Thursday, 2 April 2020

To level the mountains

Demons  is a fascinating and powerful novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky published between 1871 and 1872. For those who haven’t read it, a brief summary from Wikipedia -

Demons is an allegory of the potentially catastrophic consequences of the political and moral nihilism that were becoming prevalent in Russia in the 1860s. A fictional town descends into chaos as it becomes the focal point of an attempted revolution, orchestrated by master conspirator Pyotr Verkhovensky...

'Demons' refers not to individuals who act in various immoral or criminal ways, but rather to the ideas that possess them: non-material but living forces that subordinate the individual (and collective) consciousness, distorting it and impelling it toward catastrophe.

The demons of the title are effectively evil ideologies which take possession of susceptible people. As Jordan Peterson has said, ideologies possess people, not the other way round. Dostoyevsky's novel also sheds a powerful light on our modern world and our apparent inability to preserve the civilisation which nurtured us. We cannot absorb the lessons of history, having lost sight of the political and moral nihilism eating away at what we are – soon to be what we were.

Dostoyevsky saw the danger and described it - as perceptive and articulate people still do today, but the message is not quite simple enough to take hold. The climate change narrative, to take just one modern example, is just as morally nihilist as the political disease Dostoyevsky saw in Russia 150 years ago. Just as demonic.

Here are two extracts.

“Listen, Stavrogin. To level the mountains is a fine idea, not an absurd one. I am for Shigalov. Down with culture. We’ve had enough science! Without science we have material enough to go on for a thousand years, but one must have discipline. The one thing wanting in the world is discipline. The thirst for culture is an aristocratic thirst. The moment you have family ties or love you get the desire for property. We will destroy that desire; we’ll make use of drunkenness, slander, spying; we’ll make use of incredible corruption; we’ll stifle every genius in its infancy. We’ll reduce all to a common denominator! Complete equality!

Listen. I’ve reckoned them all up: a teacher who laughs with children at their God and at their cradle; is on our side. The lawyer who defends an educated murderer because he is more cultured than his victims and could not, help murdering them to get money is one of us. The schoolboys who murder a peasant for the sake of sensation are ours. The juries who acquit every criminal are ours. The prosecutor who trembles at a trial for fear he should not seem advanced enough is ours, ours. Among officials and literary men we have lots, lots, and they don’t know it themselves. On the other hand, the docility of schoolboys and fools has reached an extreme pitch; the schoolmasters are bitter and bilious. On all sides we see vanity puffed up out of all proportion; brutal, monstrous appetites.... Do you know how many we shall catch by little, ready-made ideas?

Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Demons (1871-72)

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