Dostoevsky as Philosopher
November 28, 1995; June 2, 1998
Guest Lecture by Jay Gallagher
From a filthy barracks room in Siberia, Fyodor Dostoevsky begged his brother Michael to send him what he called "absolutely necessary intellectual food... a copy of the Koran, and oh yes, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason." When no reply was forthcoming, we learn from his letters that the requests were repeated. Fyodor diplomatically suggested that Michael buy the least expensive editions available, and mail them at the cheapest possible rate. He never received an answer. We do know that he was given a copy of the Bible along the way by some charitable Russian Orthodox donor, and it deeply influenced him during his four years of imprisonment (and six of forced military service). He had been convicted of sedition. It didn't take much to be accused of plotting against the Tsar -- a printing press had been discovered in the possession of his social circle which had once touched ink to paper in the service of radical utopian ideas.
Now, Dostoevsky could have asked for food -- God knows by all accounts the prisoners badly needed it -- or tobacco, or vodka, or perhaps some medication to mitigate his increasingly severe epileptic attacks. But he said he couldn't live without books to read. As he put it, "I am weak in philosophy, but not in my love for philosophy, which is strong." But of course, isn't this exactly what "philosopher" means? Etymologically, the word points to a lover of wisdom (Philo sophia), not necessarily to one who claims already to have it.
Nicolai Berdyaev, an existentialist religious thinker (and exiled Russian) writing in the '50s, unequivocally declared Dostoevsky to be "Russia's greatest metaphysician." And Walter Kaufmann included Dostoevsky in his classic anthology of existentialist writings. He explained, "I can see no reason for calling Dostoevsky an existentialist, but I do think that Part One of Notes From Underground is the best overture for existentialism ever written." (14 Kaufmann) After reading Notes From nderground in translation 1887, Friedrich Nietzsche admitted that Dostoevsky was "the only person who has ever taught me anything about psychology." (168 Gide)
So you can see that Dostoevsky has had a profound impact upon the course of the last century of philosophical thought. Through his novels he managed to engage in a considerable amount of serious and controversial philosophical commentary. As Berdyaev put it, "he may have learnt but little from philosophy, but he taught it much." (35 Berdyaev)
This method of expressing philosophical ideas through novels is characteristically Russian. In fact, it is probably fair to say that Dostoevsky helped to create this peculiarity of Russian literature. As a modern example, let us look at Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivaqo. The body of this novel is saturated with religious and philosophical allusions and symbolism -- almost on every page. The title itself reminds every Russian, regardless of religious background, of the Russian Orthodox Bible. This is because "zhivago" is the Old Church Slavonic pronunciation (akin to our King James English) of the word "living." The very title "Zhivago" is a Biblical allusion, referring to the quotation "why seek ye He among the living...". This custom of working Christian and other philosophical ideas into the structure of a novel was started by a handful of Russian writers, and chief among them, and the one with the strongest philosophical ideas to communicate -- was Dostoevsky.
There are two ways that this marriage of philosophy to the novel is accomplished; one direct, and the other indirect. In a section of The Brothers Karamazov called "The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor," and again in Notes From Underground, long monologues which contain explicit metaphysical, ethical, and sociopolitical ideas come out of the mouths of Dostoevsky's characters. We will turn to these explicit statements later.
But in Dostoevsky's work the communication of philosophical ideas is also done in an indirect manner through unfolding the destinies of his characters. Each character is shown acting upon certain beliefs; what we could call the "karmic consequences" (please pardon the fantastic leap in religious frameworks here) of a given philosophical stance show up in the end when we see what happens to the character. Raskolnikov of Crime and Punishment, for instance, starts out to test his belief in a type of Nietzschean "Superman." He "seizes the moment" and commits an act of murder just to see if he has the courage to break the rules. (We could say he is playing a game of "chicken" with himself). Raskolnikov ends up tortured with guilt, ultimately repenting of the act and going gladly to prison in Siberia.
