Don’t Expose Yourself

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.

* * * * *

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.

25 thoughts on “Don’t Expose Yourself

  1. Pingback: Don’t Expose Yourself | @the_arv

  2. Yes, if exposure to noxious ideas worked like a vaccination, that would be one thing…

    I try to imagine what it must be like for these students. The skeptical tools they’ve been given can be used with equal effectiveness against anything, but they’ve learned that they only will be applied to certain propositions, while others, as easily debunked, are known to be safe. So the real lesson is timidity.

    Are there any ideas that you’re still trying to keep out of your system, or is it too late for that?

  3. Thank you for posting this. I, too, finished rereading Demons (or “The Possessed” in Constance Garnett’s translation) a month or so ago, and found it more absorbing than any fiction I’ve read in some time. I say “reread,” but actually the first time I didn’t get further than a third or so of it, finding it rather cluttered in the first several chapters. And when I first encountered the novel, characters like Pyotr Stepanovich did not seem to have a compelling reality about them. But I undertook a reading after a year of Antifa lunacy, of various manifestations of campus craziness, and now a character like Pyotr Stepanovich is quite believable. I think that Dostoyevsky’s novel is a prescient analysis of the kind of mindset we are seeing more and more of among these rebels in search of a cause.

    • I remember once reading that Shakespeare was wasted on the young because they lacked the experience to appreciate what he says. I expect this is true of a lot of literature, and that forcing it down the gullets of twenty-year-olds just puts them off their feed.

      It sounds as if you and I had a very similar experience with Demons, and for much the same reason. I knew plenty of people who had strange ideas twenty years ago, but not so many who had completely crazy ideas. And in those days the people who were “possessed” with completely crazy ideas were not occupying positions of authority and spreading their craziness through the most august organs of public opinion. Like many on the Right, I did not become a reactionary by changing my ideas. I became a reactionary by keeping my ideas and watching the circus parade of respectable opinion disappear down the road.

  4. Bonald @ I think exposure can work like a vaccination in some individuals, but you will not know if you are one of those individuals until you’ve exposed yourself, and then it will be too late. Atheist arguments act like an inoculation on me, but not on everyone.

    My impression is that most campus skepticism is designed to pander to students by ridding them of beliefs they already wish they did not have. Preaching sexual liberation to twenty-year-olds is not exactly an uphill climb. Postmodernism is attractive to an ignoramus because it tells him not to worry about the fact that he’s failing calculus and can’t make heads or tails of physics. It can be rough on students who really want to hold on to their faith, but plenty of young people are looking for high-minded reasons to sleep in on Sunday morning.

    It is, as you say, too late for me to preserve my innocence, but I do practice a degree of mental hygiene. I try to steer clear of overly lascivious literature, since this will stir up impulses on which I am resolved not to act. I’m not wrestling with sexual demons, but I see no reason to let down my guard. As a rule, I would avoid literature that glamorized or defended an sin to which I was tempted. I’m not particularly prone to envy, but if I were, I would avoid all the social theory that has been written to rationalize envy. There are certain strains of philosophic pessimism that I take in only small sips, especially when I sense malignant intent in the author. This is a tricky judgment, since I like sardonic writing, but if I begin to suspect I’m reading Mephistopheles, I put the book down.

  5. In my drop-out phase, roughly 1975 to 1985, while trying to make a career in dead-end jobs, I enjoyed the leisure to undertake a good deal of primary reading, not least the novels of Old Dusty. When I finished my baccalaureate and then went on to graduate school, I had, as you might say, been positively inoculated. Thus when Professor Riddel, who had become instantaneously intoxicated by Derrida’s deconstruction, told me that Derrida was a genius and his book, Of Grammatology, a milestone of philosophy, I could swiftly see that it was not so. But graduate school was instructive in a way that the Riddel-type professors never intended and could not understand. I saw before my eyes how one wannabe English professor after another (that is, the grad students) caught the contagion of postmodernism, in one form or another, and submitted his soul on the spot. It was like watching a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, staged live, and involving actual people with whom I was acquainted. Spiritually, it was like a Southern California wildfire, reducing to bitter ashes every speck of intellectual independence until nothing was left except the Waste Land. “We are Borg. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.”

