The Sickness Unto Death

Here is a question: what is the difference between not being able to do something and not wanting to do something?

In the normal course of events, the distinction is unproblematic. We know what it’s like to be frustrated because we want to do something but don’t have the skills to do it properly. We know what it’s like not to be able to do something, to learn how to do it (through will) and then to be able to do it. We know what it’s like to stop doing something because we don’t want to do it anymore. And we know what it’s like to want to stop doing something but to do it anyway cos we have to.

These are all easily understandable situations where we have a clear conscious understanding of what is going on. What about situations that are less clear? Let me give an extended example from a strange occasion in my life which was the first time I started wondering about the question.

The background to the story here is that I used to play a lot of music and got pretty heavily into recording and audio engineering. I was playing in a rock band with a couple of mates and we had just found a new drummer. It wasn’t my choice to have him in the band as I could see he wasn’t very good, but I was outvoted. It didn’t matter much. We were just playing the odd gig. And the new guy seemed like he would be fun to have around even if he wasn’t particularly good at drumming.

At the time, I had a small studio I was using for recording and we were working on an EP for the band. I invited the drummer to come over and do a recording session. It would help him to learn the songs and let me get some practice recording his kit. He thought it was a good idea and we set up a time on a Sunday afternoon.

There is one other important bit of context to the story that non-musicians need to know. The practice tracks we had recorded for the EP were done against a metronome. Anybody who has learned a musical instrument probably remembers the difficulty in playing against a metronome when you’re a beginner. It takes practice and can be very frustrating. I was quite sure our new drummer didn’t practice to a metronome and, as we were both about to find out, my guess was right. And that’s when the weirdness began.

An instrumentalist’s best friend (and worst enemy)

The scene is a familiar one to anybody who has done music recording: the drummer has his drum kit set up and a pair of headphones on. I’m sitting at the computer and my job is simply to press the record button at which point the track begins playing through the headphones and the drummer plays along. Everybody else in the band had recorded their part of the song, so it’s just the drummer filling in his parts. Think of it like karaoke for drummers.

From the very first take, a pattern established itself. The song would start, the drummer would begin playing along and it took usually about 15-20 seconds before he would get out of sync against the backing track. We’d stop and start over. Sometimes I played back the recording to him so he could listen to where he had gone off the rails.

The drummer had seemed like an upbeat and outgoing kind of guy in the short time I’d known him. He’d been in a good mood when he arrived at the studio for what was supposed to be a fun and relaxed thing to do over a couple of beers on a Sunday afternoon. That’s the way it started but he quickly became frustrated at his inability to play in time with the song. I had been doing audio recording long enough by this point to know that it was a good idea to keep the energy up. I reassured him that there was no pressure; that this was all just for fun; that I would delete all the tracks afterwards; that the main purpose here was just for him to learn the songs; all the things audio engineers learn to do to keep musicians motivated.

Nevertheless, the mood of the drummer continued to worsen. I was waiting for him to just say he didn’t want to do it anymore. But what happened was weirder. After less than 30 minutes of trying to play against the backing tracks, he ripped off his headphones and angrily proclaimed that “this wasn’t rock’n’roll. Rock’n’roll is not supposed to be played to a metronome”.

Pro tip for rockers: when you absolutely, positively need to make sure the headphones don’t fall off, gaffer tape them to your forehead

I could have disagreed with him. Prior to modern recording, which is almost always done to a metronome, the drummer’s main job was to approximate a metronome as much as possible. Ringo Starr was not a technically advanced drummer. He got the job because he could hold time and Pete Best could not. The other Beatles even referred to him as their metronome. Keith Moon, a true rock’n’roller if ever there was one, was one of the first drummers to play to a metronome which was necessary once The Who started using synth tracks.

So, I could have disagreed with his statement but it was already a weird thing to complain about since the whole reason we were at the studio was so the drummer could play along to backing tracks and he knew that’s what he would be doing. So, I just nodded along and said some more things designed to lighten the mood. I suggested we take a short break and we went outside for a while.

When we returned, it took only a couple of minutes for an even weirder thing to happen: after another failed attempt to play along, the drummer started to say he was feeling sick. A few failed attempts more and he removed his headphones and said that it would be best to call it a day as he was probably coming down with a flu. So, that’s what we did. Just a few weeks later, the drummer had left the band.

To come back to the original question I posed at the start of this post: what is the difference between not being able to do something and not wanting to do it.

The drummer was unable to play along to a metronome. That was clear. The big advantage of a metronome and the reason why it’s such a valuable tool for aspiring instrumentalists is because it provides an objective standard to measure yourself against. The metronome makes it clear that the statement “you are unable to play to a metronome” is objectively true. I had enough experience with recording by the time this incident happened to know that most people would simply acknowledge this fact. They would say something like “this isn’t working. Let’s call it a day and I’ll go home and practice to a metronome.”

The drummer did not acknowledge the fact. His first response was a weird kind of moral objection: “it is not right to play rock’n’roll to a metronome”. His second response was to feel sick. On this second point, it’s worth noting the possibility that it might have just been an excuse. In Australian slang, this is called chucking a sickie. It’s a way to get off work. But that didn’t make sense in this context. We were not at work. He didn’t need to come up with an excuse. He could have just said he wasn’t enjoying it and didn’t want to do it anymore. Worst case scenario, he could quit a band that he’d only been in for about a week.

In hindsight, what I realise was happening was that the drummer’s pride was under attack. He was ashamed to say that he wasn’t able to play to the metronome and the weird moralising and sudden illness were a cover for that shame.

What got me thinking again about the drummer incident recently was reading the novel I’ve been talking about in the last several posts, The Brothers Karamazov. Pride and shame play a huge role in the novel and there are multiple scenes in the book which are exactly analogous to my drummer incident. There are the characters who are up on their moral high horse but their moral indignation is always a flimsy veneer for various emotional states, including shame. The weird moralising of the drummer was just like that.

On the subject of sudden illness, Dostoevsky several times refers to doctors and medicine in a mocking tone, something I can appreciate after witnessing the last two and a half years of behaviour from the medical establishment. But whenever a character in the book falls suddenly ill, it’s always because they are under emotional or, to put it in more accurate terms, existential stress. It’s sounds hyperbolic, but that’s exactly what was happening with the drummer in my story.

The topic of moral transgressions and their emotional ramifications leading to sudden illness is practically a cliche of 19th century literature where it was usually referred to as “brain fever”. It almost always happened to aristocratic female characters. The woman who finds herself morally compromised, usually involving some love interest that would be considered incredibly tame by modern standards, ends up fainting on the couch and then taking to her bed. Some hapless doctor is sent for and he will proclaim that he hasn’t the faintest idea what the problem is as the woman seems physically fine. None of the other characters know what’s going on either, but we the reader know.

This leads to a variation on the question from the start of the post: are you really (physically) sick or is it in your mind?

In our materialist worldview, sickness is always physical. But the phenomenon of feeling sick when under emotional (existential) duress is far more common than we think. I can give testimony to this fact from my hobby of powerlifting.

For those who don’t know, powerlifting is a sport featuring three lifts: the squat, the bench and the deadlift

After you’ve been doing powerlifting for a time, you learn to lift weights that are heavy enough to be dangerous. (This is why you should always powerlift with a club or an experienced friend). When you walk into the gym to try and squat twice your body weight for the first time, you are rightfully nervous. You start thinking about what will happen if things go wrong. Perhaps your mind will start playing tricks on you. You might start feeling a little nauseous and it’s as if a little voice in your head was saying “you don’t really need to do this. Better go home and get some rest. You might be coming down with a flu.”

