Fyodor Dostoevsky was defeated by history. A man who viciously attacked and satirized the ideologies of rationalism and communism and defended traditional religious and family structures, Dostoevsky died just decades before the Bolshevik revolution was carried out by the very people he satirized in his novel Demons (1871-2). Russia was possessed and the spirit of the age represented everything Dostoevsky opposed.
For modern conservatives, Dostoevsky would be difficult to pin down. He was endlessly skeptical about technological change and the concept of progress through markets. The modern-day right, which measures human progress in graphs and charts, is, for Dostoevsky, part of the problem. He believed that we have not fully comprehended the depths of madness in the human spirit. A person can be given food, clothing, medicine and all the wealth enjoyed by a first world citizen in the twenty-first century, and still be more likely to commit suicide than an impoverished peasant. These paradoxes motivated Dostoevsky to reject the radical new ideas of his age.
A Christian pessimist, Dostoevsky was severely skeptical of any attempts to remake or reform human nature. He was an advocate of Christianity and an opponent of the goal to replace Christ with reason. Today, we might see movements such as effective altruism as a replacement for the kind of charity present in Christianity. We might see material wellbeing and metrics of medical improvement and net income and be tempted to declare that humankind has been liberated from the constraints of nature. But Dostoevsky would feverishly cackle at the notion. And he was onto something.
Paradoxes of Human Intelligence
In The Brothers Karamazov, the youthful character of Koyla is presented as a cunning genius, an atheist, a young radical who might crush a goose’s neck with the wheel of a wagon in the town square. Koyla is capable of empathy, but his intelligence has honed him into a creature far more dangerous and sophisticated than the adults around him. In the same novel, Lise, a disabled girl, is reduced to a caricature of hatred by her exposure to the atheistic intelligence of Ivan Karamazov.
The alignment of intelligence with evil is among the most ancient concepts known to Christianity. In the garden of Eden, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, to which Adam and Eve are lured by the beckoning of the crafty serpent, represents human intelligence, employed in opposition to God. Dostoevsky, a fundamentally conservative writer, does not move beyond this conception of human nature. Great intelligence, in his novels, leads not to technological innovation and an optimized world, but to madness, plots, mania and desperation.
IQ, or the notion of a reliable metric of intelligence, is perhaps the most sensitive subject in western societies. As IQ is strongly correlated to performance in a wide variety of educational and workplace tasks—and with the accumulation of wealth—it is especially damning that IQ is largely unequal and the result of environmental and genetic influences over which no individual has any control whatsoever. This inherit discrepancy in the nature of being produces inequalities that are difficult, if not impossible, to justify.
The philosophers John Rawls and Robert Nozick disagreed radically over the question of natural inequality. If the rewards of the world are meted out according to abilities that no one can control, so the contention goes, life is no better than a lottery. There can be no such thing as meritocracy, because those with the most merit were born and shaped by factors conducive to their success, such as higher intelligence, and other elements of the human personality important for success in business and relationships: openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism. If a person is born with a disposition towards high conscientiousness, for example, but is also exceedingly neurotic, her mind will continually get in her own way. If a person is highly conscientious, but lacks high intelligence, his efforts to succeed at ambitious tasks may also fail, through no fault of his own.
Attempts to combat this reality often lead to utopian social projects. Communism, for example, seeks to flatten this inequality by wresting the resources obtained by an ownership class and redistributing them to those who own nothing. This often requires the violent reconstruction of civilization, since power will concede nothing freely. This does not work. If a cashier at a grocery store suddenly becomes responsible for managing grocery supply lines, as part of a co-operative, the proletariat’s lack of interest in the logistics of vegetable distribution will doom the project. As the sinks of the co-operatives of the world fill with unwashed dishes, and no one wishes to pay the accumulating tab, easier systems of passive organization are sought. Democracy and markets are both ways of organizing human activity. Anarcho-communists and socialists have historically favored democracy. But, since voting on every good is cumbersome, markets have largely won out. The economist Milton Friedman even conceived of the market as a kind of collective intelligence, a genius higher than any human intellect, which could coordinate production in such a way as to generate maximum happiness—like a supercomputer of need fulfillment.
Yet, markets answer only to this amoral form of economic intelligence, the alien dynamics of supply and demand. Economies become alien life forms, generating bizarre outcomes, such as massively expensive insulin medication and dramatically cheap televisions, side by side. These outcomes are hardly rational, yet no solution to the need to mass produce goods, other than markets, has been identified on a global scale. We are stuck with intelligence, but intelligence continues to generate contradictions.
In the modern era, philosophies of rationalism, emphasizing reasoning and high intelligence, still result in impossible paradoxes. There is the problem of meritocracy, of course: the bio-environmental qualities through which success can be achieved are not chosen by individuals. Instead, individuals can become victims of a bizarre kind of cosmic injustice. In addition, markets mass produce weaponry capable of obliterating the world a hundred times over. And, if the worst interpretations of climate change are true, markets are also leading to production on such a scale that the Earth will no longer be able to sustain itself in a way favorable to the human species. All these outcomes—like the splitting of the atom—are the products of advanced human intelligence.
