Fictional Parallels?

As a young man in the 1840s Fyodor Dostoevsky was intimately involved in the Petraschesky circle, a secret society of liberal utopians dreaming of a general uprising that would revolutionize Russia for the better, as they saw it. Along with several other members of the group, he was caught, tried and condemned to death by a firing squad. At the last minute — the last second by some accounts — he was spared and sentenced to five years of hard labor in Siberia. This provided him with the experience he turned into his novel The House of The Dead and also provided background for the epilogue of Crime and Punishment. It left Dostoevsky permanently scarred, a compulsive gambler, and an epileptic to boot. And it started a revolution in his thinking that apparently turned him from a young idealistic nihilist into a reactionary conservative loyal to the Czar who had saved his life — though he later insisted he remained after many years “an old ‘Nechaevist’ myself.”

In any event, in 1869, he read about the brutal beating and murder of a young student who had sworn allegiance to, and later attempted to leave, a revolutionary group led by the young Sergei Nechaev. It provided Dostoevsky with the material he was determined to turn into a brief tract attacking the nihilists and the revolutionary movement in general. After years of reflection the result was instead his major novel Demons (also titled The Possessed or The Devils, the Russian word suggests all of these possibilities); it became a substantial novel that was more didactic than many of his major works but with many literary qualities that saved it from being simply a prolonged attack on a political group the author was no longer in sympathy with.

In that novel he created the character of the young Pyotr Verkhovensky (called “Nechaev” in the early drafts of the novel) who leads a small, zealous group of nihilists in the direction of revolution. Many of the incidents described in the novel were culled from the newspapers at the time and reflect the atrocities that were being committed on the eve of the Russian revolution that was to erupt with violence in 1917. In his novel, after the murder of the young student — as recreated by Dostoevsky from the events that stirred his creative juices, — one of the young men who devotedly followed Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky reveals to the police the events surrounding several killings and the violent events that led to that horrible murder of the student. In his confession he repeats the platitudes that Verkhovensky put in his mouth and which almost certainly are echoes of the basic nihilistic notions that inspired Sergei Nechaev. To the police who questioned why so many murders, scandals, and abominations had been perpetrated, the young man replied:

“. . .all was for the systematic shaking of the foundations, for the systematic corrupting of society and all principles; in order to dishearten everyone and make a hash of everything, and society being thus loosened, ailing and limp, cynical and unbelieving, but with an infinite yearning for some guiding hands, raising the banner of rebellion, and supported by the whole network of [nihilists], which would have been active all the while, recruiting and searching for practically all the means and all the weak spots that could be seized upon.”

This brings the novel to its unsettling conclusion, but it raises some interesting questions for us in this country in the glow of the recent political triumph of a demagogue who admires the Russians and many of whose activities have disturbing parallels with the events in Dostoevsky’s novel. Not that our fearless leader can be seen to resemble Sergei Nechaev as he lacks the imagination and the intelligence and, so far as we know, is not a sadistic murderer. But he is a bully and is easily led by a stronger personality. And there is a man who lurks in the shadows of his inner circles, the avowed follower of Lenin (a Nihilist with a capital “N”), who appears to have some of the qualities that were apparent in that young man and in Dostoevsky’s character modeled after him.

This may be a stretch, but it does give us pause and requires that we pay close attention to what is going on with an administration that seems to have declared war on social programs and regulatory agencies that have evolved over the years to protect American citizens from the abuses of the wealthy and the power-brokers who would just as soon see America made great again by “shaking its foundations” and transforming it into an imitation of the Russia that its leader seems to admire, an autocratic government without checks and balances and with no concern whatever for the ordinary citizen who struggles to keep his head above the waters of discontent. Would this indeed be a country “ailing, limp, cynical and unbelieving, but with a yearning for some guiding hands”? Let’s hope not. After all, that is merely a fiction.

Religion and the Church

Of considerable interest is the struggle within the Church of Rome during the nineteenth century regarding the notion of the Infallibility of the Pope in matters of faith. The issue was of major importance in the First Vatican Council in 1868 when Pope Pius IX introduced the notion for adoption and it was met with considerable opposition by a number of influential Bishops — led, interestingly enough, by Lord Acton who was not a Bishop and had no vote but who was very active behind the scenes seeking to strengthen the opposition. He was convinced that the doctrine was in direct opposition to the New Testament which is the fundamental text of the Christian religion. Acton eventually failed in what became a heated political battle. Several Bishops who opposed the doctrine were excommunicated by the Pope and the only reason Acton, a devout Catholic, was not, presumably, was because he was a powerful man with powerful friends back in England.

