Archive for the ‘Understanding Dostoevsky’ Category

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Beauty Will Save the World — Gregory Wolfe

December 7, 2012
The Birth of Venus, one of the most recognized paintings by Botticelli, depicts Venus, the goddess of love, born out of a seashell, a fully mature woman. It is worthy to note that in classical times, the seashell was the symbol for the female genitalia, and as such, Botticelli was artfully referencing the goddess’s actual birth. Although a mythical figure, there is no exact literary context depicting the scene painted by Botticelli, leading to much speculation. As to its commission, the painting was solicited by a member of the Medici family, which is thought wanted to have a reproduction of an earlier work by a different artist, which had been lost after the rule of Nero.

The Birth of Venus, one of the most recognized paintings by Botticelli, depicts Venus, the goddess of love, born out of a seashell, a fully mature woman. It is worthy to note that in classical times, the seashell was the symbol for the female genitalia, and as such, Botticelli was artfully referencing the goddess’s actual birth. Although a mythical figure, there is no exact literary context depicting the scene painted by Botticelli, leading to much speculation. As to its commission, the painting was solicited by a member of the Medici family, which is thought wanted to have a reproduction of an earlier work by a different artist, which had been lost after the rule of Nero.

Gregory Wolfe (Weaver Fellow, 1981-82) is a graduate of Hillsdale College. He received an M.A. in English Literature from Oxford University. Formerly the Publications Director of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, he is now the editor of Linage: A Journal of the Arts and Religion.
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Toward the end of my undergraduate days, I came across a passage in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Lecture which I found startling and even a bit disturbing. Solzhenitsyn begins his address on the nature and role of literature with a brief, enigmatic quotation from Dostoevsky: “Beauty will save the world.” Solzhenitsyn confesses that the phrase had puzzled and intrigued him for some time. And yet, he told the distinguished audience, he had come to believe that Dostoevsky was right.

For a young college student, possessed of a boundless confidence in rational debate and political action, the implication that beauty alone could harbor such redemptive powers was unsettling, to say the least. It was the kind of idea one would expect of an Oscar Wilde or some other fin de siècle decadent; it seemed perilously close to a hedonistic endorsement of “art for art’s sake.” What of Truth and Goodness, the other two “transcendentals”? And yet here were two great Russian novelists, known for their stern, prophetic, and intensely moral sensibilities, as well as their stark depictions of nihilism and human degradation, applauding the redemptive force of beauty.

But the phrase stuck in my mind, and found corroboration in my studies of the role of the imagination in the social order. Like Solzhenitsyn, I have been won over by Dostoevsky’s wisdom.

Whereas I once believed that the decadence of the West could only be turned around through politics and intellectual dialectics, I am now convinced that authentic renewal can only emerge out of the imaginative visions of the artist and the mystic. This does not mean that I have withdrawn into some anti-intellectual Palace of Art. Rather, it involves the conviction that politics and rhetoric are not autonomous forces, but are shaped by the pre-political roots of culture: myth, metaphor, and spiritual experience as recorded by the artist and the saint.

My own vocation, as I have come to understand it, is to explore the relationship between religion, art, and culture in order to discover how the imagination may “redeem the time.”

In the process of discovering this vocation, conservatism played a somewhat paradoxical role: it both inspired and hampered my search. On the one hand, conservative thinkers helped me to understand what culture is, and they introduced me to the riches of our Western heritage. But on the other hand I found that conservatives were so deeply alienated from modern culture that they had retreated from any serious engagement with it. This retreat, it seems to me, has had damaging consequences for the longterm success of the conservative mission.

For a time, I concurred with most conservatives in their wholesale rejection of modem culture. But eventually I saw this as a very un-conservative position to take. A culture is a delicate, organic thing; however ill it may become, we simply cannot stop caring for it, shutting down the life-support machines. When a civilization truly dies, it cannot be easily resurrected.

In what follows, I’d like to retrace of few of the steps that led to my sense of vocation and current ambivalence about the conservative attitude toward culture and redemptive power of the imagination.

Literature in The Waste Land
I was singularly fortunate in having two distinguished conservative scholars, Russell Kirk and Gerhart Niemeyer, as teachers throughout my undergraduate years. They took me — a raw youth very much caught up in the ephemera of the present — and provided me with a past. By grounding me in the Western tradition, they taught me, in M.E. Bradford’s phrase, the importance of “remembering who we are.” Only then was I prepared to return to the present. Armed with that knowledge, I become aware that the crisis of modernity was not merely the work of Democrats and Communists, but the product of a deeper spiritual malaise.

The essence of modernity, according to Kirk and Niemeyer, is the denial that man can know and conform to the transcendent order, and that he must therefore construct his own order, as an extension of his mind. The motto of the modern project was first uttered by Francis Bacon, who said that “knowledge is power.” Later, Karl Marx would proclaim: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” The political expression of modernity, of course, is the ideological regime, founded on a rigid system of abstractions which are imposed on society by force.

But totalitarian regimes are not the only expression of ideology, or else the dissolution of the Soviet Union would signal the end of modernity. As Kirk, Niemeyer, and other conservatives, such as Richard Weaver, have pointed out, ideology also infects Western liberal societies. Though it can take many forms — logical positivism, radical feminism, deconstruction, and so on — ideology involves a fundamental alienation from being.

While ideology often claims the certainties of an absolutist intellectual system, its effects on the actual experiences of individuals tend to produce feelings of alienation and dislocation. The modern project, which began with the elevation of the self and the assertion of its nearly limitless power, has resulted in a world in which the individual self is a precarious fragment, without ties to true community or allegiance to legitimate authority.

Of course, the alienated self, wavering between dreams of power and bouts of angst, is the subject of most of modern art and literature. Given my love of literature, it was the work of the poets, novelists, and playwrights who explored the fallout of modernity that most attracted me. From Niemeyer I received insights into the novels of Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, ArthurKoestler and Thomas Mann. And from Kirk I was introduced to T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Wyndham Lewis — a group of extraordinary writers who were once known as the “Men of 1914.”

The figure of Eliot, however, loomed largest in my mind. Eliot was not only the subtlest chronicler of the modern malaise, but also the most reliable guide out of the morass. In poems like “Gerontion” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” Eliot portrays, in dramatic monologues, the alienated, detached, and despairing modern self. Eliot’s The Waste Land gave the age its appropriate metaphor.

Yet even in this poem of spiritual aridity, Eliot reveals his struggle for spiritual healing, listening to “What the Thunder Said.”  From the images of hell and limbo in the early poems, Eliot moves on to the experience of purgatory in Ash Wednesday. Finally, Four Quartets speak of the irradiation of grace into the world, and of redemption through suffering. This final masterpiece records the journey of the isolated self toward integration, which includes a renewed sense of the presence of the past, and fleeting glimpses of union with God.

What gave added excitement to studying Eliot with Kirk was that he had known Eliot and Eliot’s friends, Wyndham Lewis and Roy Campbell. I have always been fascinated by the literary and intellectual communities formed by writers with similar insights into their age, such as Samuel Johnson’s “Club” and C.S. Lewis’ Inklings. These meetings of the minds seem to me to be the essence of living culture, models of artists-in-community engaged with the challenges and opportunities of their time. Even though Kirk had known these writers only in their later years, I felt somehow touched by their vital presence, a fellow participant in their imaginative endeavors.

