Freedom and Paradise

Contemplating the death of his first wife, Dostoevsky uncovered what he thought was a proof of the afterlife. (The notebook entry is translated in Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time , 407-9.)

The first plant of the argument was to notice that human beings are incapable of following Christ’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves here and now. Ego controls us in this life, and that can lead us to one of two conclusions. We can become pessimists and say that Christ’s demands cannot and will not ever be met. But if that’s is true, then human life is completely senseless. Christ’s commands are the way of true human life, and if they cannot be obeyed then there is no way to live humanly. We will never be truly human. The only alternative is that there must be an afterlife in which the Ego is tamed and put in its proper place, in which we become finally capable of fulfilling Christ’s command. The clash between Christ’s commands and our Egoism is proof that there is another world coming when Christ’s commands will be fulfilled. Either that, or we are all in hell already.

In the meantime, until the paradise of Christ is realized, we strive to achieve it (and fail). The striving is critical. Without it, we are barely human.

This became for Dostoevsky a central theme of his theory of art: “Art, writing, politics, law, religion, all of it depends on knowing that there is an afterlife, a paradise of Christ. True religion is suffering, striving and reaching for something that will only be fulfilled in a future life, a future paradise. Politics has to be carried out in the shadow of this same afterlife. We need to seek justice and harmony, but we need more deeply to understand that this will not be fulfilled here and now, never in this world. Attempting to bring the paradise to earth now can only result in tyranny and cruelty. Art too is struggle, suffering, struggle to imagine and depict an ideal in word, stone, or paint that cannot be depicted in these material substances but always eludes them. Take away that struggle, and you take away humanity, everything that makes life worthwhile.”

It was a political principle too, both a positive principle that defined Dostoevsky’s “Christian socialism” and a principle of critique of secular socialism. Positively, he wrote, “This is my social ideal, my ‘socialism,’ if you will. I often imagine a dialogue between the individual and society. The individual tells society, ‘I give myself to you,’ meaning that he offers his talents, powers, loves and hates to the rest of society to serve others. He sacrifices for society. But then I imagine that society responds with ‘I give myself to you.’ Society gives all its resources, powers, gifts to serve the individual, so that the individual can be fulfilled. Each gives itself wholly and totally to the other. And this is the imitation of Christ and at the same time the highest realization of man. It is the fusion of Ego and self-sacrifice, of individual and society. The Paradise of Christ is this fusion, and this is the goal toward which all history, whether of humanity in part or of each man separately, is only the development, struggle, and attainment.” Negatively, he critiques socialists for wanting paradise without Christ: “They want that paradise now, here, and not in an afterlife.”

The true “socialism” of mutual sacrifice of individual and society is the destiny of the human race. If this cannot be achieved, human existence is meaningless. As Dostoevsky says, “it is only with an afterlife that we can attain this goal. Man on earth and in time will not achieve this fusion. Man on earth is only a creature in development, not finished but transitional. But if there is no afterlife, then there would be no one to enjoy the fulfillment of this process. It is completely senseless to attain such a great goal if upon attaining it everything is extinguished and disappears, that is, if man will no longer have life when he attains the goal. Consequently, there is a future paradisial life.


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