Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 – 1881) looms large over the mind of Russia even today, though it was for a highly traditional and religious Russia of the nineteenth century for which he originally wrote. He contributed to a Slavophile response to the Westernization of his day, and is cited in the present day in support of “The Russian Idea” by leaders in both the Russian Orthodox church as well as the Communist party.1 Despite the current state of Russian society (or arguably because of it), a review of his philosophical thought, fundamentally based on love as found in his Christian faith, is highly relevant today. That review is provided by Professor of Russian Philosophy James Scanlan’s Dostoevsky the Thinker (2002), which is presented here in summary form. Scanlan’s work builds on previous studies, which often were entirely laudatory and not critical of Dostoevsky, or neglected such aspects as his sense of aesthetics, philosophy of history, and social and political theory.
Scanlan’s study treats Dostoevsky as a philosopher rather than simply a philosophical novelist. Drawing on not just his novels and short stories but extensively from his Writer’s Diary and various journal essays, Scanlan shows that Dostoevsky produced a full, anthropocentric philosophy, (though not one dominated by modern concerns such as epistemology and abstract logical systems). Dostoevsky dedicated his life to the study of “what man and life mean,” declaring at age seventeen in a letter to his brother Mikhail, “Man is a mystery . . . must be solved, and if you work at solving it all your life, don’t say that you have wasted your time.”2 Bound by deadlines and financial pressures to produce stories for the public, he still managed to argue against the extreme rationalism of his day, as well as for art as a necessary activity required by man’s spiritual nature. In such works as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky critiqued the commitment to social revolution promoted by Russian Nihilists of his day. In hearkening to man’s enduring spiritual nature which cannot be manipulated by large scale social programming, Dostoevsky anticipated the excesses of the Bolshevik revolution, the reign of Communism, and even the current totalitarian environment seen in Russia today.
Life and Major Works
As with many, if not all writers, the phases of Dostoevsky’s writing reflect those of his personal life. He was the son of an intensely religious medical doctor, himself descended from a long line of priests, and a mother who, along with her nanny and husband, instilled a love of stories in the young Fyodor. Soon after his mother died when he was fifteen, Fyodor enrolled in a military institute and became an engineer, though his interests lay elsewhere: a friend declared “there was no student in the entire institution with less of a military bearing” than him.3 While he stood out among his classmates for his sense of justice and compassion, his reclusive ways and strong religious sense earned him the nickname “Monk Photius.”4 Informed by patients he helped his father care for, he published his first novel, Poor Folk, in 1845. During this time he was attracted to the writings of French socialists, but his religious background prevented him from adopting their materialist, utilitarian, and often atheist stances. As a member of the Petrashevsky Circle, a literary group which discussed banned books critical of Tsarist Russia, Dostoevsky was arrested and sentenced to death in 1849, famously gaining a last minute reprieve followed by four years in a Siberian prison camp and six years of forced military service before resuming his literary career. Of his thirteen novels, three novellas, seventeen short stories and essays, his most notable were the following: House of the Dead (1861) which reflected his time in prison, Notes from Underground (1864) an undermining of the optimism of scientific solutions to the problems of humanity, Crime & Punishment (begun in 1866) a refutation of secular socialism, The Idiot (begun in 1867) a depiction of an incognito Christ figure traveling in the circles of aristocratic society, Demons (1871-2) a psychological expose of moral and political nihilism, and The Brothers Karamazov (1880), his final work (and rival for his magnum opus with Crime and Punishment), a drama of belief, reason, and doubt including the story of “The Grand Inquisitor” in which church bureaucracy must face Christ himself.
