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Dostoevsky’s Discovery of the Christian Foundation of Politics

The neglect of Fyodor Dostoevsky as a political theorist can be explained in part by his choice of imaginative literature rather than discursive argument as his primary mode of communication.1 Add to this the impression so readily accepted by many of his readers that the novelist remained an inconclusive searcher to the end of his life, and there seems to be little incentive for students of political thought to explore further. But by far the greatest obstacle to the acknowledgement of his achievement is the radically unfamiliar character of his theory of politics.

In an age of unquestioned acceptance of autonomous secular reason as the starting point for all discussion of man, society and history, Dostoevsky had the audacity to reject the reigning assumption out of hand. In its place he maintained that the point of departure for any study of human nature must be Christ, for no personal or political order can be sustained unless it is rooted in a universal, self-sacrificing love. He insisted that the moral regeneration of society could never be achieved without a rediscovery of the transcendent spiritual order from which all reality is ultimately derived. As a consequence, he elaborated the essential elements of a Christian philosophy of politics, and did it outside the context of any confessional apologetics. Therein lies the challenge of his work for contemporary political theory.

Dostoevsky’s political vision is the exemplary modern statement of the necessity for Christianity as the foundation of politics, and it is so precisely because Dostoevsky’s open exploration of reality followed the logic of experience rather than specific dogmatic preconceptions. It was his own confrontation with the chaos of the modern world that convinced him of the truth of Christ as both the source and criterion of order in human existence. The arguments were not resolved intellectually but were painfully worked out in the harsh reality of life. “My hosanna has passed through a great furnace of doubts.”2 Beginning as a utopian socialist, he had embraced atheistic communism and was on his way to becoming a Nechayev-like terrorist when he was arrested, imprisoned and eventually encountered the reality of human nature and the redemptive image of Christ still living within the Russian people.3

His searching plumbed the depths of modern nihilism at least as profoundly as Nietzsche, but where Nietzsche sought to overcome it through the resources of his own will, Dostoevsky discovered the infinite love of God as the grace that saves man from the abyss.4 Their analyses are parallel so far as the critique of the modern ideological movement goes; each regards the schemes of the world-immanent salvation as only thinly veiled disguises for the imposition of universal slavery. But in place of Nietzsche’s determined acceptance of the will to power as the means of preserving human freedom, Dostoevsky insisted on mutual forgiveness as the way to fully respect the uniqueness and freedom of every individual. The answer to the lust for power is not its expansion, but the self-sacrificing love of Christ that dissolves the superbia vitae at its root. Deeper than the level of argument is the witness of living truth that Dostoevsky discovered during his imprisonment, where he met the ordinary Russian people and found that a heart-knowledge of Christ, a true conception of Him, does fully exist. It is being passed from generation to generation, and it has merged with the heart of the Russian people. Perhaps, Christ is the only love of the Russian people, and they love His image in their own way, to the limit of sufferance.5

The communication of this insight as the only means of restoring the human image (obrazil) in man became the central preoccupation of Dostoevsky’s work (DW 183). He accepted from the start an ineluctable condition that the constitutive spiritual truth of man’s existence could not be conveyed directly. It could only be communicated through an evocative reactualization of the movements of the soul by which its order is apprehended; there is no meaning of life that can be possessed apart from the concrete participation in its truth. Even the distorting ideas of modern liberalism and socialism, Dostoevsky realized, cannot be refuted by logic for they do not arise strictly from reason. They can only be answered “by faith, by the deduction of the necessity of faith in the immortality of man’s soul; by the inference of the conviction that this faith is the only source of ‘living life,’” which, once “you have beheld it you know that it is the Truth and that there can be no other” (DW 678), must be portrayed within the struggle to achieve it and never simply dispensed as the end result of a process. Such was the problem of Dostoevsky’s art. It was not that the author could not make up his mind as to how his characters should develop, but that he intended to introduce us to the inner existential conflict in which the decision of life and death was being made. Dostoevsky’s genius is in depicting the moment of wholly free choice where the fate of a personality is about to be determined. This is why the outcome remains uncertain for so long and why the author’s own position cannot intrude while he heightens the dramatic tension of the moment.6 Indeed it is in the tendency for the writer himself to disappear, allowing his own views to be “pinned to the wall,” that “the whole trick” of Dostoevsky’s art consists.7

The truth of a Christian philosophy of existence is shown rather than described or professed in his work. It speaks directly to the fundamental need of the modern world for a regeneration of the spirit, to find again the power of transcendent love that can lead us away from destruction and toward life. For Dostoevsky presupposes nothing. He takes men as they are and leads them through the desolation of revolt, self-assertiveness and pride to recognize that reality of an order of beauty, forgiveness and love that is true because it is the ultimate order of the universe. The characters of his “novel-tragedies” undergo the most ancient law of the cosmos: wisdom through suffering. They bring to light the consequences of their respective responses to the human condition and thereby reveal the transcendent order of existence that ultimately governs all men whether they will it or not. Ideas are tested within the concreteness of “living life.” The truth or falsity of existence is apprehended directly, as individual moral dramas disclose their meaning as part of the larger struggle between good and evil within society and reality as a whole. In this way Dostoevsky succeeded in demonstrating the existential truth of Christianity and in making it the foundation for modern political philosophy.

His secret, as we will attempt to show, was in penetrating the spiritual crisis of our civilization to the point where the revelation of Christ was the only possible response. We will follow first his analysis of human nature as it is revealed by the paradigm of Christ, and then his application of this insight into the problems of social and political order in history. The necessity for a Christ-like love in individual existence is the principle that alone can supply, in Dostoevsky’s view, what is missing in the modern revolutionary movement.

