In Job's Balances \ I \ The Conquest of the Self-Evident


     Dostoevsky was no historian, he was not bound to believe that what begins here must also end here. We must remember that he tried to realize that which was dearest to him, to timi˘taton, his caprice, in the second dimension of time, beyond the limits of history. Then he hoped that the wall would cease to be a wall, that "twice two is four" would lose its crude self-assurance, that atoms would no longer be protected, that Socrates and Giordano Bruno, the outlaws, would be chiefly cherished, etc. But at the same time, Dostoevsky, like all of us, was a son of earth; he therefore aspired, and sometimes was absolutely forced, not only to contemplate but to act. We have noticed this contradiction in all his works; it is particularly obvious in The Brothers Karamazov and The Diary of a Writer.

     In The Brothers Karamazov Dostoevsky still holds by his experience; not that universal experience of which Kant spoke, an experience founded on self-evidence, but his personal, subjective experience which aims at transcending all proof. But in this novel, just as in the articles of The Diary of a Writer, the author, as though desirous of realizing Harnack's program, wants to obtain the approval of competent authority at any cost. He knows that his faith cannot "act" and will leave no trace in history, unless he can find an outside authority powerful enough to appear unassailable to other men.

Who is the hero of The Brothers Karamazov? If one goes by the preface, it is Alyosha, the youngest of the brothers, and also Father Zossima. But then why are the pages dedicated to them the palest and weakest of the whole novel? Only once does Dostoevsky feel really inspired when speaking of Alyosha, and allow him one of those visions to which he attained in moments of supreme exaltation.
"He" (Alyosha) "turned round abruptly and went out of the cell" (of Father Zossima, who had just died). "He descended the short flight of steps without pausing. His soul was glowing in ecstasy and thirsted for space and liberty. Above him stretched the dome of heaven, beyond reach of age, strewn with a thousand glittering stars. The Milky Way, only faintly apparent as yet, shimmered from the zenith to the horizon; the luminous and still night held the earth in its embrace. Against the sapphire blue of heaven rose the white towers and gilded cupolas of the cathedral. In the flower beds round the house the splendid flowers of autumn had sunk to sleep till morning. The silence of earth mingled with the silence of the sky; the mystery of earth mingled with the mystery of the stars. Alyosha stoOd there and gazed; then suddenly he fell to earth as though struck down. He embraced the earth with both arms, he knew not why, nor whence came this irresistible desire to embrace it all; but he embraced it weeping, he watered it with his tears, and swore in his ecstasy to love it, to love it to the end of his days. Why did he weep? He wept with delight even in the stars which shone in the void, and was not ashamed of his ecstasy. It was as though the invisible threads which bound together all God's infinitely numerous worlds were suddenly joined together in his soul, and it trembled at the touch of those unknown worlds."
In the whole of Dostoevsky you will never find anything like this again. It is true that Father Zossima treats the same subject in one passage, but with less simplicity, less strength, less inspiration. But that was all that Dostoevsky could make up his mind to assign to his official heroes. He himself, moreover, only speaks once in this tone, as though he felt that it was unlawful to speak much of these things; or else he felt that they can only be glimpsed from the bottom of the abyss, of the underworld, and simultaneously with, and as a foil to, those "underground" truths. Both suppositions seem equally admissible. The faith which Harnack would not acknowledge as possible, the faith which invokes no outside authority, which history refuses to acknowledge, and which has left no traces behind, is precisely such a vision of unknown worlds; such a faith takes no account of works and has given nothing to humanity, so that science declares that it cannot exist. But for Dostoevsky this was precisely to timi˘taton, the eternal caprice for which he claimed and sought guarantees and rights, which he tried with unparalleled audacity to wrest from the power of authority, and even of history and its proofs. From this point of view, as I have said, The Brothers Karamazov forms the sequel to The Notes from Underground, in which chapters such as "The Revolt," "The Odour of Death," and "The Brothers become Acquainted," might have been incorporated entire.

