I am reading, or rather re-reading, Dostoyevsky’s Demons, and so far enjoying it more than I remember enjoying it twenty years ago. Those of you who know the novel will recall that one of Dostoyevsky’s main themes is that the romantic liberals of the 1840s gave birth to the murderous nihilists and anarchists of the 1870s, the relation of these two generations being embodied in the characters of Stepan Trofimovich Verkovenski and his son.
One reason I am enjoying this reading more than the previous one is that I have now lived to see the flower children of the 1960s shuffle off the stage of history, and to savor the lusty jeers and catcalls that accompanied their exit. (I should here confess that I am, technically, a Boomer myself, albeit a late Boomer; but in my defense will add that this means I have had to live with these ripening and rotting hippies for nigh on fifty years. This long familiarity explains the comforting glow of malice that warmed my heart when Dostoyevsky described Stepan Trofimovich as a “fifty year old infant.”)
If I may adapt a line from the Boomer classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), “Who were those guys?” Well, one answer to that question is that those guys were a whole lot like Stepan Trofimovich Verkovenski.
When Dostoyevsky says that the romantic liberals of the 1840s gave birth to the murderous nihilists and anarchists of the 1870s, he means that their dreamy idealism burned through traditional Russian culture like a wildfire through a forest, destroying as it went all the righteous sentiments of national pride and religious faith. Yet all of the noble ideals of these liberals turned out to be nothing more than the smoke of this fire, so that when the fire had burned out and the smoke had dissipated, all that remained was a charred landscape of blackened stumps and shifting ash.
It was in this burnt over landscape that the terrible isms of the late nineteenth century found the bare soil in which they could germinate and grow, just like weeds in the aftermath of a forest fire.
In other words, Dostoyevsky is telling us that liberals set fire to the forest of Russian culture, but were then too lazy, self-absorbed, stupid, or confident in the workings of Hegel’s World Spirit, to plant anything wholesome in its place. And so what did appear in its place were the noxious weeds of nihilism, anarchism, bolshevism, and their like.
Dostoyevsky’s point in Demons is, in other words, the same that G. K. Chesterton made when he (may have) said:
“When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”
Put yet another way, skepticism is a genie that is very hard to coax back into the lamp after he has been released. Every cultural revolution is tempted to loose the genie of skepticism in its initial, negative phase, when the job at hand is to “clear the ground” of the old received opinions; but in it second, positive phase, a revolution will find this genie still at work and very troublesome to their program. Translating a people from one set of opinions to another is not so easy as it might seem, since, to change my metaphor, the solvent the revolutionaries use to remove the old ideology makes it hard for them to lay down the new.
The “demons” referenced in the title of Dostoyevsky’s novel are, says the editor of my edition, all of the terrible isms that took possession of the Russian soul after liberals had swept it clean. Christian readers will be reminded of this passage:
“When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and finds none. Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first. So shall it also be with this wicked generation” (Matthew 12: 43-45).
The demons of Dostoyevsky’s novel are, in other words, the noxious weeds that took root amid the charred stumps and shifting ash.
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Dostoyevsky’s image of ideas (or at least some ideas) as demons set me to thinking about the claim, very frequently heard in the university, that students ought to be “exposed” to certain ideas. These are, naturally, leftist ideas, such as that property is theft or that a guy who says he’s a gal should be taken at his word. I have yet to hear it suggested that students be “exposed” to the idea that Hell is real, populous, and in no need of a No Vacancy sign.
But what interests me here is this word “exposed,” because the word “exposed” so strongly suggests exposure to a disease.
“Exposing” a student to certain ideas is, in my view, no more desirable than exposing that same student to herpes, Ebola, or the bubonic plague. When such “exposure” is essayed after a rigorous course in skepticism, the result is very much like exposing that student to these diseases when his immune system is severely impaired.
Or, if you prefer my arboreal metaphor, it is like launching assorted thistle seeds into the air over some valley of charred stumps and ash.
* * * * *
This ties back to the liberalism of Stepan Trofimovich Verkovenski because liberalism is a mix of rationalism and romanticism, and might indeed be described as romanticized rationalism. I believe this is what Michael Oakeshott was telling us and I believe he was correct.
Romanticized rationalism is the belief that reason is, by itself, sufficient to guide men in all aspects of their conduct (or at least will be sufficient once men are disencumbered of received opinion or prejudices). To this might be added the egalitarian principle that this power of rational discernment is universal among men, denied to none, not even tocollege students.
Thus, if liberalism is correct (which it is not), and if we take professors at their word (which is never advisable), “exposing” students to all sorts of half-baked and dangerous ideas will simply exercise and strengthen their critical faculties. As time goes by, they will simply grow even more proficient at swatting away bad ideas, like some blossoming little leaguer in a batting cage.
I trust you don’t need me to tell you that this is not what normally happens.
What normally happens is much more along the lines described by St. Matthew in the verses quoted above. Skepticism sweeps the student’s mind clean, and then the demons move in.
And this is not true only of college students. Romanticized rationalism is wrong, our critical faculties are not nearly so robust and indomitable as we suppose, and we therefore run a risk if infection whenever we “expose” ourselves to bad ideas.
Our critical faculty is our intellectual immune system, and we should not be fooled by liberals into exaggerating its prophylactic powers.