If you had everything else you wanted but your life lacked meaning, would it still be worth living? For the rich Russian count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), the towering author of such classics as War and Peace and Anna Karen ina, this was not a merely theoretical question. This was a matter of life and death: “Why should I live?... What real indestructible essence will come from my phantasmal, destructible life?” was the question he asked himself. In his autobiography, My Confession (1882), he wrote that as long as he was unable to find a satisfactory answer to the question of meaning, “the best that I could do was to hang myself.” What makes ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ such a powerful question that inability to deliver a satisfactory answer can push a person to the brink of a suicide?
When I started investigating the history of the question, the first surprise was how recent it actually is. We often think of it as an eternal question asked since the dawn of mankind; but actually, the first recorded usage of the phrase the ‘meaning of life’ in English took place as recently as 1834, in Thomas Carlyle’s highly influential novel Sartor Resartus: “Our Life is compassed round with Necessity; yet is the meaning of Life itself no other than Freedom, than Voluntary Force.”
Before asking the question, Carlyle’s protagonist goes through the classic steps of an existential crisis. First came loss of religious faith: “Doubt had darkened into Unbelief… shade after shade goes grimly over your soul… Is there no God, then?” Without God, the universe becomes cold and silent: “To me the Universe was all void of Life, of Purpose, of Volition: it was one huge, dead, immeasurable Steam-engine, rolling on, in its dead indifference, to grind me limb from limb.” In a mechanistic universe void of any transcendental values, nothing seems to matter anymore.
For Tolstoy, the existential crisis stage was marked by being constantly tormented by the question ‘Why?’ He attended to his estate. But why? Because then his fields would produce more crops. But why should he care? Whatever he did, whatever he accomplished, sooner or later, all would be forgotten. Sooner or later, he and everyone dear to him would die and there would be, as he wrote, “nothing left but stench and worms.” Since everything vanishes and is finally utterly forgotten, what’s the point of struggling?
Grasping Hold of Meaning as it Slips Away
There seems to have been something in the air in the nineteenth century that made the question of meaning so salient as to deserve its own phrase. The German Romantics appear to have gotten there first, with Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis using the phrase der Sinn des Lebens at the turn of the nineteenth century. They were a key influence on not only Carlyle but also on Søren Kierkegaard and Arthur Schopenhauer – and through Schopenhauer, on Friedrich Nietzsche – all of whom played a key role in transforming this esoteric expression into the household phrase for existentialist-type questions that it is today.
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