Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/January 1890/Editor's Table

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



AMONG the numerous writings from the pen of Count Tolstoi which have of late been made accessible to the English reader is one entitled "My Confession." In this work the author tells us that, having in his youth led the life of a pleasure-loving man of the world, and in his maturer years of a literary man in considerable repute, he woke up in middle life, when all his outward circumstances were highly prosperous, to find that life to him seemed to possess no meaning and no value. He could find no answer to the Carlylean questions "Whence?" and "Whither?" and so distressed was he thereat that for a long time he was haunted by the thought of suicide. He had recourse to science, and could get no light; to philosophy, and could reap no consolation. It seemed to him as if some tyrant had called him into existence simply to make a mock of him, by hiding from his eyes the answer to life's riddle—by implanting in him an instinctive love of life, and yet depriving him of the knowledge which alone would supply a rational motive for living.

The nature of Tolstoi's trouble is fully explained in his book. His youth had been one of passion and riot, unguided by any principle save the loose code of honor prevalent in military circles. As an author he had encountered men with whom literature was a means for the gratification of vanity and nothing more, whose aims were sordid, whose ideas were conventional, and whose lives were actually worse than those of the wild companions of his youth. Yet these men set themselves up for guides of society and final arbiters in all questions of taste and morals. Tolstoi himself had caught their tone, and for a time imagined that, because he enjoyed popularity as a writer, he must necessarily be a very superior person. According to the ideas prevalent among his literary friends, the world existed for hardly any other purpose than to provide them with the opportunity for airing their superiority. It is not surprising that a man of Tolstoi's sensibility should eventually have been led to see the falsity of this whole view of life; the only wonder is that he did not revolt against it sooner than he did. The thoughts that came to him toward middle life have come to some others much earlier. The poet Clough was only twenty-two when he wrote:

"How often sit I poring o'er
My strange distorted youth,
Seeking in vain, in all my store,
One feeling based on truth;
Amid the maze of petty life
A clew whereby to move,
A spot whereon in toil and strife
To dare to rest and love

The life of Tolstoi had been essentially based upon privilege. He had lived above the mass of mankind, and had imbibed the narrow ideas of an exclusive set. He had not taken humanity into his thoughts, except for purposes of literary treatment; and, therefore, when a period of calm reflection came, though his intellectual pride took flight, and his false ideas stood confessed in their falsity, what to do he knew not. It seemed to him that he had to construct a new philosophy of life, and in the search for a solid basis for such a philosophy he endured the distress which he has so vividly described. He attacked the problem, however, from the wrong side, asking questions which only metaphysicians or theologians have ever attempted to answer, and which have never been answered in any satisfactory manner. After many wanderings and many perilous lingerings on the very verge of despair, he bethought himself of the thousands and millions of human beings who go about their daily tasks and take up their daily burdens without repining or misgiving, who find a natural sweetness in life, and never think of worrying themselves over questions of ontology or metaphysics. These, he said to himself, must possess the true secret of life, and the best thing I can do is to learn it of them.

Tolstoi was here getting upon solid ground. His previous life had been governed without any reference to cardinal principles of duty or to the essential relations of human beings to one another. One of the aphorisms of the founder of the Positive Philosophy is that between individual man and the universe humanity is needed as mediator. Suppress humanity, that is to say, suppress all true thoughts in regard to humanity, suppress the sense of inclusion in and identification with the great human whole, and individual man is indeed a poor, defenseless thing, or, as Matthew Arnold has expressed it—

"A naked, eternally restless mind."

No words could describe better than these the true condition of the great Russian's mind when the scales had fallen from his eyes, and he realized in what a vain show he had been walking. Peace came to him through his suddenly awakening to a sense of the vastness of the life of humanity, and his sudden resolve to take refuge in it, and, as far as possible, to make its thoughts and feeling his own. The lesson in all this is obvious, and it is in direct line with our remarks in a previous number under the head of "The Domain of Science." There is a science of life. There is a way of regarding our relations to the world at large which is true; and, unfortunately, there are many ways of regarding them which are false. There are thoughts, tempers, dispositions, habits, that make for soundness both of mind and body, and there are others in great variety that make for unsoundness. There are certain normal conditions of existence determined by the whole course of human evolution; and these can not be too widely departed from, under the guidance of purely individual feelings, without serious danger. The work of placing life on a sound basis may be begun at any time, though early is indeed much better than late. It is all a question of seeing things in their right relations and acting accordingly all a question of extending the domain of science from biology and physiology to sociology and individual conduct. Rightly read, Tolstoi's "Confession," though it mentions science but disparagingly, should be a great help in this direction. It certainly contains a grave warning against the tyranny of the passions and the utter hollowness of much that passes for literature and philosophy.


It is almost needless to direct attention to the letters on the land question published in this issue, as the names of certain of the writers would alone create interest in the discussion. Mr. Spencer, unfortunately, has been for some time in a state of health that almost wholly incapacitates him for the labor of the pen; and, though he has given us two very interesting letters, most readers will feel that he has hardly done full justice to his own position. He has confined himself to the criticisms of Prof. Huxley, and passed unnoticed those of Mr. Greenwood and Sir Louis Mallet. Had he possessed his old-time fire and energy, he would probably have dealt with all his critics in a manner that would have left little to be desired; we may be sure at least that he would have considered fully and fairly all their objections to his views, and would have given any necessary explanations in that spirit of candor which has always distinguished him.

