On the Significance of Science and Art
Category: Ideas
Level 7.51 3:04 h
Leo Tolstoy was a Russian Nobel Prize nominee and one of the greatest writers ever. He wrote plays, novels, and essays on philosophy. In On Significance of Science and Art, Tolstoy comments on nineteenth-century science and art. What inspired the art of the era? Read this philosophical text that delves into the importance of religion to art and society.

On the Significance of Science and Art

From “What to Do?”

Leo Tolstoy

On the Significance of Science and Art

Chapter I

The justification of all persons who have freed themselves from toil is now founded on experimental, positive science. The scientific theory is as follows: —

“For the study of the laws of life of human societies, there exists but one indubitable method, — the positive, experimental, critical method

“Only sociology, founded on biology, founded on all the positive sciences, can give us the laws of humanity. Humanity, or human communities, are the organisms already prepared, or still in process of formation, and which are subservient to all the laws of the evolution of organisms.

“One of the chief of these laws is the variation of destination among the portions of the organs. Some people command, others obey. If some have in superabundance, and others in want, this arises not from the will of God, not because the empire is a form of manifestation of personality, but because in societies, as in organisms, division of labor becomes indispensable for life as a whole. Some people perform the muscular labor in societies; others, the mental labor.”

Upon this doctrine is founded the prevailing justification of our time.

Not long ago, their reigned in the learned, cultivated world, a moral philosophy, according to which it appeared that every thing which exists is reasonable; that there is no such thing as evil or good; and that it is unnecessary for man to war against evil, but that it is only necessary for him to display intelligence, — one man in the military service, another in the judicial, another on the violin. There have been many and varied expressions of human wisdom, and these phenomena were known to the men of the nineteenth century. The wisdom of Rousseau and of Lessing, and Spinoza and Bruno, and all the wisdom of antiquity; but no one man’s wisdom overrode the crowd. It was impossible to say even this, — that Hegel’s success was the result of the symmetry of this theory. There were other equally symmetrical theories, — those of Descartes, Leibnitz, Fichte, Schopenhauer. There was but one reason why this doctrine won for itself, for a season, the belief of the whole world; and this reason was, that the deductions of that philosophy winked at people’s weaknesses. These deductions were summed up in this, — that every thing was reasonable, every thing good; and that no one was to blame.

When I began my career, Hegelianism was the foundation of every thing. It was floating in the air; it was expressed in newspaper and periodical articles, in historical and judicial lectures, in novels, in treatises, in art, in sermons, in conversation. The man who was not acquainted with Hegal had no right to speak. Any one who desired to understand the truth studied Hegel. Every thing rested on him. And all at once the forties passed, and there was nothing left of him. There was not even a hint of him, any more than if he had never existed. And the most amazing thing of all was, that Hegelianism did not fall because some one overthrew it or destroyed it. No! It was the same then as now, but all at once it appeared that it was of no use whatever to the learned and cultivated world.

There was a time when the Hegelian wise men triumphantly instructed the masses; and the crowd, understanding nothing, blindly believed in every thing, finding confirmation in the fact that it was on hand; and they believed that what seemed to them muddy and contradictory there on the heights of philosophy was all as clear as the day. But that time has gone by. That theory is worn out: a new theory has presented itself in its stead. The old one has become useless; and the crowd has looked into the secret sanctuaries of the high priests, and has seen that there is nothing there, and that there has been nothing there, save very obscure and senseless words. This has taken place within my memory.

“But this arises,” people of the present science will say, “from the fact that all that was the raving of the theological and metaphysical period; but now there exists positive, critical science, which does not deceive, since it is all founded on induction and experiment. Now our erections are not shaky, as they formerly were, and only in our path lies the solution of all the problems of humanity.”

But the old teachers said precisely the same, and they were no fools; and we know that there were people of great intelligence among them. And precisely thus, within my memory, and with no less confidence, with no less recognition on the part of the crowd of so-called cultivated people, spoke the Hegelians. And neither were our Herzens, our Stankevitches, or our Byelinskys fools. But whence arose that marvellous manifestation, that sensible people should preach with the greatest assurance, and that the crowd should accept with devotion, such unfounded and unsupportable teachings? There is but one reason, — that the teachings thus inculcated justified people in their evil life.

