The Meaning of Life

One of the threads that works its way through several of Dostoevsky’s major novels is that if there is no God then “anything is possible.” In a word, without a supreme being morality is a sham and each of us can do whatever he or she wants to do without fear of punishment — except by the state if we are caught. Nietzsche echoed these thoughts when he announced at the end of the nineteenth century that God is dead and each of us must create our own morality, “beyond good and evil.”

In Dostoevsky’s greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the atheist brother, Ivan, convinces his disciple half-brother (who isn’t very bright) that “anything is possible” and the latter murders their father. This is not what Ivan had envisioned, but it is certainly a possibility in a world in which there is no moral high ground. Ivan goes made in the end — which may be Dostoevsky’s answer to Ivan.

For centuries Westerners have sought to find the meaning of life in the word of God or a religion of some sort — even if it is in pagan gods. When Nietzsche pronounced God dead he was not far off the mark because, beginning with the age of “enlightenment” in the West, there have been fewer and fewer people in the West who seek to find meaning through religion of any sort. This was especially the case after  the First World War. As the years have passed church attendance, for example, has fallen off precipitously — except for mega-churches which are really nothing more than grand social clubs with comfortable chairs and  hot coffee and the promise of everlasting life to all who attend and pay their dues. In a word, those who seek to discover the meaning of life must look elsewhere. Many look within — or perhaps at their electronic toys. But for most, especially the young, the church is no longer the answer.

John Carroll, to whom I have referred several times in this blog, suggests that the meaning of life for modern Westerners is best found in the small things that are commonplace. By this he means that we can find meaning in our work, in sports, in friends, in our homes, in our families, in projects, in Nature. Indeed, he contends that Nature has displaced God in the Western world, though I would point out that the way we treat the earth raises some doubts on that score. But the key to finding meaning and avoiding nihilism, as he sees it, is the total involvement of the individual in the world and in others. Our guide, he contends, is our conscience. As he puts it:

“. . .all humans, unconsciously, know the true and the good, and are inwardly compelled to find what they know, through their lives and what they see. . . an instinctual knowing prevails, seeking meaningful shape in cultural forms. It does so for almost all and for most of the time. It signals that there is beauty and goodness and an order in the everyday, affirming why we are here.”

He refers to some of the interviews published by Studs Terkel years ago in which people tell what it is about their work that they love or hate. He mentions a waitress who takes special pride in the presentation of the silverware on the table, in the way she takes an order or brings the order to the table. She doesn’t just do a job, she works and takes pride in the manner she does what many would see as a menial job.

Meaning is not to be found in the self alone, which Carroll calls, simply, the “ego.” In order to find true meaning we need to become one with the world around us, immerse ourselves in what we do, doing it with total absorption and concentration and taking justifiable pride in a job well done. We need to turn our attention outwards to others and, especially, to the beauty and goodness that surrounds us.

Now some are lucky enough to have real faith and to find meaning in a God that loves them and promises them a reward for doing the right thing. But most no longer share this faith despite the fact that deep down most of us, Carroll insists, still have traces of the conscience that directs us to do the right thing. Our friend Jill reminds us each week that there are good folks out there doing good things, many of whom go unnoticed and unrewarded. They find that doing the deed in itself is reward enough. We need to listen to the small voice inside each of us and to direct our attention away from ourselves and to others and to the world we share. If there is meaning in life, that it where it will be found.

Seeing Is Believing

Years ago I wrote an earlier version of this post and it fell on deaf ears. While I admittedly have written a number of rather weak posts,  I thought this one of my better ones. In fact, I included the earlier version in my book, Alone In The Labyrinth. In any event, I found it especially relevant in these trying times when we seem lost and face an uncertain future with a purblind leader on a planet that is under attack by greed and self-interest.  

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 small 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 return of Christ to Spain during the Inquisitions. The Grand Inquisitor tells Christ that he has done more harm than good in coming back to earth a second time. It has taken the Church years to remedy the situation created by his first visit, 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. If not to the Church then to the state on which we have come to depend.

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 because things don’t always (seldom?) make sense. Indeed, if things made sense we wouldn’t need faith; we could simply look and see or 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. We must simply accept. And that is precisely what we moderns cannot do because we think we have all the answers. We have become, indeed, disenchanted.

