150 Years of Dostoevsky’s “Demons”: An Essay
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Demons, a novel published 150 years ago, is often described as a prophetic novel, looking forward to the socialist revolutions of the 20th century, the tragedy these revolutions wrought, and the kind of people who perpetrated them. Taking place in a fictional Russian town of the 1860s, the story revolves around a range of characters, including both older liberal elites and young radicals. While the former see themselves as moderate progressives looking at the West for guidance to modernize Russian society, the latter are more interested in violent upheaval to remove the old order once and for all.
No coherent worldview on revolution unites Dostoevsky’s characters. Their beliefs include articulate and inarticulate liberal views, alongside socialist, Marxist, atheist, anarchist, and down-right nihilist views. One of the characters, Stepan Trofimovich, a mischievous old liberal from the 1840s, runs a circle where he promotes progressive Western ideas. When rumours spread that he is corrupting youth with atheism, he denies it by saying: “I do not understand why everyone here makes me out to be a godless man… I believe in God as in a being who is conscious of himself in me.” Another character in the novel, Kirillov, argues instead from a different point of view: “There will be entire freedom when it makes no difference whether one lives or does not live. That is the goal to everything.” He then elaborates: “He for whom it will make no difference whether he lives or does not live will be the new man. He who overcomes pain and fear will himself be God.”
At a birthday party turned into a gathering of revolutionaries, Shigalyov explains the ideal society will be achieved when ninety percent of the people belong to an obedient herd while the rest enjoy absolute freedom. He finalizes his argument with a striking point: “Starting from unlimited freedom I conclude with unlimited despotism. I will add, however, that apart from my solution of the social formula, there can be no other.” To his political program, Lyamshin responds: “Instead of paradise I’d take these nine-tenths of mankind, since there is really nothing to do about them, and blow them sky-high, and leave just a bunch of learned people who would then start living happily in an educated way.” Another major character, Shatov, is disillusioned; he tries to revive his love for Mother Russia but finds true faith far too late in the story and ends up playing a role in the bloodshed.
A number of less-central characters with half-baked ideas also play a role: there is a young woman who is off to spread the word about the suffering of Russian students, a mad revolutionary who gives inflammatory and hardly comprehensible speeches about poor conditions in Russia at an event organized by the governor’s wife Yulia Mikhailovna. There is also a faceless unknown crowd, about which Dostoevsky says: “Always and everywhere in a troubled time of hesitation and transition, various trashy sorts appear… This scum, which exists in every society, rises to the surface in any transitional time, and not only has no goal, but has not even the inkling of an idea, and itself merely expresses anxiety and impatience with all its might.”
When these characters meet with Pyotr Stepanovic — who believes in nothing, a person without any particular philosophy or ideology, a crook in his own words — their interaction inevitably leads to murder, bloodshed, and destruction. In this way, Dostoevsky identifies with remarkable precision the grassroots of revolutions, how they take place on the ground, and the kind of ‘better’ world they yield, as opposed to how they are imagined and later portrayed by revolutionaries.
In Demons, however, Dostoevsky does more than provide insight into the social forces that bring about revolutions. His novel goes beyond satire and offers a glimpse into the souls of those in the firm grip of philosophies promising liberation: from poverty, from the chains of the old world, from God, from the Church, from family, from right and wrong. The appeal of these philosophies lies in the promise of ultimate freedom; if we act here and now, we can create a free society and become free ourselves. The underlying idea is that to build a better world and ‘create’ better human beings, it is not enough to make society more egalitarian, distribute material goods more equally, and improve the position of the underprivileged and oppressed. Instead, we need to make substantial, fundamental structural changes to society as well as to individuals, because the current state of affairs is irredeemable. On a personal level, this means radically changing human nature so it can flourish. How exactly such restructuring is conceived varies, ranging from a change in the ownership of the means of production to the abolishment of good and evil and everything in between. Some of Dostoevsky’s characters believe in the ideology they propose. Others are proposing a theory for amusement. Some end up disillusioned and seek solace in the rehabilitation of the old world. No single philosophy seems to bind characters together.
But let us take a closer look at the nature of the liberation attracting Dostoevsky’s characters. Dostoevsky seems to feel the absolute freedom advocated by the ideologies his characters embrace, whether societal or personal, is a dark ideal that inevitably leads to melancholia, cynicism, indifference, boredom, rage, meaningless love affairs, and overall misery. This type of psychological turmoil and emptiness echoes back to the Desert fathers of the 4th century who explained it as the temptation of demons that a monk needs to actively fight if he is not to veer from the godly path. The remedies they prescribed are not so very different from what we find at the end of Dostoevsky’s novel: repentance, prayer, love, and faith.
But why is this ultimate freedom from all societal chains so destructive? We might argue this is only the case in Dostoevsky’s imagination; after all, he might be an old conservative reluctant to embrace any liberation progress might bring. Nonetheless, Dostoevsky’s characters are believable, and their empty existence seems to be the consequence of their personal nihilistic philosophies, all of which promise what turns out to be a false freedom. Still, the question remains: why is this so? Why does our intuition align with Dostoevsky’s and why does his story speak to us?
The answer we are after is found in psychology, more specifically in the psychology of basic universal human needs. While the concept of psychological needs is certainly not a new one and has been proposed by many psychologists1, I suggest we focus on a particular empirical version developed by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci (2017). According to Ryan and Deci, human beings have three basic psychological needs: the need to feel autonomous (to freely choose what to believe and act accordingly if possible), the need to feel competent in what they do (to feel successful in the domain they pick as important for them), and the need to connect to other human beings (to belong to a group of people where they can love and be loved in return). All three needs must be met to a certain degree to ensure well-being.
