Perhaps my biggest influencer in 2017 is a man who’s been dead for 136 years. Discovering the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky has been a joy seldom experienced. He’s made me consider and think about big concepts and existential issues to an extent which no other author has been able to. Perhaps another reminder that I’m living in the wrong time.
In the past week I’ve completed the novel Demons. It was one of the more difficult novels I’ve ever worked my way through, but was rewarding nonetheless, as all his works usually are. It’s a novel about an ominous group of political activists attempting to undermine and overthrow a small town’s governing class. The ‘Demons’ of the title are not ghouls or actual Demons, but ideas which possess certain people and lead to ruin. Early in the novel, one of the lead characters, Stepan Trofimovich an ageing intellectual liberal, describes what he observes with new liberals in the big city he visits. “You cannot imagine what sorrow and anger seize one’s whole soul when a great idea, which one has long and piously revered, is picked up by some bunglers and dragged into the street, to more fools like themselves, and one suddenly meets it in the flea market, unrecognizable, dirty, askew, absurdly presented, without proportion, without harmony, a toy for stupid children.”
This was to be something of a theme through the novel, as we watch a group of nihilists, seduced by the ideals of Communism, wreak havoc in this small town in 1800’s Russia. One of the members of the group, in a confession at the end of the novel, explains exactly what they set out to do: “The systematic shaking of the foundations, for the systematic corrupting of society and all principles, in order to dishearten everyone and make a hash of everything, and society being thus loosened, ailing and limp, cynical and unbelieving, but with an infinite yearning for some guiding idea of self-preservation – to take it suddenly into their own hands.”
Dostoevsky’s arguments in Demons would probably remain the same today if the man were still alive. It’s seemingly a universal truth: In the absence of a greater, higher power, mankind has the tendency to be very easily seduced by political ideologies. The novel was a warning of what was to come in Russia in the early to mid 1900’s. Unfortunately, no one listened. Dostoevsky was observing the sparks that would eventually lead to Lenin, Stalin and one of the most murderous regimes in the history of the world. One of the central characters of the novel, Shatov, in observing this group of radicals in the novel, says: “They’d be the first to be unhappy if Russia somehow suddenly got reconstructed, even if it was in their own way, and somehow suddenly became rich and happy. They’d have no one to hate then, and nothing to spit on, nothing to jeer at. All that’s there is an ism”
This one quote said it all about the Bolshevik Russia that was to come. In pretty much all revolutionary communist movements, it ends up not being about equality at all. These movements are driven by hate – hate of the oppressor, of the bourgeois, hate of the system – and that hate can only manifest in you once you have become possessed by ideas. That hate also doesn’t really go away once it has captured you. And once the goal is achieved – what then? When a movement is fuelled by hatred and ideology, it often ends up going over the edge.
Dostoevsky used this novel to warn that liberalism had been hijacked by a dangerous group. If he were alive today he’d be warning us about the same thing. There seems to be a movement of destruction sweeping through the world. Liberalism in the wrong hands is a slippery slope to radical fundamentalism powered by resentment.
The term “liberal” in its original form described somebody who resisted the state in order to be liberated from state control – i.e. to gain ‘liberty’. In its original form liberalism was about freedom of individuals, freedom of speech, equal opportunity and judging people on the content of their character rather than anything else. Nowadays if you identify as ‘liberal’, you most probably want larger governments, you probably want to restrict speech you don’t like, you probably have the tendency to put people in boxes based on their skin colour, gender etc, and you probably want to take away more individual rights than you’re willing to give.
20th century liberalism did an incredible amount of good in the world. There were noble causes that it fought for. Women’s rights, gay rights, non-white rights etc. Noble causes which were essential in progressing society in the right direction. But in the absence of noble causes, is it once again in danger of going over the deep end? The following are actual headlines I’ve seen in the last few months from large outlets such as the New York Times and The Guardian include the following:
“Church of Sweden to stop referring to God as ‘He’ or ‘Lord’”
“Why climate change is creating a new generation of child brides”
“Want to fight climate change? Have fewer children”
“Is it ok for my child to have white friends”
“It’s time to take the ‘great’ white men of science off their pedestals”
“Yes, we must decolonise: our teaching has to go beyond elite white men”
“Christmas is ruined by children”
“Fascism bad – Communisim good(ish)”
“It’s time to do away with the concept of manhood altogether”
The danger is that the wrong ideology is possessing liberalism once again, and has been moving towards this for the past two decades. Hardcore liberalism now seems more of an attempt at destruction – A destruction of Western Civilisation. A destruction of the traditional family structure. Destruction of law and order. A destruction of capitalism, the system that has lifted millions out of poverty and led to the great inventions of the past 200 years. Destruction of healthy cultures and identities. This is of course, underpinned by an attempted destruction of Western religion.
