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.

The Importance of Critical Reading

One of my favorite podcasts, EconTalk, presents a diverse range of topics that the host, Russ Roberts, somehow finds a way to adeptly navigate through. One recent example of this was Roberts hosting Doug Lemov as a guest on the subject of the central importance of critical reading. The implications are of tremendous importance as it relates to personal growth and development, as a parent raising young children to love reading and that singular activities’ critical foundational importance in developing knowledge and understanding all other subjects, and as members of a broader community in fostering within our school systems and educational models the most effective modes of learning. Lemov is a well-known author on teaching methods and also runs many successful charter schools in poorer communities throughout the Northeast. In other words, his theories have found a useful and meaningful practical home to great ends.

There were several key insights from the episode I wanted to write down and commit to my own practice and that I also wanted to share with anyone who has an interest on the topic:

  • Whereas most instructors and parents adhere to an idea of “age or level appropriate” reading and texts, Lemov urges us to have our children or pupils grapple with challenging texts. This allows them to work through more difficult concepts, ask probing questions, and hear words, ideas, and concepts that they may never get to experience in an edition of Magic Tree House, as fine as those kinds of simple serial books can be for pleasure reading. The example he uses in the podcast is reading with his then 2nd-grader a novel, The Island of the Blue Dolphins, which tells the story of a girl stranded for years off of the California coast and which is ostensibly an eighth-grade level text. He remarks that by reading aloud to her and grappling through the story with his daughter, she was able to interact with the story in a meaningful way, learn words such as “befall” that she would never learn in traditional assignments and novels, and begin to develop an anticipatory love of the types of great literature works that she would experience as she grew into adulthood. I am pleased to report that upon reading to my own daughters (3rd and 1st grades) the first two chapters of the same novel, I have witnessed the same impressive level of understanding, inquisitiveness, and delight at hearing aloud a novel much richer in context, feelings, and exploration of the human condition than other novels that they read on their own that are “their level.”
  • Lemov indicates that what is most common is to instruct children on understanding the higher level context on what is going on in a text and to bypass difficult language by offering a quick summary of the content distilled into modern simple language. Thus, a tough passage from Hamlet gets paraphrased and reduced to its simplest form. Lemov believes that while bigger picture thinking is an important part of instruction and knowledge building, of equal importance is deep and critical analysis of the actual written text. He advocates for a deeper level of understanding on a line by line basis and of developing knowledge of what the author was truly trying to say within the context of the author’s language. This means a more methodical plowing through of Shakespeare, but the long-term implications are that the person will develop a much broader ability to pick up and analyze challenging texts and to reap the benefits of their robust life insights.
  • I wholeheartedly agree with Lemov’s stance on technology in the classroom. In the podcast, he states unequivocally:

    I think a lot of parents, one of the first questions they ask about their school is, ‘Is the school infused with technology? How will my kids have access to technology?’ My concern is the opposite. If I could have anything from my school, it would be a place where my kids sustain their focus in conversation, in reading, in writing, without being interrupted with a technology for as long as possible.

Indeed, one public school that I toured focused very little on academic rigor in their “pitch” and much more on the modernity of the facilities, use of iPads, and use of electronic voice amplifiers that more effectively connect teachers to their students. My personal observation is that my own children pick up and adapt to technology in the home at an incredible pace without need of my aid. Thus, they have little need of a school teaching them how to adapt to smart devices. At best, technology access adds some ability to quickly reference some key concept, while vitiating the critical life skill of research and exploration. My fear, in addition to what Lemov discusses, is that it serves such a distraction and takes away from the deep meditative aspects of what a school should be that it erases any benefit that could be derived from it.

  • One novel concept Lemov spells out is to pair nonfiction concepts with fiction reading. As a result, a potentially bland topic (in the eyes of a young student) such as food rationing and war preparations comes alive when it is paired with a novel such as Lily’s Crossing, a novel about a girl whose life is disrupted when her father leaves for World War II, her best friend moves to a war production factory town, and life in New York City assumes a broader war posture with rationing and bombing raid preparations.

There are more great insights and practical ideas in the podcast, therefore I highly encourage the listen of this particular episode, which takes no overt ideological stances and is rather thought-provoking. I also recommend EconTalk in general for those who are interested in learning and hearing more about the philosophy of faith in the free individual working in a free market undergirded by a limited government applying the rule of law that is not arbitrary. In short, it is a tremendous podcast in defense of traditional classical liberalism/libertarianism.

Quote of the Week – Living Life Amidst Terror


“It was as if we were living in the tale about Zmey Gorynych, the dragon that required  yearly tribute of twelve fair maidens and twelve young men. One might well wonder how the people in this tale could have carried on, how they could have lived with the knowledge that a dragon would soon be devouring the finest of their children. During those last days in Moscow, however, we realized that they too had been rushing from one little theater to another or hurrying to buy themselves something from which to make a coat or dress. There is nowhere a human being cannot live. With my own eyes I have seen sailors taking a man out onto the ice in order to shoot him – and I have seen the condemned man hopping over puddles to keep his feet dry and turning up his collar to shield his chest from wind. Those few steps were the last steps he would ever take, and instinctively he wanted them to make them as comfortable as possible.

We were no different. We bought ourselves some ‘last scrap’ of fabric. We listened for the last time to the last operetta and the last exquisitely erotic verses. What did it matter whether the verses were good or terrible? All that mattered was not to know, not to be aware – we had to forget that we were being led onto the ice.”

The quote is taken from the first chapter of Teffi’s account, Memories: From Moscow to the Black SeaTeffi, the pen name of Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, was a well-known and celebrated humorist, satirist, and author in early 1900s Russia. Memories is her personal account of her last months spent in Russia and the Ukraine as she fled from the collapse of the Tsarist regime and the Bolshevik revolution, along with most other intellectuals and artists of the era. What makes the narrative unique is that Teffi is largely reticent on political statements and instead puts journalistic focus on the personal narratives and stories of everyone she meets during her harrowing journey. Along the way, she always believes she will make it back to Moscow within a matter of months, but that dream ends years later as she stays in exile in Paris. Memories is described by one reviewer as, “A vividly idiosyncratic account of the disintegration  – moral, political, strategic, – of Tsarist Russia after the Revolution, as alive to the farcical and the ridiculous as it is to the tragic.” I am just diving into the book myself and expect to pull many more such powerful and vivid depictions of what life must have been like for Russians in these perilous and harrowing times. Thus far, Memories is the indispensable book that I am currently reading that I can’t put down.