Life = Freedom: The Symbolism of 2×2 = 4 in Dostoevsky, Zamyatin & Orwell

It is interesting how so many contemporary movements start out under the banner of “life.” Hitler and Mussolini proclaimed that Facism represented “vitality” opposed to “pallid liberalism.” In America, on the right, “life” issues suggest, first of all, abortion; while, on the left, “an ethic of life” is the banner for an entire social agenda, especially so-called “economic rights” (income, employment, food, shelter, etc.). To collectivists of all persuasions, “life” is identified with biological, organic, physical components. These are important, of course. But they do not go to the root of human life, to freedom, as did three great modern thinkers immensely significant for our time: Dostoevsky, Zamyatin and Orwell.

For these three thinkers, life = freedom, at least in the human equation. For human beings, life without freedom is death.

Few Anglo-American readers grasp the many parallels between the literary voyages of Dostoevsky and Orwell—in some respects reflecting the parallels between the pre-totalitarian and totalitarian worlds. Zamyatin, a major figure far less known in the West, bridges both these two worlds and the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

All three authors began as leftists in a political sense, and later all three were accused of being reactionary. All three started as social critics writing about poor, miserable people, and later wrote powerful novels criticizing the philosophy which they had shared at the beginning of their lives. All three were closely involved in revolutionary movements. Dostoevsky spent several years in Siberia because he had been a member of the Petrashevsky revolutionary underground group. Zamyatin was a member of the Bolshevik party before the Revolution, and was arrested, exiled and lived illegally. Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side. All three can be described in the second part of their lives by so-called progressive critics as terribly reactionary. Only after their deaths were all three recognized as important and powerful artists and thinker. Finally for all three of them the most important problem was the problem of human freedom; everything else developed from this.


Living in the nineteenth century Dostoevsky could not of course observe the reality of radical social revolution and of the so-called classless society. But his artistic genius enabled him to describe in his novels the potential future developments of revolutionary ideas, developments which he perceived in the depths of his spirit.

In his novels, especially The Devils, Dostoevsky describes something very similar to the world of Orwell’s 1984. This is the so-called “Shegalyovschina theory” of one of the characters in the novel, Shegalyov. According to this theory, revolutionary violence and radical social movements with such goals as equality, justice, and freedom lead directly to just such a society as that later described by Orwell in 1984. The difference is really very small. We may say that in one sense only a few technical improvements distinguish Shegalyov’s vision of society from Orwell’s.

In the twentieth century, Orwell witnessed two real totalitarian societies, Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Nazi Germany. In some senses, he is more realistic than Dostoevsky, despite the fact that The Devils is based on the documentary evidence of Nyechaev’s trial, while 1984 is regarded as an example of utopian (or anti-utopian) fiction. Yet after the experience of the Third Reich, of Stalin’s Soviet Union, of World War II complete with atom bombs and the recent bloody events in Cambodia, we can say that in 1984 the only component of utopian fiction is the telescreen. Everything else is realistic, even the names of institutions. For example, in totalitarian Japan before 1945 there existed political police officially called the “thought police.”

Zamyatin, who wrote the novel We in 1920, could observe the Russian revolution and the first weak shoots of a future totalitarian society. In comparison with Orwell’s novel, Zamyatin’s work really is a fictional projection of an anti-utopian society based more on the spiritual development of ideas than on reality. In this way, though often considered to be Orwell’s immediate predecessor, Zarnyatin is closer to Dostoevsky.

All three authors deal with the reality of human consciousness. It may even be said that human consciousness is the only reality for Dostoevsky. This led the Soviet literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin to establish a theory of polyphonism in Dostoevsky’s works. Dostoevsky, in fact, never writes about the external world; his central preoccupation is human consciousness and the relationship between human minds and souls. The problem of freedom and slavery is for this reason based, for him, in human consciousness. Orwell, on the other hand, does describe society, but the essence of this society is totalitarian manipulation, in particular of the human consciousness. So for both novelists the battle between freedom and slavery is fought on the level of human consciousness.

In this respect, Zamyatin is again midway between the two. He describes a totalitarian society, which is based on the manipulation not only of consciousness, but on the omnipotent power of reason and science, used not only to govern nature, but also human beings.

