The Russian radical journalist Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky (1828-1889) was a literary critic and social theorist. His best-known work, the novel What Is To Be Done?, became a classic of the Russian revolutionary movement.
The son of a priest, Nikolai Chernyshevsky was born on July 1, 1828, in Saratov. He started his literary career in 1855 with a master's thesis on esthetics which he submitted at the University of St. Petersburg. In this work Chernyshevsky attacked contemporary esthetic theory, which held that art was an independent transcendent realm. He argued that the arts in general, and literature in particular, could justify their existence only by accurately describing, explaining, and evaluating the actual in terms comprehensible to all—by being a "textbook of life." This utilitarian view made a strong impact and later assumed a quasi-official status under communism, serving to sanction government regimentation of the arts.
From 1855 to 1862 Chernyshevsky worked as a writer and editor for the radical journal Contemporary. His preoccupation with esthetic theory led to a series of literary studies. He then became increasingly engrossed in the domestic and foreign scene and wrote numerous essays on philosophy, politics, and economics.
For Chernyshevsky, ethics, like art, must be based on the philosophy of utilitarianism. He held that human behavior is motivated by self-interest. He believed that knowledge inevitably leads people to choose good rather than evil, and he attributed human wickedness to ignorance of the advantages of avoiding evil.
Chernyshevsky's economic theories were socialistic. He loathed the principle of laissez-faire, since he believed unrestricted competition sacrificed the weak to the strong and labor to capital. He held that free enterprise distributed goods unfairly and failed to stimulate production. Chernyshevsky's "toiler's theory" embodied his economic thought. By toiler he meant both the worker and the peasant; for him the muzhik (peasant) was the person of destiny for Russia.
The toiler's theory was based on Chernyshevsky's beliefs that the welfare of the individual was of paramount importance and that goods rightfully belonged only to those who had produced them. He advocated economic equality and elimination of unproductive social classes. Although he was ambiguous about the nature of the controls that would achieve these ends, Chernyshevsky did not call for a centrally planned, nationalized economy. Instead, he envisioned a loose aggregate of communities resembling phalansteries (voluntary associations, each engaging in both industry and agriculture on a cooperative basis). The voluntary associations were to be autonomous units, democratically administered and independent from central authority.
In 1862 Chernyshevsky published in Contemporary a series of open letters to an unnamed person who was clearly none other than Czar Alexander II. The Czar had emancipated the serfs in 1861, but Chernyshevsky pointed out that, although this reform had affected the appearance of the relation between master and serf, little real change had occurred. He hinted that revolution was perhaps the only way to completely abolish serfdom.
Because of his criticism of the government Chernyshevsky was watched carefully by the czarist secret police, and in 1862 his name headed the list of political suspects. That year he was arrested and imprisoned. While in prison he wrote the novel What Is To Be Done? (1863). In it he rejects such concepts as honor, conscience, duty, and self-sacrifice. What Is To Be Done? soon became the bible of the radical youth. It called for freedom in personal relations and for dedication to society, and it contained effective arguments for women's emancipation, for socialism, and indirectly for revolution. Lenin called it "one of those books the impact of which lasts a lifetime."
In 1864 Chernyshevsky was exiled to Siberia. Broken in health, he returned to civilization in 1883. He died in Saratov on Oct. 29, 1889.
Further Reading on Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky
Chernyshevsky's Selected Philosophical Essays (1953) contains a large collection of articles. His What Is To Be Done? Tales about New People (1961), with an introduction by E. H. Carr, is important as an intellectual document and as a prototype of later didactic radical novels. Recommended for general historical background are Tomas G. Masaryk, The Spirit of Russia: Studies in History, Literature, and Philosophy (2 vols., 1913; trans. 1919; 2d ed. 1955), and Franco Venturi, Roots of Revolution: A History of the Populist and Socialist Movements in Nineteenth Century Russia (1960).
Additional Biography Sources
Paperno, Irina, Chernyshevsky and the age of realism: a study in the semiotics of behavior, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988.
Pereira, N. G. O. (Norman G. O.), The thought and teachings of N. G. Chernyshevsky, The Hague: Mouton, 1975.
