First, you need to understand it. Dostoyevsky’s fiction is a great place to start.
Dostoyevsky knew a few things about bankruptcy. Primarily, because he knew a few things about gambling.
Tolstoy knew a few things about gambling, too, but he was an aristocrat and therefore could settle his gambling debts by selling a meadow, a forest, or a horse. If he had a real rough outing, he could just tighten the income side of his budget for a while. Once, when he lost 3,000 rubles, he limited himself to ten rubles a month.
Dostoyevsky didn’t have those luxuries. Although he was able to borrow money from friends and family to get him through tough times when the roulette table (his favorite) cost him dearly, he would, his biographer Joseph Frank writes, return to his writing desk “with renewed vigor and a strong sense of deliverance.” He would crank out those masterpieces of literature that continue to awe, even in this postmodern age.
Dostoyevsky’s works continue to awe because, though he merely flirted with financial bankruptcy, he engaged in full-throated combat with atheistic bankruptcy.
He saw that atheism wasn’t (to borrow a current term) sustainable, whether on an individual or societal level.
He lived in the era when the effects of modern thinking were starting to unfold.
He shuddered as he watched western civilization’s roulette ball heading for the zero pocket.
So what did this literary and gambling fiend see that made him shudder?
He saw three principle types of atheism. Together, Dostoyevsky knew they were putting western civilization into a headlock more fierce than a casino bouncer would use on a patron who starts to urinate on the gaming table.
The first type of atheism: The man-god.
The second: Tower of Babel atheism.
Third: Palace of glass atheism.
Atheism of the Man-God
Those of us who think we are man-gods fall into two camps: the absolute bastards and the Raskolnikovs.
In Dostoyevsky’s literature: Raskolnikov, Crime and Punishment.
The man-god is the Nietzschean ideal, the individual who is a law unto himself. He’s a prick, as illustrated by Raskolnikov, who persuaded himself that he was one of the superior men predestined to smash the moral order and to whom laws didn’t apply.
He proved his superiority by killing an old woman and taking her money.
Without any qualms.
Until the qualms set in.
After his crime, he was confused, paranoid, and disgusted with himself. He was, said the philosopher Charles Andler, the “unsuccessful Nietzschean.” He did the crime, but couldn’t do the time . . . with himself. He would’ve gotten away with the crime, but the anguish was too much so he broke down and confessed.
In today’s world: The postmodernist.
I kind of like the postmodernists Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. They asked serious questions about the whole modern experiment. In particular, I think Derrida was right in his core criticism: modernity rejected God then replaced Him with all sorts of other gods (“logocentrism” is what Derrida called it). That, at root, is the failed modern experiment.
Derrida was determined not to make the same mistake. He was so determined, in fact, that he wrote the worst prose of all time. It’s freakin’ awful. Biographers think he may have written the cruddy prose on purpose: he didn’t want any words to contain ultimate meaning. If words could contain ultimate meaning (“presence,” in Derrida’s philosophy), Derrida’s denial of all logocentrism (including God and, obviously, Jesus (the Logos)) where ultimate meaning could be found would start to fall apart. Therefore, his prose always needed to be slippery. The result: reading Derrida’s prose is like walking through a huge bounce house.
It’s frustrating stuff.
But it’s clever stuff.
And it’s also Nietzschean stuff.
Take a page of Derrida’s prose and tell men they must live on it: nothing to hold onto. Everything is slippery. Nothing has meaning.
Who can handle it?
One type of man only: the man-god who transcends the moral order and needs nothing to hold onto because . . . well, he’s a god. The problem is, there are no man-gods. Those of us who think we fall are man-gods fall into two camps: the absolute bastards (normally, sociopaths or psychopaths at some level) and the Raskolnikovs who eventually break on all the nothingness.
And what about the rest of us, those who don’t think they’re man-gods but now, thanks to the world-flattening effects of postmodern philosophy, have nothing to hold onto?