Modernity vs. Modernism
But there was a contradiction in my thinking at the time that slowly worked itself up to the surface of my mind. Like many conservatives I extolled Eliot as the supreme critic of the modern waste land, which had produced art and literature characterized by chaos and fragmentation, squalor and ugliness, egotism, sensual excess, and an obsession with primitive paganism as opposed to Western Christianity. Yet I counted among my heroes Eliot and Wyndham Lewis, whose works were prime examples of the aesthetics of High Modernism. How could these facts be reconciled?

When I compared Eliot’s works to those of Stravinsky and Picasso — two modern villains in the conservative hall of infamy — I could not help noticing striking similarities. All three employed the technique of fragmentation of time and space. One could plausibly argue that Eliot’s The Waste Land is a Cubist poem, a series of disjointed angles and multiple perspectives. Both Eliot and Picasso were aware that technology and ideology had fragmented our perception of reality; in their art, they used that fragmentation as a starting point, and sought to move through it to new visions of unity.

Another example of the conservative attack on “modern art” concerns the issue of paganism. Here too I found that the reality was more subtle than the caricature. Just as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring evoked a pagan ritual and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon used African tribal masks, so Eliot in The Waste Land brought in primitive vegetation myths, as well as the insights of Buddhism and Hinduism. I found that all three artists were interested in paganism precisely because it seemed to possess the awe, sacramentality, and reverence for mystery that had been drained out of late nineteenth-century bourgeois liberal Christianity.

As it happens, Stravinsky, like Eliot, went on to become an orthodox Christian and a self-described “classicist.” Picasso did not make such a pilgrimage, nor did his life reflect a depth of spiritual understanding or moral rectitude. But to deny the imaginative insight Picasso possessed on the basis of his intellectual and moral failings, I came to realize, was both petty and closed-minded. Similarly, when I read D.H. Lawrence I found a penetrating critique of technology and the modern dichotomy between mind and body. Yet I have found that most conservatives prefer to dismiss Lawrence on the basis of his ideas about sexual liberation. Though it may seem a truism to most people, it eventually dawned on me that one can learn from an artist or thinker who asks the right questions, even if one may disagree with many of his answers.

Thus I was forced to account for the fact that many conservatives had succumbed to philistinism: Why did they utter these blanket condemnations of “modem art”? Why would anyone demand that art — a subtle medium, characterized by the indirection of irony, ambiguity, and hidden meaning — preach the “truth” directly? Why categorize artists and writers as good or bad in terms of ideology, rather than of imaginative vision?

The root of the problem, I believe, is a misunderstanding of, or aversion to, the nature of the imagination itself. Part of this can be traced to the Puritan and pragmatic strains in the American character. Conservatives have, by and large, focused their energies on political action and the theoretical work necessary to undertake action. The indirection of art, with its lack of moralizing and categorizing, strikes the pragmatic mind as being unedifying, and thus as inessential. Insofar as the great artists and writers of the past are admired, it is for their support of some idea, rather than for the complex, many-sided vision of their art.

The artist, like anyone else, is a representative of his time. His role, to paraphrase Hamlet, is to reveal “the form and pressure of the age.” By “pressure,” Shakespeare means impression or stamp. While it is true that some art can portray the ideal, the primary burden of art is to grapple with the reality of the present. Only by engaging the present can art achieve universal meaning. Modern artists create works that reflect modern conditions; they explore modernity, as it were, from the inside. The least imaginative of them reflect mere surfaces — such artists deserve censure. But the great artists dramatize the conflicts of their time, embedding meaning deep within their works.

It was Eliot himself who formulated the best response to those who want art merely to depict idealized forms of beauty. “We mean all sorts of things, I know, by Beauty. But the essential advantage for a poet is not to have a beautiful world with which to deal. It is to be able to see beneath both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom, and the horror, and the glory.”

Eliot’s perception is the natural extension of Dostoevsky’s prophecy that “Beauty will save the world.” Just as Christians believe that God became man so that He could reach into, and atone for, the pain and isolation of sin, so the artist descends into disorder so that he might discover a redemptive path toward order.

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The Orthodox Understanding Of The Relational Reality Of Personhood II – Don Sheehan

December 5, 2012
Skulls of the monks on Mt. Athos, Greece

Skulls of the monks on Mt. Athos, Greece

Then Dostoevsky gives us the fullness of theosis when Dmitri says, on the eve of his trial, to Alyosha what Christ Himself says to His disciples on the eve of His arrest and crucifixion: “I am.” Dmitri says:

And it seems to me there’s so much strength in me now that I can overcome everything, all sufferings, only in order to say and tell myself every moment: I am! In a thousand torments – I am; writhing under torture – but I am. Locked up in a tower, but still I exist, I see the sun, and if I don’t see the sun, still I know it is. And the whole of life is there – in knowing that the sun is. . . . (592)

This speech, if you will, pure ontological song, one wherein the singer’s affirmation of being (“I am!”) communicates ontological ecstasy to every living thing in such a way that each created thing remains entirely and perfectly itself at the very same moment each thing becomes a single note in the singer’s vast song. In other words, the singer’s love for God converges fully with the love flowing from God to the singer.

Thus, the result of entering into ontological song is what can be termed the unceasing aliveness of the state of theosis. For this is an aliveness in which the human person comes to participate through love directly in God’s eternal aliveness. This participation in divine being is what Florensky terms “the eternal memory of the Church in which God and man converge”(144). “And,” Florensky adds, “this eternal memory is a victory over death“(ibid.).

In the “Talks and Homilies of the Elder Zosima,” assembled by Alyosha Karamazov after his beloved Elder’s death, there occurs this extraordinary passage:

Much on earth is concealed from us, but in place of it we have been granted a secret, mysterious sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world, and the roots of our thoughts and feelings are not here but in other worlds. That is why philosophers say it is impossible on earth to conceive the essence of things. God took seeds from other worlds and saved them on this earth, and raised up his garden; and everything that could sprout sprouted, but it lives and grows only through its sense of being in touch with other mysterious worlds; if this sense is weakened or destroyed in you, that which has grown up in you dies. Then you become indifferent to life, and even come to hate it. So I think. (320)

This passage is, as Victor Terras rightly says, “the master key to the philosophic interpretation, as well as to the structure,” of the entire Brothers Karamazov (quoted in BK, p. 788, fn. 10). For this passage elucidates two powerful and connected ideas:

(1)  that we can strongly (albeit obscurely) intuit the way wherein this empirical world of our actual lives is, in fact, rooted in the higher heavenly world of God; and

(2) that what bears fruit in this world does so only when we nurture in our lives those three seeds that God has directly sowed in us, a nurturing that occurs when we fall to the ground and die so that these seeds may begin first to bud and then to bear fruit.

These two ideas, then, help us to understand why Dostoevsky chose as the epigraph to his novel this saying of Christ’s: “Truly, truly I say to you, Unless the seed of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abides alone; but if it die, it brings forth much fruit” (John 12:24). What Florensky calls the victory over death is what Christ here describes as the way the seed bears fruit. This way of fruitfulness is the way of Memory Eternal.

