Comparing Spinoza’s Ethics and Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground

Comparing Spinoza’s Ethics and Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground

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Comparing Spinoza’s Ethics and Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground

Perhaps my choice of the subject may come across as a little eccentric, to say the least. To appear quaint and whimsical, however, is not my intention, so I figured as an introduction, I would explain my choice. From so far as I can tell, philosophy, or the search for truth, has all too often been equated with certainty. This quality of certainty has been especially magnified in the rationalist branch of philosophy. Starting with Descartes’ vision of a philosophy with a mathematical certainty, rationalists claimed to have grasped a rather large portion of reality, including the world, God, consciousness, and whatever falls in-between. As empiricists argued, most of this "knowledge" was in effect assumed, a habit, as it had no representation in the real world. The rationalists’ notorious abstractness and their disregard for the seeming discrepancy between their proofs and the real world have been the main reasons for the fearsome opposition and caricature they faced: even Voltaire, though influenced to a great extent by Leibniz’s philosophy, ridicules it in his masterpiece Candide in the form of ludicrously optimistic Pangloss. . Kant, especially, has put a rather impressive dent in the hull of rationalist philosophy, branding it dogmatic metaphysics. As he pointed out, rationalist philosophy ignores the sensory component of human perception when embarking on its ill-fated quest to find a metaphysics with absolute knowledge. I find this criticism the most powerful, as it points out the discrepancy between the real world and the abstract world of rationalists.

Spinoza’s system stands on the cutting edge of rationalist thought, attempting to establish the certain, necessary and universal truths of reality and nature by reducing Descartes’ philosophy to a set of axioms and definitions, like one would do with a geometry proof. Dostoyevsky stands on the opposite side of the spectrum, exposing the shortcomings of reason with frightful realism. He, in my opinion, makes incredibly insightful points about this discrepancy between how things "should" be and how they are.

When comparing the manifestos of these two thinkers, Spinoza’s Ethics and Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, one can easily see the difference in language. Spinoza’s language is strictly mathematical. He is not concerned with engaging the reader. His primary concern is with presenting his idea with clarity and consistency. Dostoyevsky’s language differs due to the difference of his intention.

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His desire is not to get across a truth, but a condition: a state of "hyperawareness" as he calls it. His character draws the readers in with a series of monstrous and at the same time deeply honest observations about the world, himself, his feelings. The very first phrase of the book, "I am a sick man, a spiteful man, a very unattractive man. And there is something wrong with my liver", establishes a desire to come across on an individual, person to person level. Spinoza lacks this desire entirely throughout Ethics, and I suspect in other writing as well. The entire notion of individual, of "I", is entirely foreign to Spinoza’s philosophy, as all it is is a mode, a manifestation of God, with no choice but to act in an almost preordained way, according top its nature. Spinoza does not want his vision to be looked at from the point of view of an emotional human being, but rather from that of an impartial, removed rational entity. With this a problem surfaces; there is no such thing as a removed, detached, impartial observer. The abstraction fails to make an impact because we cannot identify with this "detached" entity. As Kant pointed out, we are not shaped by reason or experience separate one from the other, but rather by their symbiotic synthesis, which forms our understanding. For Spinoza, however, there is as little freedom in the physical world as there is in the mental one. Every thought, every action, is a mode of God, and hence is inevitable and inescapable, hence words like accident, choice, chance, and freedom cannot be the way they are thought of by the "masses". All things conform to a rigid mathematical law. In Dostoyevsky’s time, the vision of a future where reason rules was echoed by his contemporary nihilists, positivists, and atheists, and it is to this vision and philosophy that he responds with the following:

…and one may choose to do something even if it is against his own advantage, and sometimes one positively should (that is my idea). One’s own free and unfettered choice, one’s own whims, however wild, one’s own fancy overwrought though it sometimes may be to the point of madness – that is that most desirable good which we overlooked and which does not fit into any classification, and against which all theories and systems are continually wrecked. And why one earth do all those sages assume that man must need strive after some normal, after some rationally desirable good? All man wants is an absolutely free choice, however dear that freedom may cost him and wherever it may lead him to. Well, of course, if it’s a matter of choice, then the devil only knows…

