Existentialism was a movement that took place in philosophy after the Second World War, but its roots go back many centuries. It was a break with the Enlightenment mindset which attempted to bring mankind to a state of perfection.
The objections to traditional thinking came when Western man began to encounter his own finitude: the Renaissance had promised unlimited horizons for humanity; the Enlightenment had peered down the corridors of Time and saw man as a perfected being:
Our hopes for the future condition of the human race can be subsumed under three important heads: the abolition of inequality between nations, the progress of equality within each nation, and the true perfection of mankind (Condorcet, Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind).
This was the general mood among thinkers during that time. Even religious thinkers were enticed by the idea that man was finally on his way to achieving fulfillment. While still holding to faith in the spiritual realm, the Protestants, with their puritan work ethic, viewed nature as a realm hostile to the spirit, and meant to be conquered by zealous industry. In this way, Protestant man assisted the New Science in carrying out the immense project of the desacralization of Nature, emptying it of all the symbols and images that had been given to man by the Soul. In doing this, Protestantism stripped man of the unity of his nature.
As the modern world moved onward, faith became less and less important as a result of the continued secularization of society. Protestant man is the beginning of the West’s terrible encounter with nihilism.
The marriage of Protestantism and capitalism, as shown by historians, was of major importance in the rationalization and de-souling of human life. For several centuries, the two pillaged and reconstructed the globe, snatching for themselves new continents and territories, and seeming to prove the superiority of their religion and intellect. By the middle of the nineteenth century, capitalism had erected the worst slums in human history.
The depersonalization caused by Western man’s fascination with the abstract led directly to the revolt of men like Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, a Russian novelist, was arrested in April, 1849 as a member of a socialistic group of middle-class liberals interested in Fourier’s theories. A little more than half a year later, he stood before a firing squad, stark naked, and awaiting his death. He later wrote of his thoughts while waiting there in the prison yard in the freezing cold,
I kept staring at a church with a gilt dome reflecting the sunbeams and I suddenly felt as if these beams came from the region where I myself was going to be in a few minutes.
At that moment, an officer came galloping across the square, waving a handkerchief to signal that Tsar Nicholas I had commuted the sentences of Dostoevsky, and the twenty other men who stood there with him, to prison terms in Siberia. Dostoevsky’s comment was: “A lesson never to be forgotten.” Grigoriev, another of the condemned men, went insane after this; others suffered nervous breakdowns, contracted incurable diseases, or had their ears and toes frozen. Dostoevsky did not remember having felt the cold at all.
This experience, coupled with the rediscovery of his faith in Christ while in Siberia, had monumental effects on his later literary career.
After several years of wandering around Europe, gambling away all of his money, an unsuccessful love affair, never-ending problems with his publisher, loss of his best friend, and finally bankruptcy and near starvation, he was a broken man. Even the success of Crime And Punishment could not pay his entire debt. After marrying Anna Gregorievna, the final ten years of his life became a period of quiet and comfort.
Dostoevsky has been called “the father of modern psychology,” for he knew about human nature, about human suffering, defeat, and failure. He did not want to be called a psychologist; he declared emphatically, “I am not a psychologist, I am a realist.” Nietzsche complimented him by saying that he was the only psychologist from whom he had learned anything.
The extremes which had shaken his life took him on a journey through the dark regions of the human soul. He once said, “Always and in everything I go to the extreme limit.” His passion for excess led him to the uncharted realms of human existence where he would confront the mysteries of life. “The ant knows the formula of its abode and work… but man does not,” he once said.
His writings are poignant examples of the anxiety of nineteenth century man. In his work, Notes from Underground, he paints a picture of the attitude that was emerging after the disappointments of the Enlightenment:
I am a sick man….I am a spiteful man. No, I am not a pleasant man at all. I believe there is something wrong with my liver. However, I don’t know a damn thing about my liver; neither do I know whether there is anything really wrong with me. I am not under medical treatment, and never have been….I refuse medical treatment out of spite….I don’t expect I shall be able to explain to you who it is I am actually trying to annoy in this case by my spite; I realise full well that I can’t ‘hurt’ the doctors by refusing to be treated by them; I realise better than any one that by all this I am only hurting myself and no one else. Still, the fact remains that if I refuse to be medically treated, it is only out of spite.”
This is only the first paragraph of Dostoevsky’s bleak portrait of his anti-hero. One should read the entire book to get at what he is saying. The main point is, and I will let him speak for himself, he and his contemporaries “have lost all touch with life, we are all cripples, every one of us….We are stillborn.” The transition from the optimism of the eighteenth century is obvious.
The underground man actually does not want to find his true motive — he is hiding from himself: “There are certain things in a man’s past which he does not divulge to everybody but, perhaps, only to his friends. Again there are certain things he will not divulge even to his friends; he will divulge them, perhaps, only to himself…But, finally, there are things which he is afraid to divulge even to himself.”
The skepticism of David Hume helped drive a wedge between reason and nature, and led to the attitudes of men like Dostoevsky, by his contention that there is no “necessary connection” among matters of fact. Hume regarded reason as merely a tool for detecting relations among ideas; reason can tell us nothing about the real world, was his opinion. This led to Dostoevsky making statements like: “you can’t explain anything by reasoning and consequently it is useless to reason.” Quite a monumental change from Condorcet’s previously quoted statement of optimism.
Dostoevsky’s chapter in The Brothers Karamazov, entitled “The Grand Inquisitor,” gives us a glimpse into how he viewed organized religion. The story takes place in Seville, Spain during the worst days of the Inquisition. Christ appears to the people of the city, performs several miracles, and is subsequently arrested by the Cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor. He is taken to a dark prison cell and locked away. Soon afterwards, the Grand Inquisitor pays him a visit. These are his opening remarks:
You? Is it really you? You need not answer me. Say nothing. I know only too well what You could tell me now. Besides, You have no right to add anything to what you said before. Why did you come here, to interfere and make things difficult for us? For You came to interfere — You know it.”
The Cardinal then informs Christ that He will be burned as a heretic the next day. Christ remains silent through all of this.
The entirety of Dostoevsky’s brilliant insight in this chapter must be read to be appreciated. The words spoken by the Cardinal are powerful and frightening, and resemble modern day religiosity.
Dostoevsky’s insight into the human condition, along with others like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, led to some fascinating discoveries in both psychology and philosophy in the twentieth century. Their insight provides us with clues to the mysteries of healing the human soul.
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