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The Apocalypse of Beatitude: Modern Gnosticism and Ancient Faith in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed

The Apocalypse Of Beatitude:  Modern Gnosticism And Ancient Faith In Dostoevsky’s The Possessed

Prelude: Gnosticism Ancient and Modern

Eric Voegelin’s use of the phrase “modern gnosticism” complicates the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns in that the phrase suggests a continuity between antiquity and modernity, even as it obfuscates the full character of the original Gnostics. Ancient Gnosticism was a form of theological dualism according to which evil and suffering can be attributed to powerful satanic forces. As a theodicy, a theological justification of evil, ancient Gnosticism pointed to the sovereignty of these evil forces: the god of light and truth did not create this world, and so could not be culpable for the evil herein.

In the Ginza, the Madnean[1] gnostic text, the “true and believing men,” the “perceiving and separate ones” are commanded to “separate [themselves] from the world of imperfection which is full of confusion and replete with error” (qtd. in Livingston 244). The God of Light goes on to make this proclamation: “Broad and deep is the abode of evil, whose peoples showed no fidelity to the place which is their endless habitation, whose kingdoms came into being from themselves. Their earth is black water and their heights gloomy darkness” (qtd. in Livingston 244). For the ancient Gnostics, because this world is the kingdom of sin, desolation, and darkness, “earthly existence is radically devalued—to the point that moral license and promiscuity are often encouraged as indifferent” (244). The word gnosis, Greek for “knowledge,” also connotes “secret knowledge.” One of the early challengers of Christianity, Gnostics taught that by acquiring secret or true knowledge, the soul could be saved from its horrible state (Livingston 166).

In a letter to Eric Voegelin, Gregor Sebba wrote that not a single one of the characteristics of classical gnosis fits without problems into the former’s configuration of Voegelin’s modern gnosticism, because he calls, “Gnostic everything that reflects a truncation of reality, and this goes far beyond the narrow concept of gnosis” (qtd. in Rosenbach 231). Admittedly, the link between ancient and modern gnosis is imperfect. Still, we can be guided by Sebba’s emphasis on modern (Voegelian) gnosis as “everything that reflects a truncation of reality,” and here pursue a more detailed articulation of the phenomenon.

Eric Voegelin explodes neat historiographical categorizations of “ancients” and “moderns” even further by locating the seeds of modern Gnosticism in the medieval writings of Joachim of Fiora, a leading churchman of the 12th century. Fiora divided history into three distinct parts: the Age of the Father, which began with Abraham, the age of the Son, which was led by Christ, and the age of the Spirit, signified by the appearance of the “Dux e Babylone, the leader of the third age” (qtd. in Sandoz 138). In Joachim’s conceptualization of the third age, humankind will receive a new descent of the spirit which will bring gifts necessary for, “a community of the spiritually perfect who can live together without institutional authority” (qtd. in Sandoz 139).

Ellis Sandoz notes that, whereas ancient gnosis, mediated through sects, was typified by “thirst for perfection and radical transformation of evil existence in both personal and cosmic dimensions,” Joachim of Fiora “transformed gnostic doctrine into the speculative reconstruction of the process of history, promising the transfiguration of the world in time” (Sandoz 140). For Voegelin, starting with Fiora, and far more blatantly with his successors, the faith-symbols of Christianity are stripped of transcendent signification and reinterpreted in a manner that grants politics the same fervent ultimacy previously reserved for the other-world. Faith and intuitive reason are replaced by secret knowledge. Intellectuals begin to lead Gnostic mass movements.

In Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, Voegelin lists six characteristics that reveal the nature of the modern gnostic’s dispostion:

1. “The gnostic is dissatisfied with his situation,” a trait not in itself unique to gnosticism, but in this case the dissatisfaction is exaggerated (Voegelin 59). The modern gnostic, like the ancient, finds the world, in a sense, created by, or ruled by an “evil god.”

2. The gnostic believes that the world’s/situation’s drawbacks are attributed to the fact that the world is “intrinsically poorly organized” (60). Finding fault in the world, the Gnostic is not inclined to discover that humans beings, and themselves in particular, are inadequate.

3.  Salvation from the “evil” of the world is possible.

4. The order of being will be changed through a historical process. “From a wretched world a good one must evolve historically” (60).

5. “Change in the order of being lies in the realm of human action, and…this salvational act is possible through man’s own effort” (60).

6. If a (more) perfect world is possible, it is the task of the gnostic to find a prescription for change. Knowledge [gnosis] of this prescription is central for the gnostic. Therefore, the Gnostic constructs a formula for world salvation and displays a “readiness to come forward as a prophet who will proclaim his knowledge about the salvation of mankind” (60).