     Dimitri Karamazov, the drunkard, the profligate, who is also one of the most ignorant of men, makes a speech of which Plato or Plotinus need not have been ashamed. He quotes Schiller and when the poet says: "Yea, and in all Ceres' wanderings she found misery everywhere, and her great spirit wept for man's fate", he weeps. "Dear friends," he says to his brothers, "this humiliation persists, it persists to this day. Man has much to suffer on this earth. What horrible suffering!... I hardly think of anything but that, brother, of the humiliation of man." And a few minutes later this same ignorant officer declares: "Beauty is a fearful and terrible thing. Terrible, because one cannot define it, and it cannot be defined, because God speaks to us only in riddles. Opposites mingle here, all the most contradictory things live side by side. I have little education, brother, but I think about that a great deal."

     He thinks a great deal about it! Can a man of no education think a great deal! And have we any right to call what passed through Dimitri Karamazov's brain thought? It may be indignation, revolt, a hunt for contradictions, for undefinables, but not thought. We may remember that according to Spinoza, the father of modern philosophy, if we want to think we must discard any idea of Bonum et Malum, Pulchritudo et Deformatio. This same Spinoza "taught" us: non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere. And if men have learnt anything from Spinoza, it is to discard both the good and the beautiful for understanding's sake and to transform themselves into this "common consciousness" which neither laughs, nor weeps, nor is wroth, but only weighs, measures, and counts, like that mathematics after whose image common consciousness was created.

     As for those phrases "opposites mingle here", "all the most contradictory things live side by side," they are more like the ravings of delirium, or a collection of meaningless words. "That which contains an absolute contradiction cannot be true, and any one is entitled to call such a contradiction by its name." Harnack says this of Athanasius (Dogmengeschichte, II, 225); and he would have repeated it of Dostoevsky if he had read him. He would have received ignorant Dimitri Karamazov's "indefinable" with the same indignation.

     These are, in fact, all efforts directed towards the sole purpose of confounding the bebai˘tatŕ t˘v arch˘v the law of contradiction which since the days of Aristotle has been looked upon as the very foundation of thought. But this does not stop Dostoevsky, nor does it frighten him; he remembers that indocti rapiunt caelum; he remembers that "twice two is four" is the principle of death which men gathered from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

     Is it possible to escape from the curse of knowledge? Can man cease to judge and to condemn? Can he cease to be ashamed of his nakedness, ashamed of himself, or of his surroundings, like Adam and Eve before the serpent led them into temptation. This is the subject of the great discussion which takes place in the "Legend of the Grand Inquisitor" (The Brothers Karamazov) between the Cardinal Inquisitor, an old man of ninety in whom all human wisdom is incarnate, and God Himself. The old man has long been silent, ninety years long; but at last he can bear it no longer; he must speak.

     He says to God: What have You offered to man? What can You offer him? Liberty? Man cannot accept it. Man wants laws, a settled order, fixed once and for all, which will help him to distinguish the true from the false, the permissible from the prohibited. "Have you the right to betray even a single one of the mysteries of that world from which you descend?" the Cardinal asks God; and he answers himself, since God is silent (God is always silent): "No, You have no right. You have given your work over to us. You have promised and sealed the promise with Your word, You have given us the right to bind and to loose, and You cannot, of course, dream of taking this right away from us."

     The Cardinal is, of course, thinking of St. Matthew (xvi, 19): Et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum. Et quodcumque ligaveris super terram erit ligatum et in caelis, et quodcumque solveris super terram erit solutum in caelis. (I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be hound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.) It is on these words that the Catholic Church bases its idea of the "potestas clavium" and of the infallibility of the Church. One knows that many contemporary historians of Christianity, Harnack among them, if I am not mistaken, look upon this verse as a later interpolation. Even if this supposition were correct, if the Church had no verse of Scripture on which to found its pretensions, this would not weaken its rights in the least. In other words, the idea of infallibility needs no heavenly sanctions, and does very well without. Was Harnack thinking of the Bible when he asserted that no one can slight the claims of science and reason with impunity? Socrates, and Plato after him, had already proved in antiquity that men on earth know quite well how to "bind and loose", i.e. to judge; and they knew that in heaven things will be judged as they are on earth. Nobody questions it today. Our theories of knowledge make all appeal to revelation quite superfluous. Edmund Husserl, the most remarkable of contemporary philosophers, has formulated the thought thus: "No idea in modern times is, perhaps, more powerful, more active and more triumphant than that of science. Nothing will put a stop to its victorious advance. It is, in fact, all-embracing in its legitimate aims. Conceived in its ideal perfection, it would be identical with reason itself which can have no authority beside or above its own.

