Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

09 JUNE, 2014

The Poetics of the Psyche: Adam Phillips on Why Psychoanalysis Is Like Literature and How Art Soothes the Soul


“Everybody is dealing with how much of their own aliveness they can bear and how much they need to anesthetize themselves.”

“A writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer,” Susan Sontag once said. The object of the writer’s observation isn’t just the outer world but also — and perhaps even more so — the inner. In that regard, the writer bears a striking similarity to another professional observer — the psychotherapist. That’s precisely what Adam Phillips — Britain’s most celebrated psychoanalytical writer and the author of such immeasurably stimulating reads as Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature, On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life, and the particularly wonderful On Kindness — explores in his wide-ranging conversation with Paul Holdengräber, several years in the making, part of The Paris Review’s legendary interview series.

Phillips, who read Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections at the age of seventeen and was profoundly influenced by it, reflects on his early educational experience:

This was conveyed very powerfully — that the way to learn how to live and to live properly was to read English literature — and it worked for me. I was taught close, attentive reading, and to ironize the ambitions of grand theory.

Like Kafka, who memorably considered what books do for the human soul — a question Carl Sagan also addressed beautifully, and one I too once contemplated in answering a 9-year-old girl’s inquiry — Phillips reflects on the essential reward of reading:

It’s not as though when I read I’m gathering information, or indeed can remember much of what I read. I know the books that grip me, as everybody does, but their effect is indiscernible. I don’t quite know what it is… There are powerful unconscious evocative effects in reading books that one loves. There’s something about these books that we want to go on thinking about, that matters to us. They’re not just fetishes that we use to fill gaps. They are like recurring dreams we can’t help thinking about.

Holdengräber cites an essay by the legendary British pediatrician Donald Winnicott, whose definitive biography Phillips penned in 1988:

HOLDENGRÄBER: It seems natural that an interest in literature and in Winnicott should go hand in hand. In Winnicott’s essay “On the Capacity to Be Alone,” he writes that the goal for the child is to be alone in the presence of the mother. For a long time this has seemed to me the single best definition of reading.

PHILLIPS: That idea was one of Winnicott’s most radical, because what he was saying was that solitude was prior to the wish to transgress. That there’s something deeply important about the early experience of being in the presence of somebody without being impinged upon by their demands, and without them needing you to make a demand on them. And that this creates a space internally into which one can be absorbed. In order to be absorbed one has to feel sufficiently safe, as though there is some shield, or somebody guarding you against dangers such that you can “forget yourself ” and absorb yourself, in a book, say. Or, for the child, in a game. It must be one of the precursors of reading, I suppose. I think for Winnicott it would be the definition of a good relationship if, in the relationship, you would be free to be absorbed in something else.

Phillips, who wrote in the preface to Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature that “psychoanalysis, at its best, should be a profession of popularizers of interesting ideas about the difficulties and exhilarations of living,” uses the springboard of the parallels between children’s psychology and reading to consider the broader allure of psychoanalysis:

Psychoanalysis starts from the position that there is no cure, but that we need different ways of living with ourselves and different descriptions of these so-called selves.

The great thing about the psychoanalytic treatment is that it doesn’t work in the usual sense of work. I don’t mean by this to avoid the fact that it addresses human suffering. I only mean that it takes for granted that an awful lot of human suffering is simply intractable, that there’s a sense in which character is intractable. People change, but there really are limits. One thing you discover in psychoanalytic treatment is the limits of what you can change about yourself or your life. We are children for a very long time.


The point is that it’s an experiment in what your life might be like if you speak freely to another person—speak and allow that person to show you the ways in which you stop yourself thinking and speaking freely. I don’t mean by that that it doesn’t change symptoms. I know by my own experience that it does. But I think the most interesting thing about it is its unpredictability. If you buy a fridge, there are certain things you will be guaranteed. If you buy a psychoanalysis, you won’t be. It’s a real risk, and that also is the point of it. Patients come because they are suffering from something. They want that suffering to be alleviated. Ideally, in the process of doing the analysis, they might find their suffering is alleviated or modified, but also they might discover there are more important things than to alleviate one’s suffering.

When Holdengräber points out the word appetite frequents Phillips’s vocabulary in discussing psychoanalysis, Phillips offers a somewhat counterintuitive framework for the two goals of his profession:

Analysis should do two things that are linked together. It should be about the recovery of appetite, and the need not to know yourself… Symptoms are forms of self-knowledge. When you think, I’m agoraphobic, I’m a shy person, whatever it may be, these are forms of self-knowledge. What psychoanalysis, at its best, does is cure you of your self-knowledge. And of your wish to know yourself in that coherent, narrative way. You can only recover your appetite, and appetites, if you can allow yourself to be unknown to yourself. Because the point of knowing oneself is to contain one’s anxieties about appetite. It’s only worth knowing about the things that make one’s life worth living, and whether there are in fact things that make it worth living.

Illustration from 'Freud,' a graphic biography. Click image for details.

Echoing philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s meditation on living with our human fragility, Phillips adds:

Everybody is dealing with how much of their own aliveness they can bear and how much they need to anesthetize themselves.

