“Man is a mystery: if you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out, then do not say that you have wasted your time. I occupy myself with this mystery, because I want to be a man.”
– Fyodor Dostoevsky
Part I is here.
By RJ Moeller
Perhaps the best explanation for the Nostradamus-like talents of Fyodor Dostoevsky can be found in this telling quote from a personal letter he sent a friend upon embarking on a career as a writer. Old Fyodor was an astute student of the human condition, but his motivation did not stem simply from academic purposes or from the fact that he wanted something, like political power.
Dostoevsky, believe it or not, actually valued life and wanted to live it more fully. He sought to realize his own purpose and function, and then to share his findings. He believed that just because we can’t know everything about our existence and the ongoing tale of humanity does not mean we cannot know anything. Nearly all of us say we want to find answers; most prematurely resign from the hunt.
Fyodor never did. And as a result, his novels remain as relevant today as they were 150 years ago.
In the first half of this essay on the 20th century sociopolitical nightmares that Dostoevsky predicted in his novels, we identified three specific areas of the culture that the great Russian writer correctly foresaw would suffer under the rise of secularism and socialism: the institution of the family, the private religion of the people, and the value such a nation puts on human life.
Today we will take a peek under the hood of three more important areas of society that would ultimately sit under judgment of the prophetic pronouncements Dostoevsky made in his impressive body of work:
- Economics of Envy: The War on Private Property
- Idolizing the Intellectual: The War on Higher Education
- and Social Engineering: The War on the Individual
4) Economics of Envy – The War on Private Property
Dostoevsky held a deep-rooted distrust and disdain for centralized power. He also despised the decadence exhibited by many among Russia’s elite. He was a man of the people, not of big government nor big business (which, especially in those days, operated under the protective umbrella of big government).
But some misunderstand Dostoevsky’s aversion to “big” as a condemnation of what we know today as free-market capitalism. The caricatures of wealthy robber barons wearing ivory-rimmed monocles or the Monopoly Man lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills tend to jump to the front of people’s minds any time a discussion of free-market economics presents itself, whether that be around the water-cooler at work or in the pages of a 19th century Russian novel.
I’ve had friends who lean fiscally Left and know my Dostoevsky appreciation ask me what I think of his anti-capitalistic message. My response is simple: Dostoevsky hated centralized power and licentious living among the rich, all while loving concepts such as private property, personal responsibility, stewardship, and creative innovation. He waxed poetically against socialism, Marxism, and those who thought they knew best how to handle other people’s lives. He wrote extensively on how political and economic freedoms were nothing without the rule of law and a citizenry that strove toward a virtuous society.
To most folks “capitalism” is merely an abstract concept, just as “socialism” is merely a label. The issue is values; Dostoevsky hated what we would consider “progressive” economic and political values. He hated them so much, he understood their deep flaws so well, that he chose to write about them in his books, identifying a root motivation that drove so many on the Left in his day: envy (or covetousness).
Last time, I cited his novel The Devils and the characters of Peter Verkhovensky (an ardent socialist radical) and his hapless father Stepan Trofimovich (a man who dabbled in progressivism, which greatly influenced his son’s future radicalism). In an utterly self-serving manner — though insightful — the father Stepan ponders aloud to a friend why it is his son Peter and his progressive friends seem to be so obsessed with money:
I’ve noticed that all these desperate socialists and communists are incredibly stingy, avaricious, and terribly eager to own things. One might even say that the more ardent a socialist a man is, the stronger is his need to accumulate goods. Why is this? Does it stem from the emotional element of their socialism?
As syndicated radio talk show host Dennis Prager often says, more people died in the 20th century because of class warfare than because of racism, homophobia, and sexism combined (and x 1,000,000). The myth perpetrated by every leftist rabble-rouser from Lenin to Hugo Chavez is that they are “men of the people” who care nothing for power or wealth, only the betterment of the proletariat. But what invariably happens is those who began by chanting “eat the rich” begin to eat (and live) like the rich they ate.
In The Devils, Peter Verkhovensky delivers eloquent monologues in front of his acolytes regarding the need to abolish private property and to redistribute wealth back to the peasants. He then spends a large chunk of the novel fighting tooth-and-nail with his father over the sale of property being held in his own name. He wants that money. He wants the finer things in life. He spends all of his time winning the favor and affections of the wealthy and influential people in his hometown. On the surface he says it is all a ploy to bring the system down, but when push comes to shove, Peter is found out to be a power-hungry, money-loving coward.
Why? The simple answer: envy. Dostoevsky believed that even those who started out with the noblest intentions would succumb to the temptations of wealth and power if their mode of “leveling the playing field” included putting themselves chiefly in charge of the leveling. The use of force to take from some to give to others, the abolition of private property, the high-minded refusal to give a man and his family the chance to own their own plot of earth — these were wicked means to disingenuous ends in his mind. Dostoevsky foresaw that the dissolution of private property would spell the end of freedom for any country that adopted it.
To start an ideology on a lie — revolutionary Marxism’s falsehood that all would magically be equal once these new people were in power — was to render it void of morality and to guarantee havoc if ever given power over the population.
