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Dostoevsky, Milton, and the Changing Definition of “Meaning”

“In the case of our current crisis of meaning, it was only in the 19th century that sensitive figures truly began to grasp the profound changes which had transformed societies.”


One of the more interesting recent phenomena in contemporary political discourse has been a resurrection of the politics of meaning. Many pundits and commentators draw explicit links between their political positions and the desire for existential solace in an increasingly nihilistic world. These figures run the gamut of the political spectrum, from right-wing illiberals like Sohrab Ahmari (analyzed here) to left-wing Youtube personalities like Contrapoints. And, of course, intellectual figures from Jordan Peterson to Slavoj Žižek have also offered political analysis loaded with existential significance and reached very different conclusions. To an extent, this reorientation towards existential issues can be welcomed as an opportunity to reflect upon issues which were initially effaced by the triumphalism of post-Cold War “end of history”-type narratives. But it has also generated a tremendous amount of discontent, ranging from the cynical nihilism of withdrawal from the public sphere to a growing number of Augustinian stories about the decline and fall of civilization. A recent article in Quillette by Pascal Bruckner is a good example, closing with a warning that growing toleration and multiculturalism will lead to Europe’s death:

It is therefore imperative that we retain our self-confidence as combative occidentals, convinced of the uniqueness of our contributions to civilization, and who make no excuses for our existence. Europe needn’t make any pledges. In and of itself, it is a guarantor of democracy that knows better than anyone how to blend freedom and prosperity. America may one day succumb to its vices of violence, inequality, and segregation. But it is sustained by religion and patriotism, which bolster it despite its divisions. Unless Europe changes course, it will die of its virtues.”

In this short article, I am going to examine what the roots of this crisis of meaning are, tracing it back to the advent of modernity. I will also discuss why many of the reactions to this crisis are inadequate, before concluding with some reflections on what a more adequate response might be.

The Crisis of Meaning in Modernity and Post-Modernity

It was not only that I could not become spiteful, I did not know how to become anything; neither spiteful nor kind, neither a rascal nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect. Now, I am living out my life in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful and useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot become anything seriously, and it is only the fool who becomes anything. Yes, a man in the nineteenth century must and morally ought to be pre-eminently a characterless creature; a man of character, an active man is pre-eminently a limited creature. That is my conviction of forty years.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground

The roots of every crisis only ever become apparent in retrospect, much like a wave only retreats after cresting. In the case of our current crisis of meaning, it was only in the 19th century that sensitive figures truly began to grasp the profound changes which had transformed societies. These ranged from the advent of the scientific revolution, which profoundly enhanced the power of human beings while subtly shifting our relationship to nature, to the emergence of liberal capitalism and its various offshoots and reactionary opponents. These include doctrines such as Marxism and Socialism, which sought—often imperfectly, and even calamitously in the case of the Soviet Union—to fully realize the Enlightenment project of emancipation and equality. Then, there were the revolts against reason initiated by Fascism and Nazism. 

What united each of these changes was their function in what Max Weber would call the desacralization of the world. The price for ascendant reason was a collapse of the meta-narratives which had provided many people with a tremendous sense of meaning and significance in their lives. The most prominent of these were the great religious meta-narratives of antiquity and the Medieval era. According to these meta-narratives, the natural order was meaning saturated: God had established the world, and everything in it had a purpose (or a telos, to use the Aristotelian nomenclature). This imposed a tremendous burden on human beings of course, one which very few would be able to live up to. Since each person’s life was oriented by God’s plan, it was a solemn duty to live up to the purpose he had ascribed to us. Most would fail or at least stumble on this path, falling into sin or even the kind of Satanic rebellion well described by Dante in the Divine Comedy. But, in this worldview, we could recognize that even the presence of evil was, in some respect, part of God’s plan. Emblazoned above the gates of Hell in Dante’s inferno were the following words:

“For me, you get to the mourning city. Through me, we reach the last pain, the grinding, the crying, the despair. For me, he goes after the lost people. Justice was my cause: precisely, high Power, knowledge and love first he created me…”

The observation that love created even Hell was typical. While it is partly the intention of the demons to mock their creator by their spiteful rebellion, they inadvertently express the truth that it all had its origin, ultimately, in divine love. Their lives also have a purpose set by God, and the impotence of their rebellion lies precisely in thinking they can escape that purpose through pride and spitefulness. The same was true of all human life, which could not but ultimately contribute to the meaningfulness of God’s plan. This is in striking contrast to Milton’s account of Satan a few centuries later in Paradise Lost. While the Lightbringer is still presented as realizing God’s plan while trying to oppose it, he is a very different character than the ice-bound perversion eternally sealed in Cocytus at the center of hell. Milton’s Satan is charismatic, sympathetic, and even convincing in his insistence that God has no right to impose his will upon rational creatures. This demonstrates how deep the influence of modernity had sunk in a very short while.