We all have self-cures for strong feeling. Then the self-cure becomes a problem, in the obvious sense that the problem of the alcoholic is not alcohol but sobriety. Drinking becomes a problem, but actually the problem is what’s being cured by the alcohol. By the time we’re adults, we’ve all become alcoholics. That’s to say, we’ve all evolved ways of deadening certain feelings and thoughts.

Citing Kafka’s famous letter, Phillips points to art — something Alain de Botton explored more deeply in Art as Therapy. Phillips tells Holdengräber:

One of the reasons we admire or like art, if we do, is that it reopens us in some sense — as Kafka wrote in a letter, art breaks the sea that’s frozen inside us. It reminds us of sensitivities that we might have lost at some cost.

And yet those sensitivities to our inner lives become increasingly muffled by the constant influx of external stimulation brought on by the century of the self. Echoing Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that “the modern version of introspection is the sum total of all those highly individualized choices that we make about the material content of our lives,” Phillips considers the solace of human conversation:

It can be extremely difficult to know what you want, especially if you live in a consumer, capitalist culture which is phobic of frustration — where the moment you feel a glimmer of frustration, there’s something available to meet it. Now, shopping and eating and sex may not be what you’re wanting, but in order to find that out you have to have a conversation with somebody. You can’t sit in a room by yourself like Rodin’s Thinker…

In conversation things can be metabolized and digested through somebody else — I say something to you and you can give it back to me in different forms — whereas you’ll notice that your own mind is very often extremely repetitive. It is very difficult to surprise oneself in one’s own mind. The vocabulary of one’s self-criticism is so impoverished and clichéd. We are at our most stupid in our self-hatred.

Returning to the parallels between psychoanalysis and literature, Phillips gives greater granularity to the analogy:

Psychoanalytic sessions are not like novels, they’re not like epic poems, they’re not like lyric poems, they’re not like plays — though they’re rather like bits of dialogue from plays. But they do seem to me to be like essays, nineteenth-century essays. There is the same opportunity to digress, to change the subject, to be incoherent, to come to conclusions that are then overcome and surpassed, and so on.

An essay is a mixture of the conversational and the coherent and has, to me, the advantages of both. There doesn’t have to be a beginning, a middle, and an end, as there tends to be in a short story. Essays can wander, they can meander.

Reflecting on the legacy of 19th-century essayists like Emerson and Lamb, Phillips defines the inherent psychology of the genre in terms that counter E.B. White’s notion of the essay as a mecca of narcissism and adds:

The essay is very rarely a fanatical form, it seems to me, partly because you’d just run out of steam. It would just be propaganda of the most boring sort. In order to write a compelling essay, you have to be able to change tone. I think you also have to be reflexively self-revising. It’s not that these things are impossible in other genres, but they’re very possible in essays. As the word essay suggests, it’s about trying something out, it’s about an experiment. From the time I began writing — although this wasn’t conscious — I think that was the tradition I was writing in.

Like Edgar Allan Poe, who considered music the most sublime embodiment of the Poetic Principle and Edna St. Vincent Millay, who extolled music above all arts including her own, Phillips explores the symmetry between psychoanalysis and poetry through the lens of music and its capacity — even on a neurological level — to sidestep our conscious bulwarks and whisper directly to the soul:

I can remember the first time I heard Dylan’s voice, Neil Young, J.J. Cale, Joni Mitchell — that music made me imagine myself. It was so evocative. It taught you nothing, but you felt you’d learned everything you needed to know.


The emotional impact of music is so incommensurate with what people can say about it, and that seems to be very illustrative of something fundamental—that very powerful emotional effects often can’t be articulated. You know something’s happened to you but you don’t know what it is. You’ll find yourself going back to certain poems again and again. After all, they are only words on a page, but you go back because something that really matters to you is evoked in you by the words. And if somebody said to you, Well, what is it? or What do your favorite poems mean?, you may well be able to answer it, if you’ve been educated in a certain way, but I think you’ll feel the gap between what you are able to say and why you go on reading.

In the same way, a psychoanalysis bent on understanding people is going to be very limited. It’s not about redescribing somebody such that they become like a character in a novel. It’s really showing you how much your wish to know yourself is a consequence of an anxiety state — and how it might be to live as yourself not knowing much about what’s going on.

Inverting Maya Angelou’s lament about labeling others and echoing Joss Whedon’s excellent Wesleyan commencement address on embracing all our selves, Phillips issues the same admonition about our tendency to label — and thus narrow and proscribe, to use Angelou’s words — ourselves:

When people say, “I’m the kind of person who,” my heart always sinks. These are formulas, we’ve all got about ten formulas about who we are, what we like, the kind of people we like, all that stuff. The disparity between these phrases and how one experiences oneself minute by minute is ludicrous. It’s like the caption under a painting. You think, Well, yeah, I can see it’s called that. But you need to look at the picture.