Ironically, the point was made brilliantly by Cervantes in his monumental Don Quixote. When a merchant questions whether Quixote’s beloved Dulcinea “really exists” and wants visual proof, the Don, who was much maligned and ridiculed by the fools around him, says:

“Were I to show her to you what would you have accomplished by acknowledging so obvious a truth? What’s important is that you believe without seeing her, that you acknowledge, affirm, swear, and defend the truth. . . . “

It is difficult, if not impossible, to say precisely when Western humankind lost its faith, when we started to insist that we need to see in order to believe. But Nietzsche loudly proclaimed that God was dead at the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps that was the moment, though, if Cervantes is correct the process had begun years before. In any event, it surely came on the heels of volcanic eruptions, plagues and warfare — and the benefits accruing from scientific and industrial revolutions that prolonged human life and refocused man’s attention on the here and now. 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 completely insane. Those were times that truly tested human faith and it was found wanting. Faith in an unseen God who demanded sacrifices and promised rewards in an after-life became less and less real to growing numbers of people whose attention shifted to immediate pleasure and the gratification of desires in this world — and who definitely did not want to make sacrifices. Ivan Karamazov would understand this because he, too, returned his ticket. But then he also went mad in the end.

Self-Restraint

This post is a continuation of a discussion about the demise of Western Civilization started in the last post.

Civilization, according to Ortega y Gasset, is above all else the “will to live in common.” It centers around the city, including the society of others, civil laws, and morés. It also involves, in most cases, what we loosely call “culture,” which ranges from low to high. “High culture,” which many identify with civilization itself, involves the highest expression of the human spirit in the form of the fine arts, literature, philosophy, and science. Low culture, we might say, centers around the entertainment industry and social media. (Sorry.)

As I have noted in a number of previous blog posts, civilization has come under fire by poets, novelists, and philosophers since the latter part of the nineteenth century and, especially, the early twentieth century. The latest form of the attack comes with what is referred to as “postmodernism,” a movement largely within the academy involving ongoing intellectual protests following the student protests in the 1960s that openly and avowedly seek to eradicate all vestiges of Western Civilization (at the very least). All in the name of “freedom.” The idea is that the restraint that is necessary for human beings to create civilization has resulted in a bourgeois society wallowing in materialism, the suppression of the disadvantaged, and false pleasures. Worse yet civilization has become stifling, suffocating. It is time to throw off the shackles and become free, free of all stuffy customs, false values, and civil constraints which have brought misery to so many, in spite of its so-called benefits.

I summarize, of course, but I do so in order to raise anew the question of whether, in fact, civilization is worth saving, whether or not it has, on balance, brought more misery and suffering than it has beauty and benefits. I confess that I cannot answer that question to my own complete satisfaction, but I suspect the balance is in favor of saving the best of civilization while recognizing that much of what we call the “civilized world” is indeed worthy of rejection. I would suggest, however, that the freedom so many cry out for, the throwing off of the shackles of social norms and restraints, is a snare and a delusion. This is because those who seek to eradicate civilization in the name of greater human freedom seldom, if ever, pause to ask what it is they seek to establish in the place of what they have grown to detest and are keen to destroy. Nor do they think deeply about what freedom is.

Freedom, properly understood, requires restraint. The total absence of restraint is nothing more and nothing less than pure chaos; it is not freedom. Thus, the ideal of the modern and post-modern theorists who would jettison civilization in the name of greater freedom are, in fact, espousing what must be called a “new barbarism,” a world without rules and without concern for others. The ideal figures in this new paradigm would be the thoroughly miserable Underground Man of Dostoevsky. Or it would be, as I suggested in a previous post, Conrad’s thoroughly debased Kurtz. Or it would come in the form of the latest maniac who walks into a school with a loaded automatic weapon and starts shooting at random. These folks embody pure freedom, the absence of restraints, the absence, indeed, of morality which has been thrust aside as nothing more than personal opinion. True freedom, comes at the cost of acknowledging something outside the self that requires the sublimation (to use Freud’s word) of those instincts that we wish to turn loose and instead channel them into creative outcomes. It comes in the form of knowledge of what is and what is not truly valuable. The truly free man or woman acts from the knowledge that what he or she does will make the world around them a better place. Knowledge is the key here. Freedom is not 68 varieties of bread to choose from. It arises from the knowledge of which bread is healthiest.

