Thursday, June 16, 2011

Tolstoy on Materialists

    Only in our self-confident day of the popularization of knowledge- thanks to that most powerful engine of ignorance, the diffusion of printed matter- has the question of the freedom of will been put on a level on which the question itself cannot exist. In our time the majority of so-called advanced people- that is, the crowd of ignoramuses- have taken the work of the naturalists who deal with one side of the question for a solution of the whole problem.

    They say and write and print that the soul and freedom do not exist, for the life of man is expressed by muscular movements and muscular movements are conditioned by the activity of the nerves; the soul and free will do not exist because at an unknown period of time we sprang from the apes. They say this, not at all suspecting that thousands of years ago that same law of necessity which with such ardor they are now trying to prove by physiology and comparative zoology was not merely acknowledged by all the religions and all the thinkers, but has never been denied. They do not see that the role of the natural sciences in this matter is merely to serve as an instrument for the illumination of one side of it. For the fact that, from the point of view of observation, reason and the will are merely secretions of the brain, and that man following the general law may have developed from lower animals at some unknown period of time, only explains from a fresh side the truth admitted thousands of years ago by all the religious and philosophic theories- that from the point of view of reason man is subject to the law of necessity; but it does not advance by a hair's breadth the solution of the question, which has another, opposite, side, based on the consciousness of freedom.

    If men descended from the apes at an unknown period of time, that is as comprehensible as that they were made from a handful of earth at a certain period of time (in the first case the unknown quantity is the time, in the second case it is the origin); and the question of how man's consciousness of freedom is to be reconciled with the law of necessity to which he is subject cannot be solved by comparative physiology and zoology, for in a frog, a rabbit, or an ape, we can observe only the muscular nervous activity, but in man we observe consciousness as well as the muscular and nervous activity.

    The naturalists and their followers, thinking they can solve this question, are like plasterers set to plaster one side of the walls of a church who, availing themselves of the absence of the chief superintendent of the work, should in an access of zeal plaster over the windows, icons, woodwork, and still unbuttressed walls, and should be delighted that from their point of view as plasterers, everything is now so smooth and regular.
So wrote Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy in the eight chapter of the second epilogue of War and Peace. A left-liberal friend thinks that such passages should be excised, and the same with those asides in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick arguing rightly (cf. Whale Meat and Friday Abstinence) that whales are fish. I would not take an iota out of either of these my two favorite novels.

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Omnes Sancti et Sanctæ Coreæ, orate pro nobis.