But Phillips later observes that while we’re telling ourselves who we are, we’re also telling ourselves — and grieving — who we could’ve been, a kind of toxic speculative grief for the unrealized what-ifs of our lives, something he explores in greater detail in his most recent book, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life. He tells Holdengräber:

Missing all our supposed other lives is something modern people are keen to do. We are just addicted to alternatives, fascinated by what we can never do. As if we all had the wrong parents, or the wrong bodies, or the wrong luck…

The comfort would be something like, You don’t have to worry too much about trying to have the lives you think you’re missing. Don’t be tyrannized by the part of yourself that’s only interested in elsewhere.

Reflecting on his prolific career as a writer, Phillips considers the question of why one writes — a question memorably addressed by George Orwell, David Foster Wallace, Michael Lewis, Lynne Tillman, Italo Calvino, Susan Orlean, and Joy Williams — as well as the psychology of criticism:

You have to be really good at masochism to welcome criticism. But you know, you can’t write differently, even if you want to. You just have to be able to notice when you are boring yourself.

Echoing Joan Didion (“Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write.”), Phillips adds:

Anybody who writes knows you don’t simply write what you believe. You write to find out what you believe, or what you can afford to believe… When I write, things occur to me. It’s a way of thinking. But you can perform your thinking instead of just thinking it.

Unlike famous writers who ritualize their routines, Phillips sides with Bukowski and tells Holdengräber:

There is no creative process. I mean, I sit down and write. That is really what happens. I sit down in the morning on Wednesday and I write. And sometimes it doesn’t work and almost always it does work, and that’s it.

He points to an even more toxic cultural mythology that couples similar magical thinking with a profound confusion of causal relationship — the “tortured genius” ideal of the artist, which implies that one must suffer in order to create meaningful work. Instead, he suggests an alternative approach — the kind Ray Bradbury embodied and advocated — anchoring artistic endeavor not to cruelty but to kindness:

If you live in a culture which is fascinated by the myth of the artist, and the idea that the vocational artistic life is one of the best lives available, then there’s always going to be a temptation for people who are suffering to believe that to become an artist would be the solution when, in fact, it may be more of the problem. There are a number of people whom you might think of as casualties of the myth of the artist. They really should have done something else. Of course some people get lucky and find that art works for them, but for so many people it doesn’t. I think that needs to be included in the picture. Often one hears or reads accounts in which people will say, Well, he may have treated his children, wives, friends terribly, but look at the novels, the poems, the paintings. I think it’s a terrible equation. Obviously one can’t choose to be, as it were, a good parent or a good artist, but if the art legitimates cruelty, I think the art is not worth having. People should be doing everything they can to be as kind as possible and to enjoy each other’s company. Any art, any anything, that helps us do that is worth having. But if it doesn’t, it isn’t.

The full interview is available here. For more of Phillips’s singular mind, dive into his books, including the especially excellent On Kindness and Promises, Promises.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

04 JUNE, 2014

How Our Delusions Keep Us Sane: The Psychology of Our Essential Self-Enhancement Bias


How evolution made the average person believe she is better in every imaginable way than the average person.

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement; nothing can be done without hope,” Helen Keller wrote in her 1903 treatise on optimism. But a positive outlook, it turns out, isn’t merely an intellectual disposition we don — it’s a deep-seated component of our evolutionary wiring and the product of powerful, necessary delusions our mind is working around-the-clock to maintain. At the root of that mental machinery lies what psychologists have termed the self-enhancement bias — our systematic tendency to forgo rational evaluation of our own merits and abilities in favor of unrealistic attitudes that keep our ego properly inflated as to avoid sinking into the depths of despair.

The self-enhancement bias, which has significant overlap with the optimism bias neuroscientist Tali Sharot has studied, is one of the seventeen psychological phenomena David McRaney explores in You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself (public library), which also illuminated why we have a hard time changing our minds and how Benjamin Franklin handled haters.

The mind’s delusory tendencies, McRaney explains, are just as vital as the automatic self-preservation processes of the body. Much like the respiration inhibition function of the brain prevents us from damaging our lungs by consciously deciding to stop breathing, the psyche employs a sort of “despair-inhibition module” of positive illusions constantly running in the background to power our self-enhancement bias — those rose-colored glasses we reserve exclusively for viewing ourselves, without which we might be blinded by life.

Illustration from 'The Mightly Lalouche' by Sophie Blackall. Click image for more.

Citing several studies, McRaney writes:

Your wildly inaccurate self-evaluations get you through rough times and help motivate you when times are good. [Research shows] that people who are brutally honest with themselves are not as happy day to day as people with unrealistic assumptions about their abilities.

In other words, not only was Hunter S. Thompson right about journalism when he wrote that “there is no such thing as Objective Journalism” and that “the phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms,” but he was also right about the human condition at large — we are wildly unrealistic about ourselves, and that’s a good thing. Still, our self-perception — or explanatory style — exists on a spectrum, and different people fall at different spots along it. McRaney explains:

At one end is a black swamp of unrealistic negative opinions about life and your place in it. At the other end is an overexposed candy-cane forest of unrealistic positive opinions about how other people see you and your own competence. Right below the midpoint of this spectrum is a place where people see themselves in a harsh yellow light of objectivity. Positive illusions evaporate there, and the family of perceptions mutating off the self-serving bias cannot take root. About 20 percent of all people live in that spot, and psychologists call the state of mind generated by those people depressive realism*. If your explanatory style rests in that area of the spectrum, you tend to experience a moderate level of depression more often than not because you are cursed to see the world as a place worthy neither of great dread nor of bounding delight, but just a place. You have a strange superpower — the ability to see the world closer to what it really is. Your more accurate representations of social reality make you feel bad and weird mainly because most people have a reality-distortion module implanted in their heads; sadly, yours is either missing or malfunctioning.

