Intellectual Pride and the Limits of Theory

man of system pride humility dostoevsky brothers karamazov

Richard Gunderman for AdamSmithWorks

We are responsible for what we think... And we arrive at our notions about what is true and false not simply by diagramming ideas on a whiteboard, but by seeing them expressed in the lives of others and experiencing firsthand how they play out in our own lives. As such, ideas are not like pieces on a chess board, to be moved about by whim with impunity. To the contrary, they are matters of life and death."

September 6, 2023
In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is. It can be tempting for pundits and intellectuals to suppose that life’s important questions can be formulated and answered in strictly theoretical terms. There should be one best answer to the question, Is there a God? or Why should we strive to be morally good? Yet theoretical formulations, whether logical, mathematical, and even poetic, capture only part of the story. Those who suppose the world can be completely accounted for in terms of their own theories are not only guilty of overgeneralization but also positively dangerous. Few thinkers in the western tradition understood this more deeply than Adam Smith and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Smith addresses the issue of intellectual pride in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. The prideful man may conceive himself as superior in any number of respects, from his ancestry and economic class to his character and intellect. He looks down upon other with insolence, little perceiving his own “weaknesses and imperfections.” He is often “assuming, arrogant, and presumptuous,” finding in equally great quantity qualities to admire about himself and to condemn in others. He cherishes his own perspectives, arguments, and convictions to such a degree that he cannot bring himself to take those of others seriously, often making only the most cursory effort to understand them.
Sincerely convinced of his own superiority, the prideful intellectual demands of others what only seems reasonable and just – namely, that they admire his intellect, yield to his arguments, and acknowledge him as the wisest person of their acquaintance. Those who do not, for whatever reason, accord him the respect he believes to be his due cause him to take deep offense and to dismiss them as ignoramuses who do not even merit his attention. If he grants others his attention, it will be to convince them of their own deep inferiority, the fact that they could never compare with a genius so inestimably great as his.
One of Smith’s greatest accounts of intellectual hubris is to be found in his description of the “man of system,” whom he specifically contrasts with the “man of humanity and benevolence,” who operates with more than a modicum of humility. The man of humanity and benevolence remembers well his own limits, therefore respecting the established powers and principles of individuals, and even more those of great orders and societies into which a state is divided. “When he cannot establish the right, he will not disdain to ameliorate the wrong; but like Solon, when he cannot establish the best system of laws, he will endeavor to establish the best that the people can bear.” The man of system, by contrast,
is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamored with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-​board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-​board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-​board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.
The man of system is not only prideful but even hubristic, loving nothing so much as his own ideas and plans. He is so convinced of the truth and beauty of his theory that when he compares it to the extent possible with the real world, he blames any lack of correspondence not on his own creation but on the world he inhabits. If achieving his vision requires that others be dismissed and condemned, so much the better, insofar as it removes obstacles to the realization of his own dream. All that has come before him constitutes a mere prolegomenon, a set of raw materials for him to reshape and reconfigure into his own magnum opus.
In the prideful theorist’s view, the world and those who inhabit it are but a chess board and the pieces who rest upon it exist only to be rearranged as needed to effect his vision. Should others exhibit the capacity to think for themselves or plan independently, pride recasts them as willful enemies of progress, whose very existence represents a threat. To make an omelet, the man of system says to himself, some eggs must be cracked. When things do not work out as planned, it is always because of external factors that the intellectual does not control – weather, natural resources, human capital, timing, and a host of other factors that prevented a great leap forward.
Dostoevsky is often described as a philosophical novelist, which is a great irony, since he is always at pains to show not the power of philosophy but its limitations. As a novelist, his depictions of the theorist’s weaknesses are both less direct and in some ways richer than Smith’s. For Smith can dissect the intellectual’s pretensions in the abstract and point in general to their potentially devastating practical consequences, while Dostoevsky can embed them far more richly in both character and plot. Smith describes the man who believes himself superior to all, but Dostoevsky shows us in detail how such hubris plays out in the life of a flesh-and-blood human being.