Of course, that was Dostoevsky's idea of the real psychological consequences of committing a senseless murder. But we are left to wonder if Dostoevsky is right. Nietzsche, for instance, would probably not agree that a freely chosen act, even a murder, would necessarily plunge a person into an abyss of guilt. Speaking of Christian morality, Nietzsche once wrote, "This queer and sick world into which the Gospels introduce us -- a world out of a Russian novel in which the scum of society, nervous diseases, and 'childlike' idiocy seem to give each other a rendezvous." (291 Kaufmann from Der Antichrist). There is considerable latitude for speculation over just what the karmic consequences of our actions are.
Each of Dostoevsky's characters, like characters we encounter in real life, is a mystery to fathom. Berdyaev notes that each character is a puzzle to solve; he also observes that the least interesting puzzles are the morally "better" characters (e.g. Myshkin of The Idiot or Alyosha Karamazov). The ones with the most interesting twists and turns are the ones whose integrity is flawed, who contradict themselves, who wonder themselves why they do what they do.
The reader is invited to guess what the underlying principles are that pull together such apparently contradictory actions; what childhood traumas, what crucial life decisions, what current circumstances have contributed to this or that character acting in such and such a way. Just as each real individual we meet is a moral mystery, so Dostoevsky's characters force us to wonder about them as if they were real. only an artificial construction -- a stereotype -- can be completely fathomed. It was Dostoevsky's belief that real people are not such neat constructions.
We have moral encounters with Dostoevsky's characters. Like real moral encounters, they leave us questioning our own values. This is why Tolstoy could not bear to call Dostoevsky a "real" artist. Tolstoy felt that a true artist gives his readers answers to the deeper questions of life. Dostoevsky gave only questions.
And it is true that Dostoevsky's characters are questionmarks. The element of mystery -- of unfathomableness -- is essential. I once was assigned a certain translation of Crime and Punishment for a class where the translator left out one 'innocuous Russian particle in the first sentence (talk about the cheapest possible editions!). I'm sure that the translator, Jesse Coulson, felt that the small particle "kak bui" (meaning "as if") as inessential and could be safely omitted. In the first sentence of this novel, Dostoevsky had written that Raskolnikov turned "as if" in hesitation on a bridge. Coulson translated it simply as "turned irresolutely." I blew up! I almost refused to buy the text for the class, and eventually wrote a whole cranky paper about it, and sent it off like a crank to a journal (and, like a crank, got the article turned down).
Imagine! A Dostoevsky character without mystery! Kak bui was important. The point of using "as if" is to stimulate the reader's imagination -- to get him or her to begin to speculate on Raskolnikov's motives from the very first sentence. Why is he turning? Is he really hesitating about something? If so, what? Later we will work ourselves up to a crescendo of speculation, asking ourselves: "why did he really kill the old moneylender? did he prove anything to himself? does he feel guilty? if so, why?". To remove the element of pondering over the motives of Dostoevsky's characters -- and thus of asking ourselves: "what are their principles? what should be their principles? and ultimately, what should ours be?" -- ruins his entire literary, and moral, enterprise.
Now, as I have suggested, not everyone answers Dostoevsky's questions the same way. While Nietzsche appreciated Dostoevsky's grasp of human psychology, he would not necessarily assume that Raskolnikov would be racked with guilt, nor could Nietzsche stomach such characters as Alyosha or Prince Myshkin. In the same vein, Karl Marx would never have acknowledged that there was a grain of truth to the disastrous portraits of a circle of fanatical revolutionaries in The Possessed.
However, although Dostoevsky stands in sharp contrast to Marx and Nietzsche, he is not out of step with them. The nineteenth century saw a leap out of the Enlightenment into what might be called the "psychological era," which looked back on the safe and sane ideas of a Chain of Being and a rational universe as so much naiveté. Dostoevsky was definitely one of the architects of this change of consciousness. After Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, Schopenhauer and others, something was "discovered" (or perhaps invented) we could call the "unconscious." Contradictory and unacknowledged motives came to be seen as influencing the destinies of men and nations (and even occasionally of women). And Dostoevsky was one of those who helped to "raise" this 19th and 20th century consciousness.
But the fact that all of the other "movers and shakers" of the 19th century would have to completely reject some of his strongest philosophical statements puts him in an odd position. We can say that Dostoevsky stands as an heroic counterpoint to the greatest ideas of the modern world.
