Existentialism implies a focus on the individual and the primacy of subjective over objective truths. Both of these are unusual traits not just in a philosophical sense but in the broader sense that human nature seems hardwired for the opposite. Obedience to the collective and its objective truths is the norm, which makes sense since human beings are herd animals by nature.
It’s not a surprise, therefore, to find that existentialists tends to live on the outer fringe of society and are usually at odds with the zeitgeist of their time. Often this involves a dramatic break early in their life. Thus, Nietzsche broke with Wagner. Kierkegaard broke off his marriage. Luther broke with the Church of his day. Dostoevsky and Shestov broke with the Russian society of their time. It’s not hard to see why Christianity leads naturally into existentialism since Jesus was at odds with the society of his time, so much so that they put him to death.
For this reason, existentialism can seem to be a depressing body of thought that focuses on despair, darkness and death. A more modern concept which we can add to that list is cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance manifests in the brain in almost the same way as physical pain. Just as we try to avoid physical pain, we are incentivised to try and alleviate the pain of cognitive dissonance. One way to do that would be to change our mental models to accommodate the new information that is causing the discomfort. But that takes time and energy. So, people look to a variety of other strategies. One of the most common is to shoot the messenger. Another is scapegoating. That’s why one of the main tasks of the mainstream media is to character assassinate anybody who represents a threat to the status quo.
Existentialism implies a willingness to deal with cognitive dissonance and this is perhaps why most of the existentialists had gone through some traumatic experience that changed their life. Having overcome the extreme cognitive dissonance of a life-threatening episode, the everyday pains of life like annoying people or being an outsider seem to pale into insignificance.
Avoidance of cognitive dissonance is hardwired into our cognition. Another way to say that is that we have a built-in conservatism. Having constructed our mental models of the world, we are loathe to change them. But most of our mental models come from the society around us. We are unconsciously influenced by others and it takes a good hard dose of cognitive dissonance to break the illusion.
Let me give an account from my experience which is worth telling in this case because it will let us explore a couple of the main themes of existentialism. It involves one the most influential thinkers in that realm, the Russian writer, Dostoevsky. The story also includes another thinker I have written about extensively on this blog: the German historian, Oswald Spengler. It’s the story of Christian existentialism versus German romanticism.
When I was reading Spengler’s Decline of the West for the second time, I had the experience that many readers of Spengler have of getting caught in his spell. I use the word spell here deliberately. Spengler’s monumental work of history shows us a new way of looking at the world and our own place in it. He re-enchants our world by giving it a new and dramatic historical perspective that is especially alluring for those of us living in the disenchanted world of modern industrial capitalism.
Part of the reason this works is because Spengler had enchanted himself; the best salesman is the one who believes their own sales pitch. It’s for this reason that the British historian, Toynbee, is such a useful foil for Spengler because he explores many of the same themes but without getting carried away in flights of fancy. This makes Toynbee’s work more methodical and categorical, although admittedly less exciting.
The problem with encyclopaedic works of scholarship which make reference to countless different data points is that we the reader don’t have the time or the inclination to verify them for ourselves. Spengler is particularly bad in this respect since he presents numerous conclusions without providing any reasoning as to how he got there. Because these conclusions are tied up into a larger story that is exciting, the grand arcs of history, we are apt to go along without questioning.
It wasn’t until a couple of hundred pages into the first volume of Decline of the West that I experienced the cognitive dissonance that snapped me out of my dogmatic slumber and made me start to question Spengler more critically. Prior to that, I was unable to criticise the book because I had no point of reference to do so. If Spengler says that the use of a particular technique in ancient Middle Eastern architecture is symbolic of the Magian world feeling, I had no grounds to disagree because I had never seen the buildings myself and don’t know enough about architecture to form an opinion either way.
I may not know anything about ancient Middle Eastern architecture, but I do know a thing or two about Dostoevsky. He’s been one of my favourite writers ever since I stumbled across a copy of Memoirs from the House of the Dead in my local library when I was a teenager. Dostoevsky is one of my favourite writers and The Brothers Karamazov is my favourite Dostoevsky novel. So, when Spengler made reference to The Brothers Karamazov on page 195 of his history, I experienced an acute case of cognitive dissonance.