I suspect that the reason why the main demographic that was sceptical even at the height of the initial corona hysteria was professional athletes and gym junkies and the reason is that both groups have had long practice of learning to tell the difference between being physically sick/injured and being tricked by the mind.

As I have noted in previous posts, it is not a coincidence that all these psychological complexities started to come out in the 19th century among the upper classes in Europe as this was the time when the subconscious was being discovered. We see it in Schopenhauer’s concept of the will, we see it in 19th century literature and later on in Freud and Jung who made their living tending to exactly the kind of women who suffered from “brain fever”.

But, as far as I know, the philosopher who best addressed the question I posed at the start of this post was somebody who also wrote in the 19th century and that’s the Danish thinker Soren Kierkegaard in his book The Sickness Unto Death.

“…there is no dialectical specification appropriate to the transition from having understood something to doing it.”

Let’s summarise my drummer story again from the Kierkegaardian perspective. The drummer “understood” that it was a good idea to practice along to the backing tracks. He was enthusiastic enough about the idea to agree to spend a Sunday afternoon doing it. The question is what happened next to change his mind.

Kierkegaard introduces the idea from Socrates that understanding and ethics are identical. That is, a person who understood what was right would do what was right. To do wrong meant that you didn’t understand. This leads to a weird explanation for the drummer’s behaviour. It would mean he understood at the start of the practice session that it was good to practice but then he forgot the truth halfway through. In that case, the correct approach to remedy the problem would be to have a Socratic dialogue to lead him back to a correct understanding.

The problem, of course, was that the drummer was not arguing rationally. If he had turned around and said that he didn’t think practising was a good idea, then we could have had a rational, Socratic dialogue about the matter. But he didn’t. Instead, he made some arbitrary moral argument and then became sick. There is, as far as I know, no dialogue in Plato where one of Socrates’ interlocutors suddenly becomes sick and has to retire from the scene. The issue of the subconscious is not present in Greek philosophy. You either consciously understand or you don’t. If you don’t, then you need to be made to consciously understand through dialectic.

Kierkegaard’s explanation introduces the concept of will. By will he means what Freud and Jung would later call the subconscious/unconscious. The conscious mind is the understanding. The subconscious is the will. The question then becomes: how do you know when somebody is acting by understanding (consciousness) or by will (subconsciousness)?

Did the drummer no longer want (will) to continue with the practice? The answer is clearly: yes. Was he consciously aware that he didn’t want to continue? Did he understand why in his conscious mind? The strange answer is: probably not.

The objective nature of the metronome was making the drummer look bad. It was showing up his defects as a musician. This introduces emotions such as shame and these emotions affect the understanding. The distinction between conscious understanding and subconscious will is not binary like Socrates assumed. We have differing amounts of conscious understanding even about the contents of our own minds and our understanding can change over time. If a person does not understand his own mind, how can anybody else understand it?

The idea that somebody else can understand is the basis for psychoanalysis. Within the modern psychological framework following Freud and Jung, we might attribute the drummer’s behaviour to complexes or psychoses. We might frame them as psychological illness and we would put the drummer on the couch and ask him how he felt when it turned out he couldn’t play along to a metronome. We might hypothesise that the metronome triggered an inferiority complex he had had because his parents did pay him enough attention as a child, or whatever.

For Socrates, such episodes are ironic and comedic and that is how the interlocutors in a Socratic dialogue appear as they dialectically fumble around contradicting themselves. You could imagine a sketch comedy featuring a drummer who shows up to practice and then pretends to be sick or comes up with moral or other reasons why he can’t play. A good comedic writer could find plenty of material there and we could have a laugh at the drummer’s expense. Think of the movie Spinal Tap or the classic “more cowbell” sketch for examples.

Cowbell fever: if pain persists, see your drummer

When such things happen in real life with somebody you know, it’s not funny. It’s confusing and perplexing. For Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, it’s more than that. Their frame is an ethico-religious one entailing an interpretation of the Christian doctrine using the concepts of conscience, despair and sin. According to this way of looking at it, the understanding/consciousness/conscience is the good while the “will” represents the lower parts of the psyche. To allow the lower parts of the psyche to triumph over the good by clouding the understanding is to sin.

 “…sin does not consist in man’s not having understood what is right, but in his not wanting to understand it, and in his unwillingness to do what is right.”

Socrates would say that the drummer no longer understood what was right when he gave up and left the practice session. Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky would say that he did not want to want to understand what was right. He gave in to base desires. He sinned.

Within our modern utilitarian morality where we judge events by their consequences, this all sounds like a storm in a teacup. No damage was done by the drummer calling it quits. Nobody was hurt. Therefore, there is no moral issue. But for Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, it’s exactly these moments which are telling because once you have given in to the subconscious it will become a habit and you deviate further from the path of the good one small step at a time. Note that this is literally true for a drummer who does not want to practice to a metronome. Their chances of becoming a good drummer are vanishingly small.

The Brothers Karamazov is full of examples of people deviating from the good and the differing levels of consciousness each character has about it. Some characters never consciously realise what is going on even with their own behaviour. Their conscious mind (conscience) no longer even understands the good. The more noble characters are in a struggle which is the struggle between knowing what is good and being unable to achieve it. This struggle is what Kierkegaard called the Sickness Unto Death, a metaphor which is particularly poignant after the events of the last three years. We immediately look for material causes for all illness but Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard imply that a great deal of illness is really spiritual.

Nowadays, with the Christian religion in seemingly terminal decline and the Dostoevskyan/Kierkegaardian interpretation even less well known, we have slipped back to a choice between the ancient Greek understanding of these issues or a modern psychological interpretation. We can laugh a Socratic laughter at the irrationality of the world or we can say that people are “crazy” or “insane”. Such epithets are hurled about by the thousands on the internet every single day but are also present in the mass formation psychosis explanation for corona, for example.

Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard would say that the underlying cause is ethico-religious: we have lost our understanding of the good. We have done so because we have given in to base desires i.e. the will. They are surely correct to some extent. Just look at the complete lack of ethical behaviour over the last three years; the rampant lying, gaslighting and manipulation every day in the public discourse; the use of force to silence dissent; the censorship; the weaponisation of the financial system. It all speaks to a lack of ethical understanding. If God (the good) doesn’t exist, everything is permitted.

Although this manifests most conspicuously at the level of politics, for Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard it was fundamentally an individual problem. We choose the fog of rational abstractions, we indulge in cheap moral grandstanding and we put blind faith in party politics precisely because we have lost track of our self. The answer is to return to the self and rediscover the good at the individual level. It’s not a glamourous task. There’s nothing heroic about it. It won’t win you any likes on social media. But without it you’ll be forever tilting at windmills.

Saving the world one vegetable at a time

In the last few posts, I’ve talked in rather highfalutin’ terms about the meaning of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In this post, I’m going to metaphorically bring it down to earth and try and draw a correspondence between one of the main themes of the novel and fruit and vegetable gardening. How is this possible, I hear you cry. Read on to find out.