He criticizes all of his contemporaries with a sharpness that has still not been surpassed. In fact, over time, many of his criticisms may be said to be prophetic. Before Marx, he castigated violent revolutionaries, before Nietzsche he warned humankind of the poison of inflating the human soul with dreams of becoming a superman. He unleashed a flood of sarcasm against every school of "progress" designed to improve and rationalize the society of his time, whether it came from the liberal camp, such as JS Mill; the scientific camp, such as the Darwinists; the socialist camp, such as Bielinsky; or conservative theocrats, such as the Catholic Church. I would say that his criticism of the "sciences of man" -- psychology, anthropology, sociology and such, is as scathing as Foucault's.
In order to see how he got into this position we ought to take a look at his life; certain events influenced him so deeply that he could not bring himself to accept optimistic scenarios, or plans to rationalize society in order to free humanity of its chains in one fell swoop. From what Dostoevsky saw of life, most of humanity's chains were moral ones. And moral chains can be removed only by spiritual rebirth, not by social reorganization. This is why many called him a reactionary. But his hatred of theocracy and oppression of all kinds was as deep as any revolutionary's; thus, he didn't fit among traditionalists (such as the Slavophiles) either. After reading The Brothers Karamazov, the elders or staretzi of Optina monastery couldn't quite pronounce him to be "one of them." They weren't sure whether he was on the side of the Evil One or not.
In 1839, when Dostoevsky was eighteen, the serfs on his father's plantation rose up and murdered the tryannical old patriarch. This probably accounts for the young man's preoccupation with sin and expiation. He wrote two novels after this time, Poor Folk and The Double, both published in 1846. He began to hang around proto-socialist circles, and although he had never heard of Marx, socialistic and communistic ideas were discussed. He was arrested by the Tsarist government, and sentenced to Siberia at twenty eight years of age. There his epilepsy got worse under apalling prison conditions, but he acquired something which helped him immensely. This gift helped him so much that it probably accounts for his lack of bitterness upon his return to St. Petersburg.
He had broken through the almost insurmountable class barriers of Russian society. He was thrown in with the very lowest social strata; in prison, high and low born were forced to speak to each other on a day-to-day basis. While most of the prisoners from a background of serfdom still regarded him and all other "gentlemen" with suspicion, there was enough interaction between Dostoevsky and those of the "masses" that he acquired a sense of serfs, peasants and other representatives of the lower classes as real multi-dimensional human beings. His work is refreshingly free of romantic stereotypes or, on the other hand, of bigoted and mean-spirited caricatures of "the vulgar masses."
Romanticization of "the people" was almost a sickness with the Russian intelligentsia of Dostoevsky's time. Not being able to communicate freely with either those lower or higher than themselves in the social scale, Russian writers tended to romanticize either the aristocracy (e.g. Lermontov) or the masses (e.g. Tolstoy) in order to ally themselves with some part of the social hierarchy. This lack of truthfulness considerably weakened their attempts to work with the masses in any real attempt to increase literacy among the peasants and guide them in any constructive political direction. Their frequent crusades to enlighten the peasantry often absurdly misfired. The peasantry often had contempt for the intelligentsia, and worse, the intelligentsia often had contempt for themselves. Russia's intellectual elite was paralyzed by what today would be called "liberal guilt."
Humility of the soul is a distinctively Russian virtue. But without real communication between the "lowly" and those higher up, all attempts by the intellectual classes to pay homage to this virtue resulted only in a flood of romantic drivel. Siberia swept all this away for Dostoevsky. He came out of prison with a sense that common unbathed illiterate Russians were full human beings who carried the same complex moral burdens as anyone else. He was able to employ a traditional Christian ethical value system without the false romanticism born of ignorance -- without bias either for or against "the lowly". He was able to preach true Russian humility in his work in a way which had a ring of truth. He had shared the bedbugs and watery cabbage soup and frozen nights in Siberia with convicts and sons of peasants, and felt them there with him when he wrote about them. Andre Gide once wrote of Dostoevsky's work that "no one with pride of intellect could ever properly understand him." (50 Gide)
After he returned from Siberia his first two novels directly reflected his experience of this world of the underprivileged" -- The Insulted and Injured was serialized in '61 and '62 in a journal he opened with his brother. Written entirely in the form of letters supposedly written by the main character, it reminds one of the modern The Color Purple -- or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Alice Walker very likely learned that literary technique from him. Memoirs From the House of the Dead uses a diary-like format, and contains many vivid recollections of prison life. It came out in 1862. Then about every two years after that he produced one major novel after another, each depicting a soul's journey from crisis to resolution; always involving a desperate search for spiritual values. The successful characters find faith in Christianity, others illustrate the consequences of "bad karma."