The complex of symbols used by or applicable to the modern gnostic movements “can be recognized as modifications of the Christian idea of perfection” (61). One of Christianity’s core tenets is that human nature finds fulfillment only in the visio beatifica found through grace in death. In a teleological sense, Christianity moves toward the finis ultimis of perfect beatitude. English Puritanism, with its emphasis on the on the pilgrim’s progress (on earth), exemplifies the practical consequences of this earth-bound visio beatifica, the sense that God’s perfection can become immanent in human history and existence.

Modern gnosticism borrows its ideas of progress from Christianity in that it theorizes an immanentization of the aforementioned axiological and teleological components. Voegelin calls this activist mysticism, under which belong primarily the movements of positivism and communism, found respectively in Auguste Comte, who imagines a final state of industrial society whose temporal rule is fulfilled by managers and whose spiritual rule is under the control of positivist intellectuals, and in Marx, who theorizes a classless realm of freedom, the “transformation of man into the communist superman,” seemingly borrowed almost directly from Joachim of Fiora (63). As Marx wrote, “Man, who sought a superman in the imaginary reality of heaven and found only a reflection of himself, will no longer be inclined to find just a semblance of himself, just a non-man, where he seeks and must seek his true reality” (qtd. in Voegelin 44). The “superman” within man must be wrestled from the fictionalized heaven, the “beyond” where it rests, and situated in man. For Marx, the truth of this world can be established once the world beyond empirical truth has been abandoned. Therefore, “the critique of heaven is transformed into the critique of earth; the critique of religion, into the critique of law; the critique of theology into the critique of politics” (45). True to the form of modern gnosticism, Marx considers critique authentic only when it is transformed into action:

“Its subject is its enemy, which it seeks not to refute, but to annihilate . . . It no longer acts as an end in itself, but only as a means. Its essential emotion is indignation; its essential task is denunciation” (qtd. in Voegelin 47).

Critique moves from rational debate to dismemberment. The activist mystic appeals to a secret knowledge of utopia in order to justify any action, regardless of its human toll—so long as the toll portends (pretends?) to overcome humankind’s essential imperfections.[2] When the inadequate structure of the world is altered, a new world arises, a satisfying world. Voegelin argues that it is not within human power to change those elements of the constitution of being that would make the satisfying world possible. Therefore, the gnostic intellectual drafts a program to change the world in which such changes appear possible. The elements of human being that make it impossible are eliminated from the modern gnostic’s images and ideas.

Voegelin turns to several representative cases in which a given factor of reality has been omitted “in order to make the possibility of an alteration in the unsatisfactory state of things seem plausible” (69). For our purposes, the Utopia of Thomas More and the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes are particularly instructive. After indulging in an image of purportedly perfect society, a “utopia” in which private property has been abolished, More admits that a world without private property would be possible if it were not for the “serpent of superbia” (More 84). But superbia, the Augustinian term for humankind’s lust for possessions, does exist. Therefore More relegates his “perfect” society to the utopia, the nowhere, of a dream.

For the activist mystic, the utopia is gathered into the libido dominandi, the lust for power, of the author. Until Hobbes, classical and scholastic ethics ordered human societies as directed toward the summun bonum, the highest good. In the eleventh chapter of the Leviathan, Hobbes states that “there is no such Finis ultimus (utmost ayme), nor Summum Bonum (greatest Good), as is spoken of in the Books of the old Morall Philosophers” (Hobbes 160). In place of this summum bonum, Hobbes puts, “for a general inclination of mankind, a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth only in Death” (161). Action is motivated purely by passions, particularly the libido dominandi. Humans, these “proud ones,” can only be broken and thereafter ruled by the Leviathan, the “Lord of the Proud” (Voegelin 71). In Hobbes’ system, by constructing the Leviathan “the thinker becomes the only free person—a god, who will deliver man from the evils of the state of nature” (72). While More’s Utopia, gnostic in that it suppresses superbia, is a humanist game, Hobbes’ Leviathan, gnostic in that he suppresses the summum bonum, is recommended by the author to a person in power who is able to suppress the apparent freedom of the spirit and impose its order.

Briefly, Voegelin also delineates the gnostic elements in Hegel’s system of history. For Hegel, God had revealed the Logos (reason) within history, with the appearance of Christ. However, this revelation was incomplete. It is left to human beings to “complete the incomplete revelation by raising the Logos to complete clarity in consciousness” (72). Only the philosopher is able to achieve this elevation of consciousness: through him or her, the mystery of revelation and of the course of history can be made transparent. In each of these cases, the “will to power of the gnostic who wants to rule the world has triumphed over the humility of subordination to the constitution of being” (73). However, Voegelin continues, we cannot explain the gnostic intellectual’s theorizations as mere will to power, because the constitution of being remains beyond the thinker’s lust for alteration. In the end the thinker experiences not dominion over being but, “a fantasy satisfaction” (73).