Two of most poignant scenes in Karamazov feature an embrace of the earth. Firstly, near the start of the novel, the Elder Zosima bows down before Dmitri and touches his forehead on the ground in front of him. Secondly, when Alyosha has his spiritual revelation beneath the stars of a clear night sky, he embraces the earth and kisses the ground.

“The mystery of the earth was one with the mystery of the stars…”

The word “humble” is derived from the Latin humus meaning “earth”. The actions of Zosima and Alyosha are symbols of humility, a humility most of the other characters in the novel do not have. The other characters suffer from hubris. Hubris comes from the Greek meaning, among other things, insolence towards the gods. The gods have been traditionally associated with the stars/the heavens, hence the symbolism of Alyosha under the stars. It’s all very well to reach for the stars but one must be standing on the ground. The classic story of hubris is Icarus, who flew too close to the heavens (the sun) and perished. He had lost contact with the earth.

Humus also has a technical meaning in English: the parts of the soil that result from the decomposition of organic matter.

The advice Zosima gives to Alyosha in Karamazov is very similar to the advice that Icarus failed to heed in the old myth. There must be a balance between the earth and the stars. Even the greatest spiritual teacher must kiss the ground every now and then. Although monks throughout history have tended the earth alongside their spiritual practices, in the monastery of 19th century Russia presented in Karamazov, the priests live by the charity of the townsfolk. They are disconnected from the earth. Thus, Zosima instructs Alyosha to leave the monastery, a place of god worship (the stars), and go into the world (the earth).

Looking at the state of western society these days, I don’t think there’s any question that we have become disconnected from the earth. This is not just a metaphorical observation. Our lack of humility goes hand in hand with a lack of actual contact with humus. I’m not talking about kissing the ground (although a little smooch every now and then never hurt anyone). I’m talking about just everyday hands in soil.

Humility has traditionally been associated with the lower classes because for most of history the lower classes worked with humus. “He came from humble origins” means his family worked the earth. Almost all humans for almost all of history did so. Only the rich avoided the job (we’ll come to that subject later). As western society got richer and richer, the first thing anybody did was stop working the earth. And now we have a humility problem. It would be ironic, except is makes perfect sense and is one of the oldest themes of religion, literature and philosophy.

In philosophical terms, the stars vs earth contrast maps onto the classical distinction between Imagination and Actuality. We think of Imagination as the ability to visualise things in the mind. But the philosophical conception is wider and sees Imagination as the storehouse of the mental models we have about the world including cultural scripts and stories, myths, religious notions, scientific theories etc.

When I invoke the story of Icarus and you understand that story, we are tiptoeing through the tulips in the fields of Imagination; fluttering like butterflies on gusts of fancy; soaring like eagles through….well, you get the picture.

The decadent form of Imagination is Fantasy. The word fantasy comes from the Greek (phantasia) but had already picked up a negative connotation in old English to mean something like “illusion”.

I did; I saw him dead,
Breathless and bleeding on the ground. Art
thou alive?
Or is it fantasy that plays upon our eyesight?
I prithee, speak; we will not trust our eyes
Without our ears: thou art not what thou seem’st.

Henry IV

The Imagination and Reality must be in harmony. Your eyes do their job of seeing what is in front of them and your Imagination does its job of embracing Possibility, where Possibility includes the potential interpretations of what you see according to the mental models you have cultivated: religious, spiritual, psychological, scientific etc.

Fantasy is what happens when the Imagination is untethered from reality. Just like the monks in the monastery in Karamazov, modern western society is disconnected from the earth and by extension from the real. Millions of people sit around in corporate offices, boardrooms, university faculties, government departments or just at home on the couch in front of the television. All of this activity takes place in the Imagination. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that unless it’s not balanced by reality. And that’s exactly our problem.

What sorta Mickey Mouse outfit are we runnin’ here?

As a culture, modern western society exists in an extreme form of Fantasy. When you lack contact with the real, your Imagination takes over and you fly off into Fantasy where anything seems possible. Next thing you know, you’re trying to eliminate a respiratory virus with an experimental pharmaceutical product or trying to stop inflation by printing more debt or any of the hundred other mad schemes that constitute modern politics.

It’s still hard to believe how much our society has become detached from reality. But it’s true and it’s true in the highest office in the land as much as in the local supermarket (arguably more in the former than the latter). We are living in Fantasy land in a philosophical and psychological sense.

In philosophy, another way to talk about reality is the concept of Necessity which is juxtaposed with Possibility. Part of the reason why death has always been central to the big questions of philosophy and theology is because death is the ultimate Necessity. No amount of Imagination can make death go away. For that reason, death can seem to destroy Possibility.

One way to react is to heroic acceptance and this is called fatalism. The most vocal proponents of fatalism in modern society are our scientific materialist atheists who are always very eager to remind us that the universe doesn’t give a damn about us.

Another way to react to the problem of death is to dissociate and escape into Fantasy. This is the more common approach in modern society. Our highly dysfunctional relationship to death in the modern West is directly related to our escape into Fantasy. We make sure death happens elsewhere where we don’t have to see it. That’s the point of nursing homes and also one of the main reasons for hospitals. About 9 out of 10 people will die in a nursing home or hospital these days.

It’s no coincidence, then, that in Karamazov Alyosha’s spiritual crisis is triggered by the death of Zosima, which doesn’t take place in a nursing home or hospital but in the monastery for all to see. Alyosha must come to terms with Necessity and find a way to accept it without losing Possibility. To do otherwise is to fall into the trap of escaping into Fantasy through pleasure (Dmitri) or embracing a completely fatalistic view of the world where Necessity is all there is (Ivan).

OK, but these are topics I’ve dealt with in past posts and I said I was going to relate all this to fruit and vegetable gardening. Why? One of the reasons is because fruit and vegetable gardening is humble. Given the scale of the problems facing the west, it seems mad to think that vegetable gardening could make any difference. But that’s the whole point. We are told that only grand heroic plans can “save the planet”. That’s just more hubris. If what we need is humility then why not go direct to the soil.

But fruit and vegetable gardening, it seems to me, is also a tonic for some of the other problems we face. Let me give a personal example of how gardening relates to the concepts of Imagination (Possibility) and Necessity we have just been talking about.

Once upon a time, I used my Imagination to dream of the Possibility of having a big apple tree in my backyard. When we use the Imagination in this way, untainted by previous experience, we always think of the happy path scenario where we’re sitting back with the late summer sun on our face munching on a delicious juicy apple. The actual work required to get the apple doesn’t enter our Imagination. That’s where Reality (Necessity) needs to come into the picture.

What it looked like in my head
What it looked like in reality (thankfully, my aphid problem wasn’t this bad)

Last year, two of the apple trees in my backyard were overrun by aphids. As I had not had problems with aphids prior to this, aphids were not part of my mental model of the garden and I was not looking for them. I knew they existed in theory, but hadn’t had to worry about them in practice.

By the time I noticed the aphid problem last year, the damage had already been done and so I had a substandard apple harvest. But now aphids have become part of my Imagination, my mental model of the garden, and so as the trees have come into leaf this spring here in Australia I have been keeping an eye out and, sure enough, the ants and aphids have returned for Season 2. Hey, I didn’t ask for a sequel, mofos. Well, it’s game on this time. Now that I’ve caught them early, I can do something about it and hopefully ensure that I get that batch of juicy apples that exists in my Imagination.

