“Eden is that old-fashioned House We dwell in every day Without suspecting our abode Until we drive away.” ~Emily Dickinson
“We shall never find / That lovely land / Of might-have-been” ~Ivor Novello
“Literature is called artistic when it depicts life as it actually is,” Anton Chekhov wrote to a friend. “A writer must be as objective as a chemist.” Chekhov saw his creations as an unadulterated, ruthless, but also poetic catalog of details. The audience might moralize, but he would not. His play, The Cherry Orchard, was meant as just such a faithful, painstaking representation of an all-too-ordinary and not particularly edifying situation in Russia before 1917: a profligate and insolvent noble family forced to sell its property, along with its eponymous cherry orchard.
In January of 1904, when Russia was poised on the brink of its first revolution, the play’s first audience would have found the whole story entirely realistic in its most minute details. By 1905, the nobility owned only 22 percent of the arable land in Russia, and one-third of that land was rented out. Like the English aristocracy of the same era, they were increasingly indebted and without the resources to keep their properties. In the play, the owners of the doomed estate, Lyuba Ranevsky and Leonid Gayev, are frivolous characters — Gayev continually rambles nonsensically and Ranevsky, though completely broke, cannot help spending her money thoughtlessly.
There is, therefore, a kind of justice in the appropriation of the estate by Yermolay Lopakhin, the once cruelly mistreated serf-boy who, through hard work, became a prosperous, successful merchant — a fictional representative of the growing Russian middle class at the end of the nineteenth century. Lopakhin proposes to save the estate by turning the cherry orchard into summer homes –— dachas — places where bourgeois urban dwellers could escape from the pollution and overcrowding of the city. At the end of the play, then, there are indeed no heroes, and no real villains, just the ordinary, cosmically trivial, yet nonetheless poignant dissolution of an ancestral home and the expulsion of its now heartbroken former owners.
The poet Andrei Bely, Chekhov’s contemporary, refused to accept The Cherry Orchard as little more than chemical analysis. Or rather, Bely contended that any depiction of “life as it really is” reveals (even if unintentionally) the symbolic essence of that reality. The most minute descriptions of the most mundane events contain moments, “like panes of glass,” that are windows to the eternal. The Cherry Orchard was, on the one hand, a banal and trivial story of the dissolution of the aristocratic class in favor of emergent capitalism. On the other hand, it had a mythical, universal quality, revealing the abyss of tragedy that eventually faces every person living: the “fearful” moment “when fate silently creeps up to its powerless victims,” a moment captured vividly at the end of the play, as the family gazes forlornly into the now empty rooms and the sound of axes laid against the cherry trees is already heard in the distance.
If we read the Cherry Orchard with Bely’s eyes, then, indeed, the play is riddled with symbols. The orchard, with its ethereal beauty and inevitable demise, is a window into the eternally lost Eden, into the ubiquitous truth of the Fall, a truth not contained by a single story in Genesis, but one perpetually revealed in seemingly mundane “moments” of everyday life. Every one of us has made fateful choices that had evil consequences, and every one of us will one day look back wistfully upon a “garden” that is no longer ours. The longer we live, the more frequently we turn to see the angel with the flaming sword barring our return to our own “orchard” — to an innocence and happiness lost forever.
The Fall, in its near continual, pervasive unfolding in our daily lives, should be as obvious to the atheist as to the believer. Everything from the laws of entropy in physics, to the struggles of the disabled child, to the reality of racial injustice reminds us, continually, that the world has fallen short of an ideal. This ideal is unique to human consciousness, an expression of a uniquely human desire for something that does not exist (for if it actually existed, it would not be an ideal). Justice, equality, and fairness remain present in their striking absences, and despite their elusive and intangible qualities we know these ideals to be an immaterial reality.
For this reason, it is the symbolic tragedy of the Cherry Orchard that points to the lost ground for the ethical.
Of philosophical treatises on ethics there is seemingly no end – whole disciplines are dedicated to the working out of practical guidelines for ethical choices in technology, biology, and environment. Contemporary culture is awash in references to justice, fairness, and equity. But it has been a very long time since the fundamental question has been asked: on what basis do we rest our modern commitment to ethics? Is ethics even possible in the modern, materialist age?