Thus, we can see how both the artistic structure and the philosophic significance of the novel are held in these two ideas. We can see the three brothers, throughout the novel, drawing near to enacting these two ideas – or else missing them altogether or (with Ivan) deliberately turning away from them. And what connects these two ideas is, again, Memory Eternal, here understood as the way the seed genetically ‘remembers’ the fruit it springs from and will, if conditions are right, soon become. True remembering is therefore directly connected to – indeed, hardwired into – the process wherein we die so as to enter into fruitfulness. And this process is the one of remembering God and of being remembered by Him.

We are now able to see something of the lovely shapeliness of the final scene in the novel. In this scene, Alyosha talks to the dozen boys with whom he has just attended the funeral of Ilyusha, the boy they all had come to love in his final days of life. Toward the end of his speech to the boys, Alyosha says this:

Let us first of all and before all be kind, then honest, and then – let us never forget one another. I say it again. I give you my word, gentlemen, that for my part I will never forget any one of you; each face that is looking at me now, I will remember, be it even after thirty years.(775)

This shape is, of course, the Orthodox shape of Memory Eternal: the present seed of actual love is already becoming the unceasing fruitfulness of memory. And this fruitfulness of memory is – in Florensky’s great phrase – “a victory over death,” not at all because we erase the dead in our mind’s oblivion (what secular culture calls ‘getting over it’) but precisely because we keep them so strongly, indeed so brightly present in our love. And Dostoevsky is luminously clear in his Orthodox understanding of Alyosha’s speech. By holding another in our love, we are becoming like God in that we are remembering the seed of God in ourselves at the very instant we are seeing the fully ripened fruitfulness of the other in God. In this way, the other begins to become our very self. Alyosha concludes this way:

You are all dear to me, gentlemen, from now on I shall keep you all in my heart, and I ask you to keep me in your hearts, too! Well, and who has united us in this good, kind feeling, which we will remember and intend to remember always, if not Ilyushechka, that good boy, that kind boy, that boy dear to us unto ages and ages! Let us never forget him, and may his memory be eternal and good in our hearts now and unto ages of ages! (Ibid.)

The point is magnificently clear. The fruitfulness of Memory Eternal arises always and solely from an actual person — here, Ilyusha — who unites in love all the Orthodox believers who sing his passing and have taken him into their hearts. Thus, what begins in isolative grief concludes in relational joy. Such is the shape of Memory Eternal in Orthodoxy and in Dostoevsky.

And thus emerges still another significance: through the action of Memory Eternal, the person who has died continues to act back into the lives of those who continue to love him or her. In the middle of the novel, in the chapter called “Cana of Galilee,” Alyosha kneels by the coffin of his spiritual father, the Elder Zosima, while the episode in St. John’s Gospel telling of Jesus’ changing water into wine is being read aloud. As the episode is read, Alyosha prays silently, and then he dozes slightly – and then he instantly enters into a vision wherein he sees Father Zosima sitting at the wedding table in Cana where Jesus Himself is sitting.

As the Elder catches sight of Alyosha and rises and walks toward him, smiling in beautiful welcome, Alyosha registers perfectly the Orthodox comprehension of what is now occurring: “Why, he is in the coffin. . . . But here, too” (361). That is, Alyosha fully sees how his spiritual father lies dead in the coffin and yet – simultaneously – is standing alive before him. In the actions of Memory Eternal, death on earth is defeated by unceasing aliveness in God.

The scene continues with Alyosha listening to his beloved teacher speaking words of wisdom to him. And then Alyosha, the vision ended, goes out under the immense night sky where, the narrator tells us, “the silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the majesty of the earth touched the majesty of the stars”(362). Then Alyosha suddenly falls to earth, weeping in joy and kissing the earth; and the Elder’s voice rings again in Alyosha’s soul: “Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears . . .”(ibid.).

The narrator then says: “It was as if threads from all those innumerable worlds of God came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, ‘touching other worlds’”(ibid.). This last phrase is, of course, the Elder Zosima’s phrase, here remembered by Alyosha, yes, but above all directly given by the Elder to Alyosha in this moment, directly shaping and indeed directly creating this moment. “Never, never in all his life,” the narrator says, “would Alyosha forget that moment”(363). This moment is, for Alyosha, a moment of theosis, one in which he participates fully in divine aliveness, a moment, that is, of Memory Eternal.

And this moment, Dostoevsky makes abundantly clear in the chapter, is a moment that is entirely given by the dead to the living in an action of love. The chapter ends this way: “‘Someone visited my soul in that hour,’ Alyosha would say afterward, with firm belief in his word”(ibid.). In Memory Eternal, the beloved dead act in love directly in the lives of the living.

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The Orthodox Understanding Of The Relational Reality Of Personhood I – Don Sheehan

December 4, 2012
Donald Sheehan, a former Dartmouth professor and the first executive director of the Frost Place in Franconia, N.H., passed away on May 26, 2010 at his home in Charleston, S.C. at the age of 70, according to a statement from his family. Sheehan spent 15 years of his 35-year teaching career at Dartmouth, where he taught courses in the English and Latin departments as well as in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program. He retired from the College in 2004. It was said that “He was a strange combination of a very rigorous stylist as a poet and an ecstatic visionary as a spiritual man. He was a man who lived a life of quasi-poverty in relation to a spiritual journey that was constantly giving him access to visionary excess.”

Donald Sheehan, a former Dartmouth professor and the first executive director of the Frost Place in Franconia, N.H., passed away on May 26, 2010 at his home in Charleston, S.C. at the age of 70, according to a statement from his family. Sheehan spent 15 years of his 35-year teaching career at Dartmouth, where he taught courses in the English and Latin departments as well as in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program. He retired from the College in 2004. It was said that “He was a strange combination of a very rigorous stylist as a poet and an ecstatic visionary as a spiritual man. He was a man who lived a life of quasi-poverty in relation to a spiritual journey that was constantly giving him access to visionary excess.”

Central to Eastern Orthodox Christendom is the singing, at the end of every Orthodox funeral, of the song known as “Memory Eternal” (in Church Slavonic: Vechnaya Pamyat). This song also concludes Dostoevsky’s great, final novel, The Brothers Karamazov, when, following the funeral of the boy whom Alyosha Karamazov (and the circle of schoolboys around Alyosha) had deeply loved, Alyosha speaks to the boys about the funeral and about the meaning of the resurrection, with this brief song as their steady focus.

My thesis is simply this: to know something of this song’s meaning is to comprehend both the Eastern Orthodox faith and Dostoevsky’s greatest novel.