A subset of three positive illusions powers our self-enhancement bias. One is the illusory superiority bias — our tendency to judge ourselves less harshly than we do others and to see ourselves as unique, special individuals amid a homogenous, dull crowd. Another is the illusion of control — our hindsight’s inclination to attribute our successes to ability and our failures to luck. McRaney writes:

The illusion of control persists like the other positive illusions because you need to feel as though you can push against the world and notice it move. Without that belief, your spirit dwindles quickly…

(It’s worth noting that the workings of this particular cognitive curiosity get significantly warped due to social and cultural biases that render some individual privileged and some discriminated against — over time, the former begin to see their fortunate circumstances as a reflection of their innate ability and merit, and the latter come to see themselves as the cause of their own misfortune, further internalizing the social trauma.)

Another vital positive illusion is the optimism bias:

Optimism bias [is] mental construct that provides smokers the belief they’ll be among those who escape cancer, motorists the confidence they can speed during rainstorms, couples the certainty they will die hand in hand behind a white picket fence, and immigrants the beamish tenacity to open a new business in a down economy. No matter the statistical odds, no matter how many examples to the contrary you’ve seen in your life, you have a tendency to believe everything will work out in the end, and it is hard to argue with this approach to life when you consider the alternative. The bias, however, disappears when you observe others. You believe your heart will stay strong until you are in your nineties, but that your cousin who buys chicken-fried steaks in bulk is headed for an early grave. The bias also prevents you from buying a fire extinguisher for your kitchen, or going to get a regular checkup. Your optimism bias keeps you looking to the horizon with growing expectation and glee.

Illustration by from 'The Lion and the Bird' by Marianne Dubuc. Click image for more.

Still other illusions underlie the trifecta of our self-illusory positivity — confirmation bias, which leads us to notice more of the information which confirms our beliefs and less of that which contradicts them, hindsight bias, which causes us to retroactively revise our own predictions in the face of new information and claim that we always saw it coming, and self-serving bias, which lets us take credit for all the good stuff that happens to us but blame the bad on external circumstances or other people. McRaney summarizes the formidable alchemy of these conspirers in forming the master-delusion of our self-enhancement bias:

The positive illusions and their helpers form a supercluster of delusion that thumps in the psyche of every human. Together, illusory superiority bias, the illusion of control, optimism bias, confirmation bias, hindsight bias, and self-serving bias combine like Voltron into a mental chimera called self-enhancement bias. It works just as the name suggests — it enhances your view of your self.

To be sure, this isn’t just some abstract theory psychologists concocted while twiddling their thumbs. McRaney cites a number of studies that illustrate in nearly comical detail the living manifestation of self-enhancement bias. One of the best was conducted at UCLA in 2010:

Researchers conducted a survey of more than 25,000 people ages 18–75 and found that the majority rated their own attractiveness as about a seven out of ten. This suggests that the average person thinks he is a little better looking than the average person. About a third of the people under 30 rated themselves as somewhere around a nine.


You don’t have to be a mathematician to see a major problem here. Every person’s assumptions about being above average can’t be true. There can’t be an average unless some people sit in the middle of a bell curve and others fall to either side. Statistically speaking, if you had a perfect measure of your abilities you would see that you fall into the average category for most things, but you have a very hard time believing this is true.

So how, in the grand scheme of Earth history, did we end up so gloriously misguided about ourselves? McRaney points to evolutionary biologists, who have suggested that “the overconfident invaders of the jungles and savannah may have been so bold and intimidating that when they charged into the camps of their enemies, they tended to do better than the more timid and shy among them.” (The neuropsychology of the winner effect further advances this theory.) Similarly, some psychologists have posited that confidence is the deciding factor in survival:

There are psychologists who believe that morale is nothing more than a cluster of positive illusions; and morale is generally considered more important in combat than anything else. Confidence in battle and in courtship is certainly an important starting point for understanding where self-enhancement bias came from. These, though, may just be variations on a more fundamental truth. The general speculation is that over the last few million years, the primates who survived long enough to become your grandparents were the ones who didn’t give up when all hope was lost.

Fast-forward to modernity, and the same tendency toward doggedness and optimism in the face of resistance can be seen in the stories of our most celebrated modern heroes.

