Freedom Without Limits

In “Encountering the Spirit of Revolutionary Negation,” Daniel J. Mahoney describes Dostoevsky’s Demons as a diagnosis of the psychology that gave rise to the modern project of revolutionary nihilism, political atheism, and an incipient totalitarianism that “rejects the primordial distinction between good and evil.” According to Mahoney, Dostoevsky’s novel is prophetic in its account of the moral fanaticism and fashionable nihilism that we find among our own cultural elites, and its most salient features include its cancel culture, identity politics, and a new form of anti-rationalist atheism. By revisiting this book, Mahoney hopes that Dostoevsky will help us “to see our way amid the cultural, spiritual, and political darkness of our time.”

I want to deepen Mahoney’s analysis by looking at one of the enduring themes that haunted Dostoevsky throughout his life: the centrality of freedom as an essential part of the human condition. Dostoevsky believed that one cannot live as a full human being without individual freedom: a freedom that acknowledges limits in its striving towards a chosen ideal—and the willingness to suffer for it. In his works, Dostoevsky portrayed this type of freedom rooted in transcendence in contrast to the nihilist’s account that rejected God.

Unlimited Freedom

In The House of the Dead, the narrator desires freedom from the oppression of his confinement as a prisoner. He recognizes that the human desire for freedom cannot be eliminated by institutions like prison. Even when a prisoner knows he will be punished for a transgression, he will still commit it because he must feel free in order to feel like a full human being. But what the narrator discovers is that when freedom is unbridled, this desire leads to chaos and riots among the prisoners—a liberty without order. Freedom must be constrained to be meaningful; otherwise, it will result in death, destruction, and ultimately tyranny.

For example, in Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov believes he is free to operate above the law, fashioning himself an “extraordinary person,” a Napoleon, who is not bound by the “conventional morality” of society. In his murder of the elderly pawn broker and her sister, Raskolnikov tests whether his conscience can “step across certain . . . obstacles, and then only if the execution of his idea (which may occasionally be the salvation of all mankind) requires it.” But after his crime, Raskolnikov spends the rest of the novel realizing that he is not as free as he first thought—as his conscience plagues him. Only after confessing to Sonya, turning himself in to the police, and finally accepting the responsibility of his crime does Raskolnikov begin to embrace a freedom rooted not in autonomy but transcendence. By acknowledging the “conventional morality” that murder is evil, Raskolnikov paradoxically becomes free by voluntarily choosing to limit his autonomy and accepting God at the end of the novel.

Of course, Dostoevsky’s most famous account of unlimited freedom is “The Grand Inquisitor’s Tale” in The Brothers Karamazov, where the Grand Inquisitor charges that Christ has increased “man’s freedom and burdened his spiritual kingdom with suffering forever . . . In place of the rigid ancient law, man now must with a free heart decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Your image before him as a guide.” But because humans are “weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious,” Christ’s message has failed and, in its place, the Grand Inquisitor has taken upon himself the burden of freedom to provide humans meaning under the guise of Christ’s name: “We corrected Your work and have found it upon miracle, mystery, and authority.”

The Psychology of Devils

Dostoevsky’s motif of unlimited freedom in his works is often represented in the figures of devils. Not only do devils have a material reality in Dostoevsky’s novels, influenced by his Christian Orthodoxy, but they also are manifestations of a psychology that desires complete human autonomy. This “demonic” ideology can be revolutionary as Mahoney describes in his essay and totalitarian as the Grand Inquisitor proposes, but it can also appear in a variety of other situations whether comic or individually murderous.

For instance, the devil appears to the narrator of “The Grand Inquisitor’s Tale,” Ivan Karamazov when he is ill and delirious, in a humorous scene. Not only is Ivan annoyed by being visited by a minor devil, but he is tormented by the devil not getting his ideas right. In The House of Dead, devils are main characters in the prisoners’ theatrical performance of Kedril, the Glutton, where they appear to snatch away Kedril and his servant to hell. And in Crime and Punishment, when Raskolnikov confesses to Sonya, she diagnoses his as estrangement from God: “You have strayed away from God and God has laid his hands upon you and given you up to the Devil!”

