For the past month or so I have attempted to flesh out some of the key themes presented by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his writings, specifically in The Brothers Karamazov. One of those themes has been the idea that socialism is really an atheistic version of the Tower of Babel, built not to reach heaven from earth but to establish heaven on earth.
In this article I am going to look at one final example of how Dostoyevksy portrays the relationship between atheism and socialism in The Brothers Karamazov.
If you have been following the story so far, you have probably noticed that Dostoyevsky presents many of his key themes in the book through the second oldest brother, Ivan Karamazov. We have seen that Ivan’s hunger for earthly justice has led him to renounce the world that God created and, in effect, to renounce God. We also have seen Ivan ridicule the faith of his younger brother Alyosha by presenting socialism as the force that will destroy Christianity.
Yet one of the key dialogues in the story, if not THE key dialogue in the story, takes place toward the end of the book between Ivan and the devil, who appears in the form of a well-dressed gentleman. In this particularly eerie scene, Ivan has come down with fever and believes himself to be hallucinating in his apartment. While he initially thinks that he is simply seeing a figment of his imagination due to his illness and fatigue, it becomes clear that something darker is taking place. As the gentleman begins to say things that demonstrate that he is not merely Ivan’s subconscious, Ivan begins to panic and lashes out in anger:
“You are a lie, you are my illness, you are a phantom…You are my hallucination…You are the incarnation of myself, but only one side of me…of my thoughts and feelings, but only the nastiest and stupidest of them.”
Ivan then threatens to kick the gentleman, who responds by reminding Ivan that “if you kick me, you must believe in my reality, for people don’t kick ghosts.”
When Ivan continues to assert that this is merely a dream and the result of an illness that he had caught, the devil replies, “Listen, it was I caught you, not you me.”
At this point in the conversation, the devil goes on to explain to Ivan his own existence and the motives for his actions in the world. Presenting himself as the ultimate victim within a divine narrative, he asserts the following:
“Mephistopheles declared to Faust that he desired evil, but did only good. Well, he can say what he likes, it’s quite the opposite with me. I am perhaps the one man in all creation who loves the truth and genuinely desires good. I was there when the Word, who died on the cross, rose up into heaven bearing on His bosom the soul of the penitent thief…Somebody takes all the credit of what’s good for Himself, and nothing but nastiness is left for me.”
The devil continues, “How many souls have had to be ruined and how many honorable reputations destroyed for the sake of that one righteous man, Job, over whom they made such a fool of me in old days!”
As the devil finishes his rant about being a victim, he points out that there are really only two truths going around about him: “their truth, yonder, which I know nothing about so far, and the other my own.”
Ivan, still trying to convince himself that this vision is really just in his own mind, threatens to destroy the devil if he does not stop talking. The devil’s response is worth noting:
“I maintain that nothing need be destroyed, that we only need to destroy the idea of God in man, that’s how we have to set to work. It’s that, that we must begin with. Oh blind race of men who have no understanding! As soon as men have all of them denied God…everything will begin anew. Men will unite to take from life all it can give, but only for joy and happiness in the present world.”
He continues describing to Ivan this new ideal world where humanity forgets God and focuses only on immediate earthly pleasure:
“Man will be lifted up with a spirit of divine Titanic pride and the man-god will appear. From hour to hour extending his conquest of nature infinitely by his will and his science, man will feel such lofty joy from hour to hour in doing it that it will make up for all his old dreams of the joys of heaven.”
Here, the devil points out to Ivan that this new godless Utopia will provide mankind with such material blessings that people will forget dreaming about heaven. In a way, the memory of Eden will be replaced by the reality of Babel. Heaven on earth will have been achieved.
As Ivan sits trembling with his hands over his ears, the devil continues describing how man will become his own god:
“Everyone who recognizes the truth even now may legitimately order his life as he pleases, on the new principles. In that sense, ‘all things are lawful’ for him…Since there is anyway no God and no immortality, the new man may well become the man-god…”
But what would result if man treated himself as a god? The devil happily tells Ivan:
“There is no law for God. Where God stands, the place is holy. Where I stand will be at once the foremost place…‘all things are lawful’ and that’s the end of it!”
At this moment in the story, Ivan, in desperation, takes a glass of tea and throws it at the devil. The devil responds by mockingly pointing out how Martin Luther did the same thing with an ink bottle a few hundred years earlier. The conversation ends, and the gentleman disappears, when Ivan’s brother Alyosha arrives to check on him.
As we reflect on this story, let us consider the world that the devil was describing. In a world where humanity forgets God, the people will strive to put themselves in the place of God. There will be no such thing as “sin” and man will be free to “order his life as he pleases.” The result will be that man will indeed become his own god.
The significance of this is brought out by what the devil says about God’s nature. First, the location of God’s presence has always been viewed as the holy place. Second, since God is the ultimate law-giver there is no law above Him that He has to answer to. Yet if man becomes his own god then there is no law above man’s law and there is no more holy place then where man stands. Each person, according to Satan, will be able to say: “Where I stand will be at once the foremost place.”
This idea that Dostoyevsky brings out in the story is the key to understanding the relationship between atheism and socialism. If there is no God then mankind must trust in itself to bring about heaven on earth. If there is no God then each man becomes his own deity, living as he pleases. Anyone who interferes with his own space and his own desires becomes at once a threat, a competing god. And what do gods do when competing for power and prestige? They fight and devour each other.
But Dostoyevsky is not the only writer to have made the connection between atheism and socialism. C. S. Lewis, writing in the early twentieth century, refers to what he calls the “philosophy of Hell” in the book The Screwtape Letters. In one section of the book, a demon named Screwtape tells his nephew Wormwood the following:
“The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one
thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self.
My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses.
Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from
the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects
aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. “To be” means “to be in competition”.”
This philosophy, described explicitly by C.S. Lewis and implicitly by Dostoyevsky, is centered upon the idea that everything is a zero-sum game. If anyone gains anything it can only be at the expense of someone else. Everything is competition, fighting, and devouring. That is why, in The Brothers Karamazov, the devil could view himself as the victim whom God has wronged.
But the zero-sum game mentality is itself based on the premise that there is no God and that, in fact, man is his own god. Instead of there being a God who actually does create things of value ex nihilo (out of nothing), we are told that we live in a world that came about by random value-less chance, with a limited amount of energy and material, where all that matters is power. The strong absorbs the weak and there is no such thing as objective truth or divine law.
The result of this mentality is one in which everyone is their own god, with their own law, living in their own holy place. Each god lives in competition with all of the other gods, fighting for power in a world that they believe is a zero-sum game. Those who rise to the top seek to establish their own kingdoms, promising to bring about heaven on earth to keep the other gods happy. Of course, ultimately these top-gods fail and another little god takes their place, continuing the cycle.
And of course, if this world is nothing but a zero-sum game, then my loss must have been another’s gain. In this way we can all, like Dostoyevsky’s devil, play the victim card. Being victims, we will look for someone to give us justice here and now, just as Ivan Karamazov demanded. But if we do not believe that God will bring about ultimate justice, then our only hope is to turn to the government as our savior.
In the end, we face in our own culture today the rise of atheistic-socialism. While both Dostoyevsky in Russia and C.S. Lewis in England warned us about this philosophy of Hell, it continues to be taught and embraced throughout our society. Sadly, the rise of threats such as global pandemics only fuel the demand for someone, some man-god, to step up and take charge of the new tower of Babel renovation project.