“On the Significance of Science and Art” by Leo Tolstoy

Ever since men have been in existence, they have been in the habit of deducing, from all pursuits, the expressions of various branches of learning concerning the destiny and the welfare of man, and the expression of this knowledge has been art in the strict sense of the word.

Ever since men have existed, there have been those who were peculiarly sensitive and responsive to the doctrine regarding the destiny and welfare of man; who have given expression to their own and the popular conflict, to the delusions which lead them astray from their destinies, their sufferings in this conflict, their hopes in the triumph of good, them despair over the triumph of evil, and their raptures in the consciousness of the approaching bliss of man,  in images and words. Always, down to the most recent times, art has served science and life,—only then was it what has been so highly esteemed of men. But art, in its capacity of an important human activity, disappeared simultaneously with the substitution for the genuine science of destiny and welfare, of the science of any thing you choose to fancy.

Scientific and artistic activity, in its real sense, is only fruitful when it knows no rights, but recognizes only obligations. Only because it is its property to be always thus, does mankind so highly prize this activity. If men really were called to the service of others through artistic work, they would see in that work only obligation, and they would fulfill it with toil, with privations, and with self-abnegation.

The thinker or the artist will never sit calmly on Olympian heights, as we have become accustomed to represent them to ourselves. The thinker or the artist should suffer in company with the people, in order that he may find salvation or consolation. Besides this, he will suffer because he is always and eternally in turmoil and agitation: he might decide and say that which would confer welfare on men, would free them from suffering, would afford them consolation; but he has not said so, and has not presented it as he should have done; he has not decided, and he has not spoken; and to-morrow, possibly, it will be too late,–he will die. And therefore suffering and self-sacrifice will always be the lot of the thinker and the artist.

There will be no sleek, plump, self-satisfied thinkers and artists. Spiritual activity, and its expression, which are actually necessary to others, are the most burdensome of all man’s avocations; a cross, as the Gospels phrase it. And the sole indubitable sign of the presence of a vocation is self-devotion, the sacrifice of self for the manifestation of the power that is imposed upon man for the benefit of others.

It is possible to study out how many beetles there are in the world, to view the spots on the sun, to write romances and operas, without suffering; but it is impossible, without self-sacrifice, to instruct people in their true happiness, which consists solely in renunciation of self and the service of others, and to give strong expression to this doctrine, without self-sacrifice.

True art and true science possess two unmistakable marks: the first, an inward mark, which is this, that the servitor of art and science will fulfill his vocation, not for profit but with self-sacrifice; and the second, an external sign,–his productions will be intelligible to all the people whose welfare he has in view.

No matter what people have fixed upon as their vocation and their welfare, science will be the doctrine of this vocation and welfare, and art will be the expression of that doctrine. That which is called science and art, among us, is the product of idle minds and feelings, which have for their object to tickle similar idle minds and feelings. Our arts and sciences are incomprehensible, and say nothing to the people, for they have not the welfare of the common people in view.

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2 thoughts on ““On the Significance of Science and Art” by Leo Tolstoy

  1. I’ve always been a big Tolstoy fan, and I think this essay captures a lot of his philosophy very well. To me, Tolstoy was always impressive because he really did focus on “the little guy.” Obviously, Tolstoy was a towering intellectual, as well as a member of the aristocracy, but his heroes are always clever, and in some sense, earthy, from Levin in Anna Karenina, to Platon Karataev in War and Peace. I think Tolstoy never lost sight of the fact that: “The thinker or the artist should suffer in company with the people, in order that he may find salvation or consolation.” He challenges our assumptions, he calls into question that great men make history all by themselves, and suggests that it’s really chance, and the actions of the masses of men on the ground that change history.

    1. Glad to hear from another Tolstoy’s fan. 🙂

      Tolstoy’s view of history seems to have evolved since he wrote W&P. For instance, in “Bethink Yourselves”, his focus is not so much on men changing the history of the world, as on man living his own life, i.e. making his own history as an individual.

      The same thought is expressed here from another perspective. An artist who does not labor and suffer as much as, even more than, the common people, cannot produce true work of art, because he doesn’t live his own life, and cannot do art, which in essence is a manifestation of life.

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