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What to Do? online

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Transcribed from the 1887 Tomas Y. Crowell edition by David Price, email
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Books which are prohibited by the Russian Censor are not always
inaccessible. An enterprising publishing-house in Geneva makes a
specialty of supplying the natural craving of man for forbidden fruit,
under which heading some of Count L. N. Tolstoi's essays belong. These
essays circulate in Russia in manuscript; and it is from one of these
manuscripts, which fell into the hands of the Geneva firm, that the first
half of the present translation has been made. It is thus that the
Censor's omissions have been noted, even in cases where such omissions
are in no way indicated in the twelfth volume of Count Tolstoi's
collected works, published in Moscow. As an interesting detail in this
connection, I may mention that this twelfth volume contains all that the
censor allows of "My Religion," amounting to a very much abridged scrap
of Chapter X. in the last-named volume as known to the public outside of
Russia. The last half of the present book has not been published by the
Geneva house, and omissions cannot be marked.


BOSTON, Sept. 1, 1887


The object of a census is scientific. A census is a sociological
investigation. And the object of the science of sociology is the
happiness of the people. This science and its methods differ sharply
from all other sciences.

Its peculiarity lies in this, that sociological investigations are not
conducted by learned men in their cabinets, observatories and
laboratories, but by two thousand people from the community. A second
peculiarity is this, that the investigations of other sciences are not
conducted on living people, but here living people are the subjects. A
third peculiarity is, that the aim of every other science is simply
knowledge, while here it is the good of the people. One man may
investigate a nebula, but for the investigation of Moscow, two thousand
persons are necessary. The object of the study of nebulae is merely that
we may know about nebulae; the object of the study of inhabitants is that
sociological laws may be deduced, and that, on the foundation of these
laws, a better life for the people may be established. It makes no
difference to the nebula whether it is studied or not, and it has waited
long, and is ready to wait a great while longer; but it is not a matter
of indifference to the inhabitants of Moscow, especially to those
unfortunates who constitute the most interesting subjects of the science
of sociology.

The census-taker enters a night lodging-house; in the basement he finds a
man dying of hunger, and he politely inquires his profession, his name,
his native place, the character of his occupation, and after a little
hesitation as to whether he is to be entered in the list as alive, he
writes him in and goes his way.

And thus will the two thousand young men proceed. This is not as it
should be.

Science does its work, and the community, summoned in the persons of
these two thousand young men to aid science, must do its work. A
statistician drawing his deductions from figures may feel indifferent
towards people, but we census-takers, who see these people and who have
no scientific prepossessions, cannot conduct ourselves towards them in an
inhuman manner. Science fulfils its task, and its work is for its
objects and in the distant future, both useful and necessary to us. For
men of science, we can calmly say, that in 1882 there were so many
beggars, so many prostitutes, and so many uncared-for children. Science
may say this with composure and with pride, because it knows that the
confirmation of this fact conduces to the elucidation of the laws of
sociology, and that the elucidation of the laws of sociology leads to a
better constitution of society. But what if we, the unscientific people,
say: "You are perishing in vice, you are dying of hunger, you are pining
away, and killing each other; so do not grieve about this; when you shall
have all perished, and hundreds of thousands more like you, then,
possibly, science may be able to arrange everything in an excellent
manner." For men of science, the census has its interest; and for us
also, it possesses an interest of a wholly different significance. The
interest and significance of the census for the community lie in this,
that it furnishes it with a mirror into which, willy nilly, the whole
community, and each one of us, gaze.

The figures and deductions will be the mirror. It is possible to refrain
from reading them, as it is possible to turn away from the looking-glass.
It is possible to glance cursorily at both figures and mirror, and it is
also possible to scrutinize them narrowly. To go about in connection
with the census as thousands of people are now about to do, is to
scrutinize one's self closely in the mirror.

What does this census, that is about to be made, mean for us people of
Moscow, who are not men of science? It means two things. In the first
place, this, that we may learn with certainty, that among us tens of
thousands who live in ease, there dwell tens of thousands of people who
lack bread, clothing and shelter; in the second place, this, that our
brothers and sons will go and view this and will calmly set down
according to the schedules, how many have died of hunger and cold.

And both these things are very bad.

