Dostoevsky is considered one of the greatest novelists of all time—a reputation that is well earned. Most writers would be content to write one masterpiece; two would be an exceptional accomplishment. Dostoevsky produced four great novels: Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons and his opus magnus The Brothers Karamazov—and many shorter works of sparkling brilliance, like Notes From the Underground. Unlike many of the scary great books, which are basically literary marathons, they’re almost always a joy to read. Dostoevsky was often in financial straits and had to produce page-turners in addition to works of artistic value. He had to be entertaining—and he was. Dostoevsky’s plots involve murder, terrorism and counter-terrorism, prison, exile and much else. But perhaps his most remarkable achievement is his extraordinarily vivid characterizations. Far from being two-dimensional ciphers used to make a philosophical point—as in far too many novels of the time—Dostoevsky’s array of prostitutes, nihilistic intellectuals, epileptic noblemen and sages are unforgettably complex human beings who seem to jump right off the pages.
But Dostoevsky was more than just an artist of genius. He was a social commentator and a political theologian, keen to diagnose and combat the creeping nihilism of the modern age. This anti-modernism has proven both an inspiration and a stumbling block for his interpreters. For some, his critiques are so damning that they attest to the need to abandon modernity wholesale, since the nihilistic logic of modernization will invariably lead to catastrophe in the long run. For others, Dostoevsky’s diagnoses are too one sided and reactionary—bordering on apologias for irrationalism and authoritarian power.
Dostoevsky began his literary career as a social critic, attracted to both liberalism and socialism as a member of the Petrashevsky circle. His earliest novels reflect these concerns. The short Poor Folk compares favorably to Charles Dickens at his most effective: its two protagonists write letters to one another describing the often horrible impact of poverty on their lives. While not especially angry, Poor Folk doesn’t shy away from depicting the exploitation that feeds poverty and its rich characters are portrayed as indifferent to this suffering or even willing to materially and sexually exploit it. The novel was a considerable success and drew the gaze of powerful authorities to the up and coming author. In 1849, Dostoevsky and the rest of the circle were arrested and very narrowly escaped execution. The writer and his comrades had already been lined up in front of a firing squad when the sentence was commuted to a long exile at the very last moment. He wasn’t released until 1854, after which he was a changed man. The spiritual experience of suffering in imprisonment shifted Dostoevsky’s thinking from the social to the intensely personal. He came to believe that the aspirations of liberal and socialist reformers to improve the material conditions of humankind were naïve at best and dangerous at worst. They simplistically assumed that the deepest human needs were for hedonistic wellbeing, when the truth was much darker and more complicated. Indeed, Dostoevsky came to anticipate and influence Nietzsche in claiming that the stated goals of humanitarian reform often conceal hidden layers of vainglorious narcissism and proto-totalitarianism. Dostoevsky consequently began an assault on modernity’s priests in all their guises. The opening salvo was the vicious satire, Notes from the Underground. The Underground Man is a thoroughly modern nihilist, living a lower middle class lifestyle as a retired civil servant in the then imperial capital St. Petersburg. He doesn’t believe in God, but rather than becoming a pious disciple of rationality and progress, he comes to regard the world as meaningless and comically banal, leaving him devoid of any reason to do anything. The Underground Man is horrified by the ascendency of scientific approaches to the human being, which he sees as reducing a living person to a bundle of calculable determinants and drives:
You laugh; laugh away, gentlemen, but only answer me: have man’s advantages been reckoned up with perfect certainty? Are there not some which not only have not been included but cannot possibly be included under any classification? You see, you gentlemen have, to the best of my knowledge, taken your whole register of human advantages from the averages of statistical figures and politico-economical formulas. Your advantages are prosperity, wealth, freedom, peace—and so on, and so on. So that the man who should, for instance, go openly and knowingly in opposition to all that list would to your thinking, and indeed mine, too, of course, be an obscurantist or an absolute madman: would not he? But, you know, this is what is surprising: why does it so happen that all these statisticians, sages and lovers of humanity, when they reckon up human advantages invariably leave out one? They don’t even take it into their reckoning in the form in which it should be taken, and the whole reckoning depends upon that. It would be no greater matter, they would simply have to take it, this advantage, and add it to the list. But the trouble is, that this strange advantage does not fall under any classification and is not in place in any list … The fact is, gentlemen, it seems there must really exist something that is dearer to almost every man than his greatest advantages, or (not to be illogical) there is a most advantageous advantage (the very one omitted of which we spoke just now) which is more important and more advantageous than all other advantages, for the sake of which a man if necessary is ready to act in opposition to all laws; that is, in opposition to reason, honour, peace, prosperity—in fact, in opposition to all those excellent and useful things if only he can attain that fundamental, most advantageous advantage which is dearer to him than all.