Starting in the Renaissance and carrying forward to today, the plausibility of religious meta-narratives began to collapse. Liberal ideas encouraging the free use of reason and emancipation from traditionalism attacked both the authority of the Church and the philosophical doctrines underpinning theology. Authors like Hume and Kant argued that the claims of religious thinkers to have proven the existence of God and a telos through reason were immensely specious. Hume observed that there was no independent way to move from discussing facts about the empirical world to even the simplest values that are worthy of our fidelity. Kant pointed out that if reason is limited to knowing purely what exists within space and time, then the possibility of pure reason discovering the existence or not of God and the meaning of existence was forever foreclosed to us. As Wittgenstein would later put it in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicusthe answer to the riddle of space and time lay beyond space and time; our limited minds could never reach it, at least through reason and logic alone. 

Political liberalism insisted that this highest good could never be known—or at least was permanently up for debate.

These intellectual innovations would have been influential enough on their own merits, but combined with the epochal political and economic shifts of the 18th century forward, they accelerated the process of desacralization down to post-modernity. With the advent of political liberalism as a real force, individuals were left increasingly free to determine their own sense of life’s meaning and purpose, without interference by the state. This idea would have been entirely foreign to Ancient and Medieval thinkers, for whom a major point of politics was orienting individuals towards the highest good as ascertained through wisdom or faith. Political liberalism insisted that this highest good could never be known—or at least was permanently up for debate. It was, therefore, a kind of tyranny for a political system to impose one view of the highest good upon everyone, especially when the personal convictions of individuals deviated from the systems. At the same time as liberalism was getting underway, capitalist dynamics were materially and technologically transforming society. One of the features of capitalist dynamics was the commodification of all values according to a monetary prince, which served to strip away their sacred quality. In earlier eras, some practices and objects were considered precious beyond price. This is where laws against usury or working on holy days came in. But for the market, these traditionalist anachronisms constituted an irrational and pre-modern barrier to commodification in the pursuit of higher profits. They, therefore, needed to be swept away; in Marx and Engel’s memorable phrase in The Communist Manifesto, “all that is solid melts into the air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to fast with sober senses his real conditions in life.”

These developments within modernity have undoubtedly climaxed in post-modernity.  The early 20th century was marked by ambitious and often supremely evil efforts to retreat from the meaninglessness of a desacralized world by inventing new, secular, mythological meta-narratives that could replace what was lost. Among the most prominent of these were the racist and civilizational mythologies propounded by figures like Arthur de Gobineau and put into practice by fascists and Nazis. Another was the totalitarian Stalinist effort to create a classless society through the total assimilation of the Soviet population to the state’s ambitions. The utter failure of these efforts made it seem for a while that the process was complete and inevitable, contributing to the emergence of post-modern ironism. Post-modernity tried to avoid the problem of meaningless by celebrating it. As Mark Fisher would put it in Capitalist Realism, there was a serious effort to treat the past as a museum from which a new pastiche-like identities and values could be created with relative freedom—so long as one accepted the structures of neoliberal governance and international capitalism. These identities and values would be treated with the same disposition as any kind of consumption: as temporary forms of relief from the emptiness of a society that threatened to swallow all individual meaning by insisting on the crassest forms of individual expression. The “last men” Nietzsche warned about had come, and their cynical indifference would paradoxically reshape the world in the image of Las Vegas.


The most vivid reaction to this development has been the rise of post-modern conservatism described in my new book (available here). Post-modern conservatism is an impotent product of the culture it seeks to transcend, attempting to overcome the meaninglessness of modernity through embracing its worst processes. All this culminated in the election of a “reality TV” American President whose utter effacement of truth constitutes the final blow to our increasingly tenuous grip on the concept of truth. Trumpism is characterized by nothing so much as the insistence that, given our identity and values are generated through commodified preferences—so to should the idea of the objective world be subject to our desires. One sees the alleged objectivity of modernity now cancelling itself out in conservative post-modernity. 

The way to counter these developments can be challenging. In some respects, the specter of nihilism, once raised, can never be entirely silenced. Nihilism is, first and foremost, a philosophical problem, and politics cannot silence it simply by fiat. If it turns out that there is no meaning to the world, then that is our fate regardless of the political ways we try to avoid this hard truth. However, I am not convinced that nihilism is either philosophically plausible—or that the conservative reactions to it are a way to move past a culture currently in its grip. There is no way to return to a pre-modern setting where the world is resacralized according to the doctrines of yesterday. But I think there are possibilities for generating meaning which have yet to be explored latent in the modernist project. This includes the possibility of generating a social democratic society where the anomic individualism characteristic of capitalist realism and liberalism are overcome through deliberation and securing equal rights and capabilities for all.  In a later essay, I hope to discuss this in considerably more detail.

Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at or added on Twitter via @MattPolProf.

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