In any event, Dostoevsky, himself a deeply religious man, was vehemently opposed to the doctrine of Infallibility as well — as he was opposed to the Church of Rome in general which he was convinced was established as a Church on Earth that stood in direct opposition to the fundamental Christian doctrine as set forth in the Gospels. Of special interest to Dostoevsky — who mentions this in both The Brothers Karamazov and Demons, two of his five major novels — was the passage in St. Matthew 4: 8-11 recounting the three temptations of Christ (repeated almost Verbatim in Luke 4 1-13), but especially the third temptation:

8 Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; 9 and he said to Him, “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘YOU SHALL WORSHIP THELORD YOUR GOD, AND SERVE HIM ONLY.’” 11 Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him.

As Dostoevsky read the three temptations of Christ, which he regarded as divinely inspired (they couldn’t possibly have been invented by humans; they are far too wise) this was a direct admonition from Christ to reject things of this earth and live a life of sacrifice and love. But the Roman Church, according to Dostoevsky, sought earthly power in direct opposition to the words of Christ. In fact, he puts his own convictions in the mouth of his character Shatov in Demons:

“. . .Rome proclaimed a Christ who had succumbed to the third temptation of the devil and, having announced to the whole world that Christ cannot stand on earth without an earthly kingdom, Catholicism thereby proclaimed the Antichrist, thus ruining the whole Western world. “

Lest the reader think that a great author such as Dostoevsky would never put his own words in the mouth of one of his characters, we have the words of the man himself in the pages of his 1877 Diary:

“Roman Catholicism, which has long ago sold Christ for earthly rule; which has compelled mankind to turn away from itself, and which was thus the prime cause of Europe’s materialism and atheism, — that Catholicism has naturally generated socialism.”

Years before the Vatican Council  the Catholic poet Dante had been critical of what he called “The Donation of Constantine” in which the recognition of the Christian Church by the Roman Emperor Constantine lead directly to the earthly power of the Church (and divisiveness within the Church, according to Edward  Gibbon) and the corruption which he pillories in his Inferno — filled as it is with Bishops and Popes, who have succumbed to temptation.

In any event, the issue for both of these thinkers was the embracing on the part of the Church of earthly power. For Dostoevsky this was in direct conflict with the teachings of Christ and an acceptance of the lures of the devil himself. For Dante it was the beginning of a long and terrible period of struggle within the church between the promises of Heaven and the lures of earthly treasure.

What is of interest here is the radical difference, in the minds of these three deeply religious thinkers, Acton, Dante, and Dostoevsky, between the teachings of the New Testament and the doctrines of the Roman Church. We know, as a matter of fact, that when William Tyndale first translated the Bible into English 1526, thereby making the sacred text available to all who could read, the Church sought to confiscate and burn copies of the book.  They saw it as a direct threat to their power and authority in matters of religion, which was already being questioned by Luther who had posted his 95 theses in 1517.

The point is that this struggle allows us to see clearly the rift between religion, properly understood, and religion as embodied in earthly institutions that led to such things as purges, excommunications, and Inquisitions — not to mention the forced denial by Galileo of his mathematical discoveries. And we should also bear in mind the many atrocities committed by Protestant Churches in their attempt to establish themselves as power-brokers in the game of earthly power.

Many who have turned against what they regard as “religion” really have a quarrel with the institutions that have been founded and supported by human beings in the name of what they take to be the true meaning of religion. The two are not the same as these men saw so clearly. They wrote and spoke against this false identification because they saw that what human beings do for the best of reasons, at times, turns out to be antithetical to the very principles and fundamental beliefs of the causes they espouse. We could do worse than to take a page from their book — or their books — and keep this difference in mind.