McRaney sums up the vital role of our self-enhancement bias:

You have the capacity to rationally judge the risks and benefits, the costs and rewards, of complex systems, but in a pinch you can fall back on a simple and reliable shortcut: just be slightly and blindly overconfident. The best bluff, it turns out, is the one in which even the bluffer is unaware of the cards he is holding. If you could accurately assess the odds against you—whether those odds took the shape of a hunting expedition, a one-on-one fight, or the job market for philosophy majors — you would probably turn away from the struggle more often than not. There is always plenty of evidence that the odds are not in your favor, enough to deter you from trying just about everything in life. Luckily for you, most of the time you have no idea what you are getting into, and you greatly overestimate your chances for success. It makes sense that primates like you would have evolved a fondness for delusions of grandeur. That’s the sort of attitude that gets you out of caves and beds. The relentless bombardment of challenges and tribulations makes it very difficult to be a person, whether you must fend off rabid beavers or ravenous bill collectors. Those who tried just a few percentage points harder, who persevered just a smidge longer, defeated nature more often than the realists. You’ve inherited a tendency to thrash against the odds, to be optimistic in the face of futility.

For a more mundane manifestation of our positive illusions, McRaney points to social media, where we carefully manicure and manipulate the image of Self we broadcast to others. (After all, Dani Shapiro put it perfectly: “Is there anything less revealing of Self than a selfie?”) But despite how off-putting such practices can be, it’s perhaps assuring to remember that they spring from an essential evolutionary feature. McRaney’s words are ultimately ones of assurance:

The desire to see yourself as better than average and more competent, skilled, intelligent, and beautiful than you truly are is likely embedded in your psyche as a by-product of millions of years of forging ahead against the same odds of survival that have erased 99 percent of all species that once roamed this planet.

He is careful to point out, however, that nurture aids nature in sculpting our levels of confidence as our early experiences have the power to either enhance or suppress those inherent tendencies. For a glaring example, look no further than the question of women in science, where we’ve made paltry progress since the days of pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell and the gender gap in modern science education — in a culture that questions girls’ competence in science, is it any wonder that women are far less likely to be confident, let alone overconfident, in such careers?

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky from 'Advice to Little Girls' by Mark Twain. Click image for more.

And yet, large-scale social biases and limitations aside, we’re extraordinarily good at cultivating the very conditions that would contribute to our own confidence. McRaney points to the work of legendary psychologist B.F. Skinner, who believed that our core personality is shaped by small, everyday “experiments” we conduct in childhood, designed to foster our self-enhancement, by putting ourselves in situations where we are competent and thus grow increasingly confident:

Over time, [Skinner] believed, you learn that a wide variety of situations and behaviors will get you attention and praise or some other reward, and you begin to position yourself to always be in situations that allow for such an exchange with the outside world. You build a sense of self-confidence around those actions and situations you can be fairly certain will provide you a return or, as he put it, a reinforcer. This is why, he said, you decide to skip some gatherings and attend others. This is why you become fast friends with some people, and others turn you off within seconds. You tend to protect a bubble you’ve created and nurtured your entire life, a bubble of positive illusions that make you feel good about yourself. Those good feelings bleed into your sense of control and your general attitude when facing unfamiliar problems. Self-esteem and self-efficacy work together to get you out of bed in the morning and keep you going back for more punishment from the unforgiving world.

This model offers the psychological basis for Anna Deavere Smith’s poetic definition of self-esteem as “that which gives us a feeling of well-being, a feeling that everything’s going to be all right.” But perhaps the greatest gift of our self-enhancement bias, McRaney argues, is bestowed upon us precisely when we feel that things are not going to be all right. In a sentiment reminiscent of Viktor Frankl, he concludes beautifully:

Throughout human history there have been periods in which people bore tremendous burdens and slogged through what seemed like insurmountable misery. From concentration camps to death marches, to plagues and wars, people who share the same basic mind as you have suffered and survived horrific events. Likewise, you share something amazing with those who live daily under the yoke of terrible oppression. Should you be plucked from your cozy place in this world and assume their plight, should your will be tested at the intensity of so many before you, one constant is sure: You will be resilient. You won’t give up.

You Are Now Less Dumb is enormously illuminated in its entirety and comes on the heels of You Are Not So Smart, one of the best psychology books of 2011.

* For more on depressive realism, see Jonathan Rottenberg on the evolutionary origins of depression

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

03 JUNE, 2014

Leo Tolstoy on Finding Meaning in a Meaningless World


“For man to be able to live he must either not see the infinite, or have such an explanation of the meaning of life as will connect the finite with the infinite.”

Shortly after turning fifty, Leo Tolstoy succumbed to a profound spiritual crisis. With his greatest works behind him, he found his sense of purpose dwindling as his celebrity and public acclaim billowed, sinking into a state of deep depression and melancholia despite having a large estate, good health for his age, a wife who had born him fourteen children, and the promise of eternal literary fame. On the brink of suicide, he made one last grasp at light amidst the darkness of his existence, turning to the world’s great religious and philosophical traditions for answers to the age-old question regarding the meaning of life. In 1879, a decade after War and Peace and two years after Anna Karenina, and a decade before he set out to synthesize these philosophical findings in his Calendar of Wisdom, Tolstoy channeled the existential catastrophe of his inner life in A Confession (public library) — an autobiographical memoir of extraordinary candor and emotional intensity, which also gave us Tolstoy’s prescient meditation on money, fame, and writing for the wrong reasons.