In Dostoevsky’s novels there are very few passages that provide lyrical descriptions of the beauty of nature. His tales are almost exclusively focused on the inner struggle within the souls of his characters, and accounts of the physical surroundings are strictly subordinated to the action of this human drama. The theme that absorbed his interest from the very start was man in his tragic duality, the innermost center of the person where the forces of good and evil are engaged in a mysterious battle leading either to death or life. Dostoevsky recognized his vocation when he was only eighteen. In a letter to his brother, Dostoevsky wrote with newfound confidence that he wants to “study the meaning of man and of life.”8 This preoccupation with human nature was what made Dostoevsky into a consummate psychologist of the human soul, deftly exposing its minute twists and turns and the hidden recesses unsuspected even by the individual himself. Yet he was always more than a psychologist and rejected that label because he never regarded psychological analysis as an end in itself. It was only the means of probing the spiritual forces that reach into man and struggle for resolution in the anima animi of human freedom. The study of man, if it is a fully open exploration, must unfold into a study of the order of reality with its transcendent foundation. Through his anthropological inquiry Dostoevsky became a metaphysician in the classical sense.9

It is the essence of man’s nature that he cannot be bound by any finite categories. His nature is not something fixed and given, but an openness or mystery in which the form it is to take is not predetermined. The outcome is decided by the choice of directional pull to which man responds—the immortalizing height or the moralizing depth—to use the language of the classic philosophers to whom Dostoevsky is so close. He places in the mouth of Dmitri Karamazov, the man who represents the regenerative force of the earth, his description of this tensional or between status of human existence:

“I can’t endure the thought that a man of lofty mind and heart begins with the ideal of the Madonna and ends with the ideal of Sodom. What’s still more awful is that a man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not renounce the ideal of the Madonna, and his heart may be on fire with that ideal, genuinely on fire, just as in the days of youth and innocence. Yes, man is broad, too broad, indeed. I’d have him narrower”.10

But it is the fate of humankind not to be allowed to rest within those narrower limits, for each is called to play his or her part in that drama of free response where the contest between good and evil in existence is decided. The fall and redemption of individual man becomes transparent in the social process and the cosmic whole in which it finds its place. “God and the devil are fighting there,” concludes Dmitri Karamazov, “and the battlefield is the heart of man” (BK 127).

This inexorable tension of existence Dostoevsky elaborated in terms of the tragic duality of human nature. He considered his artistic device of the double to be one of his most original contributions to the exploration of these problems. Throughout Dostoevsky’s writings we find a constant concern with the bifurcation of human consciousness, which is capable of such utter self-renunciation that it can virtually lose itself in love of another, or of such utter self-absorption that it can only be satisfied by attaining total tyrannical control over another. The unending struggle between these different selves was what Dostoevsky referred to as “my usual substance.” Indeed it absorbed his attention to the point of becoming the principal structural device for the organization of his great novels.

“The hero’s personality,” Mochulsky explains, “appears as the axis of the composition.”11 This is particularly clear in The Possessed where the principle of centralization has reached its limit, for everything revolves around the enigmatic figure of Stavrogin. As Dostoevsky observes, “the Prince is everything.”12 The other characters retain their own independent centers of consciousness, but are held together within the most comprehensive drama of the hero’s self-revelation and his fate. All of the action is centered on the enigma of the personality resolving itself in the moment of critical free decision.

It is at that point that freedom itself is discovered to be the problem. Nothing predetermines the choices a man will make, and even the principle by which they will be decided must be discovered within the process. Dostoevsky’s characters are like many of the participants within the Platonic dialogues, souls who are confronted with the fundamental choice of a pattern of life with its fate and are desperately in search of that guiding knowledge by which the decision can be made rightly. Superfluous discussion and casual exchanges are brushed aside in order to concentrate on the heart of the matter: testing the ideas by which men live in order to discover their truth and falsity. Ivan Karamazov describes the situation exactly when he asks what brothers who have not met before and will not meet again talk about in these exchanges in the tavern.

Of the eternal questions, of the existence of God and of immortality. And those who do not believe in God talk of socialism and anarchism, of the transformation of all humanity on a new pattern, so that it all comes to the same, they’re the same questions turned inside out. (BK 275) Dostoevsky’s heroes are individuals who by and large have not finally answered these questions. Their fate has not yet been determined. In the interim of struggle and indecision they explore the moral alternative that beckon them, thereby unfolding the experiential logic of responding to the pull of one or the other direction.

At one extreme stands the possibility of the closed self. This is the “underground man,” most elaborately developed in Notes from the Underground, but a fundamental type in all the later novels because Dostoevsky regarded this as the characteristic individual of the modern world. It is the type of all who are cut off from the world of common humanity, all who are detached from their own language, their own soil, their own people, their own history. They are the Russian intelligentsia and nobility of the nineteenth century who had nothing of value to do in their own society and looked slavishly to European liberalism to define their meaning and purpose. Within the kind of “haphazard household” they set up when everything that could give their lives significance had fallen away, they—and especially their afflicted children—were ultimately thrown back on the resources of the self to create a world in which to live. Now the ideal became self-sufficiency and independence. The highest good was to insulate oneself from the outside world so as to experience one’s own limitless freedom. They sought, in a word, the sense of superiority to all.13 European liberalism with its deism, its faith in reason and science, its trust in the natural goodness of human nature, and its boundless confidence in the ability of progress to bring about the perfection of man and society, had been the starting point. The self-defensive cynicism of the underground man was its inevitable consequence, once the brittleness of such rational expectations stood revealed in the confrontation with reality.

Yet the search for refuge within one’s shell was not the final stage in this psychological progression. The collapse of rational humanism could just as easily develop into the demonically self-assertive force of the strong personality. This type, which Dostoevsky encountered in prison, began to appear in his stories after that time.14 Like the underground man, the titanic personality is also in revolt against the confinement of the human spirit within rational limits—a cage remains a cage even if it is a crystal palace—but the thirst for freedom within such individuals can only be assuaged by reducing all others to the status of the ant-hill. Dostoevsky’s favorite image for this temptation is the spider awaiting its victim. It is a possibility that is never so close as when it is stirred by love of the dependency of another on oneself. The hollowness of liberal humanitarianism is seen to be motivated at its most fundamental level by the will to power.

This is the dynamic that was explored in the first of Dostoevsky’s great novel-tragedies, Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov begins as a utilitarian dreamer, contemplating the murder of the old pawnbroker as a means of benefiting others, but proceeds to assert his own absolute prerogative as a Napoleonic individual beyond good and evil. After that, it is only a question of whether he will have the strength of will to demonstrate the claim, whether he will be able to remain superior to the vicissitudes and appeals offered to him by life. This logic of experience unfolds inexorably from humanitarianism to murder. For Raskolnikov has already committed the crime in his heart when he allows himself to fantasize freely about it. He had separated himself from the bonds of mutual obligation that form a community of human beings, with the result that there was no longer anything to restrain him from carrying out his benevolent impulse through murder.

