Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Demons

In university and in the many years since my graduation, I have had the repeated and uncomfortable experience of encountering human beings incapable of uttering an original thought. Otherwise intelligent, rational people, once confronted with a given political or philosophical problem, became mere marionettes, repeating the canned phrases and ideas they had been taught – or perhaps programmed – to utter by rote. Gradually, I became adept at predicting their responses, and conversations with flesh and blood human beings took on the lonely characteristic of a game I enjoyed as a teenager, hitting a tennis ball against a back wall. It was Jordan Peterson, a student of both Dostoevsky and Carl Jung, who helped me to understand this phenomenon with his phrase “ideological possession,” no doubt channeling Carl Jung: “People don’t have ideas. Ideas have people.” Dostoevsky, in Demons, is still more succinct: “Nowadays nobody’s mind is his own.” The ideologically possessed disregard their own insights, feelings and experiences, finding refuge in the canned responses of a pre-existing paradigm; they cannot very easily see outside their ideology, and will experience challenges to it as tantamount to an attack on their personhood. Demons, the fourth of Dostoevsky’s five major novels, is both an exploration into the psychology of the ideologically possessed and a philosophical investigation into the nature of the demoniac philosophy itself, materialism, which makes it a timely read indeed.

Rather than seek to recapitulate the plot of this 700-page behemoth, or give some small account of its varied cast of characters, I will offer only the briefest summary of the novel’s events, the better to focus on the philosophical stakes. In a fictional Russian town, a group of young revolutionaries seek to foment a rebellion against the very moral order of the nation. Their leader is Pyotr Stepanovich, the son of a famous windbag liberal professor, Stepan Trofimovich, who has spent the last 20 years living on the estate (and at the expense) of a wealthy widow, Varvara Petrovna, first as a tutor to her son Nikolai Vsevolodovich and later merely as a cherished friend. The first of these characters to come into sharp relief is Stepan Trofimovich, though Dostoevsky takes great pleasure in mocking him:

Stepan Trofimovich constantly played a certain special and, so to speak, civic role among us, and loved this role to the point of passion – so much so that it even seems to me he would have been unable to live without it. Not that I equate him with a stage actor: God forbid, particularly as I happen to respect him. It could all have been a matter of habit, or, better, of a ceaseless and noble disposition, from childhood on, towards a pleasant dream of his beautiful civic stance. He was, for example, greatly enamored of his position as a “persecuted” man and, so to speak, an “exile.”

In the circles in which Stepan Trofimoch travelled – liberal, wealthy and possessing a Western European education – to be seen as an opponent of tsarism was a sign of good character, but unlike, for example, Alexander Herzen (mentioned throughout Demons), who lived most of his life outside his native Russia, and directly contributed to the emancipation of the serfs, Stepan does not truly suffer for his convictions. Indeed, he does not suffer at all: “Just the other day I learned, to my great surprise, but now with perfect certainty, that Stepan Trofimovich had lived among us, in our province, not only not in exile, as we used to think, but that he had never even been under surveillance.” The Russia of the tsars, particularly in the 19th century, was a prototypical police state, and so to not merit an exile or even surveillance meant that Stepan was regarded by the powers that be as essentially harmless. “And yet he was such an intelligent man, such a gifted man, even, so to speak, a scholar – though as a scholar, however… well, in a word, he did very little as a scholar, nothing at all, apparently.” We wince for Stepan Trofimovich.

And yet, as the novel develops, we will discover that, in one respect, Stepan Trofimovich has succeeded in being extremely harmful, for he has begotten a son whose nihilism and capacity for destruction know no bounds. Pyotr Stepanovich is the book’s master manipulator, operating with rumour and innuendo and a shrewd psychology, moving men and women like chess pieces on a board only he can see. He ingratiates himself with Julia Mikhaylovna, the wife of the Governor, and by flattering her vanity and appealing to her charitable instincts, succeeds in transforming her saloon into a revolutionary hotspot. He even revenges himself on his father, who neglected him his entire life, and stole from a trust fund money bequeathed to him by his dead mother, by working to separate Stepan Trofimovich and Varvara Petrovna, first by deliberately disgracing him in front of her, and then by attacking the nature of their friendship: “I proved to her like two times two that you’d been living for your mutual profit: she as a capitalist, and you as her sentimental clown.” In perhaps his moment of most naked enmity, he questions his own paternity, to his father’s face, insinuating that Stepan Trofimovich was cuckolded. By the novel’s conclusion, his misdeeds will encompass multiple murders. In the larger game Dostoevsky is playing out, Pyotr Stepanovich is the most thoroughgoing materialist, recognizing no power, authority or morality higher than his own will. His philosophy, Dostoevsky seems to insist, is the natural conclusion of his father’s wishy-washy liberalism, unmoored to any higher authority than the individual human conscience. And yet Stepan Trofimovich is a fool, too taken in by his own delusions to understand the implications of his philosophy.

