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Christian Orthodox Obligations Versus Secular Human Rights

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Review: Leonard G. Friesen, Transcendent Love: Dostoevsky and the Search for a Global Ethic, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2016, 240pp., $50.00

       In our climate of a possible ‘new cold war’, Immanuel Kant’s vision of an ethical commonwealth based on universally shared human reason appears more utopian than ever. However, Leonard G. Friesen in his new work Transcendent Love surveys the engagement of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, the 19th century’s Russian literary giant, with European human-rights based secularism, arguing that the alternative ethic that P03233Dostoevsky put forward with the “Orthodox Christ” has as much to contribute to our age as it did in his for forging a global ethic. Friesen enters into the field of global ethics that has, as Heather Widdows in Global Ethics: An Introduction points out, only emerged in the past few decades. Global ethics not only concerns itself with global issues such as the ‘war on terror’, global trade, or climate change, but also recognizes that given the interconnectedness of our society due to globalization and the aspirations of global governance, necessity compels us to create a global ethic to address issues that affect us globally. Introductions to moral philosophy such as Torbjörn Tännsjö’s Understanding Ethics and Kimberly Hutchings’ Global Ethics are quite euro-centric in perspective, which Friesen rightly challenges. In this way Friesen’s stands beside works like The Globalization of Ethics edited by William M. Sullivan that likewise sought to include non-European perspectives.

       For Friesen however contemporary global ethics are detrimentally marred by a radical individualism and a secular moral relativism. Friesen proposes that Dostoevsky’s context of 19th century Russia, being caught between the world powers Europe and Asia, offers a unique contribution for us by helping us break out of our common euro-centrism, as well as being a much needed antidote to our individualism and secular relativism by its communal nature and Orthodoxy respectively. While global ethical issues such as climate change are not addressed in depth, Friesen hopes that new framework for a global ethic found in the “Orthodox Christ” of Dostoevsky can give direction for such engagement—much like Patrick Riordan’s Global Ethics and Global Common Goods in seeking to bring the field of global ethics right back to foundational ethical issues of the ‘Good’ for direction. Despite being notoriously difficult to interpret in literary circles Friesen stands confidant with renowned Dostoevsky scholars such as Vladimir Soloviev in interpreting Dostoevsky as primarily an exponent of Russian Orthodoxy. Dostoevsky is read as such a writer who “…was determined to bridge the gap between the People (Russia’s famed narod, the peasantry)…” who carried the spirit of Orthodoxy and “…the empire’s Europeanized elite…” who were possessed by European secular individualism, as exemplified in his novel Demons, with the “Orthodox Christ.”

       Friesen begins by discussing the motifs of orphanhood and suicide prevalent across Dostoevsky’s work, framed in his novella “The Meek One”, to explore what Dostoevsky feared most for Russia. Viewing the ‘progressive’ thought of Russia’s 1840s liberal generation with suspicion, Dostoevsky saw in it a destructive secularism. “Dostoevsky deemed all moderns to be orphans…” left to complete destitution without God. Our ethical gaze was diminished from immortality and the future, unto this world and the present, leaving those who have the most material wealth to wield the most power, seeking to control us orphaned souls. As such, a variety of new ethical preferences such as ends over means, the individual over the community, and indifference over ethical distinctions are brought about. Dostoevsky depicts the Europeanized elite as thoroughly bored and depressed because of this, which results in searching for a life of new diversions ranging from idle chatter to sexual depravity such as pedophilia. Gambling, self-loathing, voyeuristic entertainment, and direct violence, all likewise stem from this indifference to a secular universe. Left to this destitution themselves, the felt need of the powerful to assert their “…rights even precede any particular content to those rights…” The People (narod) being weak are left so alone to scramble for their security that they might even sacrifice their freedom to inequitable conditions. “It seemed that Dostoevsky associated modernity with ethically sanctioned inequality.” If all ended in death “…in a profoundly meaningless world…” then “…it may be that the only truly meaningful act we can undertake is to kill ourselves”, thus suicide for Dostoevsky is the natural resultant of modernity’s orphanhood. Believing that secular Europeans were still searching for a transcendent ethical vision, Dostoevsky held out hope for their conversion. He does not spell out this conversion in propositional form though, but rather expresses it “…relationally, through an absolute embodied truth…” in the characters of his novels.

    From Dostoevsky’s fears we move to understanding his Russian Orthodox ethics, illustrated chiefly by repentance in his novel Crime and Punishment. Repentance, the beginning of this ethical vision, starts with not only a firm acknowledgement of our wrongs but remembrance of the Orthodox Biblical tradition, seen in Dostoevsky’s various references to the scripture, icons, San Damiano Crossand the sign of the cross all as an reinforcement of it. Dostoevsky asks his “…readers…to think of their future as a memory, for they could approach it by looking backward to the cross and the resurrection of Holy Week” thus recapturing their formally transcendent ethical horizon. Immortality and freedom, such as in his famed exploration of it in his novella Notes from Underground, are likewise essential for his ethical vision, for the vision must be freely embraced in full hope, rather than forced upon the People by coercion and without hope. The transcendence of the Orthodox Christ enables the People to have freedom beyond the brutal determinism of a secular universe and hope beyond the present. The Europeanized Russian elite did provide some lesser version of freedom—the freedom of a variety of equally bad choices as to which debauchery and distraction you wanted to pursue, but they offered nothing to replace the now lost transcendental horizon of Russian Orthodoxy.

