February 20, 2015: Tolstoy and the idea of nihilism

Oil painting of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy by Ilya Repin, 1887. Public Domain. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ilya_Efimovich_Repin_(1844-1930)_-_Portrait_of_Leo_Tolstoy_(1887).jpg

Oil painting of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy by Ilya Repin, 1887. Public Domain.

Lent, Day 3:

I started last night to read The Kingdom of God is Within You by Leo Tolstoy, but right in the beginning when he referred to his book What I Believe I decided it would be better to start with that one. I had downloaded Tolstoy’s complete works only my Kindle for $1.99, so switching books was no problem. Sometimes I love technology.

I have not gotten very far yet, but the couple chapters I have read have already sparked my fascination. In Chapter 1 he writes: “I only passed from ‘Nihilism’ top the Church because I felt the impossibility of living without faith – without a knowledge of what is good and evil, resting on something more than my animal instincts.”

Squirrel scheming about how to steal the bird seed. Photo by Aaron Apple.

Squirrel scheming about how to steal the bird seed. Photo by Aaron Apple.

What would be the difference between good and evil based on animal instincts versus good and evil based on “something more”? For an animal surviving is good and death is bad. If an animal feels reasonably confident of its immediate survival, then it proceeds to do things to ensure its security, such as gathering nuts or building its dam. Securing the safety of its progeny is also part of survival, because the animal instinctively desires the continuance of its own species. If survival is as secure as the animal can make it, then the next level of good is its own pleasure and the next level of evil is anything painful or unpleasant to itself. If you are a wolf and your pleasure is enhanced by eating a squirrel as a snack, then squirrel’s suffering is not within the scope of your concern.

As a human animal, if you are concerned with something beyond your own survival and the survival and security of your children, and if, once your survival is reasonably secure, you do things for reasons other than your own pleasure, then you are probably basing your ideas of good and evil on something beyond mere animal instinct. But I wonder if many of us venture very far from the scope of preserving our own security and pleasure? Leo Tolstoy apparently found that, until the age of 50, he did not venture far beyond that sphere at all and this became intolerable to him: knowing there must be something more, something beyond material pleasures that merely masked his awareness of his ultimate annihilation, but not knowing what it was or how to get to it.

Tolstoy seems to mention the idea of annihilation or ‘nihilism’ quite a bit his writing. He begins What I Believe with this statement:

“I am fifty-five years old and, with the exception of the fourteen or fifteen years of my childhood, I have been until recently a ‘Nihilist’ in the proper signification of that term. I have not been a Socialist or Revolutionist, but a Nihilist in the sense of being completely without faith.”

I am fascinated that Tolstoy defined his belief system as nihilism and not atheism. We are accustomed to defining our belief systems by the way we relate to the concept of God: believer in God – however your faith tradition defines God, atheist, or agnostic. What if we defined our belief systems in terms of our own purpose and ultimate destinies? If you believe you have no ultimate purpose and your ultimate destiny is annihilation, you are a nihilist. If you believe you do have a purpose and will continue to exist beyond this physical life, then maybe we need to find new language to express that – a word that means the opposite of nihilism. I wonder if approaching our beliefs from this slightly different angle might be a better way to get to the heart of the matter. Instead of wasting time scoffing at the idea of the supernatural and thinking we are too smart to believe in fairy tales, we can direct our decisions about what we believe to something that is decidedly real: what is going to happen to ME?

When I looked up nihilism at the Thesaurus.com I found tons of synonyms and related words but only a few antonyms: allowance, approval, ratification, belief, faith, obedience, optimism. None of these is what I am looking for, especially optimism. Optimism expresses your choice of personal outlook and not really your conviction about the ultimate nature of reality. I suppose out of this bunch belief is the best, and Tolstoy does say that nihilism means being devoid of faith. But what I am really looking for is a strong word that means “affirmation of existence” or “certainty of continuance.” Existencist doesn’t quite work for me. Eternalist? Maybe. I think I will use believer until I come up with something better. Please comment if you have any ideas for a new word.

Agnostic is a pretty self-centered word. It means you are stuck in the belief of your own inability to know what lies beyond the material world. This used to describe me. We can probably leave that word as it is – but depending on how content or committed an agnostic you are you might also use fence sitter, seeker, or perhaps, complacent materialist.

tolstoy happiness

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