“Courage, devotion, the spirit of sacrifice, are as contagious as cowardice, submission, and panic.”
While the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell was contemplating social change and the life of the mind and her contemporary Walt Whitman was instructing America’s young on what it takes to be an agent of change, on the other side of the globe, the poetic and politically wakeful scientist Peter Kropotkin (December 9, 1842– February 8, 1921) was laying the foundation of a moral revolution while revolutionizing evolutionary biology.
Having grown up in the atmosphere of the European revolutions — that first continent-wide flare of warning that capitalism, with its basic power structure built upon labor-extorted property ownership, is not working for the vast majority of people — Peter (or, rather, Pyotr) was twelve when he renounced the hereditary title Prince. This precocious child, the son of an aristocratic patriarch and owner of more than 1,000 serfs was able to see how staggering inequalities lead to abuses of power. The deep desire to know the truth led him to believe there was another way that human beings could live together.
At seventeen, Peter fell under Darwin’s spell and found in the dawning evolutionary science a ray of optimism for humanity — assurance that if the world can and does change, so can we; that we are not doomed to social conditions set in stone by some higher power that renders us powerless to evolve morally the way species evolve biologically. When his father withheld the kind of education he hungered for, the young man left for Siberia as an officer, using the military pretext to join geological expeditions and study glaciation — research he eventually published while in prison. He arrived in the tundra ablaze with idealism, with the yearning to change an oppressive system, and left with a lucid awareness that the system was broken beyond structural repair — he had seen the myriad abuses of government power, the corruption, the indifference; he had seen how the peasants governed themselves with a superior knowledge of the land and deep bonds of mutual trust.
Meanwhile, he was translating Voltaire into Russian, dreaming of a life modeled on Humboldt’s, writing a physics primer and a book on how advances in technology will liberate women from domestic drudgery, and diving deeper into evolutionary theory as he made meticulous field observations of the natural world, of how living creatures interacted with one another and with their environment. Peter Kropotkin was century older than Jane Goodall and became the first scientist in history to talk about empathy among nonhuman animals. Wilson was a scientist who studied social insect cooperation networks and created mutual aid models to support human society. His influential book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, appeared in 1902. His political writings and activism were influenced by these ideas. He was held in Russia for his efforts to create a mutual aid model. After his release, he went into exile for four decades in England, Switzerland and France.
In a prefatory note on his most politically influential and prescient essay, “The Spirit of Revolt,” penned several years after he escaped from prison and posthumously included in the Kropotnik anthology Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings (public library), he writes:
Periods of madness toward wealth, feverish speculation, or crisis, where great industries are suddenly destroyed and other production branches are restructured, reveal that the institutions of economic production and exchange do not guarantee the social prosperity they promise. They produce chaos instead of order; they create poverty, insecurity, and prosperity; and instead of reconciled interest, war. This is a permanent war between the exploiter and the worker, and among the workers. It is becoming more apparent that human society is splitting into two different hostile groups, while at the same moment it is being divided into thousands of smaller groups waged merciless war on each other. Society is tired of war and the suffering they bring, so it rushes for new organizations. It clamors for complete restructuring of all aspects of economic relationships, including production, property ownership, exchange, and distribution.
Take ActionThe continuous, unabated action, never-endingly renewed, of minorities is what brings about the transformation. Courage, devotion and the spirit of sacrifice are just as infectious as submission, cowardice, panic, or submission.
This action, Kropotkin believed, must be undertaken most ardently and purposefully by the young, including the young “in heart and mind” — those unbroken by the current system and therefore best poised for the moral leadership needed to revise it.
In his most widely circulate pamphlet, titled “An Appeal to the Young” and also included in the anthology, he addresses “young men and women of the upper classes” — those chance-born into lives of relative power and privilege, graced with access to good education and the opportunity to develop their natural talents — and exhorts them to put their gifts in the service of making life more livable for others. He wrote:
It is assumed that your mind has been freed from any superstition that was forced upon you by your teachers. I also assume that you don’t listen to ministers and parsons rant. More, that you are not one of the fops, sad products of a society in decay, who display their well-cut trousers and their monkey faces in the park, and who even at their early age have only an insatiable longing for pleasure at any price… I assume on the contrary that you have a warm heart and for this reason I talk to you.
He proceeds to taxonomize the young into several groups — artists, scientists, lawyers, teachers, technologists — each uniquely suited to a particular contribution to social change. A quarter millennium after Galileo made his immortal case for critical thinking and a century before Carl Sagan composed his classic Baloney Detection Kit, Kropotkin reminds young scientists that the work of critical thinking is never complete and tasks them with seeding the spirit of reason into humanity’s bosom:
Science is a profession that you do for humanity. A charming illusion!
