Psychology and Literature

I have often thought (and have been known to remark in public) that there is more insight into the human psyche in a good novel than there is in many a psychology text-book. I would modify that somewhat and now remark that there is considerable psychological insight even in the short stories of consummate writers such as Anton Chekhov.

Indeed, in “A Calamity” written by this medical man only about eight years after he started publishing his short stories, Chekhov presents us with a wonderfully understated  study of a young woman who finds herself suddenly at war with herself. His heroine, Sofya Petrovna, is a happily married woman with a husband she loves and a daughter she adores. But she is pursued by a suitor, Ivan Mihailovich, who worships the ground she walk on. Despite her conscious repulsion from the fact that she finds the man’s advances flattering and even desirable, she finds herself drawn toward Ivan and unable to shake herself loose from her fascination with him and his love for her. She attempts to push him away, with little effort and no effect whatever, and begins to look at her husband and even her daughter differently. The husband she has loved now appears dull and insipid. “My God,” she thinks to herself, “I love and respect him, but. . . . why does he chew his food so disgustingly?” Later as she examines him napping after dinner, she notices “his feet, very small, almost feminine, in striped socks; there was a thread sticking up at the tip of each sock.” Even her daughter puts her off; as she picks her up she finds her “heavy and irresponsive.” Clearly, her perspective has altered and as she admonishes herself, calling herself “shameless thing,” and “vile creature,” she leaves her husband and “choking with shame” finds herself “pushed forward” by something “stronger than shame, reason, or fear” away from her husband and daughter and toward a clandestine meeting with Ivan.

There are a number of things that strike the reader about this remarkable story. For all its brevity, it is beautifully written and a subtle study of the battle that is going on inside this young woman as she struggles with her sense of propriety and respectability coupled with her mindless conviction that her respectable marriage is really all she could possibly want — and the compulsion to go to the man who loves her deeply and provides her with the excitement and deep feelings she has never previously allowed herself to feel. We have one of the early suggestions, before Freud, that there are unconscious urges that fight against reason and habit and which compel us in directions we would really rather not take.

David Hume once said that reason is the slave of the passions and Chekhov seems to be presenting us with a test case that demonstrates this profound truth. We might want to think that we can be directed by reason and what we think is the right thing to do — and we may even spend our lives trying to follow that path. But at times there are urges beneath the conscious level that draw us in directions we find repugnant. The struggle was studied in depth by Immanuel Kant who insisted that the right thing is always to follow one’s sense of duty, as dictated by reason, and fight against inclination. But as Chekhov suggests it is sometimes not quite that simple. Fight as we might, the inclinations are often stronger and do not allow reason to rule. Sometimes we do what we really (unconsciously) want to do rather than what we ought to do, despite the fact that we know it is wrong.

Long ago Socrates was convinced that if we knew what was the right thing to do, we would do it. But he had no clear notion of what we now call “will” and he doesn’t seem to have been fully aware of the battle that goes on inside us when we fight against inclinations that we might regard as “vile” and “shameless.” Aristotle faulted Socrates for his simplistic take on this issue. But I don’t think either Aristotle or Kant gave the struggle full measure. Chekhov did, and in this very short story, a mere fifteen pages long,  he makes it clear that at times we simply cannot muster the “willpower” to do the right thing, much as we might think we want to.

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Can Reason Rule?

Pascal tells us that the heart has reasons the mind knows nothing about. David Hume added that reason is a “slave of the passions.” I used to think these men were simply wrong and I resisted their claims because as a philosophy professor I was determined to try to help young men and women think more clearly about complex issues. After all, what’s the point of thinking clearly if, in the end, a person is just going to be ruled by emotion (the “passions.”)?

But as I grow older I have come to the conclusion that these men were right. Ultimately, our decisions — the important ones — are determined not by what we think, but what we feel. We accept or reject claims not based on their reasonableness, but on whether or not they fit into our belief system. (Strictly speaking, our beliefs do not form a “system,” as George Elliot reminded us. They are a rat’s nest of conflicting feelings and hunches mixed together in chaotic fashion to protect us against a fearsome world.)

This is why even though it is certain that there will be an earthquake of mammoth proportions in California along the San Andreas fault, thousands of people insist upon living there. It is why thousands also continue to live in the shadow of Mt. St. Helens, even though it is certain that there will be another eruption that will kill thousands. We believe what we want to believe, and while in extreme forms this amounts to denial, for most  of us it amounts to little more than ignoring the facts or looking the other way, keeping reason in neutral while being ruled by their emotions. Don’t hassle me with the facts, I want to live here!

I taught ethics for nearly forty years, including business ethics.  I realized even as I taught those courses that what I was teaching wasn’t really making a huge difference in the lives of my students. In the end I could teach them a few rules and we could discuss ethical principles and methods of approach to ethical issues, deontology or utilitarianism, for example. But in the final analysis, whether or not they did the right thing in a certain situation depended on the kinds of people they were. Hannah Arendt thought it was a matter of being able to look at oneself in the mirror. If a 20-year-old student was dishonest by inclination and character, taking a four-credit course was not going to turn him into an honest man.

In the end, I sided with Aristotle and determined that ethical choices are a matter of character and character is formed early in a person’s life and doesn’t change much as we grow older. But what a course in ethics could do, even business ethics, is to help us sort things out, work through our inclinations and sift through the mud of hunch and prejudice, and determine what ethical principles were at stake and what the best course of action might be in a specific situation. Whether or not in the end the person chooses to do the right thing, again, is a matter of character — or what Hume called “passion — but the path to that decision could be made smoother by careful thought. Reason may be the slave of passion, but without it we grope in the dark and stumble around from notion to hunch and frequently regret later that we didn’t think things through.

There are any number of key issues facing humans today and while it is certainly true that reason cannot dictate what choices we make, it can make clear which paths have been tried before and which are the most likely to prove fruitful in the future. Reason will tell us, for example, that whether or not we accept the fact that the human population is exploding out of control and heading us toward calamity, the continued growth of human populations, taken together with the finite amount of food it is possible for us to produce, will inevitably result in a clash at the intersection of these two trends. The earth has only so much carrying capacity. So even if at present we could solve the problem of starving people in Third World countries by figuring a way to get surplus food to them, at some point it will no longer be a matter of logistics. It will be a human tragedy. Which means, that reason would lead us to the conclusion that if we are to avoid a human calamity on a scale hitherto unseen on this earth, we should plan now and take steps to not only maximize food production and improve delivery systems, but also do what we can to reduce the number of mouths that will have to be fed.

Whether or not we choose to do that will not be determined by logic and reasoning. It will be determined by “passion,” or  “character,” the kind of people we are. But reason certainly demands that we start thinking about it now.