The Death of Don Quixote

The famous knight errant, Don Quixote, sallied forth three times to do battle with evil, brighten the world, and bring it new hope. At the end of each of the first two sallies he armed himself anew to do battle one more time with the evil forces that surrounded him. Before the second sally he asked the proverbial Sancho Panza to join him. While he was engaged in his adventures those back home worried about him and tried to determine how to “bring him to his senses.” It was decided that the best way was to meet him on his own terms and so the bachelor Samson Carrasco posed as a knight and challenged Don Quixote to battle. The loser would have to lay down his arms and admit that the love of his life was inferior to that of the winner. This strategy had been tried once before, without success. But the second time was successful and the Knight of the White Moon, as Carrasco called himself, was able to defeat Don Quixote who reluctantly allowed that Dulcinea was not as fair as the love of the Knight of the White Moon’s life; and he promised to give up knight-errantry.

It has been suggested that Cervantes wrote the second part of his novel involving the third sally because an imposter had written a “sequel” after the success of Cervantes’ novel. It has been said that Cervantes therefore determined to kill off his hero so there could be no sequel written by another imposter!  This theory is debatable, but it matters not because, in losing this battle, Don Quixote lost his will to live. And that is what is most important, from a literary perspective. Without a cause, without hope to once again do battle with the forces of evil, he felt his life had lost its purpose. “Thus the Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha came to an end.”

Don Antonio Moreno, who had followed Don Quixote and supported his adventures (often creating some of his own) confronted Samson Carrasco after he had defeated Don Quixote and had this to say about the terrible, even tragic, event:

“Ah, sir,” said Don Antonio, “may God forgive you for the damage you have done to the whole rest of the world in trying to cure the wittiest lunatic ever seen! Don’t you see, my dear sir, that whatever utility there might be in curing him, it would never match the pleasure he gives with his madness? But I suspect that, despite all your cleverness, sir, you cannot possibly cure a man so far gone in madness, and, if charity did not restrain me, I would say that Don Quixote ought never to be rendered sane, because if he were we would lose, . . .his witticisms . . . , any one of which has the power to turn melancholy itself into happiness.”

Throughout Cervantes’ novel we are asked to question the sanity of his hero. Is it he that is mad or is it we ourselves? Is he in fact mad, or is he a genius? Is he Christ? Is he the embodiment of all that is good in the human soul? Is he simply  one of the most imaginative and creative of persons who ever was conceived? Is he therefore an artist or a poet — or both?  Surely, he is all of these things. And his death means a terrible loss for all of us because those things have been replaced by a utilitarian, mechanized, thin, unimaginative, materialistic world that has lost much of its flavor and delight. Cervantes saw this coming long ago and it was seen clearly more recently by the great writer Fyodor Dostoevsky who wrote in his diary:

“Who was it — Heine, was it not? — who recounted how, as a boy, he had burst into tears when, reading Don Quixote, he had reached the place where the hero was conquered by the despicable and common-sense barber-surgeon [?] Samson Carrasco. In the whole world there is no deeper, no mightier literary work. That is, so far, the last and greatest expression of human thought; this is the bitterest irony which man is capable of conceiving. And if the world were to come to an end, and people were asked there, somewhere: ‘Did you understand your life on earth, and what conclusions have you drawn from it?’ — man could silently hand over Don Quixote: ‘Such is my inference from life. — Can you condemn me for it?’ “

Indeed, with very few (none?) left with the imagination, determination, and moral courage of a Don Quixote, we inherit a world in which the human imagination has shrunk along with the dimensions of the world itself; truth has been replaced by alternative facts; beauty has been replaced by utility; success is determined by one’s bank balance or how many people one can manipulate; greatness has become a mere word whose meaning is itself questioned if not rejected outright. As a result we are left with a thin, tasteless, pablum that leaves us both hungry and out of humor: our world has become for us flat and lacking in dimension. There is beauty and there is goodness but we are too busy to look and too self-absorbed to appreciate. And all the time we see around us in positions of great power men and women regarded as successful and prosperous whose souls are empty and hollow and whose words rattle about loudly like dried peas in an empty can, making noise but no sense whatever.

 

Those Demons Among Us

I have been re-reading Dostoevsky’s Demons, in the excellent translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. As someone who shares with Stephan Trofimovich the sad condition of being past my prime, I was struck by a series of comments made by his long-time friend and supporter Vavara Petrovna. In the context of the novel, Varvara Petrovna has become close friends with the wife of the governor of the province and has joined her in befriending a group of young people who are among those Dostoevsky regards as “Demons,” a group of nihilists who are bent on destroying the status quo and revolutionizing Russia in the name of…..What? No one knows for sure. (One is put in mind of Steve Bannon who prides himself on his affinity for Lenin’s nihilism, though Bannon can hardly pass for a young man.)