Lorikeets love apples

It’s a matter of Necessity, a law of nature, that when a new food source grows in an area, the creatures that like to eat the food source will show up to eat it. Alongside aphids, in my area the list of things that like to eat apples includes rainbow lorikeets, sulphur crested cockatoos, blackbirds, rats, codling moth and fungus. That’s reality. That’s Necessity. You can’t imagine it away. You have to deal with it or you don’t get any apples.

Fruit and vegetable gardening brings us literally into contact with the earth but more importantly it brings us into contact with reality and forces us to accept Necessity. If you want your apples, you’re gonna have to work for ‘em. And even if you give up and say it’s not worth the effort, you have still faced Necessity and you’re no longer living in Fantasy.

So, gardening is applied philosophy. Cool, eh? But there’s another aspect to gardening that relates back to Karamazov. Recall that the Grand Inquisitor chided Jesus for not providing bread. The provision of bread creates dependency and dependency creates anxiety because bread once given can be taken away. This is part of what is behind the background anxiety that is a pervasive aspect of modern western culture. People understand at some level that they are completely dependent on “the system”.

By historical standards, we are extremely dependent. For almost all of history, the average person provided for themselves to a very large extent. We, on the other hand, provide almost nothing for ourselves. It’s not uncommon now to find people who cannot even cook. For this reason, the act of providing yourself with the basic necessity of food has a liberating, even rebellious, feeling to it in the modern world.

But doing gardening is a cure for anxiety in another sense. There are no middlemen involved; no politics; no culture wars; no gaslighting; no social media trolls. It’s just you and the laws of nature. Unlike social norms, the laws of nature don’t change, at least not in a timeframe meaningful for us as individuals. So, the interaction with the realm of Necessity can give the feeling of standing on solid ground to those who have lived their whole life in the hall of mirrors that is the modern culture wars.

This fact would have seemed absurd to almost all people throughout history. For a great deal of history, the main problem was an excess of Necessity which seemed to extinguish all Possibility and gave life a permanently pessimistic overtone. We suffer from the opposite: an excess of Possibility which gives life a disorienting and hallucinogenic overtone. Whatever else can be said about them, aphids are honest. They are not trying to trick you. They just wanna eat your apple tree.

A third and related problem of modern society that gardening helps to alleviate: people have no concept of non-monetary wealth.

This is not wealth

Do a search for the word wealth and you’ll get pictures like the one above: money. But money is not wealth. The word wealth is related to the word health as are weal and heal. The etymology of these words goes back to concepts of wholeness, happiness and holiness. Money, on the other hand, is about riches and the word rich has its etymology in the concepts of status and rank. The ruler manages the coin of the realm. Spoiler alert: the house always wins.

This is wealth

If you search for the phrase well-being (the modern counterpart of the old English word weal) you get a picture like the one on the left. This is the true meaning of wealth.

Can you be wealthy if you’re anxious at your dependence on a system you have no control over? Can you be wealthy if you are living in Fantasy with no contact with reality? I don’t think so. But, in a more pragmatic sense, at this time of high inflation where the price of food has gone up substantially, when you walk into your backyard and grab some things to cook dinner with, your reality has not changed. Governments can print money as much as they like, whatever the price of food, the value stays the same. That’s a perspective that fruit and vegetable gardening can provide.

Having this perspective grounds the ideological Fantasy world of modern politics and brings it back to reality. The things that matter – health/wealth – are priceless. The financial system and the political system should be there to facilitate the attainment of those things. But it’s clear that the current political and financial systems are there to rob you of wealth and health. More specifically, they encourage you to chase riches as a proxy for wealth.

A fourth and final point. As I noted in my Age of the Orphan series, the word learning is etymologically related to the word path/track in many different cultures. To walk the path of learning is to connect to the earth. It is to bring the Imagination into harmony with Necessity as the potential becomes the actual.

Again, we have lost this sense in the modern world. We think learning is a scholarly activity. You go to school or university to learn then you go into the “real world” to do. But this is the whole problem of Ivan Karamazov as I discussed in the last post. New ideas must be tried against Necessity. Only then does learning happen. Anything else is Fantasy. When you test yourself against the world, you feel like you’re standing on solid ground and this is the opposite of anxiety.

Can fruit and vegetable gardening save the world? It sounds ridiculous and that’s the beauty of it. Certainly, nobody will accuse you of hubris. They might think you’re mad. But a little madness, a little excess of positive Imagination, is what is required right now. One way or another we’re going to need to reconnect with the earth. The only question is whether we do it voluntarily or not.

Buddha was a prince who renounced his life of privilege and went and sat under a tree to meditate. St Francis of Assisi was a wealthy dandy, the equivalent of a modern hipster, who gave his fine clothes to a beggar and went wondering in the forest. Jesus was the son of God and also a carpenter. The mystery of the stars must be balanced by the mystery of the earth.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go and check on my apple tree.

Orphans and Elders

In last week’s post I noted how similar the Grand Inquisitor passage in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov was to my Devouring Mother archetypal analysis of modern society. The Inquisitor perpetuates the childlike happiness of the majority and is happy to lie (gaslight), blackmail and deceive in order to maintain that happiness. This attitude betrays the Inquisitor’s own psychology by which he is prepared to burn even Jesus at the stake to uphold the status quo; a status quo in which the Inquisitor, coincidentally, has all the power.

There is a hidden assumption in the Inquisitor’s position which is that the people would follow Jesus if left to their own devices. Therefore, the Inquisitor must intervene to keep them in the childlike state which he believes makes them the most happy. It’s a strange paradox. If people really do prefer earthly happiness over the “freedom” which Jesus offers, why wouldn’t the people reject Jesus by themselves? There is an implied lack of faith by the Inquisitor in his own position which matches the Devouring Mother’s psychological need to retain control by preventing her children from becoming independent (“free” in the Inquisitor’s language). For these reasons, I think the Grand Inquisitor’s psychology is almost identical to the Devouring Mother.

The novel Karamazov is primarily about the other side of the Devouring Mother dynamic; namely, the Orphans. In the Grand Inquisitor passage, the “children” are the archetypal Orphans and Jesus is their “elder” calling them to initiation/individuation. That’s why the Inquisitor must intervene. Like the Devouring Mother, he must ensure the individuation process does not occur so that his “children” remain in a state of dependence.

In my series of posts called the Age of the Orphan, I sketched out the archetypal structure of the Orphan Story. Well, it turns out The Brothers Karamazov fits the archetype perfectly. The brothers in the novel are almost literally orphans. Their mothers died at a young age and their father, Fyodor Pavlovich, abandoned them to be raised by other people. That’s the microcosmic perspective. But Dostoevsky clearly intended to draw parallels between it and the macrocosmic. He was trying to say something about the state of society.

So, I was about 140 years too late. Dostoevsky had already intuited the core dynamic of the modern world and represented it beautifully in The Brothers Karamazov. My thesis in the Age of the Orphan series was that we are living during the time of the Devouring Mother (Grand Inquisitor). We are archetypal Orphans stuck in a culture which no longer has initiation rites because we no longer have a live culture to initiate people into. Because we lack those initiation rites, we do not make the (psychological/spiritual) leap from adolescence into adulthood and remain trapped in a state of dependence.

(Note: it may very well be that the Devouring Mother-Orphan dynamic goes beyond the modern world. Dostoevsky seems to suggest it is more fundamental and is possibly inherent in civilisation itself. Alternatively, it could be just an ever present force competing with other forces and is dominant due to the present state of our culture).

