The Wisdom of Anton Chekhov

Dernière mise à jour : 12 janv. 2021

"In his novel Life and Fate Vasily Grossman has one of his characters say that "Chekhov is the bearer of the greatest banner that has been raised in the thousand years of Russian history — the banner of a true, humane, Russian democracy, of Russian freedom, of the dignity of the Russian man.” (...) His life demonstrates that to be wise one does not have to be old. The writer Maxim Gorky, who knew Chekhov in his final years, wrote of his “wise smile” and attempted to capture his approach to his fellow Russians in the following image:

“In front of that dreary crowd of helpless people, there passed a great, wise, and observant man; he looked at all these dreary inhabitants of his country, and, with a sad smile, with a tone of gentle but deep reproach, with anguish in his face and in his heart, in a beautiful and sincere voice, he said to them: "You live badly, my friends. It is shameful to live like that.

Chekhov himself said in 1902 that when people realized how badly they lived, they would “create another and better life for themselves. I will not live to see it, but I know that it will be quite different, quite unlike our present life. And so long as this different life does not exist, I shall go on saying to people again and again, 'Please, understand that your life is bad and dreary !'”

Thus, his implied criticism stemmed from his compassion. Commenting on his social and humanitarian activities, one scholar wrote that “his life was one continuous round of alleviating famine, fighting epidemics, building schools and public roads, endowing libraries, helping organize marine biology libraries, giving thousands of needy peasants free medical treatment, planting gardens, helping fledgling writers get published, raising funds for worthwhile causes, and hundreds of other pursuits designed to help his fellow man and improve the general quality of life around him.”

Unlike some Russian intellectuals of his time, Chekhov possessed a practical wisdom that enabled him to care for those he loved and to help others. (...) His love of goodness, beauty, and truth, all of which wise people attempt to integrate into their lives, shines through his works. Other wisdom characteristics he manifested were humility, tolerance, self-­discipline, creativity, appreciation of both the comic and tragic aspects of existence,

and hopes for the earth and the people who inhabit it now and in the future.


Chekhov's letters reveal much about his life. Shortly before leaving Taganrog, he wrote to his younger brother Mikhail :

« One thing I don't like: why do you style yourself 'your worthless and insignificant brother' ? You recognize your insignificance ? . . . Recognize it before God ; perhaps, too, in the presence of beauty, intelligence, nature, but not before men. Among men you must be conscious of your dignity. Why, you are not a rascal, you are an honest man, aren't you ? Well, respect yourself as an honest man and know that an honest man is not something worthless. Don't confound “being humble” with 'recognizing one's worthlessness.' . . .
It is a good thing that you read. Acquire the habit of doing so. In time you will come to value that habit. Read “Don Quixote.” It is a fine thing. It is by Cervantes, who is said to be almost on a level with Shakespeare. I advise my brothers to read — if they haven't already done so — Turgenev's "Hamlet and Don Quixote."»

Thus, before age twenty, Chekhov had already acquired a sense of the importance of personal dignity and honesty. He also was beginning to display enough maturity so that even though he was only the third oldest child he would soon become the most responsible member of his family, his two older brothers being especially irresponsible and often drinking too much. (...)

He wrote to his older brother Nikolai a letter that reveals more about the necessity of maturing toward a more cultured approach to life :

« You have only one failing . . . . That is your utter lack of culture. . . .

Cultured people must, in my opinion, satisfy the following conditions :

1. They respect human personality, and therefore they are always kind, gentle, polite, and ready to give in to others. . . .

2. They have sympathy not for beggars and cats alone. . . .

3. They respect the property of others, and therefore pay their debts.

4. They are sincere, and dread lying like fire. . . .

5. They do not disparage themselves to rouse compassion. . . .

6. They have no shallow vanity. They do not care for such false diamonds as knowing celebrities. . .

7. If they have a talent they respect it. They sacrifice to it rest, women, wine, vanity. . . .

8. They develop the aesthetic feeling in themselves. (....)»

Chekhov viewed the maturing of his siblings and himself as requiring a constant effort

to overcome the limitations of the subculture in which they had been raised in order to become more cultured individuals. In an 1889 letter that he wrote to Suvorin, we can

see what he felt about his own maturing process :

« In addition to plenty of material and talent, one wants something else which is no less important. One wants to be mature — that is one thing; and for another the feeling of personal freedom is essential, and that feeling has only recently begun to develop in me. I used not to have it before ; its place was successfully filled by my frivolity, carelessness, and lack of respect for my work.