One difference between the three authors reflects the difference between the centuries in which they lived. Dostoevsky, because he was obsessed with the problem of freedom, revolution and social justice, describes the possible effects of radical social change. In Crime and Punishment, he examines the idea of revolution on an individual level, in The Devils on a social level. In his last novel, Brothers Karamazov, he attempts to establish a metaphysical and ontological basis for freedom, unfreedom, slavery, violence, revolution, and non-resistance. This is especially evident in his “Legend of The Grand Inquisitor” (which can also be compared with the later anti-utopian fictions). Over and over again he emphasizes the idea that mankind is confronted with the inevitable choice between freedom and bread. Indeed, the central idea of “The Legend of The Grand Inquisitor” is that mankind can be fed only at the expense of individual freedom. Freedom is therefore linked with a terrible risk. Dostoevsky, in the Christian tradition, believed that mankind has to make a choice, like that of Christ in the desert.

Zamyatin followed Dostoevsky closely in his dialectic on the incompatibility of bread and freedom. In his novel We (as Aldous Huxley was later to do in Brave New World), Zamyatin describes a very prosperous totalitarian society in which lack of freedom is compensated for by a high standard of living on the material level.

In 1984, on the other hand, Orwell was the first to express in an artistic way what now has become historical fact, that lack of freedom leads directly to lack of bread. This insight of Orwell’s relates not only to Dostoevsky, Zamyatin and Huxley, but to the course of actual events.

The most important difference between Dostoevsky and Zamyatin on the one hand, and Orwell on the other, lies in their respective use of the symbolism of “two times two is four.” This difference reflects the fundamental change between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, between pre-totalitarian and totalitarian periods of history. Dostoevsky uses the symbolism of “two times two is four” repeatedly, and especially in his short work Notes from Underground, where “two plus two is four” symbolizes human reason, which Dostoevsky identifies with the laws of nature. The human being is imprisoned by the laws of nature, and therefore for Dostoevsky “two times two is four” is the symbol of slavery and death.

These are the thoughts of underground men:

Bah, gentleman, what sort of free will is left when we come to tables and arithmetic, when it will all be a case of two times two makes four? Two times two makes four even without my will. As if free will meant that!…

Two times two makes four seems to me simply a piece of insolence. Two times two makes four is a fop standing with arms akimbo barring your path and spitting. I admit that two times two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are going to praise everything, two times two makes five is also a very charming little thing…

Consciousness, for instance, is infinitely superior to two times two makes four. Once you have two times two makes four, there is nothing left to do or to understand…

With the anthill, the respectable race of ants began and with the anthill they will probably end, which does the greatest credit to their perseverance and staidness. But man is a frivolous and incongruous creature, and perhaps, like a chessplayer, loves only the process of the game, not the end of it. And who knows (one cannot swear to it), perhaps the only goal on earth to which mankind is striving lies in this incessant process of attaining, or in other words, in life itself… which of course must always be two times two makes four, that is a formula, and after all, two times two makes four is no longer life, gentlemen, but is the beginning of death. Anyway, man has always been somehow afraid of this two times two makes four and I am afraid of it even now…

In Zamyatin’s We, this vision of men from underground is developed, and totalitarian society is dedicated to something we may call the “religion of science and reason.” D-503, the hero of Zamyatin’s novel writes:

The ancient God created the old man, capable of erring—hence he erred himself. The multiplication table is wiser and more absolute than the ancient God: it never—do you realize the full meaning of the word?—It never errs. And there are no happier figures than those which live according to the harmonious, eternal laws of the multiplication table. No hesitations, no delusions. There is only one truth, and only one true way; this truth is two times two, and the true way—four. And would it not be an absurdity if these happily, ideally multiplied twos began to think of some nonsensical freedom—i.e., clearly, to error?…

The state poet wrote a poem:

Eternally enamored two times two
Eternally united in the passionate four,
Most ardent lovers in the world—
Inseparable two times two…

The state newspapers stated: “You are perfect. You are machinelike. The road to one hundred per cent happiness is free…”

Orwell and his hero Winston Smith in 1984 also repeat and repeat this formula “two plus two is four,” or “two multiplied by two is four,” but in an absolutely different way. For him, this equation is the symbol of life, freedom and truth.

Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows… You were the dead; theirs was the future. But you could share in that future if you kept alive the mind as they kept alive the body, and passed on the secret doctrine that two times two makes four…

Nonetheless, in spite of the totally different meaning of this symbolism, Dostoevsky, Zamyatin and Orwell’s ideas were, in fact, identical. They use the symbol with a different meaning, but this difference is merely the difference between the nineteenth and the twentieth century.

