, and disturbed by confusion and contradictions, whether one calls it a “clash” of civilizations, or not. So that – however the human condition may appear sub specie aeternitatis – whether it is part of some grand godly design (of earthly trial), some ultimate war of spirits good vs. evil, or essentially merely some condition of matter and chance, humanity is rather deeply lost and uncertain, shaken and shaking.


Yet let us look at what some thought regarding Tolstoy’s troubling questions.

Buddhism tends – though there are at least 12 major “schools” that have developed in history, some of which contradict each other – to speak of the emptiness of existence and the senselessness of life, and would offer nirvana as the ultimate answer to Tolstoy’s search for meaning. Arthur Schopenhauer, one of the first influential Westerners to represent the Buddhist view in the modern Western world, wrote:

Portrait of Arthur Schopenhauer by Jules Lunteschutz (1855)
Portrait of Arthur Schopenhauer by Jules Lunteschütz (1855)
The image of the highest type of man stands before us in one whom we call a saint . . . one who has overcome everything in life that the outer world can give, who stands there merely as a physical body, who conceals nothing of the ideal of the world environment, who merely waits until his body is destroyed so that every trace of all that connected him with the physical world may be wiped out; so that, renouncing what is of the earth, he annihilates earth existence; so that at last nothing remains that in life leads from desire to pain, from fear to terror, from enjoyment to grief.

Tolstoy’s anguished questions show his knowledge of their depth. But would he have liked Schopenhauer’s “Buddhist” nihilistic solution? His Confessions show that he could not accept it.

Our so secularized souls – which perhaps have a hope, a belief, a longing for some higher meaning in our daily, mundane lives – are seldom certain of the answer to the question: “Is there any meaning in my life that will not be annihilated by the inevitability of death that awaits me?”

The Invisible Remnants

Zoroaster in Raphael’s School of Athens (1511)
Zoroaster
in Raphael’s School of Athens (1511)

The deepest Occidental answer to this question “that lies in the soul of every person”– and one which lies at the historical source of greater Western history – can be found articulated in the ancient lore of Zarathustra. Zarathustra is a very inadequately recognized and appreciated influence on Western Spiritual and Intellectual History. Christianity, for single example, is fundamentally determined by Zarathustra (Greek: Zoroaster) in its ideas, and it is enlightening to know this, to understand this influence. Just consider a couple of examples: the idea of the “Messiah”, the “Christ”, sources in the Iranian idea saoshyant, which those Jews who were in Babylon, during the so-called “Babylonian Captivity” (586 – ca. 516 BC), learned from the magians there. (Consider the “Three Kings” who came from “the Orient” following a “star” – bearing their symbolic gifts to Jesus at his birth.) The “Christian” idea of the Devil, and evil, is incomprehensible without understanding Zarathustra’s “cacasophy”: his idea and understanding of evil – and its place in the spiritual, human and physical worlds. The idea of the Resurrection, of the “Transfiguration”, of the Redemption of the World, are likewise first found not in “Christianity”, but in this more ancient spiritual lore. This is, as anyone who studies the question can easily learn, not at all some secret, mysterious, unknown fact of influence in history; but most scholars who mention it, treat it as some rather distant, curious mythic reality of little importance or significance today. (A narrow and “flat” understanding of the spiritual history of mankind to this author’s view.)

So, what is Zarathustra’s answer to Tolstoy? To Zarathustra – and one can find this idea surfacing time and again in the deeper psychologies of man in Western history – mankind, life, and mankind’s purpose in this world, are not that of having peace, enjoyment and happiness, as one generally finds articulated in e. g. the “American Creed”, or the popular material ideal of the “American Dream” of wealth, comfort and luxury – and certainly not of a search for an escape to Buddhist nirvana (means: no blowing, no wind). Life in this world – and not only because it is subject to death – is a trial, a struggle, even a battle, between good and evil, nobility and ignobility, the spiritual and material, the virtues and vices, in man. The spiritual light – which was also present in the higher inner life of man (cf. the nimbus in icons and paintings) – had been entrapped by the material world (behind or within which are said to be real, living, spiritual beings) and made to forget its origins in, and kinship with, the world of light.

A mere pursuit of happiness, contentment and comfort in this earthly life (and Tolstoy had a rather good, prosperous and comfortable life) was a spiritual sleep of the captive light. So that man’s home is not on the earth, but in the (mostly-forgotten) spiritual worlds of light. And, contrary to the senselessness which Buddhism found in daily life and this world, and the goal of nirvana, Zarathustra (and here is founded a Western attitude) saw that all of one’s daily, earthly “thoughts, words and deeds” were and are part of the spiritual struggle between light and darkness. And rather than “renouncing what is of the earth”, and the “annihilation of earthly existence” (Schopenhauer) in search for nirvana, man (mens- to think) participates in the spiritualization of the fallen world and man. These ideas are parts of the spiritual core of the deeper traditions of Western Man, and his purpose in life and world.