Philosopher of Immortality and Ethics
“Man does not live by bread alone” Scanlan claims Dostoevsky frequently reminds his readers, drawing on the Christian faith of his youth. That we are not just matter but spirit Dostoevsky explained elsewhere in his youthful letter to his brother Mikhail,
If we were spirits we would live and float within the sphere of that thought above which our soul floats when it wishes to divine it. We ashes, however – humans – must work at divining the thought but cannot embrace it . . . The mind is a material capacity . . . The soul, on the other hand, or spirit, lives on thought that the heart whispers to it . . . The mind is a tool, a machine, prompted by the fire of the soul. 5
Statements like these often result in Dostoevsky being considered an irrationalist, in the manner of Soren Kierkegaard. In other letters he places “the heart” above “the mind” as an authority of knowledge, hearkened to our spiritual nature in claiming that “much on earth is hidden from us … the essence of things cannot be grasped on earth,” following Pascal’s admission that “the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret.” 6
The rational part of Dostoevsky did have his doubts, however. He claimed that he understood all the arguments against the existence of God and life after death by age twenty, having digested liberal Western literature of the 1830s and 1840s (such as that of the popular female French novelist known as George Sand) which shook but did not eradicate his faith. He declared Sand a true Christian who believed in the immortality of the human soul, and even shouted “We shall be with Christ” in the face of the firing squad; nevertheless admitted as late as 1870 that the question of God’s existence “has tormented me consciously and unconsciously all my life.” 7
Love was all the proof that Dostoevsky needed to convince himself of our immortality and the existence of God. In The Brothers Karamazov Madame Khokhalkova, a “lady lacking conviction” asks the monk Zosiva how to become convinced of life after death, he responds
There is no proving it, but one can be convinced … by the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbors actively and tirelessly. To the extent that you succeed in loving, you will become convinced both of the existence of God and of the immortality of the soul. 8
Dostoevsky argues further in Demons that God would not waste his love on mere mortal beings:
My immortality is necessary if only because God would not wish to commit an injustice and extinguish altogether the flame of love for Him once it has flared in my heart . . . If I have loved Him and rejoiced in my love, is it possible that He would extinguish both me and my joy and return us to nothing? If there is a God, then I am immortal!” 9
Dostoevsky returns to the argument later in The Brothers Karamazov, as the Karamazov’s neighbor, Pyotr Miusov recollects that
He solemnly declared in argument that there is nothing whatever in all the world to make people love their fellows . . . it was not from natural law but simply because people have believed in their own mortality . . . adding parenthetically that the whole natural law consists in this: that if you were to destroy in humanity the belief in its own immortality, not only love but every vital force for the continuation of earthly life would at once dry up. 10
Dostoevsky thus grounds ethics in his beliefs. Dmitri Karamazov summarizes the point in asking “Without God and the future life? It means everything is permitted now, one can do anything?” 11 But a decade and a half earlier, Dostoevsky made the same case in Notes from the Underground. The 1864 work was Dostoevsky’s “most sustained and spirited philosophical attack on the theory of human nature known as “rational egoism” championed by Nikolay Chernyshevsky among others of the socially radical and materialistic Russian intelligentsia, or “Nihilists” as they were often called.12 The rational egoist approach proclaimed simply an uninhibited freedom of choice as its guiding principle, with no thought as to man’s ability or obligation to act morally. In Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky shows his cynicism towards such projects (however scientifically formulated, as with the discipline of economics) to improve humanity which failed to address human nature. Thus, his derogatory reference to the Crystal Palace, the 1851 monument to technological progress which was three times the size of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. For instance:
Then — this is what you all say — new economic relations will be established, all ready-made and worked out with mathematical exactitude, so that every possible question will vanish in the twinkling of an eye, simply because every answer will be provided. Then the “Palace of Crystal” will be built. 13
Scanlan claims that Nihilist Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel, What Is To Be Done?, (a response to Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons of 1862 which depicted problems of nihilists such as their inability to love), was the clear target of The Underground Man . “What” Chernyshevsky argued “ought to be done” was to allow greater freedom of choice, and less societal constraint, for individuals so they might harmoniously meet their own needs. The argument echoes today in economic circles, with individuals often treated as robotic automaton, deterministically pursuing “self-interest” without the capacity for self-conscious reflection. Dostoevsky pounds home this point, as from the opening lines his narrator declares himself not just a specimen too unhealthy upon which to base any social system, but one which does not even follow helpful advice when offered:
I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don’t consult a doctor for it, and never have . . . 14
Underground’s self-reflective narrator shatters the model of enlightened, self-interested agents in his weakness, but he does more than that: he also ennobles the individual in his capacity for true freedom of choice. The “rational egoism” of Nihilistic reformers like Chernyshevsky relied on a simplified, material view of man, as Chernyshensky argued
Next to the need to breathe . . . a person’s most urgent requirement is food and drink . . . If this one cause of evil were abolished, at least nine tenths of all that is bad in human society would quickly disappear. 15
Chernyshevsky continues, reducing man to the bare physical minimum:
Philosophy sees in what medicine, physiology, and chemistry see. These sciences prove that no dualism is evident in man. These sciences prove that no dualism is evident in man, and philosophy adds that if man possessed another nature, in addition to his real nature, this other nature would surely reveal itself in some way; but since it does not . . . he cannot have another nature. This proof is completely beyond doubt. 16
In response, Dostoevsky lampoons Chernyshensky with the parody,
If someone should say to you ‘I want to think, I am tormented by the unresolved, eternal questions; I want to love, I long for something to believe in, I seek a moral ideal, I love art’ or anything of that sort, answer him immediately, decisively, and boldly that all of it is nonsense, metaphysics, that it’s all a luxury . . . The belly, the belly, and only the belly — that, my dear sir, is the great conviction.’ 17
Individualism was a European disease, Dostoevsky contended, coming in the form of an egoism based on rational calculation of one’s best material condition. His suspicions deepened on his tour through Europe in 1862, reporting in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1863) that its essence consisted of “the personal principle, the principle of isolation . . . of opposing this ego to all of nature and all other people.” In stark contrast, Dostoevsky preferred the way of love, the “voluntary, fully conscious, and completely unconstrained self-sacrifice of one’s entire self for the benefit of all” which demands that “one must love.” 18
Dostoevsky undermines this self-absorbed path in Notes from Underground. His narrator asks “What is advantage? Will you really take it upon yourself” ? 19 However, Dostoevsky (as Underground’s narrator), offers that “one’s own voluntary, free wanting, one’s own caprice . . . is that same omitted, most advantageous, advantage, which does not fall under any classification.”20 The narrator similarly admits he enjoys freedom for freedom’s sake when confessing “I was lying when I said just now that I was a spiteful official. I was lying from spite. I was simply amusing myself.”21 Thus, although Dostoevsky is claimed by existentialists as a patron saint, Scanlan explains that Dostoevsky is merely making the point that “the human will transcends natural law but not moral law.”22 Or in Dostoevsky’s own words from his Writer’s Diary,
In the present shape of the world people think of freedom as license, whereas genuine freedom consists only in overcoming the self and one’s will so as in the end to achieve a moral state such that always, at every moment, one is the real master of oneself . . . the very highest freedom is . . . “sharing everything you have and going off to serve someone.” If a person is capable of that . . . is he, after that, not free? 23
As an ethical philosopher, Dostoevsky would be described as an altruist rather than an egoist (unlike later literary Russian philosophers such as Ayn Rand). His altruism was based on “the law of love” (a phrase Tolstoy would also use); its ultimate model being that of Christ, who declared “Love everyone as thyself,” himself “the great and final ideal of the development of all humanity, presented to us . . . in the flesh.” 24 Any deviation from Christ’s ideal Dostoevsky considered to be “egoism.” Dostoevsky depicted such behavior in the short story “The Dream of the Ridiculous Man,” in which outbursts of “brutal sensuality almost all the sin’s of our humankind.”25 As Scanlan summarizes,
there is no altruism in man’s purely material makeup; love of others is a spiritual ability that enters human nature only through its participation in the divine . . . as animals, human beings only have impulses that are indifferent to the well-being of others when they are not directly antipathetic to it. 26
Thus, Scanlan claims, many of Dostoevsky’s characters exhibit spite, that “malicious desire to hurt or humiliate someone,” as seen in The Insulted and Injured (1861), a “carnival of spite,” and House of the Dead (1862). 27
Dostoevsky thus anticipates Charles Taylor, Christian philosopher of the modern era who argued that ever since Rousseau at the beginning of Dostoevsky’s nineteenth century, culture has followed a program of “expressive individualism.”28 Rather than gaining control of our self, we seek power for full expression, “to live as much as possible according to own will;” such a character was fellow prisoner “A-v” (Pavel Aristov) in Notes from the House of the Dead, described as “a monster, a moral Quasimodo” and example of extremes to which one may descend when “not restrained inwardly by any standard, by any law.”29 Jailers and prisoners alike are thus dehumanized in House of the Dead, as pursuing such unrestrained power of the self “degrade, by the most supreme humiliation, another being who bears the divine image” and cause the perpetrator, “even against his own will, lose control of his feelings.”30 Dostoevsky thus proclaims, in anticipation of history, Russian and otherwise, that
