László F. Földényi. Dostoyevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts into Tears. Trans. Ottilie Mulzet. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020.
“Almighty God, though who holds all spirits in thy hands, deliver us from the Enlightenment and fatal arts of our fathers and give us back ignorance, innocence, and poverty, the sole goods that might create our happiness and which are precious in thy sight.” Rousseau gets a bad reputation. Perhaps rightly so on some accounts. I confess I’m not sure how to feel about him. And, in this collection of essays, neither does László Földényi. But the spirit of Rousseau, that opposition to the emptiness of the materialism and atheism of the Enlightenment, is something that many of us feel a certain sympathy with.
Most of us sense something wrong with modernity. We seem to be living in a rootless cosmos, a cosmos stripped of all meaning which has been immolated on the altar of Progress, History, and Technology. Földényi, a Hungarian writer and scholar, perceptively senses this problem and offers the best of what the European tradition once promoted: a desire for transcendence and the freedom that transcendence confers and offers. In doing so, he offers a breathtaking counternarrative in this collection of essays: the promises of liberation and liberty offered by the Enlightenment has left us metaphysically impoverished and less free in the spiritual and philosophic sense.
It is important for Americans, most especially, who are wrestling with the problems of modernity in a country that embodies the best and worst excesses of that modernity, to know that there are still allies on the European continent who are wrestling with the same problems. This is, however, nothing new. The romanticists of late eighteenth and nineteenth century are forebears in this regard.
In this collection of essays, Földényi takes aim at “The secularizing historical point of view [that] deprives humankind of every kind of transcendence in the name of rationality.” He is also quick to point out, in the seminal essay which this volume takes its name, that the “true victor of the twentieth century is technology.” From the relentless promotion of rationality, technology, and the political collectivism that it necessitates, our guide takes us on a whirlwind and breathtaking tour of cultural and intellectual engagement alongside Dostoyevsky, Hegel, Nietzsche, Rousseau, William Blake, Heinrich Heine, Goethe, many others, and so much more.
László Földényi stands in the grand intellectual and literary tradition of men like T.S. Eliot, Russell Kirk, and more recently Roger Scruton, in offering a critique of modernity through artistic, cultural, and literary criticism intersplicing penetrating ruminations and critiques of the ailments we are currently suffering. This used to be the task of public intellectuals. And Földényi plays this role magnificently. Not only is Földényi engaged in extrapolating on these interlocutors to which we, as readers, learn from through his mediation, it is through this interlocution dialogue that our author makes his most searing and penetrating critiques of our contemporary blight. Whereas, today, critics take to Twitter to offer pathetic “hot-takes” on our problems or flock to social media for our ten second attention spans with some silly meme poking fun at an issue, Földényi’s humanism bleeds through the pages he writes inviting us to recover the true life of the heart and mind so desperately needed but drowned out by television and Twitter pundits of the worst stripe.
This collection of essays is not merely addressing the problems of contemporary life and society. They attempt to get into the very heart of the problem: the metaphysical impoverishment unleashed in the wake of techno-scientistic materialism. As such, Földényi constantly returns to the notion that humans are cosmic beings, creatures with a metaphysical impulse and identity which modernity has been trying to eviscerate much to the consternation of our anxious souls. As he notes, “there is something divine within [us]—and human beings will have a connection to the divine for as long as we are able to vividly preserve without ourselves the experience of the cosmic roots of our own existence.”
From history to art to literature to philosophy, Földényi provides a breathtaking expose and tour through that metaphysic and cosmic heart of the human spirit and soul. There is something deeply mystifying about culture, national identity, the cosmic underpinnings that were once pervasive throughout human consciousness and understanding which calls us out of the mud and into the stars. Yet modernity has turned that consciousness down to the mud of the earth. You are earth matter and nothing more, a collection of atoms and chemicals pulsating through a body of skin and bone. The deracination of our existence, a metaphysical poverty unleashed by the denizens of materialism and those who smuggled materialism into idealism (Hegel according to our eminent author), has led to the crisis of our existence. “Humans have become alienated from their own history as they are from their own cosmic nature,” Földényi writes.
Earlier reviews when this anthology first came out asserted that Földényi was waging a war against the Enlightenment. That is certainly true. But he is doing much more. He is waging a war against the impoverished existences and identities we have. He is waging a battle for metaphysics, for ontology, for consciousness. He’s not just “anti-Enlightenment” as the intellectually minute critics at The New Yorker claimed. This reveals his depth and genius contra the frauds and fakes of the intellectual media and Twitterati.
