When we think of great philosophical prose writers, we typically think of Plato or Montaigne or Nietzsche. We rarely think of great literary novelists or short-story writers. But now I firmly believe that when a literary artist writes at his philosophical best, he writes a lot like Chekhov in Ward No. 6.
Unlike Plato, Chekhov is a master not only of dialogue and characterization but of setting, as well. Because of the dialogical form of Plato’s art/philosophy, the settings for his enactments invariably retreat into the background, if they appear at all.
Take The Republic, for instance, a glorious masterpiece about justice and the souls of people, of families and institutions, and of poleis and nation-states. The dialogue opens at the Piraeus, but beyond that we don’t know much about local conditions, whether it’s cool and mild or warm and hot. We don’t know if it rained earlier this morning or is likely to rain tomorrow, or the next day. Is there a cloud in the sky? Are shadows creeping across the city? Is the wind picking up? What does the air taste like, close as it is to the harbor? Where are the city’s streams and trees and birds?
We don’t know; Plato doesn’t tell us.
A climate, a soil, an ecology is missing in The Republic. Which is odd, isn’t it? I mean, Plato is so careful to observe characterological consistency and plausibility. Thrasymachus, in part, makes the kind of argument he does because of the kind of man he is. And Thrasymachus, in part, is the kind of man he is because of the ecology of which he’s a part. As ideas are rooted in minds, so minds are rooted in a place. Metaphysical platonism has no soil. (You’re welcome, you philosophy student in search of a thesis, you.)
Chekhov, on the other hand, gives us an environment, one that is bitterly cold and harsh. The yard leading up to Ward No. 6 is overgrown with thistle, and “only traces are left of the stucco,” from short care and long winters. The ceiling is stained with soot from a belching winter stove. Piles of garbage are “moldering and giving out a sickly smell.” And men wear “great coats with upturned collars” and dream of “a warm snug study.”
By carefully establishing his setting, Chekhov evokes a brutal environment so he can show the inadequacy of a mind whose idea of life and suffering is at odds with the world.
Chekhov succeeds brilliantly.