As the saintly character Father Zosima put it in The Brothers Karamazov:
A man who lies to himself, and believes his own lies, becomes unable to recognize truth, either in himself or in anyone else, and he ends up losing respect for himself and for others. When he has no respect for anyone, he can no longer love, and in him, he yields to his impulses, indulges in the lowest form of pleasure, and behaves in the end like an animal in satisfying his vices. And it all comes from lying — to others and to yourself.
It is a lie to say that owning property — whatever form this may manifest itself in — is wrong or immoral. Someone is going to own it, and Dostoevsky quickly identified the collectivist mindset was one that would lead to great human suffering. It accelerates envy and greed because it is rooted firmly in both.
5) Idolizing the Intellectual: The War on Higher Education
Dostoevsky was a brilliant man and had great respect for the cultivation and education of the human mind. But as he gained more notoriety and traveled Western Europe in intellectual circles, he took note of the type of people produced by the Western university. What he found troubled him greatly, and his critique of the modern, progressive intelligentsia was biting and sharp in his later works.
For example, in The Brothers Karamazov – what ended up being his final novel — one of the primary characters is a clear illustration of Dostoevsky’s analysis of what contemporary “higher education” was teaching (and the impact it would have on society should the masses follow the intellectual leader). Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov is the second son of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, and the middle brother between Dmitri and Alyosha. He possesses a keen mind and excels in any academic endeavor he undertakes. Because of Ivan’s acutely logical mind, one cultivated in institutions of higher learning in the West, the young man demands a rational explanation for everything that happens in the universe. There is no room for faith, religion, or God (although he is stalked by Lucifer in his mind). He even writes a long parable titled “The Grand Inquisitor” in which Christ returns to earth and is rejected by a cardinal for failing to give mankind what the institutions of man were able to give them.
Grandiose ideas fill his head about the relative value of human life, and he comes to justify his hatred of the institution of the family in academic/philosophical terms (when really he simply had a bad childhood and resents it). The end result is a person who believes himself superior to all others and who is willing to manipulate his own convictions so long as they crush those of the “God, Family, Country” class of Russians he detests.
Sound familiar to anyone?
Although he does not kill Fyodor Karamazov directly, the logical extension and practical execution of his ideas and ethos do, and this drives him to madness.
Now, of course Dostoevsky did not believe that all learned men would reject God, inspire murder, and spend the golden years of their life in insane asylums. But he did believe that ideas have consequences, and the ideas confronting him among the highly influential intellectual classes in Europe were, to say the least, troublesome to his traditional values and patriotic spirit.
I’m going to flesh out social engineering, one of the most common ideas he constantly heard perpetuated among the ruling classes, but it must first be re-emphasized that Dostoevsky was no backwoods anti-intellectual. He didn’t hate all ideas about society, government, and economics — he simply hated many of the ideas arrogantly labeled “progressive.” It was the worship of these men, and the acceptance of bad ideas, he loathed.
As Dr. Thomas Sowell has put it in his book Intellectuals and Society: “Some of the biggest cases of mistaken identity are among intellectuals who have trouble remembering that they are not God.”
6) Social Engineering: The War on Individual Liberty
In the 18th and 19th centuries, thinkers such as Robert Owen, Henri de Saint-Simon, and Friedrich Engels began to lay the intellectual groundwork for socialism’s move from a fringe idea to the most dominant sociopolitical force of the 20th century. They rejected private property. They loathed the excesses and exploits of industrialization. They believed in the supremacy of science and the ability of the enlightened human mind to coordinate the activities of millions of less-enlightened human beings.
Social engineering, an irreplaceable plank in the socialist platform, never works because of the complexities of even the simplest societies. The socialist committed to science and logic is left floating in the wind with an idea that doesn’t produce the results their theories promised.
It is here that the secular collectivist and socialist, realizing that no matter how hard they try they can never fully eradicate man’s primal desire for higher truths and objective standards, begins to invoke language that is soaked in moral, religious connotations.
Words like “justice,” “compassion,” and “fairness” are bandied about on the Left by everyone from Karl Marx to Bill Maher. To compound the confusing, contradictory positions they take, socialists seek out religious leaders sympathetic to their anti-capitalist, anti-establishment message.
Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground was written, at least in part, in response to the influential novel What Is To Be Done? by a Russian critic named Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Chernyshevsky was a socialist, and was heavily influenced by the Utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Like many progressives of his day, Chernyshevsky was certain that human beings are nothing more than the product of their environment, and given the relevant environment, they could be directed to act as saints or as the lowest scoundrels. Thus, what was needed, according to the logic here, is a revolution which would overthrow the Tsarist system prevalent in Russia, and supplant it with a socialist system that would improve the people by providing them with an environment that would create peaceful, productive citizens.
Dostoevsky took issue with the notion that human being were anything less than autonomous actors. He despised the notion that levers being pulled in some far-off capital would “fix” anything at all. To get philosophical for a moment, Dostoevsky rejected the idea of determinism, a consequence of which is that people are not really responsible for their own actions. Constantly recurring in his works are themes of individual responsibility, the importance of the irrational (or unexplained) as opposed to cold reason, and the importance of suffering as a purifying influence on the soul.
These ideas and values of a passionate individual who prognosticated the disastrous results of the 20th century should caution leaders in enough countries seeking to silence and suppress the individuals comprising their nation’s population. We would have done well to heed his warnings sooner, but we’d be nothing short of fools to ignore them now.