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


     In his House of the Dead, Dostoevsky speaks much of the men condemned to perpetual imprisonment there, and of their desperate efforts to escape. The man knows quite well what risks he runs, how much he stakes on a single card, and how slender is his chance, yet he decides to take the chance. When he was in the settlement Dostoevsky was already especially attracted by these resolute men whom no obstacle could turn from their purpose. He tried by every means in his power to understand their psychology, but he did not succeed. This was not from want of penetration or of power of observation on his part, but because such an understanding was not possible. Nothing can "explain" decision. Dostoevsky could only say that resolute men are rare everywhere, among the convicts just as elsewhere. It would be more accurate to say that there are no resolute men at all, only great "resolutions", which it is impossible to understand, because they are not usually founded on any basis, and exclude all motives. They are subject to no rule; they are "resolutions" and "great" just because they are outside all rules, and consequently beyond any possible explanation. In the convict settlement Dostoevsky had not yet realized this; he thought, like every one else, that human experience has its limits, which are determined by unshakable and eternal principles. But a new truth revealed itself to him in his "underground": these eternal principles do not exist, and the law of sufficient reason, on which they are based, is only an auto-suggestion of man adoring his own limitations and prostrating himself before them -
"Simple men and men of action prostrate themselves quite sincerely before the wall. For them this wall is not, as it is for us, an excuse, a pretext to turn aside from the path, a pretext in which we ourselves do not generally believe, but of which we gladly take advantage. No, they prostrate themselves in all good faith. The wall has some soothing quality for them, something moral and definite, even, perhaps, something mystic... Well, it is just this simple individual whom I look upon as the normal man, such as tender Mother Nature would have him, when she amiably allowed us to be born into this world. I envy this man. He is stupid, there is no disputing that, but perhaps - who knows ? - the normal man ought to be stupid. Perhaps it is even very beautiful so."
Think over these words; they are worth it. They are not an irritating paradox, but rather an admirable philosophical revelation accorded to Dostoevsky. Like all the new thoughts of the "underground" man, this takes the form of a question, not of an answer. And then there is that inevitable "perhaps" which again seems put there on purpose to transform budding answers into new, unanswerable questions. Perhaps normal man ought to be stupid, perhaps this is even beautiful. Always this "perhaps," which weakens and discredits the thought; this doubtful, fitful half-light, intolerable to common sense, obscuring the outlines of things, rubbing out the limits to such a degree that one can hardly tell where one begins and the other ends. One loses all self-assurance; all movement towards a settled objective becomes impossible. But the great thing is that this ignorance suddenly appears to us to be, not a curse, but a gift from heaven -
"Ah, tell me, who was it who first said, first proclaimed that if man were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his true, normal interests he would immediately become good and honest; that having been enlightened by science and understanding to his true interests, he would see that the good was his own advantage? For it is notorious that no one knowingly acts against his interest; and consequently, he would be necessarily obliged to do right. 0 child! 0 pure and simple child!... Interest! What is interest? But suppose there are cases, in which, sometimes, human interest not only can, but must consist in desiring harm for oneself and not advantage! If this is the case, if such a case were even possible, the whole rule falls to the ground."
What attracts Dostoevsky? The "perhaps", the unexpected, the suddenness, the darkness, the caprice, all those things which from the point of view of science and common sense either do not or should not exist. Dostoevsky knows perfectly well what is the general opinion. He knows too, although not familiar with the doctrines of the philosophers, that a disrespect for rules has always from the earliest times been regarded as the greatest of crimes. But here a horrible suspicion enters his mind; suppose man has always been mistaken on this very point?

     It is really astonishing that Dostoevsky, who had absolutely no scientific or philosophical training, should have been able to understand so exactly where the fundamental and eternal problem of philosophy lay. No manual of philosophy has made a study of The Notes from Underground, or even quoted its title. There are no foreign expressions in it, no scholarly terminology; the academic seal is lacking, therefore it cannot be philosophy.