It will be noticed that Mr. John Laidler, "bricklayer," is disposed to be severe upon Mr. Spencer for having in part abandoned the views expressed by him as long ago as the year 1852, in his work on "Social Statics." It is hardly worth while, however, to be a philosopher if a man can not mature and, if necessary, modify his views as he advances in life and gathers the fruits of experience and reflection. Mr. Spencer long ago recognized that in his "Social Statics" he had expressed himself somewhat unguardedly on the land question; and he has refrained for many years from giving any currency to his earlier opinions on that subject. Had his health permitted, it is not improbable that he would have taken some recent occasion for reviewing the whole question, and giving the world the benefit of his latest thought. As it is, he is obliged to content himself with indicating the germ of truth in his former views, and the modifications and safeguards he would now attach to the enunciation of the general principle which they embodied.

Mr. Frederick Greenwood, who participates in the discussion, undertakes to point a serious moral, to the effect, namely, that philosophers should be careful how they scatter abroad ideas which may serve as the seeds of revolution. The caution reminds us of a famous one given by St. Peter to St. Paul, some of whose writings, the former apostle thought, "the unlearned and the unstable" might "wrest to their own destruction." It was St. Paul, however, with his bent toward philosophy, who moved the ancient world to embrace Christianity. What his critic did in that direction is not very conspicuously recorded on the page of history. Mr. Spencer has labored hard to rationalize the thought of his age, to bring the minds of men into contact with the laws that—whether we recognize them or not—govern human life; and if, by some, his teachings are misunderstood and misapplied, we must judge of his total influence, not by such cases, but by the whole volume of mental activity that owes its origin to his writings.

The general impression which the controversy will leave on the minds of most readers will be, if we mistake not, that the land question is a good one to leave alone—at present. Not that there are not many abuses connected with the tenure of land waiting to be corrected; but that the correction of such abuses can best be accomplished without raising the fundamental question as to whether land can or can not be held by as good a title as chattel property. In this country, a few years ago, we had a slight wave of excitement in connection with the theories propounded in Mr. George's "Progress and Poverty"; but the conviction has been strengthening, we believe, in most thoughtful minds that, plausibly and eloquently and earnestly as Mr. George has presented his ideas, their adoption could only lead to social and political confusion. The world at large will be better when men individually are better; and social justice will reign when individual justice reigns. The land requires to be appropriated to and by individuals in order that the best and most profitable use may be made of it; but it does not follow that the individual occupier should act the part of a tyrant toward his fellow-men. A man may do that without owning a foot of land. Every man who follows a gainful trade or profession has an interest in the land, seeing that those who own and till it, own and till it for him to the extent of the demand expressed by his wages or emoluments. The world wants justice and wants it now; but it would be a poor inauguration of justice to turn title-deeds to which society has given every possible sort of sanction into waste paper, and virtually confiscate the honest earnings, invested in land, of millions of honest men.


"Nature," now accepted as the foremost scientific journal in Europe, signalizes the beginning of its forty-first volume by reviewing its own career and the advancement of science during the twenty years that have elapsed since its first number was issued, in November, 1869. It came forward without obtrusive advertising, and without making any promises other than what was implied in the statement in Prof. Huxley's introductory article that its aim would be "to mirror the progress of that fashioning of herself in the mind of man which we call the progress of science." It now claims, with a justice that all its readers will recognize, that it "has not disappointed the hopes of its founders, nor failed in the task it undertook." Its pages fairly reflect the aspects which scientific discussion has assumed from year to year; and every established conclusion has been suitably noticed in them as it gained the right to claim attention. The reader can turn to its columns for facts bearing on all matters of interest of this kind, in the assurance that he will find them there. "Nature" has been able to accomplish this purpose, it says, by enlisting the co-operation—in contributions, and by advice and suggestion—of the leaders in all branches of research, and by showing its desire to be for the good of science and the promotion of knowledge—regarding these as of more importance than journalistic success. While its most prominent function has been to present at first hand the results of the work of these men, it has not disregarded the laity of science. Besides taking pains to present its professional articles in a form acceptable to the great body of unlearned inquirers, it has in its correspondence department given them a free parliament for discussion. Making itself a faithful mirror of scientific thought, it speedily gained favor among English readers; extended its reputation abroad; and became the one journal indispensable to students in every branch and every land.

Its record of the achievements of science during its lifetime, though consisting only of the briefest mentions, is a large one, and includes such facts as the establishment of the Darwinian theory, the periodic law in chemistry, the determination of a relation between electricity and light, the progress of bacteriological investigation, the advance of spectroscopical discovery, the vast expansion of physiological research, and many other matters of hardly inferior moment. In all these achievements English investigators are exhibited as among the most active, solid in work, and thorough in inquiry; and none have been more sagacious than they in generalization and in applying principles to practice. Not the least important of the results is the education of a generation who have sufficient knowledge of science to recognize its importance and give it its true position; so that, when now it points out a new field of inquiry or asserts a new principle, it has no longer apologetically to face suspicion and hostility, but meets a friendly and helping public.