Gnostic Politics: Dostoevsky’s The Possessed


We encounter several incarnations of modern gnosticism in Dostoevsky’s The Possesssed or Demons. The story follows a small circle of revolutionaries who are dissatisfied with their present situation, and in various ways believe that the order of being can be changed within history. Stepan Verkhovensky, father of the revolutionary Peter, is an optimistic Hegelian, a sort of representative of the “former” or “elder” generation. He fashions himself a “freethinker” and, struggling to find stable work as a literature professor, he tutors his son and several of the youth, passing along his Hegelian optimism. At times he swoons over the “reforms” stirring in St. Petersburg, and sentimentally and good-humorously hums a verse written by a landed-gentry of the past: “The peasants are coming, carrying axes/A dreadful thing is about to occur” (The Possessed 48).  In the final scene of one of Verkhovensky’s plays, “the Tower of Babel appears and some athletes at last finish building it with a song of new hope, and when they reach the top, the lord (of Olympus, I suppose), runs off in a comic fashion, and mankind, realizing the position and seizing his place, at once begins a new life with a new insight into things” (The Possessed 24).[3]

The Tower of Babel, which appears in several of Dostoevsky’s works, “is being erected without God, not for the sake of reaching heaven from earth, but for the sake of bringing heaven down to earth” (Brothers Karamazov 23). A milder modern gnostic, Stepan desires to bring heaven down to earth, to, in Voegelin’s language, immanentize the eschaton, but he seems content imagining such an end. He later remorsefully wants, “to tell them about that perverted, stinking flunky who was the first to climb a ladder with scissors in hand to slash the divine image of the human ideal in the name of equality, envy, and digestion,” but he is too late (The Possessed 345). He and his generation have already removed the divine from social and philosophical order.

In the eyes of Stepan’s son Peter Verkhovensky, the older generation are only aesthetes. In a sense Stepan is a Thomas More creating a utopia void of superbia, and only Peter actually acts on a world in the mode of a Hobbes who eschews any concern for the summum bonum. Indeed, late in the novel when the latter tries to persuade his group to commit political murder, “Instead of presenting the facts in a more becoming light . . . he merely appealed to their animal fears and emphasized the danger to their own skins . . . everything had to be considered from the struggle for existence and there was no other principle” (The Possessed 548).

The gnostic politics of The Possessed become boldly pronounced at a society meeting assembled under the pretext of celebrating a member’s birthday. Shigalyov, the intellectual of the group, unveils his solution for social organization. The “flat” and background characters are crucial in this scene. They have just spent an undue stretch of time trying to vote on what topic the meeting should be devoted to, when Shigalyov introduces his “own system of the world organization so as to make any further thinking unnecessary” (404). From ancient times to the present, he says, all the inventors of social systems have been “dreamers, storytellers, fools who contradicted themselves and had no idea of natural science or that strange animal called man. Plato, Rousseau, Fourier, aluminum pillars, all that is only good for sparrows, and not for human society” (404). We might very well include Stepan Verkhovensky in his litany of political storytellers. He goes on to declare that his conclusion stands in direct contradistinction to the idea with which he began: “Starting from unlimited freedom, I arrived at an unlimited despotism” (404).

The schoolteacher, who has read the whole book, summarizes the plan: Shigalyov’s final solution is that humanity be divided into two unequal parts. The first one-tenth will be given absolute freedom, and the latter nine-tenths will live deprived of their will, until “by their boundless obedience [they] will by a series of regenerations attain a state of primeval innocence, something like the original paradise” (405). In insisting that his system will “make any further thinking [on social organization] unnecessary,” and in believing that this system will dialectically bring about a “state of primeval innocence, something like the original paradise” Shigalyov places himself firmly in the modern gnostic milieu. Concepts and visions originally theological in nature crop up in his secular political system.

When the revolutionary leader Peter Verkhovensky calls such a system “rot,” the schoolteacher defends Shigalyov as a fanatic lover of mankind, claims that other thinkers such as Proudhon have proposed far more despotic systems, and that Mr. Shigalyov is therefore “much nearer to realism than anyone, and his earthly paradise is almost the real one, the same one, for the loss of which mankind is sighing, if it ever existed” (406). Unintentionally, the schoolteacher admits that realism obliges political planners take into consideration the religious longings of humankind.

