Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

GORKY: Chelkash (Virtue and Freedom)

In our last reading Adam Smith (Intro GB1) claimed “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another… is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals.”  This tendency is deeply ingrained.  Whether we live in Scotland or America or Russia it’s common for people to ask what we do for a living.  In this Russian story by Gorky a young country bumpkin named Gavrilla drifts into a port city and meets a streetwise older man named Chelkash.  Gavrilla asks, “‘What are you, a cobbler, or a tailor, or what?’  ‘Me?’ Chelkash mused awhile and then said: ‘I’m a fisherman.’”  Chelkash is not, in fact, a fisherman.  He has another occupation.  Human beings may have an inclination to “truck, barter, and exchange” goods and services.  But some human beings have a strong inclination to engage in another occupation: stealing (which gives a special twist to the term “free market”).  Chelkash is a professional thief.  And he’s a very good one.  Two questions come to mind for this story.  Can a thief be a virtuous man?  Do we choose our occupations and lifestyles or do they choose us?

Let’s consider the social and economic conditions these two characters lived in.  “‘Here’s what I’m up against,’ (said Gavrilla). ‘My father died without leaving anything much, my mother’s old, the land’s sucked dry.  What am I supposed to do?  I’ve got to go on living, but how?’”  Most young men at some point walk in Gavrilla’s shoes and ask the same question.  What am I supposed to do?  How am I going to earn a living?  These are important questions because the answers determine the options for navigating through life.  A person’s occupation isn’t the only factor in living a good life but it’s an extremely important one.  In Adam Smith’s mind a philosopher isn’t much different (considered strictly as a human being) from a “common street porter.”  But a man who teaches Plato and Aristotle at a university surely has more options than a man who loads and unloads luggage for a living.  What options does Gavrilla have in this story?  He can load and unload freight on the docks; which is hard work for low wages.  Or he can become a thief like Chelkash; dangerous work for high wages.  Or he can go back home.

What should Gavrilla do?  Could Great Books help him?  Here are three samples from earlier readings.  William James (Intro GB1) wrote “A man’s fame, good or bad, and his honor or dishonor are names for one of his social selves… What may be called ‘club-opinion’ is one of the very strongest forces in life.  The thief must not steal from other thieves.”  This would have been useful information for Gavrilla after a heist.  It’s ok for Chelkash to steal from other people; but it’s not ok for Gavrilla to steal from Chelkash.  Socrates would have a field day with this notion of honor among thieves.  He would ask what kind of virtue is this.  In The Republic (GB5) he said most people want more than they really need and that’s when a small community with simple needs starts running into trouble.  What does Gavrilla really need?  Adam Smith (Intro GB1) gave this formula for people to get the things they really do need: “you give me that which I want and I’ll give you this which you want.”  The trouble begins when that simple formula is changed to a worse one: give me that which I want or I’ll either take it from you or kill you.  The Athenians used this tactic to get what they wanted from the Melians (Intro GB1).

Short summary.  A young man comes to town looking to improve the limited “social self” options he had back home on the farm.  In town has a chance to make money; big money.  He can get rich.  But to get it he has to abandon his core values and his good and simple life.  He'll never be the same and he’ll never be able to go back “home” again.  Is it worth it?  No one can answer that question but Gavrilla; not even Great Books can tell Gavrilla what kind of man he is.


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