Monday, March 11, 2024

Rebel With a Cause


The record is stunning.  To take only one microcosmic example: In the year 1866, two important works of literature had begun to appear in serial form side by side in the same literary journal. The Russian Mesenger (Russky vestnik). 

The first novel was War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.  The second was Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

The Age of Nihilism: Christendom from the Great War to the Culture Wars, by John Strickland

Stickland is describing the boom that occurred in Russian secular culture once the West’s humanist ideals were embraced.  Here, Stickland will focus on Dostoevsky, noting that he would document, better than any of his contemporaries, the growing crisis of utopian Christendom – the version of Christendom that came to replace, in Strickland’s view, the paradisaical Christendom that existed for the first thousand years in the West, and, until more recently, in the East.

Dostoevsky, son of a brutal father who was murdered when his peasants rose up against him, was never an atheist, although he nevertheless liked to spend his time among atheists.  He would keep up with the latest streams of progressive Western thought.  Most in this camp would look at the Russian Orthodox Church with contempt.

They would also look down on the poor and impoverished.  Dostoevsky would write of these same poor and impoverished, stirring dissatisfaction with the status quo.  A lesson for our time, perhaps: when the status quo is atheist, it is the Christian who is a rebel:

John 15: 18-19 If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you.  If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.

Dostoevsky would write, when contemplating how different he was, the torment he suffered as “a child of this century”:

“And despite all this, God sent me moments of great tranquility, moments during which I love and find I am loved by others.  … This symbol is very simple, and here is what it is: to believe that there is nothing more beautiful, more profound, than Christ…”

Yet, he would remain rebellious in temperament.  He would join a group that would meet at night, discussing books by prominent French socialists.  Having been found out, the members of the group were sentenced to execution.

As they were being marched out to receive this punishment, a rider came up with a message from the tsar: they would not be executed, but instead sent for hard labor in Siberia.  A reprieve.  In Siberia, instead of limiting himself to live within the world of the intelligentsia, he would have hardened criminals for companions: murderers, rapists, child abusers.

He was not allowed to bring any of his books with him, yet somehow a charitable society did provide copies of the New Testament for the prisoners.  Dostoevsky would keep his under his pillow in the barracks for the next four years.

What Dostoevsky would discover in his time with the criminals: even if the world was transformed into a utopia, with everyone given wealth, health, and freedom, in the end that world was still populated by men such as these.  There is nothing in such a utopia that would heal the hearts of such men.

“In the course of several years, I never saw a sign of repentance among these people…”

Just like Nietzsche, Dostoevsky saw the dark side, the nihilism.  Dostoevsky was in prison, Nietzsche in the splendor of Bayreuth.  Yet, unlike Nietzsche, Dostoevsky was a Christian – this reality gave Dostoevsky the means to transcend this broken world.

Seeing a man savagely beaten in prison, Dostoevsky’s mind raced back to a time in childhood.  Out in the family forest, he heard the cry of a wolf.  Terrified, he fled the wood and came to Marey, one of his father’s peasants.  Peasants who were so cruelly beaten by Dostoevsky’s father that they would one day rise up and murder him.

Marey dropped his work, ran to the boy, and blessed him with the sign of the cross.  He then promised to watch the boy until he made it back to the house.  No one or nothing forced Marey to act this way.  Dostoevsky reflected: Marey did all this knowing that, almost certainly, no one would ever know of his kindness.  In Marey’s eyes, Dostoevsky saw genuine love.

Only God, perhaps, could witness Marey’s action.  Through this, Dostoevsky could see his fellow convicts with sympathy rather than malice:

Unconditional love, rooted in the Christian faith of the peasant Marey, now offered an alternative to nihilism.

After prison, Dostoevsky would return to Saint Petersburg in 1859, with much work to do.  He would find that the populists were agitating for ever more radical forms of progress, through increasingly an increasing nihilistic lens that would see the traditional Orthodox faith with contempt,

Good and evil were to be determined solely by utility: did an action advance or impede human happiness; history moves in an ever upward trend as science replaces religion: positivism; intelligent men held the traditional social order in contempt.

Dostoevsky saw all this.  His first significant work after his return was designed as a challenge to this humanistic understanding of man: Notes from Underground.  This “underground man” is a contemptible figure, yet strangely sympathetic.  But it isn’t the extravagant wealth of the nobility or the poverty of the peasants against which he rails:

For him, society is rotten because under the influence of modern Western ideas it threatens to reduce man to the status of an animal.

Such a totalizing rational ordering of society could do nothing but destroy true human freedom, despite the seeming advances that a liberal Western model seemed to advance and continued to promise.  The status of animal (or, as CS Lewis would write, The Abolition of Man) as an end result was inevitable.

His subsequent novels would put on full display where this nihilistic road would lead.  For example, a self-destructive self-loathing woman accepts a one-hundred-thousand-ruble bribe to elope, only then to hurl the money in the fireplace. 