    • It sounds as if we were both bookish bums at about the same time. I was trying to find some connection between lit-crit and geography as a graduate student in the mid 1980s, which was a fairly absurd project in retrospect, but which did inoculated me against the Foucault fad that swept through my discipline in the late 1980s. By that time had read enough Barthes and Baudrillard to know the smell of French bullshit. Also, like you, I had spent many, many hours on my back reading old books, and so had acquired a taste for real thoughts by real men.

      • They call me Visiting Professor, and I behave like an ordinary bourgeois, but deep down I’m still a bookish bum.

  6. What a prophetic book . . . and a great story, as is usual for its author. For me, the worst part of what happens is the corruption of Stavrogin — and that, too, is what troubles me most about our kakocratic husk of civilization. Nikolai was born to be a blessing for all — he has so many gifts — but he ruins himself and others as a result of his moral decay and spiritual madness. Similarly, our evil culture and Satanically warped institutions take intelligent, creative, energetic men and women and turn them into orcs — a sacrilege in itself — who then become additional theomachist foot soldiers in the rebellion against the good, the true, and the beautiful. The book is an indictment against our age.

  7. Pingback: Don’t Expose Yourself | Reaction Times

  8. What an illuminating article. I read most of Dostoyevsky in my early twenties and he was my favourite author then, but for some reason I never read Demons. Perhaps 40 years later I am ready for it.

    You should only be exposed to something after you have been given the means to defend yourself from it. Lead us not into temptation.

    • I’m glad you found it interesting. I read your book, and so know there are some parallels between your life and mine. I don’t know if you read Carlos Castaneda when you were in your twenties, but I did, and I’d say the effect was not good. I’ve come to have a similar opinion of the Beat authors, although men I respect tell me I’m wrong. I guess what this comes down to is that false teachers are especially abundant when it comes to matters of the spirit, and the damage they can do is very great indeed.

  9. I did indeed read Castaneda. In fact I read him before I got seriously interested in spiritual matters (about the time I read Dostoyevsky actually) and I found him disturbing. He didn’t feel right. His approach to the spiritual resembled a distorted image in a hall of mirrors, if that makes any sense.

    I would say the Beat poets also distorted spirituality because they saw it in the light of themselves rather than seeing themselves in its light. They were influenced quite a bit by Zen, weren’t they? I’m not sure if the Zen influence in the ’50s was an altogether good one. That’s not to criticize Zen (though I do think it’s a limited approach) but, while Zen Buddhism may have been good for people in an ultra-conventional, hierarchical society like medieval Japan, it was not necessarily so healthy for individualistic rebels against normal structure. It encouraged their excesses, or had the potential to do so if they reacted to it on an ego level which I would say many of them did.

  10. This is fascinating, because I’m in the middle of reading “Demons”. Usually, I read 90% non-fiction; but around the holidays I try to find time to fit in classic literature, so I started Demons a week before Christmas. Now, books of great length I usually interrupt by starting or continuing something else, so believe it or not, I’m also reading Chernow’s new Grant volume at this time. (There’s a strange convergence between the books: “demonic” ideas flourished here during Reconstruction, the very time “Demons” was published in Russia in 1872.)

    I’m skeptical, however, that students should not be exposed to alternative ideas. Instead there are two problems as I see it: the great preponderance of the alternative (Marxism, nihilism, post-modernism etc.) versus the classical canon; and the teaching of this alternative as unassailable doctrine. And why aren’t our critical faculties “robust”? They won’t improve in an insulated environment. Far better to have teachers that implant some skepticism about Marx rather than avoid the subject entirely. Today I feel I’m much improved in arguing against modern leftism, but I wish I had these same faculties thirty years ago.