Importantly, even though the scene witnesses the inner-circle of the revolutionary society, we are never given precise gnosis, knowledge, of Shigalyov’s system. We the readers, like others in attendance at the “birthday party,” are left outside the modern gnostic sect. We are told that the conclusions are “indisputable,” but the secret knowledge seems to be the privy of the great gnostic intellectual. When Peter Verkhovensky calls this Shigalyov business “an aesthetic past-time . . . like novels of which you can write a hundred thousand,” he provokes the schoolteacher into openly supporting the overarching mission of “bringing about general destruction on the pretext that however much you tried to cure the world, you would never succeed in curing it, while by adopting the radical measure of chopping off one hundred million heads we should ease our burden and be able to jump over the ditch with much less trouble” (407). In the dramatic logic of The Possessed, speculative modern gnosticism provokes what seems at first to be a nihilistic recourse to violence, but it nonetheless contains the marks of an activist mysticism. Chopping off heads will “ease our burden.” But will it bring about a reorganization of the social order, one in which salvation from the “evil,” uncured world is possible?

Proponents of the “hundred-million heads” theory find themselves first backed up against the wall, and here Verkhovensky encourages those who are too timid to espouse violence to emigrate to the Pacific aisles—a sort of utopia which corresponds with their dreaminess. He is not worried, because the number of people devoted to the “common cause” grows daily: “For what is happening here, my dear sir, is that a new religion is taking the place of the old one, and that is why we are getting so many new fighters and it is such a big thing” (408). Verkhovensky at last reaches the point, bringing the scene’s background into the foreground. For, determined to test the gathering’s frame of mind, he asks:

“. . . which you prefer: the slow way consisting of the composition of social novels and the dry, unimaginative planning of the destinies of mankind a thousand years hence, while despotism swallows the morsels of roast meat which would fly into your mouths of themselves, but which you fail to catch; or are you in favor of a quick solution . . . They shout: a hundred million heads; well, that may be only a metaphor, but why be afraid of it with the slow paper-day dreams when despotism will in a hundred or so years devour not a hundred but five hundred million heads” (409).

Peter says that to chatter eloquently and liberally is a pleasant past time, but a vote is in order. We soon witness the majority of voices crying out that, “All, all,” are in favor of the quick solution, even the most “humanitarian,” whom Verkhovensky turns to and mockingly says, “He’s ready to argue for six months to show off his liberal eloquence, but he ends up by voting with the rest!” (410). Voegelin reminds us that, “historically, the murder of God is not followed by the superman, but by the murder of man: the deicide of the gnostic theoreticians [Stepan Verkhovensky, for instance] is followed by the homicide of the revolutionary practitioners” (Voegelin 43). Peter certainly steps forth as the revolutionary leader of the group, but does he himself have a prescription for a new order? Is he a modern gnostic who displays a “readiness to come forward as a prophet who will proclaim his knowledge about the salvation of mankind” (Voegelin 60)?

After using this approval as a pretext to sanction a planned political murder, Peter exists the party along with Stavrogin. The two leaders discuss large-scale social organization further, and Verkhoveksy says that the Shigalyov order is something too “exquisite,” that its author is an “aesthete,” that they want something more “immediate, something more thrilling” (419). We see here the growing chasm between the mild speculative gnosticism of his father Stepan, and his own activist mysticism. Charged with a prophetic furor, he proposes several stages: first, destruction, upheaval, “such a to-do as the world has never seen . . . The earth will weep for its old gods” and then they will let loose “Ivan the Crown-prince,” a fictional name for Stavrogin, who, like Peter, belongs to the revolutionary sect (422). The Crown-prince, Peter says, will be “in hiding,” and they will spread a legend about him, a legend that “a new force is coming . . . After all, what does socialism amount to? It has destroyed the old forces, but hasn’t put any new ones in their place. But here we have a force, a tremendous force, something unheard of. We need only to lift up the earth. Everything will rise up” (423).

Ironically, Peter himself composes a legend, signaling the necessity of myths for gnostic politics, speculative or activist. Ivan will serve as a messianic leader. Everyone will hear that he is in hiding, and then suddenly that “We’ve seen him!” that “the leader of the flagellants, Ivan…has been seen, too, ascending into heaven on a chariot in the presence of a multitude of people” (423). Ivan, “proud as a god,” is hiding with the “halo of the victim around [his] head,” and he is “bearing a new truth” (423). At this pinnacle, then, “the whole earth will resound with the cry, ‘A new and righteous law is coming,’ and the sea will be in a turmoil and the whole trumpery show will crash to the ground, and then we shall consider how to erect an edifice of stone. For the first time; We shall build it, we alone” (423).

