Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Brothers Karamazov and Liberal Modernity

The Brothers Karamazov is (rightly, in my opinion) regarded by many as not only the culmination of Dostoevsky's artistic vision, but also as a genuine work of prophecy. Dostoevsky writes as a Christian to warn, predict, instruct and declare.

In the next few posts, I want to discuss the interpretation of the Grand Inquisitor's vision and how it contrasts to the vision articulated by the Elder Zosima in Book VI, which immediately following Book V, which contains the key chapters (4. Rebellion and 5. The Grand Inquisitor). Page references will be the the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (1990).

I will also refer frequently to the stunningly insightful book by P. Travis Kroeker and Bruce K. Ward entitled: Remembering the End: Dostoevsky as Prophet to Modernity (Westview, 2001).
Much of my understanding of Dostoevsky is indebted to their fine work, although I also find that my understanding of Augustine and Yoder also helps to appreciate Dostoevsky's art. I find it astonishing and highly significant that such a high degree of unity exists between the 4th century church father, the 19th century Russian Orthodox and the 20th century Mennonite. I leave the reader to figure out how they fit together; I merely point out the fact.

The Grand Inquisitor

The Grand Inquisitor has been interpreted, wrongly in my view, as representing Roman Catholicism as a whole over against Orthodoxy. He has also be misinterpreted as standing for the totalitarian movements of National Socialism and Soviet Communism that occured in the 20th century.

The Grand Inquisitor actually represents, not a pathological offshoot of modernity, but modernity itself. The GI represents, ironically, not only political religion (i.e. the church siezing control of the levers of political power and using coercion to enforce its views on an unwilling population), but the GI also represents religious politics (i.e. the State assuming God-like proportions and implementing a soft totalitarianism that not only takes away the freedom of people in the name of equality, but which does so in such a way that the people beg the State to relieve them of the burden of freedom). So Hitler and Stalin were only crude prototypes of the GI, who relied on external coercion to rule. The GI, by contrast, will rule by popular acclamation and will assume the burden of freedom for people so that they can rely on the GI (the State) to meet their material needs and allow them to sin.

To understand how this is so, we must listen to Ivan as he speaks throught the mouth of the GI. In Ivan's poem, the GI has arrested Jesus, who appeared unexpectedly in Seville in the late 16th century on the day after the GI has burnt 100 heretics in a grand auto de fe. The GI has arrested Jesus and is now speaking to him in Jesus' prison cell. Jesus remains silent throughout the poem. The GI says "The dread and intelligent spirit, the spirit of self-destruction and non-being . . . the great spirit spoke with you in the wilderness . . . Was it possible to say anything more true than what he proclaimed to you in his three questions? . . . For in these three questions all subsequent human history is as if brought together in a single whole and foretold." (BK, 252)

The Grand Inquisitor as a Hegelian

Kroeker and Ward point out that the 3 temptations correspond to the 3 stages of world history in Hegel's philosophy of history. The first stage is the temptation to rule the masses by giving them bread and corresponds to what Hegel called the Oriental World. In every civilization prior to Christianity there was a unity of the religous and the political power (along with the economic and judicial and other powers) in the person of the Emperor, who personifies the empire.

The second stage is introduced by Christianity and is the development of individual freedom. The individual comes to understand himself as distinct from the hive, the totality - as more than merely a cog in the State machinery. Jesus is tempted to throw himself down from the Temple, thus calling attention to his unique status as God's son and the miracle which God would do to save him. The GI admits that Jesus reacted magnificently in refusing to tempt God, but asks how many of the common herd could do the same? Here he doubts the feasiblility of freedom for common human beings.

The third stage is the reconciliation of equality (the unified State) and freedom (individual consciousness). Here Jesus is tempted to worship the Devil and refuses. The GI proudly asserts that he and his colleagues have corrected Jesus' mistake at this point: "we are not with you, but with him, that is our secret!" (BK, 257)

Liberal Democracy as the End of History?

Modern liberal democracy claims to be the reconciliation of equality (Rousseau, Marx) and freedom (Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson) in a synthesis that works (American Pragmatism). Francis Fukuyama, a contemporary populizer of Hegel, claims that liberal democracy has triumphed over its foes and so we now stand at the "end of history. But Fukuyama does not admit that contemporary liberal democracy actually is a synthesis of the Marxist impulse toward equality and the Capitalist faith in the wealth-creating Market. "Pure" 19th century Capitalism no longer exists. Since the "New Deal" Capitalism and the Welfare State have been fused together. The Market God and the State God are both worshipped equally for one creates the wealth and the other redistributes it in such a way as to leave incentive for wealth creation without allowing such exptremes of wealth and poverty so as to incite revolution. Liberal modernity has triumphed over Communism precisely by absorbing much of the Marxist emphasis on equality into itself without ceasing to be itself. The Capitalist Welfare State has triumphed, but not because Capitalism has obliterated Marxism, but rather because it has co-opted it. The two party system in liberal Western states (liberal socialist and neo-conservative) is necessary to maintain the delicate balance. Those who call for less government (neo-conservatives) and those who call for more government (liberal) are just emphasizing two sides of the same integrated system.

Dostoevsky's prophecy is of a state in which the many would gladly surrender their freedom to their rulers in exchange for 1) material well-being and 2) sexual freedom. The GI says: "in the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us 'Better that you enslave us, but feed us.' They will finally understand that freedom and earthly bread in plenty for everyone are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share among themselves." (BK, 253) In other words, the equality of the first stage of history (the equlity of the hive) will characterize this State. But the GI also says: "We will tell them that every sin wil be redeemed if it is committed with our permission; and that we allow them to sin because we love them." (BK, 259) This tyranny is much more sophisticated than that of Hitler and Stalin because they had to rule by external coercion. People felt dominated and abused by them; this new tyranny will not feel that way. Instead, it will appeal to a real aspect of human nature: the sensuous desire for physical gratification common to all fallen humans. This is what makes it dangerous. Although Dostoevsky does not say it explicitly, we see his vision fulfilled in the sexual revolution. The State changes the law (allows us to sin) because it loves us. So infatuated with this "freedom" we gladly exchange our political freedom for it.

Dostoevsky is drawing a picture of a soft totalitariainism along the lines of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, in which promiscuity and drugs are what keeps the population quiet, while the State has taken over the business of human reproduction. The only ones who are unhappy in the GI's vision of the end of history are the rulers because they must govern on the basis of a lie. What is this lie?

The Grand Inquisitor: A Liar Like His Hero the Devil:

The lie is that freedom and equality have been reconciled and Hegel's synthesis has been achieved, that is, that the end of history is here. In actual fact it is more like a reversion to the pre-Christian Oriental World in which there is plenty of equality but no real freedom. The freedom of the subjects of liberal modernity is 'freedom to gratify one's physical desires here and now" but it pales beside the grandeur of the Augustinian definition of freedom as 'freedom to act toward the good for human nature,' which is true freedom. The freedom of liberal modernity is, from a Christian perspective, slavery to the lusts of the flesh and thus no freedom at all.

Yet, even if this version of history sounds less bad to you than other possibilities (eg. nuclear war that destroys civilization), you need to know that even this version is not feasible, as we shall see in the next post.

Tomorrow's Post: "The Nietzschean Correction of Hegel"
Third Post: "The Alternative Vision of the Elder Zosima"
Concluding Post: "Conservatism as the Rejection of Liberal Modernity"

No comments: