Fyodor Dostoevsky: philosopher of freedom

Fyodor Dostoevsky: philosopher of freedom. By Gary Morson.

On December 22, 1849, a group of political radicals were taken from their prison cells in Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress, where they had been interrogated for eight months. Led to the Semenovsky Square, they heard a sentence of death by firing squad. They were given long white peasant blouses and nightcaps — their funeral shrouds — and offered last rites. The first three prisoners were seized by the arms and tied to the stake. One prisoner refused a blindfold and stared defiantly into the guns trained on them. At the last possible moment, the guns were lowered as a courier galloped up with an imperial decree reducing death sentences to imprisonment in a Siberian prison camp followed by service as a private in the army. The last-minute rescue was in fact planned in advance as part of the punishment, an aspect of social life that Russians understand especially well.

Accounts affirm: of the young men who endured this terrible ordeal, one had his hair turn white; a second went mad and never recovered his sanity; a third, whose two-hundredth birthday we celebrate in 2021, went on to write Crime and Punishment.

The mock-execution and the years in Siberian prison — thinly fictionalized in his novel Notes from the House of the Dead (1860) — changed Dostoevsky forever. His naive, hopeful romanticism disappeared. His religious faith deepened. The sadism of both prisoners and guards taught him that the sunny view of human nature presumed by utilitarianism, liberalism, and socialism were preposterous. Real human beings differed fundamentally from what these philosophies presumed.

People do not live by bread — or, what philosophers called the maximalization of “advantage” — alone. All utopian ideologies presuppose that human nature is fundamentally good and simple: evil and apparent complexity result from a corrupt social order. Eliminate want and you eliminate crime. For many intellectuals, science itself had proven these contentions and indicated the way to the best of all possible worlds.

Dostoevsky rejected all these ideas as pernicious nonsense. “It is clear and intelligible to the point of obviousness,” he wrote in a review of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “that evil lies deeper in human beings than our social-physicians suppose; that no social structure will eliminate evil; that the human soul will remain as it always has been . . . and, finally, that the laws of the human soul are still so little known, so obscure to science, so undefined, and so mysterious, that there are not and cannot be either physicians or final judges” except God Himself. …

Dostoevsky intended his descriptions of human complexity to convey political lessons. If people are so surprising, so “undefined and mysterious,” then social engineers are bound to cause more harm than good. …

The nameless narrator of Dostoevsky’s 1864 novella Notes from Underground (usually called “the underground man”) insists that the aspiration of social sciences to discover the iron laws of human behavior threatens to reduce people to “piano keys or organ stops.” If such laws exist, if “some day they truly discover a formula for all our desires and caprices,” he reasons, then each person will realize that “everything is done by itself according to the laws of nature.” As soon as those laws are discovered, people will no longer be responsible for their actions. … There will be no more adventures because adventures involve suspense, and suspense entails moments that are truly momentous: depending on what one does, more than one outcome is possible.

But for a determinist, the laws of nature ensure that at any given moment only one thing can happen. Suspense is just an illusion resulting from ignorance of what must be. …

Or as the underground man observes, social engineers imagine a world that is “completed,” a perfect finished product. In fact, “an amazing edifice of that type” already exists: “the anthill.” The anthill became Dostoevsky’s favorite image of socialism. …

On religion:

Faith must not be based on miracles. Once one witnesses a miracle, one is so overawed that doubt is impossible, and that means faith is impossible. Properly understood, faith does not resemble scientific knowledge or mathematical proof, and it is nothing like accepting Newton’s laws or the Pythagorean theorem. It is possible only in a world of uncertainty, because only then can it be freely chosen.

For the same reason, one should behave morally not to be rewarded, whether in this world or the next, but simply because it is the right thing to do. Behaving morally to earn a heavenly reward transforms goodness into prudence, like saving for retirement. To be sure, Jesus performed miracles, but if you believe because of them, then — despite what many churches say — you are not a Christian. …

On freedom:

For Dostoevsky, by contrast, freedom, responsibility, and the potential for surprise define the human essence. That essence makes possible everything of value. The human soul is “so little known, so obscure to science, and so mysterious, that there are not and cannot be either physicians or final judges,” only unfinalizable people under the God who made them free.