We can best approach the meaning of this song through following the connection between the Orthodox funeral services and the crucifixion of Christ. Fr. Pavel Florensky, recently canonized by the Church in Russia [sic: according to other comments on this article, the canonization did not occur], articulated the connnection by first asking, “What did the wise thief ask for on the cross?” (144) and then answering by quoting from St. Luke’s Gospel: “Lord, remember me when Thou comest in Thy kingdom” (23:42). Florensky then continues:

And in answer, in satisfaction of his wish, his wish to be remembered, the Lord witnesses: “Verily, I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise.” In other words, “to be remembered” by the Lord is the same thing as “to be in Paradise.” “To be in Paradise” is to be in eternal memory and, consequently, to have eternal existence and therefore an eternal memory of God. Without remembrance of God we die, but our remembrance of God is possible only through God’s remembrance of us. (144)

Florensky here articulates the essential reality of Orthodox Christianity: the relational reality of all personhood. We are persons, says the Orthodox Church, because we fulfill the three conditions of all existence. These three conditions were articulated in the third century A.D. by the Orthodox Fathers known as the Cappadocians. They are summed up in this way by J. D. Zizioulas in his wonderful essay called “The Contribution of Cappadocia to Christian Thought”:

  1. We are persons because we know ourselves as foundationally free, under not even the tiniest bondage to, or limitation of, either earthly history or the material world – a freedom even prior to and greater than the Church herself because (as Zizioulas says) such freedom “constitutes the ‘way of being’ of God Himself”(34).
  2. We are persons because we can give ourselves freely and entirely to another in self – emptying love; that is, we can voluntarily surrender all our selfhood entirely into the hands of another in the action of loving that other. Zizioulas puts it beautifully: “Love is a relationship, it is the free coming out of one’s self, the breaking of one’s will, a free submission to the will of another”(34).
  3. We are persons when we understand ourselves as wholly unique, as entirely unrepeatable and forever irreplaceable. As members of a species we are merely replaceable and countable individuals in a set: biological, historical, or sociopolitical. As members of a set (or sets), we can be compelled to serve extrinsic, even hostile, purposes; we can, that is, be treated as things. But as persons, we are unique and unrepeatable; hence, we cannot (as Zizioulas says) “be composed or decomposed, combined or used for any objective whatsoever”(35).

These three conditions of personhood – foundational freedom, self-emptying love, and absolute uniqueness – shed great light on what the Orthodox Church – and Dostoevsky – mean by the phrase “Memory Eternal.” It means this: in the same way that the wise thief achieves personhood by entering into loving Christ freely (and this freedom is emphasized in the crucifixion scene as everyone else mocking Christ while the thief freely and deliberately chooses to love), just so we become persons in freely surrendering our own will, in an action of love, into the hands of another.

Dostoevsky gives beautiful expression to this Orthodox understanding of personhood early in The Brothers Karamazov when he describes the relation between Alyosha Karamazov and his spiritual father, the Elder Zosima. “What, then,” asks the narrator, “is an elder?” He answers:

An elder is one who takes your soul, your will into his soul and into his will. Having chosen an elder, you renounce your will and give it under total obedience and with total self-renunciation. A man who dooms himself to this trial, this terrible school of life, does so voluntarily, in the hope that after the long trial he will achieve self-conquest, self-mastery to such a degree that he will, finally, through a whole life’s obedience, attain to perfect freedom – that is, freedom from himself – and avoid the lot of those who live their whole lives without finding themselves in themselves. (27-28)

This perfectly expresses the Orthodox understanding of the relational reality of personhood. And the whole of The Brothers Karamazov can usefully be read as a vast commentary on this single passage. At age 19, Alyosha Karamazov struggles to achieve the “perfect freedom” found only in loving obedience to his spiritual father, the Elder Zosima. At age 28, Dmitri at first rejects the Orthodox way of personhood by plunging into a life of entirely autonomous desires and their endlessly self-willed fulfillment.

But then, in the course of the novel, he discovers a profounder and more directly Orthodox experience when he discovers the relational reality of personhood through his love of Grushenka. The middle brother, Ivan, age 24, rejects the ways of both his brothers in the name of a still more terrifying autonomy: not the passional autonomy his older brother Dmitri attempts but a spiritual autonomy, one wherein he asserts his own will as more perfective than God’s will in creating the world.

Ivan’s spiritual and psychic agony in the novel’s final 100 pages stands as Dostoevsky’s revelation of what inevitably happens to those who attempt to deny or unmake the Orthodox reality of relational personhood. It is the attempt to unmake Memory Eternal through self-willed oblivion.

In this light, then, I want to consider that astonishing moment in the novel when Dmitri, having been falsely arrested and imprisoned for two months for the murder of his father (and about to be wrongly convicted of it), says this to his brother Alyosha who visits him in prison:

“Rakitin wouldn’t understand this,” he began, all in a sort of rapture, as it were, “but you, you will understand everything. That’s why I’ve been thirsting for you. . . .

Brother, in these past two months I’ve sensed a new man in me, a new man has arisen in me! He was shut up inside me, but if it weren’t for this thunderbolt, he never would have appeared. Frightening! What do I care if I spend twenty years pounding out iron ore in the mines, I’m not afraid of that at all, but I’m afraid of something else now: that this risen man not depart from me! Even there, in the mines, underground, you can find a human heart in the convict and murderer standing next to you, and you can be close to him, because there, too, it’s possible to live, and love, and suffer!

You can revive and resurrect the frozen heart in this convict, you can look after him for years, and finally bring up from the cave into the light a soul that is lofty now, a suffering consciousness. You can revive an angel, resurrect a hero! And there are many of them, there are hundreds, and we’re all guilty for them! Why did I have a dream about a ‘wee one’ at such a moment? ‘Why is the wee one poor?’ It was a prophecy to me at that moment! It’s for the ‘wee one’ that I will go.

Because everyone is guilty for everyone else. For all the ‘wee ones,’ because there are little children and big children. All people are ‘wee ones.’ And I’ll go for all of them, because there must be someone who will go for all of them. I didn’t kill father, but I must go. I accept! All of this came to me here . . .

Within these peeling walls. And there are many, there are hundreds of them, underground, with hammers in their hands. Oh, yes, we’ll be in chains, and there will be no freedom, but then, in our great grief, we will arise once more into joy, without which it’s not possible for man to live, or for God to be, for God gives joy, it’s his prerogative, a great one. . . .” (591-92)

I want to pull three strands from this complex and revelatory speech. The first strand occurs when Dmitri says: “A new man has arisen in me! He was shut up inside me, but if it weren’t for this thunderbolt, he would never have appeared.” This newly risen (or resurrected) self is, above all, a remembered self; that is, it is a self that was always “shut up inside” him but that could only be made manifest – i.e., be remembered – by the “thunderbolt” of relationality let loose by his father’s death.

Hence, the second strand: “I didn’t kill father, but I must go. I accept!” The walls of autonomy are here fully breached as Dmitri voluntarily accepts the Orthodox reality wherein “everyone is guilty for everyone else” because each person possesses personhood only relationally. The result in Dmitri is the rush of understanding that, as the false freedom of self-willed autonomy vanishes, genuine joy arrives.

Here is the third strand: “Oh, yes, we’ll be in chains, and there will be no freedom, but then, in our great grief, we will arise once more into joy, without which it’s not possible for man to live, or for God to be. . . .” This third strand explicitly links the arrival of real joy to the ending of false freedom, a joy that is essential, Dmitri says, to both human life and divine being.

Together, these three strands - the resurrected self; the relational self; and the joyful self – are the three defining aspects of personhood in The Brothers Karamazov. And all three aspects can be best understood – in Dostoevsky and in Orthodox Christendom – as aspects of the meaning of Memory Eternal.

Florensky opens yet another dimension of this meaning when he says: “‘My eternal memory’ means both God’s ‘eternal memory’ of me and my ‘eternal memory’ of God. In other words, it is the eternal memory of the Church, in which God and man converge”(144). This convergence of God and man, a convergence wherein the human person is understood to become like God, is practically unknown in Western Christianity (except in those very rare experiences called ‘mystical’) but is everywhere operative in Eastern Christendom, where the term given it is the Greek word theosis.

