In Job's Balances \ I \ The Conquest of the Self-Evident|
Dostoevsky realizes very well that there are certain treasures in life which must be guarded as very precious, and that there are certain others which are not worth the trouble of keeping at all, since they can only shackle us and weigh us down. But how can we distinguish the one sort from the other? It is useless to refer to common consciousness, to the theory of knowledge, to ethics. Shall we consult our second sight? But it will teach us nothing. Besides, it rebels when consulted and only appears uncalled, always at some inopportune moment. In The Notes from Underground Dostoevsky tries to dispense with every criterion, every rule, every law; but he is obliged to pay tribute to common consciousness and to preface his work with a note of explanation. In Crime and Punishment the natural vision already influences the idea. In The Idiot one sees even more clearly Dostoevsky's efforts to attract into his own camp those proofs which he formerly repulsed with so much fury. And in proportion as he advances, so the tendency strengthens to try to harmonize the two visions, or rather, to submit the second to the first. This explains the strange fact to which I referred previously: that Dostoevsky's novels abound in secondary episodes, and that it is in just these episodes that the essential significance of the books lies.
Even in The Diary of a Writer the political articles are interspersed from time to time by little tales and stories like "A Gentle Spirit", "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man", and "The Lonely One", pages of profound and powerful significance in which the author proclaims in a voice not his own the things seen by the eyes that are not his. In each of these stories, in each episode of the novels, Dostoevsky's every attempt to make the results of his second sight fit into the frame of that experience on which common humanity bases its existence proves wholly vain.
In The Idiot there is an episode in which Dostoevsky's intention is hard to understand, unless it is to give a final blow to the miserable Prince Myshkin, though he totters to a fall at every step he takes. One of the characters of The Idiot is a consumptive young man called Hippolyte, whose days and even whose hours are numbered. Throughout a whole night he reads out his "confessions" to his friends, one of the most moving and terrible confessions ever written since Job's, on which it is undoubtedly modeled. Who could have suggested such burning and prophetic words to the dying man? Who could have suggested them to Dostoevsky, who though old, had as yet no premonition of death?
Incidentally, Dostoevsky, faithful to immemorial tradition, does all he can to conceal himself from the curiosity of the uninitiated. The confession is headed "Après moi le deluge". This should surely be more than enough to turn aside common consciousness. But we must remember that at the bottom of his heart Dostoevsky had no faith in anything but his ugly little duckling. He was obviously convinced that ugliness and horror only existed in the world to conceal the last and supreme mystery of creation from those who were not ready for it. Hear what Hippolyte says of the picture that he saw at Rogozhin's house. The picture represented the Descent from the Cross:
I do not know if, after all that has been said, further proof is needful that Dostoevsky is here expressing his deepest, most intimate, and also most disturbing thoughts. How many times have we not already discovered him standing before the scales of that terrible balance, forgetful of himself and the whole world! In one scale lies nature, enormous, infinitely weighty with its laws and principles, dumb, blind and deaf. Into the other scale, with trembling hand, Dostoevsky throws his imponderable things, his unsheltered, unprotected timiôtaton, and waits with beating heart to see which of the two will sink. And he does not entrust this operation to Prince Myshkin, whom every one, including himself, reveres. Dostoevsky knows that Myshkin would suffer a blow and turn the other cheek, but he would shrink from the dreadful balances. Humility is not the virtue which Dostoevsky seeks.
- "Christ's face was hideously disfigured by the blows He had received; it was swollen and had horrible, bleeding wounds on it; the eyes were wide open, they squinted and shone with the vitreous gleam of death. And strange to say, when one looks at the dead body of this man who has suffered so much, one curious, particular question arises in one's mind: if the body was like this (and so doubtless it was) which the disciples looked upon and the apostles, and the women who had followed Him and waited at the foot of the cross; if all those who believed in Him and loved Him saw Him like this, how could they believe that this martyr could ever rise again? And then another thought presents itself: if death is so frightful, if the laws of nature are so powerful, how can any one triumph over them? How could we overcome them when even He could not overcome them who forced nature to obey Him when He was alive, to whom it submitted itself; when He cried 'Talifa cumi' the virgin arose, when He called to Lazarus to come forth from the grave, Lazarus heard Him and obeyed? When one looks at this picture, nature seems to become an enormous, pitiless, silent beast, or rather, more accurately (although strangely), nature becomes more like one of these modern machines which has blindly seized, swallowed, torn to pieces and engulfed that infinitely beloved and admirable Being who alone was worth more than all nature and its laws which, indeed, were perhaps only created to produce that Being."
