The Case for Luciferian Rebellion
They say that Cleopatra (excuse an instance from Roman history) was fond of sticking gold pins into her slave-girls' breasts and derived gratification from their screams and writhings. You will say that that was in the comparatively barbarous times; that these are barbarous times too, because also, comparatively speaking, pins are stuck in even now; that though man has now learned to see more clearly than in barbarous ages, he is still far from having learnt to act as reason and science would dictate. But yet you are fully convinced that he will be sure to learn when he gets rid of certain old bad habits, and when common sense and science have completely re-educated human nature and turned it in a normal direction. You are confident that then man will cease from intentional error and will, so to say, be compelled not to want to set his will against his normal interests. That is not all; then, you say, science itself will teach man (though to my mind it's a superfluous luxury) that he never has really had any caprice or will of his own, and that he himself is something of the nature of a piano-key or the stop of an organ, and that there are, besides, things called the laws of nature; so that everything he does is not done by his willing it, but is done of itself, by the laws of nature. Consequently we have only to discover these laws of nature, and man will no longer have to answer for his actions and life will become exceedingly easy for him. All human actions will then, of course, be tabulated according to these laws, mathematically, like tables of logarithms up to 108,000, and entered in an index; or, better still, there would be published certain edifying works of the nature of encyclopædic lexicons, in which everything will be so clearly calculated and explained that there will be no more incidents or adventures in the world.
Then—this is all what you say—new economic relations will be established, all ready-made and worked out with mathematical exactitude, so that every possible question will vanish in the twinkling of an eye, simply because every possible answer to it will be provided. Then the "Palace of Crystal" will be built. Then.... In fact, those will be halcyon days. Of course there is no guaranteeing (this is my comment) that it will not be, for instance, frightfully dull then (for what will one have to do when everything will be calculated and tabulated?), but on the other hand everything will be extraordinarily rational. Of course boredom may lead you to anything. It is boredom sets one sticking golden pins into people, but all that would not matter. What is bad (this is my comment again) is that I dare say people will be thankful for the gold pins then. Man is stupid, you know, phenomenally stupid; or rather he is not at all stupid, but he is so ungrateful that you could not find another like him in all creation. I, for instance, would not be in the least surprised if all of a sudden, à propos of nothing, in the midst of general prosperity a gentleman with an ignoble, or rather with a reactionary and ironical, countenance were to arise and, putting his arms akimbo, say to us all: "I say, gentlemen, hadn't we better kick over the whole show and scatter rationalism to the winds, simply to send these logarithms to the devil, and to enable us to live once more at our own sweet foolish will!" That again would not matter; but what is annoying is that he would be sure to find followers—such is the nature of man. And all that for the most foolish reason, which, one would think, was hardly worth mentioning: that is, that man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated. And one may choose what is contrary to one's own interests, and sometimes one positively ought (that is my idea). One's own free unfettered choice, one's own caprice, however wild it may be, one's own fancy worked up at times to frenzy—is that very "most advantageous advantage" which we have overlooked, which comes under no classification and against which all systems and theories are continually being shattered to atoms. And how do these wiseacres know that man wants a normal, a virtuous choice? What has made them conceive that man must want a rationally advantageous choice? What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead. And choice, of course, the devil only knows what choice.... [—Fyodor Dostoevsky, in Notes from Underground]
This one is really a case of playing Devil’s advocate. In fact I may actually go to hell for this. So let’s get started.
There is an idea that has been lurking around in the darkness of my mind ever since I read Dostoevsky’s novella Notes from Underground several years ago. The story is supposed to be a long excerpt from a man’s diary—and the man is presumably intended by the author to represent literally a person who is damned, a lost soul. The second half of the story especially is a nightmarish yet fascinating account of a man who perversely feels compelled to do what he knows to be wrong. It’s one of those horrible stories that you can’t bear to read, yet have to keep reading to see what happens next, rather like Golding’s Lord of the Flies. The literary work itself is a forerunner to Dostoevsky’s later masterpieces; Notes from Underground may be a masterpiece itself, although, as I’ve said, a horrible one.
The idea that has lurked with me for several years comes not from the story of the second half, but from the philosophical ramblings of the first, in which the narrator explains why he is what he is, a moral monstrosity. At the time the story was written various forms of socialism were becoming all the rage in Europe, especially, it seems, in France and Russia. Then as now socialism has tended to be materialistic and atheistic; and Dostoevsky as a devout Russian Orthodox Christian and xenophobic Russophile abhorred socialism, after almost being executed for being a socialist radical in his twenties. He came to hate socialism so deeply that in one of his later novels, The Devils (a.k.a. The Possessed), he uses a radical socialist movement as a metaphor for apocalyptic Satanism. But that’s another story.
