On the Significance of Science and Art
Leo Tolstoy
Ideas
2:49 h
Level 7
Leo Tolstoy, was a Russian writer who is regarded as one of the greatest authors of all time. He received nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature every year from 1902 to 1906 and for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901, 1902, and 1909. Tolstoy is best known for the novels War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1878), often cited as pinnacles of realist fiction. He also wrote plays and numerous philosophical essays. On the Significance of Science and Art was transcribed from the 1887 Tomas Y. Crowell “What to do?”.

On the Significance of Science and Art

From “What to Do?”

by
Leo Tolstoy


Chapter I

The justification of all persons whohave freed themselves from toil is now founded on experimental,positive science. The scientific theory is asfollows: —

“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 thepositive sciences, can give us the laws of humanity. Humanity, or human communities, are the organisms alreadyprepared, or still in process of formation, and which aresubservient to all the laws of the evolution of organisms.

“One of the chief of these laws is the variation ofdestination among the portions of the organs. Some peoplecommand, others obey. If some have in superabundance, andothers in want, this arises not from the will of God, not becausethe empire is a form of manifestation of personality, but becausein societies, as in organisms, division of labor becomesindispensable for life as a whole. Some people perform themuscular labor in societies; others, the mental labor.”

Upon this doctrine is founded the prevailing justification ofour time.

Not long ago, their reigned in the learned, cultivated world,a moral philosophy, according to which it appeared that everything which exists is reasonable; that there is no such thing asevil or good; and that it is unnecessary for man to war againstevil, but that it is only necessary for him to displayintelligence, — one man in the military service, another inthe judicial, another on the violin. There have been manyand varied expressions of human wisdom, and these phenomena wereknown to the men of the nineteenth century. The wisdom ofRousseau and of Lessing, and Spinoza and Bruno, and all thewisdom of antiquity; but no one man’s wisdom overrode thecrowd. It was impossible to say even this, — thatHegel’s success was the result of the symmetry of thistheory. There were other equally symmetricaltheories, — those of Descartes, Leibnitz, Fichte,Schopenhauer. There was but one reason why this doctrinewon for itself, for a season, the belief of the whole world; andthis reason was, that the deductions of that philosophy winked atpeople’s weaknesses. These deductions were summed upin 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 ofevery thing. It was floating in the air; it was expressedin newspaper and periodical articles, in historical and judiciallectures, in novels, in treatises, in art, in sermons, inconversation. The man who was not acquainted with Hegal hadno right to speak. Any one who desired to understand thetruth studied Hegel. Every thing rested on him. Andall at once the forties passed, and there was nothing left ofhim. There was not even a hint of him, any more than if hehad never existed. And the most amazing thing of all was,that Hegelianism did not fall because some one overthrew it ordestroyed it. No! It was the same then as now, butall at once it appeared that it was of no use whatever to thelearned and cultivated world.

There was a time when the Hegelian wise men triumphantlyinstructed the masses; and the crowd, understanding nothing,blindly believed in every thing, finding confirmation in the factthat it was on hand; and they believed that what seemed to themmuddy and contradictory there on the heights of philosophy wasall as clear as the day. But that time has gone by. That theory is worn out: a new theory has presented itself in itsstead. The old one has become useless; and the crowd haslooked into the secret sanctuaries of the high priests, and hasseen that there is nothing there, and that there has been nothingthere, save very obscure and senseless words. This hastaken place within my memory.

“But this arises,” people of the present sciencewill say, “from the fact that all that was the raving ofthe theological and metaphysical period; but now there existspositive, critical science, which does not deceive, since it isall founded on induction and experiment. Now our erectionsare not shaky, as they formerly were, and only in our path liesthe solution of all the problems of humanity.”

But the old teachers said precisely the same, and they were nofools; and we know that there were people of great intelligenceamong them. And precisely thus, within my memory, and withno less confidence, with no less recognition on the part of thecrowd of so-called cultivated people, spoke the Hegelians. And neither were our Herzens, our Stankevitches, or ourByelinskys fools. But whence arose that marvellousmanifestation, that sensible people should preach with thegreatest assurance, and that the crowd should accept withdevotion, such unfounded and unsupportable teachings? Thereis but one reason, — that the teachings thus inculcatedjustified people in their evil life.

A very poor English writer, whose works are all forgotten, andrecognized as the most insignificant of the insignificant, writesa treatise on population, in which he devises a fictitious lawconcerning the increase of population disproportionate to themeans of subsistence. This fictitious law, this writerencompasses with mathematical formulæ founded on nothingwhatever; and then he launches it on the world. From thefrivolity and the stupidity of this hypothesis, one would supposethat it would not attract the attention of any one, and that itwould sink into oblivion, like all the works of the same authorwhich followed it; but it turned out quite otherwise. Thehack-writer who penned this treatise instantly becomes ascientific authority, and maintains himself upon that height fornearly half a century. Malthus! The Malthusiantheory, — the law of the increase of the population ingeometrical, and of the means of subsistence in arithmeticalproportion, and the wise and natural means of restricting thepopulation, — all these have become scientific, indubitabletruths, which have not been confirmed, but which have beenemployed as axioms, for the erection of false theories. Inthis manner have learned and cultivated people proceeded; andamong the herd of idle persons, there sprung up a pious trust inthe great laws expounded by Malthus. How did this come topass? It would seem as though they were scientificdeductions, which had nothing in common with the instincts of themasses. But this can only appear so for the man whobelieves that science, like the Church, is somethingself-contained, liable to no errors, and not simply theimaginings of weak and erring folk, who merely substitute theimposing word “science,” in place of the thoughts andwords of the people, for the sake of impressiveness.

All that was necessary was to make practical deductions fromthe theory of Malthus, in order to perceive that this theory wasof the most human sort, with the best defined of objects. The deductions directly arising from this theory were thefollowing: The wretched condition of the laboring classes wassuch in accordance with an unalterable law, which does not dependupon men; and, if any one is to blame in this matter, it is thehungry laboring classes themselves. Why are they such foolsas to give birth to children, when they know that there will benothing for the children to eat? And so this deduction,which is valuable for the herd of idle people, has had thisresult: that all learned men overlooked the incorrectness, theutter arbitrariness of these deductions, and theirinsusceptibility to proof; and the throng of cultivated, i.e., ofidle people, knowing instinctively to what these deductions lead,saluted this theory with enthusiasm, conferred upon it the stampof truth, i.e., of science, and dragged it about with them forhalf a century.

Is not this same thing the cause of the confidence of men inpositive critical-experimental science, and of the devoutattitude of the crowd towards that which it preaches? Atfirst it seems strange, that the theory of evolution can in anymanner justify people in their evil ways; and it seems as thoughthe 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.