In Orthodoxy, theosis is considered to be the normative goal of every person on earth – and not the rare experience of a spiritual elite called ‘mystics.’ What propels the person toward achieving theosis is, very simply, obeying what Christ, in the gospels, calls the first and great commandment: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” (Matthew 22:37).

In this scene we are examining, Dmitri perfectly illustrates this love when he ends his speech to Alyosha by saying: “And then from the depth of the earth, we, the men underground, will start singing a tragic hymn to God, in whom there is joy! Hail to God and his joy! I love him!”(592). Here, then, is the engine that moves the process of theosis: the power of loving God.

Furthermore, this is also the engine that moves what Christ (in the same passage in St. Matthew) calls the second of the two great commandments: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew: 22:39). In loving the neighbor – that is, loving the one who is always right now before you, ‘nigh’ or near you – in the same way in which you love God, you are directly experiencing the way wherein the Other is always oneself. These two great commandments are, to the Orthodox heart, Christ’s direct injunctions to each of us to enter into the way of theosis.

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The Parable Of The Grand Inquisitor – Ralph C. Wood

November 22, 2012

Do you know, Alyosha — don’t laugh I made a poem about a year ago. If you can waste another ten minutes on me, I’ll tell it to you.”
“You wrote a poem?”
“Oh, no, I didn’t write it,” laughed Ivan, and I’ve never written two lines of poetry in my life. But I made up this poem in prose and I remembered it. I was carried away when I made it up. You will be my first reader — that is listener. Why should an author forego even one listener?” smiled Ivan. “Shall I tell it to you?”
“I am all attention.” said Alyosha.
“My poem is called The Grand Inquisitor; it’s a ridiculous thing, but I want to tell it to you.

The plot of Ivan Karamazov’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor is familiar enough, even if its meaning remains quite unfamiliar. The risen Christ returns to earth in 15th century Seville, where he immediately begins to perform miracles. The people hail him as their liberator from the awful autos da fe which the Spanish Inquisition is carrying out. Jesus is quickly arrested by the church authorities and imprisoned in a dimly lit dungeon. There the ninety-year old Cardinal Grand Inquisitor relentlessly grills the silent Christ.

This ancient church-ogre accuses Jesus of having required men to live by the strength of their strong wills, cruelly ignoring the fact that they are impotent creatures who can live only for the sake of a swinish happiness. The Inquisitor thus upbraids Christ for having rejected the Tempter’s wilderness offerings of bread and power and fame. These, he says, are the satisfying substitutes which human beings crave. They do not want the awful autonomy that Christ commanded:

Instead of taking over men’s freedom, you increased it still more for them! Did you forget that peace and even death are dearer to man than free choice in the knowledge of good and evil? There is nothing more seductive for man than the freedom of his conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting either. And so, instead of a firm foundation for appeasing human conscience once and for all, you chose everything that was unusual, enigmatic, and indefinite, you chose everything that was beyond men’s strength, and thereby acted as if you did not love them at all….

You desired the free love of man, that he should follow you freely, seduced and captivated by you. Instead of the firm and ancient law, man had henceforth to decide for himself, with a free heart, what is good and what is evil, having only your image before him as a guide…. (254-55)

It is astonishing that so many readers have taken the Grand Inquisitor’s conception of freedom as if it were Dostoevsky’s own — and also as if it were true. Camus regarded it as an unprecedented statement of the human cry of freedom against all religious restraints. Camus can make such a claim only because, together with Ivan, he embraces the thoroughly secular conception of freedom that has largely prevailed in the modern West, from Immanuel Kant to John Dewey.

Ivan’s Inquisitor voices this secular conception of freedom ever so clearly. Liberty, he says, entails a brave and lonely autonomy, as each individual determines for himself the difference between good and evil. Jesus serves not as savior who redeems corporate humanity from sin, therefore, but as moral example to guide solitary and heroic individuals. Hence the enormous irony that, while Ivan is deeply Russian in his religious concern for the problem of human suffering, he is a western liberal in his political answer to it.

Michael Sandel has shown that this liberal notion of selfhood understands freedom as consisting entirely of unfettered choices. They are prompted by nothing other than the individual subject and his private conscience acting either on persuasive evidence or the arbitrary assertion of will. Just as this liberal self is not determined by any larger aims or attachments that it has not chosen for itself, neither does it have obligations to any larger communities, except those it autonomously chooses to join. The one moral norm, it follows, is the injunction to respect the dignity of others by not denying them the freedom to exercise their own moral autonomy. Sandel sums up such procedural liberalism by noting that it opposes

… any view that regards us as obligated to fulfill ends that we have not chosen — ends given by nature or God, for example, or by our identities as members of families, peoples, cultures, or traditions. Encumbered identities such as these are at odds with the liberal conception of [persons] as free and independent selves, unbound by prior moral ties, capable of choosing our ends for ourselves. This is the conception that finds expression in the ideal of the state as a neutral framework…. a framework of rights that refuses to choose among competing values and ends. For the liberal self, what matters above all, what is most essential to our personhood, is not the ends we choose but or capacity to choose them.

Dostoevsky repeatedly attacked this modern liberal notion of freedom, dismissing it with the scornful name of “socialism.” It is no wonder, therefore, that Alyosha should be astounded by the Inquisitor’s idea of personal liberty as absolute autonomy: “And who will believe you about freedom?” Alyosha asks Ivan. “Is that the way to understand it? It’s a far cry from the Orthodox idea…” (260).

It should be added that it is also a far cry from the Jewish and Catholic and classical Protestant ideas of freedom. In all three traditions, as also in Eastern Orthodoxy, we are not made free by becoming autonomous selves who have been immunized from all obligations that we have not independently chosen, but rather by becoming communal selves who freely embrace our moral and religious obligations. These responsibilities come to us less by our own choosing than through a thickly webbed network of shared friendships and familial ties, through political practices and religious promises. In a very real sense, such “encumbrances” choose us before we choose them. There is no mythical free and autonomous self that exists apart from these ties, but only gladly or miserably bound persons — namely, persons who find their duties and encumbrances to be either gracious or onerous.

The Orthodox idea of freedom is communal because it is first of all religious. Athanasius of Alexandria articulated it most clearly in the 4th century: “God became man so that man may become God.” The central Orthodox doctrine is called theosis or theopoesis — the divinizing or deifying of humanity.

The Eastern Church does not call for believers to imitate Jesus through the exercise of moral choice, as in the familiar western pattern. It summons them rather to participate in the life of Christ through the transformative power of the liturgy and sacraments of the church. To become persons in the true sense is to become what the New Testament calls “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

The modern secular notion of freedom articulated by the Grand Inquisitor is, for the Orthodox, the very definition of slavery. As Vladimir Lossky observes, the Eastern Church regards choice as the mark not of freedom but of fallenness, as a debasement of true liberty, as a loss of the divine likeness: “Our nature being overclouded with sin no longer knows its true good…; and so the human person is always faced with the necessity of choice; it goes forward gropingly.” To deliberate autonomously in the face of alternatives, it follows, is not liberty but servitude. True freedom, says Lossky, is revealed in the Christ who freely renounces his own will in order to accomplish the will of his Father.