It seemed obvious to Dostoevsky that we need to love one another as Jesus directed. But it was equally obvious to him that we don't. What is to be done? He works out a variation on an answer to this momentous question in each of his novels. He died while writing the Karamazov saga. The Brothers Karamazov that came out in 1880 -- the one we know -- was supposed to be the first part of a trilogy. Dostoevsky died at age sixty in 1881.
Russian Orthodox Christianity was for Dostoevsky the answer to the problem of nihilism he saw growing around him. This problem was succinctly summarized by him through the famous words of Ivan Karamazov: "If God is dead, all is permitted." Like Nietzsche, Dostoevsky clearly saw that the security of the Medieval world view had crumbled, and with it went the philosophical foundations for Christian ethics. Dostoevsky, like Nietzsche, accepted this development and did not shy away from exploring its ramifications. He knew it was too late to turn back to the world view of a pre-scientific era. He knew the human race "couldn't go home again."
But unlike Nietzsche, Dostoevsky believed that leaving the reader on his or her own to be a god to himself was an invitation to disaster. Russians have always been extremists; nihilistic or apocalyptic visions seem to captivate Russian thinkers, and in Dostoevsky's time ordinary tea rooms and vodka parlors were full of earnest discussions of how to build a scientific -- even atheistic -- new world, or alternatively, how God would punish those who tried. Ronald Reagan's ill-conceived remark that "the Russians don't even have a word for freedom" couldn't be more wrong!
The trouble with the Russians is not that they don't know what svoboda, or freedom is, but that they want it all! They want complete freedom. I don't think it is an accident that the one musical instrument without any keys or mouthpiece at all -- the Theremin -- was invented by a person born in Russia. The Theremin is a perfect illustration of freedom from all forms of restraint.
Americans may be wincing at this point; such cultural characterizations come dangerously close to cultural stereotypes forbidden by today's canons of political correctness. But I am very certain that Dostoevsky himself, politically correct or not, would agree completely. The trouble with the Russian soul is not that it does not know freedom, but that it won't tolerate just a little freedom. It wants absolute freedom in all respects in all things -- and then flies apart.
Dostoevsky's novels are full of characters flying apart, testing the limits of freedom -- searching for a satisfactory solution to the problem of nihilism.
Some of you cross cultural studies majors may note a similarity with Hinduism here. Hinduism teaches that if you take each desire to its limit you will find that the limited goal you end up with cannot satisfy your infinite thirst. Only merging with the Infinite can satisfy your desires, which are infinite. Buddhism was created as a means of aiding the soul to accomplish this spiritual submergence.
The resemblance is not coincidental. We should remember that Russia is not a Western European country, and the Asian message of renunciation of egotistical desires has had strong appeal there. Dostoevsky had much in common with Asian thinkers; like Gautama Buddha, he spent his life searching for an answer to the question, "how can we escape from the cycle of human suffering?". And like the Buddha, he came to religious philosophy only after rigorous psychological analysis of the human condition. His answer had much in common with the Buddha's: you cannot find peace until you renounce your selfish desires. Maybe God is dead, maybe all is permitted. But the law of dharma will assert itself: you must live with the consequences of your actions. Experience itself will teach you that you have to get in step with the moral law, and that egotism is a vicious illusion and a snare for the soul. If you want peace, you must renounce the "I".
Here Dostoevsky agrees with Gautama Buddha, and I think to this extent we can class him with a long line of traditional Hindu and Buddhist metaphysicians.
But you will notice an important difference at this point. Read Notes From Underground, and you'll see the most spirited defense of desire ever written. Here he parts company from pacific Asian philosophies and rejoins the Christian West. Some desire is good -- the desire that compels us to love our neighbor, and the desire that motivates us to create something entirely new in the world.