Personally, I do not wish to live in a world that has as heroes, men (or women) who act without restraint in the name of human freedom, living life to the full — as they see it. I prefer to “live in common,” to help build communities held together by mutual respect and a willingness to sacrifice immediate gratification and unfettered impulse for the sake of something greater than the self. I suppose this is why I have spent so much of my time — and so many words — hoping to preserve some semblance of what is best in Western Civilization, that high culture that sets us apart from those that would simply throw off the chains (as they see it) and turn the demons loose.

There is simply no way to distinguish this alternative world from the world of Kurtz. And we must recall his final words: “The horror! The horror!”

The Ad Hominem

I recently got involved in an exchange with a fellow blogger on the topic of violence and its possible causes. In the course of the discussion we got off-topic a bit as he took me to task for appealing to Freud’s notion of the “reality principle,” which I regard as one of Freud’s most important contributions to human psychology. The discussion became a bit testy, if not downright acrimonious (clearly my fault) because I accused him of committing the ad hominem fallacy. He was prepared to reject all of Freud’s contributions because he has read that Freud’s “discoveries” [his quotation marks] were stolen from other thinkers.

I do apologize for being testy and realize that I must tone down my comments when I get my shackles up — as they are when I hear Freud wrongly accused. There is no question but that many of Freud’s insights (and for heaven’s sake let’s stop calling them “discoveries” in scare quotes!) came from the poets. In fact, on his death-bed he acknowledged his debt to the poets. It inspired me to write a post on “Freud and the Poets” which included the following paragraph:

Late in his life, as he was dying from the agonies of cancer and insisting that he only be treated with an occasional aspirin, Sigmund Freud noted that his “discovery” of the human unconscious mind was down to the poets.  As he wrote, “Not I,  but the poets, discovered the unconscious.” By the word “poet” he meant artists who work with words, such as Shakespeare and Dostoevsky — the latter having written what Freud regarded as the greatest novel ever. Indeed, Shakespeare, as we all acknowledge, provides innumerable insights into the human condition and Dostoevsky not only explores the human unconscious mind but can be said to have discovered the duality in the human mind. His first novel, The Double, depicts a man who gradually loses his mind and goes to work to find he is already there.

Please note my use of the quotation marks around the notion of Freud’s “discoveries,” but there is no scare involved! There is simply the fact that he borrowed, as do we all, some of the essential insights that went into the making of his system. And that word “system” is key, because it was Freud, and Freud alone, who systematized those insights into a coherent model for explaining human neurosis and psychosis. The insights of the poets are the necessary conditions for Freud’s contributions to psychology, but they are not sufficient. It took the mind of a genius to put the pieces together to form a whole.

But as far as the charge that my fellow blogger committed the ad hominem fallacy goes the charge strands, despite his denial, because even if we insist that Freud stole all of his ideas that is no reason whatever for rejecting his system outright. This is clearly an attack on the man — not his ideas. The fact that his insights were borrowed, or stolen, has nothing whatever to do with the fact that they help, as part of the systematic whole, to explain human behavior. Freud clearly borrowed from Schiller, Goethe, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer as well as the two named in my above quote, but his system stands on its own feet: it requires that it be tested in the arena of human intercourse to see if it helps relieve pain and suffering, to help human beings recover form various sicknesses. And it does work as there are still a large number of psychologists who employ Freud’s methods despite the fact that it is popular these days to reject most, if not all of whet he says, Feminists, for example, don’t like his notion of “penis envy,” and his Victorian attitude toward women; behaviorists think his system too cumbersome. The fact remains that it explains a great deal and can help us better understand what is going in the minds and hearts of ourselves and our fellow humans.

The key to the ad hominem fallacy is the irrelevance of the critique. It is a non sequitur. The attack on the man (or the woman) who puts forward an argument is beside the point when it comes to the argument itself. A complete nut job could come up with a brilliant argument to establish the most implausible conclusion. If the argument holds up to critical scrutiny then it stands despite its source. If Freud’s system is inaccurate or somehow wrong, then it needs to be shown not that he borrowed ideas from others, but that those ideas as he worked them into his system simply do not work.