Alyosha is free in precisely this way. Jesus has not abandoned him to his lonely conscience in order to let him solitarily determine good and evil for himself. The self-emptying Christ has freed Alyosha to live and act in joyful obedience to God and thus in unbreakable solidarity with his father and brothers, with his friends and enemies, and (not least of all) with the miserable children of his neighborhood.

Given the Grand Inquisitor’s anti-Orthodox conception of freedom as unencumbered choice, it is not surprising that he should have contempt for the average run of men. He despises their dependence, their animal desire for security and comfort. The Inquisitor thus informs Jesus that the Catholic Church has been forced to correct his impossible summons to autonomy. Rome understands, says the Inquisitor, what Christ did not — that men must first be fed before they can be made virtuous. “Better that you enslave us,” the Inquisitor’s masses cry out, “but feed us” (253).

Thus has the cynical church of the Grand Inquisitor replaced Christ’s purported call for unfettered autonomy with its own sheepish substitutes: “miracle, mystery, and authority.” Yet even these pitiful placebos will not finally suffice, the Inquisitor insists, for the modern world will confront men with such scientific wonders and terrors that the hordes will not be content even with comfort and security. They will finally demand the antheap of personal oblivion, in order that they might be relieved of their freedom, preferring to live in childish self-indulgence:

Freedom, free reason, and science will lead them into such a maze, and confront them with such … insoluble mysteries, that some of them, unruly and ferocious, will exterminate themselves; others, unruly but feeble, will exterminate each other; and the remaining third, feeble and wretched, will crawl to our feet and cry out to us: “Yes, you were right, you alone possess his mystery, and we are coming back to you — save us from ourselves”…. Yes, we will make them work, but in the hours free from labor we will arrange their lives like a children’s game, with children’s songs, choruses, and innocent dancing. (258-59)

The Grand Inquisitor’s final prophecy is perhaps the most frightening augury in the entirety of Dostoevsky’s work. With amazing prescience, he foresaw the rise of the totalitarian state that has dominated much of this century’s political life, killing more people by violent means than in all of the previous centuries combined. This is the century of blood and ours is the culture of death. That Dostoevsky mistakenly linked the late-modem calamity with the Catholic Church, and that he did not foresee its first triumph in his own beloved Russia, hardly invalidates his vision. On the contrary, Dostoevsky was right to prophesy that, if we begin (as Ivan does) with absolute anti-communal freedom, we will end (again as Ivan does) with absolutely anti-communal slavery, whether in its individualist or its totalitarian form.

Given Ivan’s horrifying vision of this grim and Christless future, it is not surprising that Alyosha regards Ivan’s “poem” as praising Jesus rather than reviling him. Indeed, he kisses Ivan in honor of his brother’s terrible truthfulness. Yet Alyosha also makes a clear and devastating judgment about the moral and religious consequence of Ivan’s atheism. If God is dead, Alyosha declares, “everything is permitted” (263).

We must not misread Alyosha here. He does not deny that men can be moral without believing in God. He insists, instead, that such morality has no ultimate basis, that unfettered freedom is self-destructive, that it hovers over an abyss, and thus that godless people and cultures await their inevitable plunge into the void. Unbelief and barbarism are indissolubly joined. 1 John 3:4 defines sin precisely as lawlessness: he hamartia estin he anomia. Ellis Sandoz observes that John of Damascus, the 8th century Greek theologian, linked this definition of sin to the larger claim that barbarism is the primal heresy: “every man as independent and a law unto himself after the dictates of his own will.”

Dostoevsky regards individualist autarky not only as barbaric but also as satanic. Perhaps the chief of Ivan’s demonic deceptions is that the Inquisitor is right to regard “miracle, mystery, and authority” as pathetic requirements for weak-willed men. Yet just as Ivan misreads freedom to mean unencumbered choice, so does the Inquisitor pervert the meaning of miracle. Nowhere in the novel does God jump in and out of his creation like a divine factotum who accedes to human petition if it is sufficiently pious.

It is exactly such a sentimental and superstitious understanding of miracles — namely, as God’s arbitrary violation of the natural order for the sake of clamant human need — which Alyosha is required to surrender. Hoping that Zosima’s corpse would be wondrously preserved, giving off the sweet odor of sanctity, Alyosha is horrified when it putrefies prematurely. The saint’s rapidly rotting body demonstrates to Alyosha that God is not a sacred Santa Claus who brings him whatever he wants.

In the “Cana in Galilee” chapter, Alyosha learns that miracles do not precede and thus produce faith; rather do they follow faith as the by-product of the transformed life. That Alyosha can kiss the earth and bless the creation despite its rampant suffering, that he can live as a monk in an sensual world, that he can increase men’s joy amidst suffering as Christ increased it by turning water into wedding wine — this, he learns, is the true miracle: the divine possibility that overcomes human impossibility.

Like a brittle Enlightenment philosophe, perhaps a Diderot or a Comte, the Inquisitor also slanders mystery. He reduces it to a cynical mystification, to a new secular priestcraft, a political anesthetizing of the masses with the morphine of entertainment. “For only we, we … keep the mystery,” he boasts. For him, mystery can be hoarded as a weapon in his arsenal of deceit, as a spiritual poison-gas meant to blind human vision and stifle true thought.

For Alyosha and all other Orthodox believers, by contrast, the mysterion enlivens such vision and thought. It is a word that can also be translated sacrament. The mystery of God not therefore a riddle or a conundrum, not a vague and gaseous something; it is the one reality which prompts an endless delectation of mind no less than heart and soul. “In the proper religious sense of the term,” writes the contemporary Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware, “mystery’ signifies not only hiddenness but disclosure…. A mystery is … something revealed for our understanding, but which we never understand exhaustively because it leads into the depth or the darkness of God.”

Perversely if also consistently, Ivan has the Inquisitor voice a skewed understanding of authority. He regards it as the tyrannical power of the state or the church to suppresses individual autonomy. For him, authority can have only the negative meaning of raw coercive force. For Alyosha, again in notable contrast to the Inquisitor, rightful authority (both human and divine) invites free submission of the will for the sake of the good — submission to his elder Zosima, to the incarnate Christ, to the merciful God.

Such free subjection of the will begins in penitence, as Zosima confesses that all men are sinners and that he is the worst. It ends in the acceptance, even the embrace, of suffering. Yet Dostoevsky does not sentimentalize suffering into pain that one masochistically seeks to embrace. He shows, on the contrary, that even this noblest of virtues — suffering love — can be put to demonic purposes. When Dmitri gives a long bow to Katerina Ivanovna after she had come to borrow 3000 rubles, his seeming gesture of humility is in fact a humiliating reminder that he could have demanded her sexual favors in return. She is appropriately crushed and envenomed by it.

Perhaps the novel’s chief irony is that Ivan himself has made a similar misuse of suffering. He turns a rightful religious concern with the injured innocent into a wrongful justification of his own hatred and scorn. Claiming to care about newspaper cases of suffering, Ivan cannot care for the creature who is his own closest kin, his father. In a nightmare interview with the Devil, Ivan is made to recognize his own moral culpability for his father’s death. He has poisoned Smerdyakov’s mind with the demonic gospel that God is dead and all things are lawful. Acting out what Ivan had philosophically advocated, Smerdyakov has killed old Fyodor in a dreadful demonstration that all things are indeed permitted.