Two other characters, would-be revolutionaries who come to recognize the implications of their philosophy of materialism in full and yet decide on separate paths, exhibit the full consequences of their ideology. The first is Alexei Kirillov, a former engineer tormented by his atheism for the moral seriousness it imposes on him.

For me no idea is higher than that there is no God. The history of mankind is on my side. Man has done nothing but invent God, so as to live without killing himself; in that lies the whole of human history up to now. I alone for the first time in world history did not want to invent God. Let them know once and for all.

But what does it mean to live without god, without higher authority? For Kirillov, it means taking on the burden of morality and will – in effect, becoming a god yourself, a god unto yourself.

I don’t understand how, up to now, an atheist could know there is no God and not kill himself at once. To recognize that there is no God, and not to recognize at the same time that you have become God, is an absurdity, otherwise you must necessarily kill yourself. Once you recognize it, you are king, and you will live in the chiefest glory. But one, the one who is first, must necessarily kill himself, otherwise who will begin and prove it? It is I who will necessarily kill myself in order to begin and prove it. I am still God against my will, and I am unhappy, because it is my duty to proclaim self-will. Everyone is unhappy, because everyone is afraid to proclaim self-will.

Here, in miniature, is Nietzsche’s “Parable of the Madman,” not to mention Kafka and Cioran, and everyone else cursed to recognize a horrible paradox: “God is necessary, and therefore must exist,” says Kirillov. “But I know that he does not and cannot exist. […] Don’t you understand that a man with these two thoughts cannot go on living?”

The other character to take seriously the implications of materialism is Ivan Shatov, a former revolutionary who repudiates the materialist philosophy of his socialist friends in favour of Russia’s Christian orthodoxy. He is the first to confront Stepan Trofimovich’s naivety, rebuking his detached and abstract professions of loyalty to Russia and the Russian people with the painful truth that the liberal socialists have lived lives entirely detached from those same people, and therefore cannot understand them, let alone sympathize with them:

One cannot love what one does not know, and they understood nothing about the Russian people! All of them, and you along with them, turned a blind eye and overlooked the Russian people […]. Not only have you overlooked the people – you have treated them with loathsome contempt, which is enough to say that by people you meant only the French people, and even then only the Parisians, and were ashamed that the Russian people are not like them. And this is the naked truth! And those who have no people, have no God! You may be sure that all those who cease to understand their people and lose their connection with them, at once, in the same measure, also lose the faith of their fathers, and become either atheists or indifferent. It’s right, what I’m saying! The fact will be borne out. That is why all of you, and all of us now, are either vile atheists or indifferent, depraved trash and nothing more! And you, too, Stepan Trofimovich, I do not exclude you in the least, I’ve even said it on your account, be it known to you!

This passage, coming at the beginning of the novel, hit me with incredible force, for Shatov is not merely describing, decades in advance, the cabal of revolutionaries who would claim to speak on behalf of the Russian people even as they starved and imprisoned them, but our modern aristocracy of liberal thinkers, who sneer at the simple faith of their countrymen and even continue to regard Parisian cosmopolitanism as the high water mark of character and sensibility. When he speaks these words, Shatov is not yet a believer; he is in fact exactly where Kirillov is prior to his suicide, incapable of believing in God and yet certain of the necessity of God. “I… I will believe in God,” he says hopefully, when pressed on the question of his faith. Shatov’s journey to faith becomes one of the novel’s most powerful narrative arcs, and Dostoevsky executes it with such mastery of characterization – down to the smallest detail – that I am even now awed by it.

Pressed to give a concluding summary of Demons, I will say only that it is a novel about god, and about what it means – what it really means – to believe or not believe. Dostoevsky can tease out the full implications of this most central of ideas first because he, unlike almost every writer before or since, has the courage to do so, and second because his psychological acuity (and perhaps also his personal experience) was such that he could fully inhabit both sides of the equation at once. The shadow cast by his success has been, and will continue to be, inescapable. Of every writer I have yet encountered, only Shakespeare seems to me equally all-encompassing.