by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov
The Bet Wisdom and Knowledge Quotes
How we cite our quotes: (Section.Paragraph)
"I have not tried either the death penalty or imprisonment for life, but if one may judge à priori, […]" (1.2)
First up, a Shmoopy brain snack for the little gray cells: "A priori" is a Latin phrase that means "from the earlier." It's used to describe one of the two ways you can get knowledge of something—from figuring out something about the physical world and using that experience to learn something, or just from reasoning and logic alone. For example, "All single men are unmarried" is something you know a priori because, duh, it's just the definition of the thing. Whereas something like "some single men are unhappy" you could only come to through some surveys or some other experience thingy, so that you could only learn a posteriori ("from afterward"). All that being said, Shmoop's deep question to you is, is deciding between the death penalty and life imprisonment even something this banker could "judge a priori"? Or would you need some kind of experience to start weighing those options?
Then after the tenth year, the prisoner sat immovably at the table and read nothing but the Gospel. It seemed strange to the banker that a man who in four years had mastered six hundred learned volumes should waste nearly a year over one thin book easy of comprehension. Theology and histories of religion followed the Gospels.
In the last two years of his confinement the prisoner read an immense quantity of books quite indiscriminately. At one time he was busy with the natural sciences, then he would ask for Byron or Shakespeare. There were notes in which he demanded at the same time books on chemistry, and a manual of medicine, and a novel, and some treatise on philosophy or theology. His reading suggested a man swimming in the sea among the wreckage of his ship, and trying to save his life by greedily clutching first at one spar and then at another. (1.19-20)
Let's make a little list of what the lawyer learns. First, light literature (we're guessing like romance novels? Or maybe funny stuff?). Then, 600 books in other languages. Next, the Bible and other religious stuff. And finally, just a crazy mix of every other kind of knowledge that's been created. Is there a method to the madness here? Shmoop's thinking maybe the idea is that he goes through human knowledge first. Then he finds God. Then he has to go and double-check whether science can disprove his new religious conclusions (spoiler alert: it can't). Does that sound plausible? What's your take on this particular book order?
In the fifth year music was audible again, and the prisoner asked for wine. Those who watched him through the window said that all that year he spent doing nothing but eating and drinking and lying on his bed, frequently yawning and angrily talking to himself. He did not read books. Sometimes at night he would sit down to write; he would spend hours writing, and in the morning tear up all that he had written. More than once he could be heard crying. (1.16)
Ah, now we're starting to get into the weirdly stalkerish aspect of this strange story. Check out how we don't actually really know anything at all about the lawyer's emotions or state of mind. Instead, everything we know about him comes from someone peering into his window, observing what he's doing, and then making some kind of judgment about what he must be feeling. How accurate do you think this kind of deduction would be? How much do we really know about another's mind?