    Note: I’ve only finished Part I of Demons. I found especially odd the long scene with all the major characters gathered in Varvara’s drawing room, revealing this or that past anecdote in almost staged soliloquies. The conversation did not have the same realistic flow that I remember in C&P or BK, but I definitely will return to Demons!

  11. Discussion of this novel was overdue here! It should be added to the list of resource books.

    I think Demons and The Brothers Karamazov indicate two futures for Russia and the world. Demons shows the track we are on: the village burns down. The Brothers Karamazov shows a religious renewal, as the boys gather around the near-monk Alyosha and pledge themselves in loyalty and love to one another in the presence of a beloved comrade-boy’s grave. Of course this concluding image isn’t a prescription for a program; but it suggests the way. Alyosha can share what he has received from the late elder, Zosima, and even from the earth — when he fell prostrate beneath the stars on a night of holy work in his soul.

    I’m sure Demons is “prescient,” but also it is “news” about our own time. When some vandal places a rodent inside the glass containing an icon — what is this but “performance art”? How significant it is that when Stavrogin has his sexual night with Liza, it is a fiasco. How many Lembkes we have today. And what an evocation of regeneration, Stepan physically dwindling but hearing the Gospel from the old bookseller….

    To anyone who hasn’t read them yet — my warmest recommendation of the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of Demons — and also The Brothers Karamazov.

    Dale Nelson

    • Another book of Orthospherical interest is Farasiotis’s The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios. I mention it here because, on the middle of page 68, there’s a passage that leaps out, as descriptive of Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky, one of the main characters in Dostoevsky’s novel:

      “Others pass their days cut off from the truth about life, moving in imaginary worlds of their own creation, believing, in their pride and self-centeredness, that the creations of their minds are the highest of all goods. They worship their ideas and order their lives around them, turning their own mind into their god, and so they live within a lie, in the darkness of their hypotheses, their theories, and their ignorance.”

      • JMSmith comments on the passage from Dostoevsky’s Demons, “This is what Voegelin calls ‘second reality.’ It’s hard not to be tempted by it.”

        We are particularly liable to be tempted, I suppose, during periods of idleness. It’s important for us to realize that it’s likely that a great deal of our superficial busy-ness is idleness. On page 97, Farasiotis confesses he got involved with an occultic Silva Mind Control event “just in order to have something to do.”

        A great deal of a student’s time, a professor’s time, and (often) the time people spend in the workplace, as well as time at home, is idle. It is not a time of genuine refreshment of psyche or even of innocent relaxation, let alone of right work. We invite titillation of various kinds in our boredom. I do suspect that some suicidal acts begin with people not “seriously” thinking about killing themselves, but “just playing with the idea,” not even feeling terribly depressed. In the classrooms, too, a professor might say, “Let’s play with this idea, let’s kick this around,” etc. Is that the way one talks when the truth is at stake?

        What a contrast with Luther: “O, this faith is a living, busy, active, powerful thing! It is impossible that it should not be ceaselessly doing that which is good. It does not even ask whether good works should be done; but before the question can be asked, it has done them, and it is constantly engaged in doing them. But he who does not do such works, is a man without faith. He gropes and casts about him to find faith and good works, not knowing what either of them is, and yet prattles and idly multiplies words about faith and good works.”

  12. Thank you for this post JMSmith. If I read this book again someday I will read it in light of your insights here.

    I don’t suppose you meant consciously to warn anyone lurking here of dangers even at the Orthosphere, but I take warning anyways, if only because of my own weakness.

    I struggle, for instance, with ideas presented by William Wildblood (and a father of the Orthosphere, Bruce Charlton, with whom he apparently closely associates). Their identification and indictment of poisonous modern philosophies is rarely to be found done as well by anyone living today. Most notably not by anyone within the hierarchy of our spiritual mother, the Catholic Church. In fact, upon exposure to Wildblood’s blog, I get a similar feeling as one I suppose the green lady got in Perelandra when Weston was grilling her on the injustices women have faced at the hands of men throughout the ages: I feel as though it is reasonable to consider the Catholic Church is at best a useful tool to aid one in what is true Christianity (or perhaps just true spirituality?); more likely she is useless baggage; and at worst she is a hindrance to true enlightenment as an unseemly and gluttonous institution, that those who adhere to her as their mother risk taking upon the same characteristics of spiritual boorishness and worldliness.