Creativity is a virtue for Dostoevsky, even if it causes suffering. Here he is back in the existentialist camp with the "rugged individualists" Freud, Marx and Nietzsche, as well as with other towering figures of the 19th and 20th centuries such as Jean Paul Sartre and Kierkegaard.
But what does it mean to be 'in the existentialist camp'? And why is creativity suddenly a virtue? Here a deeper examination of cataclysmic events in the history of ideas is necessary. No greater volcanic eruption has happened in the history of thought than this: the collision of Medieval Christianity, and its other-worldly philosophy of renunciation, with the discovery that well-being in this world, through scientific advancement, may be entirely possible.
Ethically, values from these competing paradigms clash radically: this world or the next? renunciation or satisfaction of one's desires? Ontologically, it is not even decided what the ultimate reality might be: matter in motion or the Tripartite Personhood of God? Epistemologically, there is a crisis of authority: whom do we trust? the evidence of our senses or revelation? To this day, some holdouts are still battling the Satanic forces of scientific humanism.
Here is where existentialism comes in. The clash of values was so far-reaching that it prompted some to break with classical philosophy entirely -- rejecting the Greek dictum "essence before existence,' which had held the field for 2000 years. Those who call themselves existentialists believe it is the other way around. 'Essences" are just concepts abstracted from the living flow of our experiences. Our individual existences come first -- essences are always posited later. But this puts a great burden of responsibility upon us, for we, in effect, create essences. Thus creativity enters the picture as an inevitable part of a universe we are making as we go along. If we are actually creating ontological categories, ethical values, and so on, rather than discovering them, creativity becomes a crucially important value, even a sacred one.
But it wasn't only a small circle of philosophers who labeled themselves 'existentialists" who were affected by this collision (Dostoevsky himself never used the word). The whole face of Western culture changed forever as hopes of fulfillment in this world (as opposed to the next) began to be kindled. The adjustments that all thinkers had to make in their thinking are fascinating. Here is a passage from Dr. Zhivago, for instance. Notice the blend of peculiarly modern doctrines such as Communism, historicism, Freudianism and cultural relativism with traditional Christianity.
As I was saying, one must be true to Christ. I'll explain. What you don't understand is that it is possible to be an atheist, it is possible not to know whether God exists, or why, and yet believe that man does not live in a state of nature but in history, and that history as we know it began with Christ, and that Christ's Gospel is its foundation. Now what is history? It is the centuries of systematic explorations of the riddle of death, with a view to overcoming death. That's why people discover mathematical infinity and electromagnetic waves, that's why they write symphonies. Now, you can't advance in this direction without a certain faith. You can't make such discoveries without spiritual equipment. And the basic elements of this equipment are in the Gospels. What are they? To begin with, love of one's neighbor, which is the supreme form of vital energy. Once it fills the heart of man it has to overflow and spend itself. And then the two basic ideals of modern man -- without them he is unthinkable -- the idea of free personality and the idea of life as sacrifice. Mind you, all this is still extraordinarily new. There was no history in this sense among the ancients. They had blood and beastliness and cruelty and pockmarked Caligulas who do not suspect how untalented every enslaver is. They had the boastful dead eternity of bronze monuments and marble columns. It was not until after the coming of Christ that time and man could breathe freely. It was not until after Him that men began to live toward the future. Man does not die in a ditch like a dog -- but at home in history, while the work toward the conquest of death is in full swing; he dies sharing in his work. Ouf! I got quite worked up, didn't I? But I might as well be talking to a blank wall.
We can see a cluster of concepts emerging during this period that completely transformed Western culture, especially ethics and political philosophy. One way we can approach this cluster of ideas is through Foucault's description: "it was a period when desire erupted into discourse." The Medieval period had defined the desires of ordinary people as lusts or sins, that is, as potential violations of taboos. Suddenly, with the unlocking of the secrets of nature and the spread of technology, the small hope was created that desires could be fulfilled in this world, during a regular human lifetime. Human desires came to be seen as "rightful needs" -- and lo and behold, society came to be seen as a vehicle for fulfilling them. Berdyaev called the clash of ethical values that resulted from this shift of paradigms the "Great Problem of Bread." No other issue cuts so deeply to the heart of ethics: feeding the masses began to seem as though it were an ethical imperative, and citizens of states began to seem to have "rights" to the fulfillment of their material needs.