Since the Enlightenment, intellectuals have sought realistic alternatives to the traditional and religious grounding for the ethical. Such was the genesis of the philosophical “is/ought” distinction, bequeathed to us by David Hume over two centuries ago, and reworked by Immanuel Kant as a proposed basis for modern, secular ethics. In Kant’s telling, the “is” refers to the empirically perceivable world, whose laws are both predictable and discoverable. The “ought” refers to the world of duty, or morality, based entirely on reason, which provides the guide to how we should behave and think. One of Kant’s most important insights was of the barrier between the two — no matter how long one observes the empirically given world, one cannot derive from it, empirically, what ought to be. The “ought” is always categorical, regardless of empirical content, it is elucidated through the universal potential to reason found in every human being, and those who follow it do so out of moral duty, and not for the sake of material benefit.
Kant insisted on this is/ought duality as a bulwark against what he saw as the pretensions of Enlightenment science, which sought to bring the world under the empire of the laws of nature. For Kant, Enlightenment science could not touch the “ought,” which remained outside of the grip of the laws of nature, and thus preserved a realm of freedom for humanity — the liberty to do one’s duty, to choose against nature, and to act, against our own inclinations, for the moral good. It was as if Kant foresaw the peril that threatened from the rapid, voracious assimilation of all knowledge into Enlightenment science and therefore valiantly declared, as Paul Guyer has written, that “we ourselves are free agents bound only by the laws of morality and not by the deterministic laws of nature.” For Kant, not only did ethics depend on human freedom; but, perhaps more importantly, the ethical preserved the possibility of human freedom as the ability to act against nature and for the good.
As with all things Kantian, however, the radical divide between what exists and what ought to be turned out to be a double-edged sword. In the end, the Kantian distinction made it all too easy for the radical Enlightenment, the materialists and empiricists, to jettison the “ought” as abstract, ethereal, and utterly impractical. In theory, at least, the men who would become the founders of our present ethical universe – such as Jeremy Bentham, Charles Darwin, and Karl Marx — bequeathed to the modern world an entirely “realistic” guide to good and bad behavior, one could be discovered purely scientifically, through empirical observation of the world and its laws.
In his aptly titled Descent of Man, published in 1871, Darwin explicitly subordinated everything human, including art, culture, and morality, to the theory of selection and adaptation. The laws of nature, cruel and amoral as they are, determine our fate. The ethical is a mere material adaptation to the struggle for survival: a set of rules that aid humanity to survive and reproduce. He was quite open about the logical consequences of this worldview, namely, that human beings were controlled entirely by nature, as he wrote in his notes: “Verily the faults of the fathers, corporeal & bodily are visited upon the children. —The above views would make a man a predestinarian of a new kind, because he would tend to be an atheist.” This worldview dovetailed nicely with the Benthamite utilitarian moral universe, in which people seek “pleasure” and avoid “pain” instinctually, and in which “good” and “evil” are the mere rebranding of the pleasure/pain binary (and indeed, Darwin used this Benthamite pain/pleasure binary often in his discussion of the behavior of humans and animals alike). Natural instinct was expressed, in human terms, as “self-interest,” and this was the root of an ethical system in which no one needed Kant’s moral freedom to choose what was right and wrong, because everyone, following their natural instinct, or their self-interest, would already do what was right, properly understood.
Marx had little respect for the liberal ethic of “self-interest,” which seemed to do no more than provide an excuse for cruelty and exploitation. But he was no less an empiricist and materialist, seeking to derive the common good from these premises. Like Darwin, Marx believed all of life was a struggle for economic survival — a class struggle, in which some groups exploited others for material gain. Religious principles, ideals — these were little more than post-facto explanations for material conditions, illusory “phantoms” having “in themselves, no value whatsoever.” Accepting this reality was the key to changing it. For Marx, any attempt to better the world had to be derived in a “purely empirical way,” starting from the observation of “individuals, not as they may appear in their own or other people’s imagination, but as they really are; i.e. as they operate, produce materially, and hence as they work under definite material limits, presuppositions and conditions independent of their will.” Marx’s revolution, then, had to be a practical, economic revolution – one that could transform human life through completely remaking of labor, which was the primary human relationship to material nature.