“First impressions count” goes the saying. What happens in life is that we put people, places, ideas into certain mental boxes and once a person or an idea is in a box we really don’t like to change it. Cognitive dissonance is what forces us to make that change. It occurs when we learn something new that makes us question the mental box we’ve put someone or some idea into. Spengler had captivated me with a new idea and presented a couple of hundred pages of what seemed like good analysis in support of it. I had placed Spengler in the “interesting thinker/possibly a genius” box.
Once we have put somebody in a box, we tend to overlook all kinds of “warning signs” that they don’t belong there. This is another basic fact of life. We’ve all had friends, romantic partners, family members or business associates who we thought were on our side. We put them in the “good guys” box. Then something happens that breaks up the relationship and we see the person in a whole new light. All the warning signs become obvious in hindsight and we marvel at how we could have been so blind that we ever thought they were on the same page as us.
The incident that caused my re-evaluation of Spengler came when he talks of the “immeasurable difference” between the Faustian the Russian souls. In support of this immeasurable difference, he references The Brothers Karamazov as follows:
“That All are responsible for all – the “it” for the it in this boundlessly extended plain – is the metaphysical fundament of all Dostoevsky’s creation. That is why Ivan Karamazov must name himself murderer although another had done the murder.”
For those who haven’t read the novel, Ivan Karamazov is the middle brother. The father, Fyodor Karamazov, is murdered in mysterious circumstances. The second half of the novel deals with the subsequent events as the eldest brother, Dmitri, is charged with the crime. In the process, Ivan comes to realise that he is responsible for the murder indirectly. Spengler attributes Ivan’s feeling of guilt to the metaphysical fundament of brotherhood that he posits is a central component of a hypothetically emerging “Russian soul”.
This is a preposterous claim. It glosses over some of the most dramatic parts of the novel including Smerdyakov (the murderer) directly confronting Ivan, blackmailing and manipulating him, and Ivan’s subsequent descent into madness. Ivan feels himself to be responsible for the murder because Smerdyakov tells him that directly and Ivan knows it is true in his own heart. Spengler ignores the basic facts of the novel and somehow finds evidence of brotherhood in murder and blackmail.
But even if we want to give Spengler the benefit of the doubt and be more abstract and symbolic in our analysis, his explanation still makes no sense. If there really is a Russian soul that requires the brothers to take responsibility for a murderer, Ivan is the least likely character to represent such a soul. Dostoevsky deliberately paints Ivan as the brother who has been infected with the latest ideas from Paris and Berlin. Not only is Ivan not symbolic of the Russian soul, he is symbolic of the exact threat to the Russian soul which Dostoevsky saw in the modern ideas of atheism, nihilism, socialism etc. Spengler’s analysis is not just a little bit wrong, it’s 100%, exactly wrong; the opposite of the truth.
When you become a connoisseur of cognitive dissonance, you learn that there are degrees of dissonance. Most of the time in life, we disagree about little things and those disagreements are easily glossed over because we assume we are still on the same page about the important things. The ultimate in cognitive dissonance is when somebody or something is exactly wrong. It’s very rare to be exactly wrong and it’s a sign that something fundamental is at stake.
Cognitive dissonance forces us to re-evaluate our understanding. If Spengler got it so wrong in relation to Dostoevsky, a subject I happen to know something about, how can I trust anything he says about subjects that I don’t know anything about like ancient Middle Eastern architecture? The answer is that I can’t. But until the cognitive dissonance forced a re-evaluation, I was happy to go along with his analysis passively accepting its truth.
Not blindly trusting people based on a presumed “authority” is one of the key themes in existentialist thought. We are hardwired for blind trust and we are always slipping back into the dogmatic slumber that blind trust engenders. Cognitive dissonance wakes us from our sleep and forces us to pay attention. More symbolically, every case of cognitive dissonance is a death and resurrection. Our old view of the world dies and a new one is born. Again, we see the influence of Christianity on existentialism.