Once he had stepped outside of the recognition of the transcendent worth of each individual, nothing stood in the way of a descent into the destructive abyss of nihilism. Without the acknowledgement of every person as an absolute end in himself or herself, no other value is worth having. The existence of individuals whose importance extends beyond life itself is the sine qua non for obtaining all other benefits. Any other love of mankind that, for example, sees us all eventually “reduced to zero,” is only too easily transformed into hatred for men. “I assert,” Dostoevsky concluded, “that love of mankind is unthinkable, unintelligible and altogether impossible without the accompanying faith in the immortality of man’s soul” (DW 540).15

The impression of having reached a hitherto unknown freedom by discarding this ultimate spiritual order and becoming a law unto oneself is sheer illusion. Dostoevsky’s analysis of the empty freedom of the closed self heightens the classical understanding of the tyrant as the least powerful individual in the state. He meticulously explores the emerging realization of futility within the strong individual’s self-consciousness. Stavrogin’s confession is in part motivated by his awareness of the abyss he is approaching:

“It wasn’t simply that I had lost the feeling of good and evil, but that I felt there was no such thing as good and evil (I like that); that it was all a convention; that I could be free of convention; but that if I ever attained that freedom, I’d be lost.” (P 426)

Yet even in this admission of his sins Bishop Tikhon discerned the same spirit of unrepentant spiritual pride at work, only now more subtly and more dangerously. He appealed to Stavrogin to overcome his longing for martyrdom, for conflict, for a testing of his strength against the world. “You’ll conquer your pride and put your demon to flight. You’ll end up the winner and gain your freedom” (P 441). The demon of self-will, however, proved too strong for the “Russian Hamlet”; as Tikhon had warned, he plunged further into crime with no other purpose than to sense his own limitless strength. For the man who has finally closed himself off from the common spiritual truth of humanity there remains only one tormenting question, “What was I to apply my strength to?” Its absolute unanswerability eventually could only be expressed by the hero’s suicide.16

Ivan Karamazov is a personality subject to the same temptations. He too had set himself up as a superior to the universal moral order that has its source in God. In his case Dostoevsky explored the component of revolt within the nihilistic assertion that “everything is lawful,” for it is in the name of innocent suffering humanity that Ivan rejects the God whose injustice has been the cause of all this misery. Indeed there is probably no more profound expression in all modern literature of the revolt of man against God than the famous passage in which Ivan throws down the gauntlet of his “even if”:

“I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather be left with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong.” (BK 291)

He cannot accept such an unjust God, and by calling Him to account before his own “pitiful, earthly, Euclidean understanding,” Ivan proclaims his own greater ability to realize justice on earth. The starting point is his impassioned declamation, “I must have justice, or I will destroy myself” (BK 259), but the conclusion exposes its true origins in his willingness to destroy everyone else as well. Justice, when it assumes the task of a comprehensive reordering of reality, can no longer function as the principle of order within human existence. Particular actions come to be viewed, not as they are in themselves, but in relation to the one absolute goal of universal justice, its attainment, as it recedes more and more into the future, provides the rationalization for the multiplication of injustice and rapacity in the present. Missing is the recognition that no future state of justice can be realized by shortchanging justice in the present, that without the subordination to transcendent justice here and now we abandon all criteria to define our goal of justice in the future.

From the tortured logic of his rebellion against God, Ivan became chiefly responsible for instigating the murder of his father. The contradiction is exemplified most clearly in his own account of the Grand Inquisitor who claims to love humans with a love exceeding Christ’s, yet contemptuously tramples on their dignity as free spiritual beings in the name of providing for their happiness. He pictures men as not better than beasts who “crawl to us and lick our feet and spatter them with tears of blood,” eventually coming to “lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, ‘Make us your slaves, but feed us’” (BK 300).17

What saves Ivan from this extreme is the “frantic and perhaps unseemly thirst for life” that is the elemental force of the Karamazovs. Like all of Dostoevsky’s heroes who are saved (e.g., Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Versilov in The Adolescent), he loves life more than the meaning of it. His head may reject the injustice of God’s creation, but his heart is still capable of being moved by “the sticky little leaves as they open in spring” (BK 273). This is why he is torn between belief and disbelief, suffering from an “aching heart,” as the Elder Zosima diagnoses, unable to either accept or reject his own arguments against immortality and God.

Unlike the actual murderer, the illegitimate son Smerdyakov, Ivan cannot fully accept that “everything is lawful.” His love of “living life” pulls him back from the precipice as he is revolted by the demonic self-closure of Smerdyakov and finally overcomes his last double, the “paltry, trivial devil” who echoes back to him all his own ideas about the new god-man of the future. Ivan again becomes capable of acknowledging his connection with other men and of shouldering the common obligations that arise from it. He feels sympathy for the peasant he had knocked down and returns to help him, and he finally confesses before the court his guilt in inciting Smerdyakov to murder their father. In the struggle of his “aching heart,” Ivan had chosen life rather than death, once his proud self-determination had been dissolved by the truth of God entering his soul.18

Ivan Karamazov had discovered the “law of the planet”: wisdom through suffering. The scriptural passage that dominates this novel is John 12:24: Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die it bringeth forth much fruit. It forms not only the motto but the refrain to which each of the characters returns in recognizing the way to order in existence. Life cannot be obtained as a gift or without cost, rather man is required to accept the cross of self-renunciation to the point of death if the freedom of true love is to be reached within his soul.

Only then does the mysterious oneness of reality become transparent. We realize that we are all responsible for all, that the unseen bonds between us call us to forgive one another for everything and to ask one another forgiveness for everything, that we already possess paradise within if only we will open our eyes to see it. In other words, the regeneration through suffering that Dostoevsky underwent in his own life became the pivot around which the struggle of his characters unfolded. Each discovers in his own way that life can only be attained through death. On the day after his first wife’s death the author wrote in his notebook:

“Masha is lying on the table. Will I see Masha again? To love a person as one’s own self, as Christ commanded is impossible. On earth the law of personality binds us; the I stands in the way. . . . Christ was able, but Christ was eternal, from all ages the ideal toward which man strives and according to the law of nature must strive. After Christ’s appearance, it became clear that the highest development of personality must attain to that point where man annihilates his own ‘I,’ surrenders it completely to all and everyone without division or reserve. . . . And this is the greatest happiness. . . . This is Christ’s paradise.”19

Of all Dostoevsky’s heroes, only Prince Myshkin (The Idiot) is not subject to this law of the cosmos, and this is because he is not fully incarnated in existence. He is the static image of the “beautiful individual.” He exists as a glimpse of paradise but is incapable of showing us the way to it, and his love is eventually proved ineffectual in the contest with evil in existence. “On earth,” Dostoevsky explained, “there is only one positively beautiful person—Christ.”20 He is the still point around whom Dostoevsky’s art is constructed. The answer to the revolt of man who sets himself up in judgment over creation is the God who takes on himself the burden of suffering and evil in existence. The answer to the man who kills God in order to save mankind is the God who allows himself to be sacrificed for the redemption of all men. The answer to the man-god is the God-man.

