Note from the Present Underground – The Catholic Thing

James V. Schall, S.J.


The last lines of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground are these: “We shall not know. . .what to cling to, what to love, what to hate. We are oppressed at being men – men with a real individual body and blood. We think it a disgrace and contrive to be some sort of impossible generalized man. We are stillborn, and for generations past have been begotten not by living fathers. . . .Soon we shall contrive to be born from an idea.” These words were written in St. Petersburgh in 1864, the last full year of the American Civil War.

In his 1848 Communist Manifesto, Marx told us to “rise up.” We had nothing to lose but our chains. This call, however, showed considerably less insight into the future than Dostoyevsky’s. He told us that we would lose our fathers, and with their loss, our very being. Nietzsche, near the end of the 19th Century, proclaimed that God was already dead in our souls. We just had not noticed.

But the notion that we “shall contrive to be born from an idea” is a more haunting consideration. Without Fatherhood in God to ground the reality that is, we “free” ourselves to become anything but what we ought to be. The real sociological record of our time is a step-by-step, logical declination from the good that is already present in the cosmos and in man. We remain free to know this good, but only if we will.

Chesterton, early in the 20th Century, told us that the most horrible of human ideas was that men could be born of men, not women. Men cannot beget of men – or women of women, no matter how much they “want” to. Positive “laws” establishing “marriage” in such cases contradict reality. They place all involved at odds with the order of being.

Dostoyevsky saw it clearly. We want a “generalized man,” not the particular one born of woman having been begotten by an identifiable father, with a real body and real blood. Our anonymous sperm and ova banks, our abortion factories, our random begetting, cloning, our divorces, all testify to the truth of Dostoyevsky’s warning. We stand to be born of a laboratory or political “idea,” not from real fathers and mothers.

We read the passage from John that tells us that the Word was made “flesh” – body and blood – to dwell amongst us. The Word did not appear as an “idea”; nor have any of us in our beginnings. Several famous passages in the Old Testament speak of God knowing us before we were in our mother’s womb. In this sense, we were indeed in our ultimate origins “an idea” in God’s creative mind. But the what-it-is-to-be-a-man is not ours to formulate or to bring forth. God’s mind is not filled with abstract “ideas,” but images of His own being.

Read more here: Note from the Present Underground – The Catholic Thing

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