Saturday, June 13, 2009

Dostoyevsky: "to set up heaven on earth"

Hanging Gardens of Babylon
Tower of Babel in Background
'a little heaven on earth'
(Image from Wikipedia)

Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov, also called Alyosha, is the 'hero' of Dostoyevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov. At the age of 19, he opts for the life of a monk, an existential choice that Dostoyevski describes in a very intriguing manner:
I shall be told, perhaps, that Alyosha was stupid, undeveloped, had not finished his studies, and so on. That he did not finish his studies is true, but to say that he was stupid or dull would be a great injustice. I'll simply repeat what I have said above. He entered upon this path only because, at that time, it alone struck his imagination and presented itself to him as offering an ideal means of escape for his soul from darkness to light. Add to that that he was to some extent a youth of our last epoch -- that is, honest in nature, desiring the truth, seeking for it and believing in it, and seeking to serve it at once with all the strength of his soul, seeking for immediate action, and ready to sacrifice everything, life itself, for it. Though these young men unhappily fail to understand that the sacrifice of life is, in many cases, the easiest of all sacrifices, and that to sacrifice, for instance, five or six years of their seething youth to hard and tedious study, if only to multiply tenfold their powers of serving the truth and the cause they have set before them as their goal such a sacrifice is utterly beyond the strength of many of them. The path Alyosha chose was a path going in the opposite direction, but he chose it with the same thirst for swift achievement. As soon as he reflected seriously he was convinced of the existence of God and immortality, and at once he instinctively said to himself: "I want to live for immortality, and I will accept no compromise." In the same way, if he had decided that God and immortality did not exist, he would at once have become an atheist and a socialist. For socialism is not merely the labour question, it is before all things the atheistic question, the question of the form taken by atheism to-day, the question of the tower of Babel built without God, not to mount to heaven from earth but to set up heaven on earth. Alyosha would have found it strange and impossible to go on living as before. It is written: "Give all that thou hast to the poor and follow Me, if thou wouldst be perfect." (Dostoyevsky, Brothers Karamazov (New York: Random House, 1950), pages 25-26)
Had Alyosha turned atheist, he would have been a very dangerous man, for that turn would have turned him from a revolutionary of the soul to a social revolutionary and turned his spiritual energies from seeking perfection of his own soul to seeking perfection of all society. Socialism of the late 19th century was often a violent doctrine, looking back for inspiration to the French Revolution, and though Dostoyevsky does not make explicit in this passage that Alyosha would have turned to violence in pursuit of a socialist society, such might be implicit given that Alyosha is described as the sort of passionate young man "seeking for immediate action, and ready to sacrifice everything, [even] life itself," for his aim of perfection.

Dostoyevsky's insight into the religious impulse behind revolutionary socialism has since become nearly a sociological cliché -- the secularization of eschatology -- but it remains an interesting inquiry. My own thoughts on this matter, partly impelled by Dostoyevsky's depiction of Alyosha, turn from the moment of a revolutionary grab for power to the process of constructing utopia, the Tower of Babel being built "to set up heaven on earth." Such utopian visions always turn to dystopian realities because the search for perfection, when no longer directed toward one's individual soul, where it would have better experienced the bitter, personal truth of human imperfectibility, directs itself instead toward a perfection of mankind believed attainable through constructing a society so totally regulated that it exerts ideological force upon the innermost being of each individual. This never works, of course, for no social mechanisms can perfectly construct, or reconstruct, the soul. Human evil is ineradicable by merely human means, so the mechanisms must be applied with ever-greater pressure toward bending human nature to the revolutionary will, a repression that never totally succeeds and must therefore become ever more repressive . . . except that the revolutionaries, being merely human themselves, come to apply the machinery not for the explicit aim of human perfection but in the implicit interest of personal power. They grow cynical and accept bribes but must constantly extol the revolution and revolutionary purity -- and thereby only succeed in constructing a totally dishonest society. Thus does the misdirected quest for perfection result in deeper corruption.

Gary Saul Morson also has some thoughts on this theme in Dostoyevsky's writings.

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At 10:51 AM, Blogger Melissa said...


I'm really enjoying these posts on Dostoyevsky - and I can't pull myself away from the Goggle Book copy of Morson. Thanks!


Oh, and also, thanks for the comment you left on my blog the other day. Appreciated!

(Heh. The Word Verification is "permit"!)

At 3:46 PM, Anonymous Malcolm Pollack said...

That was an exceptionally rich post, Jeffery, even by your high standards. Thanks!

At 4:12 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

MKM, glad that you're enjoying my Dostoyevsky stuff. I'm really enjoying reading him again . . . and I'm learning so much more this time around, so I must not be as smart as I was at 19.

"Nothing is true; everything is permitted."

Especially on Word Verification.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:13 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Malcolm. From you, that's high praise.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:14 PM, Blogger Susan said...

Randomly got your blog on a google search for Dostoyevsky and communism with a phrase from the book, just looking to find the text to cut and paste rather than type it all in myself. Found myself interested in your post and your profile and other posts. I'm not a blogger or blog "follower", but thanks for the post.

At 1:10 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Ms. Susan, I'm pleased to have offered something you found worth your time.

Jeffery Hodges

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