In Dostoevsky’s novels, devils pop in and out of scenes, asking characters what to make of their unlimited freedom. In all these situations the devil is deadly, revealing a psychology that rejects the “conventionality morality” between good and evil. Ivan’s ideas are comically mocked but they inspire Smerdyakov to murder their father. The prisoners’ performance of Kedril, the Glutton is festive, but it is also a self-acknowledgment of their own guilt for their past crimes. And Raskolnikov’s unlimited freedom does not result in the “salvation of all mankind” but only the senseless murder of two individuals.

While the modern, enlightened person dismisses the idea of the supernatural, for Dostoevsky’s characters devils are a powerful reality. As Lebedyev says in response to the nihilist, Ippolit, in The Idiot:

Yes, the laws of self-preservation and of self-destruction are equally powerful in this world. The devil will hold his empire over humanity until a limit of time which is still unknown. You laugh? You do not believe in the devil? Skepticism as to the devil is a French idea, and it is also a frivolous idea. Do you know who the devil is? Do you know his name? Although you don’t know his name you make a mockery of his form, following the example of Voltaire. You sneer at his hoofs, at his tail, at his horns—all of them the product of your imagination! In reality the devil is a great and terrible spirit, with neither hoofs, nor tail, nor horns; it is you who have endowed him with these attributes!

Although both the devils and nihilist elites have embraced unlimited freedom by rejecting God, the latter interestingly refuse to acknowledge the existence of the former. As modern, enlightened persons, nihilists place their faith in the power of their own autonomy and rationality. To concede that some other metaphysical force was influencing their choices would be tantamount to admitting they are not free and therefore not in control of their own destinies.

But for Dostoevsky, the devil is a reality, not just a theological doctrine or a literary fable. It is a condition of the soul that has been cut off from God. The result is a psychology that values freedom without constraints where, as Ivan Karamazov puts it, “everything is permitted.”

Shigalyev and Kirillov

So who are the devils in the aptly-named novel Demons and what lessons can we learn from them?

Certainly, Pyotr Verkhovensky is a major one, a revolutionary nihilist who commits murder and mayhem in the village of Zarechye. Likewise, Pyotr’s co-conspirators in the murder of Shatov—Liputin, Vrginsky, Tolkachenko, Shigalov, Erkel, and Lyamshin—are devils, albeit lesser minions. So is the revolutionary intellectual Shigalyev, a minor figure but one who embodies ideas that will have an outsized influence in the twentieth century with its totalitarian regimes.

Shigalyev offers a philosophy to rationalize political violence. According to him, terrorism is necessary to establish an “earthly paradise” where “there can be no other on earth.” Afterwards, the post-revolutionary society will proceed from unlimited freedom only to “end with unlimited despotism.” Ninety percent of society will be enslaved to the remaining ten percent and equality will be enforced by a police state with an estimated hundred million people needed to be killed in order to achieve this goal.

For Dostoevsky a freedom without limits can only end in suicide, societal collapse, and totalitarian politics.

But more important than these devils in the novel is the engineer Kirillov who has embraced the logical extremes of atheism. He believes life consists of suffering and pain and, since God does not exist, anything is possible. As he says, “If God does not exist, then all will is mine, and I am obliged to proclaim self-will.” This proclamation ends in the act of suicide with the sole motive of erasing humans’ fear of death, a fear that is implicit in a belief in God.

By committing suicide, Kirillov will demonstrate that he has transcended this fear and initiate a new era of the “Man-God” when there is no God other than human will: “There will be a new man, happy and proud,” he announces. “And the world will change, and deeds will change, and thoughts, and all feelings.” There will be a new metaphysical order, a new form of human consciousness, and all this will be so profound in its effects, Kirillov believes, that man may even change physically. God will be dethroned, and from that moment “history will be divided into two parts: from the gorilla to the destruction of God, and from the destruction of God to . . . the physical changing of earth and man.”

