Dostoevsky, in his classic book, Notes from the Underground, states
I swear, gentlemen, that to be too conscious is an illness – a real thorough-going illness. For man’s everyday needs, it would have been quite enough to have the ordinary human consciousness, that is, half or a quarter of the amount which falls to the lot of a cultivated man . . .1
This is a very curious notion. One would think that greater consciousness, more awareness, is to be desired. It is, most assuredly, but not without a price. I am tempted to ignore it as so much claptrap. I defer, however, to Dostoevsky, perhaps the greatest psychologist who ever lived. The man knew what he was talking about. Anything valuable requires a reciprocal price be paid. In the case of the person who seeks greater awareness, consciousness can be a curse.
Most people go through life with what Dostoevsky calls “the consciousness by which all so-called direct persons and men of action live.” 2 I equate these with the herd man, the one who thinks nothing of the inner life, the one who is caught up solely in the external world of money-making, sports, sex, entertainment, and whatever other distractions take him away from a life of greater awareness. These herd men and women do not recognize the fact that greater consciousness can even be attained. And if, perchance, it is attained, why would it be a curse or an illness?
Dostoevsky views greater awareness, or “acute consciousness” in this way:
The more conscious I was of goodness and of all that was “sublime and beautiful,” the more deeply I sank into my mire and the more ready I was to sink in it altogether. But the chief point was that all this was, as it were, not accidental in me, but as though it were bound to be so. It was as though it were my most normal condition, and not in the least disease or depravity, so that at last all desire in me to struggle against this depravity passed. It ended by my almost believing (perhaps actually believing) that this was perhaps my normal condition. But at first, in the beginning, what agonies I endured in that struggle! 3
Everyone has a “normal condition.” We can call this Fate. For some reason unbeknownst to me, and by powers I am not aware of, I am led to the situation I find myself in. I must grow down into it as a tree would sink its roots into the earth. By sinking into it altogether, I discover that it is “not in the least disease or depravity,” but “despicable enjoyment.”4 By no means, however, did an angry God sentence me to the life I lead, while saving others and damning some to eternal punishment. That notion is a product of dark minds. No, I own my Fate, for whatever reason, or for no reason at all. These things are beyond reason.
With Fate, events simply occur, but at very opportune moments. Fate, in the Greek sense, is an intervention that occurs entirely apart from causality. You might have a sudden urge to read something by Dostoevsky, for instance. Your daimon gives you a little nudge to do so, and before you know it, you’ve read a paragraph that speaks to a certain aspect of your life. Or, you could be playing basketball with some friends, go up for a rebound, and come down with your ankle twisted and suffer a fracture. This event happened for no particular reason; it was just the Hand of Fate. Afterwards, you look back and reflect on the occurrence. Perhaps you were ignoring soulful activities and needed to slow down for awhile. Perhaps you were spending too much time concentrating on basketball when you should have been writing or painting, or whatever else Soul deemed appropriate for you. As Ficino says, if you follow your star, your daimon, you will live a fulfilled life.
I got to the point of feeling a sort of secret abnormal, despicable enjoyment in returning home to my corner on some disgusting Petersburg night, acutely conscious that that day I had committed a loathsome action again, that what was done could never be undone, and secretly, inwardly gnawing, gnawing at myself for it, tearing and consuming myself till at last the bitterness turned into a sort of shameful accursed sweetness, and at last—into positive real enjoyment! Yes, into enjoyment, into enjoyment! I insist upon that. I have spoken of this because I keep wanting to know for a fact whether other people feel such enjoyment? I will explain; the enjoyment was just from the too intense consciousness of one’s own degradation; it was from feeling oneself that one had reached the last barrier, that it was horrible, but that it could not be otherwise; that there was no escape for you; that you never could become a different man; that even if time and faith were still left you to change into something different you would most likely not wish to change; or if you did wish to, even then you would do nothing; because perhaps in reality there was nothing for you to change into.5
One who experiences “too intense consciousness of one’s own degradation” knows how miserable a experience this can be. This is the nihilism of which Nietzsche spoke of. It is
. . . the recognition of the long waste of strength, the agony of the “in vain,” insecurity, the lack of any opportunity to recover and to regain composure–being ashamed in front of oneself, as if one had deceived oneself all too long. . .6
It is one of those signposts on the circuitous road to completing one’s life. Nihilism is a transitional stage of becoming who we are meant to be, who Fate deems us to be. It is a traffic roundabout with several choices to make as to which turn-off one takes. You see, even though Fate is involved, we still have choices. One can transform that feeling of the “too intense consciousness of one’s own degradation” into sheer enjoyment, or one can follow nihilism into self-annihilation.
In this life, transformation is always a choice. The curse of consciousness need not be permanent. It is, however, quite painful. Endurance belongs to the courageous.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Notes from the Underground (AmazonClassics Edition) Amazon Classics. Kindle Edition.
The Will to Power. Friedrich Nietzsche. Trans. Walter Kauffman and R.J. Hollingdale. New York: Vintage, 1967.
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