Vasily Perov, ‘Portrait of Fyodor M. Dostoevsky’, 1872, oil on canvas, The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
The author’s task was to investigate the question of the aesthetic relation of works of art to the phenomena of life, to test the correctness of the prevailing opinion that true beauty, which is regarded as the essential content of works of art, does not exist in objective reality, but is attained only by art. Inseparably connected with this question are the questions of the essence of beauty and the content of art. Investigation of the question of the essence of beauty has led the author to the conviction that beauty is life. After arriving at this conclusion it became necessary to investigate the concepts sublime and tragic, which according to the usual definition of beauty are elements of the latter, and we were forced to the conclusion that the sublime and the beautiful are not subsumed in art. This proved an important aid to the solution of the question of the content of art. But if beauty is life, the question of the aesthetic relation of beauty in art to beauty in reality solves itself. Having arrived at the conclusion that art cannot owe its origin to man’s dissatisfaction with beauty in reality, we had to ascertain what needs gave rise to art and to investigate ins true purpose. The following are the chief conclusions to which this investigation brought us:
- The definition of beauty as ‘the perfect manifestation of the general idea in the individual phenomenon’ does not stand criticism; it is too broad, for this is the definition of the formal striving of all human activity.
- The true definition of beauty is: ‘beauty is life.’ To man, a beautiful being is that being in which he sees life as he understands it; a beautiful object is an object that reminds him of life.
- This objective beauty, or beauty in essence, must be distinguished from perfection of form, which consists in the unity of the idea and the form, or in the object fully answering its purpose.
- The sublime does not affect man by awakening in him the idea of the absolute; it hardly ever awakens it.
- To man, the sublime is that which seems to be much bigger than the objects, or much more powerful than the phenomena, with which he compares it.
- The tragic has no essential connection with the idea of fate or necessity. In real life the tragic is most often adventitious, it does not spring from the essence of preceding events. The form of necessity in which it is clothed by art springs from the ordinary principle of works of art: ‘the denouement must follow from the plot,’ or else is due to the artist’s misplaced surrender to the conception of fate.
- The tragic, according to the conception of recent European learning, is ‘the horrible in a man’s life.’
- The sublime (and its element, the tragic) is not a variety of the beautiful; the idea of the sublime and the idea of the beautiful are two entirely different things; between them there is neither inherent connection nor inherent contrast.
- Reality is not only more animated, but is also more perfect than imagination. The images of the imagination are only pale and nearly always unsuccessful imitations of reality.
- Beauty in objective reality is fully beautiful.
- Beauty in objective reality fully satisfies man.
- Art does not spring from man’s desire to make up for the flaws in beauty in reality.
- Works of art are inferior to beauty in reality not only because the impression created by reality is more vivid than that created by works of art: works of art are inferior to beauty (and also inferior to the sublime, the tragic and the ridiculous) in reality also from the aesthetic point of view.
- The sphere of art is not limited to the sphere of the beautiful in the aesthetic sense of the term, of beauty in its essence and not only in perfection of form; art reproduces everything that is of interest to man.
- Perfection of form (unity of the idea and the form) is not the characteristic feature of art in the aesthetic sense of the term (the fine arts). Beauty as the unity of the idea and the image, or as the perfect realisation of the idea, is the object of the striving of art in the broadest sense of the term, or of ‘accomplishment,’ the object of all man’s practical activities.
- The need that engenders art in the aesthetic sense of the term (the fine arts) is the same as that which is very clearly expressed in portrait painting. Portraits are not painted because the features of the living person do not satisfy us; they are painted in order to help us to remember the living person when he is not in front of our eyes and to give those who have not had occasion to see him some idea of what he is like. By its reproductions, art merely reminds us of what in life is of interest to us and strives to acquaint us to some degree with those interesting aspects of life which we have not had occasion to experience or see in reality.
- Reproduction of life is the general characteristic feature of art and constitutes its essence. Works of art often have another purpose, viz., to explain life; they often also have the purpose of pronouncing judgement on the phenomena of life.
Vasily Perov, ‘Self-portrait’, 1851, oil on canvas, Museum of Russian Art, Kiev
N.G. Chernyshevsky, ‘The Aesthetic Relation of Art to Reality’, MA thesis, 1855, in Selected Philosophical Essays, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1953, 379-381
Image sources: 1st/2nd