I’m afraid you’ll find them in all those tent cities that are cropping up across America: communities of Fentanyl-laced meth use, whose denizens long ago stopped trying to find meaning. I also believe you’ll find them everywhere else, too, just in less drastic form. Try checking your local bar at 2:00 PM on a Tuesday, or your local golf courses, or a stray garden where some dude spends long hours by himself.
Tower of Babel Atheism
The David Humes are few: not just 10% of the population, but more like 1/10th of 1%. The rest of us need a god.
In Dostoyevsky’s literature: The Demons (a/k/a “The Possessed,” “The Devils”).
These were the offspring of well-meaning liberals. Just as liberals in the United States at the dawn of the twentieth century spawned Communists in the 1930s, liberal Russians spawned anarchist revolutionaries in nineteenth-century Russia.
The demons in Dostoyevsky’s book are nihilists: everything in society must be destroyed because everything in society is rooted in God and, because “God” is a lie, a mere construct, everything that emanates from Him (to wit, all societal structures) must be smashed.
After it’s all smashed, then the positive work can begin: building an earthly paradise that organizes society, and all human happiness, on the basis of science.
One of the demons in Dostoyevsky’s book suggests that it would be more logical to kill 90% of the population so the remaining “educated” 10% can organize “themselves according to scientific principles” and “live happily ever after.” The demons conclude that such mass extermination would be logistically impossible, so they must content themselves with smashing society and then re-setting everything, with the enlightened 10% ruling the other 90% and bringing earth to the new paradise.
In today’s world: The Marxist.
The demons’ goal is twofold: smash society’s structures, then build the earthly paradise.
The postmodernist largely accomplished the first: smashing society’s structures. The philosophy of Structuralism (Ferdinand de Saussure and Claude Levi-Strauss) said all societal norms are mere “structures,” with no truth or value behind them. This set the stage for the postmodernists, who then came and smashed those structures, leaving society adrift . . .
. . . and ready for the second: the building of a new society. It’s The Great Reset. It’s the elimination of “systemic racism” by remaking society. It’s guiding society by following the science, even though every good postmodernist knows science has been the most gullible and least reliable of all the disciplines. It’s The New World Order.
It’s any program and every program . . . as long as God, the transcendent, the soul, and immortality have no role in the program and, if such transcendents are afforded a role (which is often needed in order to get the ignorant 90% to go along with it), their roles must be strictly in service to the program. Social justice is great. Transcendent justice is not.
Scratch an atheist, and you’ll find a Marxist. There are exceptions, nihilistic folks like David Hume who follow the logic and conclude, “If there is nothing, then there’s nothing to get worked up over either, so let’s drink beer,” but most don’t have that intellectual rigor and emotional stamina: it’s a hard position to keep as death nears, as many deathbed converts would attest.
The David Humes are few: not just 10% of the population, but more like 1/10th of 1%. The rest of us need a god, need something more than ourselves. And if we don’t find the correct god, we’ll worship one we make ourselves. If the gentle and holy Alyosha “had not believed in God,” Dostoyevsky tells us in Karamazov, “he would have become a socialist.”
Palace of Glass Atheism
The underground man’s preference for numerical illiteracy is simply a rejection of the idea that “(2 x 2 = 4) = Love Thy Neighbor.”
In Dostoyevsky’s literature: Notes from Underground.
The underground man is the most famous of Dostoyevsky’s characters, surpassing all four Karamazov brothers combined. “The underground man,” Joseph Frank says in his definitive biography, has “entered into the very warp and woof of modern culture.”
The underground man might also be Dostoyevsky’s most puzzling character. Dostoyevsky chose a “sick” and “spiteful” man, an invalid with a nervous disorder (which the man enjoys) to criticize those intellectuals who would erect a palace of glass, the perfect utopia, for mankind to live in. “Could [Dostoyevsky] really have imagined,” asks Frank, “that anyone in his right mind would prefer the life of the underground man to the radiant happiness of denizens of Utopia?”
