Thursday, July 05, 2007

A voice from the past

Claremont Review of Books: Sins of the Fathers (discussing Joseph Frank's analysis of Fyodor Dostoevsky's political thought)
Dostoevsky is a political thinker. It is one of the many merits of Frank's biography that he sees clearly that politics is a leading theme—in a sense, the dominant theme—of Dostoevsky's writings. Dostoevsky's deepest concern is the question of authority, who rules, and who should rule. Tentatively, we may say that his answer is that these four fathers should rule unconditionally and absolutely: God the Father; second, the fathers of God's church, such as Father Zossima; third, the Tsar, the father of his people; and fourth, the biological father, Karamazov.

.....Frank sees clearly that the novel equates the murder of Fyodor Karamazov and Ivan's revolt against God. Frank believes that this equation is a weakness in Dostoevsky's plot, and that it is not quite plausible, given the fundamental goodness of God's creation. But Frank fails to notice that the key to Dostoevsky's case for authority is that it is made in the teeth of what his own characters, and perhaps Dostoevsky himself, see as a serious question about God's justice. Anticipating Frank's analysis, and stating it more forcefully, Czeslaw Milosz observed (in his excellent essay "Dostoevsky and Western Intellectuals") that The Brothers is, at its heart, a meditation on the Russian intelligentsia's act of abolishing simultaneously the authority of God, the Tsar, and the paterfamilias.

Smerdyakov, the actual murderer, the illegitimate brother whose passions and countenance are altogether ugly, simply presents the true face of the intellectual Ivan, who is outwardly cultured, suave, and good-looking. Ivan is horrified as he discerns his own character with growing clarity. By the end of the novel, he goes insane. The crude and smirking Smerdyakov, consumed by hate, is the genuine expression of the liberal intelligentsia's revolt against the authority of the biological father, the father Tsar, the fathers of the Church, and God the Father. In this paternal foursome, the death of the authority of God the Father is the key to the deaths of the other three. For God the Father legitimizes all authority, according to Dostoevsky. When God's government is thrown into question, all government—that of the family, church, and state—is similarly upset.

In The Devils, Dostoevsky shows us the political future of Russia without the fatherhood of God and Tsar. In that novel, we see through the microcosm of a small provincial town what will happen when the leftist intellectuals take over in the name of socialism and communism. They are ruthless, they kill without a thought, they are willing to commit mass murder to realize their dreams. Their souls are at the farthest remove from the equality they preach. They are hateful tyrants.

It's an interesting way to tie together the threads of "tolerance" and the profound lack of tolerance manifested by its liberal proponents" . Of course Dostoevsky's remedy, absolute submission to paternal authority is flawed as well, which he acknowledges. It is also a little disconcerting that his belief in "submission" to the pater is eerily reminiscent of Islam (which from the other side is not that odd as both have a pre-Reformation philosophy).

Today we are threatened by the spawn of Benthamite liberalism in both the left's disdain for moral authority in personal morality and expression and the right's disdain for it in business and the limits to governmental power (at least when they hold Leviathan's reins). But going back to classical thought is not a clear path to safety. Dostoevsky may not know the way home but he at least knows how we wound up where we are.

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