A Rational Suicide
Human beings have never been wealthier, yet our systems of meaning are rapidly collapsing. Suicide rates have risen, life expectancy has decreased and misinformation has proliferated during the most prosperous decade in human history, according to the stewards of human economic and rationalist progress. Birth rates in first world nations are also decreasing, leading to paradoxes of rationalism such as anti-natalism, which is evidently fatal to the human species.
Frighteningly, there are very good rational cases for anti-natalism, the robust philosophical opposition to human birth. Sarah Perry’s Every Cradle Is a Grave applies logic and reason to suicide and birth with devastating effect. The notion that having children is, on balance, an irrational decision, and that suicide could be a rational one, upends the entire Darwinian assumption baked into our culture, in which life is interpreted as a genetic chain that propagates itself across time.
Of course, Darwinian evolution is an amoral, mindless process, which does not care if we live or die. But, if we use the evolved tools of rationality on which we have come to rely to argue that we should cease to exist, the same reasoning ability that brought us out of the stone age has now put us in an impossible position. Human rationality has turned inward against us—and even having children can be easily argued to be a meaningless and even cruel act. Forcing existence, with all its suffering, upon a non-consenting creature is an act of severe brutality. Suicide, the ultimate negation of life, could even be a boon if it reduces the impossible levels of suffering.
In this conversation between Jordan Peterson and Matt Dillahunty, Peterson keeps insisting on this question, to devastating effect. Dillahunty argues that, if Peterson were to chop off his head, it would be a net negative for his wellbeing. Peterson kneads his hands. He does not agree. In fact, he argues, suicide could be the only thing that ends undue suffering and improves the wellbeing of the universe. If consciousness is too terrible to possess, then ending it would be a good thing.
Dostoevsky got there first. In his largely unremembered masterpiece Demons, one element of the storyline revolves around a character named Kirillov, who has convinced himself that suicide is the only possible rational action he can undertake. Kirillov conceives of suicide as the ultimate expression of freedom, the hard-won fruit of liberal political theory and emancipatory politics. In a bout of fever, he declares:
For three years I have been searching for the attribute of my divinity, and I have found it! The attribute of my divinity is—Self-will! That is all, by which I can show in the main point my insubordination and my new fearsome freedom. For it is very fearsome. I kill myself to show my insubordination and my new fearsome freedom.
For Dostoevsky, rationality is indistinguishable from stupidity. The rational liberal aim of freedom becomes the freedom to destroy oneself. If we are free to act as we will, and we are our own masters, then the ultimate act of freedom can easily become a splendor of self-destruction. This, more than anything, proves ownership of one’s self. Kirillov’s madness, his suicide in the name of the rational principles of self-will and freedom, is a condemnation of those very values. The prospect of a rational suicide is the ultimate contradiction for modern people.
Christian Tradition and the New Revelation
Dostoevsky’s traditionalism, which is a radical rejection of post-Enlightenment modernity, asserts that often, rather than an effective guide to an improved world, rationality is a way to destroy ourselves, if our thoughts become untethered from the wisdom of our religious traditions. It is freedom and “Self-will” gone mad. This becomes apparent in Demons’ plotline involving the recreation of Christ in the figure of a charismatic madman.
The specter of Christ haunts even atheists. Western culture is unmistakably marked by Christian ideas. Since Christ died 2,000 years ago, and evidence of his corporeal nature is obscure at best, there is a temptation in the West to endlessly recreate him in the guise of new worldviews. To create a new savior is to recreate the entire human story. This what happens to Stavrogin, an unhinged individual, primarily known in his hometown for kissing another man’s wife at a party and biting off the ear of a decorated military officer. Stavrogin possesses a raw charisma, which endears him to society, and a mystique, which attracts admirers among suitors and revolutionaries alike. When slapped, he get back up, stands before you face-to-face, hands behind his back, and does nothing. When challenged to a duel, he intentionally aims at the sky, losing on purpose. Yet, this nonchalant self-mastery and non-interference in his environment is delicately balanced by his ability to commit sadistic murders and treacherous crimes. Stavrogin is the true existentialist rationalist—he knows his life doesn’t matter, and so he leans into this—and is interpreted as a kind of demigod by those around him.
Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky, a man ruined by his absentee father, harnesses his cause to Stavrogin’s. The leader of a doomed quintet of revolutionaries, Verkhovensky attempts to recruit Stavrogin as the successor to Christ, telling him “You are a leader, you are a sun, I am your worm.” To Stavrogin, he confesses the enduring western hope of a new revelation:
And the earth will groan a great groan: “A new, just law is coming,” and the sea will boil up and the whole showhouse will collapse, and then we’ll see how to build up an edifice of stone. For the first time! We will do the building, we, we alone!