Is it pure co-incidence that the two biggest mass murdering regimes of the 20th century – those of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, both rejected religion? Now I’m not saying that atheism equals mass murderers, that would be ridiculous. But I am saying that where Christianity is lacking there is a void in humans which could get filled by anything. Communism, after all, rejects religion. There’s a reason for this – if people are living for their faith, how can they live for the state?
“Wait a minute,” you might say. “What about all the evils of fascism!” Yes, everyone knows this. Of course fascism is bad, and always has been, with a horrifying track record. That’s just the point – fascism is just another ideology, and as soon as people are sucked into an ideology, it always becomes a dangerous ground. Also, the point I’m trying to make is that most brutal regimes in modern times have always started as liberation movements. Dostoevsky was a liberal himself. He even got arrested in his younger years and was nearly executed because of this. However, like myself now, I get the sense that he looked at liberalism at the time with a growing sense of unease.
Dostoevsky, a Russian Orthodox Christian was particularly good at portraying strong arguments contrasting his own views, sometimes even stronger than his own arguments. The prime example of this is his creation of Ivan Karamazov, in the novel The Brothers Karamazov. Whilst Ivan was a sceptic of the existence of God, he couldn’t help but feel that “In the absence of God, all is permitted.” Even though he himself wasn’t convinced on the existence of a God, he did admit that human beings in general need religion.
A few years later, Frederich Nietzsche, a philosopher heavily influenced by Dostoevsky, wrote his famous “God is Dead” line: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
It’s worth noting that Nietzsche was a non-believer, yet these weren’t words of triumph. These were lines of anguish and foreboding. This was a dire warning to humanity saying that in the absence of the guiding principles of religion, what would happen to ordinary people?
Yes, there are many of you out there right now disagreeing with this, and thinking that you can live a perfectly moral and good life without religion as your guide. Yes, that might be the case, but there’s a strong chance you’re a university educated person who’s been exposed to much that has grown your mind. Consider for a moment the poor man, who’s received little to no education, who has perhaps grown up in a broken home? In the absence of religion, in this situation, who does this man turn to for moral guidance? Now picture this man standing on the brink of committing crime. If this man truly believed in judgement from a higher power, that would surely be infinitely more of a deterrent than the idea of the law. And what happens when a dangerous political movement comes along, and promises this young man that he can get things for free and now is the time to stick it to the oppressor?
It’s not just the poor, uneducated who are susceptible to fall for politicised fundamentalism. I see this with my own eyes on social media – affluent, successful people sucked into political grandstanding, endlessly spewing out their clichéd, recycled hate of something or someone, usually with an incredibly angry tone. Generally losing all sense of reason, fact and critical thought in the process. You can guarantee two things with people like this: 1. They’re non-religious. 2. They have found no purpose or meaning within themselves. They need to find it elsewhere.
As religion has declined over the past 100 years in Western countries, governments have generally increased in size, often quite dramatically. This leads to the unfortunate possibility of ordinary people, in the absence of religion, looking to large governments as their moral authority. Governments know this. They also know that the more they can get the plebs to depend on them, the more they control them. As The Grand Inquisitor in the Brothers Karamazov succinctly put it: “For who shall reign over human beings if not those who reign over their consciences and in whose hands are their loaves.”
My feeling is that perhaps we can divide the world into two groups. In the first group are those who can live autonomously, finding meaning, morals and purpose from within – who can exist perfectly with no higher authority. And the second group – those who cannot do this, and who actually need a higher guiding power. Perhaps the most dangerous people in the world are the people in the second group who have rejected the idea of God. They easily end up possessed by something, our putting their faith in something that isn’t always entirely healthy. As Dostoevsky’s character put it, these people are susceptible to “an infinite yearning for some guiding idea”.
I don’t think I’m suggesting that religion is going to heal the world. Society has moved beyond that. What I am suggesting is that if you’re getting your opinions from your ideology you’re part of the problem, rather than the solution. If your societal viewpoints are coming from external sources, there is a strong chance that your sense of meaning, purpose and happiness are also relying on external sources. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor summed this up perfectly in a fictional conversation with Jesus: “The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”
If Western Religion is indeed on the decline, perhaps the biggest thing we need to be teaching the next generation is to find true meaning and life purpose within themselves, and for them to understand that fulfilment and happiness comes from within. Without a strong sense of internal purpose and meaning, or without religion, anything can come fill the void of the young adult mind.