The first need, the one for autonomy, causes the most confusion: Why the characters in Dostoevski’s Demons who strive to liberate themselves from all the values of the old world, i.e. who seek the ultimate autonomy, end up suffering the most? To clear up the confusion, let’s take a closer look at what the ‘need for autonomy’ actually is.
Cultural relativists and social learning theorists often identify autonomy as non-reliance on others, freedom from the influence of society, and detachment. This is echoed in Demons in the views of Kirillov and Stavrogin. While Kirillov believes such autonomy will turn him, a mere human, into a God, Stavrogin is aware that the complete detachment from good and evil will be his demise. But is autonomy and the need to be autonomous really the need for independence/self-reliance of this kind? According to Ryan and Deci, this is not the case: autonomy primarily has to do with the feeling that our opinions, convictions, and values are of our own choosing; we pick them, embrace them wholeheartedly, and then aim to act according to them whenever possible. When we think of autonomy in this way, we can see it does not necessarily mean abandonment of everything that we have been taught by our elders. In other words, to meet our need for autonomy and to feel free, we do not have to strive to detach ourselves from all the values of the community we live in. We can try to revise some of these values to make the world a better place, but we can do so without abandoning the tradition we have inherited. Liberation in this way can come from within the old world, not from its destruction.
This brings us to the second important question: can we be happy and content if we opt to fulfil our need for autonomy through radical detachment, self-reliance, and independence, the way Dostoevsky’s characters attempt to do, the way their ideologies suggest they do? Dostoevsky tells us it is impossible, and our basic intuition tells us to trust him, but what do psychologists say?
Ryan and Deci argue we have two more basic psychological needs beside autonomy that must be met to achieve personal well-being. The need to connect and belong to a community is one of them. If autonomy is understood as radical detachment, and we seek autonomy, it will be hard for us to develop and maintain meaningful human interactions, thus thwarting this second basic need. Every shared value, emotion, or belief that could establish bonds between individuals will be destroyed in the search for ultimate freedom and absolute autonomy. That is precisely why the heterogeneous group of revolutionaries and sympathisers at the birthday party do not reach out to each other. Instead, they are consumed by egoistic goals and perceive others as tools to achieve those goals or as mere entertainment: no strings attached. Even when they claim they want to help others — the people, the working class, the students, the peasants — they fail to connect on an emotional level with their fellow revolutionaries, or the people they say they want to save.
Dostoevsky’s Demons is an illustrative warning of what happens when we try to sacrifice one basic need for another: the need to belong in this case is sacrificed to the need to be autonomous, mistakenly understood as self-reliance and complete independence. While this false autonomy promises to liberate us and benefit many, it leaves us instead alone to suffer in silence. Such individualization on societal levels leads to broken communities, which cannot be rebuilt from within, but only by means of externally imposed regulations: bureaucratic by-laws and policies regulating every social interaction because atomized individuals seem to be incapable of doing anything on their own. On a personal level, such nihilistic ideologies leave us to the mercy of the demons the Desert Fathers spoke of — melancholia, acedia, rage, pride, vainglory, meaningless fornication — with no weapons to fight them.
Despite this dark portrayal of his times and equally chilling prediction of ours, Dostoevsky does not end the novel without offering a remedy. The remedy he suggests, however, is not to be found in the simple revival of the past. On the contrary, redemption requires more than blind faith in Mother Russia and the Orthodox Church. A retreat into the old values will not do. In the first part of the novel, in a powerful exchange, disillusioned Shatov admits he believes in Russia but not yet in God: “Do you yourself believe in God? I believe in Russia, I believe in Orthodoxy… I believe in the body of Christ, I believe that the second coming will take place in Russia. But, in God, in God? I… I will believe in God.” For Dostoevsky, redemption requires the rebirth of true faith through love of our fellow humans. Two of his characters, Shatov and Stepan Trofimovich, eventually find this redemption.
For us, 150 years later, the message remains powerful: to overcome the loneliness of our atomized world foreseen by Dostoevsky, where we have all the rights but no warmth, all the freedoms but no community, we should reach out to other people, forgetting for the moment about our own identities and entitlements and in this way relearn to sacrifice for others. Only in such selfless acts of love can we hope to achieve true freedom, regain our faith, and escape the demons of false liberation.
Footnotes & References1 e.g., Allport 1937; Fromm 1955; Goldstein 1939; Hull 1943; Maslow 1943; McClelland 1985; Murray 1938 [Quotations from Dostoevsky’s Demons are taken from R. Pevear and L. Volokhonsky’s translation.] Allport, Gordon W. 1937. “The functional autonomy of motives”. In Understanding human motivation edited by S. Chalmers and D. Manfred, 69–81. Cleveland, OH: Howard Allen. Fromm, Erich. 1955. The sane society. New York: Rinehart. Goldstein, Kurt. 1939. The organism: A holistic approach to biology derived from pathological data in man. New York: American Book Company. Hull, Clark L. 1943. Principles of behavior: An introduction to behavior theory. Oxford, UK: Appleton-Century. Maslow, Abraham Harold. 1943. “A theory of human motivation”. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0054346 McClelland, David C. 1985. Human motivation. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman. Murray, Henry A. 1938. Explorations in personality. New York: Oxford University Press. Ryan, Richard M. and Edward L. Deci. 2017. Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness. New York: Guilford Press.