Tyranny is a habit; it is capable of development, and it develops finally into a disease. I submit that the habit can coarsen and stupefy even the best of persons to the level of the brute. 31
Dostoevsky anticipates even the myopic worship of self found in the works of his contemporary, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Kirillov in Demons declares
For three years I have sought the attribute of divinity in me and I have found it: the attribute of my divinity is — self-will.32
Dostoevsky thus finds ethics to be a constant struggle between the “law of love” and the “law of personality.” Our call is to “loving others to the point of a Christ-like giving of oneself to them unreservedly,” though on our own we “can never observe it perfectly,” as Scanlan summarizes, drawing from Dostoevsky’s thoughts after the passing of his first wife in 1864.33 Dostoevsky found this unrelenting call to love given to us in our conscience rather than obtained by some kind of rational philosophy, or reasoning ability. In commenting on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Dostoevsky claimed that its “perfection as an artistic work” owed largely to the moral faith of the story’s hero, Levin, who graciously encounters a peasant at one point, explaining,
Levin’s idea is this: why should one search with one’s intellect for what is already given by life itself . . . Everyone is born with a conscience . . . with an aim in life: to live for good and not to love evil. Born with this are both peasant and master, and Frenchman, Russian, and Turk — they all honor the good. I, says Levin, wanted to understand all this through mathematics, science, reason, or I was expecting a miracle, whereas it was given to me as a gift, born with me. And there are direct proofs that it is given as a gift: everyone on earth understands it or can understand that we must love our neighbors as ourselves. In this knowledge is essentially contained the whole law of humanity, as Christ himself declared it to us. Yet this knowledge is innate and therefore sent as a gift, for reason could never have yielded such knowledge. Why? Because “loving one’s neighbor,” if you judge it by reason, turns out to be unreasonable.34
With such a statement, Dostoevsky introduces two other aspects of his philosophy on which Scanlan dwells: aesthetics, the realm of taste beyond the rational, and the social order, Dostoevsky’s idea of a Christian utopia which lead to his famous thoughts on “the Russian Idea.”
“Beauty will Save the World”
That beauty will save the world is the enigmatic claim of Prince Myshkin, title character of The Idiot. Dostoevsky’s thoughts on art and aesthetics have been well-discussed by academics, though they were primarily aimed at combating the shallow materialism of Chernyshevsky and other nihilist and utilitarian reformers. 35 In their zeal to combat physical poverty, such reformers often showed a preference for a realist, materialistic rather than imaginative or contemplative perspective, as seen in Chernyshevsky’s discussion of the role of art,36
Let art be content with its fine and lofty mission of being a substitute for reality in the event of its absence . . . reality stands higher than dreams, and essential purpose stands higher than fantastic claims.37
Dostoevsky and the reformers did share some beliefs, though he felt their views ultimately fell short of answering man’s spiritual needs. Areas of agreement included that satisfying human needs is a legitimate criterion by which to judge art, that realism in art is useful, and that art can communicate values (moral, social) beyond aesthetics. It is also important to realize that Dostoevsky and the various reformers were always aware of possible Tsarist censorship of their writings. But that the values taught by art transcend our physical need, however, was a dividing point between the groups, as Dostoevsky insisted that
Art is as much a need for man as eating and drinking. The need for beauty, and the creativity that embodies it is inseparable from man; without it, perhaps, man would not wish to live in this world. Man thirsts for it . . . without asking what it is useful for and what one may buy with it.38
Dostoevsky claimed that the beauty captured by art answers man’s fundamental need to find harmony and tranquility in the midst of reality. It goes beyond mere escapism:
The need for beauty develops most when people are in discord with reality, in disharmony, in conflict, that is, when they are most alive, for people are most alive when they are searching for something and trying to obtain it. 39
Beauty takes on metaphysical proportions, though the process of its emergence resembled the aura of calm preceding Prince Myshkin (and likely Dostoevsky’s own) epileptic seizures in The Idiot:
The result . . . harmony and beauty in the highest degree, and gives a feeling, unprecedented and undivined before, of fullness, of proportion, of reconciliation and ecstatic, prayerful fusion with the highest synthesis of life . . . That it really was “beauty and prayer,” that it really was “the highest synthesis of life,” of that he could not doubt, or even entertain the possibility of doubt.40
Such beauty points us towards cosmic harmony, a beauty that transcends the call for society to simply better meet our physical needs.