Many people who have read Dostoevsky’s final and greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov, recall that Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, the narrative’s wealthy but dissolute patriarch, had three sons. The first is Dimitri, like his father a man of feeling, who is placed on trial for his father’s murder. The second is Ivan, a scholar who, faced with evil in the world, cannot believe in God, therefore concluding that “all is permitted.” The third is Alyosha, a compassionate young man of faith who loves and is loved by all. Some readers have seen in the three Karamazov sons a parallel to Plato’s allegory of the divided soul, with Dimitri representing the sensual, Ivan the intellectual, and Alyosha the spiritual.
Yet there is, or at least may be, a fourth Karamazov offspring in the novel – namely, Pavel Fyodorovich Smerdyakov. He is the son of “stinking Lizaveta,” a dwarfish, mute young orphan woman who always roamed the town wearing nothing but a smock and sleeping in doorways. Her unexplained pregnancy provoked scandal, fueled by rumors that the elder Karamazov was the father, an idea buttressed by the fact that when she died alone giving birth her infant, she was in his bathhouse. Brought up by the Karamazov’s childless but pious servants, Grigory and his wife, the child delighted in hanging cats, whom he then buried with great pomp. He becomes the cook and a vocal critic of his adoptive father’s faith.
One of the most notable early scenes in the novel takes place in Karamazov’s house. Grigory has just heard the story of a Russian soldier taken prisoner in some remote land, where he was threatened with torture and death if he did not renounce his Christian faith and convert to Islam. Despite this terrible prospect, he refused to recant and was tortured, flayed alive, and killed, yet all the while praising and glorifying Christ. The elder Karamazov cynically remarks that they should make the soldier’s skin a relic in a monastery, for “That would make the people flock, and bring the money in.” While the elder Karamozov sees only a money-making opportunity, Ivan sees something much more momentous at stake.
Smerdyakov, whose name means “Stinky’s son,” begins to offer his own commentary, speaking to the elder Karamazov, Ivan and Alyosha, and Grigory. He opines that there would have been no sin if, in such an emergency, he had renounced the name of Christ and his own christening in order to spare his life. He could then expiate his cowardice over the ensuing years by good deeds. He supports this contention and rebuffs his angry adopted father with the argument that, if he is willing to renounce his faith, he must not have been a Christian in the first place. He must have been a heathen all along, and no one could condemn a heathen, one who had never known the Gospel.
Grigory calls him a liar, declaring him accursed. But Smerdyakov carries on, reminding the old man that scripture teaches that one who has faith can move mountains. Why, then, he asks, didn’t the soldier simply tell a mountain to move and crush his tormentor? More to the point, why can’t he, Smerdyakov, call on a mountain to move and crush his tormentors? The fact that no mountain moves could only fill him with doubt. So why, he asks, should he allow them to flay the skin off him as well? Why not, instead, give in to doubt to prevent his death by torture, cherishing instead the hope that the Almighty would forgive him for giving in to unreasoning terror?
The elder Karamazov sees what is happening, recognizing that Smerdyakov is not only gleefully torturing his pious adoptive father, but also seeking to impress Ivan, whose intellect he deeply admires. “He’s got this all up for your benefit,” he tells Ivan. “He wants you to praise him. Praise him.” But Ivan will have none of it. “He’s pleased to have a high opinion of me, but he’s a lackey and a mean soul.” Yet Ivan realizes that such characters might play a useful role in overthrowing what he regards as an age of superstition and helping to install an age of reason, the consequence of which he cannot predict. Cut off from faith, would humanity degenerate into utter lawlessness and chaos?
Pressed by his father, however, Ivan remains true to his convictions. Is there a God? he asks. Ivan responds, No, there is no God. Is there immortality? No, there is no immortality, either. And the devil, does he exist? No, there is no devil, either. And yet, Ivan freely admits, there could have been no civilization had God not been invented. Ivan finds himself in an untenable position. On the one hand, a world in which the innocent suffer makes it impossible for him to believe in God. Yet he recognizes that without God, civilization would descend into chaos. His learned articles are full of contradictions precisely because he cannot bring himself to fully accept either proposition, and he lives in torment.
