Dostoevsky and Nietzsche : The Philosophy of Tragedy


     Thus, one way to struggle against pessimism and skepticism is to create a priori judgments and the Ding an sich - in short, idealism, which Count Tolstoy formulates in the words "Goodness is God." But simultaneously it follows from the foregoing that idealism needs outward support. Levin had to marry Kitty, to set up a household, to go hunting, et cetera, et cetera. "Reason" alone proved insufficient to erect this ethereal structure. It needed a "material" foundation - an exceedingly material one. But the foundation goes deep in the earth; no one sees it. This has always contributed a great deal to the triumph of all that is "lofty" on earth. Recall, for example, the progenitors of European idealism - Socrates and Plato - with their doctrine of good. It seemed that it was spun from the purest of ideas, which does not derive from reason. However, into the pure realm of ideas, contraband was smuggled all the same - and what contraband! It turns out that the doctrine of the superiority of good over evil cannot (I am almost ready to say does not want to) rest on dialectics alone, however "divine" they may be. For support, it needs so crude and material a belief as the belief in retribution. What more, strictly speaking, is necessary after it has been proved that to experience injustice is better than to do it to someone else? But as a matter of fact, this is not enough. In Plato's dialogues ("Gorgias," "The Republic," and "Phaedo"), the most ordinary human expedient is called upon to support good. There, it is stated that the wicked will in due course (in the life to come) be punished, and the good rewarded. If such certain victory belongs to good, then all dialectics could probably be left in peace. The most backward mind is capable of understanding the superiority of good, which has behind it a protector who, although remote, has been created according to an earthly model and who, moreover, is omnipotent.

     But strangely enough, you will find the Socratic-Platonic idea of retribution in almost all idealistic schools of ethics. All moralists have considered it necessary to make God Himself the patron of good, or even, as in the case of Count Tolstoy, to identify good with God (and in modern times at that - the era of positivism, evolution, et cetera). Evidently, the moralists’ good did not seem very attractive in itself, an sich, and people accepted it only for fear of incurring the wrath of the omnipotent being. Idealism is by no means so ideal as one might expect, considering the solemnity with which its prophets spoke. In the final analysis, it lives by the most earthly of hopes, and its a priori and Ding an sich are merely high walls by which it defends itself from the more difficult demands of real life. In this sense, idealism is like an oriental despotic state: outside, all is resplendent, beautiful, and eternal; but inside, there are horrors. Herein is also the reason for that incomprehensible phenomenon whereby a doctrine which at first glance is so innocent has very often become the object of the bitterest hatred on the part of people who least of all deserve to be suspected of a "natural" tendency toward evil. But it can be safely said that every implacable enemy of idealism was at one time, like Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, an extreme idealist himself, and that "psychology," which has blossomed forth so luxuriously in recent times, is the work of apostates from idealism. And as a matter of fact, why would a man begin to pry into the innermost depths of his soul, why should he verify creeds that are unquestionably splendid, beautiful, and interesting?

     Descartes's de omnibus dubitandum is, of course, irrelevant here: for a methodological principle, man will never consent to lose the ground under his feet. More likely the reverse - lost soil gives rise to all doubt. Consequently, when it turns out that idealism could not withstand the pressure of reality, when a man, who by the will of the Fates has collided head-on with real life, suddenly sees to his horror that all the fine a priori judgments were false, then for the first time only is he seized by that irrepressible doubt that instantly destroys the seemingly very solid walls of the old air castles. Socrates, Plato, good, humanity, ideas - all the assembly of former angels and saints who were guarding the innocent human soul from attacks by the evil demons of skepticism and pessimism - vanish without a trace into thin air, and man, faced by his most horrible enemies, experiences for the first time in his life that fearful loneliness from which not even the most devoted and loving heart is able to deliver him. And precisely at this point begins the philosophy of tragedy. Hope is lost forever, but life remains, and there is much life ahead. You cannot die, even though you would like to. The ancient Russian prince was mistaken when he said that the dead have no shame. [Supposedly said by Grand Prince Svyatoslav, when faced by an overwhelming number of Greek troops in 970 - S.R.].

     Ask Dostoevsky. He will tell you differently through the mouth of Dmitry Karamazov: "I've learned a lot this night. I've learned that it is impossible not only to live as a scoundrel, but also to die as one." Do you understand? All a priori judgments are lost, the philosophy of Kant and Count Tolstoy is ended, and there begins the realm of the Ding an sich. Would you like to follow Dostoevsky and Nietzsche there? No obligations are involved: whoever so desires has the right to go "back to Kant." You are not convinced that you will find here what you need - "beauty" of any kind whatsoever. Perhaps there is nothing here but ugliness. One thing only is certain: there is reality here - a new, unheard of, unwitnessed reality, or better put, a reality that has never before been displayed. And those who are obliged to call it their reality, those who do not have the possibility of returning to the simple life, where concern over Kitty’s health, arguments with Koznyshov, the management of estates, the writing of books, et cetera, lead even such experienced men as Levin into the ordinary rut of human existence - such people will view everything with different eyes than we. We can renounce these people: of what concern are they to us? We have done so in the past, and we still do so today.