     Yet, if ever a "Critique of Pure Reason" was written, it is to Dostoevsky that we must go to seek it, to The Notes from Underground, and the great novels which were wholly derived from it. What Kant gave us under this title is not a critique but an apology of pure reason. Kant did not dare to criticize reason, although he believed himself to have awakened under Hume's influence from dogmatic slumber. How did Kant put his question? Mathematics exists, the natural sciences exist: is a science of metaphysics possible, with a logical structure like that of the already sufficiently established positive sciences? That is what Kant called "criticizing", "waking from dogmatic slumber". But if he had really wished to awake and criticize, he would first of all have asked the question, whether the positive sciences had really established themselves, whether they had the right to call their achievements "knowledge". Are not all that they have to teach us lies and illusion? Kant had so little awakened from his dogmatic slumber that he never thought of asking this question. He is convinced that the positive sciences are justified by their success, by the services, that is, that they have rendered to mankind. Therefore, they cannot be judged; it is for them to judge. If metaphysics wants to exist, it must first ask the sanction and the blessing of mathematics and the natural sciences.

     One knows the rest; the sciences which "success" has justified have only acquired their scientific character thanks to the series of rules, principles and synthetic a priori judgments which they have at their disposal; general, necessary, immutable rules from which, in Kant's opinion, no awakening can deliver us. Moreover, since these rules are only applicable within the "limits of possible experience", metaphysics, which (according to Kant) aims at the transcendent, is an impossibility. Thus did Kant reason, who in his verdict embodied the whole practice of human scientific thought. Dostoevsky, although he knew nothing of Kant, asked the same question, but his vision was much deeper. Kant saw reality with the eyes of every one; Dostoevsky, as we know, had eyes of his own.

     With Dostoevsky the positive sciences do not judge metaphysics; on the contrary it is metaphysics which judge these positive sciences. Kant asks: Is metaphysics possible? If so, let us continue the experiments of our predecessors. If not, let us give up, and respect our limitations. Impossibility is a natural limitation, there is something appeasing, almost mystic about it. This is an eternal truth: veritas aeterna. Catholicism itself, which depends on revelation, declares: Deus impossibilia non jubet.

God does not ask the impossible. But this is where the second sight becomes active. Suddenly the underground man rises up, the underground man who had declared himself, with such dreadful honesty, to be the vilest of men. He does not know himself by what right he appears, but suddenly with hitter, savage, frightful voice (everything about the underground man is frightful), with a voice not his own (for the underground man's voice, like his sight, is not his own), he cries:
"It is false - it is a lie - God asks the impossible. God asks nothing but the impossible. You all give way before the wall, and see in it something appeasing and final - even, like the Catholics, something mystic. But I tell you that your wall, your impossible is only an excuse, a pretext, and that your God, the God who does not ask the impossible, is not God but a vile idol, one of those useful idols, be they great or small, beyond which you never have proceeded and never will proceed. Metaphysics is impossible! Then I will never think or speak of anything else.

I have a friend, gentlemen. When he is preparing to act he explains to you clearly in great and beautiful phrases, how he has to act, according to the rules of reason and truth. More than that: he will tell you with passion of the normal and real interests of humanity; he will laugh at the short-sightedness of fools who understand neither their own interest, nor true goodness. But a quarter of an hour afterwards, without any reason, impelled by something more powerful than interest, he will commit some folly, that is to say, he will act contrary to all the rules that he has quoted, contrary to reason and contrary to his own interest; in a word, contrary to everything."
What is this "everything"? What is this interior impulse more powerful than any interest? "Everything", to speak in scholarly language, is the laws of reason and the sum of "evidences". The interior impulse is the "irrational residue" which is beyond the limits of possible experience. For this experience, which, according to Kant (Kant is a generic name, it is "omnitude" or all of us), is the root of all knowledge from which our science has issued, does not and will not hold within its limits this impulse, this intimate thing of which Dostoevsky speaks. Kant's "experience" is the collective experience of humanity, and only a hasty, commonplace explanation can confuse it with the facts of material and spiritual existence. In other words, this "experience" necessarily presupposes finished theory, a system of rules and laws of which Kant has very truly said that it is not nature which has imposed them on man, but on the contrary, man who has dictated them to nature. But this is where that scholastic philosophy diverges from Dostoevsky's aspirations, and their incomprehension becomes mutual.

     Directly Kant hears the word "law" pronounced he takes his hat off; he neither wishes nor dares to dispute. He who says "law" says "power"; he who says "power" says "submission " - for man's supreme virtue is to submit himself.