(Short Stories, p. 283)

That conflict between the rational and the actual has surfaced again. Spinoza’s pure rational observer perhaps would indeed come to his conclusions. However people are not observers. They are participants. And that is the point Dostoyevsky makes; man does not always follow the rational and the apparent good. It is inherent in human nature to strive for freedom, for choice, even at the cost of being wrong or choosing wrong. A choice made for the sake of choice itself, with full realization that it is made with that goal and not with a goal of choosing the best of available options, is freedom itself. The capacity of a human being for choosing an error, being fully aware that one is choosing something wrong, is for Dostoyevsky the true mark of human freedom. Now that does not mean we should all start making the wrong decisions for the sake of asserting our freedom, it only means that having this ability to choose something against our advantage while being fully aware of it is the indication of the existence of our free will. What would Spinoza say about this view of human freedom and, at that, any view of human freedom? I suspect he would, after clearing his nasal passages with a snicker, quote his own self from his correspondence

Conceive, I beg, that a stone, while continuing in motion, should be capable of thinking and knowing, that it is endeavoring, as far as it can, to continue to move. Such a stone, being conscious merely of its own endeavor and not at all indifferent, would believe itself to be completely free, and would think that it continued in motion solely because of its own wish. This is that human freedom which all boast that they possess, and which consists solely in the fact that men are conscious of their own desire, but are ignorant of the causes whereby that desire has been determined.

(Spinoza, p.86)

The more we know about the cause of our actions, our passions, the less room we seem to have for chance and free will. Dostoyevsky’s man would be an irrational ignoramus to Spinoza, incapable not only of choice but of reason. But hold on a second, that would be a rather haste oversimplification. Dostoyevsky’s man is not lacking reason; he is actually suffering, according to Dostoyevsky from too much of it. "Hyperconsciousness is a disease" he tells us. This hyperconsciousness is the non-analytical part of Spinoza’s reason: it is simply the ability to see things for what they are without a bias. So both Spinoza and Dostoyevsky start out with the same man, a thinker, but seem to lead him in different directions. Spinoza urges him to transcending his very humanity, to shed the emotions, passions and biases and to become a happy and willing part of the scheme of things, from which e cannot escape either way. Dostoyevsky seems to be a little more rebellious. He understands all too what Spinoza is driving at, and comes to the same ends. However his response and his advice to the thinking man is drastically different. To know nature and to understand it and to acknowledge its indifference to our wants is not to love it. For Spinoza, inevitability of nature and rigidity of reason meant conformity to them. In Dostoyevsky, however, it inspires a completely opposite response:

And who knows (it is impossible to be absolutely sure about it), perhaps the whole aim mankind is striving to achieve on earth merely lies in this incessant process of achievement, or (to put it differently) in life itself, and not really in the attainment of any goal, which, needless to say, can be nothing else but twice-two-makes-four, and I am afraid of it now…Twice-two-makes-four in my humble opinion, nothing but a piece of impudence. It is a farcical, dressed-up fellow who stands across your path and spits at you…I in the beginning argued that consciousness was the greatest misfortune to man, yet I know that man loves it and will not exchange it for any satisfaction. Consciousness, for instance, is infinitely superior to twice-two. After twice-two there is nothing left for you to do or even to learn. All you could do then would be to stop up your five senses and sink into contemplation.

