History has proven that nihilism is more than a hypothesis; for individuals and even epochs it has been a reality. When we think of nihilism we inevitably must recollect the political climate of 19th Century Russia. During the 1850s and 1860s scores of young intellectuals sought to radically alter the social makeup of Russia, which they considered backward and repressive. The philosophy of nihilism took its toll on Russia and most of the important writers of the time, including Fyodor Dostoevsky and Ivan Turgenev, struggled with the potential effects of nihilism. The novels of Dostoevsky and Turgenev, namely Demons and Father and Sons, are some of the best documents we possess illustrating the development of nihilism in Russian society. Albert Camus’ The Rebel is also a very important philosophic study of nihilism. Even though it was written well after, and away from the social unrest that occurred in Russia, the book reveals that the problem of nihilism lies beyond historical contingencies; for Camus, nihilism is a universal dilemma that mankind must inevitably confront and come to terms with.
According to Camus, nihilism is an inevitable step along mankind’s maturation process. It is a bold statement to make, but Camus is nothing if not a bold thinker. He is not as radical as the writers that anticipated him, namely Dostoevsky and Friedrich Nietzsche, but he does tidy up and develop quite a few of their ideas. Let us not be mistaken, when we refer to nihilism, we are essentially in dialogue with a philosophy that is godless at its core. While that does not conflict with the worldview of Nietzsche’s, it may pose problems with Dostoevsky’s core beliefs. The chapter entitled The Rejection of Salvation is where Camus’ analyzes the contribution he feels Dostoevsky has made towards characterizing man as an archetypal rebel in the “history of rebellion.” The chapter primarily investigates Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and focuses on the character of Ivan, a person who denies the fundamental beliefs of Christianity. In Camus’ opinion, “Ivan incarnates the refusal of salvation.” Ivan refuses to believe in a God who would condone the suffering of children: “If the suffering of children serves to complete the sum of suffering necessary for the acquisition of truth, I affirm from now onward that truth is not worth such a price.” With The Brothers Karamazov in mind, I do not think it is suffering that Ivan has a problem accepting, it is more so that he disbelieves in a God who could create such a world order. Furthermore, the conclusion that Ivan arrives at is that such a God cannot exist for him because he is not prepared to allow such an illogical entity into his worldview. In other words, even if there is a God, logical people like Ivan will not accede to Him because He is not just. “If evil is essential to divine creation, then creation is unacceptable.”
Camus interprets Ivan as a person who systematically denies many of the beliefs most people hold: He denies the existence of God, he rejects the possibility of salvation, and he questions the moral fabric of society. According to Ivan, and also Camus, if it is logically proven that God does not exist then “everything is permitted.” This is a path Dostoevsky trod with novels like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. The pertinent question in these novels is not whether God exists, but what we are to do in his absence. As Ivan seeks to demonstrate with the story of The Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov, mankind is to take control of itself and rule the world as if a God never existed or, better yet, as if He were rejected. Ivan arrives at the idea of an “elect” body of individuals who will rule the world in God’s stead, albeit with the same authority and self-importance. Camus arrives at a similar place at the end of The Rejection of Salvation. The conclusion he reaches is that the “kingdom of heaven will, in fact, appear earth, but it will be ruled over by men—a mere handful to begin with, who will be the Caesars, because they were the first to understand.”
Camus is an idealist. His idea about a blessed group of individuals who will achieve “the unity of the world…in defiance of God” sounds like a fantasy. I do not see how his vision of what ought to be differs from what actually is in the form of legal governing bodies, apart from the atheism his group of Caesar’s would avow. Perhaps it is the dishonesty of our elected governing body he is railing against or the hypocritical role of the secular Church. In either case, I find such a presentiment fearful, not so much because of its theoretical implications, but more so of the individuals who would take control of the helm and what the “unity of mankind” might cost for ordinary people. I believe it is a trepidation Dostoevsky shared. It may be a feeling that only rests on a distrust of mankind, but an atheistic society is one I would be timorous to join. I do not owe this feeling to religious belief. It is more of a personal dislike for the idea of ownership, that any individual or group may take possession of something on such a large scale, be it under principles of virtue, justice, or truth. To my mind ruling something is equivocal to possessing it, furthermore possession precludes the possibility of virtue being exercised (I am under the assumption that there is no greater virtue than freedom). The idea may be argued in either direction. My central rebuttal to Camus statement is that sometimes nature, fate, or something equivalent to it, comparable to chance, is better disposed to select leaders from our species.
Keeping with Camus theme of rebellion is Dostoevsky’s Demons and especially the character of Stavrogin. Demons is a novel about the effects of socialism and Stavrogin ranks high on the registers as an archetype of rebellion. Camus does not specifically comment on Stavrogin in The Rebel, but his book helps to better understand Dostoevsky’s characterization. At the beginning of the book, Stavrogin is a mystifying person and it is when his revolt is most interesting. Unlike Ivan whose rebellion can be termed as a rational one, Stavrogin’s dissent is illogical at its base. The “impossibly brazen acts” committed by Stavrogin at the beginning of the book may be understood both as youthful pranks or outbursts of madness. The narrator of Demons says that there is no “pretext whatsoever” for his behaviour. Stavrogin’s actions are so illogical that they can only be understood as fits of madness by the other characters in the book; and yet, they are extraordinarily compelling precisely because they are so different and spontaneous, and “so utterly unlike anything else, so different from what is usually done.”
For Stavrogin, these acts are only the beginning of his nihilistic and even anarchic attitude. But there is also a different tinge to his personality, an inward freedom that grants him mobility from social convention. Something dangerous greets us in Stavrogin. It is more profound than the logical basis of Ivan’s revolt. If these two characters do indeed desire to depose God, it is Stavrogin who is ultimately more successful in his effort, at least with the method I have highlighted. As Camus states, “what does becoming God mean? It means, in fact, recognizing that everything is permitted and refusing any other law but one’s own.” There is nothing more liberating or rebellious than cutting the strings of one’s own reason and conscience. Perhaps it is akin to being random and indifferent in one’s approach to life, maybe like nature, or even God.