In Job's Balances \ I \ The Conquest of the Self-Evident|
We are now facing the greatest mystery which has ever confronted man, the mystery of the Fall. The reader will no doubt agree that none of Dostoevsky's internal struggles, none of his efforts, had any other aim or object than to understand this mystery, or at least to participate in it. For we cannot grasp it or master it any more than we can understand the truth. It is of the very essence of mystery that it cannot be unveiled, and truth can only be glimpsed when we do not try to take possession of it, or to use it for our historical needs, within the limits, that is, of the single dimension of time which is known to us. As soon as we try to unveil the mystery or make use of the truth, to show the mystery to every one and make truth universal and necessary, then, even though we are guided by the most noble and exalted desire, that of sharing our knowledge with our neighbour, of extending its benefits to the whole of humanity - yet we shall immediately forget all that we saw when we were "beside ourselves" with ecstasy. We shall begin to see as the world sees and to speak as the world demands. This logic, which miraculously transforms individual "useless" impressions into an experience of general utility and thus creates that solid, immutable order so necessary to our existence - this logic, (also called reason) kills mystery and truth. Collecting his prodigious powers for the last time, Dostoevsky composed The Brothers Karamazov on this theme.
As we have seen, he chooses a verse from the Fourth Gospel as motto; but he might equally well have quoted his own words in The Notes from Underground.
Long live the underworld! To the devil with the underworld! This brutal, violent inconsistency shows itself throughout the novel, every line of which bears witness to a consuming thirst for something, an unappeased torment which the author does not succeed in defining. If the corn of wheat does not die it will remain single, if it perishes it will bear fruit. How die? Withdraw for ever underground? It is beyond human power. Join with normal men and become a normal man oneself? Those who have been visited by the Angel of Death are incapable of doing this. That is why The Brothers Karamazov contains so many terrible questions and (but perhaps this is premeditated) so many answers which are clearly meant to be only ostensible. There is one point, however, on which Dostoevsky never contradicts himself; the - generally admitted answers, the common-sense and scientific answers, are always unacceptable to him.
- "So, long live the underworld! I did indeed say that I envy the normal man with the last drop of my bile; but when I see him as he is, I have no wish to be in his place (though all the while I shall go on envying him). No, no! When all is said and done, underground is better! There one can at least .
Ah! but I am lying again. I am lying because I know quite clearly myself, as well as I know that 'twice two is four', that it is not underground that is worth so much, but some quite different place which I ardently desire, but shall never find. To the devil with underground!"
But before passing on to The Brothers Karamazov, I shall allow myself a short digression which will help us, if not to find our way, at least to recognize the labyrinth into which Dostoevsky has introduced us.
Every one knows the famous German historian of Christianity, Professor Adolph Harnack. Let us hear his testimony; his studies gave him occasion to examine, to examine slowly and at length, the "mysteries" among which Dostoevsky spent his life. But Harnack, unlike Dostoevsky, had only one pair of eyes at his disposal. Further, as a historian, he was convinced that man has only one kind of sight, since time has only one dimension. Harnack loses no opportunity of telling us that the law of contradiction is the fundamental principle of our reason and that no one can defy with impunity the laws of reason and the science based on these laws. This learned historian writes as follows (Dogmengeschichte, III, 81):
Here is testimony of capital importance - if one considers who gives it - and one may not pass over it regardless. One must, indeed, before utilizing it, subject it to some critical examination.
- "There has never been any religious faith, no matter how strong, which has not leant in the supreme, decisive moment on exterior authority. It is only the pale dissertations of philosophers or the polemics of Protestant theologians that have constructed a faith which draws its strength exclusively from internal sources. These, it is certain, are the force of its existence and development; but for this faith to act, must there not be special conditions? Jesus Christ invoked the authority of the Old Testament; the early Christians the Prophecies; Augustine the Church, and even Luther appealed to Scripture. Life and history show us that no faith can be active and fruitful, if it does not invoke some external authority, and does not possess full assurance of its absolute authority." Thus speaks Professor Harnack, and he adds at the bottom of the page, as a note, "I state the facts, but I despair of explaining the reason for them."
