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A Confession

Part 5


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"But perhaps I have overlooked something, or misunderstood
something?" said to myself several times.  "It cannot be that this
condition of despair is natural to man!"  And I sought for an
explanation of these problems in all the branches of knowledge
acquired by men.  I sought painfully and long, not from idle
curiosity or listlessly, but painfully and persistently day and
night -- sought as a perishing man seeks for safety -- and I found
nothing.

I sought in all the sciences, but far from finding what I
wanted, became convinced that all who like myself had sought in
knowledge for the meaning of life had found nothing.  And not only
had they found nothing, but they had plainly acknowledged that the
very thing which made me despair -- namely the senselessness of
life -- is the one indubitable thing man can know.

I sought everywhere; and thanks to a life spent in learning,
and thanks also to my relations with the scholarly world, I had
access to scientists and scholars in all branches of knowledge, and
they readily showed me all their knowledge, not only in books but
also in conversation, so that I had at my disposal all that science
has to say on this question of life.

I was long unable to believe that it gives no other reply to
life's questions than that which it actually does give.  It long
seemed to me, when I saw the important and serious air with which
science announces its conclusions which have nothing in common with
the real questions of human life, that there was something I had
not understood.  I long was timid before science, and it seemed to
me that the lack of conformity between the answers and my questions
arose not by the fault of science but from my ignorance, but the
matter was for me not a game or an amusement but one of life and
death, and I was involuntarily brought to the conviction that my
questions were the only legitimate ones, forming the basis of all
knowledge, and that I with my questions was not to blame, but
science if it pretends to reply to those questions.

My question -- that which at the age of fifty brought me to
the verge of suicide -- 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?"

To this one question, variously expressed, I sought an answer
in science.  And I found that in relation to that question all
human knowledge is divided as it were into tow opposite hemispheres
at the ends of which are two poles:  the one a negative and the
other a positive; but that neither at the one nor the other pole is
there an answer to life's questions.

The one series of sciences seems not to recognize the
question, but replies clearly and exactly to its own independent
questions: that is the series of experimental sciences, and at the
extreme end of it stands mathematics.  The other series of sciences
recognizes the question, but does not answer it; that is the series
of abstract sciences, and at the extreme end of it stands
metaphysics.

From early youth I had been interested in the abstract
sciences, but later the mathematical and natural sciences attracted
me, and until I put my question definitely to myself, until that
question had itself grown up within me urgently demanding a
decision, I contented myself with those counterfeit answers which
science gives.

Now in the experimental sphere I said to myself: "Everything
develops and differentiates itself, moving towards complexity and
perfection, and there are laws directing this movement.  You are a
part of the whole.  Having learnt as far as possible the whole, and
having learnt the law of evolution, you will understand also your
place in the whole and will know yourself."  Ashamed as I am to
confess it, there wa a time when I seemed satisfied with that.  It
was just the time when I was myself becoming more complex and was
developing. My muscles were growing and strengthening, my memory
was being enriched, my capacity to think and understand was
increasing, I was growing and developing; and feeling this growth
in myself it was natural for me to think that such was the
universal law in which I should find the solution of the question
of my life.  But a time came when the growth within me ceased.  I
felt that I was not developing, but fading, my muscles were
weakening, my teeth falling out, and I saw that the law not only
did not explain anything to me, but that there never had been or
could be such a law, and that I had taken for a law what I had
found in myself at a certain period of my life.  I regarded the
definition of that law more strictly, and it became clear to me
that there could be no law of endless development; it became clear
that to say, "in infinite space and time everything develops,
becomes more perfect and more complex, is differentiated", is to
say nothing at all.  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.

