Culture is everything that enriches and cultivates us, that offers us tools to better understand the world. Unfortunately, there are still many people who believe that being cultured means accumulating knowledge. They are the typical know-it-alls or arrogants whose make fun of those who have not read the great novelists, have not seen so many movies, attended as many plays as they did or have not been able to visit so many countries.
In these cases, culture assumes the form of arrogance, disdain and, in a general sense, contempt for all those who are not at the same “level”.
Anton Chekhov’s vision of what it means to be educated goes far beyond accumulating knowledge, it is an enriching and profound perspective that encourages us to reflect. The great Russian writer distinguishes a genuinely cultured person from that who has acquired knowledge but thinks that it places him above the others.
When he was still very young, Chekhov wrote to his brother Nikolai when he was 28 years old and began to gain fame as a painter in the Russian capital. The letter, dated in Moscow in 1886, is actually a series of tips for an incipient artist who complained that nobody understood him. His first advice is a statement of intent: “People understand you perfectly well. If you do not understand yourself, it’s not their fault”, Chekhov wrote with extreme lucidity. But his letter continues, and each phrase is an authentic pearl of wisdom.
How are cultured persons?
- They respect the individual and are therefore always indulgent, gentle, polite and compliant. […] 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 forgive the noise, as well as the occurrences and the presence of strangers in their homes.
The cultured person is one who respects the others as individuals, is a tolerant person who does not place his faults on others but assumes his responsibilities. They are people flexible enough to accept ways of thinking and acting different from their own.
- They are sincere, and dread lying like fire. They don’t lie even in small things. A lie is insulting to the listener and puts him in a lower position in the eyes of the speaker. They do not put on airs: they behave in the street as they do at home, they do not show off before their humbler comrades. They are not given to babbling and forcing their uninvited confidences on others. Out of respect for other people’s ears they more often keep silent than talk”.
You learn more by listening than by talking. A truly cultured person knows this and does not feel the need to show his knowledge continuously. In addition, he is intelligent enough to recognize what he does not know, and not lies about it to try to project an image of a know-it-all.
- They have no shallow vanity. […] If they do a pennyworth they do not strut about as though they had done a hundred roubles’ worth, and do not brag of having access where others are not admitted”.
Empty people need to make a lot of noise. On the contrary, cultured persons do not need the others to recognize them or strut about their knowledge, rubbing it in the face of others. Culture always goes hand in hand with humility.
- If they have a talent they respect it. They sacrifice to it rest, women, wine, vanity […] They are proud of their talent.
Being educated also means being aware of your own talents and committing to their development. It means doing everything possible to grow as a person, even if it means making certain sacrifices and dedicating a lot of effort. We must remember that talent without perseverance does not bear fruit.
- They do not belittle themselves to rouse compassion.They do not play on the strings of other people’s hearts so that they may sigh and make much of them.
For Anton Chekhov, a cultured person is also a person with dignity, who does not mourn or cry about spilled milk. The educated person does not try to manipulate the others by leveraging their misfortunes, does not get stuck in problems but seeks solutions. He is also smart enough to take advantage of the circumstances in his favor, instead of simply complaining because the stars are not aligned.
- Develop the aesthetic feeling in themselves. […] They seek as far as possible to restrain and ennoble the sexual instinct. […] They want, especially if they are artists, freshness, elegance, humanity, the capacity for motherhood. […] They do not drink vodka at all hours of the day and night, do not sniff at cupboards, for they are not pigs and know they are not.
Chekhov also linked culture with intuition. That means that cultured people do not fight battles lost in advance, because they are capable of understanding the human essence and do not ask the others more than they can give. Therefore, being cultured means also be pragmatic and objective, to seek authenticity, not only inside us but also in the others.
- Their compassion extends beyond beggars and cats.They are hurt even by things the naked eye can’t see.
A cultured person is also a sensitive and empathetic person, not only in the face of injustices and pain that he finds in his path, but before everything that happens in the world. Chekhov could not conceive a culture alien to human suffering and joy.
Finally, Anton Chekhov added: “In order to be cultured and not to stand below the level of your surroundings, it is not enough to have read ‘The Pickwick Papers’ and learnt a monologue from Faust. What you need is to work constantly, day and night, reading, studying and willing constantly. Every hour is precious. Rest and get rid of your vanity”.
Being cultured is the only way to be free
There are many types of culture. Being cultured is not limited to reading many books and accumulating academic knowledge. Understanding culture from a broader perspective will make us more tolerant and free.
There is an intellectual and artistic culture, but also a physical culture that involves taking care of our body, as well as an emotional and psychological culture that allows us to maintain a personal balance and a constructive attitude towards life.
There is also a professional culture, which not only implies being really good in our work but also enjoying it. And there is even a culture of leisure, which includes all those things that we can do in our free time to grow as people and better know the world around us.
Cultivating ourselves on different fronts will allow us to live in a more balanced and enriching way, but it will also make us more independent, free and less manipulable.