A very poor English writer, whose works are all forgotten, and recognized as the most insignificant of the insignificant, writes a treatise on population, in which he devises a fictitious law concerning the increase of population disproportionate to the means of subsistence. This fictitious law, this writer encompasses with mathematical formulæ founded on nothing whatever; and then he launches it on the world. From the frivolity and the stupidity of this hypothesis, one would suppose that it would not attract the attention of any one, and that it would sink into oblivion, like all the works of the same author which followed it; but it turned out quite otherwise. The hack-writer who penned this treatise instantly becomes a scientific authority, and maintains himself upon that height for nearly half a century. Malthus! The Malthusian theory, — the law of the increase of the population in geometrical, and of the means of subsistence in arithmetical proportion, and the wise and natural means of restricting the population, — all these have become scientific, indubitable truths, which have not been confirmed, but which have been employed as axioms, for the erection of false theories. In this manner have learned and cultivated people proceeded; and among the herd of idle persons, there sprung up a pious trust in the great laws expounded by Malthus. How did this come to pass? It would seem as though they were scientific deductions, which had nothing in common with the instincts of the masses. But this can only appear so for the man who believes that science, like the Church, is something self-contained, liable to no errors, and not simply the imaginings of weak and erring folk, who merely substitute the imposing word “science,” in place of the thoughts and words of the people, for the sake of impressiveness.

All that was necessary was to make practical deductions from the theory of Malthus, in order to perceive that this theory was of the most human sort, with the best defined of objects. The deductions directly arising from this theory were the following: The wretched condition of the laboring classes was such in accordance with an unalterable law, which does not depend upon men; and, if any one is to blame in this matter, it is the hungry laboring classes themselves. Why are they such fools as to give birth to children, when they know that there will be nothing for the children to eat? And so this deduction, which is valuable for the herd of idle people, has had this result: that all learned men overlooked the incorrectness, the utter arbitrariness of these deductions, and their insusceptibility to proof; and the throng of cultivated, i.e., of idle people, knowing instinctively to what these deductions lead, saluted this theory with enthusiasm, conferred upon it the stamp of truth, i.e., of science, and dragged it about with them for half a century.

Is not this same thing the cause of the confidence of men in positive critical-experimental science, and of the devout attitude of the crowd towards that which it preaches? At first it seems strange, that the theory of evolution can in any manner justify people in their evil ways; and it seems as though the scientific theory of evolution has to deal only with facts, and that it does nothing else but observe facts.

But this only appears to be the case.

Exactly the same thing appeared to be the case with the Hegelian doctrine, in a greater degree, and also in the special instance of the Malthusian doctrine. Hegelianism was, apparently, occupied only with its logical constructions, and bore no relation to the life of mankind. Precisely this seemed to be the case with the Malthusian theory. It appeared to be busy itself only with statistical data. But this was only in appearance.

Contemporary science is also occupied with facts alone: it investigates facts. But what facts? Why precisely these facts, and no others?

The men of contemporary science are very fond of saying, triumphantly and confidently, “We investigate only facts,” imagining that these words contain some meaning. It is impossible to investigate facts alone, because the facts which are subject to our investigation are innumerable (in the definite sense of that word), — innumerable. Before we proceed to investigate facts, we must have a theory on the foundation of which these or those facts can be inquired into, i.e., selected from the incalculable quantity.

And this theory exists, and is even very definitely expressed, although many of the workers in contemporary science do not know it, or often pretend that they do not know it. Exactly thus has it always been with all prevailing and guiding doctrines. The foundations of every doctrine are always stated in a theory, and the so-called learned men merely invent further deductions from the foundations once stated. Thus contemporary science is selecting its facts on the foundation of a very definite theory, which it sometimes knows, sometimes refuses to know, and sometimes really does not know; but the theory exists.

The theory is as follows: All mankind is an undying organism; men are the particles of that organism, and each one of them has his own special task for the service of others. In the same manner, the cells united in an organism share among them the labor of fight for existence of the whole organism; they magnify the power of one capacity, and weaken another, and unite in one organ, in order the better to supply the requirements of the whole organism. And exactly in the same manner as with gregarious animals, — ants or bees, — the separate individuals divide the labor among them. The queen lays the egg, the drone fructifies it; the bee works his whole life long. And precisely this thing takes place in mankind and in human societies. And therefore, in order to find the law of life for man, it is necessary to study the laws of the life and the development of organisms.