     The idea of the "infallibility" of the Church and of the potestas clavium consists precisely in what philosophers have called and still call "reason", this reason which admits of no authority beside its own, and therefore demands that we should fall down and worship it. Dostoevsky perceives this with the peculiar, extraordinary penetration which he manifests whenever "Apollo calls to the sacrifice", and 'obliges him to make use of his second sight. "When a man feels himself free," says the Cardinal, "he has no preoccupation more incessant or more painful, than to find an object to worship. But he aspires to kneel before something which is already beyond dispute, so much so that all men would immediately agree to pay homage. For the desire of these miserable creatures is to discover an object which not only I or any other could adore, but one in which a/i could believe and which all would adore, together. It is this need of common worship which has been the torment of each man individually, and of humanity as a whole, throughout the ages.

     It is impossible to go on quoting; we should have to write out the whole "Legend". But I must once more call the reader's attention to the extraordinary power, akin to clairvoyance, of Dostoevsky's sight, to the keenness with which he puts the most difficult philosophical problems. Such a piercing and deep vision is not to be found neither in the manuals of philosophy, nor even in the best treatises. The theory of knowledge, ethics, and ontology appear quite differently to a man who has received his "initiation" from Dostoevsky, and wants, like him, to participate in the formidable mystery of original sin, whence the torments indicated by the Cardinal are derived. And such a man, I think, would also be capable of understanding Dostoevsky's adversaries in some measure - Spinoza, who hides his incessant doubts deep beneath his mathematical formulae, or Edmund Husserl, who is apparently so careless and triumphant. For Spinoza is simply Dostoevsky's Cardinal, who at the age of thirty-five has already apprehended the terrible secret of which in the "Legend" an old man of ninety whispers from the depths of his underground prison to an eternally silent God. What aspiring thirst for liberty was in Spinoza! But with what implacable rigour he proclaimed this necessity, the only law to which God and man were alike subject!

     And he is not alone; nearly all those who have thirsted most painfully after liberty, skeptics and believers alike, sing the praises of necessity with a sort of funereal delight. Luther's best work, De Servo Arbitrio, is directed against Erasmus of Rotterdam, who tried to safeguard some portion of human liberty, were it never so small. Plotinus represented our existence as a marionette show, a performance in which the actors mechanically rendered parts which had been written in advance. Marcus Aurelius said the same thing. To Gogol, as we remember, the earth was an enchanted kingdom, to Plato a cave. The old tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and Shakespeare, the greatest of modern poets, had the same vision of our existence. One cannot say that man is not free; but that man fears liberty above all things, and that it is for this reason that he seeks knowledge, and aspires to find some incontestable and infallible authority at whose feet all men could prostrate themselves together. Liberty is that caprice of which the underground man has spoken to us; but here, on earth, caprice also demands its guarantees, not even suspecting that its supreme prerogative is precisely the ability to do without all guarantees. Man creates what he calls "truth", an illusion of something which has power over both heaven and earth.
"See", the Cardinal goes on, "what you did next, and have always done in the name of liberty. I tell you that man has no more tormenting preoccupation than to find someone to whom at the soonest possible moment he can hand over this gift of liberty which is the wretched creature's birthright. But... instead of taking possession of man's liberty, you have only extended it. Instead of giving humanity solid principles, to appease its conscience once and for all, you have collected everything extraordinary and problematic, everything which is beyond human power."
In other words, philosophy, scientific or apparently scientific philosophy, has hitherto considered itself obliged to "justify" itself before "omnitude", or, in the words of the schoolmen, before "consciousness as such". It seeks solid foundations, what is definite, beyond argument, firm ground, and dreads beyond all things liberty, caprice, everything extraordinary, problematical, and indeterminate in life, never suspecting that it is just this extraordinary, problematical, and undefined something which, having no need of either protection or guarantee, is the true and only object of its study, that n1Lucbrarov of which Plotinus spoke and to which he aspired, the reality which Plato perceived from the depths of his cave, the God which Spinoza hides beneath his mathematical formulae and which inspired the ugly little duckling, Dostoevsky's underground man, when he clenched his fist and put out his tongue so shamelessly at the glass palace which men had erected. The wise men of old have affirmed it: one cannot say of God that He is, for when one says "God is" one immediately loses Him.

Orphus system

   home    intro    texts    links    biblio ToC