     The Russian Orthodox ethic consists in an open invitation to all, especially those deemed ‘unrighteous’. However, both the illusions of moral progress, and a sense of superiority to the peasantry—need to be shown for the sham they are for repentance to begin. Dostoevsky’s common motif of kissing the earth illustrates that “…for Dostoevsky shame was an essential device by which Europeanized, individualized Russians would return to a new identity grounded in the interdependence of the People”, The notion of “joint responsibility” (krugovaia poruka) is prevalent throughout Russian history as shown in Geoffrey Hosking’s Russia and the Russians. Only after this could they move to embrace a life of unconditional, limitless, and personally active love, which flow out of their own sense of their responsibility to others “…even at the expense of their personal joy.” Dostoevsky’s saintly characters manifest this love in pity, the embrace of other people’s suffering, and in bearing collective responsibility. It follows from the last that if we commit a wrong against one person we commit a wrong against all people, resulting in the need for mutual forgiveness, as Christ has forgiven us. For all Russian Orthodox thought this vision, while utterly self-sacrificial, is sublimely beautiful as it develops us into the likeness of Christ like a living icon. Friesen argues then that Dostoevsky would challenge our secular moral relativism with a transcendent vision of the “Orthodox Christ”, as well as our radical individualism by this call to collective responsibility out of repentance.

      In his final section, Friesen looks at Dostoevsky’s speech given at the celebration of the monument to Alexander Pushkin, responding to critics who argued that the Orthodox Christ could not be universalized. Dostoevsky admires that whether Catholic France or Protestant Germany each had its own contribution to global ethical discourse in seeking to be a universal ethic. Europe however made a fatal flaw by forgetting the ideal of the Orthodox Christ. Any ethical vision “…built on a cocktail of atheism, science and liberalism [was] doomed to fail…” and was itself too provincial. For Dostoevsky the ideal of the Orthodox Christ was kept among the peasantry and not in the Europeanized elite, for Russia harbored within itself from its beginning as a nation the Orthodox faith which was always meant to be universal—therefore “…one could be fully Russian and fully universal at the same time.” Dostoevsky further warned that Europeanized Russians who had rejected the Orthodox Christ would seek to impose their ethic by a strong state apparatus that would do anything to reform or be rid of the ‘ignorant masses’—eerily prescient of the Soviet Union less than half a century later.

     Gradovsky is emblematic of the liberal detraction to Dostoevsky’s ethnic conservatism, arguing that a conversion on the part of the elites toward the People was insufficient. What was needed to dismantle an oppressive structure was a progressive movement to work within state structures on behalf of the People. Furthermore, how can it be said that the Russian people held a universal ethic, when they like any other people group were just as provincial as anyone else? Dostoevsky argued that while European liberals may talk of equality, in practice their structures depended on the same servile labor to maintain their lavish lifestyles as they decried in their political rulers—the 19th century Russian equivalent of the ‘limousine liberal’. As for the provincialism of the People, Dostoevsky argued that their exaltation as the bearers of the Orthodox Christ is hardly prideful as it is the exaltation of the ethic of humility itself! What could not have been appreciated however would be later postmodern detraction to Dostoevsky, and by extension Friesen as well, that universalism in and of itself is oppressive because its homogenous impulsive is coercive against any particular difference that it cannot subsume in itself. In the end however, Dostoevsky does not try to propositionally argue with Gradovsky, or much less postmodernism, but instead portrays these two opposing ethical visions in his last novel The Brothers Karamazov—Orthodox Christian communal obligations in Aloysha, the saintly protagonist and secular individual human rights in The Grand Inquisitor—and leaves his audience with the decision between them.

       “We are living out of Dostoevsky’s greatest fears…” as our age is the orphan child with nothing left but violence, and sanctioned inequality. For Friesen the task of forging a new global ethic is necessary given that, arguing in line with Immanuel Wallerstein, the European universalism embraced by Russia’s 19th century elite is of the same legacy that we in the 21st century are now struggling with and in many ways beginning to abandon due to the critiques of postmodernism and post-colonialism. Furthermore, many of the ethical views that Dostoevsky puts forward such as collective responsibility, find much resonance in other traditions such as First Nations peoples and Islam, which have likewise been left out of Euro-centric moral philosophy. Given the centrality of the continuity between modernity in the 19th century and our era for Friesen’s argument however, post-modernism should have been given a vital place of discussion instead of leaving the questions as to how Dostoevsky could address postmodernism and as to how postmodernism is related to the legacy of modernity, mute. For instance, what about animals, do they have rights? How would an ethic of collective responsibility speak to whether we have obligations to animals or not? Illustrating the difference between an ethic based on Dostoevsky’s Orthodox Christ and contemporary secular human rights would more clearly have demonstrated Friesen’s argument for the value of Dostoevsky’s contribution. But perhaps such specifics would have missed Dostoevsky’s ethic entirely, which was that our active love is to be shown to all creatures concretely and not in the abstract. The true test of Dostoevsky’s ethic would seem to be whether, should it be lived out, we would find it insufficient and weak or as beautiful and joyous as he believed it to be.

 

 

 

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