In the life and development of organisms, we find the following laws: the law of differentiation and integration, the law that every phenomenon is accompanied not by direct consequences alone, another law regarding the instability of type, and so on. All this seems very innocent; but it is only necessary to draw the deductions from all these laws, in order to immediately perceive that these laws incline in the same direction as the law of Malthus. These laws all point to one thing; namely, to the recognition of that division of labor which exists in human communities, as organic, that is to say, as indispensable. And therefore, the unjust position in which we, the people who have freed ourselves from labor, find ourselves, must be regarded not from the point of view of common-sense and justice, but merely as an undoubted fact, confirming the universal law.

Moral philosophy also justified every sort of cruelty and harshness; but this resulted in a philosophical manner, and therefore wrongly. But with science, all this results scientifically, and therefore in a manner not to be doubted.

How can we fail to accept so very beautiful a theory? It is merely necessary to look upon human society as an object of contemplation; and I can console myself with the thought that my activity, whatever may be its nature, is a functional activity of the organism of humanity, and that therefore there cannot arise any question as to whether it is just that I, in employing the labor of others, am doing only that which is agreeable to me, as there can arise no question as to the division of labor between the brain cells and the muscular cells. How is it possible not to admit so very beautiful a theory, in order that one may be able, ever after, to pocket one’s conscience, and have a perfectly unbridled animal existence, feeling beneath one’s self that support of science which is not to be shaken nowadays!

And it is on this new doctrine that the justification for men’s idleness and cruelty is now founded.

Chapter II

This doctrine had its rise not so very long — fifty years — ago. Its principal founder was the French savant Comte. There occurred to Comte, — a systematist, and a religious man to boot, — under the influence of the then novel physiological investigations of Biche, the old idea already set forth by Menenius Agrippa, — the idea that human society, all humanity even, might be regarded as one whole, as an organism; and men as living parts of the separate organs, having each his own definite appointment to serve the entire organism.

This idea so pleased Comte, that upon it he began to erect a philosophical theory; and this theory so carried him away, that he utterly forgot that the point of departure for his theory was nothing more than a very pretty comparison, which was suitable for a fable, but which could by no means serve as the foundation for science. He, as frequently happens, mistook his pet hypothesis for an axiom, and imagined that his whole theory was erected on the very firmest of foundations. According to his theory, it seemed that since humanity is an organism, the knowledge of what man is, and of what should be his relations to the world, was possible only through a knowledge of the features of this organism. For the knowledge of these qualities, man is enabled to take observations on other and lower organisms, and to draw conclusions from their life. Therefore, in the fist place, the true and only method, according to Comte, is the inductive, and all science is only such when it has experiment as its basis; in the second place, the goal and crown of sciences is formed by that new science dealing with the imaginary organism of humanity, or the super-organic being, — humanity, — and this newly devised science is sociology.

And from this view of science it appears, that all previous knowledge was deceitful, and that the whole story of humanity, in the sense of self-knowledge, has been divided into three, actually into two, periods: the theological and metaphysical period, extending from the beginning of the world to Comte, and the present period, — that of the only true science, positive science, — beginning with Comte.

All this was very well. There was but one error, and that was this, — that the whole edifice was erected on the sand, on the arbitrary and false assertion that humanity is an organism. This assertion was arbitrary, because we have just as much right to admit the existence of a human organism, not subject to observation, as we have to admit the existence of any other invisible, fantastic being. This assertion was erroneous, because for the understanding of humanity, i.e., of men, the definition of an organism was incorrectly constructed, while in humanity itself all actual signs of organism, — the centre of feeling or consciousness, are lacking.

But, in spite of the arbitrariness and incorrectness of the fundamental assumption of positive philosophy, it was accepted by the so-called cultivated world with the greatest sympathy. In this connection, one thing is worthy of note: that out of the works of Comte, consisting of two parts, of positive philosophy and of positive politics, only the first was adopted by the learned world, — that part which justifieth, on new promises, the existent evil of human societies; but the second part, treating of the moral obligations of altruism, arising from the recognition of mankind as an organism, was regarded as not only of no importance, but as trivial and unscientific. It was a repetition of the same thing that had happened in the case of Kant’s works. The “Critique of Pure Reason” was adopted by the scientific crowd; but the “Critique of Applied Reason,” that part which contains the gist of moral doctrine, was repudiated. In Kant’s doctrine, that was accepted as scientific which subserved the existent evil. But the positive philosophy, which was accepted by the crowd, was founded on an arbitrary and erroneous basis, was in itself too unfounded, and therefore unsteady, and could not support itself alone. And so, amid all the multitude of the idle plays of thought of the men professing the so-called science, there presents itself an assertion equally devoid of novelty, and equally arbitrary and erroneous, to the effect that living beings, i.e., organisms, have had their rise in each other, — not only one organism from another, but one from many; i.e., that in a very long interval of time (in a million of years, for instance), not only could a duck and a fish proceed from one ancestor, but that one animal might result from a whole hive of bees. And this arbitrary and erroneous assumption was accepted by the learned world with still greater and more universal sympathy. This assumption was arbitrary, because no one has ever seen how one organism is made from another, and therefore the hypothesis as to the origin of species will always remain an hypothesis, and not an experimental fact. And this hypothesis was also erroneous, because the decision of the question as to the origin of species — that they have originated, in consequence of the law of heredity and fitness, in the course of an interminably long time — is no solution at all, but merely a re-statement of the problem in a new form.