Dostoevsky did also find a moral form of beauty, however, claiming in 1864 that
There is something far higher than the belly-god . It is to be the ruler and master of even of yourself, of your own self, and to sacrifice this self, to give it up for everyone. In this idea there is something irresistibly beautiful, sweet, inescapable, and even inexplicable.41
Of course, for Dostoevsky the Christian, he realized this ideal in a statement a decade earlier, 1854, declaring
There is nothing more beautiful than . . . Christ42
Explaining further in 1876 that Christ claimed
‘Man does not live by bread alone,’ that is, he stated an axiom about man’s spiritual origin, too . . . And since Christ bore in Himself and in His Word the ideal of Beauty, He also decided that it was better to implant in souls the ideal of Beauty; having it in their souls, all will become brothers to one another.43
Dostoevsky held that we have an insatiable appetite for not just beauty, but also to exercise the creativity that expresses and embodies artistic beauty:
Creativity, the basic principle of every art, is an integral, organic quality of human nature . . . of the human spirit. It is as legitimate in man as intellect, as all the moral qualities of man, and perhaps as two arms, two legs, and a stomach. It is inseparable from man.44
Elsewhere, he claimed that “Man, along with food, wants freedom, a little cake, wants to be mischievous, to play, to fantasize,” explaining further in The Brothers Karamazov that the recreation of grownups going to the theater, like children playing cops and robbers, “is emerging art, the emerging need for art in the young soul.” 45
Finally, Dostoevsky held strongly for the moral value of art, despite his contentions against the nihilistic utilitarians. His review of Victor Hugo, the French Christian author of Les Miserables (1862) is instructive:
His idea is the basic idea of all the art of the nineteenth century; Victor Hugo was virtually the first to proclaim this idea as an artist. It is a Christian and highly moral idea. Its formula is the renewal of the fallen man, unjustly oppressed by the yoke of circumstances, age-old stagnation, and social prejudices. It is the idea of the justification of the humiliated and the pariahs of society rejected by everyone. 46
Besides Prince Myshkin’s claim that “beauty will save the world,” Dostoevsky’s most quoted utterance on art is from a notebook entry of 1876 or 1877:
In poetry you need passion, you need your idea, and without fail the pointing finger, passionately raised. Indifference and the actual reproduction of reality are worth absolutely nothing and, most importantly, mean nothing at all. Such artistry is absurd: a simple glance that is the least bit observant notices far more in reality. 47
Scanlan summarizes that “an ardent normative commitment serves to energize the artist’s powers of discrimination;” the passion comes from a sense of right and wrong.48 Further, Scanlan claims, taking the passage to imply that “any such judgment will suffice,” passion for passion’s sake as it were, is not Dostoevsky’s claim, as “we know that Dostoevsky’s own moral commitment was to the Christian law of love, which assigns the highest value to the loving, harmonious interrelation of all human beings.” Thus, we can see that Dostoevsky’s commitment “was to a form of harmony and thus a form of beauty — let us call it moral beauty” so that “the natural human need for beauty becomes a moral need.”49 Dostoevsky’s aesthetics thus leads directly to Scanlan’s final discussions, on how to achieve moral harmony on a grand scale, in short, utopia.
As Dostoevsky has been cited by both critics and defenders of the Russian state, his thoughts regarding just rule are important to consider. He opposed serfdom but was also critical of reformers; he even approved of a satirical essay claiming “Adam was a Slav and lived in Russia,” and wrote his own “Confessions of a Slavophile.” His thoughts on social order evolved over his life, though a consistent kernel of, unsurprisingly, Christian belief, remains. His thoughts are made more clear by a simple comparison of his vision for an ideal community with that of the socialist reformers of his day.
