Plato & Dostoevsky (Pt. II)

We continue Russian academic Vladislav Bachinin’s analysis of Fyodor Dostoevsky as metaphysician and his kinship to Plato, the pagan philosopher who illuminated classical man’s vision toward a higher world of immortal essences. What ultimately unites Plato and Dostoevsky is the former’s anticipation and the latter’s glorification, even through a crucible of darkness and suffering, of Christ the Eternal Logos. Translated by Mark Hackard.

Read Part I.

Execution as an Introduction to Metaphysics

Impressive is the likeness between existential sketches of Plato and Dostoevsky’s destinies. Personal tragedy awaited each of them at their life’s upward ascent, tragedy accompanied by trial, prison, and the most severe psychological shocks. For Plato this was the trial, imprisonment, and execution of his teacher Socrates, who became his spiritual father and to whom was assigned the role of the Platonic alter ego in his dialogues. For Dostoevsky the tragedy was his own passage through the cells of the Peter and Paul Fortress, an unjust trial, mock execution, and hard labor in Siberia.

Dostoevsky Execution

Semenovsky Square, scene of Dostoevsky’s 1849 execution, commuted by the Tsar to hard labor.

After Socrates’ execution, Plato left Athens for a protracted period. Years later he returned to his native city, already a different man with new views and internally prepared for the discovery of a second philosophical “compass” that would enable him to direct all the strength of his spirit toward proof of existence of the supra-sensory world of immortal ideas, and most of all, the idea of supreme justice.

After he fulfilled his sentence, Dostoevsky spent many years far from Petersburg and also returned to full-fledged creative life as an internally changed man with a totally different worldview. His first “compass,” when he sympathized with the socialists and was partial to the ideas of Fourier and the views of Belinsky, remained in the past. He transformed into a thinker and metaphysician with an accentuated receptivity to the realities of the transcendent world and basic metaphysical problems – God, the immortality of the soul, and freedom. In his reflections on the turning point in Dostoevsky’s worldview, an event that occurred as a result of his “invitation to execution” by the authorities, Lev Shestov recalled a legend about the angel of death, who was covered entirely with eyes. If the angel arrived for a soul and became convinced that he had come too early, he would depart for an unspecified time, leaving the one he spared a second pair of eyes. Consequently the man who had stood on the edge of death began to acutely perceive a reality otherworldly, metaphysical, and inaccessible to normal sight, and with seriousness would ask himself the most difficult metaphysical questions.

The metamorphosis that took place with Dostoevsky was interpreted in a similar way by Vyacheslav Ivanov. He assumed that death drawing near in earnest played the role of midwife to free the writer’s metaphysical ego. After initiation into the mystery of death came the desire to touch the higher secrets of being. Just the author of the Divine Comedy once discovered the mysteries of hell and death through his love for Beatrice, so for Dostoevsky at the scaffold there was revealed the secret of Love as the highest first principle of the world, unconquerable to the forces of evil.

These trials indeed made an indelible mark on the writer’s personality, his worldview, and his creative activity. They changed in essence the content of his existential experience, replaced many points of reference in his values, and changed the ideational contours of his most important existentials. In their light everything became darker and more significant. The acquired gift of metaphysical conception opened before Dostoevsky a world of higher existentials and allowed him to understand much of what was hidden from the majority of men.

Much later Dostoevsky spoke directly on the ability of the existential of death, drawing immediately near to man, to change the essence of his worldview. This happened after he read Lev Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina:

There came the scene of the heroine’s death (later she again recovered) – and I understood the entire essential part of the author’s goals. At the very center of this mediocre and insolent life there appeared a great and eternal vital truth, and it at once illuminated everything. These small-minded, worthless, and mendacious people suddenly became true and upright people worthy of the human name, solely by the force of a law of nature, the law of human death. All their outer shell vanished, and their one truth appeared…The reader felt this as a vital truth, the most real and unavoidable in which we need to believe, and that all our life and all our worries, both the most petty and shameful and equally those we frequently consider as supreme, all are more often than not only the most small and fantastical vanity that falls away and disappears without even defending itself before a moment of truth in life. The primary idea was in pointing out that there is in fact this moment, though it rarely appears in all its illuminating fullness, and even in some lives never at all. (Notebooks 25, 52-53)

