The Prophet of the Eternal

‘If I bring war on this land and the people take one of their citizens and make him their watchman, and if the watchman sees war coming and blows the trumpet, warning the people, then if anyone hears the sound of the trumpet and ignores it and war comes and takes him off, it’s his own fault. He heard the alarm, he ignored it—it’s his own fault. If he had listened, he would have saved his life.

But if the watchman sees war coming and doesn’t blow the trumpet, warning the people, and war comes and takes anyone off, I’ll hold the watchman responsible for the bloodshed of any unwarned sinner. (Ezekiel 33: 2-6 MSG)

According to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian people ignored their watchman, Fyodor Dostoevsky, who foretold the coming of war against their country from within their own borders. In “Encountering the Spirit of Revolutionary Negation,” Dan Mahoney highlights the signs of approaching totalitarianism found in Dostoevsky’s novel Demons. In this novel, Mahoney identifies the demons as “revolutionary nihilism, political atheism, ‘half-science’ or scientism, and an incipient totalitarianism that combines moral fanaticism with contempt for the primordial distinction between good and evil.” However accurate those words might fit the symptoms of the disease infecting the Russian culture during Dostoevsky’s day, the words themselves lead to similar problems in being too abstract. Yes, demons hide under “isms,” but we need more particular and concrete guides to unmask them. Mahoney hits closer to the mark when he calls out the characters—those who should act as watchmen but are instead possessed teachers and leaders: Kirillov, Stavrogin, Stepan Verhkovensky, his son Pyotr, Varvara Stavrogina, and Governor von Lembke and his wife.

In the novel, those in power choose to employ their positions in ways that corrupt the youth, encourage violence, and lead to destruction rather than creation. Mahoney upholds Kirillov and Stavrogin as prime examples of “Autonomous Men,” those that claim to rule themselves. In contemporary slang, we might say that Kirillov and Stavrogin embody the motto: “You do you.” They have absorbed the lie that they may be themselves, chart their own paths, write their own stories. In short, they think they have not been influenced by the very culture to which they have become possessed. There’s a poem in Demons called “A Noble Character” that claims “Family, Marriage, [and] Church” are the “Lies of the past that keep us slaves!” Through this satire, Dostoevsky implies the opposite: rather than enslave, family, marriage, and church will save the individual from becoming subjugated to the lie of autonomy and self-creation. Renouncing the claims of family, marriage, and the church, Stavrogin rapes a young girl, who subsequently kills herself; he mocks marriage by marrying a mentally feeble woman as a joke; and he defies the church by writing a “confession” that acts as a celebration of his horrific acts of violence. His life ends in suicide. Dostoevsky exposes the desire for absolute autonomy as a death wish.

In contrast to such radical independence, Dostoevsky moves his readers towards rightful interdependence on others. Most especially, he highlights the benefit of proper authority. Dostoevsky pinpoints the poor instruction of Stepan Verkhovensky, who Mahoney calls “a liberal progressive intellectual of another era,” as a primary cause of the wayward revolutionaries. In addition to the weak leadership of Governor von Lembke and patronage of Varvara Stavrogina, this teacher propagated bad ideas without thought to their ultimate consequences. Mahoney decries Verkhovensky’s offhanded assessment of Chernyshevsky’s socialism as a good idea though horrible in practice. The idea cannot be moral if its execution would be immoral. Such cowardly grappling with philosophy has created the demons that Verhovensky refuses to acknowledge.

What we see in Dostoevsky is not merely bad ideology but the teachers and watchmen who did not live up to their responsibility; not to mention the mass of people led astray by such neglectful leaders. We have to look not only at the ideas but at those who pass them on. Who is teaching and who is following?

When it feels as though the forces of despotism and authoritarianism are gaining too much strength, the answer may be as simple as picking up a nineteenth-century Russian novel.

A few years ago, Alan Jacobs called us out for turning not to intellectuals for our watchmen but to scientists. In “The Watchmen,” Jacobs draws his term from Karl Mannheim, a sociologist removed by the Nazis from his position at his university, who argued that intellectuals were called to “play the part of watchmen in what otherwise would be a pitch-black night.” Rather than listen to these wise figures, we began substituting “the scientist” for the sage. Jacobs points to Time magazine covers as his evidence for the gradual switch from the reverence of the public scholar to that of the technology god. Notice that Time used to feature C.S. Lewis and Reinhold Niebuhr on the covers, but just last year, as further support of Jacobs’s claim, they gave us Elon Musk (a man who Tweets about his bowel movements!) who is rich and famous and paving the way to utopia on Mars. These are the figures that our society exalts for us to imitate. If, as Dostoevsky shows us, we are not autonomous individuals, but we are always imitating others, into what kind of people will these models make us?

Dostoevsky warns us against what Niebuhr calls “soft utopias” in which, as Mahoney writes, children are taught “to laugh at God” and academics refuse to use a word like “evil.” These bad ideas being passed down by our teachers and watchmen will lead us to an embrace of ideology in which we can no longer tell the righteous from the wicked.

In addition to his caution, Mahoney indicates Dostoevsky’s solution: a kiss of peace, as when Ivan’s Christ kisses the Grand Inquisitor. He finds the gesture powerful “but one accompanied by passivity and extreme otherworldliness.” Here, I must argue emphatically that Mahoney misunderstands this gesture. In no way is the kiss of Christ passive and otherworldly. Rather, the power of the kiss stems from three sources, and those three meanings overhaul every problem that nihilism, totalitarianism, and ideology throw at us. First, the kiss of the enemy counteracts the violent impulses of the Grand Inquisitor, reminding us, as Rene Girard indicates, that only selfless acts impede destruction. We must not uproot violence but mend the causes of further violence themselves; we stop violence by charity. Second, one ought to note that the kiss is particular! In a world of abstraction and angelism, the kiss shows the necessity of concrete action between two people. You cannot claim to love what you cannot touch. Finally, the kiss is to be imitated. Christ gives us an example that we can follow. It may seem impossible to hinder the flow of progressive ideology, but it is within our reach to love the person next door despite that obnoxious political banner they have on their garage.

Mahoney is right: Dostoevsky is not a counter-ideologist. He is always a prophet of the eternal but through the very particulars of these times and places where we dwell. When it feels as though the forces of despotism and authoritarianism are gaining too much strength, the answer may be as simple as picking up a nineteenth-century Russian novel.