This is the meaning of the confrontation that takes place in the famous “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” where the representative of imperial humanitarianism stands in judgment before the fullness of incarnate divine Love. No amount of explanation and rationalization can conceal the evil that lies at the heart of the Inquisitor’s scheme for universal salvation through the destruction of man’s humanity. The suffering, unspeaking Christ is the presence that powerfully dominates the encounter precisely because of the intensity of response he evokes in the other. His loving silence testifies more profoundly than words to the truth of God’s redemptive forgiveness that can overcome the evil perpetrated by man’s freedom. It reveals the transcendent love of Christ that alone calls man to the true inner freedom of God. So effective is the depiction that it has, not without justification, been considered an appropriate addition to the Christian cannon.

Never before in all world literature has Christianity been advanced with such striking force as the religion of spiritual freedom. The Christ of Dostoevsky is not only the Savior and Redeemer, but also the Sole Emancipator of man.21 It has rightly become the locus classicus for an  understanding of the political necessity of Christianity in the modern world, for it provides an iconographic image of the unconditioned divine love that is the ultimate foundation of human freedom. From the example of Christ, Dostoevsky received the principle of universal forgiveness that is the radiant center of order in human existence. His insistence that we are responsible for all and must forgive and be forgiven would be unthinkable without the reality of Christ in whom the perfect forgiveness and reconciliation of all men has already taken place.

At the heart of Dostoevsky’s thought is the conviction that there can be no love of man that does not finally lead us to Christ as the one truly adequate source. The unconditioned divine acceptance of each individual in his or her unique strengths and failings is the truth of Christ beyond which there can be no other, as Dostoevsky declared in his most famous confession to N. D. Fonvizana, the woman who had given him the copy of the gospels that had been his only reading in prison:

“I will tell you regarding myself that I am a child of the age, a child of nonbelief and doubt up till now and even (I know it) until my coffin closes. What terrible torments has this thirst to believe cost me and does still cost me, becoming the stronger in my soul, the more there is in me of contrary reasoning. And yet sometimes God sends me moments in which I am utterly at peace; in those moments I love and find that I am loved by others and in such moments I have constructed for myself a symbol of faith in which everything is clear and holy for me. The symbol is very simple; here it is: to believe that there is nothing more beautiful, profounder, more sympathetic, more reasonable, and more courageous and more perfect than Christ and not only that there is nothing, but I tell myself with jealous love that never could be there. Moreover, if someone were to prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, then I would prefer to remain with Christ than with the truth.”22

Those of Dostoevsky’s heroes who have not entirely closed themselves off to the truth of living life all eventually make the same connection, that the love of man is ultimately the presence of Christ among them. Even Versilov, the spokesman for an autonomous morality and the new golden age of brotherhood to arise from it, acknowledged that he “mostly ended with Heine’s vision of ‘Christ on the Baltic Sea.’ I realized I couldn’t manage without Him altogether and so, in the end, He appears in the midst of the abandoned men” (A 473).23

At the other end of the human continuum from the underground man with his titanic striving is the beautiful soul who has been formed by the truth of Christ. Dostoevsky became more successful at depicting such individuals as his work progressed, though they remain more the center of illumination in the novels than the center of the action. The Elder Zosima, for example, is juxtaposed with the Grand Inquisitor and was intended as an immediate response to the Inquisitor’s arguments.24 Of course it is here more important than ever to remember that the “whole novel” serves as Dostoevsky’s own response to these issues, and that the discourse of Book VI is the speech of the Elder and not the author. Zosima is the voice of the traditional monastic leaders of Russian piety with all their “infinite, naïve hopes for the future of Russia,” which did not necessarily coincide with Dostoevsky’s own more somber assessment of history.25 It is for this reason that he was concerned that the “answer” might not be enough:

“For this 6th book, The Russian Monk . . . was intended as an answer to this whole negative side. And therefore I also tremble for it in this sense—will it be a sufficient answer? The more so that this answer now is not direct, not point by point to the theses that were expressed earlier (in the G. Inquisitor and before), but is only implied. Here something is presented directly opposed to the world-outlook expressed above, but again it is present point by point, but, so to speak, in an artistic picture. This is what disturbs me, that is, will I be understood and will I attain even a particle of my aim?”26

The uncertainty, moreover, is justified inasmuch as Dostoevsky’s intention was to remain faithful to the tensions within reality itself: there is a truth of Ivan’s revolt against innocent suffering and to the Inquisitor’s complaint that men are incapable of shouldering the burden of freedom. Most strikingly, the Elder Zosima adds nothing further by the way of argument or information to change their position. The presentation has to be oblique, a juxtaposition rather than a confrontation, because the opposing sides live within different worlds. What is required is not a mere listening to the words of the Elder but a real hearing of them, in which event the reality to which they refer can penetrate our hearts and the world of Christ’s love can overcome the world of man’s revolt.

Only then can we recognize Zosima’s tale as a revelation of the way to paradise on earth and beyond it, in contrast to the hell on earth that is promised by the words of the Inquisitor. His proclamation is that paradise is already present within us and is only waiting to burst forth as soon as we are willing to admit that “each of us has sinned against all men, and I more than any” (BK 344). If we are to perceive the divine mystery in all things, we must be prepared to abandon our pride in asking one another for forgiveness and in forgiving one another in turn.  “There is only one means of salvation,” he replies to Ivan’s rebellion:

“Take yourself and make yourself responsible for all men’s sins, that is the truth, you know, friends, for as soon as you sincerely make yourself responsible for everything and for all men, you will see at once that it is really so, and that you are to blame for every one and for all things. But throwing your own indolence and impotence on others you will end by sharing the pride of Satan and murmuring against God.” (BK 384)

The love that loves a man even in his sin discloses the reality that endures, in light of which even the evil in man’s existence fades into insignificance. We attain to that mystic sense of the unity between our transient world and its eternal foundation, which is the source of Zosima’s ecstatic worship of the whole creation. Reality formed such a continuous vision that he could call on the birds for forgiveness, insisting that “all is like an ocean, all is flowing and bending; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth” (BK 383ff). This is why he exhorted Alyosha to “water the earth with the tears of our joy and love these tears” as the way of opening his soul toward the same visionary truth. For it was only when Alyosha had undergone the same experience, when “something firm and unshakeable as the vault of heaven had entered his soul,” that he recognized “the threads from all those innumerable worlds of God” by which all that grows lives and is alive (BK 436).

