Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

CHEKHOV: In Exile (Freedom and Happiness)

In Plato’s Apology (GB1) Socrates is convicted by a jury of Athenian citizens.  Then he’s given a choice between being exiled from Athens or receiving the death penalty.  “Would it not be possible for you to live in exile, Socrates, if you were silent and kept quiet?”  Socrates says no.  He will not accept exile and silence because “the unexamined life is not for man worth living.”  Is exile such a terrible punishment?  Chekhov’s short story In Exile gives flesh and blood to that question.  A Tartar recently exiled to Siberia sums it up best when he says “Bad!  Bad!  Surveying the landscape with dismay.”  “You’ll get used to it,” responds the old-timer Semyon.  “This is no paradise, of course.  You can see for yourself; water, bare banks, nothing but clay wherever you look…but the time will come when you’ll say to yourself: may God give everyone such a life.”  It may be significant that Semyon’s nickname is “Preacher.”  In Ecclesiastes (GB5) King Solomon is also called The Preacher.  And the wisdom taught by The Preacher is to find out from personal experience that “all is vanity (worthless, pointless).”  Is that true? 

In Siberia this is not just an abstract question.  Put another way: what makes life worth living, even in Siberia?  Semyon doesn’t have a problem with it.  He bluntly says “even in Siberia people can live.”  Maybe people can live there (although survive might be a more appropriate term).  But what the Tartar wants to know is, can people be happy there?  Aristotle answers this question quite nicely in his essay On Happiness (GB1).  The short answer is, no.  Semyon the Preacher says “I want nothing!  No father, no mother, no wife, no freedom, no house nor home!”  That may be good Stoic philosophy but it’s not Aristotle’s philosophy.  For Aristotle the key to happiness is not to want nothing, it’s to want the right things in the right way.  And he would call Semyon a “tribeless, lawless, hearthless one.”  This is no way to live, much less live the good life Aristotle has in mind.  On the other hand, Semyon may have a point.  They’re out in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do and plenty of time to do it in.  They’re barely one step above the raw state of nature described by Aristotle, Hobbes and Locke.  To get any meaning out of life these exiles must pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  One gentleman named Vasily Sergeich put it this way, “I want to live by my own labor, in the sweat of my brow, because I’m no longer a gentleman, but an exile.”  Ironically The Preacher in Ecclesiastes sums up his long quest for wisdom with this homely advice: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.”  There doesn’t seem to be any work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in Siberia.  And what Semyon said may be true.  Siberia is no paradise.  But that doesn’t prevent Sergeich from trying to improve his life.  Sergeich’s response to the harsh Siberian exile is this: “Yes, Semyon, even in Siberia people can live.  Even in Siberia there is happiness.  Look, see what a daughter I’ve got!”  Semyon agrees she’s a fine young lady “But I think to myself…she withered and withered and wasted away, fell ill; and now she’s completely worn out.  Consumption.  That’s your Siberian happiness for you.  That’s how people can live in Siberia!”

Chekhov’s story uses the theme of Siberian exile to present two stark approaches to freedom.  John Locke said we give up freedom in a state of nature for the more restricted, but more secure, freedom of living in a political community.  Chekhov presents the opposite situation.  Semyon and Sergeich are driven out of their political community back into the state of nature in Siberia.  The only freedom they have left is the freedom to choose how they face adversity.  Semyon chooses resignation; to want nothing.  Sergeich tries to rebuild his family as a small community in the wilderness.  In Chekhov’s world freedom and happiness are both in short supply.      


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