Leo Tolstoy


Okay, that’s funny.


It works grammatically, but it’s obviously an inadequate answer. We laugh because we know nobody has an adequate answer.

What would a meaning be like?

‘Meaning’ basically means that a word refers to something else. ‘Hat’ refers to something worn on the head. ‘42’ refers to a number two more than 40.

Often, though, we talk about something being ‘meaningful’ – a film, a song, a story, an experience. If you say ‘I found the film meaningful’ it would be a crass person who asked ‘So what was its meaning?’

In these cases, we can’t state clearly what is being referred to. When it comes to the meaning of life, we definitely can’t explain it.

So does life have any meaning at all? What if it doesn’t? This post illustrates both sides of the argument. References are in my book Why Progressives Need God.

What if life is meaningless?

In 1879, after he had become famous for War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy wrote in his Confession:

Before I could be occupied with my Samara estate, with the education of my son, or with the writing of books, I had to know why I was doing these things. As long as I do not know the reason why, I cannot do anything. In the middle of my concern with the household, which at the time kept me quite busy, a question would suddenly come into my head: “Very well, you will have 6,000 desyatins in the Samara province, as well as 300 horses; what then?” And I was completely taken aback and did not know what else to think. As soon as I started to think about the education of my children, I would ask myself, “Why?” Or I would reflect on how the people might attain prosperity, and I would suddenly ask myself, “What concern is it of mine?” Or in the middle of thinking about the fame that my works were bringing me I would say to myself, “Very well, you will be more famous than Gogol, Pushkin, Shakespeare, Molière, more famous than all the writers in the world - so what?

He found himself unable to attach any meaning to any of his actions. One day he would be dead and his deeds forgotten. Why, then, live at all? The question ‘brought me to the edge of suicide when I was fifty years old’.

It is possible to live only as long as life intoxicates us; once we are sober we cannot help seeing that it is all a delusion, a stupid delusion! Nor is there anything funny or witty about it; it is only cruel and stupid.

Explaining meaninglessness

More recently, Thomas Nagel has accepted his verdict:

We pursue our lives, with varying degrees of sloth and energy.


Humans have the special capacity to step back and survey themselves, and the lives to which they are committed, with that detached amazement which comes from watching an ant struggle up a heap of sand. Without developing the illusion that they are able to escape from their highly specific and idiosyncratic position, they can view it sub specie aeternitatis – and the view is at once sobering and comical… We see ourselves from outside, and all the contingency and specificity of our aims and pursuits become clear. Yet when we take this view and recognize what we do as arbitrary, it does not disengage us from life, and there lies our absurdity: not in the fact that such an external view can be taken of us, but in the fact that we ourselves can take it, without ceasing to be the persons whose ultimate concerns are so coolly regarded…
If sub specie aeternitatis there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that does not matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.

Giving meaning to the meaningless

According to the ancient Greek myth, Sisyphus offended the gods and was punished by being made to roll a stone up a hill. Every time it got to the top it would roll down again to the bottom, and he would have to descend and start pushing all over again. He was obliged to carry on for eternity, performing this pointless task. Philosophers use the story to illustrate a completely meaningless life.

Richard Taylor develops the point by offering three versions.

1) The traditional one. Sisyphus’ efforts have no meaning.

2) Exactly the same as (1), except that the gods implanted in Sisyphus a compulsive desire to roll stones. He enjoys doing it.

3) Sisyphus once again dislikes rolling stones, but wants to build a temple. This gives meaning to his life. Eventually he completes it. He contemplates his achievement, does nothing ever again and becomes bored.

Taylor concludes:

Our second picture, then, wherein we imagined Sisyphus to have had inflicted on him the irrational desire to be doing just what he found himself doing should not have been dismissed so abruptly. The meaning that picture lacked was no meaning that he or anyone could crave, and the strange meaning it had was perhaps just what we were seeking.

Practical implications

The practical results are immense. Julian Young replied to Nagel:

We become, not passionate and committed human beings capable of pursuing our projects through hardship and disappointment, but rather actors, ironically detached from the roles we play at any one time, ready to swap roles if and when the whim takes us.

If I convince myself that nothing really matters even though I am obliged to live as though I myself matter, I make an exception of myself in a manner something like that described by Nagel’s irony. I do not matter any more than other people do, but in the case of other people I find it all too easy to live as though they do not matter. When I feel hungry my instincts make me look for food. When starving refugees feel hungry I find it easier to do the logical thing and just accept that their starvation has no significance at all. To watch on television slum dwellers in other countries living in appalling conditions comes to feel like reading a novel about distressed people who never really existed at all. A society that encourages people to think like this makes it less likely that anyone will so commit themselves to a cause that they end up being imprisoned or tortured for it.

If Tolstoy could come back to life and hear Nagel and Taylor, he would of course recognise the point immediately. What they are describing is the situation as he saw it at the time of his crisis. What they offer, as the only meaning we can have, is precisely the meaningless that drove him to consider suicide.

Tolstoy himself was not so easily satisfied. He observed how his peasants did not share his problem. They understood it and answered it ‘with unusual clarity’ by drawing on the resources of their traditional Christian Orthodoxy. He regained his faith. Was he right?

Justification trails

Analyses of the question refer to justification trails. A justification trail goes something like this. Why do you find x meaningful? Because it contributes to y. Why do you find y meaningful? Because it contributes to z. Why do you find z meaningful? Eventually we reach the point where the answer is ‘I haven’t thought about that yet’.

But if z is not meaningful, then neither is y or x, because their meaning depended on z being meaningful. So it seems that all our sense of meaning is mistaken, unless we can justify absolutely every justification with another one, endlessly.

This is the argument used by Nagel and others. They conclude that the only meanings of our lives are whatever meanings we give them, and that they are indeed unjustifiable.

I think the argument is flawed because it smuggles in a presupposition. People who argue like this presuppose that every meaning must be fully understood and explained. This presupposition is a product of the belief that the human mind is capable of observing and understanding everything.

It isn’t. Every time we talk about a story or a play being ‘meaningful’, without being able to explain exactly what the meaning is, we presuppose that meaning transcends our explanations. It makes perfectly good sense to say that one thing is meaningful because of another, without being able to say why the other is meaningful. People do it all the time.

So here’s an alternative – the only possible alternative, as far as I am aware. Our sense of meaning comes from a quality of life which we don’t have the mental concepts to describe. There is more to life than we can explain.

Religious traditions can make sense of the justification trails Nagel and his colleagues struggle with. The reason why we cannot explain the meaning of life is that it is much greater than anything our human minds can understand.