Certain important Medieval values had to be dethroned to make room for this new value system. The "transvaluation of values" that Nietzsche spoke about actually took place, albeit without a race of Supermen. Here is a list of some of the more noticeable points of strain:
Materialism, anti-authoritarianism, human rights, the idea of the individual, "the emergence of the body." All of these burst on the scene almost all of a piece. The Great Chain of Being would never be the same again.
And when you think about it, no matter how nostalgic we might be for a world of stable "family values," no one really wants to give up human rights or scientific control over the environment. No one really wants to give up well being in this world as a desirable goal, or to give up confidence in one's own ability to create something entirely new and significant in the world.
But look what a stretch these new beliefs are for traditional theology! What happens to the belief that God created the world in all its completeness if it is admitted that our creativity brings something new into the universe? (Berdyaev had to bend Christian doctrine considerably here: he claimed our creativity constitutes an "Eighth Day of Creation," but this happy solution demands some theological juggling, as we will see.) What happens to God the Father as the authority underpinning the Ten Commandments? Do the Commandments become the Ten Suggestions?
Those thinkers, like Dostoevsky, who chose to salvage some aspects of Christianity had to struggle not to appear to be anachronisms or hypocrites. After his pioneering efforts, we can see a long line of Russian writers, including Zamyatin, Berdyaev and Pasternak. follwing in his footsteps. Without Dostoevsky, there might not have been that particular flowering of Russian literature, a flowering which served as a brilliant counterweight to Marxist dogma.
But why didn't Dostoevsky take the easy way out? Why didn't he simply side with the secular humanists in the face of the Great Intractable Problem of Bread? After all, one honest answer to the question: where is God now that scientific knowledge, not myth, rules our thinking, is "He is dead." Why not chuck out all of the old doctrines at once? That is what the "Great Atheists" of the turn of the century did: I am speaking of Nietzsche, Marx and Freud. Only children are captivated by imaginary mythological figures who hold threats of punishment over their heads for breaking rules. Maybe it is time for the human race to grow up; maybe it is time to throw off father figures, heavenly or otherwise, and build a better world along more rational and equitable lines.
It is not at all clear what is wrong with this, but not at all clear what a better world would be. One's conception of a better world has a lot to do with one's basic philosophical framework; if one believes that Nature is essentially a Kindly Mother, then one might recommend that the human race simply get "in step" with her. If, on the other hand, one has a conception of the universe as a threatening place, one might insist that only a social system which puts our "lower" Impulses in check, and maximizes our "higher" ones, is desirable. As William James noted, some religions (he called them the "healthy minded") prompt us to take the first position, while the "sick" ones load us down with a sense of sin and urge us to transcend "this world." I have noticed that possible positions to take on the issues of whether nature is our friend or foe, and whether or not it is desirable to transcend this world or transform it, can be arranged in a circle.
Here is a diagram depicting various positions; we could actually call these various positions responses to the problem of nihilism. Notice Dostoevsky's place in the spectrum: he sides with the Great Atheists when it comes to existential values; he agrees that the individual is the center of all value, but he stops short of condoning a view of the universe as rational, or even rationalizable (as Freud would have it). He is the one thinker on this circle that I think has a great deal in common with the figure directly opposite him (Walt Whitman), but the anguished confessions coming out of the mouths of many of his characters borrow heavily from Augustine's Confessions.
To continue with our quest . .. why, I am asking, is it that Dostoevsky walks halfway down the road with "The Great Atheists"of the nineteenth century, yet abruptly turns back? How does he end up differing from his European contemporaries so radically?
For an answer, let us return to the rise of the new world view we have just mentioned. We have said that antiauthoritarianism became a good thing. Perhaps it had become time for men and women to learn to make their own rules -- that is, to govern themselves. That's fine, but what if the rule under consideration is "thou shalt not murder"? Are we still being childish to hesitate to break that one?