The struggle within the soul of man reveals the struggle within the soul of society. Dostoevsky understood Plato’s anthropological principle that the polis is man written in large letters, that the substance of society is psyche, and that the exploration of social-political reality, if it is to be critical, must penetrate to the different human types that dominate the public realm. This is what he sought to do by means of his analysis of the underground-titanic man and paradigmatic Christ-like individual, whose opposition had come to define the social and historical setting. It enabled him to explore the same underlying tension on this comprehensive level: to understand that the dream of liberal humanitarianism would become a nightmare if it were not firmly anchored in the spirit of Christian self-sacrifice. Through novels and other writings, Dostoevsky focused his inquiry on those whom this civilizational crisis was most compelling and whose response would most crucially determine the outcome.

This is the new urban class of petty officials, disaffected intellectuals and former gentry whose overriding characteristic is that they now exist beyond the support of restraint of most traditional Russian institutions. In them have been concentrated all the consequences of “the two century-long detachment [of the Russian upper classes] from the soil and from work of every kind” (DW 545).27 Tolstoy and others who write about the true Russian aristocracy were confined, in Dostoevsky’s view, to the creation of historical novels, since the world they described had not become “an insignificant and segregated little corner of Russian life.” By contrast, if one were concerned with the other more numerous corners of national life one must feel compelled “to elucidate even a fraction of this chaos, even without the hope of finding the guiding thread.” Dostoevsky saw himself as definitely transcending the historical “land-owner literature” of his contemporaries by resolutely fixing his attention on the disorder of the society that surrounded him, in the hope of eventually finding therein “the laws of both his decomposition and the new construction” (DW 592).28

The new class of rootless wanderers that replaced the previously dominant landowning class had their origins in the segregation of the nobility and intelligentsia from the Russian people. A process that began with the Europeanizing reforms of Peter the Great culminated in the liberation of the serfs, as the severing of the final link with the life of the people. Even the Russian language was abandoned in favor of French and the cultural heritage of the West in general. The disconnected gentry looked disdainfully on the rudeness of the Russian peasant with his superstitious attachment to Orthodoxy and his tendency toward reckless excess. As a modern intelligentsia their mission was to rescue the people from their ignorance, by introducing the light of universal liberal reason everywhere they went. The hollowness of this humanitarian project became all too apparent in its consequences, as Dostoevsky relentlessly exposed the impotence of a merely human love that flourishes in the abstract but finds in practice “that man is physically unable to love his neighbor” (A 214).29 Not that the ideal of a universal love of mankind is false, but that it can never be realized without the true inner transformation in the image of Christ. In turning their backs on the people, the liberal dreamers had, Dostoevsky was convinced, turned away from the one enduring source of this truth.

The sectarian viewpoint fundamentally characterized the outlook of the Russian educated class of the nineteenth century. They defined themselves by means of segregations. The sense of possessing a superior wisdom in science, material progress and autonomous morality was so pervasive that they felt at last as if they had escaped the human condition. It began to seem as if the road to spiritual growth could be bypassed, if only men were willing to follow the promptings of enlightened self-interest.

No more would the attainment of inner maturity involve the painful renunciation of self; the golden age of reason had made realization of the free personality available to everyone for the asking. But the real nature of this liberal enlightenment did not escape Dostoevsky: contempt for human freedom. In refusing to pay the price of dying to oneself—the only way to true self-realization—they reveal the low esteem in which they hold man’s most previous possession. Everything that is of value in man arises out of the inviolability of his free response. By making man the creature of his social circumstances and his material interests, which have only to be changed in order to change his character, modern socialists have deprived man of responsibility for his actions and, as a consequence, of his dignity as a man. Dostoevsky was a close student of the new reformed courts and repeatedly opposed the inhumaneness of their “humane” acquittals of criminals on account of their social environment (DW 13).

The microcosm of this spiritual crisis is the Russian family. Dostoevsky was fascinated by the disintegration of the family—the appearance of “casual households” and “accidental families”—as both reflecting and promoting the larger collapse of the Russian civilizational ethos. Fathers who saw themselves called to a universal liberal mission felt free to neglect the concrete responsibilities to their children (Versilov, Stepan Verkhovensky), and were eventually followed by others for whom the itch to debauch was rationalization enough to neglect their familial duties (Fyodor Karamazov). Without paternal authority and love the sons grew up in the private world of their own resentment and rebellion. Some gave themselves over to revolutionary activity believing that the destruction of the present is the way to future regeneration (Stepan  Verkhovensky, Ivan Karamazov in part); others abandoned themselves to the underground world of their own dreams of superiority to all that is (Arkady Dolgoruky, Ivan Karamazov in part); and others simply threw themselves into the reckless, passionate life of their fathers (Dmitri Karamazov). Those who could be saved were frequently saved by encountering the living soul of life within their mothers or within the other women, whose enduring suffering of everything in patience had made them transparent with the mystery of life through death in all creation (Arkady’s mother, Sonya Marmeladov, Maria Lebyatkin). Dostoevsky’s painstaking exploration of these relationships reveals the extent to which the fate of the nation is being decided within the struggles of the Russian family.