The persistence of the religious in this passage is remarkable, and Verkhovensky reveals himself as an activist mystic par excellence. Dissatisfied with his situation, with the slow reforms of socialism, he clings to a “tremendous force, something unheard of,” something that will lift up the very earth. No one but the gnostics have heard of this force that will lift the world into salvation, and so they must compose a legend as an exoteric measure, to persuade the multitudes. The legend emphasizes that Ivan the Crown-prince is incarnate. He has been seen, like Elijah, ascending into heaven, but is on earth— though he is in hiding. In this way, the gnostic promises that the immanentization of the visio beatifica has begun, even if it has not unfolded dialectically within history: the “new law” is imminent, and will be immanent. Stavrogin, whom Peter hopes will assume the persona of “Ivan the Crown-prince,” calls it “madness” (424). Verkhovenskty is extremely dejected, for Stavrogin has been the model for his entire religio-political fiction. Devastated, Peter cries out “I can’t give you up now. There’s no one like you in the whole world! I invented you . . . I invented it all while looking at you” (424).

Stavrogin’s legend cannot be explained as entirely motivated by the will to power, for the thinker experiences not dominion over being but, “a fantasy satisfaction” (73). In the end, even this fantasy satisfaction is stripped. Gregor Sebba argues that, for Voegelin, modern gnosticism is “everything that reflects a truncation of reality.” Hobbes truncates the summum bonum, and More’s Utopia truncates superbia. On the one hand, as argued above, Peter Verkhovensky follows Hobbes in that he removes the summum bonum from his political philosophy and, “Instead of presenting the facts in a more becoming light . . . he merely appealed to their animal fears and emphasized the danger to their own skins,” justifying everything based on the principle of the struggle for existence” (The Possessed 548).

However, though he experiences the will-to-power, the will to self-mastery in his own assertions over the revolutionary circle and, in his legend, over the multitudes, when he imagines others he truncates this same will-to-power, or at the very least he underestimates it. While Shigalyov’s system uses violent reforms to quell and regulate the will-to-power, Peter has contrived for himself a fictional world wherein the will-to-power in others is subservient to his own will-to-power. He has modeled his whole fiction on Stavrogin, but has forgotten that Stavrogin is a human being over whom he does not have dominion. On the last page of The Possessed, Stavrogin asserts once and for all his own grotesque mastery over himself. Stavrogin, whom Verkhovensky dreamed as Ivan the Crown-prince, the pseudo Elijah blended with Nietzschean superman who would lead humankind as they built a paradise for the first time alone, hangs alone, in an attic, from a silk cord “thickly smeared with soap” (669). The Possessed reveals that above all else, Verkhovensky, in his legend and in his life, suppressed and truncated the problem of evil in his legend. For he dreams a paradisio without an inferno. In order to avoid falling into the same problem in our analysis, we must move beyond Voegelin to handle the directly mystical: not the activist mysticism of the modern gnostic, but the actual mystical underpinnings of Dostoevsky’s novel.


In order to discern the broader meaning of Stavrogin’s suicide, we will focus on some of the explicitly theological dimensions of The Possessed. Ironically, the chapter that openly contains theological content was left out of the original publication. The Russian Messenger suppressed a chapter entitled, “Stavrogin’s Confession.”[4] Importantly, the chapter was to immediately follow “Ivan the Crown-prince,” the chapter in which Verkhovensky reveals his religio-political fiction. Stavrogin, perhaps spurred by Peter’s madness, hurries to a monastery to meet with the somewhat famous, notoriously eccentric Bishop Tikhon. There he admits that he “was subject, especially at night, to some kind of hallucinations, that he sometimes heard or felt beside him the presence of some kind of malignant creature, mocking and ‘rational’” (676).

Tikhon first encourages him to see a doctor, and Stavrogin rebounds with an assurance that, “I shall go and see a doctor. It’s all nonsense, utter nonsense. It’s myself, different aspects of myself . . . You don’t think, do you, that because I’ve just added that—er—phrase I’m still doubtful and not sure that it’s me and not in fact the devil” (677)? We can readily read Stavrogin’s consent to Marx’s argument that, “Man makes religion; religion does not make man” (qtd. in Voegelin 44). Remember that for Marx man sought a “superman in the imaginary reality of heaven and found only a reflection of himself” (44). Stavrogin’s statement helps us to see that Marx’s analysis of religio, which finds in religion a projection of man’s best attributes, fails to take into consideration the fact that, should man find only in himself all that he projects onto the divine, he will also find in himself a “malignant creature, mocking and rational”—devils or Demons, an alternate title to Dostoevsky’s novel. Tikhon asks if he really sees some kind of image, and the latter says that yes, of course he sees an image, but it is a phantasm. With a laugh, Stavrogin asks Tikhon, whether one “can believe in the devil without believing in God” but the bishop says that yes, he comes across this, this gnostic disposition, everywhere (679). Stavrogin asks whether the bishop finds “such a belief more acceptable than complete disbelief,” and the latter says that “On the contrary . . . complete atheism is much more acceptable . . . ” and he asks whether Stavrogin has read the biblical Apocalypse (679). He recites it, in turn, from memory:

“These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Revelation 3:14-17).

