Dostoyevsky’s philosophy – a short essay


Here we are going to say something about Dostoyevsky whose intellectual opus is an integral part of the contemplative soil from which Heidegger’s philosophy germinated. In order to understand the nature of Dostoyevsky’s thought, it is necessary to keep in mind the reality of life in the Russia of his time.

In the second half of 19th century, the advancing capitalist tide annihilated the customary, ethical and religious foundations of Russian society and questioned the tsarist order for its absolutist nature. Feudal Russia based its political stability on the fact that peasants were tied to the land. The abolition of serfdom (1861) and the development of industrial production resulted in the development of cities and the formation of an growing number of citizens and an enlarging working class. Millions of peasants became the work force of the new capitalist masters and were exposed to merciless exploitation. An increasing number of people live in existential uncertainty and misery. There are no political institutions that provide a possibility for channeling the growing discontent of the oppressed through legal political procedures. Political life is decimated by police terror, liquidations performed by the secret services and mass deportations to Siberia. Struggle against tsarist absolutism was based on the protest actions of the “Decembrists” and “Populists”, along with the assassination attempts by anarchist groups that tried to oppose State terror with their own fanatical voluntarism. The idea of socialism became the basis for the development of workers’ class awareness as well as for their political organization. University students became the seed bed for new ideas and the protagonists of political radicalism. In the Russia of the second half of the 19th century, political chaos dominated.

The development of capitalism uprooted “Russian man” from his previous spiritual habitat, and he was unable any longer to find the balance of traditional way of life between the church and the tsarist regime. The value-horizon of the old society and traditional social relations was vanishing in the deepening capitalist swamp, and the new value-horizons and institutions were not in sight. Russian man was thrown into a world where he had to struggle desperately in order to survive. In such conditions, he had no option other than to look for the basic defense of his human integrity within himself.

Dostoyevsky’s religious mysticism is a direct result of his losing faith in reason. In his philosophy, the conflict is established between reason, which has no specific social basis and, therefore, relativizes everything, and the necessity to act for the survival of man and the affirmation of his human existence. Since man could not rely on reason, which, per se, offers various solutions that only confuse him and keep him from action, Dostoyevsky offers a fulcrum in the form of a “free will” based on strong personality through which man should realize his life’s potential and meet his suppressed needs.

Freedom is, unarguably, contingent on restraint from threatening the freedom of others, is based on private property, and does not apply to liberation from the tyranny of the powerful or from the class order – as liberation from the existing world, towards a new one. With Dostoyevsky, too, “free will” does not imply man’s endeavor to oppose injustice and to assert his right to live in a just world, but it implies realization of man’s suppressed being, which is a product of the existing world. Dostoyevsky strived to offer freedom to man, degenerated in the capitalist mode, who is trying to realize his suppressed needs in a way dictated by the ruling order. A typical example is the gambler. The gambler cannot exist without gambling, and gambling is not possible without an order in which values generated by man are being alienated from him and turned into the power of destiny. Gambling, actually, is a tempting of the power that reigns in capitalism and, as such, represents a match with death.

In order to prevent life from turning into a merciless struggle between people motivated by unlimited “free will”, Dostoyevsky tries to establish an ethical awareness that would draw a boundary against felonious mischief. It is present in the idea of the “God”. Instead of believing in reason, faith in “God” was supposed to make possible the endurance of a society as a community of “Christian souls”. Thus, instead of the antagonism in reason, the antagonism between creative will and ethical (self)awareness is established. Kant tried to solve that problem in a formal logical manner, using an abstract citizen (a transcendental I), and Dostoyevsky endeavored to overcome that problem by using the abstract Christian. Kant’s ethical (self)awareness of the citizen is being replaced by a Christian ethical (self)awareness.

In Dostoyevsky there is a lack of self-reflection on human existence based upon the concrete historical situation of the society, meaning there is no self-reflection on the part of man as a concrete historical and social being. In his philosophy there is no visionary awareness and, in that context, no criteria upon which one can take action, bearing in mind the historical development of that order being established as a civil society. Dostoyevsky was not guided by the rational alternative based upon the emancipating potential of society that offers a possibility for the development of a visionary consciousness and the formation of political movements that would create a new world, but upon individual existence and religious mysticism. We are facing here an atomized member of a decaying aristocratic class who exists in a world which he does not understand in the context of its historical temporality, and, therefore, does not understand his own self as a concrete historical being. Dostoyevsky did not endeavor to create a new society, but to prevent decay of the tsarist order and of the ruling spiritual arc based on an Orthodox single-mindedness. He opposed progress based on a development of capitalism and creation of bourgeois society to the political stability of Russia. Dostoyevsky did not see Russia’s future in the most developed capitalist states, but in its own damnation.

Dostoyevsky did not belong to any social class. Therefore, all claimed him as one of their own. Impoverished nobleman, with no property and no money with which to become a capitalist, distant from the peasants and workers by his education and perception of life, soldier by necessity, rebel by nature, of weak health and even weaker integrity… HIs ability to summarize life’s contradictions within his characters brought everybody to see him as “their own writer”. Dostoyevsky was a political reactionary; however, his “Russian soul” was so ample that people from all social layers could find their sanctuary within it. Dostoyevsky did not shape his characters based on his philosophy, but his philosophy presents a synthesis of his characters’ philosophies. Life itself presents the source of his thought. This is what provides plausibility to his characters and vitality to his philosophy.

Translated from Serbian by Svetlana Djurić

English translation supervisor Mick Collins


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