    Stated that way, it sounds like something I don’t want to be exposed to, for to leave the Church (and to state it more bluntly and in as unseemly a fashion as conceivable, to leave Pope Francis) seems worse than renouncing my own father and mother. But, the temptation is then to conclude that if I stay, I must resign myself to the spiritual danger, or even death, of unenlightenment.

    • Oh dear, you rather make me sound like some kind of tempter. For what it’s worth I do sympathise with the predicament of anyone who wishes to stay faithful to his church when others might feel there is more to truth than can be encompassed by any one earthly religion, even the Catholic church in which, incidentally, both my children were baptised though I was raised in the Church of England.

      I would never recommend that anyone renounce their faith. If that’s where your heart is then that’s where you should be.

      From my perspective though I do think that there is an inner path which can be followed from within a religion but need not be. That may just reflect my background and the unsettled time in which I grew up when religions were struggling to express the mystical core of truth or so it seemed, and when there was greater exposure to other spiritual approaches.

      Are religions eternal or can they be outgrown, that’s the question. Of course, if you are claiming to outgrow any religion you have to be judged much more strictly than anyone else. But could it be that as human beings develop and change their spiritual needs do as well?

      Perhaps I suffer from the fact of having been brought up in a religion which does not have a universal claim to truth. But maybe that’s also a good thing. And anyway at the end of the day, it’s what is in the heart that matters.I don’t suppose God cares what religion we belong to as long as we seek to live according to his word.

      • William, as I said in Dec. 2016 in response to J. M. Smith’s “Fingerpost to William Wildblood’s Meeting the Masters, the issue is whether access to God is stavrocentric (Cross-centered) or not. The whole tenor of Jesus’ life and teaching is that it was and is. If it isn’t, one really might wonder why He bothered to become incarnate in the first place.

        You probably have read C. S. Lewis’s little essay in which he says that the world offers us two types of religion, the “spiritual,” contemplative, ethical type that often appeals to thoughtful, introverted folk, and the communal, ceremonial, cultic type. The orthodox Christian faith unites and corrects both of these. It tells the contemplative to go to a blood feast for the forgiveness of his sins. It tells the communal, cultic folk to learn from the eternal Logos. It’s universal in the sense that all that’s good and true in both strains is found in it, but it is scandalously particular in saying there’s salvation in no other Name than that of the crucified and risen Savior Jesus. Certainly there’s no salvation in our own efforts to be spiritual folk.

        I recommend an essay by the Lutheran theologian Hermann Sasse, “The Theology of the Cross,” in a book called We Confess Jesus Christ — which I guess did nothing for Dr. Charlton, but might speak to you. While you hunt that down, Charles Williams’s essay “The Cross” might be easier to get hold of in Britain.

        With best wishes

        Dale Nelson

      • Are religions eternal or can they be outgrown, that’s the question.

        Indeed. If you can outgrow a religion, it isn’t eternal, isn’t true, and isn’t even a religion, properly speaking. It’s rather only a theory of some few errant men, that is wrong.

        If you find the true religion, you shall find that you can never outgrow it; for, not only must it be true, but as such, moreover, its depths and heights must be infinite (for, Truth is not finite). You’ll never be able to get to the bottom of it, and you’ll never be able to reach the top of it.

        If then you find that you have outgrown a religion, there are only two possibilities: either it wasn’t a rightful, proper religion to begin with; or, you’re wrong about it.

  13. Thanks to all who have commented. I’ll read what you’ve written and answer questions in a couple of days. I’m presently in a remote outpost of civilization with very sketchy internet connections. Whether the level of civilization increases or decreases between here and the big cities, I’ll leave you to discuss.


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