Stavrogin unexpectedly interrupts him with an “Enough!” and says, “I love you,” to which Tikhon says, “I love you too” in a low voice (679). This strange, moving, and haunting exchange seems to prompt Stavrogin to hand the bishop a written confession of “a life of dissipation in which I found no pleasure,” even as we learn that, “every extraordinarily disgraceful, infinitely humiliating, vile and, above all, ridiculous situation in which I happened to find myself in my life,” aroused in him not only anger but “a feeling of intense pleasure” (682). Particularly, he confesses that he raped his landlady Matryosha’s daughter, and that near the end of the rape, “a most strange thing happened, something I shall never forget, something that quite amazed me: the little girl flung her arms round my neck and all of a sudden began to kiss me frenziedly” with a face filled with rapture (687). After several delirious nights, during which the girl repeats the phrase, “I killed God,” she encounters Stavrogin again and “suddenly she raised her tiny fist and began shaking it at me from where she stood” (690).

This act of despair first seems to effect Stavrogin, but then he finds himself cheerful, and not depressed, at which point he “formulated for the first time in my life what appeared to be the rule of my life, that I neither know nor feel good nor evil and that I have not only lost any sense of it, but that there is neither good nor evil (which pleased me) and that it is just prejudice: that I can be free from any prejudice, but that once I attain that degree of freedom I am done for” (692). The girl he rapes commits suicide.

Stavrogin’s story contains uncanny similarities to Nietzsche’s “The Madman” parable, even as it does not perfectly match it. After he rapes the girl she most disturbingly cries out, “I killed God” repeatedly. She seems to take upon herself the experiences of guilt and shame, consequences of a sense of good and evil, that Stavrogin lacks. In Nietzsche’s parable, the madman runs into the marketplace seeking God, only to be mocked and laughed at, for “God is dead! God will stay dead!” (Gay Science 95-96).  God has bled to death under man’s knives, and there is no consolation for the “murderers of all murderers” (96). The men of the parable ask themselves, “Must we not ourselves become gods just to seem worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us will, because of this act, belong to a higher history than all previous history” (96). Although it is the girl, and not Stavrogin, who cries, “I killed God,” Stavrogin’s response to the deed echoes the men of the marketplace. He says that, for the first time in his life, after he rapes the girl, he formulated the fact that, “I neither know nor feel good nor evil and that I have not only lost any sense of it, but that there is neither good nor evil (which pleased me) and that it is just prejudice,” and that, having attained that degree of freedom, he is done for. Having killed God, he (soon enough) kills himself. We are here brought back to Genesis, to paradise, but then taken beyond it. When the serpent tempts Eve, he says that “the moment you eat [of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is evil” (Genesis 3:5).

Stavrogin fashions himself beyond good and evil, like a god who is sovereign over more than subject to valuations of good and evil; from this god’s precipice he even considers “good” and “evil” arbitrary designations—but he is overwhelmed by this degree of freedom. He leaves the Bishop Tikhon, who has warned him against the impending nihilistic violence of which he has a presentiment. “You damned psychologist,” Stavrogin exclaims, cutting the Bishop short and, in a rage, leaves the room without looking back. As Kurt Reinhardt notes, Stavrogin’s “psychological knowledge and sophistication are so far advanced that no argument can prevail nay longer”; theological implications of his disintegration are dismissed as prejudices and, unable to become a gnostic god, he dies a man, on a soap-lathered noose of his own premeditated making (Reinhardt 73).

It is left to Kirilov, the ex-revolutionary-turned-contemplative, to overcome suicide like a god, to assume godlike freedom, maintain sovereignty, and usher in salvation. Kirilov reads Revelation, and responds to Christ, as though his “theology” is a hybrid of ancient and modern gnosticism. He preaches an “everlasting life here [on earth]. There are moments, you reach moments, and time comes to a sudden stop and it will become eternal” (242). In his conversation with Stavrogin, the latter interjects that, in the book of Revelation, “the angel swears that there will be no more time,” and Kirilov assures him that, “That’s very true. Clear and precise. When all mankind achieves happiness, there will be no more time, for there won’t be any need for it” (243). He is certain that real freedom will come only when life and death do not matter. This is his final goal: “One day there will be free proud men to whom it will make no difference whether they live or not. That’ll be the new man. He who conquers pain and fear will be a god himself. And the other God will disappear” (245). Kirilov is fascinated with Christ. He speaks of him frequently, but he wishes to commit a transvaluation of the crucified God-man:

“He who succeeds in teaching men that they are all good will end the world.”