In this, the purest hope of political radicalism is revealed—that all prior systems and methods of governance were built from wood, and now, for the first time, we have the chance of building with stone. Man’s intelligence weaponized will surpass the tradition and establish a grand new scheme of human coordination and activity that will endure forever. These are the new ideas that Dostoevsky rejected, ideas that led to the reign of rationalism, communism and scientific socialism, the view that a perfect social order awaited, as soon as the old one could be destroyed. As soon as religion and conservative assumptions about the family could be dismantled, a new world order of freedom would emerge. Dostoevsky condemned this vision to suicide—but today our world is largely driven by these utopian aims.
Much ink has been spilled over religion’s retreat from public life—barring a new revelation, it is unlikely to return. Rituals like communion and baptism, which defined so much of Christian traditional life, no longer carry the singular appeal of salvation, crowded out by the discovery of eastern religions, atheism and rationalism. Curiously, Kirillov performs a ritual reminiscent of modern yoga, “standing with his legs apart, whirling his arms above his head in some special way,” exercising his body even though he intends to commit suicide.
We recognize the need for a tradition, but, in our multicultural digital societies, no single tradition has stepped in to fill the god-shaped hole. Fyodor Dostoevsky was writing from within the entrenched monoculture of Christian Orthodox Russia. Like most great authors, he did not have to pick and choose his cultural background, as a consumer does a product—it was handed to him. People today have no such privilege. A thousand spiritual books, treatises and ideas surround us, often arrayed in opposition to each other, each claiming to provide the one true path. The Catholic Church itself is split in two, reduced to the same squabbles over politics that define the rest of the world, with a traditionalist faction at war with a progressive one.
Modern observers of cultural developments know that we are living in a time of transition. The fiction of Fyodor Dostoevsky critiques the radical ideas of his time from the standpoint of a Christian monoculture affected by demons—ideas destabilizing the framework of society and driving men to madness. Today, one Bolshevik revolution, two world wars and a period of mass globalization later, Dostoevsky’s tradition has been interrupted, but his arguments against rationalism, utopianism and communism remain as potent as ever. We cannot rediscover tradition, but we cannot reinvent it either. In the face of climate change, suicide itself has been granted a rational veneer. Having children is a net negative. Reason has taken away our capacity to live.
In some corners of the internet, new strands of thought are emerging, which take on the crisis of meaning left by the rationalist suicide of the present and the forgotten religions of the past. The work of Bronze Age Pervert (see here, here and here) idealizes beauty, the human physique and traditional ideas, in opposition to a degrading age, in which individuals feel like replaceable pieces of instrumental code, in the global marketplace. The symbol of the frog has come to embody this desire for tradition, in opposition to the hyper-intelligent, rationalist world of spreadsheets, science and atomization, without shared values. The left, by contrast, has reinvented original sin as a particular form of white male hegemony, one implicit in Dostoevsky himself and in his Christian doctrine. Undercurrents are developing on the hard left and the hard right that may break the cultural stalemate in which we find ourselves, orphans at the end of history.
Some more radical proposed solutions to the problem of being involve technology. Transhumanism is alluded to in Demons, when the suicidal Kirillov declares: “Only this one thing [self-will] will save all men and in the next generation transform them physically; for in the present physical aspect, so far as I have thought, it is in no way possible for man to be without the former God.” The logic here is chilling—if human beings require fixed traditions, with an appeal to transcendental order, and we cannot make ourselves inhabit or believe those traditions, then we will need to stop being human entirely. Out of all the radical proposals to transform human nature, Dostoevsky regards communism and transhumanism with especial disdain. They will be the last refuge of those who inhabit the world after the death of tradition and the death of God. The goal of the radical, Dostoevsky writes, is to “take their revenge upon/Marriage, church, and family ties—/Evils in which the old world lies.”
For Dostoevsky, these so-called new ideas were dangerously old. They can be found in the presumption of human intelligence and arrogance, arrayed against God, represented by Adam and Eve, eating the apple in the garden of Eden. Dostoevsky’s view is fundamentally traditional, and the ideas he opposed are as old as time, and are still around today. The Nation has published feminist critique arguing that we must abolish the family in order to free ourselves from oppression. Transhumanists argue that we must abolish human conceptions of our own selves in order to free ourselves from oppression. Around us, intellectual forces are demanding that we flee humanity itself, that we flee from birth and from the formation of the family, in pursuit of the great new idea—which never comes to fruition. Dostoevsky’s fiction is an eternal rebuke of these forces.
We do not know how these trends will play themselves out, but fiction enables us to think through them as if they were just another story. A passage in Demons reflects on the status of the new ideas using the analogy of pond water: “This scum, which exists in every society, rises to the surface in any transitional time, and not only has no goal, but has not even the inkling of an idea, and itself merely expresses anxiety and impatience with all its might.”
In this manic age, it is up to us to honestly assess which of our ideas are merely “anxiety and impatience”—and which are true.