Here is where Dostoevsky's thought recapitulates Gautama Buddha's: a clear-eyed scrutiny of the psychological consequences of such actions teaches us that the moral law will catch up to those who think they are above it. But his Christian and modern Western background pulls him away from a thoroughly Asian analysis: the individual soul, with all of its desires, is the most important thing on earth. Renouncing false pride, but not individuality or all striving, is Dostoevsky's idea of Right Conduct.
But just as Dostoevsky is not an Asian thinker, so he is not a Greek one, either. And here is where he differs so considerably from his contemporaries. Other thinkers have defended the "unconscious" or remarked upon the "absurdity" of the human condition, but they subtilely shift the scales back to rationality with the promise that we are capable of rationalizing the absurd, if only we are courageous enough, intelligent enough or psychoanalyzed enough to do so.
Dostoevsky, however, rejects a value system which idealizes reason. He does not hold rationality to be the governing faculty within our psyches, nor does he think it necessarily should be. In sharp contrast to the Greeks, his conception of ultimate reality is not Logos-based. Notes From Underground is the strong- est argument ever written against-a logocentric ontology. I find it very convincing. Look at humanity, he says. Does man look like a rational animal to you?
The sheer wealth of the schools of thought which come under Dostoevsky's knife in Notes From Underground is astounding. He scathingly dissects every contemporary scheme for social improvement, from liberal attempts to help us fulfill our rational self- interest to socialistic utopias. There we can find disparaging comments about the Darwinists, behavioral scientists, Westernizing artists (such as the cult of "the Good and the Beautiful" around Schiller), would-be Marxists, capitalists, in short, all Progressives. And we find not just mild comments suggesting that there is more to life than these visionaries realize, but truly vulgar comments involving harsh vocabulary and even harsher gestures with the middle finger. His satirical image of a respectable scientist whose desires can be predicted according to a railroad timetable, even down to how he, er, "cocks his head when he sticks out his tongue," is unforgettable (the Russian refers to another gesture).
I am convinced that he had to make his main character out to be a so-called "neurotic." The main character is painted as "perverse" precisely because he could not get by with saying what he does straight out. An era of social improvement on the upswing has no tolerance for criticism of its basic values. Dostoevsky was criticizing all of the major schools of though in his time before most of them were fully formed. only a "perverse" character that the reader expects to say awful and contradictory things would be tolerated by Dostoevsky's readers; after all, they were bound to agree with at least one of the doctrines he is attacking. Since he is assaulting the belief systems of his readers he has to use some pretty tricky literary mechanisms to defuse their resistance. one mechanism he uses is humor.
Andrew MacAndrew's translation is particularly humorous, and I think, faithful to at least one of Dostoevsky's intentions in this work. As Arthur Koestler tells us, laughter releases emotional energy that seconds before existed as some sort of aggressive tension. The greater the explosion of aggressive energy, the funnier the joke. Well, Dostoevsky is hitting his readers where they live here. The release of the psychic residue of shocked sensibilities in laughter is a wonderful device to insure that his readers do not simply "see red" and slam the book down in fury.
Now, all of these pointed remarks have one basic principle at the root: he is refusing to concede that society can be rationalized for our benefit. Society is no more rational than we are. At the heart of every person is a mystery, and we encounter that mystery through a kind of feeling, such as the feeling we might have in moments of self transcendence.
He insists on the sacredness of the individual, and bitterly hates any institution which oppresses individuals, but he defends the individual in the name of a sacred mystery shared between the individual and God, not in the name of man's "higher rational faculties." Ayn Rand would be simply appalled.
And if it is not our essence to be rational, then we cannot be counted upon to be good, either. If wo/man is an irrational animal whose desire to create a big effect in the world is typically a stronger motive than good sense, then any sort of good or evil is potentially lurking in us. We can see these good and evil schemes hatched in the minds of a broad range of Dostoevsky's characters.
Nicolai Berdyaev realized the theological implications of this insight, and claimed that God could not be responsible for the mystery at the heart of human beings. Ultimately, both God and humanity draw entirely new things out of the void, conceived of along the lines of the mystic Jacob Boehme's Ungrund. The universe, even before God burst onto the scene, consists of irrational darkness.