The Brothers Karamazov gives us the archetypal Orphan Story in the form of the main character of the book, the youngest brother, Alyosha. His story is contrasted against the parallel stories of his two brothers, Ivan and Dmitri. But Ivan and Dmitri’s stories are not Orphan Stories. That is, they do not show a “successful” initiation/individuation process. Dostoevsky clearly made this contrast on purpose and if we drill down more into the characters we can see that each represents a type which is still valid in the modern world.

Dmitri is the Byron-esque romantic character. Passionate to a fault, he’s the guy who goes into the bar and shouts everybody a drink just for the hell of it. He’s always head over heels in love with a woman, and maybe more than one. He’s the one whose emotions run so hot that he is capable of murder, even of his own father. In the post war years, Dmitri would be the singer of a rock band travelling from one town to the next and one party to the other, getting into fights, throwing TV sets out of hotel windows, getting arrested and all the other amusements of that lifestyle.

In Dmitri, we see the self-destructiveness of the pleasure seeker. It’s all fun and games until the money runs out. What happens then? Well, you take on debt to keep the party going. But with debt comes shame, resentment and, if you’re Dmitri, threats to murder people.

Is it too much of a stretch to see this dynamic in the modern consumer economy? It was fun for a while but then the money ran out. So, we took on debt. And now we’re up to our eyeballs in debt and, like Dmitri, frantically running around trying to figure out how to keep the party going.  

So, Dmitri is still with us in the modern world. What about Ivan?

Ivan represents the intellectual Orphan. He’s the one that went to university and who formulates new ideas such as if God is dead, everything is permitted. Even though the content of these ideas are deadly serious (quite literally in the plot of Karamazov), Ivan presents them as if they were half jokes. When questioned on them he laughs off the objections. That’s the luxury that comes with armchair philosophy. It also represents the lightness and joviality of the Enlightenment; what Kenneth Clark called “the smile of reason”.

The problem, which Dostoevsky clearly knew, is that it’s all well and good to sit back in your armchair and come up with new ideas. When you let those ideas into the world, even if you’re half joking, they have consequences but far too often the generators of the ideas are nowhere to be found when the proverbial hits the fan. We’ve seen a great example of this dynamic in the last two and a half years. “What? No. We never said the vaccines would prevent infection. Huh? We did? Well, so what? Science is about adapting to new information. Stop living in the past, bro. Lol.”

How many “experts” and so-called “leaders” from the last two and a half years are on record stating things that turned out to be 100% wrong? How much damage was caused by their errors? And how many of them have faced any consequences? But the problem is more widespread. With all our wonderful modern education we are drowning in “new ideas” generated by our university-educated elites most of which turn out to be a complete flop as soon as they are tested against reality.

This wouldn’t be a problem if the elites tested the ideas on themselves first and bore the brunt of any failure. But, no, we the general public get to be the guinea pigs while the elites get to wash their hands of any responsibility. None of the so-called experts who were wrong in the last two years have suffered any repercussions whatsoever.

That was the danger in the new ideas that Dostoevsky foresaw and he shows it in the novel by making Ivan confront the consequences of his ideas. Ivan is tested and found wanting. For all his intellect, he is unable to prevent an act of evil. But more than that, he knows deep down that when the time came he was unable to do what was right. All the philosophising in the world cannot reason away an ethical problem that is right in front of your face. Our “elites” only get away with it because they are removed from the consequences of their decisions.

The dangers of the disconnected intellect are everywhere to see in the modern world and 20th century Russia had already provided us with a preview. During the Soviet times, the wonderful brand new ideas were channelled through a giant bureaucracy featuring “experts” who were detached from the consequences of their actions and beliefs. The results, explained in great detail in a book I’ve referred to many times, Scott’s Seeing like a State, were the death by starvation of millions of people. Dostoevsky was right and yet we continue to make the same mistakes.

So, we can clearly see that both Dmitri and Ivan are with us to this day. In fact, they have become even more dominant through the pop culture consumer society (Dmitri’s pleasure seeking) and the rise of education, news media and social media allowing “new ideas” completely untethered to reality to spread around the world instantly. If Dostoevsky was right about all that, maybe he was also right about the antidote as exemplified by the hero of The Brothers Karamazov: Alyosha.

Alyosha is the only one of the three orphan Karamazov brothers to go through an initiation and thereby fulfil the archetypal Orphan story. This initiation takes place in the local monastery under the tutelage of the elder, Zosima (Zosima is literally called an Elder in the book and there is apparently an old tradition of Elders in the Eastern Orthodox Church).

In the archetypal Orphan story, it is the Elder who will guide the Orphan through the initiation process that leads them to adulthood/selfhood. Dmitri got his “initiation” in the army. Ivan got his at university. But these are not archetypal initiations because they lack esoteric spiritual content. Alyosha, by contrast, is initiated through an esoteric sub-sect of the church, albeit one that is belittled by the exoteric-minded priests who are trying to do away with it.

The core of Zosima’s teaching to Alyosha could be summarised as follows: everybody is responsible for the whole world and for every individual within it. This understanding leads to infinite, universal, inexhaustible love.

This sounds very mystical and yet it is an interpretation on the basic Christian teaching. Jesus died on the cross for the sins of man. He was “responsible”. To follow the teachings of Jesus is to assume the same responsibility. This is not responsibility in any legal or scientific sense (Dostoevsky goes into great detail to make this point by contrasting Alyosha’s experience with the legal trial of Dmitri) . Rather, it is concerned with developing what you might call a universal conscience. It is the description of Alyosha’s attainment of that universal conscience which Dostoevsky so beautifully describes at the midpoint of the book in one of the great passages in literature.

Alyosha’s initiation comes to its completion with the death of Zosima which forms the final test of faith. This is almost identical to Luke Skywalker’s initiation in Return of the Jedi which reaches its finale with the death of Yoda. But unlike Hollywood versions of the Orphan Story which inevitably represent the Orphan’s “victory” as a heroic conquest over somebody else, Alyosha’s final transcendence takes place alone under the vault of the heavens. It is the fusing of the self with God or the cosmos or whatever you want to call it; not as a logical, objective, scientific occurrence but a personal and inherently subjective one.

It is here that we see the key difference that distinguishes Dostoevksy’s version of the Orphan Story. Alyosha’s transformation is decoupled from any exoteric element and, uniquely, doesn’t represent any meaningful change in Alyosha’s character. This is evident from the fact that the other characters in the story do not treat Alyosha any differently afterwards or, in fact, notice anything different about him.

In the normal Orphan Story, the hero takes on a new exoteric form after the initiation. Thus, even in a primarily psychological work such as Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, the apprentice Ged becomes a true wizard at the end of the book. He has metamorphised into an adult archetype: the sage/mage. The same is true of Luke Skywalker at the end of Return of the Jedi or Neo at the end of The Matrix. But it is not true of Alyosha in Karamazov.

In archetypal terms, Alyosha has not graduated from Orphanhood into any of the archetypes we traditionally associate with an adult. He does not become a warrior, a sage, a lover, a fool or a ruler. Instead, he remains a Child archetype, specifically the Innocent. The Innocent’s primary traits are faith, optimism and simplicity. Alyosha had these before Zosima’s death. They are severely tested by Zosima’s death. But Alyosha passes the test and retains his faith, optimism and simplicity on the other side.

