Enslaved by an Idea: Douglass’ “Narrative,” Dostoevksy’s “Crime and Punishment,” and a bit of Nolan’s “Inception”

COBB: What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient… highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed – fully understood – that sticks; right in there somewhere.

Dom Cobb, the protagonist in Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), knows that an idea can change everything. An idea can kill or revive, enslave or liberate.

Ideas are power. Many people worry about the mass media’s ideological sway over American culture. We fear that the media, like Inception’s characters, implants ideas in our heads and causes them to grow, infesting our entire being and dictating our decisions. In short, the ideas enslave us.

But can we call those ideas’ effects on us “slavery”? To some extent, we can, because we are both physical and spiritual beings. True slavery occurs when physical captivity forces a person into mental or spiritual bondage.

Frederick Douglass, an American slave in the 1800s, describes slavery best. He’d been physically enslaved since birth, but he didn’t become mentally enslaved until he worked for the cruel Mr. Covey. Douglass arrived at the Covey farm as an “unmanageable” young man. He’d lived a fairly comfortable city life and taught himself to read and write. But ceaseless work and Covey’s beatings “tamed” Douglass. “Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me,” Douglass wrote. “I was broken in body, soul, and spirit.”[1] Extreme physical suffering “transformed” Douglass “into a brute,”[2] crushing his reason and emotion, his desire to live, and his will to choose freedom.

“I have found out,” Douglass wrote, “to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason…he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.”[3]

Broken by Mr. Covey, Douglass accepted an idea: He was a slave, and his slavery was just. Mr. Covey did not enslave him—the idea did.  

Two decades later, Fyodor Dostoevsky dramatized the power of ideas in his novel Crime and Punishment. At St. Petersburg’s university, Raskolnikov learns about altruistic utilitarianism and radical Nihilistic individualism. He becomes convinced that there are two types of men—the ordinary and the extraordinary.  Nearly everyone is ordinary, and must obey society’s laws and increase its population.[4] An extraordinary man, on the other hand, is above the law. When necessary, an extraordinary man like Napoleon must “step over blood” to benefit mankind. Likewise, Sir Isaac Newton had “the right” and “duty” to sacrifice “the lives of one, or ten, or a hundred or more people who were hindering the discovery” that would benefit all mankind.[5]

To enact his theories, Raskolnikov kills the miserly pawnbroker and to give her money to the poor. By “stepping over” her “blood,” he will benefit others. Although Raskolnikov thinks his motives are altruistic and utilitarian, he later discovers his true motives: he wants to know if he is extraordinary.

Raskolnikov is bound by the possibility that he might be a Napoleon. His robotic behavior during the murder emphasizes his enslaved state: “He walked in like a man condemned to death. He was not reasoning about anything, and was totally unable to reason; but he suddenly felt with his whole being that he no longer had any freedom either of mind or of will.”[6]  Douglass describes himself with similar language: the idea that slavery was just “darken[ed] his moral and mental vision” and “annihilate[d] the power of reason.”[7]  

Both Douglass and Raskolnikov are enslaved to ideas—about themselves. Douglass believes that he is a “brute,”[8] while Raskolnikov believes he is not ordinary, but extraordinary.

Yet Douglass and Raskolnikov become enslaved in opposite ways: Douglass’ physical bondage results in mental slavery, while Raskolnikov’s intellectual obsession leads to a debilitating illness. On the other hand, our own “enslavement” to the media’s ideas appears to lack a physical element.

So the true relationship between mental and physical slavery remains unclear. Yet we have identified which ideas lead to slavery: ideas about ourselves.

Which is scary when you think about the media. Every advertisement works in the same way—it hooks its target audience’s imagination, and then tells them who they are what they need. Every time we watch a commercial, do we become more enslaved to the media’s ideas about ourselves? Every time we watch a TV show? Every time we read a book, a blog, or a magazine article?

If so, we need to remember that “to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one.”[9] Our discernment should protect us—as John the Evangelist wrote, “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”[10]

(To avoid ending on a depressing and paranoid note: If you’re interested in the effects of the media on our bodies, you might want to look into Susan Bordo’s essay on female illness and mass culture called Unbearable Weight. Though focused on women, her ideas have implications for men as well.

And watch Inception. You’ll think about it for weeks!)


[1] Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (New York: Penguin, 1982), 105.

[2] Ibid., 105.

[3] Ibid., 135.

[4] Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonksy (New York: Random House, 1993), 261.

[5] Dostoevsky 259-261.

[6] Ibid., 62.

[7] Douglass 135.

[8] Ibid., 105.

[9] Ibid., 135.

[10] 1 John 4:1, ESV.

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1 Comment

Filed under Being a Bookworm, Philthy: Philosophy & Theology, Torrey Honors Institute

One response to “Enslaved by an Idea: Douglass’ “Narrative,” Dostoevksy’s “Crime and Punishment,” and a bit of Nolan’s “Inception”

  1. Diane Vincent

    Does exercising absolute tyranny over someone else’s body also tend towards making a tyranny over their mind?

    Are some ideas more enslaving than others? What idea of himself did Douglass acquire as the result of his brutal treatment?

    Just curious what thoughts you might have…

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