With marvelous excessive Russian willfulness, Underground Man literally tells Western logocentric man where to get off. And as far as I can see, Underground Man wins the debate. History has shown us that human irrationality doesn't go away, that plans for improvement often backfire. As Walt Whitman wrote: "every struggle makes a greater struggle necessary." Score one for the Underground Man.
This profound animus against all schemes to rationalize society for humanity's benefit stemmed from Dostoevsky's conviction that any such attempt to force humanity onto the Procrustean Bed of some "system" amounts to tyranny. This includes schemes that actually work -- those that enable men and women to increase their standard of living (or their "well-being"). But how could any sane person possibly take a stand against well-being?
We find the two parts of his answer in Notes From Underground and "The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor".The key point to remember, he believed, is that the desire for freedom and the desire for well-being are not identical. Unlike John Stuart Mill, who claimed that the desire for freedom was one (extremely important) component of our desire for happiness, Dostoevsky believed that the desire for freedom was often opposed to the desire for well-being. For instance, people can be bribed into renunciation of their ideals with promises of material benefits.
"The.Legend of the Grand Inquisitor" poses this dilemma: what if it were possible to make people happy by enslaving them? should we do it? What about the possibility of a perfect theocracy?
Since Dostoevsky hated tyranny in all its forms, he declared a perfect theocracy to be perfect tyranny. He depicts the Grand Inquisitor confiding to Alyosha that benevolent dictators (and the Inquisitor is one) are really working for "The other." With a transcendent Christian framework as dualistic as any from the Middle Ages, Dostoevsky is insisting that human beings must choose: freedom OR bread, freedom OR power and influence, freedom OR security. The good things of this life are more often than not glittering temptations for humanity, not cure-alls. You can see how profoundly he differs from the Marxists here; and of course, he is also casting a jaded eye on the comfortable ideals of Capitalist societies.
But Dostoevsky's own desires to remake society along the lines of Christian brotherhood, with the State as a guardian of true Christian ethics, comes disconcertingly close to a theocracy. He draws a very unsatisfying distinction between the (bad) Roman Catholic Church (to whom the Inquisition belongs) and the (good) Russian Orthodox Church which is not borne out by historical experience.
Here Dostoevsky's position as a writer, an artist, a non-philosopher, lets him off the hook. We don't need to get answers from him. And this is definitely a time when he leaves us with an open question.
He also could be accused of knowing nothing about Marxism, although I suspect it wouldn't change the diatribes of the Underground Man against socialized apartments one bit.
Another blind spot of his might be that he felt that Russia's mission was unique. He would have been surprised to read American authors and philosophers like Mark Twain, Emerson and Thoreau -- to see how similar the mind set of Americans was to his own. Walt Whitman would have pleasantly surprised him, I believe. He didn't realize that another country felt the burden of the Great Problem of Bread as deeply as his native Russia. Americans have the same puzzling dualism as Russians; in one sense we have inherited a burden of Protestant guilt -- we really do feel it is our mission to remake the world into (as we put it) "a better place." But at the same time we are as profane and materialistic a nation as ever existed. No nation has taken pure well-being as an ideal more seriously than we have.
Like Russians, we exhibit the same readiness to embrace both a plethora of sects and blatant atheism. Mrs. Trollope, the mother of the famous author, toured this country during the last century and wrote a horrible description of us (The Domestic Manners of the Americans) which still reads exceedingly well. Mark Twain loved it. One of her comments fits Dostoevsky's Russia as well as it fits us: "a country full of religious extremism. Yet atheism is flourishing."
But Dostoevsky had only Europe for comparison with Mother Russia. In a world where millions cried for bread and land, and where the Christian religion was increasingly forced to acknowledge that the masses did deserve food, medicine and freedom from tyranny -- Dostoevsky insisted that bread and land can tempt people away from what is really important: our freedom to express our individual quirks, our desires, our whims ... the freedom to make our own mistakes ... to create something entirely new. He was a strong convincing voice against the philosophy of the desirability of the human ant-hill. Long before Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin or Hirohito, he cried "basta!" He insisted that the dictatorial schools of thought were wrong because their ethical philosophy was wrong. Material happiness (or "positive reinforcement") is NOT the highest ethical value. And their ethical philosophy was wrong because their ontology was wrong. Man is not a rational animal.
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