In any event, Varvara Petrovna, despite her fondness for him, has come to the point where she feels as though Stepan Trofimovich has had his day, because his form of liberalism is too tame for the young. She will continue to support him, but she has become convinced that he is as stale as old toast. This conclusion stems from her recent intercourse with the rebels and their determination to introduce “new ideas” into the conversation, making the old ways passé. In attacking Stepan Trofimovich’s  self-esteem, not to mention his entire sense of self, Varvara Petrovna has this to say in trying to convince him that her way is the best way to present himself in reading a paper at an upcoming event which is sure to attract the best and brightest of the town’s most attractive residents — including, of course, the young people she is so enamored with:

“I’ve defended you with all my strength as far as I could. And why must you so necessarily show yourself as ridiculous and dull? On the contrary, come on the stage with a venerable smile, as the representative of a past age, and tell three anecdotes, with all your wittiness, as only you sometimes know how to do. So you’re an old man, so you belong to a bygone age, so you’ve fallen behind them, finally; but you can confess all that with a smile in your preface, and everyone will see that you are a dear, kind, witty relic. . . . In short, a man of the old stamp, and sufficiently advanced to be able to set a right value on all the scandalousness of certain notions you used to follow. Do give me that pleasure, I beg you.”

Stepan Trofimovich is devastated, and I along with him, because this notion that the old folks have had their say, and their day, is so hurtful — and  so commonplace, though Varvara Petrovna’s insensitive manner of speaking to her old friend is unnecessarily cruel.

We also know not what to do with our elders and are convinced that we have nothing to learn from them. The thought that they might have learned something along the way to old age is foreign to the younger generation who have always wanted to wash their hands of the elders and find their own way. To be sure, this goes back to the beginning of time, but it has become increasingly nasty in recent years — beginning with the notion, popular in the 1960s, that anyone older than 30 is irrelevant, and finding its fruition in our cult of the child in which we have made deities of our children and the pages of the AARP magazine are full of advice on how to remain young.

It’s one thing for the young to want to find their own way. As parents we see our children straining against the reins that we hold in our hands — or used to at any rate — and that is a good thing. The young need to learn how to grow old. But this seems no longer to be the case. The young want to remain young (and they do) and the old want to return to their youth (which they can’t). And we all listen carefully to the young, even the smallest child, expecting pearls of wisdom every time they open their mouths. No one seems to know how to grow old gracefully. Like Varvara Petrovna, the elders of our tribe in their worship of the young and their supposedly “new ideas” turn their backs on the lessons they themselves have learned and close their eyes and ears to the wisdom that might issue forth from grizzled faces and gray heads — their own among them.

We are convinced as a culture that newer is better and progress is always forward and never a danger. We also worship the young with undeserved adoration and look in the wrong places for guidance — just as we have disdain for history and regard it as “yesterday’s news” while we read the latest news bite on the internet to find out what is on the cutting edge and therefore true.

All I can say for certain is that I wish I knew forty years ago what I know today; even though I am still in the dark about a great many things I see a little ray of light every now and again and it keeps me going. I certainly do not expect profound insights from children. Humor, yes. Wisdom, almost never. Poor Stepan Trofimovich. I feel for him!

Religion and Morality

It has always struck me as odd that those of a liberal political persuasion are frequently, if not always, averse to any talk about religion or morality — especially religion. I suspect it has something to do with the historical record of religions, especially Christianity, in which the Church, as the embodiment of the religion, has shown itself to be intolerant and authoritarian, not to mention responsible for thousands of deaths. The Church decides what is right and wrong and it has been throughout its history intolerant of those who would dispute its absolute authority on such matters as good and evil.

Dostoevsky had problems with this role the Church has played and pilloried it in his remarkable book The Brothers Karamazov. He was himself a deeply religious man but he was also distrustful and suspicious of the Church and insisted that its claim to absolute authority on matters of ethics has threatened, if not removed altogether, the freedom that makes human beings human. In any event, I share his distrust of the Church as an institution and would follow him in insisting that religion be separated from the institution in which it finds itself housed, to wit, the Church. The two are not the same, by any means. Christ preached love; the Church, historically preaches intolerance — as do so many of its followers.

