“As your brother and intimate, I assure you that I understand you and sympathize with you from the bottom of my heart. I know all your good qualities like the back of my hand.”
In 1886, Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) wrote those words in a letter to his older brother, Nikolai (1858–1889). Regarded today as a master of the short story and a skilled playwright, the young Chekhov penned this letter out of concern for his brother’s alcoholism and his failure to develop his artistic and literary gifts.
The letter reflects Chekhov’s own talents for writing. He manages to be brusque, honest, humorous, caring, affectionate, and stern. He writes, for example:
“You often complain to me that people ‘don’t understand’ you. But even Goethe and Newton made no such complaints. Christ did, true, but he was talking about his doctrine, not his ego. People understand you all too well. If you don’t understand yourself, then it’s nobody else’s fault.”
Surely, we’ve all heard some friend or family member make a similar complaint.
While urging Nikolai to “smash [his] vodka bottle, lie down on the sofa and pick up a book”—he recommends Turgenev—Chekhov claims that the heart of Nikolai’s malaise and lack of success is his “extreme lack of culture.” He then lists eight marks of a civilized person, along with some examples.
The Eight Foundations
Chekhov suggests to Nikolai that if he attempts to become more cultured, his insecurities and bad habits might disappear. This proposed cure for alcoholism may strike us today as unusual and doomed to failure, but when we reflect on Chekhov’s points regarding how civilized people behave, we discover some truths. Here are the first sentences verbatim, including the numbers, of his eight-point description of civilized people.
- They respect the individual and are therefore always indulgent, gentle, polite, and compliant.
- Their compassion extends beyond beggars and cats.
- They respect the property of others and therefore pay their debts.
- They are candid and fear lies like the plague.
- They do not belittle themselves merely to arouse sympathy.
- They are not preoccupied with vain things.
- If they have talent, they respect it.
- They cultivate their aesthetic sensibilities.
With the exception of #3, Chekhov expounds on these revelations regarding the civilized. When he speaks of “aesthetic sensibilities,” for example, he extends his definition beyond the arts to acts of daily living. Of the civilized, he writes: “They cannot stand to fall asleep fully dressed, see a slit in the wall teeming with bedbugs, breathe rotten air, walk on a spittle-laden floor, or eat off a kerosene stove. They try their best to tame and ennoble their sexual instinct …”
By “vain things,” Chekhov means cavorting with celebrities, boasting of famous acquaintances, and being ostentatious in speech and manner. Regarding those who “belittle themselves merely to arouse sympathy,” he tells Nikolai that one should avoid playing on the heartstrings of others by whining or complaining, that this “is vulgar, false, and out-of-date.”
In #4, his stricture on truth-telling, Chekhov comments that civilized people “know how to keep their mouths shut, and they do not force uninvited confidences on people. Out of respect for the ears of others they are more often silent than not.”
Chekhov’s paragraph on compassion reminds Nikolai and the rest of us that concern for the welfare of others goes beyond the sentimental, that it’s more than just some fleeting emotion and instead demands obligation and response. “If for instance, Pyotr knows that his father and mother are turning gray and losing sleep over seeing their Pyotr so rarely (and seeing him drunk when he does turn up), then he rushes home to them and sends his vodka to the devil.” True compassion, Chekhov seems to say, means dumping our obsession with the self and focusing on others.
Many items in Chekhov’s list are as old as Western civilization itself. The citizens of the Roman Republic would have nodded in agreement at his warning against vulgarity and flamboyance. Medieval knights would have understood completely the idea of respecting talent, that “they sacrifice comfort, wine, women, and vanity” in order to the preserve their skills and follow their calling.
Renaissance courtiers, America’s Founders, Victorian ladies and gentlemen: the customs of these people varied widely, but the bedrock of civility upon which those customs rested can be found in Chekhov’s precepts. And like the codes followed by our distant ancestors, Chekhov’s observations on what constitutes civilized behavior go beyond a knowledge of poetry, painting, or music, or some cursory practice of etiquette.
No—as he tells his brother: “If you want to be civilized and not fall below the level of the milieu you belong to, it is not enough to read The Pickwick Papers and memorize a soliloquy from Faust. … You must work at it constantly, day and night. You must never stop reading, studying in depth, exercising your will. Every hour is precious.”
To “work at it constantly, day and night”—meaning to daily repair and maintain a civilized life—is a profound insight, one that is often overlooked not only in our rapidly changing times but also throughout history. The ancient Romans, for instance, provide an excellent example of a people whose ancient and wise foundations for survival and success, such as strong families and the rigors and duties of citizenship, were sapped over time, and the Empire crumbled and died.
Closer to our own time is World War I, a disaster with repercussions that reverberate even today, a catastrophe in part because leaders at that time did not work day and night to maintain civilization. Instead of considering the possible effects of such a war on European culture at large, monarchs and politicians focused instead on the narrower interests of their countries. The result was a conflict that forever changed both Europe and the world.
Lessons and Questions
Unfortunately, Nikolai failed to heed the warnings and encouragements of his brother’s letter. He died three years later from tuberculosis and his addiction to vodka. Anton Chekhov also died of tuberculosis at a relatively young age, but not before giving the world a satchel-full of short stories, plays, and comedic sketches.
If we consider Nikolai’s life and death—his talents as a painter, his battle with the bottle, his days spent as a tramp on the streets of Moscow—we begin to see even more clearly the wisdom in Chekhov’s letter. In part because of his addiction, Nikolai either could not or would not follow his brother’s suggestions, leading to his failure as an artist and an early death.
Chekhov’s thoughts on what it means to live as a civilized person can also act as a mirror for us, with the reflection in that glass raising certain questions.
Are we, for instance, indulgent, gentle, and polite to others? Is our compassion real or contrived—or do we withhold it for special occasions and familiar recipients? Do we pay off our debts? Are we truthful or do we deal in lies? Do we play the victim card, seeking sympathy from others? Do we respect our talents by working hard to preserve and improve them? Do we cultivate aesthetic sensibilities in how we choose to live?
And what if we ask similar questions of our culture at large? Based on Chekhov’s platform, are we a civilized people? Or will we be, like Nikolai, the agents of our own destruction?