Lessons on virtues from the novel The Master & Margarita

Master and Margarita
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is a novel unlike anything I have ever read – a rich confluence of Faustian fantasy of the devil on earth, whose retinue includes a demonic large talking and walking black cat combined with gut-busting scathing satire (the absurdity of the devilish retinue is meant to enhance the sense of the absurdities and contradictions of the stifling and perverse Soviet life) written during the highest pitch of Stalin’s terror in the 30s that must have been as dangerous to the author to write even as it was equally freeing to the Soviet readers when it was finally published in the 60s when it finally miraculously made it past Soviet sensors. The book isn’t exactly quotable because individual characters and their preposterous natures tend to need more full explanations than a pithy quote can capture.
And yet there is a somewhat summarizable moment in the book that is illustrative – a poet named Riukhun, who has escorted a fellow poet to the madhouse (the escorted poet has had a remarkable encounter with the devil which makes him seem insane to his fellow) is denounced by that poet as essentially an untalented hack. Riukhun goes home troubled all night and can’t figure out why he should care about what a madman thinks about him, when he finally puts his finger on it – the madman had spoken the truth. He was a poet that would never write anything worthwhile and thus would never receive lasting glory. And why would he not receive glory? Because he actually didn’t believe anything he wrote. The unstated picture we get is of a poet succumbing to throughout his career to “socialist realism” – in essence servile garbage. We see Riukhun later drowning his sorrows in vodka, “understanding and recognizing that it was no longer possible to set anything right in his life, that it was only possible to forget.” Monotony, standardization, sycophancy, falsity, denouncing, despair, resignation, monstrosity – these are the traits that become clear and apparent in every character presented in the novel, including Riukhun.
This got me to thinking about a point made throughout the books of Dierdre McCluskey that free, individual liberty, market-based societies create the conditions for higher virtues and ethics. It is a similar narrative captured by Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments in the 1700s, which is an essential book to read for anyone trying to understand the relation of the “invisible hand” of the Wealth of Nations to the “impartial spectator” of market based ethics that preserves and allows free societies to function fully explored in Theory of Moral Sentiments. I have often stated or seen stated that a free society requires morality and ethics to preserve and uphold it. No doubt there is an element of truth to this, but I do question whether the causality might be stronger in the other direction, that free and market based societies create the right conditions and incentives to have greater ethics such as politeness and trust-building. Conversely, taking cues from Bulgakov, the monstrous conditions of a decidedly unfree society create the conditions and incentives that create many more monstrous people with perverse ethics.

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