Dostoevsky’s Honesty

It is no secret that Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov is a tour-de-force of literary genius. Dostoevsky forces the reader to come face-to-face with the reality of human existence. His honesty holds particular value for modern culture, which has pushed this reality aside in pursuit of reason, progress, and modernity.

The Brothers Karamazov tells the story of a dysfunctional Russian family, but at its core is an analysis of the conflict that has defined the world for centuries: the battle between Faith and Reason. Ivan, the second of the three brothers, represents Reason. He is an academic skeptic who doubts everything that cannot be logically proven. Dostoevsky uses Ivan to make a powerful case against Faith as nothing more than a dangerous distraction. Alyosha, the third brother, represents Faith. Alyosha does not attempt to refute his brother’s arguments, for he lacks Ivan’s intellectual prowess. Instead, he simply lives out his faith through acts of love. Dostoevsky uses the interaction between the two brothers to masterfully depict the timeless conflict between Faith and Reason.

It is through this comparison that Dostoevsky prepares us for the truth of our condition: we have forgotten the Soul. In our search for Reason and Modernity, we have left behind the animating source of our lives. And in the process, we are destroying ourselves.

* * * * *

The Soul is uniquely human. It is the inner world that the ancients described as the inseparable essence of humanity.

Why did we leave the Soul behind? Because we began to believe more in Progress and Reason than in the Soul. On the sliding scale between Alyosha and Ivan, we tipped ever closer to Ivan.

This change was predicated on the Enlightenment idea that human rationality could achieve ultimate results. No longer did mankind need to wallow in the unenlightened mire of Faith; he could now ascend the Olympus of progress on the wings of his own Reason.

Hegel used this belief to justify his proposal for a society run by experts. Herbert Croly, Woodrow Wilson, James Landis, and other American progressives despised the “unregenerate” and “intellectually inadequate” citizenry who were not attuned to true progress. The ultimate example is Karl Marx, who popularized the deadly fantasy that human efforts could lead us to utopia. C.S. Lewis was right: the result of being “classed with infants” and “cured” against one’s will is the equivalent of “[h]ell o[n] earth.”

The pursuit of Reason and social progress has now become a fortressed orthodoxy with an ironically religious nature. Those who question its legitimacy are guillotined in the court of intolerance, even when their questions raise legitimate concerns. Professors are fired for discussing the “wrong” topics; employees are canned for questioning prevailing ideologies; and persons of Faith are hauled into the arena for living the journey their Soul leads them on. Compromise and mutual understanding are seen as hostile attempts to quell the flames of political warfare. The despotic power of the Medieval monarch has been revived with a different set of beliefs but the same kind of religious impulse.

Faith without the Soul.

But the Soul is not just excluded. It is excoriated, ridiculed, and trampled. Just as Ivan laughs at Alyosha and tells him that the Soul is illogical, modernity mocks Faith for being what Marx called “the opiate of the masses.” This Marxist view, which Dostoevsky deftly weaves into Ivan’s character, has justified the slaughtering of millions on the basis that Faith was in the way of Progress and Reason.

* * * * *

What is the result of leaving the Soul behind?

Inner despair.

Dostoevsky does not spare us in his description of Ivan’s downfall. The formerly brilliant intellectual suffers a mental breakdown, losing the Reasoning ability upon which he had built his identity. He babbles incoherently to Alyosha and has visions of meeting the devil in his apartment.

A glance at Modernity reveals that Dostoevsky’s portrayal of Ivan’s despair was prophetic. Loneliness (and its ever-present twin depression) are steadily rising as society spends more of its time in virtual worlds that offer the Soul a back seat to the satisfaction of the appetites. The World Health Organization shows an 18.4% increase in the number of clinically depressed individuals between 2005 and 2015. Constant access to information creates feelings of helplessness and fosters widespread anxiety. A society laden with decadence and obsessed with the power of human rationality is highly susceptible to the despair that accompanies a desertion of the Soul. Irving Kristol predicted this: “Nothing is more dehumanizing, more certain to generate a crisis, than to experience one’s life as a meaningless event in a meaningless world.”

* * * * *

Is there a way out? Dostoevsky believes that there is, but it involves what Thomas Merton calls the “terrible breaking and burning” necessary for revitalizing the Soul. Dostoevsky shows us this through Father Zosima, who tells Alyosha that the daily cultivation of the Soul is the only true barrier between light and darkness.

It is no secret that modern culture has neither the desire nor the capacity to recapture the life of the Soul. In its obsession with identity groups and class struggles, modernity has abandoned the individual attention necessary for the flowering of the Soul to the group attention necessary for power aggregation. Dostoevsky captures this through a story recounted by Father Zosima in which a brilliant doctor states, “[T]he more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular.”

* * * * *

How do we revitalize the Soul?

The first and most obvious way is through Faith. As dozens of radically different civilizations have demonstrated for thousands of years, Faith simultaneously strengthens the Soul of both the individual and the community. It binds people together in voluntary associations, fosters virtue amongst them, and motivates them to serve others. In this way, Faith ministers to the Soul of the religious individual, the religious community, and the community at large.

But cultivating the Soul isn’t only for persons of Faith. The Soul can also be nurtured with Stories.

Stories are powerful because they communicate more than they contain. It is for this reason that a fantastical Middle Earth saga can communicate lessons of loyalty, friendship, and courage to generations who neither share J.R.R. Tolkien’s personal values or understand his cultural viewpoint. Stories offer a lens through which one can make sense of the world. In doing so, they create a framework within which the Soul can flourish.

It is telling that the degradation of the Soul has come at the hands of a culture that increasingly wants to erase the great Stories of the past. This erasure is done for the same reasons that have always motivated such efforts: Progress (“away from old values”), Modernity (“beyond old structures”), and Reason (“above old thoughts”). The irony is, of course, that we are now committing the very mistakes that those values, structures, and thoughts were designed to protect against.

Dostoevsky identified this as well. Dmitri (the sensualist older brother), Ivan, and Krasotkin (a secondary character) argue to Alyosha that only math and science are worthy of study because they are (in the socialist’s ever-present phraseology) the inevitable road to progress. They maintain – like the revisionist historians of today – that history, literature, and cultural traditions are designed to keep the citizenry under governmental control. For instance, Krasotkin argues that Russian folklore is a tool the rich use to keep the poor in slavery. Alyosha replies that such stories are actually powerful ways for people of all lifestyles to see beyond their circumstances and think for themselves about what it means to be human. He reminds Krasotkin that things like history and literature (i.e., Stories) are central to the cultivation of that which is most central to human flourishing: the Soul.

Stories are civic liturgies. They are the shared memories around which communities can grow. They communicate timeless messages and express shared values, thereby fostering unity and respect. The constant effort of Reason (Ivan) and Modernity (Dmitri) to erase Stories from our lives is a telling reminder of how much value they hold for the inner life that – if fostered – would prove deadly to Modernity’s power-hungry tendencies.

In an era that cancels those who don’t think in conformity with the purveyors of Progress and Reason, Dostoevsky’s honesty holds powerful lessons. Our disparagement of the Soul has led us to cultural and personal despair. We have lost sight of the reality that, as Winston Churchill observed, “[n]o material progress . . . can bring comfort to the soul.” Only by recapturing the life of the Soul can we begin the climb out of our moral and cultural morass. Whether we do so by embracing Faith or Stories, we must find truths that, once embraced, can feed the Soul.

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