Read Anton Chekhov’s Rules That ‘Civilized People Ought to Satisfy’ in a Letter to His Brother
As the man who considered medicine his “lawful wife,” and literature his mistress, Russian author Anton Chekhov remains once of the most important and influential voices in modern writing. And as one of his many admirers, master of short stories himself, Raymond Carver once noted:
Chekhov’s stories are as wonderful (and necessary) now as when they first appeared. It is not only the immense number of stories he wrote—for few, if any, writers have ever done more—it is the awesome frequency with which he produced masterpieces, stories that shrive us as well as delight and move us, that lay bare our emotions in ways only true art can accomplish.
But at the early age of 26, Chekov found himself dealing with the troubles of his brother Nikolai, whom he felt was swiftly slipping away into alcoholism. As a painter and writer, Nikolai’s gifts were being thrown away into a haze in which Chekov desperately wanted to pull him out of. “You’re no riddle to me, and it is also true that you can be wildly ridiculous,” he wrote in a letter to Nikolai, going on to say:
You’re nothing but an ordinary mortal, and we mortals are enigmatic only when we’re stupid, and we’re ridiculous forty-eight weeks of the year. Isn’t that so?
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.
And thanks to Letters of Note, we can read the entire touching letter in which Chekov tries to “knock some sense” into his brother, also including his own eight rules that “ civilized people ought to satisfy” and reminding him that “every hour is precious.”
1. They respect the individual and are therefore always indulgent, gentle, polite and compliant. They do not throw a tantrum over a hammer or a lost eraser. When they move in with somebody, they do not act as if they were doing him a favor, and when they move out, they do not say, “How can anyone live with you!” They excuse noise and cold and overdone meat and witticisms and the presence of others in their homes.
4. They are candid and fear lies like the plague. They do not lie even about the most trivial matters. A lie insults the listener and debases him in the liar’s eyes. They don’t put on airs, they behave in the street as they do at home, and they do not try to dazzle their inferiors. They 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.
8. They cultivate their aesthetic sensibilities. 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… What they look for in a woman is not a bed partner or horse sweat, […] not the kind of intelligence that expresses itself in the ability to stage a fake pregnancy and tirelessly reel off lies. They—and especially the artists among them—require spontaneity, elegance, compassion, a woman who will be a mother… They don’t guzzle vodka on any old occasion, nor do they go around sniffing cupboards, for they know they are not swine. They drink only when they are free, if the opportunity happens to present itself. For they require a mens sana in corpore sano.
Read the letter in full HERE.