And this brings us to the point I raised at the outset: why so many intellectuals have rejected the Church as well as the religion they often confound with the institution that houses it. I suspect it is all about tolerance, or the lack of same. As I have noted in past blogs, we hear again and again (and again) that we must not be “judgmental,” which is to say, we need to be more open-minded and tolerant of other ways of living and believing. But the notion of tolerance is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we should tolerate other points of view — not blindly, not always accepting, but after thinking our way through them, listening and questioning, but tolerant none the less. On the other hand we should not tolerate, say, views that promote violence, hatred, and fear. In a word, we need to be circumspect but not refuse to make judgments (be “judgmental”), acknowledging that we must remain open to the possibility that we do not have all the answers and that those very answers may come from the most unexpected sources — even from others whose opinions are diametrically opposed to our own.

There are certain things we come across in our lives that simply should not be tolerated. The insistence that we not be “judgmental” is simplistic nonsense  — because it ignores those very actions that we not only should not but must not tolerate, namely those actions that lead to the violations of another’s personhood or violate the universal principle of fairness that transcends all ethical systems. And these sorts of actions are precisely those that religions preach against. The tendency to turn away from religion and morality toward a relativism that would insist that all actions are somehow good simply because they are practiced by someone is wrong-headed, as I have noted in the past, because it makes impossible the judgment that some practices are quite simply wrong. Words like “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “evil” are not frightening. It is possible that in talking about these things we might become intolerant when we should remain open to other points of view. But that is a mistake and something we should avoid at all costs; it is not, however, a necessary concomitant of searching for answers to complex moral issues. We should not be afraid to talk about those things that we and others do that are simply not right. If I see a young woman being attacked on a dark night I should not tolerate such an action; I should instead intercede in her behalf. Intolerance may at times involve intervention, but it need not do so. The determination not to be intolerant or not to interfere with the actions of others should not blind us to the fact that we, as humans, should never fear the making of judgments and, at times, recall that intervention may be necessary. Good judgment is the key.

In any event, it is not religion and morality that we should be wary of, but the reluctance to acknowledge that at times it makes perfect sense to be intolerant. And it always makes good sense to exercise judgment; it’s what leads to informed action rather than impulsive behavior.

The Welfare State

When President Franklyn Roosevelt initiated steps to thwart the depression his country was deep in, he cautioned against the real possibility that citizens would become dependent on the hand-outs the Federal Government was taking steps to provide. As he said at the time:

“Continued dependence upon relief indicates a spiritual and moral degeneration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”

The possibility that Roosevelt alluded to had been noted years before by such intellectual giants as Nietzsche and Dostoevsky who both saw “socialism” as a step toward the destruction of human freedom. Indeed, Dostoevsky thought socialism was the bastard offspring of the Church which, by making moral decisions for mankind, had robbed them of their humanity. If the Church or the State take care of people they will stop taking care of themselves. And taking care of themselves involves a struggle and, at times, suffering; these are the things that make us fully human. It is a dilemma: on the one hand there are folks who desperately need help and all who are able have a duty to care for them. On the other hand, this care can become a habit and rob those folks of the very freedom that makes them human.

Robert Kennedy in a speech in 1966 echoed Roosevelt’s warning, adding that “higher welfare payments . . .often lead to lifelong dependency.” The problem is how to find a balance between meeting genuine human needs and creating a situation in which those who receive assistance become dependent on it and find themselves unable to take care of themselves. The obvious solution takes the form of assistance with strings tied to it, assistance that demands that those who receive it do so for a limited amount of time and then fend for themselves, frequently referred to as “workfare.” Presumably this is what welfare reform is all about.

It’s not a Republican/Democrat sort of problem either, though there are Democrats who support all forms of welfare and there are Republicans who oppose all forms of welfare, which they see as hand-outs to lazy ne’er-do-wells. In a country that ponders the possibility of spending billions of dollars building walls to keep “terrorists” out and spends more billions to build planes and ships that can travel the world with nuclear weapons tucked away in their bellies, the notion that spending millions to help those in needs wastes our hard-earned money is truly ironic. And the notion that those in need are lazy is incredibly insensitive and wrong-headed. It is not the fact that millions are being spent on those in need that bothers so many people, however, it is the fact that they see those millions as being better spent on building higher walls. Or they point to anecdotes about abuse of the system, those who take without needing. In a word, we have a serious problem with perception and a loss of a sense of balance between what is being done and what should be done. And this in a nation that prides itself on its Judeo-Christian heritage!

