Notes from the Underground

I have recently been reading in a classic work, Nicholas Berdyaev’s Dostoevsky. Berdyaev was a twentieth-century Russian philosopher (existentialist) and deeply sympathetic to Dostoevsky’s works. I find some of his treatment to be tremendously satisfying and “on the mark.” I offer an extended quote and some thoughts…

Berdyaev quotes from Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground:

I shall not be a bit surprised, if in the midst of the Universal Reason [referring to various utopian schemes popular in the 19th century] that is to be, there will appear, all of a sudden and unexpectedly, some common-faced, or rather cynical and sneering, gentleman who with his arms akimbo will say to us: ‘Now then, you fellows, what about smashing all this Reason to bits, sending their logarithms to the devil, and living as we like according to our own silly will?’ That might not be much, but the annoying thing is that he would immediately get plenty of followers – men are made like that. And the cause of all this is so absurd that it would scarcely seem worth speaking of : man, whoever he is and wherever he is to be found, prefers to act as he wills rather than as reason and interest dictate. One may will against one’s own interest – sometimes one has to. Scope for free choice, personal caprice, however extravagant, the matter of fancies – those are what man is after, quintessential objects that you can’t classify and in exchange for which all systems and theories can go to hell. Where then have all these wiseacres found that man’s will should primarily be normal and virtuous? Why have they imagined that man needs a will directed towards reason and his own benefit? All he needs is an independent will, whatever it may cost him and wherever it may lead him … In only one single case does man consciously and deliberately want something absurd, and that is the silliest thing of all, namely, to have the right to want the absurd and not to be bound by the necessity of wanting only what is reasonable.

Berdyaev offers his own analysis:

To the very end [Dostoevsky] refused to rationalize human society and repudiated all attempts to exalt happiness, reason, and well-being above liberty; he would have nothing to do with the Great Exhibition [held in London in 1851, to demonstrate that technology was the way to a better future] or any anticipated harmony based on the ruins of human personality. Instead he wanted to take men along the ways of wildest self-will and revolt in order to show them that they lead to the extinction of liberty and to self-annihilation. This road of liberty can only end either in the deification of man or in the discovery of God; in the one case, he is lost and done for; in the other, he finds salvation and the definitive confirmation of himself as God’s earthly image. For man does not exist unless there be a God and unless he be the image and likeness of God; if there be no God, then man deifies himself, ceases to be man, and his own image perishes. The only solution to the problem of man is in Jesus Christ.

I have written on a number of occasions of modernity’s misguided admiration for reason. The Enlightenment (18th century) witnessed the birth of the modern fascination with reason – and to a degree – all things mathematical. Its ideas continue in many varieties (even as it began with many varieties). There is a continual hope in various “brave new worlds,” from Camelot (progressive America) to the Worker’s Paradise. Today everything from cybernetics and genetics to chaos and anarchy are offered as utopian solutions to the problems of the world – or necessities on the road of progress.

Berdyaev correctly analyzes the theme of liberty in Dostoevsky’s thought. He lived and wrote during a period in which Reason and its various advocates had yet to place their dreams into completed action but stood at that very precipice. Dostoevsky’s essentially Christian voice seemed like the voice of madness to some, or an empty effort to defend tradition, etc. His age not only clamored for Reason but for a new and Reasonable Christ (were there to be one at all). Dostoevsky in a developing string of novels explores the consequences of the various forces of his age. He ultimately ends with Christ – but not the Christ of man’s imagination. The Christ He sees is the Christ of the Gospels, the Christ of the Fathers, the Christ of the living Tradition of the Orthodox faith.

He embraces the irrational claims of the gospel – every man is guilty of the sins of all…we must forgive everyone for everything…. His characters introduce such ideas into the midst of a rationalizing culture and the novels move towards their resolution in the dynamic of that conflict.

Our present age is deeply shattered. We cannot point to one modernity – but to a plurality of modernities. Christianity is itself fragmented (with fragmentations within each fragment). The temptations offered to believers are as manifold as could possibly be imagined.

The Christian faith has its own champions of Enlightenment – those who are certain that various schemes will result in a better world, or hasten the coming of Christ, or create a better Christian. Orthodoxy itself is not immune to such champions: those who believe that a new Byzantine Empire (or Holy Russia) or even Orthodox America are very vulnerable to the utilitarian temptations of our age. “It is good; we want it to happen; let’s make it happen.”

I personally long for a united, single Orthodox Church on American soil – but such a miraculous leap forward in the practice of ecclesiology will not serve as a solution for America or for the Orthodox who live here. It will correct our failures to properly observe canon law, but it will still only yield the Church – the arena of our struggle and the Golgotha for the Cross we have each promised to take up.

Reason and rationality (when left to themselves) can never lead to the promises of God: they are too small, too limited, unable to imagine the wonder that is man in Christ. By the same token, Reason finally has as its ultimate weapon the use of force – for those who refuse Reason stand in the way of a better world. In the liberty in which Dostoevsky dares believe – there can only be love – for liberty can have no compulsion. Those who resort to force have abandoned liberty as surely as they have abandoned love.