Since Satan is the primal Deceiver, it is no wonder that Ivan becomes his earthly embodiment. Far from being harmless intellectual exercises, Dostoevsky maintains that demonic perversions of mind issue in demonic perversions of will. Deicide results in parricide. The mental killing of God breaks the deepest of human bonds. It is thus fitting that Ivan the perverted intellectual should end in madness.

Yet Ivan’s final insanity is not to be explained as psychosis alone. In the Orthodox tradition, to deny the presence and reality of God is a psychopathic condition. Not sharing the western doctrine of total depravity, the Orthodox hold that every person retains the knowledge of God, even after the Fall. “Just because it is light,” writes Vladimir Lossky, “grace, the source of revelation, cannot remain within us unperceived. We are incapable of not being aware of God, if our nature is in proper spiritual health.

Insensibility [to God] in the inner life is an abnormal condition.” Lossky adds, far more darkly, that total unawareness of God “would be nothing other than hell, the final destruction of the person.” It follows that Zosima is not a golden-hearted humanist when he defines Hell as “the suffering of being unable to love.” He is describing Ivan’s spiritual condition exactly. Ivan suffers the hellish laceration of the soul that occurs when freedom is exercised negatively — not to engender life but to bring death. “Death for a person,” declares the Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas, “means ceasing to love and to be loved, ceasing to be unique and unrepeatable, whereas life for the person means the survival of the uniqueness of its hypostasis [personification], which is affirmed and maintained by love.”

To love, in Dostoevsky’s view, is to suffer rightly. It is to accept responsibility, not only for one’s own sin, but also for the sins of others. All theodicies fail if they do not recognize that only suffering can answer suffering. One who is willing to suffer must be willing, moreover, to suffer fools.

Father Zosima exhibits such foolish suffering when, early in the novel, he makes a low bow before the cruel buffoon who is old Fyodor Karamazov. It is an act utterly unlike the abstentions practiced by Nietzsche’s Übermensch. The übermensch is akin to a lion that has claws but refrains from using them. He doesn’t show mercy, therefore, so much as he seeks to humiliate the weaklings of the world with his contemptuous self-restraint.

So does Father Zosima have the authority to condemn the despicable old lecher. Yet unlike Nietzsche’s übermensch, Zosima restrains his power for the sake of redemption rather than humiliation. He embraces the despicable Fyodor as one who also bears the divine image and likeness, and thus as one who remains worth redeeming. For Dostoevsky, such a gospel of suffering love is the only lasting answer to the perennial problem of evil. It is a gospel peculiar neither to east nor west because it centered in the common ground of the Incarnation and Cross and Resurrection.

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No Straw Atheist, Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov– Derek Jeter

November 21, 2012

Though Dostoyevsky was influenced by religion and philosophy in his life and the writing of The Brothers Karamazov, a personal tragedy altered the work. In May 1878, Dostoyevsky’s three-year-old son Alyosha died of epilepsy, a condition inherited from his father. The novelist’s grief is apparent throughout the book; Dostoyevsky named the hero Alyosha, as well as imbuing him with qualities which he sought and most admired. His loss is also reflected in the story of Captain Snegiryov and his young son Ilyusha.
The death of his son brought Dostoevsky to the Optina Monastery later that year. There, he found inspiration for several aspects of The Brothers Karamazov, though at the time he intended to write a novel about childhood instead. Parts of the biographical section of Zosima’s life are based on “The Life of the Elder Leonid”, a text he found at Optina and copied “almost word for word”.

A theme I often return to is human suffering, theodicy and salvation, marking it from one side and then another. The last time I took it up was to present the two current theodicies of Catholic thought. Theodicies are attempts by theologians to advocate that there are no pointless evils — that there are greater goods that justify the evil in the world. They are attempts, in a way, to vindicate God by providing an explanation for evil.

From Leibniz through Hume, from Alvin Plantinga to J. L. Mackie, the problem of evil has often been cast in bare intellectual terms not just by theologians but by philosophers and other intellectuals as well: how to think through the contradiction that stands between the goodness, omniscience and omnipotence of God, on the one hand, and the massive misery and undeserved suffering that characterize God’s world, on the other: Si Deus est unde malum? Si Deus non est unde bonum? [That is if God does exist where evil comes from? If God does not exist where good comes from?]

In J.B., his dramatic contemporizing of the Job story, Archibald MacLeish puts the intellectual problem of evil tersely but accurately: “If God is good He is not God. If God is God He is not good.” If, in other words, God is imbued with the charity which He himself enjoins his creatures to live by, then He must lack the divine power to create and sustain a world in which such charity obtains: He is not God. If, by contrast, God possesses the sovereignty and strength to perform what He wills, then this misery-riddled world must be proof that he is deficient in love itself. He is not good.
Ralph C. Wood, Ivan Karamazov’s Mistake

Two of the best known theodicies are Augustine’s free will theodicy and John Hick’s soul-making theodicy. I presume there are many more but these are the two that I was familiar with:

One important theodicy was formulated by St. Augustine (354-430), and it has probably been the most prominent response to evil in the history of Christian thought. Fundamental to the position is Augustine’s view that the universe God created is good; everything in the universe is good and has a good purpose, some things to a greater extent, some to a lesser one. Evil, then, is not something God created. Evil is a privatio boni — a privation of the good. Augustine uses the example of being blind. Blindness is not a thing in itself, let alone a good thing. It is a privation of seeing. Evil, he argues, is like blindness; it is a privation of good.

Then, if God created a very good world, what brought about the privations? How did evil arise? It came about, he maintains, through free will. The story is familiar. Some of God’s good creation — namely persons, including angels and humans — were given the good gift of freedom of the will, a gift that reflected God’s image of being morally culpable and creative. However, some of God’s free creatures turned their will from God, the supreme Good, to lesser goods.

This act of turning from God was, in essence, the Fall. It happened first with the angels and then, after being tempted by Satan (one of the fallen angels), with humans. This is how moral evil entered the universe and this moral fall, or sin, also brought with it tragic cosmic consequences, for it ushered in natural evil as well. The Fall was no insignificant event; it was a disaster of cataclysmic proportions in the universe that accounts for all the moral and natural evils throughout history.

Augustine’s theodicy does not end without resolution, however, for in the eschaton God will rectify evil when he judges the world in righteousness, ushering into his eternal kingdom those persons who have been saved through Christ and sending to eternal perdition those persons who are wicked and disobedient and have rejected his good offer of salvation.
Chad Meister, Theodicy

The other theodicy Meister introduces is based on the work of Irenaeus (c230-c.202 CE) and developed by theologian John Hick. It is in stark contrast to the Augustinian approach. Hick maintains that his soul-making theodicy has the benefit of God’s having a close, developing relationship with his creation over time, whereas the Augustinian type presupposes an impersonal or sub-personal relationship between God and creation. Instead of God creating a paradise with perfect human beings who then freely fell into sin, on this account God created the world as a good place (but no paradise) for developing a race of beings from an early state of animal selfishness and self-centeredness to an advanced state of moral and spiritual maturity:

God’s purpose was not to construct a paradise whose inhabitants would experience a maximum of pleasure and a minimum of pain. The world is seen, instead, as a place of “soul making” or person making in which free beings, grappling with the tasks and challenges of their existence in a common environment, may become “children of God” and “heirs of eternal life.” Our world, with all its rough edges, is the sphere in which this second and harder stage of the creative process is taking place.
John Hick, Philosophy of Religion, 4th ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall

Evil, then, is not the result of perfect persons choosing to sin but, rather, is an inevitable part of an environment necessary for developing mature character. Thus, by placing evolving beings in this challenging environment, through their free will to choose what is right and good, they can gradually grow into the mature persons that God desires them to be, exhibiting the virtues of patience, courage, and generosity, for example. Furthermore, as the theodicy goes, God will continue to work with human persons, even in the afterlife if necessary, by allowing them non-coercive opportunities to love and choose the good so that eventually everyone will be brought into a right and full relationship with God; everyone will finally experience redemption.