All cry out upon the instability of our social organization, about the
exceptional situation, about revolutionary tendencies. Where lies the
root of all this? To what do the revolutionists point? To poverty, to
inequality in the distribution of wealth. To what do the conservatives
point? To the decline in moral principle. If the opinion of the
revolutionists is correct, what must be done? Poverty and the inequality
of wealth must be lessened. How is this to be effected? The rich must
share with the poor. If the opinion of the conservatives is correct,
that the whole evil arises from the decline in moral principle, what can
be more immoral and vicious than the consciously indifferent survey of
popular sufferings, with the sole object of cataloguing them? What must
be done? To the census we must add the work of affectionate intercourse
of the idle and cultivated rich, with the oppressed and unenlightened

Science will do its work, let us perform ours also. Let us do this. In
the first place, let all of us who are occupied with the census,
superintendents and census-takers, make it perfectly clear to ourselves
what we are to investigate and why. It is the people, and the object is
that they may be happy. Whatever may be one's view of life, every one
will agree that there is nothing more important than human life, and that
there is no more weighty task than to remove the obstacles to the
development of this life, and to assist it.

This idea, that the relations of men to poverty are at the foundation of
all popular suffering, is expressed in the Gospels with striking
harshness, but at the same time, with decision and clearness for all.

"He who has clothed the naked, fed the hungry, visited the prisoner, that
man has clothed Me, fed Me, visited Me," that is, has done the deed for
that which is the most important thing in the world.

However a man may look upon things, every one knows that this is more
important than all else on earth.

And this must not be forgotten, and we must not permit any other
consideration to veil from us the most weighty fact of our existence. Let
us inscribe, and reckon, but let us not forget that if we encounter a man
who is hungry and without clothes, it is of more moment to succor him
than to make all possible investigations, than to discover all possible
sciences. Perish the whole census if we may but feed an old woman. The
census will be longer and more difficult, but we cannot pass by people in
the poorer quarters and merely note them down without taking any heed of
them and without endeavoring, according to the measure of our strength
and moral sensitiveness, to aid them. This in the first place. In the
second, this is what must be done: All of us, who are to take part in the
census, must refrain from irritation because we are annoyed; let us
understand that this census is very useful for us; that if this is not
cure, it is at least an effort to study the disease, for which we should
be thankful; that we must seize this occasion, and, in connection with
it, we must seek to recover our health, in some small degree. Let all of
us, then, who are connected with the census, endeavor to take advantage
of this solitary opportunity in ten years to purify ourselves somewhat;
let us not strive against, but assist the census, and assist it
especially in this sense, that it may not have merely the harsh character
of the investigation of a hopelessly sick person, but may have the
character of healing and restoration to health. For the occasion is
unique: eighty energetic, cultivated men, having under their orders two
thousand young men of the same stamp, are to make their way over the
whole of Moscow, and not leave a single man in Moscow with whom they have
not entered into personal relations. All the wounds of society, the
wounds of poverty, of vice, of ignorance - all will be laid bare. Is
there not something re-assuring in this? The census-takers will go about
Moscow, they will set down in their lists, without distinction, those
insolent with prosperity, the satisfied, the calm, those who are on the
way to ruin, and those who are ruined, and the curtain will fall. The
census-takers, our sons and brothers, these young men will behold all
this. They will say: "Yes, our life is very terrible and incurable," and
with this admission they will live on like the rest of us, awaiting a
remedy for the evil from this or that extraneous force. But those who
are perishing will go on dying, in their ruin, and those on the road to
ruin will continue in their course. No, let us rather grasp the idea
that science has its task, and that we, on the occasion of this census,
have our task, and let us not allow the curtain once lifted to be
dropped, but let us profit by the opportunity in order to remove the
immense evil of the separation existing between us and the poor, and to
establish intercourse and the work of redressing the evil of unhappiness
and ignorance, and our still greater misfortune, - the indifference and
aimlessness of our life.

I already hear the customary remark: "All this is very fine, these are
sounding phrases; but do you tell us what to do and how to do it?" Before
I say what is to be done, it is indispensable that I should say what is
not to be done. It is indispensable, first of all, in my opinion, in
order that something practical may come of this activity, that no society
should be formed, that there should be no publicity, that there should be
no collection of money by balls, bazaars or theatres; that there should
be no announcement that Prince A. has contributed one thousand rubles,
and the honorable citizen B. three thousand; that there shall be no
collection, no calling to account, no writing up, - most of all, no
writing up, so that there may not be the least shadow of any institution,
either governmental or philanthropic.

But in my opinion, this is what should be done instantly: Firstly, All
those who agree with me should go to the directors, and ask for their
shares the poorest sections, the poorest dwellings; and in company with
the census-takers, twenty-three, twenty-four or twenty-five in number,
they should go to these quarters, enter into relations with the people
who are in need of assistance, and labor for them.