The lurking idea, as Dostoevsky’s damned soul explains it, is this: In the mid-19th century, as now also, progressive leftists were attempting to formulate an ideal society in which everyone acted in the interests of the public good. People, especially those on the left, had such faith in science and social engineering that they assumed civilization would “progress” to the point at which every aspect of human behavior will be analyzed systematically and understood, and consequently calculated to determine what is best for society. Dostoevsky’s narrator mockingly refers to this socialist ideal as the Crystal Palace. Yet what remains of human life when everything is calculated out to the point that nobody has a free choice anymore? Even assuming that people will willingly choose to do what is demonstrated to be best, still all choice is gone—other than, say, what tattoo to get next or what fluorescent color to dye one’s hair. And with individual moral choice thus eliminated, what remains of individuality, or even of humanity? Civilization would degenerate into the Communist ideal of all people being merely parts of a well-oiled social machine, interchangeable and completely the same with regard to moral and civic sentiments. (The ideal of ideological sameness remains among devout leftists, although the optimistic faith in objectivity and reason have taken a beating over the past few decades as socialism becomes more feminine and feelings-oriented, and rationality comes more and more to be condemned as a tool of white patriarchal oppression. But the ideal of everyone’s behavior being regulated and dictated to them by an all-controlling parental government remains pretty much the same.) Thus Dostoevsky’s fictional underground dweller sees rebellion against what is determined to be right as the only way of asserting one’s own individuality and dignity, the only way of remaining fully alive.
Individual dignity practically requires one not to be a sheeplike conformist. As Dostoevsky observes in the story, rationality and its fruits are only 1/20 of what it means to be human; like a good chess player, the process, playing the game, is more important to us, or more satisfying, more fulfilling, than the end results we aim for. Life itself is the point of life, not attaining some finalized ideal; so when some righteous ideal is achieved through conformity and renunciation of individualism, then even the ideal is to be rejected—and wrongness pursued simply as an assertion of one’s own individual aliveness.
Dostoevsky’s narrator takes this defiance even to the point of rebellion against inescapable facts, against laws of nature, against empirical reality itself. This is implied by the assumption that even if idealistic scientific socialists really succeeded in determining and formulating the best possible course of action for everybody, which would then become essentially mandatory, even then he should rebel. Once or twice he even asserts his willingness to stick out his tongue at 2+2=4. Inescapable reality is a wall, a confinement to be resisted by a rebelliously free individual driven to be as alive as possible.
This idea is also represented by the noble, godlike, yet proudly maniacal Captain Ahab in Melville’s Moby-Dick. As I’ve written elsewhere, “The unfolding story itself is more about Ahab than Ishmael, as the obsessional old sea captain gradually realizes that he is driven by Destiny or the fate of his own character to attempt what is hopelessly impossible, to defy the highest, irresistible power just for the sake of asserting his own dignity, or at least his own rejection of a reality, an order of things, that he has come to hate as unjust and the cause of everything bad in his life.” By stubbornly defying and challenging the White Whale to the bitter, inevitable end, Ahab defies and challenges a cruel and inhuman universe, and also defies the God that created and maintains that universe. And he winds up, metaphorically, destroying the world in the process.
Dostoevsky also has this higher—and worse—sort of defiance in mind. As I’ve already mentioned, he almost certainly portrays the nameless narrator of the Notes as a damned soul—a man’s damnation, his spiritual alienation from Divinity, being a favorite theme of Dostoevsky. So the author is working at two levels: while the subject intelligently and maybe even wisely rebels against rationalistic socialist utopianism, he is also living in spiritual darkness by rebelling against goodness and the will of God, or in Buddhist parlance, against Dharma. Clearly, if God (or Dharma) has a set of moral principles and a way of life that everyone ought to follow, then perfectly following those ideals also effectively eliminates all individuality, all sense of one’s own life, one’s own anything. It implies self-annihilation, a kind of death. We can praise it and even lukewarmly meander towards it, but deep down we instinctively abhor it, which is the primary reason why we almost always fail to live up to the spiritual ideal. Consequently we humans appear to have a practical dilemma on our hands—a rebellion that makes perfect sense at one level implies eternal damnation at another, and both imply a fair amount of unhappiness. It may have been viewed as a dilemma by Dostoevsky too, not just by me and the damned narrator.
