Posted: January 29, 2007
Reading Thomas G. West's "Sins of the Fathers" (Fall 2002), one is informed that Dostoevsky was a reactionary and an irrationalist of the worst sort, guilty of "self-indulgent sentimentality," "an anti-Jewish stance," subscribing to the "post-Hegelian premise: only will, and not reason, can guide us," and last, but not least, "patriarchalism." Yet, in the same essay, West writes: "no major writer of the 19th century saw so clearly into the evil heart of the 20th century," that "Dostoevsky deserves our respect" for "his passionate opposition to extreme tendencies of modern thought" and his "insight against the dominant historicism of his time." West may try to save himself with such contradictions, but I must take issue with his negative characterizations and skewed interpretations.
Notes from Underground is a no-nonsense polemic against British utilitarianism as espoused by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. It is a "rejection of reason" only if reason is understood as the sole wellspring of truth. As a Russian Orthodox Christian, Dostoevsky knew that faith must guide and direct the mind; unaided reason contorts reality. The twisted figure of the "underground man" asserts his will, but in his poignant dramatic monologue, he defends his freedom as a human being against a truncated view of reason and truth.
Ivan Karamazov, whom West dotes on, is merely one, and by no means the worst, of Dostoevsky's many deracinated intellectuals, who are led by their fiendishly clever and calculating minds. Ivan's fate, "brain fever" (insanity), is the same as Friedrich Nietzsche's. It is Nietzsche who glorifies the will, not Dostoevsky. Those who have read and studied Dostoevsky also understand that he was not so much anti-Jewish (or anti-Polish, anti-Anglo, anti-French, anti-Roman Catholic, anti-Turk) as he was against certain national tendencies and religious views that were, in his estimation, de-humanizing. Dostoevsky had little use for sentimentality. Sonia (Crime and Punishment), who sells herself to feed her family, is certainly not "a Christian for whom faith is entirely a matter of sentiment." It is the drunk Marmeledov of the same novel, who may be considered on the borderline between the sentimental and the ridiculous.
To counter West's charge of "patriarchalism" would take me too far afield. I would very much recommend Serge Schmemann's Echoes of a Native Land. Finally, I would suggest that West re-read the major novels of Dostoevsky without the rose-colored spectacles of the American Founders, who most certainly were not Christians. I am sorry also to add that viewing Solzhenitsyn as "echo[ing] the spirit of the American Founders" is simply nonsense. Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn have more in common than not. Perhaps West is thinking of Yegor Gaidar and Ruslan Khasbulatov?
Fort Collins, CO
West's analysis of Dostoevsky is brilliant and penetrating—but gravely flawed. In order to reject Dostoevsky's radical nihilism, West seems to reject the authority of God. Even if "most men" should follow paternal or divine authority, West writes, "following one's own reason does lead toward the good, if one has the mind for it."
But the history of philosophy is a continuing scandal of radical disagreement about the good. If philosophers of the caliber of Marx, Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Kojève cannot follow their reason toward the good, West must be mistaken. Unquestioning submission to "reason" may be no less "totalitarian" than "absolute faith in God." If, as he writes, reason must be "properly employed" and liberty "rightly understood," then they must be limited or conditioned by Something Higher. Dostoevsky represented the Russian Orthodox tradition against St. Thomas Aquinas and the Latin Church's rationalism. West, however, fails to mention that in this Roman tradition, reason is embraced along with faith as the "two wings of the human spirit." Indeed, the Catholic Church stands virtually alone as the defender of reason against the nihilistic abandonment of reason prevalent today in philosophic and academic communities.
That the Catholic Church should be the last apologist of reason would have astonished Enlightenment philosophers such as Voltaire, Locke, and Montesquieu. West leaves this reader uncertain whether he has any disagreement with the Enlightenment's project to undermine the Church. With God as the source of both faith and "one's own reason," how then can anything less than total, unquestioning submission to Him not be insane, evil, and irrational?