Secondly: We should direct the attention of the superintendents and
census-takers to the inhabitants in need of assistance, and work for them
personally, and point them out to those who wish to work over them. But
I am asked: What do you mean by _working over them_? I reply; Doing good
to people. The words "doing good" are usually understood to mean, giving
money. But, in my opinion, doing good and giving money are not only not
the same thing, but two different and generally opposite things. Money,
in itself, is evil. And therefore he who gives money gives evil. This
error of thinking that the giving of money means doing good, arose from
the fact, that generally, when a man does good, he frees himself from
evil, and from money among other evils. And therefore, to give money is
only a sign that a man is beginning to rid himself of evil. To do good,
signifies to do that which is good for man. But, in order to know what
is good for man, it is necessary to be on humane, i.e., on friendly terms
with him. And therefore, in order to do good, it is not money that is
necessary, but, first of all, a capacity for detaching ourselves, for a
time at least, from the conditions of our own life. It is necessary that
we should not be afraid to soil our boots and clothing, that we should
not fear lice and bedbugs, that we should not fear typhus fever,
diphtheria, and small-pox. It is necessary that we should be in a
condition to seat ourselves by the bunk of a tatterdemalion and converse
earnestly with him in such a manner, that he may feel that the man who is
talking with him respects and loves him, and is not putting on airs and
admiring himself. And in order that this may be so, it is necessary that
a man should find the meaning of life outside himself. This is what is
requisite in order that good should be done, and this is what it is
difficult to find.

When the idea of assisting through the medium of the census occurred to
me, I discussed the matter with divers of the wealthy, and I saw how glad
the rich were of this opportunity of decently getting rid of their money,
that extraneous sin which they cherish in their hearts. "Take three
hundred - five hundred rubles, if you like," they said to me, "but I
cannot go into those dens myself." There was no lack of money. Remember
Zaccheus, the chief of the Publicans in the Gospel. Remember how he,
because he was small of stature, climbed into a tree to see Christ, and
how when Christ announced that he was going to his house, having
understood but one thing, that the Master did not approve of riches, he
leaped headlong from the tree, ran home and arranged his feast. And how,
as soon as Christ entered, Zaccheus instantly declared that he gave the
half of his goods to the poor, and if he had wronged any man, to him he
would restore fourfold. And remember how all of us, when we read the
Gospel, set but little store on this Zaccheus, and involuntarily look
with scorn on this half of his goods, and fourfold restitution. And our
feeling is correct. Zaccheus, according to his lights, performed a great
deed. He had not even begun to do good. He had only begun in some small
measure to purify himself from evil, and so Christ told him.

He merely said to him: "To-day is salvation come nigh unto this house."

What if the Moscow Zaccheuses were to do the same that he did? Assuredly,
more than one milliard could be collected. Well, and what of that?
Nothing. There would be still greater sin if we were to think of
distributing this money among the poor. Money is not needed. What is
needed is self-sacrificing action; what is needed are people who would
like to do good, not by giving extraneous sin-money, but by giving their
own labor, themselves, their lives. Where are such people to be found?
Here they are, walking about Moscow. They are the student enumerators. I
have seen how they write out their charts. The student writes in the
night lodging-house, by the bedside of a sick man. "What is your
disease?" - "Small-pox." And the student does not make a wry face, but
proceeds with his writing. And this he does for the sake of some
doubtful science. What would he do if he were doing it for the sake of
his own undoubted good and the good of others?

When children, in merry mood, feel a desire to laugh, they never think of
devising some reason for laughter, but they laugh without any reason,
because they are gay; and thus these charming youths sacrifice
themselves. They have not, as yet, contrived to devise any means of
sacrificing themselves, but they devote their attention, their labor,
their lives, in order to write out a chart, from which something does or
does not appear. What would it be if this labor were something really
worth their while? There is and there always will be labor of this sort,
which is worthy of the devotion of a whole life, whatever the man's life
may be. This labor is the loving intercourse of man with man, and the
breaking-down of the barriers which men have erected between themselves,
so that the enjoyment of the rich man may not be disturbed by the wild
howls of the men who are reverting to beasts, and by the groans of
helpless hunger, cold and disease.

This census will place before the eyes of us well-to-do and so-called
cultivated people, all the poverty and oppression which is lurking in
every corner of Moscow. Two thousand of our brothers, who stand on the
highest rung of the ladder, will come face to face with thousands of
people who stand on the lowest round of society. Let us not miss this
opportunity of communion. Let us, through these two thousand men,
preserve this communion, and let us make use of it to free ourselves from
the aimlessness and the deformity of our lives, and to free the condemned
from that indigence and misery which do not allow the sensitive people in
our ranks to enjoy our good fortune in peace.