The best attack on Freud’s system I have ever come across is by thinkers like Carl Popper who reject it because it is not scientific: it cannot be proved wrong. And scientific systems must be provable and/or capable of being shown to be wrong, i.e., disproved. Freud’s cannot. Scientific or not, the Freudian scheme is seminal and extremely helpful in better understanding the human predicament.

 

As Things Now Stand

Anyone who has attempted to understand our contemporary malaise, as I have for many years now, must begin with the death of God. This is an uncomfortable topic and one that is dismissed by many. But if we contrast our current ethos with that of, say, the medieval period, it is clear that God plays a very small part in the lives of the vast majority of people in the West, at the very least. I have blogged about this from time to time and will not repeat here what I have already said. But a passage in one of Dostoevsky’s major works, written in his maturity, raises the issue anew.

Like Nietzsche, Dostoevsky was aware, toward the end of the nineteenth century, that he was living in a new age, an age in which God was no longer the viable force He had been during the Dark Ages when faith was paramount, the Cathedrals were being built and, as it has been said, there were no atheists.

In any event, Dostoevsky’s novel The Adolescent (previously translated as Raw Youth), brings Arcady Makarovich and his father Andrei Petrovich Versilov together toward the end of what is a rather long prelude as the novel nears its conclusion. Arcady’s father is imparting his wisdom and while doing so reflects on the godless age in which they are living and imagines what he calls a “fantasy” in which those who once loved God now turn toward nature and toward one another and embrace their fellow humans, “. . . each would tremble for the life and happiness of each.”

“The great idea of immortality would disappear and would have to be replaced; and all the great abundance of the former love for the one who was himself immortality would be turned in all of them to nature, to the world, to people, to every blade of grass. They would love the earth and life irrepressibly and in the measure to which they gradually became aware of their transient and finite state, and it would be with a special love now, not as formally.”

To prepare us for this insight, we are told that

“. . .after the curses, the mudslinging and whistling, a calm comes and people are left alone as they wished: the former great idea has left them; the great source of strength that had nourished and warmed them till then is departing, like the majestic, inviting sun . . ., but it already seemed like the last day of mankind. And people suddenly realized that they remained quite alone, and at once felt a great orphancy. . . .I have never been able to imagine people ungrateful and grown stupid. The orphaned people would at once begin pressing together more closely and lovingly. . .”

Indeed, neither the narrator not the author himself can think of people as “ungrateful and grown stupid.” But apparently they are. While Dostoevsky drew on his five years of imprisonment in Siberia and his tortured existence before reaching the autumn of his life, he was convinced that humans have a deep need to love and in finding themselves unable to love God any more — after the curses and mudslinging — they would turn to nature and to one another. Without the ability to draw on that experience myself, I find it difficult to say that people have, in fact, turned to one another and to nature. Their need to love, which I cannot deny, seems to have turned upon itself. Humans exploit and destroy nature for their own purposes, ignore one another, and find themselves alone in a labyrinth with no one to love but themselves. Or is it because they love themselves that they are alone in the labyrinth? It is not clear. But either way, Dostoevsky’s “fantasy” is just that. It is wishful thinking on the part of a brilliant and deeply pious mind.

I do not share the man’s brilliance. Nor do I share his deep piety. In any event, from where I sit I see only a perverted love of self that has taken the place of a deep and abiding love of something greater than the self, something “out there” that takes the person out of himself or herself and into a world of wonder and joy — and hope. This may be a mistake on my part, but if it is even partially true it would help explain our current state of mind, our collective anxiety, our sense of despair that is so deep that we would, in this country at any rate, choose an ignorant and callous man, a man who exudes hatred from every pore, to lead us to a brighter place

 

Freud And The Poets

Late in his life, as he was dying from the agonies of cancer and insisting that he only be treated with an occasional aspirin, Sigmund Freud noted that his “discovery” of the human unconscious mind was down to the poets.  As he wrote, “Not I,  but the poets, discovered the unconscious.” By the word “poet” he meant artists who work with words, such as Shakespeare and Dostoevsky — the latter having written what Freud regarded as the greatest novel ever. Indeed, Shakespeare, as we all acknowledge, provides innumerable insights into the human condition and Dostoevsky not only explores the human unconscious mind but can be said to have discovered the duality in the human mind. His first novel, The Double, depicts a man who gradually loses his mind and goes to work to find he is already there.