“He who tried to teach that was crucified.”

“He’ll come and his name is man-god.”


“No, man-god—that’s the crucial difference.” (244).

Kirilov believes that man invented God so as to avoid killing himself (Possessed 613). Therefore, the attribute of Kirilov’s divinity is his “Self-will.” As Reinhardt explains, “the profoundest metaphysical attribute of the Deity is aseitas, that is, total self-sufficiency of being. And it is this attribute which Kirilov, the atheist, must manifest in himself” if he is to complete his own strand of modern gnosticism (Reinhardt 56).  He feels that he himself is only a god against his will, and it is only be proclaiming his self-will that he will save the world: “I shall begin and end, and open the door. And I shall save. Only [his suicide] will save mankind and transform it physically in the next generation” (615).

Kirilov’s suicide has more than this metaphysical meaning. He has agreed to Peter Verkovensky’s suggestion that he author a note taking full responsibility for the group’s revolutionary activities and then commit suicide, striving thereby to absolve the revolutionaries of their sins. Girard observes that, “Kirilov is dying for others as much as for himself. In wanting his own death and only that, Kirilov is engaging in a duel with God which he hopes will be decisive. He wants to show the Almighty that his best weapon, the dread of death, has lost its power” (Deceit, Desire, 276). Kirilov, “obsessed with Christ…is imitating the redemption” (277). In Girard’s reading, Kirilov has decided that all evil comes from the desire for immortality that Christ foolishly sparked in us. It is this desire, never satisfied, that puts human existence in disequilibrium and produces the underground of human subconsciousness. In a manifestation of modern gnosticism that tries to truncate rather than incarnate man’s inherent limitedness, Kirilov desires to destroy this desire with one blow via philosophical suicide. He kills himself not in despair of not being immortal, but in order to own the limitlessness of freedom within the total acceptance of finitude. 

At this point in the narrative Stepan emerges as an unexpected a counterpoint to Kirilov and his modern gnostic companions. Although we already witnessed marked distinctions between Stepan’s aesthetic gnosticism and the revolutionary’s activist mysticism, we now witness a cold break. Amid the frenzied end of the novel, as the revolutionaries’ aims are dismembered or disturbingly fulfilled, Stepan exiles himself to escape his surroundings. He hitchhikes a ride from strangers and stops at a hut along the way. There he meets Sofya Mateevna, a Bible-peddler. Although Stepan first offers to pay for her Ferry ride along with him, he falls ill and she remains with him, both because he is insistent and because she cannot bear to leave a man apparently on the threshold of death. She, like Bishop Tikhon, reads the following words:

“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Revelation 3:14-17).

As in the case of Stavrogin, Stepan’s encounter with the words of Revelation forces a level of frankness concerning his spiritual condition which he has thus far avoided. “I never knew that great place!” he proclaims, rising from bed. “Do you hear: sooner cold, sooner cold than lukewarm, than only lukewarm. Oh, I’ll prove to them,” he continues, galvanized into an examination of conscience as his days wane.

Stepan begins to experience each minute as beatitude, as profoundly blessed, and yet he acknowledges that, though each man should experience each minute as such, it is not so. Just before he passes from this world, he notes his one constant thought to be that there exists something immeasurably more just and happy than I, which fills the whole of me with immeasurable tenderness and—glory—oh, whoever I am, whatever I do! Far more than his own happiness, it is necessary for a man to know and believe every moment that there is somewhere a perfect and peaceful happiness, for everyone and for everything . . . The whole law of human existence consists in nothing other than a man’s always being able to bow before the immeasurably great. If people are deprived of the immeasurably great, they will not live and will die in despair. The immeasurable and infinite is always necessary for man as the small planet he inhabits. My friends, all of you: long live the Great Thought! The eternal, immeasurable Thought! For every man, whoever he is, it is necessary to bow before that which is the Great Thought” (664). Girard argues that Dostoevsky’s theological anxieties become strikingly manifest in The Possessed, and that the novel gains profundity because Dostoevsky does not combat either nihilism or what we have called modern gnosticism by fleeing from it, but by giving it full narrative expression. The novel does not read like a morality tale, even if it portrays suicides as either “consequences” or logical completions of nihilistic philosophies.

