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
"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. 
Note 7. Tolstoy'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
"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
"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.