Humans live by identity. Even those who use “identity politics” as a catch-all bogeyman reveal themselves to be equally impoverished—something that many a “conservative” should be aware of. The fact of the matter is: We all live by identity. But the identity that Földényi is inviting us to return to, or discover for the first time, is something deep, profound, transcendental. It is not the mere identity of a pronoun or digital avatar. It is an identity that reaches deep in the dark recesses of our souls and existence, a rediscovery of the complexity of human consciousness and identity: anxiety and happiness, creativity and passion, love and transfiguration.
What the classical tradition gave to us: Platonic, Jewish, Christian, etc., is the idea of a transcendental yearning deep within human existence and identity. We are creatures of this world. But our hearts pull us beyond this world. We have substituted metaphysical existence for an empty historical existence that spirals into a mere hedonistic materialistic existence. But this historical existence, Földényi reminds us, serves only the interest of the powerful, the ruling elite: “The true task, however, of invented and formulated history is not to offer an ‘objective’ picture of existence but to protect its engineers and constructors lest they become submerged in something that can neither be formulated nor planned.”
Many of us also feel, in this impoverishment of identity and existence, that freedom is slipping away and being replaced by a controlled façade. The faces on our screens the avatars on our computers and phones may tell us that we are free. But we sense that this isn’t the case.
Part of the crisis of freedom is related to the impoverishment of metaphysical identity and yearning. True freedom can only be found in infinitude, the ultimate infinitude being unity with God. Everything else simply constricts us despite telling us we are free and often asserting the opposite of ancient wisdom: union with God or Transcendence is restrictive and oppressive. When such luminaries as Plato, Epictetus, the Jewish Prophets, Augustine, and others disagree this should minimally give you cause to at least reconsider (but reconsider the partisans of the empty rainbow cannot). By limiting our souls and their ascendance to the Transcendent infinity of the Divine, we have become prisoners of materialism—the most shallow and constrictive philosophy ever imagined by the minds of men. I am slave to physics, chemicals, and atoms. That is the inevitable logical reductionism of materialism. And Földényi knows it.
This enslavement to materialism, in turn, influences the technocratic scientism of soft tyranny now spreading throughout the Western World and beyond. The burden of freedom offered in a metaphysical existence, Földényi implies, is too much for us to handle. Freedom is not a happy camp existence. It is difficult.
So we hate existence itself. We despise freedom because the Divine and its infinitude is too unnerving for us to cope with. In other words, we don’t want to strive for that freedom offered in God. Instead, we want enslavement to comfort and security and lie to ourselves that this enslavement to comfort and security is freedom while the freedom to venture into the beyond is enslavement. Thus, the sophistry of modern ideology says we are free through not embracing our existence. Is it no wonder, then, we have posited that we ourselves are the problem to existence and the planet? “Everything about our current civilization suggests that we are only free when the world and its circumstances have removed from us the burden of our own existence. European tradition used to teach the opposite of this. It used to teach that the hope of genuine freedom is granted when this burden once again weighed upon us.”
Földényi’s collection of essays penetrate into the deep recesses of the human heart and mind and its desire for something more than the cold formalism and materialism that now dominates our life and world. We need, as his final chapter title states, “a capacity for amazement.” Where do we find that amazement? It seems through some sort of metaphysical and cosmic identity which is united with some conception of “the whole” which unites this impressive collection of writings. It also introduces English speakers to the superb erudition of the author and European writers who still move with the spirit of that impressive background knowledge and intellectual tradition that Eric Voegelin characterized as quintessentially representative of the best of Europe’s culture of the intellect and that often draws Americans to seek intellectual enrichment.
Anyone concerned with the problems we are dealing with today should find a companion and friend in László Földényi. We can continue to tear ourselves apart from all the connections, personal and cosmic, that bring life meaning and allows for that genuine freedom to manifest itself and therefore sink into the abyss of nothingness. Or we can return to what the best of our forebears have always known and taught. Földényi might be a modern day Jeremiah. And we remember Jeremiah and not his opponents for a reason. Those critics of Földényi will fade away while his voice remains.
This review first appeared in VoegelinView, 5 June, 2022.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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