But it is evidently not a living individual who dictates its laws to nature. Such an individual is himself part of nature and therefore subject to it. The supreme, ultimate, definitive power belongs to "man as such", that is to say, to an ideal principle equally far removed from the living individual and from inanimate nature. In other words, principle, rule, and law govern everything. Kant's thought could have been expressed as follows, in a more adequate though less striking form:
"It is neither nature nor man who dictates the laws, but the laws are dictated to man and to nature by the laws themselves. In other words: in the beginning was the law."
If Kant had formulated thus his fundamental principle, he would have been nearer to the scientific conception of the universe which he wished to justify, and also to that common sense which gave rise to this conception. The divergence between theoretical reason and practical reason would then have been eliminated and the ideal of philosophy attained, which is "so to act that the principle of your conduct can be made a general rule". So it is the "rule" which justifies conduct, just as it is the rule which expresses the truth. Nature as well as morality has sprung from rules and autonomous, self-sufficient principles, which alone possess a reality transcending experience, and standing outside time. I repeat:

     Kant did not invent this himself; he simply formulated more clearly the general tendencies of scientific thought. The choruses of free, invisible, capricious individual spirits with which mythology had peopled the world were deposed by science and replaced by other phantoms, by immutable principles; and this was declared to be the final rout of antique superstition. Such is the essence of idealism; this is what modern thought looks upon as its supreme triumph.

     Though Dostoevsky had received no scientific education, he understood with extraordinary perspicacity how he was to put the fundamental philosophic question: Is metaphysics possible as a science?

     But, firstly, why need metaphysics be a science? And secondly, what meaning has this word "possible"? Science presupposes as its necessary condition, what Dostoevsky called ‘omnitude": the existence of judgments which are universally admitted. Such judgments exist, they are immensely privileged, supernaturally so, as against the judgments which have not been universally admitted; they alone bear the title of "truths". Dostoevsky understood quite well why science and common sense are always searching for necessary and universally acknowledged judgments.

     The "facts" in themselves are of no use to us. If we have remarked that a stone is warmed by the sun, that a piece of wood floats in water, that a mouthful of water quenches thirst, what can we do with such observations? Science has no use for particular facts, is not even interested in them. It only looks for that which can miraculously transform some particular fact into "experience" - when we acquire the right to say: the sun always warms stones; wood never sinks in water, water invariably quenches thirst, etc., then only do we possess scientific knowledge. In other words: knowledge only becomes true knowledge when out of the particular facts we have extracted the pure principle, that invisible "always", that all-powerful phantom which has inherited the power and the right of the gods and demons exiled from the world.

     The moral world shows us the same thing as the physical world. There, too, principles occupy the position of gods; destroy principles and all will be confusion, there will be neither good nor evil. As in the physical world, if the laws were to disappear, anything might give rise to anything else. The very conceptions of good and evil, of truth and error, are based on the existence of a fixed, eternal order. This is what science is seeking to show when it creates its theories. If we know that the sun cannot fail to warm a stone, that wood cannot sink in water, that water necessarily quenches thirst, if it is therefore possible to advance the observed fact into a theory by putting it under the safeguard of some invisible but eternal law, which had no beginning and therefore can never end, then we have science. And it is the same thing with morality; it, too, has no support except in law: all men must act in such a way that their behaviour shows their perfect submission to rule. Only on this condition is social life possible.

     Dostoevsky understood all this quite well, although he was so ignorant of the history of philosophy that he imagined that the idea of "pure reason" as the only omnipotent lord of the universe was quite a recent invention, the creation of Claude Bernard: and that quite recently, again, someone (probably this same Claude Bernard) had imagined a new science of "ethics" which definitely proclaimed that this same "law" was the only master of man, and had ousted once and for all the God of our forefathers.

     Dostoevsky intentionally puts these philosophical ideas into the mouth of his ignorant Dimitri Karamazov. All the educated people, even Ivan Karamazov, are of Claude Bernard's point of view, and subscribe to his "ethics" and his "laws of nature". It could not escape Dostoevsky's clear vision that scientific training of the intelligence paralyzes the human powers to a certain extent and confines us within limitations. He may, of course, also have found all this in the Bible. Who has not read, or does not know the Bible? Claude Bernard and his teachers had undoubtedly read the Bible. But would they have gone to that book in search of philosophical truths? A book which was written by ignorant men, hardly touched by culture? Dostoevsky could see no alternative. And so, like St. Augustine, he was obliged to cry: Surgunt indocti et rapiunt caelum. Risen we know not whence, the ignorant have stormed heaven.

Orphus system

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