Frank then explores the genius behind Dostoyevsky’s anti-hero choice, which comes down to this: Dostoyevsky leveled point-blank, uncompromising, criticisms at modern thinking, especially as embodied by intellectuals who would create a perfect world. The criticism flew against the spirit of the age. He needed to use a loathsome narrator like the underground to keep the reader “disoriented from the start” (Frank).
So what did the underground man say?
Basically, he deconstructed modernity a century before Derrida got around to it, attacking even basic math:
“I agree that twice-two-are-four is a very fine thing; but, after all, twice-two-are-five is rather nice too.”
Dostoyevsky wasn’t rejecting math in this passage, but rather the rationalist claim that such basic math should be applied to spheres outside of math’s competence. The underground man hates the Utopians who would use math and science to keep everyone a prisoner in their rational society where experts hold the jail keys. He resists what the mystic-philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev called the “socialization of the mind” and wants to escape, says Russian Orthodox Paul Evdokimoff, “a life rationalized through and through.”
The underground man’s preference for numerical illiteracy is simply a rejection of the idea that “(2 x 2 = 4) = Love Thy Neighbor.” It’s also a rejection of the idea that biology has anything relevant to say about religion, psychology, economics, or—most importantly?—eudaimonia (the philosophy of happiness, flourishing, and living well).
The underground man attacked a thing that Russell Kirk a century later would describe as “defecated rationality,” which is the belief that we can use a handful of a priori principles or ideals to make grand decisions for all of mankind, without regard to specifics of person, place, generation, or tradition. Is equality the ideal? Then do A, B, and C. How about peace? Then do X, Y, and Z.
And always . . . always . . . be the man who does A, B, C, X, Y, and Z.
Or rather, be the man who inflicts A, B, C, X, Y, and Z on everyone else. [Of course, “man” is used in the gender-neutral sense . . . I’m not oblivious to the awesome force that is AOC.]
The underground man’s anti-arithmetic is a forceful rejection of the idea that these men and women of defecated rationality ought to use their specialties to rule. He would’ve loathed Franklin Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust,” just as he would’ve laughed derisively at today’s public health experts who bungled the COVID crisis.
In Today’s World: The Professor.
If you want to find the person loathed by the subterranean man, go to your local college or university. You’ll find the best specimens at institutions with the highest academic credentials, but they litter pretty much every campus, so you don’t need to limit yourself to the Ivies, the Seven Sisters, or the California university system.
Go onto any campus and look for a guy in a tweed sports jacket and scarf, then ask him: “Do you reject every kind of mystery?” If the answer is “yes,” or if the answer is indecipherable, you’ve found a Palace-of-Glass atheist, the man of defecated rationality who would rather eat his own, ahem, rationality than admit there’s something out there beyond his grasp.
If you want to see lesser specimens, just ask someone whether they think it’s a good idea that science dictates lockdowns, forced vaccinations, mask requirements, and other restrictions during the COVID pandemic. If she answers “yes,” you have a person who can’t begin to comprehend why the underground man would say “twice-two-are-five is rather nice too.”
Into the Hurricane
A hurricane has three ingredients: high sea surface temperature, an area of low pressure, and light vertical wind shear. All three must come together to produce the storm.
I’d respectfully submit that the three types of atheism have come together to produce today’s storm.
We are littered with man-gods, most often taking the form of the cocky poor: the nihilistic inner-city denizens and rural white trash who know no law outside themselves, who exist on (and vote for) programs launched in pursuit of the Tower of Babel, which are implemented by professors who believe in the Palace of Glass, where everything can be reduced to neat equations like the ones that fuel centralized welfare programs: “$X trillion divided by Y million people = no poverty.”
Yet we now know that trillions of dollars divided among millions of people equals a lot more poverty, giving us an arithmetical result as bizarre as twice-two-are-five . . . and just as baffling to those who don’t understand what the underground man was grousing about.
That’s just one example. There is a legion of others. I believe that, if you look at any modern ailment that wasn’t prevalent before, say, 1900, you’ll find the three forms of atheism in swirling collaboration.
Because we are today in the atheistic hurricane.
Further reading: Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, Part 3, Section II.