Clearly, a wealthy nation such as the United States can afford to take care of those in need — whose numbers grow daily. The money that is spent elsewhere could be reshuffled easily to cover all costs. But the real problem is that those who receive this aid, regardless of how much money it turns out to be, must be enabled to take care of themselves. Many who receive welfare admit this and insist that their own self-respect depends on their eventually earning a living, taking care of themselves and their families– even if the income they earn turns out to be less than the money they are receiving on welfare!  The notion that these people are all lazy ne’er-do-wells is twisted and distorted — and self-serving. These are folks like you and like me who have come on hard times. The issue is not whether we spend some of our tax dollars to take care of those who desperately need it; the question is how we do this while still making possible the retention of self-respect and a degree of human freedom that they require to go on with their lives and become healthy, productive citizens.

The Babysitter

I have been thinking about the subject of my most recent post, the peculiar twists and turns of the collective psyches of Donald Trump’s minions. It is a fascinating subject and like a kid at the circus who can’t tear himself away from the freak show despite the fact that he keeps telling himself to leave and get some cotton candy, I am drawn to the perplexing question: what on earth are these people thinking — the followers of Trump, that is? I have come up with an analogy that has helped me see more clearly.

Years ago when my wife and I had to leave for a couple of days we decided to leave our two sons, about seven and eight respectively, with one of my tennis players who was a Junior and someone we liked and trusted. Now, we were a bit strict and passed along some of the ground rules to Kathy (we’ll call her that because that’s her name), including the fact that the boys could not have dessert until they ate all the food on their plates. That is, they didn’t have to eat something like, say, broccoli, if they simply couldn’t do so, but they didn’t get desert if they didn’t eat it. Yeah, it was a bribe. But it worked like a charm and allowed the boys to make their own minds up about what they could and couldn’t eat. They usually cleaned their plates.

In any event, after we returned we discovered that Kathy let the boys do whatever they wanted to do, eat what they wanted to eat, stay up way past their bedtime, watch whatever TV shows they wanted to watch, and she played with them like a third child. They had a blast. All restraints were off and this wonderful girl was their best friend. We had a dickens of a time getting them to settle down afterwards, needless to say.

Trump is the babysitter and his minions are the boys — though they have a collective IQ well below that of my two sons even at seven and eight. The babysitter has told them the old rules no longer apply. They are free to do and say whatever they want with no repercussions whatever — as long as they restrain from criticizing the babysitter. That’s Taboo. From what we can gather of the rallies, it is bedlam with shouting obscenities not only allowed but encouraged. They are rallies of hatred and all restraints are off as the minions can scream all those insults that have been repressed for years.

In Dostoevsky’s seminal novel The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov has a theory that since God is dead “all is permitted.”  This theory eventually drives him mad, but in the meantime he infects his adoring half-brother with the doctrine who then summarily kills their father. In other words, in Dostoevsky’s view, the absence of moral restraints can lead to murder and madness. This is certainly the view of that author who was, by all accounts, one of the most brilliant thinkers of the 19th century. But, after all, what does a nineteenth century Russian author have to tell us about ourselves in this sophisticated day and age?

Civilization, according to Ortega y Gasset the Spanish intellectual, is the will to live in common. In the minds of Trump’s minions it is all about self and letting it all hang out. Restraint and denial are things of the past. Donald is telling them that “all is permitted.” If this were to become the rule of thumb in our nation the suggestions of the two men I have mentioned would lead us to the conclusion that our civilization is at risk and as a people we may well be headed for murder and madness. When I shy away from this dire conclusion I recall my two sons, whom I love dearly, and the looks on their faces when we told them that the fun was over and things were back to normal. Kids love to play and to have their way. But maturity and growth require self-control and self-denial because the rewards later on are much greater and their absence leads to chaos. Our boys have learned that, but I wonder about Trump’s minions. Are they capable of growing and maturing?

The Meaning of Life

Alexei Kirillov in Dostoevsky’s The Demons insists that people don’t commit suicide because of the fear of pain. I suspect the fear of the unknown plays a part as well. Dante, in strict accordance with Catholic dogma at the time, places the suicides in the seventh circle of his Hell where they take the form of thorny bushes tormented by Harpies who eat away at them, causing them untold pain. They have denied their bodily form in life and are therefore denied human form in Hell. Sartre somewhere says that the meaning of life consists in asking ourselves from time to time why we don’t commit suicide. Perhaps it is the fear — of pain, the unknown, or the possibility of becoming a thorny bush tormented by Harpies.