The reformer’s model substituted a market economy of individual self-interested choice for or the traditional Tsar-commanded oligarchy. Even this order required enforcement by a social contract of socialist rule, which demanded sacrifice of personal freedom and typically resulted in tyranny; this is the lesson of the story of The Grand Inquisitor found in The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky illustrates by noting that the socialist prescribes that only an anthill can meet human needs, but people will not willingly live in such an anthill. 50
Dostoevsky’s vision, however, relies neither on individual choices aimed at maximizing self-interest nor on a regime to enforce such (freedom-denying) “choices.” Instead, it is a voluntary regime fueled only by an enduring source of love, in which the individual says
Think not of me in issuing your laws . . . I cede to you all my rights . . . my supreme happiness is to sacrifice everything to you so that in return you will suffer no harm. I shall annihilate myself.51
The community answers with the same (voluntary) devotion, replying
Take everything from us too . . . we shall strive at every moment so that you have as much personal freedom as possible . . . we are all your brothers.52
Such a community is, of course, marked by genuine love for the well-being of each other. As Dostoevsky stated when reflecting on the death of his first wife, Maria Dmitrievna, the ideal is one who is convinced
That the highest use someone can make of his personality, of the full development of his self, is to annihilate this self, as it were — to give it totally to each and every one, undividedly and unselfishly . . . This is indeed the paradise of Christ.53
Dostoevsky pictures such a community in “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” in which “its inhabitants live in perfect peace and harmony because of their limitless love and respect for one another.”54 There is no private property, instead of organized religion there is “a kind of urgent, vital, and unbroken unity with the Totality of the universe,” and there is even a requited love with trees and peaceably dwelling animals, “conquered by their love.”55 However, once the visitor from fallen earth introduces the notion of calculating one’s best advantage, people learn to lie, become jealous and cruel, and resort to inventing institutions to preserve property, justice while also introducing the guillotine and slavery, going so far as to exterminate any who opposed their own vision of a just society. When the Ridiculous Man reflects on his dream, he realizes the old truth that to build such a paradise, “the main thing is to love others as yourself. That is the main thing, and it is everything; absolutely nothing more is needed: you’ll at once find how to build it.”56
Utopias: Russian, National, Global
As with many nineteenth century writers, Dostoevsky was influenced by the Romantic reaction against the often cold, rational, and universal principles sought by the Enlightenment. While the ideal of universal social principles and even a universal human nature has its appeal, European Romantics like Johann Gottfried Herder argued that we are inescapably influenced by our more immediate social environment, or as Apollon Grigoryev, Herder’s Russian disciple, articulated, “that every individual is an organic product of a particular culture at a particular time, and that all national cultures are equally valid historically.”57 Russian Romantic Vissarion Belinsky explained it with “what personality is in relation to the idea of man nationality is in relation to the idea of humanity, nationalities are the personalities of humanity . . . a nation without nationality is like a man without personality.”58
Twentieth century Russian writer and dissident intellectual Aleksander Solzhynitsin echoed Dostoevsky on the score. Solzhynitsin cited Dostoevsky’s Diary of a Writer for its “affirm the indebtedness of every nation to a prior ethical ideal,” adding further that the founding of a state is as much an ethical and even theological event as a political one, claiming that Islamic nations were only “founded after the appearance of the Koran.”59
Dostoevsky thus naturally had a faith in Russian culture, the “Russian idea” that its own Slavic culture had little to learn, but much to teach, those from the more ideologically, societally and technologically advanced West of his day, Europe. Despite his fondness for Western thought in the 1840s and his own Siberian exile and abuses at the hands of the Russian state, Dostoevsky “was as ardent a believer in Russia’s uniqueness and greatness as any Slavophile, and he remained so until his death.”60 Dostoevsky founded, along with his brother Mikhail, the journal Vremya (Time) promoting pochvennichestvo, or the “native soil” movement (pochva the Russian for soil).