This Darwinian/utilitarian/Marxist view of the world has become so pervasive as to be seen as pure common sense, and all modern ethics seems to reside on the spectrum between calculated self-interest and practical activism, never lifting its head above the “empirical” or “chemical” analysis on which it rests. In ordinary discourse, any conventional explanation of human behavior will reflexively refer to evolution, biology, instinct, or economic incentives in some combination.
The belief that morality has “evolved,” as a tool in the struggle for survival, is at the heart of all neo-Darwinian thought, best represented by Richard Dawkins, whose Selfish Gene sold untold copies, celebrated its 40th Anniversary edition in 2016, and was voted the most influential science book of all time by a recent Royal Society poll. The Selfish Gene is an origin story told from the perspective of the eponymous bit of DNA – the “ruthless” computer programmer that controls our every move. Not only did Dawkins insist that people were merely the passive puppets of their genetic material, but drew from this the rather obvious conclusion that, in such a scenario, an ethical distinction between good and evil vanished in favor of pure survival and reproduction. Dawkins was quite open about the amorality of the gene: “cheating and selfishness,” for example, are simply the result of our “selfish genes” wishing us to get ahead in the struggle for survival: “genes that tend to make children cheat have an advantage in the gene pool.” And what of altruism and self-sacrifice? These too are the result of the selfish gene’s little tricks – subtly manipulating individuals to cooperate for the sake of multiplying genetic material. Good and evil are merely evolved concepts that help us to survive.
Silicon Valley’s more recent hero, Yuval Noah Harrari, is even more ruthless in his championing of the “scientific.” His bestsellers, Sapiens and Homo Deus, both of which propelled him to stardom, won the accolades of such figures as Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates for his rather bleak view that human beings are little more than “biochemical algorithms.” The end result of this worldview is similar to that of Dawkins: those who think of themselves as “free individuals” are, in fact, nothing more than the result of their biological makeup. Indeed, he foretells a dark future, in which human beings could be entirely controlled by a combination of “drugs, genetic engineering or direct brain stimulation.” Like Dawkins, Harrari is unafraid to promote a terrifying new ethical worldview, in which “the electrochemical brain processes that result in murder are either deterministic or random or a combination of both.” Good and evil are nothing more than different, ruthlessly determined biological outcomes.
Modern Marxists and socialists mostly resist this neo-Darwinian, biochemical acceptance of selfishness and murder. And yet, so many of them rest their fight for a better future on similar material premises: no abstract definitions of justice and fairness are required. In his monumental, bestselling tomes on inequality in the modern world, Thomas Piketty uses mountains of data to describe and analyze the waxing and waning of inequality in the world. He claims that these economic forces are not all there is – that there are “ideologies” that help to justify inequality – and yet, strikingly, there is no definition of “inequality” in his text. The data, it seems, speaks for itself. Unsurprisingly, he even falls into a Harari-like advocacy for “impersonal algorithms” as representing “progress toward greater social justice and democracy.” Freddie de Boer, more pithily, sums up modern Marxism: a “functional and healthy left political movement,” he writes, must be “concerned first and foremost with reality … the material reality of the present world,” looking for practical solutions for “actually-existing poor people.” Taking a swipe at Kant, he adds: “we would therefore privilege ‘is’ statements over ‘ought to be’ statements.”
Like Chekhov then, it seems, we are all “chemists” now.
And yet, in the end, Kant has had the last laugh. All of these materialists, past and present, find themselves unable to escape an otherworldly “ought,” one which always contradicts their materialist principles. No one can truly reconcile themselves with the “is,” nor can the “is” point the way to a better reality.