For my own part I am convinced that, given the unfettered greed and sheer stupidity of a significant portion of the human race, there is a large probability that one way or the other the planet on which we depend will not survive — a likelihood that increases daily with the crowding human population, the manufacture of every new nuclear bomb, the next outrageous comment from the mouth of a politician, the determination of so many of us to settle our differences through violence. I find myself, like Sisyphus, living in an absurd world in which we all move huge boulders up the hill only to have them roll to the bottom each time, demanding that we start again. Despite all this, (as Camus admonishes me to do ), I imagine Sisyphus  to be happy.

I am also happy in spite of the above absurdities and bleak prognostications, because I have determined in my old age that happiness does not consist in how much money one has, the power or status he or she may have achieved, but in the small things that surround us and invite our delight. I speak of the Monarch butterfly that miraculously finds its way to Central America each year, the white-tail deer that disappears in the distance, leaping effortlessly over the log, the returning smile of the little girl in the store as I smile and wave at her, the quiet moments with my wife of more than fifty years as we sit together in the evenings and watch British mysteries and play the “I know her” game — “wasn’t she the one….?”

Moreover, despite the fact that there are so many people that are, let us face it, wicked and self-serving — and stupid enough to think that a man bloated and blinded by his own self-love can save the world — there are good people who want to do the right thing. Each in his or her small way seeks to make a difference and face life’s uncertainties with optimism, hope, and inner strength. Some of these people write blogs and I read them and find myself also filled with hope. Others gather together and wave their fists at injustice and wickedness. Others quietly and out of view, take care of the sick and wounded, animals as well as humans. Yet others paint and sing to reveal to us the world around his that we have tried to shut out.

In a word, the meaning of life — to use that ponderous and even pompous phrase — consists in the small things that surround us, the things we ignore as we go about our daily business of increasing our security and our pleasure. It consists in hanging onto the thread of hope woven by the beauty and goodness that exists all around us — if only we take the time and trouble to pause, perceive, and reflect.

Dostoevsky Redux

I am reposting a previous piece of mine that received little or no response — not because of the lack of response but because (a) it’s one of my favorites  (b) Dostoevsky has always seemed to me to be one of the deepest minds I have ever sought to fathom, and (c) I have nothing new to say at this point!

In one of the most dramatic portions of that most dramatic novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the two brothers Ivan and Alyosha meet to discuss the “dossier” that Ivan has put together to prove that God does not exist. It is a collection of brutal stories of human cruelty, capped off by the gruesome story of a landowner who turns his dogs loose on a child because the child threw a stone that hurt the paw of one of the man’s favorite hounds. He does this in front of the child’s mother. As Ivan says after reading the story, “I believe the [man] was later declared incompetent to administer his estates.” These were stories that Dostoevsky himself culled from the newspapers and saved for the purpose of working them into his novel. After the reading, while Alyosha, the devout and saintly brother, sits in stunned silence, Ivan tells him he does not accept a God who would allow such pain and suffering: because of the evil in this world, he “returns his ticket.”

The chapter in which this dialogue takes place is the heart of the novel where Ivan also tells his story of the Grand Inquisitor who tells Christ that he has done more harm than good in coming to earth. It has taken the Church years to remedy the situation, to take upon itself the burden of freedom that Christ wanted to place on humankind, a species that really only wants “earthly bread” and is quite content with the illusion of freedom. As the Inquisitor says, “Know then that now, precisely now, these people are more certain than ever before that they are completely free, and at the same time they themselves have brought us their freedom and obediently laid it at our feet.” Indeed we have.