Dostoevsky’s Russian nationalism was without chauvinism, however, Scanlan claims. Russians had debated their particular role in the world for decades before Dostoevsky, though he addressed the wrestling match between Westernizers and Slavophiles in the 1862 essay, “Two Camps of Theoreticians.” The nation, any nation, is like a garden (or for Russia, a farming collective, sic) as “every fruit needs its own soil, its own climate, its own cultivation.”61 Thus, a people “developing under the particular circumstances that exclusively characterize the country it inhabits, inevitably forms its own perception of the world, its own cast of mind, its own customs, its own rules of social life.”62 Westernizers who did not recognize this sought to impose instead a “pan-human ideal,” and threatened “to turn man into a worn fifteen-kopek piece,” an effaced coin with its distinguishing national features worn away, symbolic of denationalized individuals.63 Instead, Dostoevsky preached that
Humanity will live a full life only when each nation develops on its own principles and brings from itself to the common sum of life some particularly developed aspect. Perhaps only then, too, may we dream of the full panhuman ideal.64
Dostoevsky heralded two particularly Russian virtues which he did not find in her European neighbors: the senses of fraternity and universality. As to fraternity, Russia had less social division than the nations of Europe, which were typically born from ethnic and class conflict such as the Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England and that of the Gauls by the Franks in France. Even more crucial to her uniqueness was Russian universality, as it was claimed that the Russian was better able to borrow from other cultures, adapting Western institutions when so presented. Belinsky thus stated that “the Russian is equally capable of assimilating the sociality of the Frenchman, the practical activity of the Englishman and the misty philosophy of the German,” though this was at least partly a defense to the criticism that Russia merely imitated Western practices.65 The poet Pushkin (1779 – 1837) demonstrated the ability to comprehend and assimilate the yearnings of all cultures, and even the Eastern Orthodox church was considered to have better embodied Christ’s full spirituality compared to the Western (Roman) church which was considered to have embraced secularization and materialism, evidenced by its support of Muslim Turks in Crimean War of 1854. Belinsky did deny that love was a distinctive and natural gift of the Russians, but yet held that their richness of character might well lay the foundation for some more universal, trans-national mission. Dostoevsky reflected the sentiment in lines praising the Crimean War of 1854, “It’s not for you to make out Russia’s fate! / Her predestined path is unclear to you! / The East is hers! . . . ruling over the depths of Asia / She gives fresh life to everyone.” 66
Such sentiments expressed by Dostoevsky naturally lead one to question the tension between his “Christian ideal of mutual love and his xenophobic nationalism.”67 Scanlan explains that Dostoevsky’s messianic nationalist posture grew from a moral-ethical rather than egoistic-political concern, the basis being the Russian’s better ability to navigate modernity than its often weaker “brother-states.” The paternalistic sense is unabashed, but the meritocratic and service senses are present as well; nevertheless, the charge is reasonable that Dostoevsky’s Russian state stands equally accusable of cruel self-interest by his Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov as the Socialists and Catholics he originally targeted.
Scanlan provides a valuable perspective to readers of Dostoevsky with his 2002 study, Dostoevsky the Thinker. Collecting personal observations from his Writer’s Diary as well as various personal letters and of course novels and short stories, the profound influence of Dostoevsky’s Christian faith becomes evident. Myshkin’s claim that “Beauty will save the world” is borne out by Dostoevsky’s profound sense of aesthetics, and hope for humanity, when modeled on the ideal man, sent from God, Christ. Social programs, such as those of the socialist, nihilist European-imitating Westernizers of his day, fall prey to Pascal’s indictment of philosophers uninformed by the spiritual aspect of man,
It is in vain oh men, that you seek in yourselves the cures for your miseries.
All your insights have led to the knowledge that it is not in yourselves
That you discover the true and the good.
