Freedom Confronts Nihilism

Dostoevsky is an author for this and for all seasons as the truly thoughtful responses to my original forum essay on his 1872 masterwork Demons richly confirm. Demons arose from two originally disparate though related projects: a planned political pamphlet directed against revolutionary nihilism, and a second work dissecting the spiritual pathologies at the heart of strident, soul-destroying atheism. These two strands ultimately came together in Demons, fulfilling  Dostoevsky’s original intentions while creating a work of art that is not simply reducible to these original purposes.

As Gary Saul Morson in particular emphasizes, the genius of the literary Dostoevsky was to oppose adamantly the ideological and totalitarian temptations without becoming a counter-ideologist. He sympathized with a Slavophile political project, but his works are not those of a mere publicist or propagandist who subordinated deeper ethical and spiritual concerns to messianic nationalism (though he occasionally gave way to those impulses in his Writer’s Diary). At his most discerning and prophetic, Dostoevsky is the enemy par excellence of abstract theory—of ideologies that reduce the human form to the cruel manipulations of ideologues and social engineers.

Jessica Hooten Wilson is thus right to warn us against the spirit of abstraction even in approaching Dostoevsky’s writings. But the pathologies that Dostoevsky targeted in his work and that I highlighted in my essay—“revolutionary nihilism, political atheism, ‘half-science’ or scientism, and an incipient totalitarianism that combines moral fanaticism with contempt for the primordial distinction between good and evil”—must be named and fought precisely as abstractions since abstract theorizing is so destructive of the integrity of the human soul and the well-being of a nation and people. Characters need to be called out—Kirillov, Stavrogin, Verkhovensky father and son, among them—but precisely as these memorable figures have been deformed—and possessed—by the soul-destroying spirit of abstraction. Otherwise, we end up with what one might term a literary nominalism where a preoccupation with singular individuals replaces attention to the common motives, passions, and pathologies that move and grip societies as a whole.

It was an essential part of Dostoevsky’s genius to discern the demonic character of “isms” as such, especially when they rebel against the authority of God and the metaphysical freedom that defines the order of creation. I am grateful to Wilson for her lucid articulation of the “death wish” that is “absolute autonomy.”  She makes that point succinctly and well. Lee Trepanier, too, expertly lays out the essential connection between freedom and limits—especially moral limits—in the thought and work of Dostoevsky. Unlimited freedom is the enemy of freedom rightly understood and can only “result in death, destruction, and ultimately tyranny.” That is why I would caution both Wilson and Trepanier against a too simple or automatic identification of “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” with the thought of Dostoevsky himself.

There is no doubt that Dostoevsky believed that freedom can never be sacrificed to cries for bread, however pressing, or be actualized independently of virtue and the cultivation of the soul. Dostoevsky as Dostoevsky—the writer, thinker, and sometimes tortured Christian—clearly and unequivocally rejects any identification of Christianity with the “humanitarian” temptations proffered by Satan to Christ in the desert. To succumb to them is to give way to the “Father of Lies” and the mendacity at the heart of all materialistic and merely humanitarian ideologies and projects.

To confuse moral negation with historical progress is to succumb to the ultimate illusion, even to a kind of moral insanity.

But it must be remembered that the “The Grand Inquisitor’s Tale” is ultimately a prose poem that reflects the preoccupations and distortions of Ivan Karamazov’s tortured soul. To be sure, the authentic Gospel—the Good News of the God-Man Jesus Christ—is coextensive with freedom, the “glorious liberty of the children of God” about which St. Paul so luminously spoke. But that freedom is never pure freedom, existentialist freedom, or a mere “burden” that leads to despair. Authentic human liberty, Christian liberty, too, is unthinkable without limits and deference to humanizing truth. A “free heart” is ultimately not at odds with “miracle, mystery, and authority.” The latter is not an alternative to freedom but a framework that complements and informs the exercise of metaphysical, spiritual, and human freedom.

The Christ of the legend is also Ivan’s invention. He is perhaps too passive when confronted by truly demonic evil. Between the kiss of peace bestowed by Ivan’s representation of Christ in the “The Grand Inquisitor’s Tale” and the fiery, apocalyptic spirit of the Book of Revelation, one witnesses the sheer variety and complexity of the Christian response to any and all efforts to “correct” Christ’s work. To sever the intimate connection between freedom, authority, limits, and truth is to depart from the Gospel as well as the deepest intimations of Dostoevsky’s own hard-earned  “hosannah” of faith.

I am particularly grateful to Caroline Breashears for her eloquent and forceful development of a key theme in my original essay: the sheer contemporaneity of a nihilist spirit in today’s America that illustrates Dostoevsky’s remarkable prescience and capacity to see. Like the soi-disant liberals of Dostoevsky’s time, our nihilists are ashamed of not being liberal (or leftist) enough. They, too, incoherently identify their own repudiation of the spiritual grounds of human freedom with moral courage. They lay the foundations for pure negation, but like Stepan Verkhovensky (for most of Demons at least) they want to acknowledge the essential choice-worthiness of the radical’s ideas—liberation, repudiation, autonomy, indulgence toward the revolutionary spirit. What they do not recognize or admit is that they have in the end made a choice for literally nothing. To confuse moral negation with historical progress is to succumb to the ultimate illusion, even to a kind of moral insanity.

Let me add one more salient point inspired by Morson’s essay. Dostoevsky, like Tolstoy, was a deadly enemy of the Russian intelligents, the so-called intelligentsia, who were defined precisely by their addiction to ideology, their preference for tyrannical abstractions over concrete human beings, and their rejection of the old verity, so beautifully expressed by The Brothers Karamozov’s Father Zossima, that “everyone is responsible.” They failed to see what Solzhenitsyn  would later so beautifully express, that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” But now America, too, has a homegrown intelligentsia that repudiates the moral law, grows giddy about limitless social engineering, and mocks essential truths about God, human freedom, natural limits, and moral responsibility. In that crucial respect, American exceptionalism is no more.

Dostoevsky may not show us how to rekindle political liberty, rightly understood, but his repudiation of moral nihilism and revolutionary fanaticism is as relevant as ever. For Dostoevsky, to reject moral nihilism is to reaffirm at once moral freedom, limits, responsibility, and the quest for truth. As Dostoevsky wrote in a masterful review of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (quoted in another excellent article by Morson), “It is clear and intelligible to the point of obviousness that evil lies deeper in human nature than our social physicians suppose; that no social structure will eliminate evil; that the human soul will remain as it has always been.” In that affirmation of moral realism lies enduring wisdom and a welcome path toward the recovery of the metaphysical grounds of human freedom and responsibility.