Thomas G. West replies:
My article, "Sins of the Fathers," made the following argument: Dostoevsky believed that human reason is powerless to discover the truth. It leads to atheism and socialism. Dostoevsky saw no alternative except submission to authority, especially religious authority. As a Russian alternative to Dostoevsky's rejection of reason, I proposed Solzhenitsyn, who shows in his novels that reason can go far to indicate the basic virtues of a good life; to unveil the deficiencies of badly governed societies; and to suggest political reforms that would improve them. As the American alternative to Dostoevsky's rejection of reason, I proposed the approach of the American Founders.
The two letters to the editor unintentionally confirm that my critique of Dostoevsky was on the mark. Adrian Valentino complains that I accuse Dostoevsky of being an "irrationalist." But Valentino's own summary of Dostoevsky confirms my charge. He writes, "As a Russian Orthodox Christian, Dostoevsky knew that faith must guide and direct the mind; unaided reason contorts reality."
In other words, Dostoevsky, according to Valentino, believes that reason does not lead to truth. That is why I argued Dostoevsky teaches that human beings must follow some non-rational principle, some religious authority that goes against what reason teaches. That is why Dostoevsky biographer Joseph Frank labels our novelist a "religious irrationalist," a characterization I agree with.
Valentino calls "nonsense" my suggestion that Solzhenitsyn shares something of the spirit of the American Founders. He should read the passages that I cited in my review, especially the Stolypin chapter of August 1914. The last great Russian statesman before the Communist Revolution of 1917, Stolypin proposed a program of private property rights, local self-government, the rule of law, and respect for Christianity that would have saved Russia from a century of terror and degradation. His plans were defeated by a combination of irrational liberals and irrational reactionaries, some of whom had probably read Dostoevsky, who despised America, which in those days was based on many of the same ideas that Stolypin was advocating for Russia. The American Founders would have been entirely sympathetic to Stolypin's plans. Unlike Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn's hero Stolypin was no mystical or romantic dreamer of communities of love based on authority.
Valentino belittles the American Founders as not Christian. It does not take much study of founding era documents to discover that the American people and their leaders were either Christians themselves, or else profoundly respectful of Christianity as the prevailing and "benign religion" (Jefferson) of the nation. (According to a report mentioned in Joseph Frank's biography, Dostoevsky once called himself a "philosophical deist," implying that his respectful stance toward Russian Orthodoxy was not based on an acceptance of all of its doctrines.) To dismiss America's Founders and then to compare them to men like Gaidar and Khasbulatov—associates of the lawless and undemocratic thugs who currently run Russia—is a libel founded in ignorance.
Dennis Teti's letter starts out as a defense of Dostsoevsky but quickly turns into a defense of the Catholic faith—as if that were the question at issue here. To this end, Teti makes two main points that contradict each other. On the one hand, reason cannot discover truth. On the other hand, it can. First, Teti argues that I was wrong when I wrote, "following one's own reason does lead toward the good, if one has the mind for it." Teti responds that "the history of philosophy is a continuing scandal of radical disagreement about the good." However, Aquinas, whom Teti also mentions, agrees with me and disagrees with Teti on this point. For Aquinas, reason is unquestionably able to discover the laws of nature, that is, the basic principles of conduct that lead human beings toward the good. Aristotle, whom Aquinas calls "the philosopher," did not have the benefit of faith to guide his reason.
As for "Marx, Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Kojève," they were under the spell of the modern prejudice in favor of progress and history, as Leo Strauss has demonstrated. Reason can err. Who denies this? Teti says my account is "gravely flawed" because "West seems to reject the authority of God." My target was not God but rather a mindless faith in authority. The best Christian theologians argue for a prominent place for human reason as we try to understand God's law, whether revealed in Scripture or discovered by reason.
Contrary to Dostoevsky, I do not believe that reason leads to atheism. Instead, in agreement with Socrates, Locke, and many other philosophers, I find the intelligent design of the world strong evidence for God's existence. Nor can the possibility of revelation be disproved by reason, as the philosophers also agree.
Teti wavers on the question of whether reason is or is not capable of discovering truth because he ultimately thinks reason goes astray without faith, and yet his own faith affirms that reason is good. Teti should become more faithful to the teachings of Aquinas.