What does “two times two” or “two plus two” mean for Dostoevsky? Dostoevsky had a nineteenth-century mind, conscious of two declarations, imported into Russia from Western Europe after the Napeolonic wars. These two declarations were formulated by the Russian thinker Lev Shestov as follows:

First—the declaration of human and social rights as proclaimed by the French Revolution: liberte, egalite, fraternite ou la mort.

Second—the declaration of the absence of any human rights in relation to nature, the laws of nature, the entire universe as was proclaimed by positivistic science, Darwinism, etc.

All his life Dostoevsky painfully strove to overcome this contradiction, which was expressed by the Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev in satirical terms: “Because we originate from monkeys—let’s love each other.”

In The Idiot, Dostoevsky describes the young man Ippolit who is dying of tuberculosis (which was, in fact, the cancer of the nineteenth century). Ippolit sees all nature as a horrible mechanism, a mechanism that is killing all living creatures infinitely. In his short work The Verdict, from “Writer’s Diary,” we see a person who is committing suicide from a strong awareness that he cannot influence or change the laws of nature. Therefore, in his suffering and his death, and because he is unable to destroy nature, he is destroying himself to avoid suffering and a senseless existence. Dostoevsky described him as a “logical suicide.” In Notes from Underground the author is making an attempt to prove that if the laws of nature cannot be changed by human beings, if the “Crystal Palace” of a just society is established—even then, none of this will have any meaning. In Dostoevsky’s view a human being is a prisoner not only of an unjust society, but—and this is more important—a prisoner in the most horrible prison, that of the eternal laws of nature. These are symbolized by the logical and mathematical law that “two plus two equals four.” All his life Dostoevsky fought against reason, in fact against modern positivism, and all his hopes were based on the irrationalism of life. Because of this, God, or more precisely Christ, is for him equal to freedom.

In the Legend of The Grand Inquisitor, Christ is the symbol of freedom and the Inquisitor is the representative of a historical social organization that symbolizes slavery. Of course the Grand Inquisitor is not only a symbol of the Catholic Church but also a symbol of the revolutionary movement which fought to achieve a totalitarian society. It is extremely relevant to mention that over a century ago Dostoevsky saw and described the similarity between two such unique organizations as the Catholic Church (in his “Writer’s Diary”) and the Communist Movement. Recently this similarity became clear from the works of Leszek Kolakowski and in the same way from the so-called “theology of liberation.”

But let us repeat the most important point: Dostoevsky strongly believed that when a person loses his freedom, this leads directly and logically to his death. Dostoevsky believed that freedom and life are the same thing. Death and slavery are also the same. “Two plus two is four” is the symbol of human unfreedom in relation to the laws of nature. Death. This is the reason why the hero of Notes from Underground is fighting against “two plus two is four.” He is fighting for freedom.

An identical meaning of “two plus two is four” is given in Zamyatin’s utopian society. Freedom and life are linked only with “the square root of minus one,” that is to say, an irrational number. The heroes of We are fighting against a mechanical order, that is, against “Two plus two is four.” As in Dostoevsky, their hopes for freedom are linked with the irrationality of life.

Now let us check what “two plus two is four” means for the hero of Orwell’s novel. In 1984, when Winston Smith is tortured by O’Brien, the aim of the modern inquisitor is to take control over Winston’s mind, to force him to see what the Party wants him to see, not what he actually sees with his own eyes. The interrogator forces him to see five fingers instead of four. What is the aim of this torture? Does O’Brien believe that “two plus two is five”? Can we say that he believes in the wrong premise? No, his aim is not to force Winston to believe in what he, O’Brien, believes, as has been the usual goal of all inquisitors in history. On the contrary, O’Brien is trying to destroy the last bastion of freedom—Winston’s mind. The objective is a liquidation of freedom, the total enslavement of Winston Smith. The question, what is really true, is absolutely irrelevant for O’Brien. So we can state that, when Orwell’s hero is fighting for “two plus two is four,” when he repeats this over and over again as a secret formula for life and freedom—we have to realize that for him “two plus two is four” is the symbol of freedom, freedom from manipulation by the omnipotent party.

So in spite of the totally different meanings of “two plus two is four” in the worlds of Dostoevsky, Zamyatin and Orwell, all three heroes, the man from underground, D-503 (or even more S-330, the woman he loves), and Winston Smith—are all fighting for the same thing, for freedom.