After this “Copernican revolution” had occurred within Dostoevsky, not only he but also his characters became different. Henceforth all those close to him in spirit will reveal an inclination toward a metaphysical worldview. Raskolnikov, consciously stamping it out within himself, will have it. It would come to be possessed by the “vile Petersburgers” from the novellas Notes from the Underground, Bobok, and Dream of a Ridiculous Man, and neither can it be denied to Svidrigailov nor Stavrogin with their dark fantasies. And of course, in the highest degree it is found characteristic of Ivan Karamazov, who established a grandiose metaphysical panorama inside his own ego.

Aside from these “dark” metaphysicians, there are also those of “light” – Prince Myshkin, Zosima, Alesha Karamazov. Behind both groups is the metaphysical ego of Dostoevsky himself. Like Goethe, who once split into Faust and Mephistopheles, Dostoevsky the metaphysician also splits into his “dark” and “light” doubles.

Dostoevsky IV

Painting by Ilya Glazunov.

Dostoevsky’s metaphysical ego evinced a talent for metaphysical contemplation, speculation, and imagination. This capability for metaphysical contemplation allowed the writer to perceive metaphysical reality in entirety and in its separate components. In him we uncover qualities of a special type – an ear for metaphysics in order to hear the ineffable, and metaphysical vision in order to see the unseen, i.e. to perceive that which was hidden behind the curtain of exterior material reality. First discovered as the ability to contemplate phantoms in the story The Double, in the future it would show itself in each of the author’s works. Behind the younger Golyadkin there appears the phantom image of the “underground man” from Crime and Punishment, one that nearly drives Raskolnikov insane:

Who is he? Who is this man who came out from under the earth? Where was he, and what did he see? He saw everything, of this there was no doubt. Where then did he stand, and whence did he watch? Why does he only now come out from under the ground? And how could he see – is this really possible? A fly was flying, and it saw! Is that possible? (6, 210)

One can build various psychological and metaphysical hypotheses in the drive to explain the nature of these phantoms. But beyond them we see without doubt an unconditional truth: there is always someone in the world who knows the whole truth of what happens to us.

In the twentieth century Georges Florovsky noted that a sharp metaphysical ear at all times listens through the shroud of everyday life, hearing how the eternal metaphysical storm rages. With Dostoevsky this sense of hearing was intensified to an extreme. Perhaps like none of his contemporaries, he proved sensitive to the mysterious hum of the metaphysical world.

This was facilitated by a mature talent for metaphysical speculation, i.e. the ability to structure demonstrative conclusions with the help of intellectual-metaphysical intuition, in the light of which images that were a result of metaphysical contemplation took shape in integral ideational, normative, and evaluative models of the extant and the ideal. As a result there arose new spiritual forms – metaphysical thought-images that gave a fuller and deeper representation of the place and role of metaphysical reality in human existence.

And finally, the third spiritual-creative talent with which Dostoevsky proved endowed in the highest degree was a metaphysical imagination. This permitted him to complete developing models of thought-forms of the extant and the ideal toward a necessary integrality of poly-semantic symbols and full-scale symbolic pictures.

The metaphysical imagination is always an act of spiritual transgression, a rupture beyond the limits of the visible into metaphysical reality, the transcendent spheres of higher absolutes, and the world of the reality of the subject. Simultaneously this is a departure beyond the frontiers of space and time, the results of which are shown as symbolic pictures of a providential character. Such, for example, was Raskolnikov’s dream in the labor camp, which consequentially showed all the signs of a terrible prophecy on Russia’s fate in the twentieth century.