No more than the family can the nation survive without the love of fathers for their children (DW 776ff.). True brotherhood exists only where love has called forth the free response of love, in creating the bond of mutual obligation on which alone the social-political union can be based. The Western substitution of reason, science and self-interest cannot provide an enduring foundation; its results were graphically evident to Dostoevsky in the spiritual and political decay of modern Europe. He formulated it as an empirical rule that if nations fail to live by superior disinterested ideas, by the lofty aims of serving mankind, and merely serve their own “interests,” they must unfailingly perish, grow benumbed, wear themselves out, die. (DW 901)

For the moral idea comes first. It provides the nation with its raison d’etre, and with its disappearance the survival of the nation ceases to serve a purpose.30 Saving one’s skin at the cost of what makes life worth living is, neither for individuals nor for states, a course that achieves either virtue or safety. In opposition to the fashion of realpolitik, Dostoevsky insisted, while recognizing the necessity for a balance of power, that “the policy of honor and disinterestedness is not only the supreme but, perhaps, the most advantageous policy for a great nation, exactly because it is great” (DW 381). These and similar reflections emerged within the context of the debate about Russian self-sacrifice in aiding their fellow Slavs of Eastern Europe against the Turks, but they form part of Dostoevsky’s larger concern with the restoration of order in the modern world. The ideal end of such a renovated political philosophy Dostoevsky envisioned as “individual self-betterment” through moral growth (DW 1000).

It is because they have lost sight of this truth that Russian fathers fail to take responsibility for raising their children in the light of responsibility itself. Their failure is a reflection of the pervasive abdication by the intelligentsia of any responsibility for preserving the moral foundations of society. In order to bring about the general improvement of social life, all that is needed is progress in the material conditions of existence and the removal of all institutional restraints on autonomy. The real character of this idealism is to be recognized, not only in the suggestion that man does live by bread alone and can be controlled by it, but much more significantly in the train of disorder that is invariably let loose in society.

Dostoevsky understood the political dynamics of the modern revolutionary process, and indicated them most clearly in his tale of the Grand Inquisitor. Utopian dreamers represent only the first stage of the revolution; they are capable of destroying the old, but when the expected transformation of human nature does not occur, they are left in helpless chaos. The process is finally concluded only when a strong personality comes on the scene. Such a one is the old Inquisitor who recognizes that men are “vile and weak” and that, having failed to build the Tower of Babel, they now seek him out after a thousand years of agony. They will find us and cry to us, “Feed us, for those who promised us fire from heaven haven’t given it!” And then we will finish building their tower, for he finishes the building who feeds them. (BK 300)

The attempt to produce good behavior through manipulation is now completed by the ruler who understands that men will only become brothers through the utter destruction of their human freedom.31 He is successful because he is uninhibited by any respect for the inner person. He embodies the “everything is lawful,” for the secret of the Inquisitor is, as Alyosha guesses, that he no longer believes in God and therefore can no longer believe in man. But his tragedy is that he once did believe in God. “I too prized the freedom with which Thou hast blessed men, and I too was striving to stand among Thy elect. . . . [before] I turned back and joined the ranks of those who have corrected Thy work” (BK 308). Mixed with the pride of the man who thinks he can do better than God is the true divine ideal of making all men brothers. The problem arises from the mistaken conviction that brotherhood can be achieved by eradicating man’s untrustworthy freedom, not from the ideal itself, to which Dostoevsky remained loyal all
his life.

Indeed it could be said that he remained from first to last a “Christian socialist.” What changed completely was his conception of how a Christian socialism was to be realized. From an advocacy of change in the institutional structure of society as paramount, he came to insist on the primacy of an inner spiritual regeneration of the person as the principle and goal. In place of a change through revolution, he sought a transformation through conversion. The heroes who are closest to Dostoevsky’s own Christian socialism of the 1840s and who, as a consequence, do not develop into the demonic extremes of “unrestricted despotism,” are frequently the ones who recover and restore the ideal of brotherhood to its true Christian foundation. Stepan Verkhovensky, father of the fanatical revolutionary, recognizes the nihilistic abyss of socialism and proclaims that “the final word in this business must be general forgiveness”; it is the only way for Russia to be freed of the devils that possess her (P 504, 671). Without this underlying change of heart, no genuine political order is possible.

The temptation, however, to yield to the illusory efficacy of power is so universal that Dostoevsky found in it the basis for his philosophy of history. He considered the devil’s three temptations to Christ in the wilderness to have been extraordinary in the extent to which they predicted the whole future history of mankind. “The statement of these three temptations was itself the miracle” (BK 299). In them was revealed the great heresy in the history of Christianity which Dostoevsky identified as the central idea of the Catholic Church: “Christianity cannot survive on earth without the earthly power of the Pope” (DW 225).32 It implied the acceptance of the devil’s suggestion that man is only material and capable of living by bread alone, that men are unsuited to the spiritual achievement of faith and must be given tangible proof, and that political power must be obtained first even at the price of man’s humanity. This was the great turning point at which Orthodoxy had broken away from Western Christianity, which followed its own logical unfolding into the modern world. Dostoevsky regarded socialism as merely an extension of the Catholic principle that had now largely dispensed with the religious component, while Protestantism was no more than the recurrent ineffectual protests against this principle in the name of individualism (DW 563ff). This is the setting from which Orthodox Russia derives its world-historic mission. As the preserver of the true Christian faith, it is the indispensable vehicle for the political and spiritual salvation of mankind.

In contrast to the West where the Church was absorbed into the state, in the East “the state was conquered and destroyed by the sword of Mohamed, and there remained only Christ detached from the state.” The conflict that had originated with the confrontation between Christianity and the Roman Empire, when “the man-god encountered the God-man, Apollo of Belvedere encountered Christ,” has now reached its culmination in the opposition between European socialism and Russian Orthodoxy (DW 1005). It is the apocalyptic character of this conflict that impressed Dostoevsky, the sense of living at a decisive turning point that, while “by no means solving all human destinies, brings with it the beginning of the end of the whole former history of European mankind” (DW 565). He had contemplated the abyss of European nihilism and recognized it as the death of a civilization. The only non-nihilistic alternative was a restoration of the inner spirit of Christian love that he found preserved nowhere else but within Orthodoxy.

In framing the problem thus,Dostoevsky was careful to avoid chiliastic or millenarian excesses, for it was precisely against the reduction of man to a historical future that he was reacting. And while much has been made of his messianism and his occasional militarism (that Russia must take Constantinople as part of its pan-Slavic mission), it must always be remembered that the primary means to be employed is the power of suffering love, the power of Christ. Even the avowedly Russocentric nature of the vision does not invalidate its content, since it arises from Dostoevsky’s own experience with the Russian people as the means for his personal reception of the grace of salvation. It was because of them, he explains in the Diary, that “I again received into my soul Christ Who had been revealed to me in my parents home and Whom I was about to lose when on my part, I transformed myself into a ‘European liberal’” (DW 984).