In a biblical sense, it is defiance of Divinity that makes us human, or rather it is what began human history—we were living the blissful life of animals immersed in Nature, at one with the will of God, before Eve ate the forbidden fruit of knowledge, gave some to Adam, and got us thrown out of Paradise. In Buddhism it is ignorance of the highest truth that causes our trouble, not knowing it and not following it; but the main reason why we don’t know it is because we don’t really want to know, or to follow. Getting back to western theology though, it was refusal to follow the Divine Order that caused the history of the Devil too, that is, the fall of Lucifer and his minions. Legend has it that after God made Adam he required all the angels to worship him, and Lucifer, Jehovah’s (and also Allah’s) right hand man, refused out of Satanic pride—he, an angel of light, was not about to bow down to some creation made of dirt. The Sufis, on the other hand, have a tradition that turns Satan’s defiance into a virtue: according to their version, God/Allah needed a devil in his scheme of things, and knew full well that Satan loved Him so much that he wouldn’t worship anyone but Him. So Allah essentially set him up, and Satan is a sort of martyr or fall guy who still loves God and serves him by fulfilling his duties as the required tempter. But the Muslims revere such a ruthless Deity, making us as we are and then sending us to hell for what isn’t our own fault, that they are required to call Him the benevolent, the merciful, as a kind of obsequious flattery of a very dangerous despot. But I digress.
In such a collectivist utopia as Dostoevsky (and others) saw as the projected end of the socialist road, the “Crystal Palace,” individualism and individuality tend toward zero; freedom of choice (except maybe with regard to mere superficialities like hair dye color and tattoo designs) tends toward zero; imagination and creativity and enthusiasm for life itself approximate zero. This may be a heavenly abode for a saintly mystic, but for the average human being, even for almost all above-average human beings, it is hell on earth, not heaven. Buddhist texts explain that beings who aren’t ready for heaven would hate it if they had to stay there—at the very least they’d be climbing the walls through sheer boredom. The human is a primate, lively, curious, rascally, sometimes aggressive and destructive; and social engineering and propaganda, plus all the dewy-eyed idealism in the world, aren’t going to change that.
I freely acknowledge philosophically that egoism is the root of all evil; in fact Buddhist philosophy declares the perception “I am” to be the source of all delusion and suffering. Nevertheless, I can really sympathize with rebels against spineless, sheeplike conformity, even when such rebellion turns out to be self-destructive. It really is a kind of moral dilemma. So I can appreciate both sides of the issue to some degree, and would recommend choosing whether to be a sheep or a wolf on a case-by-case basis. It’s hard to agree with damned souls and demonic entities, but still they have a point. Give the Devil his due.
One important point for consideration is that true selflessness is only for very highly advanced saints…and they tend NOT to be conformists! The overwhelming majority of human beings lack anywhere near the wisdom or maturity to master their primal urges and selfish drives or, as the Christian mystics explain it, to mortify their self-will and become puppets of God, acting not upon their own volition but on His. (Not to mention the Communist ideal of everyone acting in accordance with artificial Communist doctrine for the sake of equality and justice for all the parts of the societal machine.) Dostoevsky was a devout Christian, so his real case is against the false god of Socialism, not a true God Who, in Dostoevsky’s estimation perhaps, would allow us all to remain distinct individuals possessed of individual dignity. Social systems will never produce the Crystal Palace Dostoevsky mocked, nor the utopia of social justice that postmodern progressives are striving towards. You cannot make a perfect society with imperfect people—and virtually everyone, excepting perhaps a few extraordinary renunciants and nonconformists, is imperfect. (Unless we want to say that in an ultimate sense everyone and everything is perfect, including inequality and misery, in which case we needn’t strive for anything.) So rebellion against mandatory codes of behavior makes perfect sense—or doesn’t, but we rebel anyway. We have to be ourselves until we stop being anybody, and sheeplike conformity and social engineering forced upon us whether we want it or not just isn’t going to get us there.
It is just his fantastic dreams, his vulgar folly that he will desire to retain, simply in order to prove to himself—as though that were so necessary—that men still are men and not the keys of a piano, which the laws of nature threaten to control so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar….Don't remind me that I have just rejected the palace of crystal for the sole reason that one cannot put out one's tongue at it.
all quotes from Dostoevsky translated by Constance Garnett