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. The son of an aristocratic patriarch who owned more than a thousand serfs, this precocious boy saw early and clearly how such staggering inequality foments abuses of power and feeds the worst of the human soul. He felt there must be another way for human beings to live together, felt a deep calling to find it.
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. A century before Jane Goodall, Peter Kropotkin became the first scientist to speak of empathy among non-human animals and to insist, an epoch ahead of Lewis Thomas, that empathic altruism is our natural condition; a century before E.O. Wilson, he studied the extraordinary cooperation networks of social insects and drew from them mutual aid models for human society, culminating in his widely influential 1902 book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. These ideas came to permeate his political writings and activism, for which he was imprisoned in Russia and which, upon his escape, sent him into a four-decade exile in England, Switzerland, and France (where he was also imprisoned).
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:
In periods of frenzied haste toward wealth, of feverish speculation and of crisis, of the sudden downfall of great industries and the ephemeral expansion of other branches of production, of scandalous fortunes amassed in a few years and dissipated as quickly, it becomes evident that the economic institutions which control production and exchange are far from giving to society the prosperity which they are supposed to guarantee; they produce precisely the opposite result. Instead of order they bring forth chaos; instead of prosperity, poverty and insecurity; instead of reconciled interests, war; a perpetual war of the exploiter against the worker, of exploiters and of workers among themselves. Human society is seen to be splitting more and more into two hostile camps, and at the same time to be subdividing into thousands of small groups waging merciless war against each other. Weary of these wars, weary of the miseries which they cause, society rushes to seek a new organization; it clamors loudly for a complete remodeling of the system of property ownership, of production, of exchange and all economic relations which spring from it.
Action, the continuous action, ceaselessly renewed, of minorities brings about this transformation. Courage, devotion, the spirit of sacrifice, are as contagious as cowardice, submission, and panic.
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 circulated 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 writes:
I take it for granted that you have a mind free from the superstition which your teachers have sought to force upon you; that you do not fear the devil, and that you do not go to hear parsons and ministers 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:
By working at science you mean to work for humanity, and this is the idea which will guide you in your investigations. A charming illusion!
More than a century has passed since science laid down sound propositions as to the origin of the universe, but how many have mastered them or possess the really scientific spirit of criticism? 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:
The most important thing is to spread the truths already acquired, to practice them in daily life, to make of them a common inheritance. We have to order things in such wise that all humanity may be capable of assimilating and applying them, so that science ceasing to be a luxury becomes the basis of everyday life. 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. And the day when you are imbued with wide, deep, humane, and profoundly scientific truth, that day will you lose your taste for 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.
Then, a generation before Rilke composed his Letters to a Young Poet, which remains the single finest packet of advice to artists, Kropotkin turns to the artists:
You, young artist, sculptor, painter, poet, musician, do you not observe that the sacred fire which inspired your predecessors is wanting in the men of today; that art is commonplace and mediocrity reigns supreme?
Could it be otherwise? The delight at having rediscovered the ancient world, of having bathed afresh in the springs of nature which created the masterpieces of the Renaissance no longer exists for the art of our time. 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. You will come and take the side of the oppressed because you know that the beautiful, the sublime, the spirit of life itself are on the side of those who fight for light, for humanity, for justice!
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.