This is what I propose: (1) That all our directors and enumerators should
join to their business of the census a task of assistance, - of work in
the interest of the good of these people, who, in our opinion, are in
need of assistance, and with whom we shall come in contact; (2) That all
of us, directors and enumerators, not by appointment of the committee of
the City Council, but by the appointment of our own hearts, shall remain
in our posts, - that is, in our relations to the inhabitants of the town
who are in need of assistance, - and that, at the conclusion of the work
of the census, we shall continue our work of aid. If I have succeeded in
any degree in expressing what I feel, I am sure that the only
impossibility will be getting the directors and enumerators to abandon
this, and that others will present themselves in the places of those who
leave; (3) That we should collect all those inhabitants of Moscow, who
feel themselves fit to work for the needy, into sections, and begin our
activity now, in accordance with the hints of the census-takers and
directors, and afterwards carry it on; (4) That all who, on account of
age, weakness, or other causes, cannot give their personal labor among
the needy, shall intrust the task to their young, strong, and willing
relatives. (Good consists not in the giving of money, it consists in the
loving intercourse of men. This alone is needed.)

Whatever may be the outcome of this, any thing will be better than the
present state of things.

Then let the final act of our enumerators and directors be to distribute
a hundred twenty-kopek pieces to those who have no food; and this will be
not a little, not so much because the hungry will have food, but because
the directors and enumerators will conduct themselves in a humane manner
towards a hundred poor people. How are we to compute the possible
results which will accrue to the balance of public morality from the fact
that, instead of the sentiments of irritation, anger, and envy which we
arouse by reckoning the hungry, we shall awaken in a hundred instances a
sentiment of good, which will be communicated to a second and a third,
and an endless wave which will thus be set in motion and flow between
men? And this is a great deal. Let those of the two thousand
enumerators who have never comprehended this before, come to understand
that, when going about among the poor, it is impossible to say, "This is
very interesting;" that a man should not express himself with regard to
another man's wretchedness by interest only; and this will be a good
thing. Then let assistance be rendered to all those unfortunates, of
whom there are not so many as I at first supposed in Moscow, who can
easily be helped by money alone to a great extent. Then let those
laborers who have come to Moscow and have eaten their very clothing from
their backs, and who cannot return to the country, be despatched to their
homes; let the abandoned orphans receive supervision; let feeble old men
and indigent old women, who subsist on the charity of their companions,
be released from their half-famished and dying condition. (And this is
very possible. There are not very many of them.) And this will also be
a very, very great deal accomplished. But why not think and hope that
more and yet more will be done? Why not expect that that real task will
be partially carried out, or at least begun, which is effected, not by
money, but by labor; that weak drunkards who have lost their health,
unlucky thieves, and prostitutes who are still capable of reformation,
should be saved? All evil may not be exterminated, but there will arise
some understanding of it, and the contest with it will not be police
methods, but by inward modes, - by the brotherly intercourse of the men
who perceive the evil, with the men who do not perceive it because they
are a part of it.

No matter what may be accomplished, it will be a great deal. But why not
hope that every thing will be accomplished? Why not hope that we shall
accomplish thus much, that there shall not exist in Moscow a single
person in want of clothing, a single hungry person, a single human being
sold for money, nor a single individual oppressed by the judgment of man,
who shall not know that there is fraternal aid for him? It is not
surprising that this should not be so, but it is surprising that this
should exist side by side with our superfluous leisure and wealth, and
that we can live on composedly, knowing that these things are so. Let us
forget that in great cities and in London, there is a proletariat, and
let us not say that so it must needs be. It need not be this, and it
should not, for this is contrary to our reason and our heart, and it
cannot be if we are living people. Why not hope that we shall come to
understand that there is not a single duty incumbent upon us, not to
mention personal duty, for ourselves, nor our family, nor social, nor
governmental, nor scientific, which is more weighty than this? Why not
think that we shall at last come to apprehend this? Only because to do
so would be too great a happiness. Why not hope that some the people
will wake up, and will comprehend that every thing else is a delusion,
but that this is the only work in life? And why should not this "some
time" be now, and in Moscow? Why not hope that the same thing may happen
in society and humanity which suddenly takes place in a diseased
organism, when the moment of convalescence suddenly sets in? The
organism is diseased this means, that the cells cease to perform their
mysterious functions; some die, others become infected, others still
remain in perfect condition, and work on by themselves. But all of a
sudden the moment comes when every living cell enters upon an independent
and healthy activity: it crowds out the dead cells, encloses the infected
ones in a living wall, it communicates life to that which was lifeless;
and the body is restored, and lives with new life.

Why should we not think and expect that the cells of our society will
acquire fresh life and re-invigorate the organism? We know not in what
the power of the cells consists, but we do know that our life is in our
own power. We can show forth the light that is in us, or we may
extinguish it.

Let one man approach the Lyapinsky house in the dusk, when a thousand
persons, naked and hungry, are waiting in the bitter cold for admission,
and let that one man attempt to help, and his heart will ache till it
bleeds, and he will flee thence with despair and anger against men; but
let a thousand men approach that other thousand with a desire to help,

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