In terms of normal human psychology, this is unique because the normal pattern of an adult manifesting the Child archetype is that they are in the shadow form of the Child precisely because they have failed the archetypal mission of initiation/individuation. This is what is called arrested development and it results in exactly the kind of shadow childishness that the Grand Inquisitor (aka The Devouring Mother) encourages: obliviousness, dependence, denial, naivete; in short, dissociation.

What we see in the story of Alyosha is the idea that the challenge of initiation for all of us in the modern world is to face the destruction inherent in the world, seen in its purest form in death, and not to dissociate; not to lose the positive forms of our inner Child. To fail this test is to lapse into the shadow forms of the child and fall under the power of the Grand Inquisitor/Devouring Mother. When the Grand Inquisitor tells Jesus that most people are not up to the task, it is this task that he was talking about. But even though the other Karamazovs, and other characters in the novel, fail the task, they still understand what it is and aim for it. They still have a conscience.

This idea of the fully initiated Innocent was presented for the first time in Dostoevsky’s earlier work The Idiot. The Prince Myshkin character in that book is very similar to Alyosha. As the name of that book suggests, the fully initiated adult Innocent is easily mistaken for a fool or a coward by wider society. We see this in Karamazov in the scene where Rakitin accuses Alyosha of being a chicken (a coward) to which Grushenka replies that Rakitin only thinks that because he has no conscience.

Alyosha is not a hero in the sense usually found in film and literature. Nevertheless, he is heroic in his anti-heroism. He represents the voice of the inner child who has come face-to-face with the realities of the world but has refused to be corrupted. Alyosha’s test, his archetypal Orphan mission, is to face death without giving in to cynicism, nihilism or despair like Ivan or to seek oblivion in drinking and pleasure like Dmitri.

To face the pain and agony of the world (to really face them without dissociation) without losing your inner child was what Dostoevsky considered the highest and most difficult task. To not shy away from that task was Dostoevsky’s answer to cynicism, nihilism and despair. It’s a task that is once again showing itself to us in the modern world. What we are increasingly seeing now is a return to nihilism and despair (Ivan). It’s no coincidence that this is happening now that Dmitri’s bill for the sex, drugs, rock’n’roll and consumerism of the post war years needs to be paid.

In the final scenes of Karamazov, we see Alyosha helping a group of young boys face the impending death of their classmate. He does so not from a position of authority as some kind of father figure or priest but as if he was one of them. And, archetypally, he is one of them; the eternal Innocent. His advice to them is to keep at least one moment of true goodness and honesty in your heart and think of that as “home”. In other words, don’t let the world destroy your inner sense of what is good and right. Don’t lose your conscience.

The Grand Inquisitor

Last week I posted on Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov which I finally got around to reading recently. There was one passage from the book that I had read before and it’s one that is known even by some who haven’t read the whole novel. I’m talking, of course, about The Grand Inquisitor, which takes up a whole chapter towards the beginning of the book.

While reading over the chapter again, what struck me was how well it worked as a socio-psychological description of what has happened over the past three years during corona. Of more personal interest was how closely it aligned with my Devouring Mother analysis. The Grand Inquisitor uses different language but, to paraphrase Gregory Bateson, hearing the same thing from within a different ontology can add to our knowledge. With that in mind, let’s see how the Grand Inquisitor’s description of human psychology explains corona.

Within the novel, the Grand Inquisitor is a story told by the middle Karamazov brother, Ivan, to his younger brother, Alyosha. Ivan is the chief rationalist in the book and also represents the modern atheism which was taking hold in Europe at the time. The well-known phrase “If God does not exist, everything is permissible” is his idea.

The story of the Grand Inquisitor is set at the time of the Inquisition in Seville, Spain. The local cardinal is in a good mood, having burned a hundred heretics at the stake the day before. While riding past the cathedral, he notices a man performing miracles and realises that it’s Jesus returned to earth. Now, you might think a cardinal would welcome this turn of events as the fulfilment of the religion he claims to represent. Nope. He has Jesus arrested and thrown in a dungeon. Inquisitors gonna Inquisit.

Later that evening, he goes alone to the cell where Jesus is being held. A dialogue between the two follows. Well, it’s not really a dialogue. Jesus doesn’t say a word. The Inquisitor does all the talking and his purpose is to explain to Jesus the reasons why his presence is no longer required on earth, why he will therefore be burned at the stake the following day and why the townsfolk will gladly stack up the firewood and stoke the fire with their own hands even though they know the one they are burning is Jesus himself.

There are a number of ways to interpret the story. For example, a distinction between earthly and heavenly power and how the historical Church had, almost from its inception, come to serve the former at the expense of the latter. In a Jungian sense, I would argue that the story is Ivan’s rational mind (Ego), represented by the Inquisitor, arguing against his conscience (or his Jungian Self), represented by Jesus. If so, this would prefigure a later scene where Ivan faces the devil; his Shadow.

To the extent that Ivan represents the ascent of reason in the modern world, the Grand Inquisitor story is also historically accurate. The Inquisitor tells Jesus that he’s not wanted here anymore because things on earth have now been properly ordered and everybody is “happy”. The word happiness is used explicitly here and is contrasted with freedom.

The Inquisitor accuses Jesus of offering mankind a freedom which the majority of people were not able to attain. Only the great and the strong could follow Jesus’ teaching. Most people, however, are weak, vicious, worthless, rebellious, sinful and ignoble. The Christian faith is too much for them and they would perish by it. Thus, the Inquisitor and the other priests stepped in to fill the void. They provided a structure by which the majority of mankind could live.

That structure is designed to meet the 3 primary desires of mankind, according to the Inquisitor: 1) to have someone to worship; 2) to have someone to keep one’s conscience; 3) to have someone to create unity. These are taken from the Bible story of the Temptation of Christ where Jesus explicitly rejected fulfilling these needs in favour of “freedom”. But men, says the Inquisitor, fear freedom.

“Didst thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil?”

It’s clear that what we saw in the last 3 years in relation to the lockdowns and then the vaccines was the removal of free choice. Nobody would deny that. The denial of choice was cloaked up in the garb of “science”, of course. But anybody with a passing understanding of the science could see that this was a charade.  

According to the psychology of the Grand Inquisitor, what was really going on was that people wanted to have their choice (freedom) taken away. They wanted somebody else to make the choice for them and that somebody else were those modern day cardinals – the “experts”.

The information about the relative risks of the virus and the risks of the vaccine was freely available to anybody. That’s one thing that the internet has given us, for better or worse. But most people chose not to consider that information. I suspect part of the reason was the inherent uncertainty that pertains to the discipline of virology and especially to the field of medicine. So, people traded uncertainty (in the Inquisitor’s language: freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil), for “peace”.

All of this falls under the first of the Inquisitor’s basic human needs: the need to worship something. In modern society, the object of worship is “science” itself; ironic because science quite explicitly set itself up in opposition to the old object of worship of which the past Inquisitors were representatives.

What is worshipped in “science” is happiness and material gain. That is what the average person thinks of science and technology. They do not think of Einstein, relativity or Quantum Mechanics for these are more like philosophy in that they don’t hold much practical value and are inclined to make one doubt what one knows. The science that holds in the mind of the general public is science as the provider of happiness; bread and circuses (and vaccines). According to the Inquisitor, we will worship what brings us happiness. But that happiness is a trap, as we will see shortly.