The fact that Spengler was 100% wrong about Ivan Karamazov is a sign that something fundamental is at stake. And indeed there is. There is a bitter irony at play in Spengler’s error.
Ivan Karamazov is the brilliant but unknown scholar who has ingenious ideas based on the intellectual fashions of Western Europe at that time – atheism, materialism, socialism and nihilism. When he wrote the first volume of Decline of the West, Spengler was a brilliant but unknown scholar pursuing ingenious ideas based on the fashionable intellectual trends of the time – atheism, materialism and nihilism. In other words, Spengler is exactly the kind of person Dostoevsky was warning about when he wrote the character of Ivan Karamazov!
Just as Spengler can captivate us with his ingenious ideas, so Ivan Karamazov captivates his half-brother, Smerdyakov, with his ideas. Ivan is later made to realise that he is indirectly responsible for the murder of his father precisely because Smerdyakov took Ivan’s ideas to heart, including the notion that if God is dead, anything is permissible (even murder). Not only that, Ivan missed all the warning signs that Smerdyakov gave him because he was not paying attention. He was off with the fairies in the abstract fields of Reason and not focusing on the “real” world around him.
The character of Ivan Karamazov is a brilliant portrait of the dangers of disconnected Reason. It was written at a time when the real effects of disconnected Reason had not yet manifested. But the 20th century would prove Dostoevsky right. The technocrats of the Politburo with their decision-by-committee caused the deaths of millions of people because they were disconnected from reality on the ground just as Ivan Karamazov was disconnected from the world around him and failed to stop the murder of his father.
But there is a second meaning to the tragedy of Ivan Karamazov that is directly relevant to Spengler. Smerdyakov is filled with hatred and resentment. He uses Ivan’s idea as an intellectual cover to commit an atrocity. And that’s exactly what later happened to Spengler. The Nazis were filled with hatred and resentment. And, just like Smerdyakov, they latched on to Spengler’s ideas and used them for intellectual cover to commit their atrocities. As if to highlight the correspondence, Smerdyakov commits suicide in the novel just as Hitler and other high-ranking Nazis did in 1945.
This is the bitter irony of Spengler’s misunderstanding of the meaning of Ivan Karamazov. Spengler might have seen his own soul in the character of Ivan. Instead, he saw only the Russian soul. Dostoevsky had placed the warning right before his eyes and Spengler missed it. He inserted an “immeasurable distance” between himself and the one character who was almost identical to him.
Spengler was reading with his brain, not with his heart. Disconnected Reason will project onto the world whatever it wants. It will find things that are not even there. By contrast, reading with the heart is about empathy and connection. The Brothers Karamazov needs to be read with tears in your eyes. The fact that it can be read that way shows not the “immeasurable distance” between us but rather our shared humanity.
That leads to the final irony. Spengler was actually right. The Brothers Karamazov does contain a vision of brotherhood. If Spengler wanted to find that vision, he should have turned to the very last pages of the book where Alyosha gathers the young boys after the funeral of their friend. The brotherhood Dostoevsky had in mind is not based around a shared culture or a Russian soul. It is not based around Nietzschean amor fati (love of fate). It is based on love itself. Dostoevsky was presenting a variation on Christian mysticism – the idea that God is Love.
Spengler could never have seen that because he was too busy worshipping his own god: the great god of History. Spengler gave his god all the properties that Dostoevsky warned against: materialism, atheism, fatalism. Spengler’s god led to despair on a grand scale. It still does. It is the god of Necessity. We’ll explore that concept more in a future post in this series.
All posts in this series:
Christian Existentialism Part 1: The Confrontation with Nothingness
Christian Existentialism Part 2: The Worship of Idols
Christian Existentialism Part 3: Necessity vs Faith
Christian Existentialism Part 4: The Boiling Point of Water
Christian Existentialism Part 5: From Luther to Feynman
Christian Existentialism Part 6: The Rise of the Irrational