Saturday, September 12, 2009

Dostoevsky, happy version

Alright, so people have been ragging on Dostoevsky, which I can understand considering his extremely pessimistic and often sarcastic writing style. I think, however, that we can uncover a suprisingly happy result if we strip Dostoevsky of his sarcastic flare and apply his ideas to something that makes us all feel warm and fuzzy inside (hopefully)-love.

First off, let me say that the following thoughts are my intended post revamped a little after reading Hugh's last post ("Dostoevsky and Problems of Free Will"), and I encourage reading it before finishing this one off (it was a good post!). Now, let's continue our exploration of Dostoevsky.

Something that really caught my eye while reading Dostoevsky was his use of metaphors. One might say that this is the heart of his sarcasm and flare, but I think if we carefully examine his metaphors and language choice from a nuetral perspective concerning thier relation to his key ideas, we can pull much meaning out of Doestoevsky's work. Particularly, I think his comparison of man to a piano key helped add meaning to his seemingly bitter and angry rant. First, note that Dostoevsky introduces his "man as a piano key" metaphor after discussing the fact that even if you endow man with complete prosperity and comfort, which is at the most basic level what is most advantageous- complete comfort and security to pursue whatever might entice him- he will still rebel against that existence and throw away all that comfort simply because he can (46-47). Specifically, he will do this to prove that he is more than a "piano key." One might say that man will in fact not respond to a situation such as the above in this way, but look at history. Such historical figures such as Francis of Asisi, Bob Marley, and Socrates have made completely irrational sacrifices at the expense of their own "advantage." So, let us at least admit that these characters exist, who have broken the mold of maximizing their own personal advantage for the sake of some other aim. Now, consider a piano; at the press of a key, a certain sound is expected. If that sound is not produced, we say that the piano is out of tune, broken, as it were, and needs repair. Turning back now to Dostoevsky's idea of the importance of being a "man" rather than just a piano key, notice that the underlying theme of the metaphor is that of limitation. By responding to certain comfortable circumstances with satisfaction at the maximization of his own advantages, man limits himself to simply responding to certain circumstances in the appropriate and expected manner, just as a piano key produces the expected result, a sound classified as "middle C," for example. According to Dostoevsky, our existence is more meaningful because we have the ability to make our own result, to break out of the expected response with an action that we have complete ownership of, rather than with an action whose worth has been assigned by society, or by the "rationalists." This, according to Dostoevsky, is what makes man special-- his ability to completely break out of expected response in a way that represents his, and only his, existence. This action cannot and need not be explained or justified because man's existence does not depend on another's perception of his defiant actions, rather the motivation for this action comes from within the individual and is at a level unqualifiable and unexplainable to others.

Now, let us take these ideas into a discussion of something happy, love! One might say that of the historical figures listed above, love motivated their apparent disregard for personal advantage (we're using "advantage" in the sense Dostoevsky uses it), whether it be love for God, for Truth, or for a certain way of life. Also, here is where I'll in part reply to the concerns that Hugh raises. First, let us assume that man has no free will, but rather is part of a series of reactions that, for instance, fits into the most holy plan of God. Now, say that you are a devout Christian, and you chose to sell your possessions, donate your money to the Church, and devote your life to helping others, out of a love for God and respect for his Children. Remember, however, that these actions are not a product of your free will, but rather are the product of the divine Plan. Will your devotion out of love for those around you, or for God, or what have you, have any meaning whatsoever? Did you chose to love? In fact, you were chosen to love by some other power, albeit a divine one. In my opinion, and I think both Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky would agree, the lack of free will with which to make that irrational choice to love unconditionally completely nullifies any worth in any "loving" action that you might perform. Even in another example, if you chose to love your spouse unconditionally, as prescribed by your vows, yet that choice is not truly yours, do you have a truly special bond with that person, or is that bond bankrupted of its power by the lack of choice invovled?

Personally, I would like to believe that as an individual I have free will. Thus, every action I perform, whether it fits the mold or breaks the mold, can be performed as a direct reflection of my will, and thus my true self, rather than as a reflection of some other will. Therefore, not only am I truly accountable for the consequences of my actions, but my life has meaning which I myself created, and have complete responsibility for. Only then is my existence truly real, and only then can I lead a life aware of the fact that I am a meaningful individual, rather than just a cog in the machine. Without free will, I am simply an automaton reacting to given stimuli in the prescribed manner, and my life as a human being, something supposedly special, is meaningless and simply animal and instinctual.

1 comment:

  1. re: "Even in another example, if you chose to love your spouse unconditionally, as prescribed by your vows, yet that choice is not truly yours, do you have a truly special bond with that person, or is that bond bankrupted of its power by the lack of choice involved?"

    This raises an interesting point. Marriage vows are yet another set of rules, and many people love without vows being a part of their relationship. Marriage is symbolic of your commitment to loving another human being, and those who do marry, it would seem, want to be recognized for this commitment. Choosing to marry is not something forced upon humans by any rule; if anything it’s forced upon humans via social pressure to be recognized for finding true love. It would seem that marriage, more recently, has been cheapened by divorce. Humans, due to social pressures (and perhaps stupidity), rush to get married because of the modern American lifestyle. People are looking for instant gratification like the internet, true love like reality television, and can marry as quickly as Elvis can recite vows in Las Vegas. I think those who are actually, truly in love do not mind reciting vows, even though those who aren't actually in love cheapen the vows. Couples do have a choice to say vows or not. The vows take committed love into the rational realm, but committed love should remain in the individual(s) realm. The reason marriage vows are in the rational realm is for people onlooking the relationship (friends, family, government, etc).
    [apologies for the disjointed rambling...]


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