He likens the progression of his depression to a serious physical illness — a parallel modern science is rendering increasingly appropriate. Tolstoy writes:

Then occurred what happens to everyone sickening with a mortal internal disease. At first trivial signs of indisposition appear to which the sick man pays no attention; then these signs reappear more and more often and merge into one uninterrupted period of suffering. The suffering increases, and before the sick man can look round, what he took for a mere indisposition has already become more important to him than anything else in the world — it is death!

The classic symptoms of anhedonia engulfed him — he lost passion for his work and came to dismiss as meaningless the eternal fame he had once dreamt of. He even ceased to go out shooting with his gun in fear that he might be too tempted to take his own life. Though he didn’t acknowledge a “someone” in the sense of a creator, he came to feel that his life was a joke that someone had played on him — a joke all the grimmer for the awareness of our inescapable impermanence, and all the more despairing:

Today or tomorrow sickness and death will come (they had come already) to those I love or to me; nothing will remain but stench and worms. Sooner or later my affairs, whatever they may be, will be forgotten, and I shall not exist. Then why go on making any effort? . . . How can man fail to see this? And how go on living? That is what is surprising! One can only live while one is intoxicated with life; as soon as one is sober it is impossible not to see that it is all a mere fraud and a stupid fraud! That is precisely what it is: there is nothing either amusing or witty about it, it is simply cruel and stupid.


Had I simply understood that life had no meaning I could have borne it quietly, knowing that that was my lot. But I could not satisfy myself with that. Had I been like a man living in a wood from which he knows there is no exit, I could have lived; but I was like one lost in a wood who, horrified at having lost his way, rushes about wishing to find the road. He knows that each step he takes confuses him more and more, but still he cannot help rushing about. It was indeed terrible. And to rid myself of the terror I wished to kill myself.

And yet he recognized that the inquiry at the heart of his spiritual malady was neither unique nor complicated:

My question … was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man from the foolish child to the wisest elder: it was a question without an answer to which one cannot live, as I had found by experience. It was: “What will come of what I am doing today or shall do tomorrow? What will come of my whole life?” Differently expressed, the question is: “Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?” It can also be expressed thus: “Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?”

Seeking to answer this seemingly simple yet paralyzingly profound question, Tolstoy first turned to science, but found that rather than recognizing and answering the question, science circumvented it and instead asked its own questions, then answered those. Most of all, he found it incapable of illuminating the infinite and instead reducing its questions and answers to finite. He writes:

These are all words with no meaning, for in the infinite there is neither complex nor simple, neither forward nor backward, nor better or worse.


One who sincerely inquires how he is to live cannot be satisfied with the reply — “Study in endless space the mutations, infinite in time and in complexity, of innumerable atoms, and then you will understand your life” — so also a sincere man cannot be satisfied with the reply: “Study the whole life of humanity of which we cannot know either the beginning or the end, of which we do not even know a small part, and then you will understand your own life.”

A century and a half before Alan Lightman tussled, elegantly, with the same paradox, Tolstoy captured the Catch-22 of the predicament:

The problem of experimental science is the sequence of cause and effect in material phenomena. It is only necessary for experimental science to introduce the question of a final cause for it to become nonsensical. The problem of abstract science is the recognition of the primordial essence of life. It is only necessary to introduce the investigation of consequential phenomena (such as social and historical phenomena) and it also becomes nonsensical. Experimental science only then gives positive knowledge and displays the greatness of the human mind when it does not introduce into its investigations the question of an ultimate cause. And, on the contrary, abstract science is only then science and displays the greatness of the human mind when it puts quite aside questions relating to the consequential causes of phenomena and regards man solely in relation to an ultimate cause.

He then turned to philosophy, but found himself equally disillusioned:

Philosophy not merely does not reply, but is itself only asking that question. And if it is real philosophy all its labour lies merely in trying to put that question clearly.

Instead of an answer, he finds in philosophy “the same question, only in a complex form.” He bemoans the inability of either science or philosophy to offer a real answer:

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.

Frustrated, Tolstoy answers his own question:

“Why does everything exist that exists, and why do I exist?” “Because it exists.”

It’s a sentiment that John Cage would second a century later (“No why. Just here.”) and George Lucas would also echo (“There is no why. We are. Life is beyond reason.”) — a proposition that comes closest to the spiritual tradition of Buddhism. And, indeed, Tolstoy turns to spirituality in one final and desperate attempt at an answer — first by surveying how those in his social circle lived with this all-consuming inquiry. He found among them four strategies for managing the existential despair, but none that resolved it:

I found that for people of my circle there were four ways out of the terrible position in which we are all placed. The first was that of ignorance. It consists in not knowing, not understanding, that life is an evil and an absurdity. From [people of this sort] I had nothing to learn — one cannot cease to know what one does know.

The second way out is epicureanism. It consists, while knowing the hopelessness of life, in making use meanwhile of the advantages one has, disregarding the dragon and the mice, and licking the honey in the best way, especially if there is much of it within reach… That is the way in which the majority of people of our circle make life possible for themselves. Their circumstances furnish them with more of welfare than of hardship, and their moral dullness makes it possible for them to forget that the advantage of their position is accidental … and that the accident that has today made me a Solomon may tomorrow make me a Solomon’s slave. The dullness of these people’s imagination enables them to forget the things that gave Buddha no peace — the inevitability of sickness, old age, and death, which today or tomorrow will destroy all these pleasures.

