Conrad’s Aristotle

At the beginning of Politics 8, Aristotle makes an insightful remark about the relationship between education and the form of government, or constitution, in a given society. He says:

Now nobody would dispute that the education of the young requires the special attention of the lawgiver. Indeed the neglect of this in states is injurious to their constitutions; for education ought to be adapted to the particular form of constitution, since the particular character belonging to each constitution both guards the constitution generally and originally establishes it—for instance the democratic character promotes democracy and the oligarchic character oligarchy; and the better character always causes a better constitution.

Aristotle, Politics 8.1, trans. H. Rackham, modified with reference to Benjamin Jowett’s translation.

In the first part of Under Western Eyes, a novel about Russia and revolution, Joseph Conrad says something similar about the difficulties a Western reader encounters in trying to understand the Russian temperament, here with reference to Razumov, the novel’s main character. Here is what he says, in close parallel to the aforementioned foundational Aristotelian observation:

The more adequate description would be a tumult of thoughts—the faithful reflection of the state of his feelings. The thoughts in themselves were not numerous—they were like the thoughts of most human beings, few and simple—but they cannot be reproduced here in all their exclamatory repetitions which went on in an endless and weary turmoil—for the walk was long.

If to the Western reader they appear shocking, inappropriate, or even improper, it must be remembered that as to the first this may be the effect of my crude statement. For the rest I will only remark here that this is not a story of the West of Europe.

Nations it may be have fashioned their Governments, but the Governments have paid them back in the same coin. It is unthinkable that any young Englishman should find himself in Razumov’s situation. This being so it would be a vain enterprise to imagine what he would think. The only safe surmise to make is that he would not think as Mr. Razumov thought at this crisis of his fate. He would not have an hereditary and personal knowledge or the means by which historical autocracy represses ideas, guards its power, and defends its existence. By an act of mental extravagance he might imagine himself arbitrarily thrown into prison, but it would never occur to him unless he were delirious (and perhaps not even then) that he could be beaten with whips as a practical measure either of investigation or of punishment.


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