"There has never been any faith..." Never? How does Professor Harnack know this? History, which he has undoubtedly studied with quite exceptional profundity, has certainly retained no record of any religious faith which has not leaned on outside authority. But does history keep a record of all the cases and all the facts, or even of the majority? Is it history's duty at all to preserve facts? Of the infinite number of different facts, history only extracts a certain number, and even these are already commented and "interpreted", adapted, that is to say, to certain ends. But Harnack expressly says, "Never." It is obvious that he has drawn this conclusion, not from history or from a study of the facts, for he could not study, or even glance at, all the facts that have ever occurred It is obvious that this "never" comes from some other source. It is to reason, the principle of science, which, according to him, cannot be renounced with impunity, that he has gone for the authority to transform his own testimony into a universal and necessary judgment.
This is all very well, if you are really so afraid of chastisement that you cannot give up the directions of reason and science even for the sake of the truth; or if you are so credulous and so inexperienced that you really believe that submission to science and reason will guarantee you against all punishment. But Dostoevsky, as we have seen, does not fear punishment; he has told us that it can happen for a man to prefer suffering to well-being. We have also heard from Dostoevsky that the humblest submission will not protect us against punishment; and Spinoza also teaches us, "Experientia in dies reclamat, at infinitis exemplis ostendit, commoda atque incommoda piis aeque ac impiis promiscue evenire." (Daily experience requires, nay, shows by an infinitude of examples that good and evil fall on the just and the unjust alike.) Both obedient and disobedient, pious and impious will all be condemned, sooner or later at the Last Judgment: no one will be acquitted, no one will escape punishment.
Thus Professor Harnack has gone beyond the limits of simple testimony, and of the record of what he has seen and heard, and has imparted his own theory of reason and its rights. One might even ask whether it is right to say "even Luther". "Jesus, the early Christians, Augustine, and 'even' Luther." It seems to me that it would have been better to have omitted that "even".
But these corrections once made, we can accept Professor Harnack's testimony in its entirety. Now, however, it acquires rather a different significance. Harnack cannot say, "there has never been a religious faith..." What has, and what has not been, is as unknown to the historian as to the simple pilgrim. Of what has been, the historian only knows as much as has been absorbed into the stream of time, and so has traces in the world which are visible to every one; that is, any one can see them, once they are discovered. But as to what has happened without leaving any trace behind, the historian knows nothing and wants to know nothing; and still less does he want to know about things which have happened, but cannot be shown to every one.
Thus, if there ever has been a faith which did not lean on outside authority and did not, in fact, invoke any authority at all, yet if it left no traces, then it is 'to the historian as though it had never existed. The historian only seeks and records "effective" facts. If Harnack had wished to confine himself to a simple record and not to speak in his own name (for the verdict of reason is well enough known already, without him), he should have said that there has never been, not a firm faith, but one capable and desirous of acting, which has not relied on some sort of outside authority; just as no one among the learned authorities, the historians, botanists, and geologists, has ever merely stated facts, but has always referred them to the authority of reason. Even Jesus, to obtain a hearing, had to invoke Scripture; far more the early Christians and Luther. If Harnack had stated his facts like this, they would have acquired quite another significance. It would then suddenly have appeared - quite unexpectedly - that men never would or could have accepted the faith of Jesus or even of Luther, that "faith" cannot be preached at all, that faith cannot act; cannot, that is, determine historical events; that what man or common consciousness calls a "firm faith" does not in any way resemble the faith of Jesus or even Luther, but is merely a collection of rules and principles, which every one obeys and reveres because no one knows whence they come; and because, in fact, men do not want "faith" at all, but only authority and order, which always gains in influence in proportion to the mystery of its origin. In exactly the same way men believe in reason and science, and even believe that retribution will only overtake those among them who despise reason and science, but not those who do not.