Take Dawkins, who in later editions of the Selfish Gene tried to defend himself against the charge that his was a social Darwinism that defended selfishness and cutthroat competition. He had nothing against altruism, it turns out, but his role was not to work out the details. “Let us try to teach generosity and selflessness,” he offhandedly commented, “because we are born selfish.” What is “generosity,” and where can we find it in a world of selfish genes? Or take Harari, who breezily insists his books are a blueprint to “free yourself of the past and imagine alternative destinies” or to “think and behave in new ways.” How can unfree individuals, in the grip biological algorithms, free themselves? If we are ruthlessly caused, not only do we not have the free will to imagine alternative destinies, but these alternative destinies simply do not exist.
Piketty’s work precisely flounders on Kant’s premise that one cannot derive ought from is. Pages and pages of his book are devoted to the painstaking descriptions of the varieties of inequality that have persisted through the centuries, through slavery and colonialism, from Medieval times until the present day. Moments of victory are brief and pyrrhic – and inequalities rebound dramatically even after the relatively egalitarian phases of the French Revolution and Cold War. The reader would be forgiven for the crushing feeling that inequality simply exists, that it will continue to exist forever, and that a mere tinkering with wealth taxes could hardly succeed where violent revolution and the spread of world communism have failed. “Regrettably, much as many economists may think so, normative reasoning is not entirely an amateur sport,” writes Sanjay Reddy of Piketty. “Without a plausible normative anchoring,” he adds, Capital and Ideology, “is not only incomplete but also rudderless.”
This is where Piketty is a pale imitation of Marx. After all, though Marx was seemingly the more stringent materialist, every page of Marxist writing was haunted by a radical, immaterial “ought.” Marx did not desire some banal, empirical reduction in inequality achievable through modest redistribution. Instead, he envisioned an entirely new world in which human beings were no longer slaves to the labor needed for every crust of bread. Marx rebelled against the very essence of the fallen world, the curse of Adam that condemned him to work “by the sweat of his brow.” The Communist revolution was to be a “leap” from the “kingdom of necessity” to the “kingdom of freedom,” a kingdom that deliberately echoed the Biblical promise of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. In the end, Marx could not jettison the Jewish and Christian traditions which formed his heritage:
The present generation resembles the Jews whom Moses led through the wilderness. It must not only conquer a new world, it must also perish in order to make room for the people who will be equal to a new world.
Present-day Marxists often channel this original pathos, even de Boer, whose writing, like Marx’s, is filled with a poignant awareness of the tragedy of existence. Marxists, de Boer writes, must find “the courage to be human even as everyone and everything else demands that we be otherwise” – a courage located only in the “ought” that he so strenuously rejects.
There is no materialist path to the promised land.
This was at the heart of Friedrich Nietzsche’s atheist critique of modern scientific materialism – its sheer illogic. In The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche heartily mocked the ludicrous derivation of the good and altruistic from Darwinian instinct and conflict:
after a fashion that is at least entertaining, the Darwinian beast and the ultramodern unassuming moral milksop who “no longer bites” politely link hands, the latter wearing an expression of a certain good-natured and refined indolence…as if all these things—the problems of morality—were really not worth taking quite so seriously.
The Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovev similarly mocked the materialism of socialism as resting on the illogical premise that “Man is descended from a monkey, therefore then let us love one another.”
The truth is quite simple. At heart, none of us are true materialists, realists, or “chemists.” Every one of us is continually dissatisfied by what we observe empirically, and it is from what we do not observe that we derive our ethics. The proof lies in a single, unavoidable, purely human word: “should.” The “should” is imaginary, ethereal, elusive – an alternative reality often orthogonal to our own, rarely observed and only for fleeting moments. And yet, this ghostly alternative “should” haunts even the most atheist materialism, allowing it no peace, lurking in the corners of supposedly pure empirical realism. In Kant’s own words, “It is as if they heard an inner voice that said: This is not how it should be.”
The existence of the word “should” confronts us with the undeniable fact of the otherworldly, spiritual nature of the ethical ground, the “ought”: that which is preferable, yearned for, tantalizingly possible, and yet is not. Cancer, famine, and death exist — they are empirically everywhere observable, as inevitable and ubiquitous as sunsets and the blossoming of flowers. A person would be mocked for saying that flowers should not bloom or that the sun should not set. But we all completely understand the feeling that illness, poverty, and death should not exist, that a child should not have died. An invisible alternative reality hovers in the background of even the most trivial moments of daily life: the promotion we should have received, the friend we should have called, the name we should have remembered, the words we should not have said.