(Short stories, pp.291-292)

First, he argues against the virtue of this complete abandonment of oneself unto the scheme of things and becoming a willing pawn in it. A man with consciousness, to him, would not relinquish that very consciousness, the only thing truly dear to him (albeit with masochistic overtones, as it is also the one thing that causes all his suffering and unhappiness) for any sort of enjoyment, even that of nirvana-like complacency. That awareness of things is the human divinity. To lose it is to lose one’s humanity. Spinoza would retort that this sort of consciousness and the martyr-like suffering it carries with it is useless for man, whose behavior, passions, and even deeds, are all predetermined. To him, "Man can be called free only in so far as he has the power to exist and act in accordance with the laws of human nature" (Ethics, 4,24). To this Dostoyevsky also has a Kantian response:

"Good lord," they’ll scream at you, "you cannot possibly deny that twice two if four! Never does nature ask you for your opinion; she does not care a damn for your wishes, or whether you like the laws or not. You are obliges to accept her as she is and, consequently, all her results…" But goodness gracious me, what do I care for the laws of nature and arithmetic if for some reason or other I don’t like those laws of twice-two? No doubt I shall never break through such a rational stone wall with my forehead, but I shall not reconcile myself to it just because I have to deal with a stone wall and haven’t the strength to knock it down. As though such a stone wall were really the same thing as a piece of mind, and as though it really contained some word of comfort simply because a stone wall is merely the equivalent of twice-two-makes-four. Oh, what nonsense! Is it not much better to understand everything, to be aware of everything, to be conscious of all the impossibilities and stone walls?…To reach by way of the most irrefutable logical combinations the most hideous conclusions on the eternal theme and therefore to abandon yourself sensuously to doing nothing, silently and gnashing your teeth impotently?…

(Short stories, pp. 272-273)

Just because something is impossible and impassable does not mean that one should not struggle against it. The degree of difficulty of a task should not have an influence on the decision of whether to undertake that task. For Camus, for example, this was an obsession, as his entire philosophy was built on the absurdness of life and human choice. For Camus, as for Dostoyevsky as well, unconquerable opposition did not mean defeat or submission. On the contrary, one defeats and transcends this opposition by simply fighting against it, because the very fact that you choose to fight the unconquerable puts you above it. And it is so with reason as well; just because one reasons and comes to "the most monstrous conclusions" does not mean that one should accept it, even if they are inescapable. The conscious effort to disagree with them, to not accept them, despite their "mathematical certainty", is the human freedom itself. And so it was for Dostoyevsky with God also. One should not believe in God as a result of reasoning, fear of Hell, promises of Heaven, or any influences. It should be a conscious CHOICE. Only then does one believe in God without any influence, any need to, any want to, or even any reason. And when that happens, the actual existence of God becomes secondary, and one’s own existence with such a belief in God moves to the front. This has Kantian overtones in it, although Kant would certainly reject this faith in God (Not to mention Spinoza). It is as if realizing the scope of one’s flashlight of knowledge, and the huge void of darkness if does not, and never will, encompass, and assigning God to that void. One cannot, and never will, know such a God. That is such God’s PRIMARY definition: God lies and always will lie beyond our comprehension. This may seem similar to Spinoza’s explanation of God, but it is marginally different. For Spinoza, God is just a substance, an eternal, omnipresent, immanent entity which has a nature just like anything else, and this nature is inescapable. For Dostoyevsky, we cannot KNOW God, in any way, form, or by any system of thought. He lies outside our flashlight. All we can do is have faith in him.

Such are the differences between the rational and the actual, between an impartial reasoning entity and a human being. What Spinoza asks as to do it to let go of our humanity. As long as we are human, Dostoyevsky says, we cannot, should not, and will not. Our humanity entails with it the two-edged gift of consciousness, which produces in us both suffering and happiness. To follow Spinoza is to return to the state of Adam and Eve’s naivete. There is no happiness in such a state, only innocence of unawareness. Perhaps we are irrational and fearful, whimsical and emotional, but with all that, in SPITE of all that, we have something more important then either being correct or being rational – we have our consciousness and ability to understand things in relation to ourselves. We have the ability to feel alive in the perhaps clockwork world around us.

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