The second fundamental need of the majority of people is to want somebody to keep their conscience i.e. somebody to take responsibility for the difficult decisions; somebody to do the things which an individual would not want to do because it would give them a bad conscience. Why do we elect politicians who continually and openly lie and deceive? Not because they are paragons of virtue but precisely because they are not. They are paragons of vice. They will do the dirty work so that we may keep our consciences clean. Of course, this leads to hypocrisy on a grand scale but perhaps that is the price for earthly happiness.

The Inquisitor posits 3 ways in which the conscience of people can be captured: miracle, mystery and authority.

“Man seeks not God but the miraculous”.

In the case of corona, the miracle was the vaccines. Again, anybody with an understanding of the science could see that it required an actual miracle for them to work. And, of course, they didn’t. But that hasn’t stopped a whole lot of people from believing in them anyway. This comes back to the idea I talked about a couple of posts ago. Heroic materialism (modern science and technology) is the provider of miracles and has been for two and a half centuries. The miracles it has provided include bridges, tunnels, airplanes and vaccines.

The reference to the Inquisitor here is very fitting because it was when the then Pope turned the real historical Inquisitor onto Galileo that he, as Galileo himself predicted, ensured that the emergent science of the time would come to an end in Italy and the Catholic south while the Protestant north would become ascendant. That’s exactly what happened and that’s why Heroic Materialism took off in England primarily with Holland and America not far behind. Heroic Materialism out-miracled the Church. The rest is history.

Alongside miracles there must be mystery. The vaccine is a mystery to the extent that the average person has apparently no idea, and less interest, in how the vaccine works or indeed how viruses and microbiology in general work. Again, there is no excuse for this ignorance in the modern world. All the information is available at the click of a computer mouse. We might be tempted to say it’s a failure of education or that people don’t have time to find out for themselves. But the Inquisitor would say that it’s the desire for mystery and that desire drives ignorance because to know is to take away the mystery and with it the miracles.

Finally, there is authority and this one needs no further explanation in relation to corona as we saw the exercise of authority in the most blatant fashion. Put the three together and you get miracle, mystery and authority; all fulfilling the underlying need of people to avoid their own conscience.

The vaccine could have been offered to those who wanted it and everybody else could have been allowed to get on with their life. But that didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because that freedom of choice would have placed the burden of decision onto the individual. Everybody would have had to weigh up the decision of whether to take the vaccine with their own conscience. But that, per the Inquisitor, is precisely what people want to avoid. So, we got the completely irrational vaccine mandates which served to take the choice away and clear people’s consciences.

This brings us to the Inquisitor’s 3rd human need: the desire for unity.

“…the craving for universal unity is the third and last anguish of men.”

It was this section which resonated most strongly with me in light of my Devouring Mother analysis because the Inquisitor uses the child metaphor numerous times here and this equates in my analysis to the Orphan archetype.

“We shall show them that they are weak, that they are only pitiful children, but that childlike happiness is the sweetest of all.

The desire for somebody to create unity is the desire for somebody to be the political parent to the societal children; somebody to sort out the petty squabbles, to provide food (bread), to be the voice of authority even if it means lying (the noble lie), to be responsible and to be the object of worship in the way that a child worships its parents and believes whatever they say. The happiness on offer is the archetypal childlike happiness of obliviousness (ignorance) with a side order of bullying and victimhood.

All of this adds up to obedience. People trade freedom of conscience, which is a burden, for bread and circuses (and vaccine mandates). The trap inherent in this deal is that, having become obedient, you become dependent:

“Turn them into bread, and mankind will run after Thee like a flock of sheep, grateful and obedient, through forever trembling, lest Thou withhold Thy hand and deny them Thy bread.”

Of course, we saw exactly that during corona. The rebellious children were denied their bread, most famously the Canadian truckers with their frozen bank accounts. Here in Australia, numerous people lost their jobs for refusing to acquiesce to an experimental pharmaceutical product.

All of this was in the service of unity. Remember the catchphrase from the start of corona: “we’re all in this together”. You couldn’t ask for a more succinct summary of the Inquisitor’s 3rd human need. But unity doesn’t just happen. Somebody must enforce it. We’re all in this together (or else!)

The modern Inquisitor is the “expert”. We swapped the cardinal’s robe for a white lab coat. People don’t get hauled off to dungeons as much anymore. They just have their social media account deleted and their bank account frozen. It amounts to much the same thing.

What makes the story of the Grand Inquisitor so powerful is that it doesn’t propose that these things are done against the public interest but rather in the public interest i.e. in the psychological interest of the majority. No doubt some, and perhaps the majority, of our “elites” would agree wholeheartedly with this ethic.

The alternative is the “freedom” of which the Inquisitor ascribes to the teachings of Jesus. The Brothers Karamazov as a work of art is the explication of that freedom; that is, the freedom of the individual to live by their own conscience. This freedom is not happiness. In fact, one could argue that it is the opposite of happiness. In the next post, I’ll go into more detail about what that looks like from a Dostoevskyan point of view.

The Brothers Karamazov

During this time of universal hogwash, where the most unbridled nonsense circumnavigates the globe in milliseconds, it’s a relief and a pleasure to escape the madness in the pages of a work of classic literature. It was with this goal in mind that I recently sunk my teeth into one of the longer works that’s been on my to-read list for many years, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

Last time I read Dostoevsky, I was at uni. One of my main recollections was that I found his works somewhat melodramatic. I still do. The Brothers Karamazov is an unrelenting melodrama. But it’s not melodrama for its own sake and it’s certainly not the soppy melodrama of a television soap opera. Rather, purpose of the melodrama in Karamazov is to convey an intensity of emotion that couldn’t be achieved otherwise. Furthermore, the melodrama is contrasted against a backdrop of religion in the first half of the story and criminal justice in the second half while the hero of the story, the youngest Karamazov brother, Alyosha, provides the calm, virtuous and loving anchor around which it all swirls. He is the ground and frame for the drama of the story.

Having said that, the plot of Karamazov does seem exaggerated.

A wanton wretch of a father who seeks nothing in life but money and pleasure, had all but abandoned his three sons from the day they were born. The sons, born to two different mothers who died when they were young, were raised by other people. Now all in their 20s, they have returned to the small town where the father still lives.

But the old man has not changed his ways. On the contrary, he is trying to steal the mistress of his profligate eldest son, Dmitri, while also short changing him on his inheritance. The hot-headed Dmitri knows what his father is up to and has threatened to kill him over the matter. Meanwhile, the girl they are pursuing is having a great time stringing them both along and delighting in watching them fight over her. To top it all off, the middle son, Ivan, is in love with the woman who Dmitri is engaged to. That’s just the basics of the story!

All of this sounds like the kind of thing you might see on one of those American talk shows where the father and sons spend the whole time screaming at each other and end up coming to blows while the audience cheers. This comparison might seem flippant and yet it captures, I think, a crucial point about the novel and what it says about modern western society.

The characters in Karamazov would never in a million years take their personal issues onto a television show for the whole world to see. That would be a punishment worse than death for them and the reason is a concept which has become almost wholly foreign to us in the modern West: shame. The modern West is, in a technical sense, shameless and this is no accident. It’s a result of ideas that were taking hold when Dostoevsky wrote his masterpiece and which he introduces as one of the main themes of the book.