Berdyaev offers a correct conclusion: the only solution to the problem of man is in Jesus Christ. I would amend this statement to bring it in line with Scripture: the only solution to the problem of man is in Jesus Christ and Him crucified. It is the love of God in the last extremity of crucifixion that solves the problem of man. For the paradox is clear – the liberty of love along with its renunciation of compulsion – leads, it would seem, only to the triumph of evil. Love is conquered by death. But the Christian faith transcends reason. Death is reasonable and reason’s end. Christ is the Logos, the only true image of man, capable of sustaining man in his true image – with the freedom that can only come in Christ. For He has constituted the world in freedom (the freedom of love) and offers us this gift without compulsion. By His resurrection we forgive everyone for everything and find our true life in the very place where others would fear to go.

The great truth of this matter is that it is not an ethical sidebar to the larger matter of Christianity – but is its very heart – a heart that when missing, misses the Kingdom of God. For where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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8 responses to “Notes from the Underground”

  1. Robb Thurston Avatar
    Robb Thurston

    Father bless!
    Thanks for bring up the Notes from the Underground. I studied it for a semester in college and it depressed me then. Now I am Orthodox, led to Orthodoxy by the Notes.. The themes you present: “Dostoevsky… embraces the irrational claims of the gospel – every man is guilty of the sins of all…we must forgive everyone for everything…. His characters introduce such ideas into the midst of a rationalizing culture (Freemasonry and Enlightenment) and the novels move towards their resolution in the dynamic of that conflict.” The reaction of the rationalized culture is presented in precise detail in the novel named “The Idiot”.
    In gist, there cannot coincide the forgiveness of all and the assumption of all guilt, along with the glib paradigms and desires of the Freemason Enlightenment found in the eighteenth century, and brought to Russia by Napoleon. Characters in The Idiot start acting very wildly, because Prince Myshikin brings TRUTH. In the NOTES, the narrator declares that any freedom loving man would destroy the Exhibition (aka Crystal Palace)with dynamite.
    Why? In the presence of TRUTH, or Jesus Christ, man’s
    present culture explodes under the impact of its dialectical contradictions. Such contradictions are only dulled with alcohol, sex and , gambling and other opiates. Those opiates solve nothing
    We saw many wars in the Twentieth Century,and their wrath was simply the contradictions of our culture unmasked by the Psychology of Freud, the Biology and Geology of Darwin and the economic Determinism of Marx.
    Thanks for bring in the solution, which is spoken by Fr. Zossima in the Brothers Karamazov.

  2. […] Sep 23rd 3:11 pmclick to expand…Notes from the Underground, Sep 23rd 9:15 pmclick to expand…Photo […]

  3. Andrew Avatar

    These are wonderful words Father, again, some things are better left unsaid.

  4. […] Notes From the Underground – Fr. Stephen Freeman, GtGfaT (OX) […]

  5. PJ Avatar

    I’ve begun to consider that God imbued humanity with reason so that creation might recognize its Creator and, subsequently, offer itself up to Him through the Incarnate Logos, the Bridge, the Mediator, the Ladder. See: Romans 12:1/Big hunks of Hebrews

  6. dinoship Avatar

    I remember St. Isaac the Syrian, and other,s saying something like this concerning faith and reason:
    without faith Man cannot even come close to freedom of thoughts or authority over them, (as this comes from God); only faith stops worrying over anything at all to come near the heart, or any disturbing stirring to darken it. This is due to the unbeatable confidence which faith grants to a faithful conscience. The reasoning of the rational mind however, prior to a person’s liberation through faith and humility, is a sure road to perturbation (resulting from faithlessness in God’s providence).
    Moreover, to the degree that a soul is defiled and darkened, to that degree it is unable to see properly (others, other things and itself), no matter how robust its reasoning faculties. The rational mind left to its own devices will fight faith and ‘naturally’ leads to delusion. But if it cleanses itself it will clearly see (through faith) and then reason will be swallowed up by faith and reborn again in an infinitely higher (un-fallen) state working with and not against faith.
    There is a world of difference between that reason “that recognises the Creator” and the reason which is the ruler of this fallen world. The first bows down to faith and “reasons” not of itself but in union with God’s Spirit, in a way that the rational world would label irrational folly (that divine folly that St. Paul would be proud of); the second will not recognise a God other than itself…

  7. John Avatar

    I, too, first encountered Orthodoxy through reading Dostoevsky, and I love your treatment of his work and thought.

    This post reminds me of an insight from St. Gregory of Nyssa that I first read on your site: “Concepts create idols; only wonder understands anything.” In my limited journey, it seems to me that the man who trusts too much in reason ends up trusting in a concept of God (or worse, in his own brilliance and insight) rather than truly communing with God.

  8. dino Avatar

    Serbian bishop Athanasius (Gieftits) once likened the two thieves, either side of our Lord, as Dostoyevsky (Saint Desmas -on the right) and Jean Paul Sartre (Giestus -on the left). An insightful thought…

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