In this experience he came to recognize the political importance of the Russian peasants as the one segment of society in which the spiritual reality of man, the core of Orthodoxy, has been preserved without dilution. They may be ignorant or unlearned, they may be deceived or weak-willed, they may be debauched or even cruel, but they never attempt to conceal the moral truth of human existence. Most importantly, for Dostoevsky, people never will accept their sins for truth (DW 985). Before the witness of the simple peasant all argument is superfluous; the testimony of living life itself is all the proof we need that the knowledge of good and evil is innate and not acquired. Everyone, Dostoevsky asserted, is able to understand “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” “Essentially this knowledge comprises man’s whole law and so it was enunciated to us by Christ” (DW 790).

The peasants are the ones who truly know the meaning of Orthodoxy, because their school has been the centuries of suffering which they have endured in their history and continue to remain with Christ—”the Counselor Whom they embraced forever in their soul, and Who, as a reward for this, has saved their soul from despair” (DW 983). They carry the image of Christ within them because their sufferings have been united with the redemptive sacrifice of Christ. It is this capacity to die to themselves that gives the Russian people their universal mission. They have become capable of transcending their own specific interests and culture to serve as the medium of universal spiritual truth to mankind. Dostoevsky repeatedly calls attention to the facility with which Russians have adopted the language, manners and civilization of the European nations, as a preparation for their role as carriers of the universal ideal. At the same time, he emphasized, they find within themselves the spiritual truth of existence—their unity with the suffering of Christ—which has made the words “peasantry” (Krestianstvo) and “Christianity” (Christianstvo) virtually synonymous (DW 452).

The special character of the Russians is that they find their identity in the love of two motherlands, Russia and Europe; the service of the universal and the tendency toward cosmopolitanism are the impulses that have united Russians of every social stratum (DW 342, 581). It is on this basis that Dostoevsky made his famous appeal, in the Pushkin Speech, for a reconciliation between the Westernizing liberals and the conservative Slavophiles. Their unification is made possible by the identity of their goals: the Westerners have submerged their Russianness in order to pursue the idea of universal human progress, the Slavophiles have discovered that the Russian is defined by his devotion to the one spiritual truth in all men. Everything hinges on the recognition that the service of all men consists precisely in the service of each individual man in the unique, irreplaceable freedom of his or her person. To be a genuine Russian means in his view to show the solution of European anguish in our all-humanitarian and
all-unifying Russian soul, to embrace in it with brotherly love all our brethren, and finally, perhaps, to utter the ultimate word of great universal harmony, of the brotherly accord of all nations abiding by the law of Christ’s gospel. (DW 980)

Yet there was nothing inevitable about this vision of a new golden age that Dostoevsky carried within, because it is almost entirely based on a love that calls forth and depends on a free response. This is why the qualification “perhaps” is always present. It was above all a truth he apprehended within his own experience and found embodied in all that is best within the Russian people. He powerfully evoked the example of Pushkin who was the first to recognize the people’s truth as the answer to the modern search for true humanizing progress. Pushkin prefigured the Russian destiny of “universality acquired not by the sword but by the force of brotherhood,” and thereby pointed the way toward the building of a new world “through the universal communion in the name of Christ.” Dostoevsky referred to this as “our Russian socialism,” or “the establishment of an ecumenical Church on earth in so far as the earth is capable of embracing it” (DW 979, 1029).

Its foundation is the recognition that “individual self-betterment” is the beginning and the end of all political organization, that the regeneration of the inner person is more important than institutional reform and that the suffering appeal of individual example is the way toward it. His faith in the transformation of the modern revolutionary spirit into the Christian personal metanoia was illustrated by the French writer, George Sand, whom he much admired. His reflections at her death brought him back to his own beginnings:

“. . . George Sand, I repeat, was perhaps, without knowing it herself, one of the staunchest confessors of Christ. She based her socialism, her convictions, her hopes and her ideals upon the moral feeling of man, upon the spiritual thirst of mankind and its longing for perfection and purity, and not upon ‘ant-necessity.’ All her life she believed absolutely in human personality (to the point of its immortality), elevating and broadening this concept in each one of her works; and thereby she concurred in thought and feeling with one of the basic ideas of Christianity, i.e., the recognition of human personality and its freedom (consequently, also of its responsibility).” (DW 349)

Dostoevsky could range back and forth over the history of his own convictions without encountering a contradiction because he was dealing first and foremost with an openness to reality, rather than with any dogmatic propositions of assent. Whether one begins as a socialist or a Christian is less significant than how one responds to the truth disclosed by the directional pull of experience. A belief in autonomous morality can unfold into an insistence on the absolute independence of man’s private conscience from any higher reality, and may be so proposed in the name of human freedom; but the inexorable result will be the radical separation from any enduring criterion of truth. The nihilism of “everything is lawful” sets at nought the value of human freedom itself.

A more open unfolding of the moral intuitions of the heart would reveal the law of reality that binds all things because it has its source in God. Man cannot set himself in judgment over all things without thereby destroying the very principle of justice in whose name he has revolted; he can live rightly only by fulfilling his own concrete obligations within the mysterious process of the whole. In this way he comes to penetrate the essential meaning of existence as the divine plan of redemption. He begins to discover the One in whom the victory of good over evil has been completed, and to see in Christ the one in whom the true freedom of man attains its highest recognition. It is Dostoevsky’s achievement as a political philosopher to have articulated this dynamic of “living life” and to have recovered, as a result, the vision of Christianity as the core—previously lacking—which alone could provide the only true inspiration of the modern revolutionary movement.



1. Notable exceptions are the studies of Ellis Sandoz, “Philosophical Dimensions of Dostoevsky’s Politics,” Journal of Politics 40 (1978), Jean Drouilly, La Pensée Politique et Religieuse de F. M. Dostoevsky (Paris: Libraire des Cinq Continentes, 1971), and Jack F. Matlock, “Literature and Politics: The Impact of Fyodor Dostoevsky,” The Political Science Reviewer 9 (1979).

2. Konstantin Mochulsky, Dostoevsky: His Life and Work (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), 650.

3. For his revolutionary years see Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821–1849 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), Chs. 17–19. On the prison experience and his conversion see Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850–1859 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), Chs. 1–11. And on the period of his release, Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 1860–1865 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986). Dostoevsky’s own account of the prison years is available in Fyodor Dostoevsky, The House of the Dead (New York: Dutton, 1962).

4. See Hendri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism (New York: New American Library, 1963), 167–87 for an excellent discussion of the comparison with Nietzsche.

5. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Diary of a Writer (Santa Barbara: Peregrine Smith, 1979). This “Diary” which consists of Dostoevsky’s reflections published monthly (with interruptions) between 1873 and 1881, is an indispensable source for his mature understanding of politics, philosophy, literature and religion. Hereafter cited in-text as DW.

6. Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 20 explains Dostoevsky’s technique of polyphonic novel as “the principle of seeing and understanding the world and its formulation from the viewpoint of a given idea only for the characters, not for the author himself, not for Dostoevsky” (20). “It is not a world of objects, illuminated and ordered by his monological thinking, that unrolls before Dostoevsky, but a world of mutually illuminating consciousness. . . . He searches among them for the highest, most authoritative orientation, and he thinks of it not as his own true thought, but as another person and his world. The image of the ideal man or the image of Christ represents for him the solution of ideological quests. This image or this highest of voices must crown the world of voices” (90). See also Robert Louis Jackson, The Art of Dostoevsky (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981).

7. Dostoevsky provides an appreciative recognition of the use of the same technique by Herzen in Dostoevsky, The Diary of a Writer, 5.

8. Mochulsky, Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, 17.

9. See Vyaacheslav Ivanov, Freedom and the Tragic Life (New York: Noonday, 1952), George Panichas, The Burden of Vision: Dostoevsky’s Spiritual Art (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), and A. Boyce Gibson, The Religion of Dostoevsky (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1973).

10. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (New York: Modern Library, 1950), 127. Hereafter cited as BK.

11. Mochulsky, Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, 17.

12. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Possessed (New York: New American Library, 1962), 434. Hereafter cited as P.

13. Arkady Dolgoruky, the young narrator of The Adolescent, explains his ideal of becoming a Rothschild: “I don’t really need money, or rather it’s not money that I’m after, nor power for that matter. What I’m after is something that can be acquired through power and only through power: that is self-sufficiency and a calm awareness of my strength. And this is the most complete definition of the freedom that the world is striving for! Freedom! I have finally written down the great word” (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Adolescent (New York: Norton, 1971), 87). Hereafter cited as A.

14. The reader first encounters them in Dostoevsky, The House of the Dead.

15. Lebedev in The Idiot tries to identify the “whole trend” of the modern world and finds its essence not in the new technology of railroads and large-scale industrialization, but in the false humanitarianism at its core: “But a friend of humanity with shaky moral principles is a devourer of humanity, not to speak of his vanity; for if you wound the vanity of one of these innumerable friends of humanity he’s ready to set fire to the four corners of the earth to satisfy a petty revenge, like all of us would, and, to speak fairly, like I would, the vilest of all” (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot (New York: New American Library, 1969), 396).

16. The character and fate of Svidrigailov in Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment (New York: Dutton, 1961) follows a similar course.

17. Shigalov, the ideological planner of the revolutionary cadre in The Possessed, expressed it thus: “I have become entangled in my own data and my conclusions directly contradict my original premises. I started out with the idea of unrestricted freedom and I have arrived at unrestricted despotism. I must add, however, that any solution of the social problem other than mine is impossible” (P 300).

18. See Alyosha’s reflections on Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, 796.

19. Mochulsky, Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, 261.

20. Mochulsky, Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, 345.

21. Mochulsky, Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, 622. See also Ellis Sandoz, Political Apocalypse: A Study of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971), 218 and passim. For a more ambivalent assessment see Vasily Rozanov, Dostoevsky and the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972).

22. Mochulsky, Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, 152.

23. The Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov expresses it thus: “On earth, indeed, we are as it were astray, and if it were not for the precious image of Christ before us, we should be undone and altogether lost, as was the human race before the flood” (384).

24. See also Makar Dolgoruky, the pilgrim in The Adolescent, and Bishop Tikhon in The Possessed for other examples of this type.

25. Mochulsky, Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, 589.

26. Mochulsky, Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, 590.

27. Cf. James H. Billington, The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture (New York: Vintage, 1966), esp. Chs. IV and V.

28. The Adolescent was originally entitled “Disorder” and was intended to portray the obsolescence of “landowner literature” as Dostoevsky referred to it. See the Adolescent,
564–66 and Mochulsky, Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, 497ff.

29. Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov similarly exclaims: “I could never understand how one could love one’s neighbours. It’s just one’s neighbors, to my mind, that one can’t love, though one might love those at a distance” (281).

30. Diary of a Writer, 1000ff.

31. See Diary of a Writer, 620 on the proletarian intention of compelling the bourgeoisie to become a “brother,” the principle of fraternité ou la mort.

32. See also The Idiot, 560ff. Dostoevsky’s anti-Catholicism is almost as notorious as his anti-Semitism and therefore just as much in need of explanation. The most important aspect to emphasize is that his opposition arises in each case from a hatred of the principle that he saw represented by Catholicism or Judaism, the subordination of faith to power or the unbridled pursuit of wealth. He always retained the awareness that specific individuals may not fall under the abstract classification of the group, that their hearts are still capable of being guided by the light of inner moral truth. Moreover, he explicitly defended himself against the charge of anti-Semitism and called for brotherhood between Jews and Christians which, as Joseph Frank remarks, “is not the same as calling for a pogrom” (“Introduction” to Diary of a Writer, xxiii).


Our review of the book is available here. The following chapters are available here: “Dostoevsky’s Heroines; Or, On the Compassion of Russian Women,” “The Politics and Experience of Active Love in The Brothers Karamazov,” and “This Star Will Shine Forth From the East: Dostoevsky and the Politics of Humiliation.” Also see “The Apocalypse of Beatitude: Modern Gnosticism and Ancient Faith in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed,” and “Psychologists of Evil: Nietzsche and Dostoevsky on the Darkness of the Soul.”

This is republished with the same title in Dostoevsky’s Political Thought (Lexington Books, 2013).

David WalshDavid Walsh

David Walsh

David Walsh is the Chair Board Member of VoegelinView, President of the Eric Voegelin Society, and Professor of Political Science at Catholic University of America. He is the author of a three-volume study of modernity: After Ideology: Recovering the Spiritual Foundations of Freedom (Harper/Collins, 1990), The Growth of the Liberal Soul (Missouri, 1997), and The Modern Philosophical Revolution: The Luminosity of Existence (Cambridge, 2008). His latest book is Politics of the Person and as the Politics of Being (Notre Dame, 2015).

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