The existentialist answer.

from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy page 530 fiction ~6 min read

These thoughts wearied and tormented him now less, now more strongly, but they never left him. He read and pondered, and the more he read and pondered, the further he felt himself from the goal he was pursuing.

Recently in Moscow and in the country, convinced that he would not find an answer in the materialists, he reread, or read for the first time, Plato, and Spinoza, Kant, Schelling, Hegel and Schopenhauer – the philosophers who gave a non–materialistic explanation of life.

Their thoughts seemed fruitful to him when he was either reading or devising refutations of other teachings, especially that of the materialists; but as soon as he read or himself devised answers to the questions, one and the same thing always repeated itself. Following the given definitions of vague words such as spirit, will, freedom, substance, deliberately falling into the verbal trap set for him by the philosophers or by himself, he seemed to begin to understand something. But he had only to forget the artificial train of thought and refer back from life itself to what had satisfied him while he thought along a given line – and suddenly the whole artificial edifice would collapse like a house of cards, and it would be clear that the edifice had been made of the same words rearranged, independent of something more important in life than reason.

Once, reading Schopenhauer, he substituted love for his will,* and this new philosophy comforted him for a couple of days, until he stepped back from it; but it collapsed in the same way when he later looked at it from life, and turned out to be warmthless muslin clothing.

His brother Sergei Ivanovich advised him to read the theological works of Khomiakov. Levin read the second volume of Khomiakov’s writings and, despite the elegant and witty polemical tone, which put him off at first, was struck by their teaching about the Church. He was struck first by the thought that it is not given to man to comprehend divine truths, but it is given to an aggregate of men united by love – the Church. He rejoiced at the thought of how much easier it was to believe in the presently existing, living Church, which constitutes the entire faith of men, which has God at its head and is therefore holy and infallible, and from it to receive one’s beliefs about God, creation, the fall, redemption, than to begin with God, the distant, mysterious God, creation, and so on. But later, having read a history of the Church by a Catholic writer and a history of the Church by an Orthodox writer, and seeing that the two Churches, infallible in their essence, rejected each other, he became disappointed in Khomiakov’s teaching about the Church as well, and this edifice fell to dust just as the philosophical edifices had done.

All that spring he was not himself and lived through terrible moments.

‘Without knowing what I am and why I’m here, it is impossible for me to live. And I cannot know that, therefore I cannot live,’ Levin would say to himself.

‘In infinite time, in the infinity of matter, in infinite space, a bubble–organism separates itself, and that bubble holds out for a while and then bursts, and that bubble is – me.’

This was a tormenting untruth, but it was the sole, the latest result of age–long labours of human thought in that direction.

This was the latest belief on which all researches of the human mind in almost all fields were built. This was the reigning conviction, and out of all other explanations it was precisely this one that Levin, himself not knowing when or how, had involuntarily adopted as being at any rate the most clear.

But it was not only untrue, it was the cruel mockery of some evil power, evil and offensive, which it was impossible to submit to.

It was necessary to be delivered from this power. And deliverance was within everyone’s reach. It was necessary to stop this dependence on evil. And there was one means – death.

And, happy in his family life, a healthy man, Levin was several times so close to suicide that he hid a rope lest he hang himself with it, and was afraid to go about with a rifle lest he shoot himself.

But Levin did not shoot himself or hang himself and went on living.


When Levin thought about what he was and what he lived for, he found no answer and fell into despair; but when he stopped asking himself about it, he seemed to know what he was and what he lived for, because he acted and lived firmly and definitely; recently he had even lived much more firmly and definitely than before.

Returning to the country in the middle of June, he also returned to his usual occupations. Farming, relations with the muzhiks and his neighbours, running the household, his sister’s and brother’s affairs, which were in his hands, relations with his wife and family, cares about the baby, the new interest in bees he had acquired that last spring, took up all his time.

These things occupied him, not because he justified them to himself by some general views as he had done formerly; on the contrary, now, disappointed by the failure of his earlier undertakings for the general good, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, too occupied with his thoughts and the very quantity of things that piled upon him from all sides, he completely abandoned all considerations of the common good, and these things occupied him only because it seemed to him that he had to do what he was doing – that he could not do otherwise.

Formerly (it had begun almost from childhood and kept growing till full maturity), whenever he had tried to do something that would be good for everyone, for mankind, for Russia, for the district, for the whole village, he had noticed that thinking about it was pleasant, but the doing itself was always awkward, there was no full assurance that the thing was absolutely necessary, and the doing itself, which at the start had seemed so big, kept diminishing and diminishing, dwindling to nothing; while now, after his marriage, when he began to limit himself more and more to living for himself, though he no longer experienced any joy at the thought of what he was doing, he felt certain that his work was necessary, saw that it turned out much better than before and that it was expanding more and more.

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Reasoning led him into doubt and kept him from seeing what he should and should not do. Yet when he did not think, but lived, he constantly felt in his soul the presence of an infallible judge who decided which of two possible actions was better and which was worse; and whenever he did not act as he should, he felt it at once.

So he lived, not knowing and not seeing any possibility of knowing what he was and why he was living in the world, tormented by this ignorance to such a degree that he feared suicide, and at the same time firmly laying down his own particular, definite path in life.

—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, p. 530