Such figures would be seen by western intellectuals as grotesque, yet this is exactly where we have come, based on the ideas of these western intellectuals.  This is what happens when reason and the individual are divorced from God:

…nihilism lies below the surface of rationalism when the latter is divorced from the light of the gospel.

Those who claim to serve the material needs of the masses end up only interested in power for its own sake.  Dostoevsky would foresee the future of this revolutionary movement falling into the hands of a megalomaniac, one obsessed with his own power and willing to murder even those in his circle to attain and keep it: he foresaw Stalin.

He would write of the rational nihilist, one who concludes that the will of the individual is the only standard of morality.  But it is the will of the extraordinary that counts; only they are free to commit whatever acts they choose, while the ordinary must suffer whatever they must.

The extraordinary man in Dostoevsky’s novel, Crime and Punishment, is Raskolnikov.  He would devise a plan to murder a helpless old woman who held some treasure – with his superhuman talents, he could do something useful for the world with her wealth.

Yet, this extraordinary man would first have a dream.  In his dream, he came across a man beating a horse, soon joined by others in this action.  The horse was beaten so badly that it would die.  The boy Raskolnikov would ask his father, in the dream: why did they beat the horse?  With a strained chest, unable to breath, Raskolnikov would wake up.

Dostoevsky intended this dream to offer a premonition of where this nihilistic road would lead.  Without God, there can be no limits on human behavior: anything is permissible. 

For a moment, Raskolnikov is humbled: “…can it be that I will really take an axe and hit her on the head and smash her skull…?”  Such concerns didn’t remain for long.  He heard of this woman, a pawnbroker who would be at home alone the following day.  Unable to reason, he felt as a man condemned to death.  He not only murdered the old woman, but also her mentally disabled sister. 

Strickland then recalls Nietzsche and the scene which drove him to madness – that of witnessing a man mercilessly beating a horse.  It is almost certain that Dostoevsky never read Nietzsche (although he had heard Wagner, “that tiresome German scoundrel”), but it is well established the Nietzsche read Dostoevsky. 

Dostoevsky believed that atheism inevitably leads a human being made in the image of God to a point of self-destruction. 

Raskolnikov would bury his treasure under a rock.  In the novel, this is the last we hear of the treasure.  Instead, the novel turns to Raskolnikov suffering his punishment – all an interior punishment.  It would lead him to repentance.

The solution to nihilism therefore becomes not mythological world building but repentance. … For [Dostoevsky], only a radically different solution to the transformational imperative could possibly save utopian Christendom from the impending catastrophe.


Repentance; a change of mind.  Dostoevsky’s various novels and writing would make this point repeatedly.  As one further example, Alyosha, the hero of Brothers Karamazov, outside at night staring at the vast heavenly dome:

The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars … Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth … It was as if threads from all those innumerable worlds of God all came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, “touching other worlds.”  He wanted to forgive everyone and for everything, and to ask forgiveness.


  1. That's very powerful stuff. It is encouraging and discouraging to me at the same time that people like Dostoevsky, Lewis, and many others understood the decline of our culture as it was happening. They also knew the solution. Dostoevsky points to repentance and forgiveness before God. CS Lewis pointed to natural law, the dao, as living out God's designed life for humanity with the chief directive of worshipping God.
    They both rejected materialist, rationalist, individualism, in other words atheism.

    The discouraging part is that they weren't able to turn the tide. We haven't forgotten names like Dostoevsky, Lewis, or Chesterton, but we, I should really say our elites, haven't learned their lessons or implemented their solutions. Instead we get CRT, LGBT+, and the covid regime. These are all fruit of nihilism, materialism, rationalism, individualism (atomistic). All of which have crept in to churches and many church leaders don't have the will to expunge it.

  2. I also want to point out that the post-libertarian movement follows the same path. They reject universal values and substitute them for subjective, even racial, interests. Ideas or ideology are looked down upon. Pragmatism is the focus. It is basically "might makes right", so the goal is to have more might and impose your own right. They speak of Christianity as a solution, but their definition sounds more like Christendom and tradition than anything else. Christendom was better than what we have today, but Christendom fell because Christianity was removed from its center. True biblical Christianity teaches morality but also grace, order but also forgiveness, community but also impartiality. The Bible also teaches the importance of individuals and reason too. But not in the way atheists or post-libertarians do.

    1. Yes. A Christian culture can only last for a time when Christ is no longer in the center of it.

      Western civilization removed Christ with the Enlightenment. Life carried on reasonably well until 1914, when the abandonment of Christ by man led to its inevitable result.

      Barzun called WWI the suicide of the West. But one doesn't go to bed one night a healthy human being and wake up the next morning to commit suicide. It takes years of spiraling downward to reach such a state.

    2. And the spiral has become a whirlpool, one with seemingly no bottom as yet in sight.

  3. I read "Crime and Punishment" decades ago and have never forgotten it. Even without the gentle nudges of a police detective, Raskolnikov could not have escaped the not so subtle nudges of a guilty conscience.