According to Moses’ solution of the question (in the dispute with whom the entire significance of this theory lies), it appears that the diversity of the species of living creatures proceeded according to the will of God, and according to His almighty power; but according to the theory of evolution, it appears that the difference between living creatures arose by chance, and on account of varying conditions of heredity and surroundings, through an endless period of time. The theory of evolution, to speak in simple language, merely asserts, that by chance, in an incalculably long period of time, out of any thing you like, any thing else that you like may develop.

This is no answer to the problem. And the same problem is differently expressed: instead of will, chance is offered, and the co-efficient of the eternal is transposed from the power to the time. But this fresh assertion strengthened Comte’s assertion. And, moreover, according to the ingenuous confession of the founder of Darwin’s theory himself, his idea was aroused in him by the law of Malthus; and he therefore propounded the theory of the struggle of living creatures and people for existence, as the fundamental law of every living thing. And lo! only this was needed by the throng of idle people for their justification.

Two insecure theories, incapable of sustaining themselves on their feet, upheld each other, and acquired the semblance of stability. Both theories bore with them that idea which is precious to the crowd, that in the existent evil of human societies, men are not to blame, and that the existing order of things is that which should prevail; and the new theory was adopted by the throng with entire faith and unheard-of enthusiasm. And behold, on the strength of these two arbitrary and erroneous hypotheses, accepted as dogmas of belief, the new scientific doctrine was ratified.

Spencer, for example, in one of his first works, expresses this doctrine thus: —

“Societies and organisms,” he says, “are alike in the following points: —

“1. In that, beginning as tiny aggregates, they imperceptibly grow in mass, so that some of them attain to the size of ten thousand times their original bulk.

“2. In that while they were, in the beginning, of such simple structure, that they can be regarded as destitute of all structure, they acquire during the period of their growth a constantly increasing complication of structure.

“3. In that although in their early, undeveloped period, there exists between them hardly any interdependence of parts, their parts gradually acquire an interdependence, which eventually becomes so strong, that the life and activity of each part becomes possible only on condition of the life and activity of the remaining parts.

“4. In that life and the development of society are independent, and more protracted than the life and development of any one of the units constituting it, which are born, grow, act, reproduce themselves, and die separately; while the political body formed from them, continues to live generation after generation, developing in mass in perfection and functional activity.”

The points of difference between organisms and society go farther; and it is proved that these differences are merely apparent, but that organisms and societies are absolutely similar.

For the uninitiated man the question immediately presents itself: “What are you talking about? Why is mankind an organism, or similar to an organism?”

You say that societies resemble organisms in these four features; but it is nothing of the sort. You only take a few features of the organism, and beneath them you range human communities. You bring forward four features of resemblance, then you take four features of dissimilarity, which are, however, only apparent (according to you); and you thence conclude that human societies can be regarded as organisms. But surely, this is an empty game of dialectics, and nothing more. On the same foundation, under the features of an organism, you may range whatever you please. I will take the fist thing that comes into my head. Let us suppose it to be a forest, — the manner in which it sows itself in the plain, and spreads abroad. 1. Beginning with a small aggregate, it increases imperceptibly in mass, and so forth. Exactly the same thing takes place in the fields, when they gradually seed themselves down, and bring forth a forest. 2. In the beginning the structure is simple: afterwards it increases in complication, and so forth. Exactly the same thing happens with the forest, — in the first place, there were only bitch-trees, then came brush-wood and hazel-bushes; at first all grow erect, then they interlace their branches. 3. The interdependence of the parts is so augmented, that the life of each part depends on the life and activity of the remaining parts. It is precisely so with the forest, — the hazel-bush warms the tree-boles (cut it down, and the other trees will freeze), the hazel-bush protects from the wind, the seed-bearing trees carry on reproduction, the tall and leafy trees afford shade, and the life of one tree depends on the life of another. 4. The separate parts may die, but the whole lives. Exactly the case with the forest. The forest does not mourn one tree.