In Dostoevsky’s symbolic universe, things represent something more than what they are by their nature. Within it an axe can not only lie under a counter in a workshop or hang in a loop under Raskolnikov’s coat, but it can also rotate around the earth suspended over the heads of all the planet’s inhabitants (Brothers Karamazov). And this is not the supra-sensory idea of an axe, but a fully material axe capable of splitting the heads of millions of old women. At the same time it is a symbol of the awful danger that threatens the multitude of men. The menacing connotations concentrated therein leave the naive symbolism of Nechaev’s People’s Retribution, which had made an axe its emblem, far behind. In such a manner Dostoevsky’s “realistic symbolism” reveals itself; it allowed him to peer beyond the real into what was most real, to see ontology beyond politics, and beyond criminality to metaphysics.

For Dostoevsky the metaphysical imagination was one of the most important instruments of creative work. He clearly recognized that the real is not divided into reason and intellect to the exclusion of all else, and that within social realities, much does not conform to any logical schemes. The powerlessness of rational explanatory means was uncovered in full measure when it was necessary to investigate the anthropological irrealities of human existence.

Distinct from re-productive sociological reasoning, the metaphysical imagination is genuinely productive. It allows the spirit to not only look beyond the manifest, thereby demonstrating a transgressive character unknown to sociological reasoning, but also to tell in the language of symbols about what was seen. Meaning that the creative spirit acts in the role of a “messenger” (D. Andreev) and demonstrates a special providential, prophetic intuition.

For Dostoevsky the existential direction of metaphysical imaginings held special meaning – it allowed him to see his own life’s path and the biographies of his characters as destiny organically inscribed into the objective context of metaphysical reality and into a theocentric picture of the world, thereby organically uniting the relative with the absolute, the personal with the supra-personal, and the particular with the universal.

Dostoevsky greatly valued his aptitude for metaphysical imagination, since it allowed him to search out and often sense the taste of metaphysical freedom. In a most essential way it expanded the space of his personal metaphysical experience, both light and dark. With its participation he placed the social and anthropological realities that interested him into the context of metaphysical reality, where an event was transformed into fate, wrongdoing into sin, punishment into retribution, etc.

Painting by Viktor Vasnetsov.

Painting by Viktor Vasnetsov.

By its unique nature, literary work itself predisposed Dostoevsky to a metaphysical conception of the world. His relation to each of his characters resembled God’s relation to his own creatures. The novel appeared as a world where everything is run by the sole will of the author, where every character’s fate is already predetermined and not one hair can fall from his head except by the will of the novelist. The author acts in the role of creator and providence: he judges and decides who among the characters is to live, and who to die. Relating to the world of the novel, the author dwells in another, transcendent dimension. For his characters he is unseen, unheard, and located beyond their reach. Yet if (let us imagine this) the characters come upon the idea that they exist unto themselves and independent of their creator, they will have fallen into the deepest delusion.

Plato, able to receive a second pair of eyes that allowed him to view the metaphysical world of ideas, acquired them to a large degree as a result of the tragic death of his teacher. Socrates, who saw in his own death a departure to another world, helped his pupil thereafter to become firmly convinced of the notion that only the other world, in which man lives not with his body but his spirit, is primary. That reality in which innocent sages are sentenced to execution cannot be the true and chief one. Therefore there absolutely must exist another higher and ideal world where justice is not trampled, but rules supreme. This collision of Platonic destiny is deeply felt and explained by Vladimir Soloviev in his lecture “Plato’s Life Drama.”

The principle of two worlds becomes the driving one in Plato’s metaphysics. His ideas appear as higher values of being in which all the best that has the chance of realization in the existence of nature, man, and civilization is concentrated. The ideals of order, measure, harmony, perfection, the greater good, and universal justice are focused into Platonic ideals to the highest degree. With concern to all that is earthly and purely human, those things are only the weak imitations of idea-exemplars and far from true perfection.

For men, form-giving first principles that derive from ideas serve as a source of hope that our earthly world has the possibility of being less imperfect. Moreover, with Plato ideas act as a unique metaphysical guarantor that evil never succeed in totally subordinating the world to turn it exclusively into a nest of vice, crime, suffering, and darkness.


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