I have recently been reading in a classic work, Nicholas Berdyaev’s Dostoevsky. Berdyaev was a twentieth-century Russian philosopher (existentialist) and deeply sympathetic to Dostoevsky’s works. I find some of his treatment to be tremendously satisfying and “on the mark.” I offer an extended quote and some thoughts…
Berdyaev quotes from Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground:
I shall not be a bit surprised, if in the midst of the Universal Reason [referring to various utopian schemes popular in the 19th century] that is to be, there will appear, all of a sudden and unexpectedly, some common-faced, or rather cynical and sneering, gentleman who with his arms akimbo will say to us: ‘Now then, you fellows, what about smashing all this Reason to bits, sending their logarithms to the devil, and living as we like according to our own silly will?’ That might not be much, but the annoying thing is that he would immediately get plenty of followers – men are made like that. And the cause of all this is so absurd that it would scarcely seem worth speaking of : man, whoever he is and wherever he is to be found, prefers to act as he wills rather than as reason and interest dictate. One may will against one’s own interest – sometimes one has to. Scope for free choice, personal caprice, however extravagant, the matter of fancies – those are what man is after, quintessential objects that you can’t classify and in exchange for which all systems and theories can go to hell. Where then have all these wiseacres found that man’s will should primarily be normal and virtuous? Why have they imagined that man needs a will directed towards reason and his own benefit? All he needs is an independent will, whatever it may cost him and wherever it may lead him … In only one single case does man consciously and deliberately want something absurd, and that is the silliest thing of all, namely, to have the right to want the absurd and not to be bound by the necessity of wanting only what is reasonable.
Berdyaev offers his own analysis:
To the very end [Dostoevsky] refused to rationalize human society and repudiated all attempts to exalt happiness, reason, and well-being above liberty; he would have nothing to do with the Great Exhibition [held in London in 1851, to demonstrate that technology was the way to a better future] or any anticipated harmony based on the ruins of human personality. Instead he wanted to take men along the ways of wildest self-will and revolt in order to show them that they lead to the extinction of liberty and to self-annihilation. This road of liberty can only end either in the deification of man or in the discovery of God; in the one case, he is lost and done for; in the other, he finds salvation and the definitive confirmation of himself as God’s earthly image. For man does not exist unless there be a God and unless he be the image and likeness of God; if there be no God, then man deifies himself, ceases to be man, and his own image perishes. The only solution to the problem of man is in Jesus Christ.
I have written on a number of occasions of modernity’s misguided admiration for reason. The Enlightenment (18th century) witnessed the birth of the modern fascination with reason – and to a degree – all things mathematical. Its ideas continue in many varieties (even as it began with many varieties). There is a continual hope in various “brave new worlds,” from Camelot (progressive America) to the Worker’s Paradise. Today everything from cybernetics and genetics to chaos and anarchy are offered as utopian solutions to the problems of the world – or necessities on the road of progress.
Berdyaev correctly analyzes the theme of liberty in Dostoevsky’s thought. He lived and wrote during a period in which Reason and its various advocates had yet to place their dreams into completed action but stood at that very precipice. Dostoevsky’s essentially Christian voice seemed like the voice of madness to some, or an empty effort to defend tradition, etc. His age not only clamored for Reason but for a new and Reasonable Christ (were there to be one at all). Dostoevsky in a developing string of novels explores the consequences of the various forces of his age. He ultimately ends with Christ – but not the Christ of man’s imagination. The Christ He sees is the Christ of the Gospels, the Christ of the Fathers, the Christ of the living Tradition of the Orthodox faith.
He embraces the irrational claims of the gospel – every man is guilty of the sins of all…we must forgive everyone for everything…. His characters introduce such ideas into the midst of a rationalizing culture and the novels move towards their resolution in the dynamic of that conflict.
Our present age is deeply shattered. We cannot point to one modernity – but to a plurality of modernities. Christianity is itself fragmented (with fragmentations within each fragment). The temptations offered to believers are as manifold as could possibly be imagined.
The Christian faith has its own champions of Enlightenment – those who are certain that various schemes will result in a better world, or hasten the coming of Christ, or create a better Christian. Orthodoxy itself is not immune to such champions: those who believe that a new Byzantine Empi