While disapproving altogether of punishment, Tolstoy admits that the habit of punishing was so
ingrained in him and his associates that they indulged in it once or twice, but the result was to
confirm him in the opinion that it was a mistake.
He gives one instance. A Leyden jar disappeared from the laboratory. Pencils and books began to
vanish. The best boys in the school blushed and stammered when questioned about it as if they
had been guilty, but it was only the idea of being suspected that affected them thus. At last the
culprits were discovered; two boys from a neighbouring village, who had hidden their booty in a
small box. The disclosure gave great satisfaction to the school, removing suspicion, as it did, from
the other pupils.
It was decided to submit the question of the kind of punishment to the boys. Some suggested
whipping, and asked to be permitted to do the whipping themselves. Others advised placing a
placard bearing the word "thief" on each of the guilty pair. The latter course was adopted, and a
little girl was called in to sew the obnoxious word upon their coats. The rest of the boys looked
on with malicious glee, mocking at the two transgressors, and begged that they might be led
through the village and carry the placard until the next holiday.
The two boys cried bitterly, and one of them cast wicked and savage glances at his exulting
comrades. As he went home, with his head bent down and eyes on the ground, and, as it seemed
to Tolstoy, with the gait of a criminal, the children followed in a crowd and tormented him so
cruelly and unnaturally that they appeared to be possessed by a devil.
From that time forth Tolstoy noticed that this boy became less studious; and ceased to take part in
the games of the other boys. Not long after he stole again, this time some coppers from one of the
masters. Once more the placard was fastened upon him, and the same brutal scenes were
reenacted. "I lectured him," says Tolstoy, "as schoolmasters are wont. A big boy who stood by
began to lecture him, too, repeating phrases which he had undoubtedly heard from his father, a
"'He has stolen once, he has stolen twice,' said he, sententiously. 'He will get into the habit of
stealing. What will not the love of gain push him to?'
"This annoyed me. I was irritated with the young prig. I looked at the face of the accused. As I
saw him, paler, sadder, more untamed than before, I thought of felons in prison, I don't know
why, and I tore the placard from his clothes and told him to go where he pleased, for I suddenly
became conscious that the whole thing was wrong. I felt all at once, not in my intellect, but
through my whole being, that I had no right to torture this poor child, and that I could not mould
him as we wished to -- I and the janitor's son. I felt that there are secrets of the soul which we
cannot pierce and which life alone can change, and not reproaches and punishments.
"How stupid it all is! The child has stolen a book; by a long and complicated series of ideas,
thoughts and false arguments, he has been led to take a book; he does not know why he has shut
it up in his box -- and I fasten a placard upon him with the word 'thief' on it, which means quite a
different thing. What good will it do? Punish him by shame, you will say. Punish him by shame?
To what end? Do we know that shame destroys the inclination to steal? Perhaps, on the contrary,
it stimulates it. Perhaps it was not shame that was expressed on his face. Indeed, I am quite sure
that it was not shame, but something else which might have slept for ever in his soul and which
ought not to have been aroused.
"In the world which calls itself practical, the world of the Palmerstons and Cains, (1) the world
which holds for reasonable not that which is reasonable but that which is practical -- there, in that
world, let the people arrogate to themselves the right of duty and punishing. But our world of
children, of beings simple and frank, should be kept free from falsehood and from this criminal
belief in the propriety of chastisement, from this theory that vengeance is just, as soon as we call it
It remains for other teachers to verify in their experience this deduction which Tolstoy has drawn
from his. In the case which he cites he believes that the punishment inflicted had no tendency to
correct the boy, but made him clearly worse than he had been, and at the same time stirred up the
evil passions and latent meanness of the rest of the school.
1. It should be remembered that Tolstoy wrote this in the early sixties.