The third escape is that of strength and energy. It consists in destroying life, when one has understood that it is an evil and an absurdity. A few exceptionally strong and consistent people act so. Having understood the stupidity of the joke that has been played on them, and having understood that it is better to be dead than to be alive, and that it is best of all not to exist, they act accordingly and promptly end this stupid joke, since there are means: a rope round one’s neck, water, a knife to stick into one’s heart, or the trains on the railways; and the number of those of our circle who act in this way becomes greater and greater, and for the most part they act so at the best time of their life, when the strength of their mind is in full bloom and few habits degrading to the mind have as yet been acquired…

The fourth way out is that of weakness. It consists in seeing the truth of the situation and yet clinging to life, knowing in advance that nothing can come of it. People of this kind know that death is better than life, but not having the strength to act rationally — to end the deception quickly and kill themselves — they seem to wait for something. This is the escape of weakness, for if I know what is best and it is within my power, why not yield to what is best? … The fourth way was to live like Solomon and Schopenhauer — knowing that life is a stupid joke played upon us, and still to go on living, washing oneself, dressing, dining, talking, and even writing books. This was to me repulsive and tormenting, but I remained in that position.

Finding himself in the fourth category, Tolstoy beings to question why he hadn’t killed himself. Suddenly, he realizes that a part of him was questioning the very validity of his depressive thoughts, presenting “a vague doubt” as to the certainty of his conclusions about the senselessness of life. Humbled by the awareness that the mind is both puppet and puppet-master, he writes:

It was like this: I, my reason, have acknowledged that life is senseless. If there is nothing higher than reason (and there is not: nothing can prove that there is), then reason is the creator of life for me. If reason did not exist there would be for me no life. How can reason deny life when it is the creator of life? Or to put it the other way: were there no life, my reason would not exist; therefore reason is life’s son. Life is all. Reason is its fruit yet reason rejects life itself! I felt that there was something wrong here.

And he discovers the solution not in science or philosophy or the life of hedonism, but in those living life in its simplest and purest form:

The reasoning showing the vanity of life is not so difficult, and has long been familiar to the very simplest folk; yet they have lived and still live. How is it they all live and never think of doubting the reasonableness of life?

My knowledge, confirmed by the wisdom of the sages, has shown me that everything on earth — organic and inorganic — is all most cleverly arranged — only my own position is stupid. And those fools — the enormous masses of people — know nothing about how everything organic and inorganic in the world is arranged; but they live, and it seems to them that their life is very wisely arranged! . . .

And it struck me: “But what if there is something I do not yet know? Ignorance behaves just in that way. Ignorance always says just what I am saying. When it does not know something, it says that what it does not know is stupid. Indeed, it appears that there is a whole humanity that lived and lives as if it understood the meaning of its life, for without understanding it could not live; but I say that all this life is senseless and that I cannot live.

Awake to what Stuart Firestein would call “thoroughly conscious ignorance” some 130 years later, Tolstoy sees his own blinders with new eyes:

In the delusion of my pride of intellect it seemed to me so indubitable that I and Solomon and Schopenhauer had stated the question so truly and exactly that nothing else was possible — so indubitable did it seem that all those milliards consisted of men who had not yet arrived at an apprehension of all the profundity of the question — that I sought for the meaning of my life without it once occurring to me to ask: “But what meaning is and has been given to their lives by all the milliards of common folk who live and have lived in the world?”

I long lived in this state of lunacy, which, in fact if not in words, is particularly characteristic of us very liberal and learned people. But thanks either to the strange physical affection I have for the real laboring people, which compelled me to understand them and to see that they are not so stupid as we suppose, or thanks to the sincerity of my conviction that I could know nothing beyond the fact that the best I could do was to hang myself, at any rate I instinctively felt that if I wished to live and understand the meaning of life, I must seek this meaning not among those who have lost it and wish to kill themselves, but among those milliards of the past and the present who make life and who support the burden of their own lives and of ours also. And I considered the enormous masses of those simple, unlearned, and poor people who have lived and are living and I saw something quite different. I saw that, with rare exceptions, all those milliards who have lived and are living do not fit into my divisions, and that I could not class them as not understanding the question, for they themselves state it and reply to it with extraordinary clearness. Nor could I consider them epicureans, for their life consists more of privations and sufferings than of enjoyments. Still less could I consider them as irrationally dragging on a meaningless existence, for every act of their life, as well as death itself, is explained by them. To kill themselves they consider the greatest evil. It appeared that all mankind had a knowledge, unacknowledged and despised by me, of the meaning of life. It appeared that reasonable knowledge does not give the meaning of life, but excludes life: while the meaning attributed to life by milliards of people, by all humanity, rests on some despised pseudo-knowledge.

He considers the necessary irrationality of faith and contemplates its unfair ask of forsaking reason:

Rational knowledge presented by the learned and wise, denies the meaning of life, but the enormous masses of men, the whole of mankind receive that meaning in irrational knowledge. And that irrational knowledge is faith, that very thing which I could not but reject. It is God, One in Three; the creation in six days; the devils and angels, and all the rest that I cannot accept as long as I retain my reason.