But we might do well to pay attention to what Freud says, despite the fact that few read him any more and he has been dismissed by so many — even a great many of those who owe their profession to him. He was correct about so many things and even when he was wrong he had important things to say about the human mind and about the struggles we all have to make to maintain what we call “civilization.”

Ernst Cassirer said that poets create culture, which is the intellectual and emotional shell we surround ourselves with in order to help aid us in our struggle to maintain civilization — “the will to live in common,” as Ortega y Gasset would have it. It takes determination, according to Freud, because it requires restraint and even repression of the basic impulses to violence that dwell at the center of the human psyche. And this is an everyday struggle. Civilization, according to Freud, is the result of the sublimation of those instincts and the redirection of them outward in the form of the creations and discoveries that make our world larger and more interesting. And who better to lead us in this struggle than those creative artists, including the poets, who bring us out of ourselves and take us into a wider and deeper world, the world of imagination that enriches what we like to call the “real world”?

What is required, of course, if we are to join the poets and artists in their journey, is what Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief.” This requires what he called “poetic faith,” an effort of imagination that is becoming increasingly difficult for growing numbers of people whose sensibilities have been dulled by an entertainment industry requiring no effort of any kind, much less an effort of the human imagination. These days it’s all “out there” and we need only sit and tune in. But we miss so much and in the process we become less human in so many ways because our interactions with others require an active imagination and without interaction with others we become lost within ourselves. Some, including myself, would say this ship has already sailed.

In any event, we have become less and less interested in “the will to live in common” and increasingly, as Ortega would have it, “hermetically sealed” from the real world and unable to use our imaginations to build a bridge and walk with the poets and artists into a world which is truly rich and full of delight — all of which we miss in our preoccupation with our selves.

The place of the poet is to aid us in the effort to save culture, while at the same time we are urged to question it and wrestle with the deeper questions about the worth of our culture as we struggle to achieve true selfhood;  and in the process we strengthen and preserve civilization itself by enlarging our world and ourselves enabling us to engage something greater than ourselves. Freud warned us early in the last century that the preservation of civilization requires effort and it appears that as we increasingly ignore the help of the poets he admired so much that effort is becoming increasingly difficult for a great many people to make. It is easier to simply turn on the television or check out social media; and we are well aware that as humans we dearly love to take the path of least resistance.

Revisiting the Crystal Palace

Once again, dear readers, I must recall the past as I am busy as a bee editing my best posts for the upcoming book!

UNDERGROUND MAN
(6/16/12)
I recently read an interesting essay on Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground in the June 11th edition of the New Yorker. The author of the essay, David Denby, revisits the book and reflects on its enduring message for our times. He’s right: “it can still kick.”
It does seem to me that along with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass not to mention Kafka’s Trial, Dostoevsky’s novella does indeed show us a side of ourselves and the world in which we live that we may want to deny. But when we contemplate the things that are being done on a state and national level out there in the “real” world, where politicians insist that we can improve education by eliminating teachers, and that we will be safer by firing policemen and firemen; when the military expands the war on terror in parts of the world that most of know about only by hearsay and kills by remote control; and when corporations destroy the earth and ignore threats to the survival of life on this planet (and legislators say it isn’t so), the words of these authors start to ring true.
Dostoevsky’s hero in this novella is a man of “caprice.”  “He passionately loves destruction and chaos. . .” He does things for no reason whatever. He likes to deny the obvious, rails against the Crystal Palace and everything European/scientific/technical/mathematical. Two times two may NOT be four. “. . .two times two is four is no longer life. . .it is the beginning of death.” We learn from this novella that if we try to fathom human motives we come up empty. The world is borderline insane and humans do things for no reason whatever much of the time — as Carroll and Kafka also suggested — and we might just as well not try to make sense of it.
For someone who spent his life trying to teach young people to think, who still believes deeply that sound judgment is the way to ferret out small pieces of truth, these authors leave a bad taste in the mouth. One doesn’t like to admit that his life may have been spent in a caucus race (as Carroll would have it) chasing around incoherently with no purpose and slim rewards in the form of comfits from Alice’s pocket.
But as I grow older and “crawl toward death,” along with Shakespeare’s Lear, I begin to think Carroll, Kafka, and Dostoevsky were right: the world really doesn’t make sense. And humans are capricious: acting often without reason, doing good or evil seemingly with blinders on. But I don’t despair because reason can help us sort things out; more importantly, we have it on good authority (when Dostoevsky’s underground man exhibits a profound need to connect with another human being) that the things that matter remain after all: friends, loved ones, and a life lived trying to “lift the lives of others,” as a good friend of mine recently put it. Why? Why not?