The philosophers promised them to you, but they were not able to keep that promise, for they did not know what your true nature is, or what your true good is. How then could they provide for you a cure for the ills they could have not even understood? 68
Dostoevsky thus answers the dilemmas of man’s moral, ethical, and social plights with a spiritual solution, the same one that he felt “proved” the existence of God,
the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbors actively and tirelessly.69
This solution provides both purpose and meaning in life, as he penned while reflected on the passing of his first wife,
That the highest use someone can make of his personality, of the full development of his self, is to annihilate this self, as it were — to give it totally to each and every one, undividedly and unselfishly . . . This is indeed the paradise of Christ.70
1 James P. Scanlan, Dostoevsky the Thinker (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2002), 13.
2 Ibid., 9. Scanlan references most of his Dostoevsky references from “copiously annotated scholarly edition of his writings, Polnoe sobranie sochienii v tridsati tomakh (PSSTT; Complete Collected Works in Thirty Volumes) compiled by the Institute of Russian Literature of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (Leningrad: Nauka, 1972 – 90). I omit these references here, citing only the pages they are mentioned in Scanlan’s book, or when possible, in available English editions of Dostoevsky’s works.
3 Kenneth Lantz, The Dostoevsky Encyclopedia (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing, 2004), 2.
4 Geir Kjetsaa, Fyodor Dostoevsky: A Writer’s Life (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1989), 24-7.
5 Scanlan, Dostoevsky the Thinker, 14.
6 Ibid., 6,16.
7 Ibid., 16 – 17.
8 Ibid., 18.
9 Ibid., 24 – 25.
10 Fyodor Dostoevsky. The Brothers Karamazov, trans. By Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), Book 1, Ch. 6, 69. Also in Scanlan, 33.
11 Ibid., Book 11, Ch. 4, 589.
12 Scanlan, Dostoevsky the Thinker, 75.
13 Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground (Middleton, DE, 2023 copy of 1918 translation by Constance Garrett), 24, I.7.
14 Scanlan, Dostoevsky the Thinker, 3.
15 Scanlan, Dostoevsky the Thinker, 77. He here cites Nikolay Chernyshensky, “The Anthropological Principle in Philosophy” in James M. Edie, James P. Scanlan, Mary-Barbara Kline, George L. Kline, Russian Philosophy Volume II (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976), 43.
16 Nikolay Chernyshensky, “The Anthropological Principle in Philosophy” in Russian Philosophy Volume II, 43.
17 Scanlan, Dostoevsky the Thinker, 78.
18 Ibid., 61.
19 Ibid., 71.
21 Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, 4.
22 Scanlan, Dostoevsky the Thinker, 75.
24 Ibid., 83.
25 Ibid., 84.
28 Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989).
29 Scanlan, Dostoevsky theThinker, 84.
30 Ibid., 85.
33 Ibid., 87.
35 Scanlan recommends Robert Louis Jackson, Dostoevsky’s Quest for Form: A Study of His Philosophy of Art (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1966) which includes Dostoevsky’s Romantic roots.
36 Discussed in Juan Ignacio Izquierdo Hubner, “Dostoevsky’s ‘The Idiot: ‘Beauty will save the world’ “ Omnes, Sept. 3, 2022. https://omnesmag.com/en/newsroom/culture/idiot-dostoevsky/.
37 Nikolay Cherneshevsky, “The Aesthetic Relations of Art to Reality” in Russian Philosophy, Vol. 2, 28.
38 Scanlan, Dostoevsky the Thinker, 127.
39 Ibid., 128.
40 Ibid., 129.
41 Ibid., 152.
43 Ibid., 154.
44 Ibid., 130.
45 Ibid., 131.
50 Ibid., 162, referencing Dostoevsky’s Winter Notes of 1861.
51 Ibid., 163.
53 Ibid., 164.
54 Ibid., 166.
56 Ibid., 167.
57 Ibid., 159, citing Wayne Dowler, Dostoevsky, Grigor’ev, and Native Soil Conservatism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), 16, 20, 54.
58 Ibid., citing V.G. Belinsky, Selected Philosophical Works (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956), 395, 397.
59 Ibid., citing Solzhynitsin’s essay “Repentance and Self-Limitation in the Life of Nations” included in From Under the Rubble (1975).
60 Ibid., 200.
61 Ibid., 201.
64 Ibid., 203.
65 Ibid., 213.
66 Ibid., 212.
67 Ibid., 226.
68 Pascal, Blaise. Pensees, trans. Honor Levi, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), XII, 54.
69 Scanlan, Dostoevsky the Thinker, 18.
70 Ibid., 164.