Having proved that, in accordance with this theory, you may regard the forest as an organism, you fancy that you have proved to the disciples of the organic doctrine the error of their definition. Nothing of the sort. The definition which they give to the organism is so inaccurate and so elastic that under this definition they may include what they will. “Yes,” they say; “and the forest may also be regarded as an organism. The forest is mutual re-action of individuals, which do not annihilate each other, — an aggregate; its parts may also enter into a more intimate union, as the hive of bees constitutes itself an organism.” Then you will say, “If that is so, then the birds and the insects and the grass of this forest, which re-act upon each other, and do not destroy each other, may also be regarded as one organism, in company with the trees.” And to this also they will agree. Every collection of living individuals, which re-act upon each other, and do not destroy each other, may be regarded as organisms, according to their theory. You may affirm a connection and interaction between whatever you choose, and, according to evolution, you may affirm, that, out of whatever you please, any other thing that you please may proceed, in a very long period of time.

And the most remarkable thing of all is, that this same identical positive science recognizes the scientific method as the sign of true knowledge, and has itself defined what it designates as the scientific method.

By the scientific method it means common-sense.

And common-sense convicts it at every step. As soon as the Popes felt that nothing holy remained in them, they called themselves most holy.

As soon as science felt that no common-sense was left in her she called herself sensible, that is to say, scientific science.

Chapter III

Division of labor is the law of all existing things, and, therefore, it should be present in human societies. It is very possible that this is so; but still the question remains, Of what nature is that division of labor which I behold in my human society? is it that division of labor which should exist? And if people regard a certain division of labor as unreasonable and unjust, then no science whatever can convince men that that should exist which they regard as unreasonable and unjust.

Division of labor is the condition of existence of organisms, and of human societies; but what, in these human societies, is to be regarded as an organic division of labor? And, to whatever extent science may have investigated the division of labor in the cells of worms, all these observations do not compel a man to acknowledge that division of labor to be correct which his own sense and conscience do not recognize as correct. No matter how convincing may be the proofs of the division of labor of the cells in the organisms studied, man, if he has not parted with his judgment, will say, nevertheless, that a man should not weave calico all his life, and that this is not division of labor, but persecution of the people. Spencer and others say that there is a whole community of weavers, and that the profession of weaving is an organic division of labor. There are weavers; so, of course, there is such a division of labor. It would be well enough to speak thus if the colony of weavers had arisen by the free will of its member’s; but we know that it is not thus formed of their initiative, but that we make it. Hence it is necessary to find out whether we have made these weavers in accordance with an organic law, or with some other.

Men live. They support themselves by agriculture, as is natural to all men. One man has set up a blacksmith’s forge, and repaired his plough; his neighbor comes to him, and asks him to mend his also, and promises him in return either work or money. A third comes, and a fourth; and in the community formed by these men, there arises the following division of labor, — a blacksmith is created. Another man has instructed his children well; his neighbor brings his children to him, and requests him to teach them also, and a teacher is created. But both blacksmith and teacher have been created, and continue to be such, merely because they have been asked; and they remain such as long as they are requested to be blacksmith and teacher. If it should come to pass that many blacksmiths and teachers should set themselves up, or that their work is not requited, they will immediately, as common-sense demands and as always happens when there is no occasion for disturbing the regular course of division of labor, — they will immediately abandon their trade, and betake themselves once more to agriculture.

Men who behave thus are guided by their sense, their conscience; and hence we, the men endowed with sense and conscience, all assert that such a division of labor is right. But if it should chance that the blacksmiths were able to compel other people to work for them, and should continue to make horse-shoes when they were not wanted, and if the teachers should go on teaching when there was no one to teach, then it is obvious to every sane man, as a man, i.e., as a being endowed with reason and conscience, that this would not be division, but appropriation, of labor. And yet precisely that sort of activity is what is called division of labor by scientific science. People do that which others do not think of requiring, and demand that they shall be supported for so doing, and say that this is just because it is division of labor.

That which constitutes the cause of the economical poverty of our age is what the English call over-production (which means that a mass of things are made which are of no use to anybody, and with which nothing can be done).

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