The dialogue between the atheist and the devout Christian brings up many fascinating problems, one of which has to do with the nature of faith. In fact, I would argue that the novel as a whole revolves around the question of faith — what it is and how humans can hold on to it in a world that makes no sense. And that is the key here: faith is necessary precisely because things don’t always (seldom?) make sense. Indeed, if things made sense we wouldn’t need faith; we could simply draw logical conclusions to prove that evil is a fiction (as Augustine and others of his ilk attempted to do). In a word, faith is precisely the capacity and willingness to accept the irrational — that which makes no sense. There is no rational response to Ivan Karamazov with his dossier. There is only stunned silence and blind acceptance. That seems to be Dostoevsky’s point — if novels can be said to have a “point.” Father Zosima, in the same novel, has no adequate answer for the mother who comes to him and asks why her innocent child had to suffer and die. There is no answer. We must simply accept. And that is precisely what we sophisticated modern folk cannot do.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to say precisely when Western humankind lost its faith. But Nietzsche loudly proclaimed that God was dead at the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps that was the moment. But it came on the heels of pervasive corruption within the Church, volcanic eruptions, plagues, and warfare — and the benefits accruing from the scientific and industrial revolutions. If it wasn’t gone when Nietzsche said it was, it surely was by the time of Great War in which thousands of young men died in the trenches in a war that was marginally insane. Those were times that truly tested human faith and it was found wanting. Faith in an unseen God who demanded sacrifices became less and less real to growing numbers of people whose attention shifted during their longer lives to immediate pleasure and the gratification of desires in this world — and who definitely did not want to make sacrifices.

Ivan Karamazov would understand — though, in the end, he went mad.

Good Behavior

I taught ethics for many years. It was my area of primary study in graduate school; I wrote and defended a dissertation on the subject and later published a book trying to convince readers that one could think critically about ethical issues — one doesn’t simply have to go by hunches and gut feelings. But the thing I always found most difficult when teaching and thinking about ethical issues was how to close the gap between the determination of what is right and wrong and actually doing what one has decided is right.

For example, let’s say I live in a border state in the American Southwest. My government has decided to build a wall to keep the Mexicans out of this country and I am aware that the local police randomly arrest Mexicans off the streets, whether they are here legally or not, and keep them locked up for days at a time. I fear for the lives of my family because I am aware that many of these people who are here from Mexico are poor and unable to find work; as a result I worry that they are likely to steal from me and possibly harm my family. It matters not whether these people actually pose a threat to my family: what is important here is the perception that this may be so, because that is my primary motivation. In any event, I know that from an ethical perspective determination to keep “foreigners” out is wrong, as are the racial profiling and the false arrests. But I support the efforts of my government and the actions of the police because it seems to be a way to keep my family safe.

Note the conflict here between the ethical considerations of the rights of the Mexicans to share our way of life if they so choose — certainly as much right as we had, if not more, to take this country away from the native people. Human rights are based on the capacity to make moral choices, according to Immanuel Kant. And the Mexicans have that capacity as surely as I do. So, on the one hand, I must recognize their rights while, on the other hand, I experience fear and suspicion of those who are different from me and I support steps I know are wrong in order to keep my family safe. Here’s the gap between what I know is right and my ability to act on that knowledge. In the best of all possible worlds, where everyone does the right thing, I would welcome the Mexicans to my town and make an effort to ease their transition to a new way of life. But this is not the best of all possible worlds. This is the real world where people base their actions on perceived danger, real or not, and act out of ignorance or on impulse rather than on sound reasoning.

In my book I distinguish between justification, explanation, and rationalization in ethics. The first is the ability to find sound ethical reasons to support a claim. I know, for example, that the right thing to do in my example is to treat all humans, including “foreigners,” with respect. An explanation simply accounts for my determination to act as I do. I can explain my reluctance to welcome those who differ from me even though I cannot justify my actions: I fear for my family’s safety. And finally, I find it easy to rationalize my actions: it’s what everyone else is doing so why shouldn’t I? The latter is an attempt to find bogus reasons for  what we are inclined to do anyway. One would like to find sufficient justification for doing the right thing. But, as Dostoevsky noted in several of his novels, the problem is frequently not one of justification, explanation, or rationalization but of reconciliation —  to the fact that at times we must do the thing we know is wrong.

In the end the gap is still there. I may know what is right, but I am unable to do it even though I can rationalize and even explain it. I cannot justify my actions from an ethical perspective. I know I am not doing the right thing. Knowing what is right and doing what is right are two entirely different things. How to close the gap between thought and the real world which as Machiavelli tells us is full of humans who are “ungrateful, fickle, liars, deceitful, fearful of danger, and greedy of gain.” In the end  I have come to realize that this is not a philosophical problem; it is a psychological problem. Why do we find it so difficult to do the right thing?