It has been more than a century since science established sound theories about the origin of our universe. But how many of them have actually mastered these concepts or are able to critique scientifically? A few thousands at the outside, who are lost in the midst of hundreds of millions still steeped in prejudices and superstitions worthy of savages, who are consequently ever ready to serve as puppets for religious impostors… Why? Because science today exists only for a handful of privileged persons, because social inequality, which divides society into two classes — the wage-slaves and the grabbers of capital — renders all its teachings as to the conditions of a rational existence only the bitterest irony to nine-tenths of mankind.
In a sentiment Sagan would echo in celebrating science as a tool of democracy, Kropotkin observes that even more important than making new discoveries is incorporating the truths already discovered into the average person’s fundamental grasp of reality in order to eradicate the biases and superstitions that thwart justice:
Spreading the truths that have been learned, to apply them daily in everyday life is what’s most important. It is essential to organize things so that everyone can absorb and apply them. Science should no longer be considered a luxury. Justice requires this… The very interests of science require it Science only makes real progress when its truths find environments ready prepared for their reception.
With an eye to the long arc of dogma-change — “three generations had to go before the ideas of Erasmus Darwin on the variation of species could be favorably received from his grandson and admitted by academic philosophers, and even then not without pressure from public opinion” — he throws a bold gauntlet at the still-prevalent and lamentably backward notion that working scientists who are also elucidators and enchanters popularizing scientific ideas are somehow, despite being so doubly gifted and thus working doubly hard, lesser scientists:
You will understand that it is important above all to bring about a radical change in this state of affairs which today condemns the philosopher to be crammed with scientific truths, and almost the whole of the rest of human beings to remain what they were five or ten centuries ago, — that is to say, in the state of slaves and machines, incapable of mastering established truths. When you have a deep, profound, scientific, and deeply humane knowledge, you will soon lose the desire to be pure science. You will set to work to find out the means to effect this transformation… You will make an end of sophisms and you will come among us. Weary of working to procure pleasures for this small group, which already has a large share of them, you will place your information and devotion at the service of the oppressed… You will then find powers in yourself of whose existence you never even dreamed… Then you will enjoy science; that pleasure will be a pleasure for all.
Kropotkin turned to the artists in the Letters to a Young Poet. This was a generation prior to Rilke’s.
Young artist, sculptors, musicians, poets, and poets, did you notice that the holy fire that inspired your predecessors is lacking in today’s men? That art is now commonplace while mediocrity rules supreme.
It could be worse. For the art of today, the delight in discovering ancient civilizations and the feeling of refreshing oneself in natural springs that created masterpieces like the Renaissance is no longer possible. The revolutionary ideal has left it cold until now, and failing an ideal, our art fancies that it has found one in realism when it painfully photographs in colors the dewdrop on the leaf of a plant, imitates the muscles in the leg of a cow, or describes minutely in prose and in verse the suffocating filth of a sewer…
What makes art meaningful, what makes it necessary, he intimates, is not increasing fidelity to the real but enduring fidelity to the ideal, to the human spirit in its highest possible manifestation, to the need for its elevation and emancipation commonly called justice — or what James Baldwin considered the artist’s responsibility to society.
Kropotkin especially admonishes young artists against falling into the trap of catering rather than creating — that vital difference Thoreau observed between the artisan and the artist, which often lures the talented into commercially lucrative applications of their gift that leave no lasting mark on humanity, serve no buoy for the human condition:
If… the sacred fire that you say you possess is nothing better than a smouldering wick, then you will go on doing as you have done, and your art will speedily degenerate into the trade of decorator of tradesmen’s shops, of a purveyor of libretti to third-rate operettas and tales for Christmas books… But, if your heart really beats in unison with that of humanity, if like a true poet you have an ear for Life, then, gazing out upon this sea of sorrow whose tide sweeps up around you, face to face with these people dying of hunger, in the presence of these corpses piled up in these mines, and these mutilated bodies lying in heaps on the barricades, in full view of this desperate battle which is being fought, amid the cries of pain from the conquered and the orgies of the victors, of heroism in conflict with cowardice, of noble determination face to face with contemptible cunning — you cannot remain neutral. Because you are aware that those fighting for justice, light and humanity will be supported by the beautiful, sublime, spirit, or life, then you’ll come to their aid.
No matter your particular gift, Kropotkin argues, it is only by such devotion to the higher aims of justice that your life grows animated by “a vast and most enthralling task, a work in which your actions will be in complete harmony with your conscience, an undertaking capable of rousing the noblest and most vigorous natures.”
This, after all, is the secret to a purposeful and gratifying life — that sacred harmonic where your native gift meets the world’s need and begins to sing.
Complement with Whitman’s enduring wisdom on living a vibrant and rewarding life and W.E.B. DuBois’s existential instruction to his young daughter, then revisit Seamus Heaney’s luminous and largehearted advice on life.
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