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Tolstoy, Death and the Meaning of Life

  • Roy W. Perrett (a1)

Questions about the meaning of life have traditionally been regarded as being of particular concern to philosophers. It is sometimes complained that contemporary analytic philosophy fails to address such questions, but there do exist illuminating recent discussions of these questions by analytic philosophers.1 Perhaps what lurks behind the complaint is a feeling that these discussions are insufficiently close to actual living situations and hence often seem rather thin and bland compared with the vivid portrayals of such situations in autobiography or fiction. I therefore want to focus on two works by Tolstoy—one autobiographical, one fictional—and try to see what philosophical lessons can be learned from them, particularly with regard to questions about the relation of death to the meaning of life.

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1 See, for example, the selections in the anthology The Meaning of Life, Klemke E. D. (ed.) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), and the discussion in Nozick Robert, Philosophical Explanations (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981), Ch. 6.

2 References to Tolstoy's works are to the Maude translations in the Tolstoy Centenary Edition. In particular, volumes 11 and 15: A Confession and The Gospel in Brief (Oxford University Press, 1933) and Ilych Ivan and Murad Hadji (Oxford University Press, 1934).A useful general study of Tolstoy's ethico-religious views is William Gordon Spence, Tolstoy the Ascetic (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1967).

3 For an account of modern developments along these lines see Baillie John, The Idea of Revelation in RecentThought (New York: Columbia University Press, 1956). An outstanding philosophical defence of this non-propositional view is to be found in the writings of Hick John, especially his Faith and Knowledge, 2nd edn (London: Macmillan, 1967).

4 Flew Antony, The Presumption of Atheism (London: Elek/Pemberton, 1976), Ch. 12. (This chapter is a revised version of Flew's earlier paper ‘Tolstoi and the Meaning of Life’, Ethics 73 (1963), 110-118.)

5 R. W. Hepburn, ‘Questions About the Meaning of Life’ in E. D. Klemke, op. cit. 215.

6 There is an interesting philosophical discussion of this story in Dilman Ilham and Phillips D. Z., Sense and Delusion (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971).

7 My thanks to Graham Oddie and Jim Harvie for various valuable suggestions.

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  • ISSN: 0031-8191
  • EISSN: 1469-817X
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