Good is, of course, and the world is full of things to praise. But everything in the fallen universe, from exquisite delicacy of a cherry blossom to the love of a child is threatened by time and tragedy, evoking within us the impossible yearning that it should remain forever. Therein lies the contradiction: the “ought” is often either empirically invisible or disintegrating in the very moment of its revelation, like the cherry orchard. And yet it is obviously, and sometimes very painfully, real.
The ethical is uniquely human, for it is born in the moment of the Fall. The Jewish philosopher Lev Shestov argues that the original temptation to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was the eternally human temptation to “be like God, knowing,” that is, to have the power of God to stand above creation and judge it impartially, knowing good and evil from a distance, accepting both the good and the evil as facts of the universe. Shestov’s is a compelling account of our perpetual, and very modern, desire: to be like the chemist, relentlessly “objective” about the good and evil of the world. We wish, like Chekhov, to be the God-like, impassive observers of worldly chaos, looking at “reality” with a divine omniscience.
Since Genesis, we have indeed received what we have erroneously desired. The “fruit” of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is precisely “the ethical.” When we taste that fruit, we, with Adam and Eve, do indeed know good and evil, and yet we are, at the same time, confronted by the unbridgeable gulf between the two. Our eyes have been opened, and we become ashamed, because the more we know of the good, the more we know how far we are from it. After the Fall, ethics entered the world, the measure of the distance between what is and what should be. This is at the root of the Ten Commandments, the absence that undergirds each of its dictates. “Thou shalt not kill” can never be discovered empirically, for, in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s poetic words: “Only look about you: blood is being spilt in streams, and in the merriest way, as though it were champagne.” Murder simply is. And yet, who would openly and willingly disagree with the deeper meaning of the commandment: “You should not kill” (even if you end up convinced that you must do so). The same is true for theft, adultery, and all of the sins of humanity. This is the “curse of the law” to which St. Paul refers, that which unerringly points to what is right and also, simultaneously and unfailingly, condemns our inability to achieve it. Sin is precisely this: that which should not be done even if it is done all the time. Each sin, even in the smallest things, adds to the deep gulf between what is and what should be. Shame and guilt dog our steps, pointing to what should have happened and did not.
And here we see what Kant, as abstract German philosopher, left out of the is/ought distinction — its fundamentally tragic character. So many of our most anguished moments are spent contemplating this fathomless distance between is and ought. We are perpetually confronted with the knowledge of other, better possibilities. Human beings are tragically capable, alone among the animals, of accessing that other land in which the “should” resides — it is in that land that we still have our missed opportunities, our denied justice, our lost love. It is in the non-existent that our long dead friend is just about to walk through the door, as he did so many times before. Mary said to Jesus, after the death of Lazarus: “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” And Jesus understood this tragedy of our humanity, and “wept.”
This is the essence of The Cherry Orchard. Despite the mundane inevitability of the demise of an aristocratic estate, it is hard not to feel that it is precisely a tragedy of something that should have been different. The cherry orchard will be cut down to make room for the vacation homes that will turn Lopakhin a handsome profit — a small part of a larger, systemic history of modernization and its effect on the environment — but can we wholeheartedly say that it should be, especially once we hear the axes felling the trees one by one?
We must be clear, Chekhov insisted that TheCherry Orchard was not, in fact, a tragedy. He was incensed that Konstantin Stanislavsky, the director of the Moscow Art Theater, had betrayed his play by making it too maudlin. It was a “comedy,” the author argued, “in certain places even a farce.” Perhaps even here Chekhov was speaking as a “chemist”: why introduce unnecessary pathos into something inevitable? Better to accept, even laugh, at one’s inevitable fate.