Quixote’s Death Revisited

I posted a while ago about the death of Don Quixote, which I thought worthy of thought. Interestingly enough those who read and commented on the post tended to focus on Quixote’s life. In that regard, I struck out, though I can understand that Quixote’s life was wonderful and worth pondering in itself. The notion of Don Quixote, a middle-aged man garbed in make-shift armor riding through the Spanish countryside on a sway-back nag alongside the indomitable Sancho Panza — the idealist alongside the man of practical good sense — is fascinating, as are the adventures they encounter along the way.

The novel is interesting for so many reasons, and has so many possibilities, that it allows for a great many interpretations and has spoken to countless generations since its first appearance in the 17th century. But one thing seems assured, and that is that Cervantes was saying a sad good-bye to an age in which chivalry was alive, men worried about glory and honor, factories were aborning (though technically the first factory, a water-powered silk mill in Derby didn’t start up until a century after Cervantes’ death), and warfare was becoming mechanized. This last fact was a strong motivator for the novel, most critics insist, as Cervantes, while a soldier, was wounded in the arm by a bullet, an injury that rendered his arm nearly useless for the rest of his life. He seemed to prefer the notion that, as a soldier, the wounding and killing ought to be done man-to-man — not at distance. What would he think of the drones that are controlled thousands of miles away and kill hundreds of “enemies,” including innocent people, while the operator eats a Big Mac and an order of fries in his comfortable chair in Kansas somewhere manipulating joy sticks as he looks at a television screen?

In any event, the death of the idealist is the interesting thing I was asking my readers to ponder. What does it mean to the rest of us?

The Knight of the White Moon (Samson Carrasco) and Don Quixote agreed at the outset that the winner of a joust between the two of them would mean the the loser must acknowledge the greater beauty of the winner’s beloved. They also agreed that Don Quixote would give up the life of the knight errant for a year “or until whatever intervening date I may direct.” Upon being hurled from his nag by the Knight of the White Moon’s superior horse, Don Quixote refused to allow that Dulcinea was not the most beautiful women in the world and his victor allowed that concession because the real point was to make sure Don Quixote went home and settled down, leave off knight-hooding, as it were. This Quixote agreed to do. It is this sad event that is significant, which drew comments both within the novel and from people like Heine and Dostoevsky many years later.

The idealism of youth must always, it seems, give way to the common sense of middle-age and the cynicism of old age.  Don Quixote steps aside in the Third Sally and watches as Sancho Panza, the embodiment of commonsense, governs his “island” — a small village he is sent to “govern” by the wealthy Don Antonio Morena as a joke.  In doing this, Sancho exhibits the wisdom of Solomon and the good sense that Quixote obviously lacks. Sancho is becoming more like Quixote and vice versa. In any event, the idealism of Don Quixote affects those around him and when he is defeated the light goes out in the eyes of those who saw him as funny, to be sure, but also heroic in his blind determination to do the right thing.

Today’s heroes wear camouflage and go off to battle for the corporations, or they wear padding and smash heads with one another on a football field. They seldom exhibit the idealism that motivated Don Quixote in their determination to simply follow orders or struggle to increase their already obscene incomes. It is the death of idealism, the death of the joy the man finds in the world around him, the death of the imagination that can see in a barber’s basin the helmet of  Mambrino, the death of a courage that stems from an adoration of beauty and goodness, it is these deaths that folks like Heine and Dostoevsky lament. It is the death of Don Quixote that should make us take stock and think again about what is and what is not truly important.

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.