Above all, my personal question, "What am I with my desires?"
remained quite unanswered.  And I understood that those sciences
are very interesting and attractive, but that they are exact and
clear in inverse proportion to their applicability to the question
of life: the less their applicability to the question of life, the
more exact and clear they are, while the more they try to reply to
the question of life, the more obscure and unattractive they
become.  If one turns to the division of sciences which attempt to
reply to the questions of life -- to physiology, psychology,
biology, sociology -- one encounters an appalling poverty of
thought, the greatest obscurity, a quite unjustifiable pretension
to solve irrelevant question, and a continual contradiction of each
authority by others and even by himself.  If one turns to the
branches of science which are not concerned with the solution of
the questions of life, but which reply to their own special
scientific questions, one is enraptured by the power of man's mind,
but one knows in advance that they give no reply to life's
questions.  Those sciences simply ignore life's questions.  They
say:  "To the question of what you are and why you live we have no
reply, and are not occupied with that; but if you want to know the
laws of light, of chemical combinations, the laws of development of
organisms, if you want to know the laws of bodies and their form,
and the relation of numbers and quantities, if you want to know the
laws of your mind, to all that we have clear, exact and
unquestionable replies."

In general the relation of the experimental sciences to life's
question may be expressed thus:  Question: "Why do I live?" 
Answer: "In infinite space, in infinite time, infinitely small
particles change their forms in infinite complexity, and when you
have under stood the laws of those mutations of form you will
understand why you live on the earth."

Then in the sphere of abstract science I said to myself:  "All
humanity lives and develops on the basis of spiritual principles
and ideals which guide it.  Those ideals are expressed in
religions, in sciences, in arts, in forms of government.  Those
ideals become more and more elevated, and humanity advances to its
highest welfare.  I am part of humanity, and therefore my vocation
is to forward the recognition and the realization of the ideals of
humanity."  And at the time of my weak-mindedness I was satisfied
with that; but as soon as the question of life presented itself
clearly to me, those theories immediately crumbled away.  Not to
speak of the unscrupulous obscurity with which those sciences
announce conclusions formed on the study of a small part of mankind
as general conclusions; not to speak of the mutual contradictions
of different adherents of this view as to what are the ideals of
humanity; the strangeness, not to say stupidity, of the theory
consists in the fact that in order to reply to the question facing
each man:  "What am I?" or "Why do I live?" or "What must I do?"
one has first to decide the question: "What is the life of the
whole?" (which is to him unknown and of which he is acquainted with
one tiny part in one minute period of time.  To understand what he
is, one man must first understand all this mysterious humanity,
consisting of people such as himself who do not understand one
another.

I have to confess that there was a time when I believed this. 
It was the time when I had my own favourite ideals justifying my
own caprices, and I was trying to devise a theory which would allow
one to consider my caprices as the law of humanity.  But as soon as
the question of life arose in my soul in full clearness that reply
at once few to dust.  And I understood that as in the experimental
sciences there are real sciences, and semi-sciences which try to
give answers to questions beyond their competence, so in this
sphere there is a whole series of most diffused sciences which try
to reply to irrelevant questions.  Semi-sciences of that kind, the
juridical and the social-historical, endeavour to solve the
questions of a man's life by pretending to decide each in its own
way, the question of the life of all humanity.

But as in the sphere of man's experimental knowledge 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." And like the experimental semi-sciences, so these other
semi-sciences are the more filled with obscurities, inexactitudes,
stupidities, and contradictions, the further they diverge from the
real problems.  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.  Such in this realm of
science -- forming the pole of the sphere -- is metaphysics or
philosophy.  That science states the question clearly:  "What am I,
and what is the universe?  And why do I exist, and why does the
universe exist?"  And since it has existed it has always replied in
the same way.  Whether the philosopher calls the essence of life
existing within me, and in all that exists, by the name of "idea",
or "substance", or "spirit", or "will", he says one and the same
thing:  that this essence exists and that I am of that same
essence; but why it is he does not know, and does not say, if he is
an exact thinker.  I ask:  "Why should this essence exist?  What
results from the fact that it is and will be?" ... And 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.  And if it keeps firmly to its task
it cannot reply to the question otherwise than thus:  "What am I,
and what is the universe?"  "All and nothing"; and to the question
"Why?" by "I do not know".

So that however I may turn these replies of philosophy, I can
never obtain anything like an answer -- and not because, as in the
clear experimental sphere, the reply does not relate to my
question, but because here, though all the mental work is directed
just to my question, there is no answer, but instead of an answer
one gets the same question, only in a complex form.