In a way, of course, this is the heart of the “realist” or materialist philosophy — it is, in essence, a kind of new stoicism, a desire to avoid pain by accepting everything as it “is.” We envy the rest of nature for suffering silently, unquestioning, the violence and illness and death that pervade it. Materialism is the secular version of “God’s plan,” an “atheist” predestinarianism, a way to accept pain, end shame, absolve guilt, reduce anxiety — to escape all of the torment that comes from ghostly, non-existent ethical that will not allow us to forget what should be and what might have been. “This is why Spinoza declared so steadfastly: do not weep, do not curse, but understand,” writes Shestov, and also cites Hegel on the death of Socrates: “no great misfortune: an old Greek died—is such a trifle worth making a fuss over?”
However, it is possible to see TheCherry Orchard as a comedy for an entirely different reason. It was Chekhov’s last play, written while he was suffering with the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him, and at the end, perhaps, he saw a glimmer of light? After all, from a Biblical perspective, the ethical is tragic, but also pregnant with hope. The ethical indeed reminds us that the old Eden is lost forever, but also reveals the Eden that “will” be. Without the ethical, the world is abandoned to its cruel and unjust fate, to the relentless evil that will eventually infiltrate and corrode all that exists. With the ethical, our eyes turn to the future in which “the ought” and the “is” will meet. Paradise is not only behind us, but also before us, and the new Eden will be more lovely than the old.
The ethical is not utopian, for fallen human beings will never, of their own power, achieve the lost Eden. That way is barred to us, and we must accept that there is no human overcoming of sin and death. However, with God’s grace, all things are possible. Christ came into the world to fulfill the Law, to overcome the boundary between the is and the ought, to fulfill the true promise of the Eden of the past and bring the Kingdom of God to earth.
This Christian ethics as rooted in the non-existent yet longed for reality could introduce a new, extra-Kantian categorical imperative, a uniquely fallen human imperative: to always act, in all things big and small, spiritual and material, to incarnate the non-existent ethical, to make it materially real, and to help bridge the gap between what is and what should be. We must see that we humans alone, in all of creation, have lost the innocence of Eden, we alone are responsible for the fallenness of the world, and yet, also, we alone have the God-given knowledge of what should be – the law that is written in our hearts. Even in seemingly insignificant actions we can, in incremental ways, make the ought into the is. With God’s grace, we can plant the seeds for the new orchard, the new Eden we are promised.
How much of the pathos of TheCherry Orchard was written under the sentence of death? Certainly, the “chemist” in Chekhov seemed to disappear in the words spoken by Ranevsky’s daughter, Anya, when they learn that the orchard is lost. “God bless you,” Anya tells her mother, with all the overflowing optimism of youth,
The cherry orchard’s sold, it’s gone. That’s true, quite true, but don’t cry …Come with me, dear, come away. We shall plant a new orchard, more glorious than this one. And when you see it everything will make sense to you. Your heart will be filled with happiness — deep happiness and peace, descending from above like the sun at evening time. And then you’ll smile again, Mother. Come, my dear, come with me.
Anton Chekhov, “Letter to M.V. Kiseleva,” in Avrahm Yarmolinsky, ed., Letters of Anton Chekhov (New York: Viking, 1973), pp. 41-42. ↑
Edward Braun, The Cherry Orchard, in Vera Gottlieb and Paul Allain, eds, The Cambridge Companion to Chekhov (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 111-119, quote 112. ↑
Andrei Bely, “Vishnevy sad,” Vesy, No. 2 (1904), 46-48. ↑
Paul Guyer, ed., “Introduction,” in The Cambridge Companion to Kant and Modern Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 1-27, quote p. 12. ↑
Darwin, C. R. Notebook M : [Metaphysics on morals and speculations on expression (1838)]. CUL-DAR125.- Transcribed by Kees Rookmaaker, edited by Paul Barrett. Edited by John van Wyhe (Darwin Online, http://darwin-online.org.uk/), pp. 73-74. ↑
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, Part One (New York: International Publishers, 1970), 46-47. ↑
Ana Siljak is Associate Professor of Humanities in the Hamilton Center at the University of Florida. Her current research and publications focus on Russian philosophy and religious thought. She is currently writing a book on the personalist philosophy of Nikolai Berdiaev and editing a translation of the correspondence between Nikolai Berdiaev and Jacques Maritain (forthcoming from McGill-Queen’s University Press).