Below are two excerpts from Book VI of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, published in Russia in 1880.
“Why, the isolation that prevails everywhere, above all in our age—it has not fully developed, it has not reached its limit yet. For every one strives to keep his individuality as apart as possible, wishes to secure the greatest possible fullness of life for himself; but meantime all his efforts result not in attaining fullness of life but self-destruction, for instead of self-realization he ends by arriving at complete solitude. All mankind in our age have split up into units, they all keep apart, each in his own groove; each one holds aloof, hides himself and hides what he has, from the rest, and he ends by being repelled by others and repelling them. He heaps up riches by himself and thinks, ‘How strong I am now and how secure,’ and in his madness he does not understand that the more he heaps up, the more he sinks into self-destructive impotence. For he is accustomed to rely upon himself alone and to cut himself off from the whole; he has trained himself not to believe in the help of others, in men and in humanity, and only trembles for fear he should lose his money and the privileges that he has won for himself. Everywhere in these days men have, in their mockery, ceased to understand that the true security is to be found in social solidarity rather than in isolated individual effort. But this terrible individualism must inevitably have an end, and all will suddenly understand how unnaturally they are separated from one another. It will be the spirit of the time, and people will marvel that they have sat so long in darkness without seeing the light. And then the sign of the Son of Man will be seen in the heavens…. But, until then, we must keep the banner flying. Sometimes even if he has to do it alone, and his conduct seems to be crazy, a man must set an example, and so draw men’s souls out of their solitude, and spur them to some act of brotherly love, that the great idea may not die.”
The world says: “You have desires and so satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the most rich and powerful. Don’t be afraid of satisfying them and even multiply your desires.” That is the modern doctrine of the world. In that they see freedom. And what follows from this right of multiplication of desires? In the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; in the poor, envy and murder; for they have been given rights, but have not been shown the means of satisfying their wants. They maintain that the world is getting more and more united, more and more bound together in brotherly community, as it overcomes distance and sets thoughts flying through the air…
…And it’s no wonder that instead of gaining freedom they have sunk into slavery, and instead of serving the cause of brotherly love and the union of humanity have fallen, on the contrary, into dissension and isolation, as my mysterious visitor and teacher said to me in my youth. And therefore the idea of the service of humanity, of brotherly love and the solidarity of mankind, is more and more dying out in the world, and indeed this idea is sometimes treated with derision. For how can a man shake off his habits? What can become of him if he is in such bondage to the habit of satisfying the innumerable desires he has created for himself? He is isolated, and what concern has he with the rest of humanity? They have succeeded in accumulating a greater mass of objects, but the joy in the world has grown less.
In the story these two passages are separated by a chapter and spoken by different characters, but they explore the same idea and are better examined as a pair. They are also valuable because they do not require context about the plot: they (ironically) can stand alone.
The ideas Dostoevsky presents in these passages are strikingly relevant. We live in an age of rampant and ramped-up loneliness. A recent survey in America categorized half of its citizens as feeling lonely. This year Britain appointed its first minister for loneliness. The Gods of the internet know it, too: they presented me with an advertisement for Facebook as I was reading a New York Times article about loneliness.
The social changes that Dostoevsky observed were partially due to the growth of capitalism in Europe in the 19th century. Competition divided people; wealth was equated with success, security and happiness; and the result was that “mankind… split up into units”. Yet even as he watched his world separate itself for money, Dostoevsky claimed that “the isolation that prevails everywhere… has not fully developed”; and while he never saw the birth of the internet or Facebook, he foresaw and pre-paraphrased the Zuckerbergish claims that “the world is getting more and more united… as it overcomes distance and sends thoughts flying through the air.”
In our era of firmly entrenched economic capitalism, physical and monetary separation seems natural: picket fences divide our homes, cars divide the roads and, for the rich, gates and guards protect modern palaces. Some of Dostoevsky’s observations have even become cliché via the tragedy of the sad or lonely celebrity or billionaire. Many of capitalism’s social effects have sunk into “it is what it is” territory. But the internet – social media in particular – has created a new brand of capitalism and competition: social capitalism. In addition to caring about the number of zeroes appended to our bank account, our count of followers, likes, views, and friends now contributes to our image of self-worth. In 2018 this is a trite observation, but our changing ideas of solidarity and independence may have something to learn from The Brothers Karamazov.
Dostoevsky says that “they have succeeded in accumulating a greater mass of objects, but the joy in the world has grown less.” He is speaking in material terms, but for us this could translate to a myriad of social-capital goods. Thanks to Instagram there has never been a greater mass of beautiful pictures; thanks to Twitter there have never been so many comic observations; thanks to Facebook we have never had so many friends. Having a post go viral is equated with winning the lottery. What is the result of this accumulation? Online words and images shower us with stimulation, but not with connection; the internet provides an excellent medium for communication, but how often is that communication meaningful? Like a refrigerator our phones are checked before bed and after waking, hardly ever containing anything but a reminder that we are hungry. Even while physically together the desire for social capital can separate us.
The issue of internet usage is complicated and cannot be proclaimed the singular cause of contemporary isolation, but it deserves more attention at the individual level. Artists, scientists, and journalists are all exploring its effects on society; the common person needs to join them. Evaluate how much time and energy is spent daily on social media, and ask yourself why you count the number of likes on a picture or tweet. What do you gain from it? Would the time filtering a photo be better spent talking on the phone with a friend or relative? How could you instead use your social media to really connect?
“Sometimes even if he has to do it alone, and his conduct seems to be crazy, a man must set an example, and so draw men’s souls out of their solitude.” The next time you are with friends and all are silent because all are on their phones, don’t succumb – even if it makes you feel like a pariah. Keep the internet in your pocket and try to pull the others back to reality and each other with a question or observation. (Find some good ones here).
The internet is and will remain an implacable part of our lives, but finding ways to circumvent or employ it to foster friendship and solidarity is crucial. We need to learn to navigate it for the purpose of making and maintaining connections in the same way Dostoevsky’s world had to adapt to the splintering effects of capitalism. Learning from his experience is a fine place to start.