What for Ivan remains for the time being a matter of theological inquiry becomes through Smerdyakov a living reality. Soon the elder Karamazov is murdered during an apparent robbery. Suspicion soon falls on Dimitri, who is eventually convicted of the murder. But toward the novel’s end, Ivan meets three times with Smerdyakov, attempting to determine whether he had anything to do with the crime. Finally, Smerdyakov confesses that his alibi – an epileptic fit – was a ruse, that he in fact murdered the man reputed to be his biological father and stole a large sum of money, which he hands over to Ivan. When Ivan asks him how he had committed such a crime, Smerdyakov expresses surprise, saying
I don’t want [the money], sir, Symerdyakov articulated in a shaking voice, with a gesture of refusal. I did have an idea of beginning a new life with that money in Moscow or, better still, abroad. I did dream of it, chiefly because ‘all things are lawful.’ That was quite right, what you taught me, for you talked a lot to me about that. For if there’s no everlasting God, there’s no such thing as virtue, and there’s no need of it. You were right there. So that’s how I looked at it.
Resolving to do the right thing and exonerate Dmitry by revealing Smerdyakov’s deception, Ivan sets off for home, intending to tell the prosecutor everything the next day. Yet blinded by a snowstorm, he inadvertently knocks over a peasant. He takes the man to a safe place and ensures he is well cared for. When he gets back to his room, he falls into a fever during which he is tormented by the devil, who parodies his ideas. His terror is relieved only when Alyosha comes and knocks at his window, telling him that Smerdyakov has hanged himself. Ivan descends further and further into what appears to be mental illness before finally falling asleep.
Ivan learns a terrible lesson the hard way – ideas have consequences. What for him was a matter of primarily intellectual interest – the problems of God’s existence, the belief in immortality, and the necessity of God and immortality as a basis for eschewing evil and acting morally – becomes through Smerdyakov a matter of life and death – a choice to renounce morality for the rest of his life and bring about the death of the man most believed to be his father. Ivan vainly thought he could sustain such deep tensions through the strength of his own mind, never fully realizing that, as he shared his destabilizing notions with others, they might precipitate a catastrophe.
We might suppose that the world of the intellect is somehow separate from the world of practical affairs, like the gulf that separates theoretical from applied mathematics. But Dostoevsky is showing us otherwise. We are responsible for what we think, which shapes our every word and action, no matter how slight. And we arrive at our notions about what is true and false not simply by diagramming ideas on a whiteboard, but by seeing them expressed in the lives of others and experiencing firsthand how they play out in our own lives. As such, ideas are not like pieces on a chess board, to be moved about by whim with impunity. To the contrary, they are matters of life and death.
We must look beyond the words of the article, the treatise, and the sacred text, whether Smith’s or Dostoevsky’s. Such words signify something, but they capture only part of a larger reality, which requires viewing from multiple points in space and time. To merely weigh words against words is to miss the greater part, an insight that both Smith’s man of system and Dostoevsky’s Ivan fail to grasp, at least until the very end. To know as deeply and well as possible, we must see and hear and feel the words enfleshed in the lives of real human beings. More accurately, we must realize that words are mere tokens of incarnation, a reality that more than anyone else Alyosha both knows and loves.
The key, ultimately, is not theoretical ambition and intellectual rigor, but the love of individual human beings. We cannot reason ourselves to love, but through love we can discover what is truly lovable, admirable, and forgivable in other human beings. Smith shows us what is despicable in the man of system, but it is Dostoevsky who exposes the hubris of theoretician to the fullest extent, evoking not ridicule but compassion. In this sense, the sensualist Dmitri is ultimately a better guide to reality than the intellectual Ivan, who strives so resolutely for the universal that he has great difficult perceiving it in the particular. It is here, in the love of each person he is with, that Alyosha truly shines.