Recently, I’ve been enthralled by the fiasco of modern Russian history. The clash between tradition and Western culture is embalmed in Russia’s past and remains the pitiable example of a country torn asunder by competing ideologies, only to be ravaged by Marxism emerging victorious. Amidst the heat of the European Enlightment, Dostoyevsky was busy writing, and his works represent the cadre of Russians who vehemently opposed Western thought.
Dostoyevsky summarized the philosophy of the Enlightenment in a simple equation: 2x2=4. For him, 2x2=4 represented the dawn of the age of reason, of the laws of nature, and of calculability. He wasn't wrong. The perennial assumption that emerged from the Enlightenment is that everything from gravity to goosebumps to government can be explained by reason. And Dostoyevsky hated this.
For the past two years, I’ve become acquainted with the fathers of Western thought; thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine, all the way to Hobbes, Locke, and Descartes have convinced me that man rises above all other animals on the shoulders of his reason, and if only man wasn’t so ignorant he would achieve his ultimate purpose as a human being. Yet the contrarian in me refuses to become irretrievably infatuated. With this side, Dostoyevsky resonated.
In good Cartesian fashion (ironically), we can condense Dostoyevsky’s philosophy into a single phrase: I desire, therefore I am. For him, a desire is what “preserves what is dear and extremely important to us—that is, our personality and our individuality.” These desires are not always in competition with reason—they sometimes coincide—but they regularly resist reason and by no means are they subject to it. For if every human action is driven by reason, all human action is predictable, calculable, plotted. Whether pleasurable or painful, the most rational man embraces his love for a woman because it defines and separates him. Mathematical formulas, scientific experiments, and hard logic are not sufficient to describe the twists and turns of man’s desire.
According to Dostoyevsky, desire was man’s obstinate claim: “I am not a robot!” In Notes from the Underground, he explained the lengths to which man will descend to reclaim his right to desire, his right to free will. He concluded his tirade by saying, “I believe this, I am prepared to answer for it, because it seems to me that the whole business of humanity consists solely in this—that a man should constantly prove to himself that he is a man and not a sprig in a barrel-organ!”
Aside from having to look up what a sprig was, I understood Dostoyevsky. I don’t want to be told that all my choices have been made already, should I follow the guide of reason. I don’t want to be told all my desires amount to are neurons and synapses, or that the highest form of happiness exists in following the logic lines. And I can certainly say the heart is more than a spring, the nerves more than strings, and the joints more than wheels, unlike Hobbes' argument in his introduction to Leviathan.
In fact, I find increasingly that the world around me clings to its piece of rebellion—a staked claim of individuality and nonconformity. Dostoyevsky grasped what no Enlightenment philosopher understood: Humans are creatures of passion and reason. One is not subjugated to the other. Instead, they are involved in an intricate waltz, alternating leads and swirling around the room in a flurry of movement and beauty that seems thoughtfully rehearsed and fiercly emotional.
Joshua Cayetano is a Richter Scholar and a student in the William Penn Honors Program at George Fox University. He is majoring in political science and history with a focus on Middle Eastern studies. Originally from Pacifica, California, he enjoys traveling to different countries, sitting on the beach with any good book, or playing basketball.
Image via Wikipedia Commons.