The Brothers Karamazov

Posted by Anti Citizen One on April 30th, 2010

I have been recovering from a stomach thing (“the father of all afflictions”). The good news is I’ve read The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. It was awesome, but certainly not light reading. I had maintained notes of approximately 50 recurring characters! For this literary genre, the length is second only to War and Peace. I mention this book on this philosophy blog as it is a dense philosophical and psychological work. Apart from the many moral situations faced by the characters, they are not afraid to discuss social, spiritual and philosophical issues in depth. Also, it is not obvious to me the author is pushing a particular agenda, although others have dismissed Dostoevsky as merely pushing orthodox christian propaganda. He seems to make a strong case for and against christianity and moral relativism.

The character Alexey (Alyosha) is perhaps the closest to the author’s ideal man, in this work. Prince Myshkin from this earlier book, The Idiot, is perhaps a higher ideal. But both love humanity and the world. Both are deeply religious and principled. They rush around trying to fix everything and usually, tragically fail (is this the author’s ideal!?). Indeed, Myshkin is driven to insanity by his high principles. Alexey keeps his head but is more human and more passionate than Myshkin. He is after all, the son of this father: the “sensualist” Fyodor Karamazov.

Ivan: “It’s a feature of the Karamazovs, it’s true, that thirst for life regardless of everything; you have it no doubt too, but why is it base?”

Alexey’s brother Ivan Karamazov is an intellectual, a strident moral relativist and possibly a strong atheist. His view is: given the rejection of God and an afterlife, the are no laws to say “love thy neighbour”, therefore “everything is lawful”. This brief expression, rather like a sound bite, borders on a false dichotomy, but Ivan (and the author) is smart enough to not over simplify. He is referring to the existential questions raised by the apparent absence of objective morality. When Ivan is attributed with “everything is lawful”, he said it plainer as “But in my wishes I reserved myself full latitude in the case”. Full latitude in this context includes murder or indeed any other action.

Rakitin: “And did you hear his [Ivan’s] stupid theory just now: if there’s no immortality of the soul, then there’s no virtue, and everything is lawful?”

Ivan also states his parable of “The Grand Inquisitor”, in which Jesus returns to Earth, but is taken from the people by agents of organised religion and told he is now superfluous considering the current aims of the church. The inquisitor recalls the three temptations of Christ in the wilderness and which are metaphorically faced by the church. The church now chooses differently than Jesus’s choices in the biblical story. This amounts to an accusation of the atheism of organised religion. This chapter has been published separately from the rest of the book.

I was interested to read an expression of the eternal return, which just precedes Nietzsche’s statement in The Gay Science (1880 vs 1882). Although they seem to have expressed the same concept, the way the idea is described is strikingly similar. Dostoevsky has Ivan, driven towards insanity by (possibly misplaced) guilt, hallucinating a devil appearing and talking to him. Nietzsche also writes of a demon appearing at night to foretell the eternal return. Nietzsche appears to have discovered Dostoevsky between 1886 and 1888, based on his sudden gushing praise in Twilight of the Idols. Gypsy Scholar thinks they both may have found the idea in Heine.

Devil to Ivan: “Why, you keep thinking of our present earth! But our present earth may have been repeated a billion times. Why, it’s become extinct, been frozen; cracked, broken to bits, disintegrated into its elements, again ‘the water above the firmament,’ then again a comet, again a sun, again from the sun it becomes earth — and the same sequence may have been repeated endlessly and exactly the same to every detail, most unseemly and insufferably tedious…”

I mention this as the idea is given far higher weight in Nietzsche, being a central theme in Thus Spake Zarathustra. In Karamazov, the world view which Dostoevsky calls by short hand “underground” is touched upon, as Dimitri is faced with the possibility of being sent to Siberia for 20 years (singing hymns to God from underground). This was of course discussed in depth in Notes from Underground, which serves as a sort of preface to his longer masterpieces. I am inclined to think that Smerdyakov is the most underground character in the book, in competition with Rakitin and Ivan, on bad days.

Anti Citizen One

PS The Onion reports on a film adaptation of many peoples experience of the book…

UK Election, Vote on Policy

Posted by Anti Citizen One on April 24th, 2010

Well the UK election campaign is nearly done. Only a little while until the decision. Although I have a healthy skepticism of institutional politics (is there another kind? mmm), I urge people to look at the policies of each party.

The political compass website is excellent. It has a summary of UK parties on their scale of authoritarianism/libertarianism and left/right. I have been supporting a party, the Lib Dems (centerist, with right leanings), that is worryingly distant from my survey result position (very libertarian, quite left). Remember this is all relative (Labour and conservatives are moderate authoritarian, moderate right). Perhaps I should switch to the Green Party? They are more aligned with my views. What we really need is electoral reform, so I can vote for a party without it being lost in noise of “first past the post”.

Anti Citizen One

Libdem Green Party Logo

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

Posted by Anti Citizen One on April 22nd, 2010

I finished Pullman’s “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” in a few hours reading. It is certainly an original and subtle subversion of institutional religion, even compared to His Dark Materials. I don’t want to spoil the style and plot but I think I can say it is a retelling of the gospel story. It has many slight twists which make it a perfect book for fans of postmodernism. Competition between truth and history is explicitly discussed. Most of the famous stories are included but modified to make them more naturalistic; meaning they occur in a manner that is consistent with everyday experience. There are many references to events and artistic works that have since occurred. I detected hints of the medieval history of the church, Plato, Blake, Kierkegaard (Abraham And Isaac) and perhaps a discrete hint of Monty Python (“Penny for an ex-leper?”).

I was playing with the idea of listing gospel messages that are contrary to mainstream contemporary Christianity. Well, Pullman did it better than I could!

Anti Citizen One

Reaction to The Open Society and Its Enemies, Part 1

Posted by Anti Citizen One on April 9th, 2010

I thought I would write a few random thoughts on The Open Society and Its Enemies by Popper. First off: it is excellent. It is a defence of democracy though an analysis of Plato’s The Republic. At times, it seems rather supportive of Socrates and mentions many occasions in which he was liabled by Plato. I am very suspicious of both because they are both philosophical idealists. Popper connects idealism to totalitarianism when applied to political problems (if I understand his point). He also restates the basis of humanitarianism because it was straw manned by Plato. Plato claims that egalitarianism is itself injustice as it treats naturally unequal things as equal – leading to social problems. I was very happy when Popper avoids this and avoids the is-ought problem and the naturalistic fallacy to say that it is individual demands that give the state legitimacy. Popper defines an open society if the government can be changed without recourse to violence. If the individual is forgotten by the state, it ceases to have a claim to justice. The analysis is very critical of Essentialism, Radicalism, Utopianism and supportive of gradual, piecemeal and empirical social change. The ultimate moral responsibility rests on individuals within the state – which is almost an existential basis for a state (strange but true). This interpretation is subtle – when the state is formed to reduce suffering, it is not because the ultimate judgement we make on the world is it is a suffering place. Nietzsche here would warm us of making judgements of that sort! (Fellow suffering is the “deepest abyss”.) But we can take measures as individuals, with our judgement being the “first motion” of ethics, and the judgement that we should help the suffering is contingent (and may change in time). This effect puts the doctors choice to be doctors as the basis of health care. Since their choice lead them to that vocation, it might be expected they have the self motivation to do a good job. If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well. This is the antithesis of our customer and victim centred culture, of course!

I wonder what part 2 will be like? I love the title, also. I love emphasising the second part “… and its ENEMIES….”.

Anti Citizen One