The Individual as a Microcosm of Society in Dostoevsky’s Work
I agree most accurately when Carl Jung says that “I cannot let myself presuppose that my peculiar temperament, my own attitude to intellectual problems, is universally valid.” And thus when I try to look at Dostoevsky’s works intellectually, I try to be as empirical about it as possible. Instead of being mystical or spiritual, I analyse the religious side purely from a psychological necessity in man. It is secondary if one believes Jesus was real or not and if it has any historical significance. Religion serves a most necessary purpose in sentient beings, and is there to teach us how to behave, while science has a completely different purpose and is there to show us how things work. Dostoevsky warns us about a certain type of person who was coming to be in the world and was going to cause much problem for humankind. It is because of the lack of faith, or of religion in the individual’s life that this type of person was multiplying throughout Europe. It was a problem that stemmed from the root of the individual, and would play a major role in the disasters of the 20th century. As Dostoevsky progressed in his works, his prediction on the role his underground man would play in shaping the western world would reach prophetic levels. He was not only able to predict the devastating outcome of the great wars, but he even expressed the ideologies that would take hold of countries like Russia, France and Germany. I propose that because of his understanding of psychology, Dostoevsky was able to transcend these individual experiences which allowed him to see a glimpse into the future of western society.
Dostoevsky would say that society is built from many individuals and it is roughly the total aggregate of the individuals pathology that makes up the society. If there is a problem with society, it stems from the psychological makeup of the individual and expands outwards. It is not Hitler that created the German Nazi party, but the individual and their combined pathology and ideology that gave birth to Nazis and Hitler. The underground man that runs through all of Dostoevsky’s great novels is a man with this kind of pathology. He is hyper rational, but can be either the nihilistic or totalitaristic/socialistic type. The nihilistic type is exemplified through the underground man from Notes from the Underground and Ivan from the Brothers Karamazov. They are intelligent rational men who can’t accept the world and thus are skeptical and negate their own lives. They erase any meaning or purpose to life and only associate with their intelligence. Even more dangerous is the socialistic type. As Solzhenitsyn points out: The imagination and spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Ideology—that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors.
Characters like Macbeth, Claudius and Richard are rooted in religion, and thus they have a conscience that stops them from killing millions like Stalin did. The socialist justifies his actions, like Raskolnikov did, that the ends justify the means and thus everything is permissible. Dostoevsky said in The Brothers Karamazov “Who have been the gainers? Those without conscience. For what are pangs of conscience to him who has no conscience whatsoever? In fact, it has been the decent folk who have suffered, those who still have a conscience and a sense of honour.” These ideologies replace the function of religion, which is supposed to tell people how to behave, and so the individual no longer needs to have a conscience.
Because Dostoevsky’s theory came to manifest itself in the 20th Century, with the rational man and his foreshadowing of the ideology that swept through the nations of Europe, he has been elevated to a whole new level. Great minds like Nietzsche, Solzhenitsyn and Jung have expanded on his works and spread his words in every which way. He was so successful in his psychological profiling of the underground man, that a french intellectual like Camus actually took his Grand inquisitor to be an affirmation of the rational man as the new man of the world. In his books we have the causes of why such a cataclysmic event took place. His revolutionary ideas continued through The Gulag Archipelago, where Solzhenitsyn was able to show the world what atrocities the rational man had committed on the world. But instead of blaming anyone (being in jail during Soviet Russia,there are plenty people you could blame, starting with Stalin) Solzhenitsyn took this idea of universal brotherhood and beauty, and put the weight of the world on his own shoulders. During his prison time, Solzhenitsyn put the responsibility of all the suffering of humankind on himself. He imagined himself as a prison guard, and he realized that he too could behave like them, that he too had a share in the problem of the world. Like Zosima’s brother Markel, he realized he was responsible for all the pain and suffering in the world and hoped he could simply change himself, then maybe the whole world would also change. Dostoevsky was able to play such a part in educating and progressing human individuals and their societies, and until we arrive at something approximating his human brotherhood, we will continue to read his books for guidance.
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