My position was terrible. I knew I could find nothing along the path of reasonable knowledge except a denial of life; and there — in faith — was nothing but a denial of reason, which was yet more impossible for me than a denial of life. From rational knowledge it appeared that life is an evil, people know this and it is in their power to end life; yet they lived and still live, and I myself live, though I have long known that life is senseless and an evil. By faith it appears that in order to understand the meaning of life I must renounce my reason, the very thing for which alone a meaning is required…

A contradiction arose from which there were two exits. Either that which I called reason was not so rational as I supposed, or that which seemed to me irrational was not so irrational as I supposed.

And therein he finds the error in all of his prior reasoning, the root of his melancholia about life’s meaninglessness:

Verifying the line of argument of rational knowledge I found it quite correct. The conclusion that life is nothing was inevitable; but I noticed a mistake. The mistake lay in this, that my reasoning was not in accord with the question I had put. The question was: “Why should I live, that is to say, what real, permanent result will come out of my illusory transitory life — what meaning has my finite existence in this infinite world?” And to reply to that question I had studied life.

The solution of all the possible questions of life could evidently not satisfy me, for my question, simple as it at first appeared, included a demand for an explanation of the finite in terms of the infinite, and vice versa.

I asked: “What is the meaning of my life, beyond time, cause, and space?” And I replied to quite another question: “What is the meaning of my life within time, cause, and space?” With the result that, after long efforts of thought, the answer I reached was: “None.”

In my reasonings I constantly compared (nor could I do otherwise) the finite with the finite, and the infinite with the infinite; but for that reason I reached the inevitable result: force is force, matter is matter, will is will, the infinite is the infinite, nothing is nothing — and that was all that could result.


Philosophic knowledge denies nothing, but only replies that the question cannot be solved by it — that for it the solution remains indefinite.

Having understood this, I understood that it was not possible to seek in rational knowledge for a reply to my question, and that the reply given by rational knowledge is a mere indication that a reply can only be obtained by a different statement of the question and only when the relation of the finite to the infinite is included in the question. And 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.

So that besides rational knowledge, which had seemed to me the only knowledge, I was inevitably brought to acknowledge that all live humanity has another irrational knowledge — faith which makes it possible to live. Faith still remained to me as irrational as it was before, but I could not but admit that it alone gives mankind a reply to the questions of life, and that consequently it makes life possible.

Tolstoy notes that, whatever the faith may be, it “gives to the finite existence of man an infinite meaning, a meaning not destroyed by sufferings, deprivations, or death,” and yet he is careful not to conflate faith with a specific religion. Like Flannery O’Connor, who so beautifully differentiated between religion and faith, Tolstoy writes:

I understood that faith is not merely “the evidence of things not seen”, etc., and is not a revelation (that defines only one of the indications of faith, is not the relation of man to God (one has first to define faith and then God, and not define faith through God); it is not only agreement with what has been told one (as faith is most usually supposed to be), but faith is a knowledge of the meaning of human life in consequence of which man does not destroy himself but lives. Faith is the strength of life. If a man lives he believes in something. If he did not believe that one must live for something, he would not live. If he does not see and recognize the illusory nature of the finite, he believes in the finite; if he understands the illusory nature of the finite, he must believe in the infinite. Without faith he cannot live…

For man to be able to live he must either not see the infinite, or have such an explanation of the meaning of life as will connect the finite with the infinite.

And yet the closer he examines faith, the more glaring he finds the disconnect between it and religion, particularly the teachings of the Christian church and the practices of the wealthy. Once again, he returns to the peasants as a paragon of spiritual salvation, of bridging the finite with the infinite, and once again seeing in their ways an ethos most closely resembling the Buddhist philosophy of acceptance:

In contrast with what I had seen in our circle, where the whole of life is passed in idleness, amusement, and dissatisfaction, I saw that the whole life of these people was passed in heavy labour, and that they were content with life. In contradistinction to the way in which people of our circle oppose fate and complain of it on account of deprivations and sufferings, these people accepted illness and sorrow without any perplexity or opposition, and with a quiet and firm conviction that all is good. In contradistinction to us, who the wiser we are the less we understand the meaning of life, and see some evil irony in the fact that we suffer and die, these folk live and suffer, and they approach death and suffering with tranquility and in most cases gladly…

In complete contrast to my ignorance, [they] knew the meaning of life and death, labored quietly, endured deprivations and sufferings, and lived and died seeing therein not vanity but good…


I understood that if I wish to understand life and its meaning, I must not live the life of a parasite, but must live a real life, and — taking the meaning given to live by real humanity and merging myself in that life — verify it.

A Confession is a remarkable read in its entirety. Complement it with Tolstoy’s subsequent opus of philosophical inquiry, A Calendar of Wisdom, and this rare recording of him reading from the latter, exploring the object of life shortly before his death.

Also see more meditations on the meaning of life from Carl Sagan, Maya Angelou, Richard Feynman, David Foster Wallace, John Steinbeck, Anaïs Nin, George Lucas, and Viktor Frankl.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.