Dostoevsky shows us an old-fashioned kind of shamelessness in the character of the father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov. He represents a character that occurs a lot in 19th century literature but which I used to think didn’t exist in the modern world; namely, the man who spills his guts to all and sundry and blurts out the most intimate details of his mind to complete strangers. I say I used to think that because the last time I read Dostoevsky social media was in its infancy.  But social media has shown that the psychology of Fyodor Karamazov is still with us.

It’s a daily occurrence on social media to see people still blurt out whatever is on their mind for all the world to see. Often what’s on their mind is some rather vile thoughts about some person or group; the kind of thing that would be much better kept to yourself. Such posts quickly get deleted, but it’s normally too late by then. Some troll has already taken a screenshot of the offending post and happily re-posted it to the internet to remind the world.

What’s behind all this is the concept of shame. People delete a social media post because it revealed something about themselves that they didn’t want revealed. Even in our shameless culture, there are still some boundaries left. We’re tempted to say that the novelty of social media has tricked people into such dumb behaviour; that it’s made it too easy to type in anything and press send. But Dostoevsky shows us the psychology in great detail in The Brothers Karamazov which is full of characters blurting out things that are not in their interest or their conception of self.

The novel takes place in a second tier town in a second tier province at a time before even local newspapers. As a result, everybody in town knows everybody else’s business. But more than that, for the main characters in the novel, the town is their world.

From our vantage point at a time of instantaneous global communication, we might think of this as limiting or even suffocating. But Dostoevsky doesn’t. On the contrary, he repeatedly pokes fun at the several characters in the novel who make a pretence of being wise and learned simply because they’ve read the latest stories in the Moscow or Petersburg press or, even worse, the latest ideas from Paris or Berlin. Such characters want to come across as learned, rational and objective. But that is just pride. And it’s an inferior kind of pride than that which leads to interpersonal conflict because sitting in armchair and reading a newspaper or some sociological treatise cannot activate the conscience and therefore cannot be a (real) provocation to ethics and self-knowledge.  

Dostoevsky would not have been surprised at the posturing and preening and the virtue signalling which is endemic on social media. It is just a more extreme form of the psychology that was already there in the late 19th century. It’s a way to escape “the real world” i.e. the flesh and blood world of family relations, friendships, messy love affairs and all the other “melodrama” that makes up real life. In small towns of the past like the one in Karamazov there was no way to escape that except by moving to the big city. But, nowadays, it’s possible anywhere. You can escape without leaving the comfort of your own home.

Our public discourse provides the pretence of objectivity and rationality. But as we’ve seen in the last two and half years, when the pressure is on, the veil is lifted and we see that what sits just beneath the surface is the same human emotions and feelings. For most people, the public discourse is nothing more than a screen on which to project their own issues. Dostoevsky already knew that in 1880 and he captured it most clearly in the character of Rakitin in the novel. Even the wretched Fyodor Karamazov is superior to a Rakitin because the old man makes no attempt to cloak his real self (his will, emotions, feelings) in “objectivity” and “modern ideas”.

I use the word cloak here deliberately because the etymology of the word shame is related to the idea of covering up. We want to “hide our shame” because shame is a revealing (an uncloaking) to the world of something about ourselves that we do not want the world to see. The drama in Karamazov revolves around pride, honour and shame and the misunderstandings and misinterpretations of people’s motives as they inevitably read their own biases and prejudices into others. All of these misunderstandings cause their own trouble in turn. That’s what happens in a small town. When you misinterpret somebody, you hurt their reputation. That has consequences for them and for you. Unlike exchanging the latest acceptable opinions on social media, everybody has skin in the game.

The source of the shame for the characters in Karamazov, however, is not vanity and this is a crucial point to make. All of the main characters, even the old drunken letch, Fyodor Karamazov, have a conscience. Their shame comes from this internal sense of right and wrong and, even though they are often driven by vanity or other base emotions, they ultimately stand before their conscience.

To will, to desire, to strive and to act are revealing. Obviously, by acting we reveal ourselves to the world. But what’s less obvious is that we also reveal ourselves to ourselves. “How do I know what I think until I hear what I say,” said E.M. Forster. That is what is going on throughout Karamazov. The characters are ashamed for their behaviour in front of others but they are also ashamed in front of themselves, in front of their own conscience.

Pride, honour and shame are the exoteric, public-facing, dimensions of right and wrong. To defend one’s honour is to defend an ethical conception of the good. Even in vanity, there is still an ethical claim. I claim this thing is good and that I am an exemplar of it. If you prove that I am not and bring shame on me, we still agree on what is good. In this way, even vanity can lead to the good as long as it is tied to conscience.

Conscience is the esoteric, inner-facing dimension. Note that the word conscience is very similar to the word consciousness. In fact, they both have their origin in the Latin word conscientia meaning to know thoroughly (the word “science” is related).

This is, I think, Dostoevsky’s point. So-called objective, rational knowledge that does not have an esoteric, personal component is almost valueless. Only through direct knowledge, gnosis, can you bring your conscience to bear and only then can you know in the fullest way possible. This is why know thyself is the basis of all knowledge.

How do you know who you are until you see what you do? To challenge oneself is exactly to put yourself in a situation where you don’t know what you will do. Will you crumble? Will you bring shame on yourself?

The main characters in the novel, Fyodor and Dmitri Karamazov, are driven onwards by passions they can barely control. This leads them to do things that are disgraceful, dumb and completely against any pragmatic self-interest they might have. What redeems them (moreso for Dmitri than his father) is their conscience i.e. that they have not lost sight of the good. Though they might slip back into vanity and pride, they do not lose the higher conception. That is the primary difference between them and the characters who are purveyors of modern ideas, including the middle brother, Ivan. These have swapped passion, emotion and feeling for a lukewarm objectivity that in the lesser characters is nothing more than a cover for pride and self-interest and, in its purest form in Ivan, unleashes evil.

If this interpretation is right, Dostoevsky counts among the writers of the later 19th century who foresaw the tidal wave of evil that was threatening to be unleashed by the new ideas. Of more relevance to the post war years, he also foresaw the vacuous, comfortable bourgeois ethic which reaches its apotheosis in social media. One no longer even needs to leave the house to propagate the latest thing, the new ideas, the acceptable opinions. All of this is the flimsiest cloak for petty and shallow moral grandstanding.

That cloak doesn’t hide shame for there is nothing to be ashamed of. The fact that there is nothing to be ashamed of is the whole problem because it implies there is no esoteric content involved; no heart, will, passion, desire or emotion. Accordingly, there is no chance to activate one’s conscience. It’s all a hollowed out, empty shell of reason that will crack and disintegrate with the merest touch of emotional and intellectual honesty.

I suspect many people know that at some level. The hysteria we see on social media and in modern public discourse in general is also present in Karamazov but it is reserved for the times when people are desperately trying to cover themselves up. Jung and Dostoevsky would be in agreement on this: people really, really hate to self-reflect and will go to great lengths to avoid the task. In Karamazov, that might mean getting drunk in a tavern and starting a brawl, fainting on the couch or perjuring oneself in court. Nowadays, you can simply distract yourself with social media or an infinite number of other electronic diversions.

Ultimately, though, these are all short term measures and in the long run you will have to face the music. Karamazov shows that in the form of a court case representing the exoteric “conscience” at work. But the highest judge in Dostoevsky is one’s own conscience. That is also the highest form of truth. If he’s right, then our modern world, which systematically denies the conscience as the arbiter of truth, is missing something fundamental.