Each person’s “thoughts, words, and deeds” – for good or ill, for selfish or unselfish reasons – are a part of this struggle, which was said to be a part of a grand cosmic story. But the results are not to be found, or seen, in this world – where there exists “the inevitability of death that awaits me”. Zarathustra’s answer to Leo Tolstoy’s Confessions is that there is a profound – if invisible – meaningfulness to life; even in this ephemeral world. Faust articulated this at the culmination of Goethe’s work: The remnants of my earthly sojourn are indestructible throughout the aeons of time. In other words, one’s earthly life has a life and continuance above the earthly.

The Meaning of “Meaning”

If one has faced – deeply, in pain of mind, heart and soul – Tolstoy’s questions, in the English language one can not but utter a basic expression of English words – which somehow express a fundamental of the language and human soul: “I cannot live without meaning, without some meaning in my life”. There is something spiritually fundamental . . . basic in these words. And it can not really be much otherwise stated in the English language! Here the language allows the human soul to express itself, to live (and suffer), and to recognize its own condition.

Once, when I heard this expression uttered in a conversation, I recognized that it is perhaps impossible for the human soul to say something deeper about this basic fact about itself, in English. But what did this phrase – in English – really mean I wondered! Etymology helped give the insight. What does the word “meaning” mean? It sources, like the word man, in the Indo-European root mens- to think. So that for a man or woman of Man to say that he or she “cannot live without meaning”, is to say that he or she must have an idea, a thought, some reason, some essential idea, without some relationship to which he or she does not feel that he or she can live. The mind of man requires meaning – all three of these essential words have the same root! So that here we face – even purely linguistically – a fundamental fact, some basic element and reality, even a search, of man towards himself.

Zarathustra and Havel

Tolstoy faced a basic, a crucial human condition – as his biographical Confessions make clear, his life eventually, after much experience (including of life’s fuller comforts and joys), led to the “point of suicide” – “…what will come of what I do today or tomorrow? What will come of my entire life?” Zarathustra’s invisible answer to Tolstoy’s questions is that all of one’s earthly life have meaning, and “will not be annihilated by the inevitability of death that awaits me”. Indeed, in Zarathustra’s world-view (which Christianity and other religions and philosophies embraced), man participates in the struggle between good and evil for the redemption or damnation of the world.

And these ideas are perhaps neither so distant, fantastic, or abstract, as some may think them to be. For such idea is held by Vaclav Havel. In his 1992 Summer Meditations he wrote:

Vaclav Havel
Vaclav Havel

Genuine Politics – politics worthy of the name, and the only politics I am willing to devote myself to – is simply a matter of serving those around us: serving the community, and serving those who will come after us. Its deepest roots are moral because it is a responsibility, expressed though action, to and for the whole, a responsibility that is what it is – a “higher” responsibility – only because it has a metaphysical grounding: that is, it grows out of a conscious or subconscious certainty that our death ends nothing, because everything is forever being recorded and evaluated somewhere else, somewhere ‘above us’ in what I have called “the memory of Being” – an integral aspect of the secret order of the cosmos, of nature, and of life, which believers call God, and to whose judgment everything is subject. Genuine conscience and genuine responsibility are always, in the end, explicable only as an expression of the silent assumption that we are observed ‘from above’, that everything is visible, nothing is forgotten, and so earthly time has no power to wipe away the sharp disappointments of earthly failure: our spirit knows that it is not the only entity aware of those failures. . . .

If I talk here about my political – or, more precisely, my civil – program, about my notion of the kind of politics and values and ideals I wish to struggle for, this is not to say that I am entertaining the naive hope that this struggle may one day be over. A heaven on earth in which people all love each other and everyone is hard-working, well-mannered, and virtuous, in which the land flourishes and everything is sweetness and light, working harmoniously to the satisfaction of God: this will never be. On the contrary, the world has had the worst experiences with utopian thinkers who promised all that. Evil will remain with us, no one will ever eliminate human suffering, the political arena will always attract irresponsible and ambitious adventurers and charlatans. And man will not stop destroying the world. In this regard, I have no illusions.

Neither I nor anyone else will ever win this war once and for all. At the very most, we can win a battle or two – and not even that is certain. Yet I still think it makes sense to wage war persistently. It has been waged for centuries, and it will continue to be waged – we hope – for centuries to come. This must be done on principle, because God wants it that way. It is an eternal, never-ending struggle waged not just by good people (among whom I count myself, more or less) against evil people, by honorable people against dishonorable people, by people who think about the world and eternity against people who think only of themselves and the moment. It takes place inside of everyone. It is what makes a person a person, and life, life.

So anyone who claims that I am a dreamer who expects to transform hell into heaven is wrong. I have few illusions. But I feel a responsibility to work towards the things I consider good and right. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to change things for the better, or not at all. Both outcomes are possible. There is only one thing I will not concede: that it might be meaningless to strive in a good cause.

Havel’s position presumes a deep inner relationship of man to the cosmos; one which finds its first articulation, in greater Occidental history, in Zarathustra’s anthropology and cosmosophy, and one which gives the deepest answer (and challenge) – though his Confessions indicate that he did not consider them – to Leo Tolstoy’s despairing questions.


First published in the magazine English, #22, June 1999, p. 14.