Leo Tolstoy

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What does Tolstoy mean in My Confession by saying “force was force, matter was matter, will was will, infinity was infinity, nothing was nothing...”?

Quick answer:

Tolstoy is saying that rationalized knowledge alone, knowledge limited to what this world can show us, is insufficient for ultimate understanding. We need to live in the context of the infinite, or God.

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In My Confession, Tolstoy is undergoing a mid-life crisis. As a result, he asks, what is the meaning of life? Why am I alive? What ultimate good will arise from the two parts of life I most love: my art (writing) and my family? Or as he puts it in chapter nine, where the quote above appears:

what meaning has my finite existence in this infinite world?

So far, he says, he has been studying this question solely within a rationalistic, logical framework, within the confines of what he calls finite knowledge; all that rational, finite knowledge can tell him is things are what they are, or as he puts it, "force was force, matter was matter . . . ." In this context, things are things, and beyond that, they have no other or ultimate meaning. Rationality alone, he is saying, will not reveal the larger meaning of life. It is a dead end, as the above quote shows.

In this chapter, he records how he realized that he needed to understand the finite in terms of the infinite. The infinite is God. As Tolstoy put it:

I understood that, however irrational and distorted might be the replies given by faith, they have this advantage, that they introduce into every answer a relation between the finite and the infinite, without which there can be no solution.

He discovers, therefore, that God or the supernatural brings meaning to a finite life. He determines he needs to live according to God's law, and that the result of how he lives will lead either to heaven and hell. Finally, he realizes that what death does not destroy is eternal union with God, what Tolstoy calls heaven.

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