While Notes from the Underground is primarily an existentialist psychological thriller, Dostoevsky would later give these themes a political twist in works like Demons. Demons is the weakest of the four great novels: after a promising start, the book often drags and takes an unusually long time to achieve a focus. But it contains many sequences only Dostoevsky could have produced. The satire of modernist reformers that he began in Notes from the Underground has become far more vicious and even prescient. The liberal and progressive intellectuals posture as elevated rationalists, far above the superstitious and vulgar masses they wish to rule. Despite these haughty intentions, their meetings vacillate between petty squabbles over what to call one another and ominous lectures on the coming utopian society. Their most important theorist, Shigalyov, admits that he began from the premise that everyone should enjoy limitless freedom and ended by realizing that this could only be achieved through “unlimited despotism.” Nonetheless, the “data” prove that his is the only solution to the social problem.
The Nihilistic Sickness of Modernity
Dostoevsky’s chilling remonstrances are given added weight by the tragic emergence of Soviet totalitarianism a few decades later. But, in addition to their prophetic quality, his portraits raise serious philosophical problems for defenders of modernity. The most obvious concerns the meaning of human life in a post-God world. Both liberals and socialists argue that, with religious superstition removed, we can focus on what truly matters: people’s material welfare. How to go about securing that becomes the sole object of dispute among modernist reformers, each of whom claims to speak on behalf of universal reason. Liberal capitalists believe that human welfare is best secured in an economically oriented parliamentary democracy, and talk about the rationalizing potential of a marketplace of ideas secured through strong individual rights to expression, participation and so on. Utopian socialists claimed that the “science of history” was on their side, and showed that the coming society would be one in which the boons of modernity—material wealth and political power—were distributed more equally.
For Dostoevsky, none of these reformers grasped the real problem, which is that, in the absence of some higher meaning, mere material satisfaction delivered by rational systems becomes empty. The prosperous and managed societies to come, whether organized by the invisible hand of the market or the more visible hand of statist technocracy, could not answer our spiritual needs. How these needs could be met is a question Dostoevsky never fully answers. In Notes From the Underground, he implies that struggle and hardship are vital since they expose a human being to the highest pitch of life and give a thickness to our existence. Also, choosing what struggles to commit ourselves to helps define our sense of selfhood. But, by the time of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky has reached a more religious answer: that the only solution to the problem of life can come from love, both an individual’s love for her fellows and ultimately God’s love for creation, though, unfortunately, it is remarkably hard to either love another person or to rationally prove the existence of a loving God. In The Idiot, Dostoevsky presents the first of his Christ stand-ins: Prince Myshkin, the eponymous idiot, who is lampooned by polite society for genuinely embodying the Christian virtues—often to his personal detriment. In The Brothers Karamazov, the saintly Alyosha is initially contrasted unfavorably with his passionate, hedonistic brother Dmitri and the cold, intelligent intellectualism of Ivan. Jesus himself even appears in “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter, in which the Catholic Church—in anticipation of the new secular utopias to come—decides that it has no need of him, since Christ’s personalized love can only interfere with their efforts to control the destiny of the world. Yet, despite their suffering, Dostoevsky’s Christians are typically portrayed as finding tremendous meaning in their lives—in stark contrast to their sickly, depraved and deeply unhappy modernist counterparts, who feel that they know everything and yet cannot conceive of an objective reason to keep on living. Dostoevsky worried that if these modernists were allowed to inherit the earth, they would foolishly expunge the religious sources upon which the simpler, often more spiritually attuned common people depend.
Dostoevsky was a novelist, not a political thinker, and so the takeaway from his writings isn’t always clear. The conservative Tsarism and Russian nationalism that he adhered to in later life is a highly problematic model, and it doesn’t seem eminently reconcilable with either his existential individualism or the Christian universalism he thought necessary to counter the nihilism of the era. As I point out elsewhere, Leo Tolstoy was much more on the money when he insisted that genuine fidelity to the Christian message would require dramatic efforts to counteract nationalist aggrandizement while redistributing wealth and power to ensure that all individuals are capable of leading a life of dignity. But many of Dostoevsky’s more pressing questions are still relevant: such as how pure reason can provide a sense of meaning to people’s lives when modern scientific reasoning has destroyed many of the sources individuals have traditionally relied on to make sense of existence. This is perhaps why many of his contemporary interpreters have followed Dostoevsky in rejecting modernity wholesale in favour of appeals to nation and altar.
The nihilistic sensibilities described in his books are derived as much from a sense of powerlessness in the face of godless existence as from corruption by Luciferian modernist ideas. His characters respond to this sense of powerlessness through personal spiritual growth and an effort to love their fellows, but rarely tackle the often social roots of their anomie. Dostoevsky became skeptical that there could be social solutions to such problems, insisting that they ultimately need to be resolved within each individual’s heart. But I do not think that is entirely true. When modernist reformers call for a more humane system, this isn’t simply a crude matter of securing better material conditions for all. As liberals from Kant onwards recognized, it is also about viewing all individual lives as worthwhile and securing our equal dignity before one another. As Hegel would put it, this generates the social conditions in which we can recognize each other in our individuality while cooperating in the democratic project of constructing a shared civic life. This civic life extends beyond our own worldly existence: we commemorate the accomplishments and sacrifices of those who came before us, while hoping to create a juster, kinder society for our greatgrandchildren. Such a society might not be a utopia in which all human problems have been resolved—it seems unlikely that any society could accomplish that. But it would come far closer to the mark than the stratified and authoritarian societies advocated by Dostoevsky.