We can see that the novel also gives narrative expression to a conversion toward goodness, even as it embodies and countenances formidable—and sometimes freakish—forces arraigned against that goodness. In Stepan’s apologia on behalf of man’s need for something immeasurable and great serves as a counterpoint to Kirilov’s attempt to conquer finitude by embracing it in the absence of anything infinite, we feel the impoverishment of one “good man” converting those who embrace inversions of Christ are varied and many. And yet, this unevenness is felt in part because the novel itself trains our focus so tirelessly upon intense the intense veil of modern gnosticism upon which the revolutionaries’ shadows play.

But with the apocalypse of beatitude that shows forth in Stepan, Dostoevsky pierces the veil that covers the world of the novel, piercing also the gnostic veil that so many have stretched across the modern world itself. For the force of Stepan’s conversion comes when we recognize the rest that comes when we recognize and reconcile ourselves to reality as constituted. Stepan’s realism is compelling in that it avoids the immanentization and truncation of the eschaton and redirects our faith toward the visio beatifica in all of its other-worldly greatness. And the reality that the book of the Apocalypse reveals to him has its source not in some secret sect, but in the religion that opens salvation to all—philosophers and children alike; it is an ever ancient, ever new faith attended by a childlike philosophy that simultaneously knows that people will despair if they are “deprived of the immeasurably great,” and yet, though desirous to have that greatness now, sees the wisdom in submitting to those Immeasurable, all-measuring scales of Good and Evil, by which God will unveil what is truly good, and what is truly evil.



Bible. New York; Catholic Book Publishing, 1992.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York; Vintage Classics, 1991.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Devils: The Possessed. Trans. David Magarshack. New York; Penguin, 1971.

Girard, René. Deceit, Desire & the Novel:  Self and Other in Literary Structure. Baltimore; Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965.

Hamerton-Kelly, Robert.  Politics & Apocalypse. East Lansing; Michigan State University Press, 2007.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. New York; Penguin Books, 1985.

Livingston, James C.  Anatomy of the Sacred: An Introduction to Religion, 6th ed. New Jersey, Pearson             Education, Inc., 2009.

More, Thomas. Utopia: Norton Critical Edition. New York; W.W. Norton and Co., 1975.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Trans. Walter Kaufman. New York; The Modern Library, 1968.

O’ Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.

Reinhardt, Kurt. F. The Theological Novel of Modern Europe. New York; Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1969.

Sandoz, Ellis. Political Apocalypse: A Study of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, 2nd ed. Wilmington; ISI Books, 2000.

Voegelin, Eric. Science, Politics and Gnosticism. Washington, D.C.; Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1968.



[1] The Mandean Gnostics of late antiquity lived along the rivers of southern Iraq and Iran (Livingston 244).

[2] Alasdair MacIntyre traces the Marxist movement from valorization of the proletariat toward the necessity of an intellectual elite when he notes that, had Marx developed the implicit Aristotelianism of his early concept of working-class practice he might have recognised the limitations of this practice, and, thus, the utopian nature of his own political optimism. MacIntyre suggests that it was Lenin who most cogently recognised the limitations of proletarian practice, and it was this that led him to argue that workers could not create socialism under their own impetus and must therefore be led by bourgeois intellectuals: “What resulted”, MacIntyre notes, “scarcely needs comment” (MacIntyre 1985b, 247).

[3] Although modern political mass movements have often been called “neopagan,” and this reference to Olympus perpetuates this characterization, Voegelin considers such to be misleading “because it sacrifices the historically unique nature of modern movements to a superficial resemblance. Modern re-divinization has its origins rather in Christianity itself, deriving from components that were suppressed as heretical by the universal church” (New Science 107).

[4]  It was discovered in 1921 among the papers left by Dostoevsky’s wife (671).


Also seeDostoevsky’s Heroines; Or, On the Compassion of Russian Women,” “The Politics and Experience of Active Love in The Brothers Karamazov,” “This Star Will Shine Forth from the the East: Dostoevsky and the Politics of Humility,” Dostoevsky’s Discovery of the Christian Foundation of Politics,” and “Psychologists of Evil: Nietzsche and Dostoevsky on the Darkness of the Soul.”

Joshua Hren

Joshua Hren is an Assistant Professor at Belmont Abbey College, editor of Dappled Things, and editor-in-chief of Wiseblood Books. Joshua has published academic articles in such journals as Logos and First Things. He is author of This Our Exile (Angelico Press, 2017) and Middle-earth and the Return of the Common Good: Tolkien and Political Philosophy (forthcoming).

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