     N. K. Mikhailovsky, in his well-known and in many respects remarkable article, called Dostoevsky a "cruel talent." [N.K. Mikhailovsky (1842-1904), a leader of the Populists, a sociologist, and a literary critic. As a critic, he was mainly interested in the writer's message and his degree of public utility - S.R.]. The characterization is most apt: I think it will always stick to Dostoevsky. Unfortunately, the critic wanted with these two words not only to give a characterization of the artist, but also to pronounce judgment on him and on all his work. Cruel - that means mutilated, deformed, and therefore also unfit. N. K. Mikhailovsky could only regret that it happened this way - that although Dostoevsky was a man of vast talent, he was not at the same time a priest of humanity. The critic's judgment in this case is based on the assumption that humanity is unquestionably better and more lofty than cruelty. Unquestionably? But where then is Descartes's principle which we just mentioned, where is de omnibus dubitandum? Mikhailovsky was, of course, acquainted with it. But as usual, it remained out of the picture, knowing all too well that it must always appear last if it wishes to be bienvenu.

     In another of his articles, this same Mikhailovsky, when speaking of Proudhon, presents a number of facts intended to prove that the celebrated Frenchman, with whose name we in Russia associated the concept of the best fighter for lofty ideas, was something of a rogue in his personal life. He concludes his story with the following words: "It is not at all pleasant to single out these dark traits, because in doing so, one is obliged to tear something from the heart." And then immediately after this, in a strange association of ideas, he adds: "This is not just empty rhetoric." I do not know how the other readers took the words quoted above, but for my part, I indeed thought that they were empty rhetoric. Mikhailovsky was not obliged to tear anything from his heart. This does not mean that he was indifferent to Proudhon’s ideas. And, even less would I like to say that Mikhailovsky is inclined to talk for the mere sake of talking: on the contrary, you encounter "empty rhetoric" in his works just as seldom as you encounter serious thought in the majority of the other writers. But this time the insincerity was obvious, and that is why he needed his reservation. Obviously, even such an unexpected discovery as the fact that a creator of lofty ideas was not a completely honorable man in his personal life could not astonish Mikhailovsky. He was taken aback by his own placidity and, as he was unable to explain this strange phenomenon, or did not have time to think it over, he hastened to mask it with his trite phrase, which had lain for so long in his memory.

     A great deal is revealed in this apparently insignificant psychological fact. Evidently Proudhon himself meant nothing to Mikhailovsky (although he declares in his article that it was just the reverse). Proudhon was merely the incarnation of the great idea of humanity (permit me to use this word in its broadest sense); well, then, could a whole army of Proudhon-scoundrels, of even Proudhon-bandits and murderers, cast the slightest shadow of doubt on the sublimity of the idea? Humanity is not maintained by the authority of French writers; it is a part of Mikhailovsky’s own soul, and its most stable part. He himself states this clearly in the Preface to the new edition of his collected works, where he sums up his many years of literary activity: "Every time the word ‘truth’ [pravda] comes to mind, I cannot help admiring its striking inner beauty. There is no such word, I believe, in any other European language. It appears that only in Russian are truth and justice [istina i spravedlivost] called by one and the same word and thus seem to merge into one great whole. Truth - in this vast meaning of the word has always lain the object of my quests. I never could believe, and I do not now, that it is impossible to find a point of view wherein truth as verity and truth as justice go hand in hand, the one complementing the other." These words explain why Mikhailovsky remained calm when he made his discovery about Proudhon, although he knew that one should be deeply grieved in such cases.

     Of what importance is Proudhon, when a man's soul contains an idea as solid as granite, aere perennius, not made by human hands? It was this unwavering faith in the idea, in humanity, in truth, which took the discovery about Proudhon as a matter of secondary importance (Mikhailovsky had probably made more than one such discovery in his life and had wondered many a time at his soul's callousness and perhaps had even castigated himself for it) and which prevented the critic from pausing at the sight of this unusual case of a "cruel talent." After all, it was not a cruel mediocrity, but a cruel talent, i.e., a characteristic of man in connection with which even the most extreme positivists do not hesitate to recall the name of God. And suddenly talent proves to be in the service of cruelty! But Mikhailovsky is one of those fortunate chosen ones who have been given the possibility of serving ideas their whole life long. Such people are also served by ideas, which protect them from the most horrible of experiences.

     This was not the case with Dostoevsky. He failed to remain to the end of his life the priest of his early faith. He was doomed to the lot of deserter, betrayer, and traitor. Ideas avenge themselves on such people, and they do it mercilessly and inexorably. There is no form of inward and invisible disgrace, there is no form of humiliation that does not fall to their lot. Dostoevsky's penal servitude lasted not four years, but a lifetime. Mikhailovsky is, of course, right when he explains Dostoevsky's world view by the trials that he stood. But the question is, can such trials really prevent people from seeing the "truth"? Isn't it just the reverse? After all, it can be that an ordinary life among ordinary people gives one an ordinary philosophy! And who will guarantee that people need just such a philosophy as this? Perhaps in order to find truth it is necessary, above all, to free oneself from all commonplaceness. So that penal servitude not only does not vindicate "convictions," it refutes them; and the really true philosophy is the philosophy of penal servitude. If all this is so, then it means that the idea of humanity also, which was born among free people, has no right to pillory cruelty and reproach it for its dark, penal origin, but must instead yield to its humble opponent all the countless rights and advantages which it has thus far enjoyed in the world, and above all, its glittering retinue of poets, artists, philosophers, and preachers, who for thousands of years have tirelessly lavished it with great praise.

     At any rate, justice demands that we at least listen impartially and attentively to the cruel underground man without being confused either by Count Tolstoy's fears or Mikhailovsky’s firm belief in truth.

Orphus system

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