But why did Dostoevsky and Zamyatin on the one hand and Orwell on the other use the same symbol to express totally opposite meanings; in the case of Dostoevsky and Zamyatin—slavery and death. In the case of Orwell—freedom and life?

Here we come to a most interesting point. Is it possible to say that in Orwell’s novel freedom from party power also means freedom from the laws of nature, liberation from suffering and death? No, of course not. If Winston Smith were released from his totalitarian society he would not be able to avoid the prison of the eternal universal laws against which Dostoevsky’s man from underground is fighting. But if we compare the unfreedom of the man from underground (who is the “I” of every one of us, as was pointed out by the well-known Soviet critic Victor Shlowsky), we will come to the conclusion that unfreedom and slavery really were doubled in twentieth-century totalitarian society. What the nineteenth-century writer regarded as slavery, the twentieth-century writer Orwell regarded as freedom. How could Orwell do this? He had lived through the horrible experiences in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia.

Nadezhda Mandelshtam, the widow of the great Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam, who lost his life in one of Stalin’s concentration camps, wrote two brilliant books of memoirs in which she described everyday life in “normal” totalitarian society, a life full of fear and spiritual agony. She wrote that she would consider dying of cancer as the greatest happiness, if she could die in normal, not totalitarian, conditions. In the latter, fear of the omnipotent party and the “thought police” had totally destroyed the lives of human beings even before their physical deaths. Each person was twice dead.

Herein is the explanation of the difference between the pre-totalitarian and the totalitarian’s meanings of the symbol “two plus two is four.” What for a pre-totalitarian human being is slavery looks like freedom for people who have experienced totalitarian society.

In the Great Myth from the Old Testament—after the first sin of Adam and Eve—mankind lost the garden of Eden and became a slave of the laws of nature and because of this became mortal. Human beings became slaves, because they were divided from nature. Nature, the universe, became an object, an external object. The laws of nature became, according to the Great Old Myth, independent of human beings, and precisely for this reason human beings became mortal and paralyzed. In the Christian story the second Adam—Jesus Christ—recreates unity between the human soul and the laws of nature. This is symbolized in the New Testament in Christ’s walking on water.

Of course science and technology are absolutely meaningless if the possibility of such reunification really exists. Why do you need to build an engine for a motor boat, if you can walk on water? Why does a lame man need a wheelchair if he is cured of paralysis?

Totalitarian manipulation of human consciousness, so brilliantly described and analyzed in Orwell’s 1984, can be considered as a yet deeper alienation of human beings. In totalitarian conditions man is divided not only from external nature but also from his own inner nature. Not only from the objective world and the universe, but also from his personal emotions, his subconscious, from his entire internal world. Thus, alienation and slavery are doubled.

If this is so, what are the great sins that cause the second fall of Man, the fall which multiplies slavery?

According to Dostoevsky the cause is an attempt to create social justice by means of violence, and liquidation of freedom on a social and individual level, that is to say, treating the person and society as an object, as science and technology do regarding the material world. How human beings deal with other human beings as objects is described in Crime and Punishment. But when someone starts to deal with other human beings as objects, the strange result is that his own inner world also becomes an object for him. The Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, whose philosophy arose from Dostoevsky’s work, stated paradoxically that “They say that the individual is part of society, but it is even more true to state that society is part of the individual’s inner world.”

So, between the inner world of man and the external world there exists a strong but evident parallel and interdependence. Treating the external world and all the universe as an object leads directly to alienation from the inner world of human beings. This is particularly correct as regards treating other human beings as objects. Of course, if the Old Myth of Paradise Lost, together with the Christian Myth are mistaken, and if the reunification of the inner world of man with the external world is impossible, then it is better to have a wheelchair (our science and technology) rather than being totally immobile. If, on the other hand, reunification between a person’s “I” and his inner world is possible, then this reunification becomes evident when someone starts resisting totalitarian pressure and fighting for freedom, in order to stop using other human beings as objects.

Whether it is possible to treat all the universe as an object, and to exclude only humankind from such treatment, is a question not yet answered by history.

Mihajlo Mihajlov


Mihajlo Mihajlov (1934 — 2010) was a Yugoslav scholar of modern Russian literature. He spent seven years in prison under the regime of Marshall Tito for disseminating "hostile propaganda."