In Kirillov’s eyes, God is responsible for the misfortune and misery in the world. Perhaps the only character other than Shatov, Kirillov is sensitive to human suffering and is described throughout the novel as humble and selfless. He even admires Jesus (as a man, not God) for his purity and goodness. When Jesus died, he said, “This day you will be with me in paradise.” But when he died for Kirillov, paradise did not happen. God and his creation therefore are without compassion or mercy. Goodness counts for nothing and the laws of nature, Kirillov derides, are simply “a devil’s vaudeville.” It is suffering without God that is unbearable for Kirillov.

Unlike Shigalyev who believes freedom can only lead to a prison state among equals, Kirillov sees freedom as self-divinity that can only be proven by the self-mastery of suicide. As the most honest of all the devils, Kirillov shows us the consequences of freedom without transcendence: our own self-destruction. The question that he would pose to us is whether we have the will to see it through.


But the most important devil in Demons is Nikolai Stavrogin, who is characterized as handsome, strong, sophisticated, and fearless. Women are attracted to him—Liza, Darya, Marie—and men want to enlist him to their causes. Pytor Verkhovensky envisions him as the figurehead of the revolution, and Ivan Shatov once believed Stavrogin could inspire Russia to a Christian regeneration.

However, Shatov has become disillusioned with Stavrogin whom he sees as having lost the distinction between good and evil. In a chapter originally censored by the Russian authorities, Stavrogin himself defines his morality as such: “that I neither know nor feel good and evil and that I have not only lost any sense of it, but that there is neither good nor evil . . . and that it is just a prejudice.” Stavorgin is what Kirilllov aspires to be—the “Man-God”—the embodiment of freedom without limits.

The results are disastrous for the other characters in the novel: his marriage to the mentally unstable and confused Marya disgraces his mother and causes a scandal in high society; his refusal to prevent the murder of his wife and brother makes him morally responsible for their deaths; his ruination of Liza indirectly leads to her being killed by the town mob; and his rape of a fourteen-year girl and her subsequent suicide makes him reprehensible.

Stavrogin derives inner pleasure from these crimes, not because he enjoys the pain of others, but, according to Shatov, because he wants to torment his own conscience and relish in the sensation of his own “moral carnality.” Unburdened by morality, Stavrogin can only exercise his freedom in transgression in the hope that he can discover meaning. Instead, he finds nothing except a conscience that continually questions itself about the worth of life without limits. In the end he concludes there is none, committing suicide by hanging himself.

Freedom With Limits

As Mahoney describes, the “new waves of moralistic fanaticism and toxic nihilism” of “young people and pseudo-intellectuals [who] bow before the cult of revolution” are driven by a psychology of unbridled freedom. But for Dostoevsky, a freedom without limits can only end in suicide, societal collapse, and totalitarian politics. As Caroline Breashears exquisitely describes, this partly characterizes the spiritual state of our country today, a manifestation of a politics that is cut off from any sense of limits or constraints.

What we uncover in Demons are the horrific consequences of unlimited freedom and, as a result, a deformed human condition where we are more akin to animals than gods. As the epigraph of the novel, Luke 8:32-6, states:

Now, a large herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside; and they begged him to let them enter these. So he gave them leave. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned. When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled, and told it in the city and in the country. Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. And those who had seen it told them how he who had been possessed with demons was healed.

According to Dostoevsky, we need individual freedom to be fully human, but when left unchecked, we are no more than a herd of swine that drown in a lake. For Dostoevsky, freedom must be realized in a community. Shatov’s acceptance of being a father and Stepan Trofmovich’s reconciliation with Varvara are examples in Demons where individual freedom is exercised in a communal context. By doing so, these characters become fully human because they choose to accept the responsibilities, obligations, and duties of the other. It is what makes society possible and what makes us, as individuals, truly free.