Indeed, he does not seek virtue at all. Virtue has no existence of its own. It only exists through our recognition, all its strength is drawn from our approval. It is own sister to that "twice two is four"; both born of the same mother: the law. But so long as this law exists and holds judgment, Death will be ruler over the world. And who will dare challenge Death to single combat, when all the evidence is on its side, that evidence so cruelly described by Dostoevsky and justified by the theory 'of knowledge and by ethics? Certainly not Prince Myshkin. He is all for ethics; he himself courts the praises of "principle". Even saints cannot live without the praise of the law. St. Jerome taught, and his words were echoed by Liguori, the last Doctor of the Church, when he addressed himself to the nuns who were renouncing the world: "Disce superbiam sanctam", learn sacred pride. "Scito, te illis esse meliorem", know that you are better than others. The monk is not yet ready for the supreme battle, even the most scrupulous and sincere monk. He still puts his trust in his works and expects praise; he can still take pride in praises.
Prince Myshkin, too, will not give up his holy pride, and so will not follow Dostoevsky to the end. The only people able to follow, whose destiny it is to do so, are those who have lost rights and all protection; the underground men. Only they can allow themselves to doubt the legality of the judgments of nature and ethics, or of any judgment; only they may expect at any moment to see the imponderable weigh down the solid weight made up of the self-evident truths and the judgments of reason based on them - of reason, which has thrown into the balance, not only the natural but also the moral laws. Hippolyte has no fear of morality and its sanctions. He despises pride, even holy pride. He does not want to be better than others, he does not want to be good, he spurns the praises of morality.
"What tribunal is judge here?" he asks. "For whose sake must I not only be condemned, but suffer my condemnation without protest? Does it really benefit any one?" And further on: "What is the good of my humility? Is it not possible simply to eat me up without insisting that I should sing the praises of my devourer?" These are the questions that Hippolyte has learnt to ask; Kant did not know how to question thus. It is only a few, rare natures in the history of humanity who are able to ask such questions. In our own day there was Nietzsche, with his Beyond Good and Evil. Before him Luther, who taught that good works do not bring salvation. Luther had heard this from St. Augustine, who in his turn was only developing the ideas of St. Paul, which he again had gathered from Isaiah and from the supreme and terrible Bible story of the Fall.
In reply to Hippolyte's confession, "omnitude", represented by most of the characters in The Idiot, including Prince Myshkin, the saint, breaks into mockery, howls, and cat-calls. Common consciousness flies to the defence of its ideal the law. The saints themselves will not give up the law. Some days after the terrible night on which Hippolyte had appealed in vain to "omnitude", he tries to talk alone to the "saint", whom he hopes to find independent of the law, free from fear or flattery once he is out of sight of his fellows. But it is in vain. Law, quo nos laudabiles vel vituperabiles sumus, is as deeply rooted in the prince's heart as "twice two is four", in this the saint is no different from the ordinary man.
Their conversation ends as follows: Hippolyte asks the prince: "Well, tell me yourself, what ought I to do, according to you. How should I die in order to make a virtuous end? Tell me!" The prince will not give up his holy pride and fears above all things to forfeit his right to the praises of the law. He takes up the challenge. "Go your way and forgive us our happiness", he answers softly. There is no cavil possible: he has passed the test; it is impossible to go any further. Hippolyte can only burst out laughing: "Ha! ha! ha!... That is what I thought! I expected something of that sort! Oh, well, that is just like you, you others, you eloquent people!"
What was Dostoevsky's object in forcing the prince to such a confession? After all it was not Rakitin, not Claude Bernard; it was Myshkin, whom the author intentionally made a positive type. But the "second sight" saw things differently.
It is obvious that at this moment Dostoevsky saw another and even more difficult problem rise up before him; one even harder than that which he discussed in Raskolnikov's case. Raskolnikov reasoned thus: There are men who allow themselves to shed the blood of their fellows. Napoleon for example, who was much admired by the generality of men. Consequently, one can shed blood and kill the body of one's neighbour with the authorization and approval of the law. Myshkin in his humility goes further ("humility is a strength" as Dostoevsky has said). He considers that as a reward for his obedience he has more rights conceded to him by law, and more strength than Napoleon; he has the right and the strength to kill, not the body but the soul. "Forgive us our happiness, and go your way." And then? What will happen if Hippolyte goes on his way and forgives them their happiness? Nothing will happen, and nothing must happen. The ideal equilibrium will be re-established. Our reason demands nothing further.