Makes sense I guess but I am left to wonder how Hick got the memo on all of that. Augustine gives us scriptural references. I’m not sure about Hick. I haven’t read Philosophy of Religion yet so I can only offer what his case is, not how he justifies it.

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The real topic of this post is not so much theodicy per se but the character of Ivan Karamazov, a living theodicy of a sorts, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s creation that gives voice to the philosophical and theological problem of evil. Dostoevsky accomplished this better, more clearly and cogently, than any other actor in the whole world of literature.

Ivan does not make his case against God’s goodness in this intellectualized fashion. He is not a philosophical thinker who abstracts ideas from experience in order to test their logical clarity and coherence. As Albert Camus observed, “Ivan really lives his problems.” They are matters, quite literally, of life and death, of eternal life and eternal death, of ultimate bliss or final misery. Ivan is willing to face the anguish and terror inherent not only in thinking but also in living without God.

As one who knows the truths of the heart, Ivan also knows that reason alone cannot fathom the deepest things. On the contrary, reason can be put to nefarious purposes: “Reason is a scoundrel,” he confesses . Ivan is willing, therefore, to live “even … against logic.”

Yet he is unwilling to live as a mindless vitalist, embracing life without much regard for its meaning and, even less, with a blithe disregard for its injustice. So huge are the world’s moral horrors, Ivan argues, that they undermine any notion of divine order and purpose. Hence Ivan’s truly wrenching quandary: Can he love life without believing that it has ultimate meaning — believing, instead, that it is godless and absurd?

There is still an awful lot of centripetal force on our planet, Alyosha. I want to live, and I do live, even if it be against logic. Though I do not believe in the order of things, still the sticky little leaves that come out in the spring are dear to me, the blue sky is dear to me, some people are dear to me, whom one loves sometimes, would you believe it, without even knowing why; some human deeds are dear to me, which one has perhaps long ceased believing in, but still honors with one’s heart, out of old habit.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

What Dostoevsky forces us to face about Ivan is his denial of the Christian life and his eerie prescient embrace of our modern secular condition:

Ivan deliberately denies Father Zosima’s teaching that love cannot be selective, that it must be at once universal and concrete, that we must not love those who are conveniently remote so much as those who are inconveniently near. Already, it is evident, the philosophical and the religious arguments are linked.

Ivan not only thinks but also lives in autonomous and anti-communal terms. It is precisely the neighbor whom we cannot love, he insists. The neighbor’s objective and objectionable otherness — his bad breath, his foolish face, his ill manners — threaten Ivan’s sovereign selfhood. “He is another and not me,” Ivan complains . Despite his eager embrace of the world, therefore, Ivan wants to remain the solitary and transcendent judge over it, a godlike withholder no less than a gracious giver of praise. Others must satisfy his own criteria before he will embrace them. And because God does not satisfy the requirements of Ivan’s logic, he will not believe in God.
Ralph C. Wood, Ivan Karamazov’s Mistake

I must say, how many atheists have you met that bear this attitude toward their fellow man: He is another and not me. I have never met an atheist whom I have not sensed this fundamental haughtiness.

Wood makes the point that Ivan’s logic is not sophomoric. He attacks God’s goodness, largely ignoring the case concerning natural calamities — typhoons and tornadoes, floods and droughts, fires and earthquakes and disease – other atheists will tell us this proves the “creator of heaven and earth” is the origin of a natural order inimical to human happiness. No, what makes Ivan unique in many ways is the powerful and unrelenting case he makes against the moral evils, providing us a hellish list of the crimes that we human creatures commit:

Ivan offers searing examples of such wanton and motiveless malignity. Indeed, he creates a virtual phantasmagoria of suffering from actual instances of human barbarity that he has read about in Russian newspapers: Turkish soldiers cutting babies from their mother’s wombs and throwing them in the air in order to impale them on their bayonets; enlightened parents stuffing their five-year old daughter’s mouth with excrement and locking her in a freezing privy all night for having wet the bed, while they themselves sleep soundly; Genevan Christians teaching a naive peasant to bless the good God even as this poor dolt is beheaded for thefts and murders which his ostensibly Christian society caused him to commit; a Russian general, offended at an eight-year old boy for accidentally hurting the paw of the officer’s dog, inciting his wolfhounds to tear the child to pieces; a lady and gentleman flogging their eight-year old daughter with a birch-rod until she collapses while crying for mercy, “Papa, papa, dear papa.”

Such evils cannot be justified, Ivan argues, either by religious arguments based on history’s beginning or by secular arguments that look to its end. The Edenic exercise of free will is not worth the tears of even one little girl shivering all night in a privy and crying out from her excrement-filled mouth to “dear, kind God” for protection.

Yet neither will Ivan accept the Hegelian-Marxian thesis that the harmonious final outcome of history sublates its present evils. The notion that such savagery reveals the necessary consequences of human freedom or that it contributes to history’s ultimate result is, to Ivan, a moral and religious outrage.

Neither is he any more satisfied with the conventional doctrine of hell, which holds that the monsters of torment will themselves be eternally tormented. Hellish punishment for heinous malefactors would not restore their victims, Ivan reminds us. The impaled babies would not be brought back to life nor would their mothers be consoled, the dismembered boy would not live out his years, the weeping girls would not dry their tears. Ivan rejects all such theodicies because he believes that they commit unforgivable sacrilege against innocent sufferers. With a drastic metaphor drawn again from Schiller, he refuses to offer his hosanna for such a world: he returns his ticket to such a life.

Ivan’s brief against belief seems philosophically unanswerable. Dostoevsky concedes that there is no logical justification for the suffering of innocents. Yet this is hardly to say that there are no answers at all. It is rather to say that they will be found, if at all, elsewhere than in philosophical argument; they will be located in the realm of religion and politics and the requirements of daily life.
Ralph C. Wood, Ivan Karamazov’s Mistake

As a 14 year old reading this for the first time I signed on immediately for Ivan’s atheism. I was not able to process Dostoevsky’s answers to Ivan, the figures of Fr. Zosima and Alyosha, Ivan’s gentle youngest brother, the “cherub” as he calls him.

The most notable fact about the monastic elder and his young disciple is that, unlike Ivan, they are not Euclidean men. They believe that, in the most important matters, parallel lines do indeed meet. Things counter can converge because the deepest truths are not univocal but analogical and paradoxical. Theirs is not a three-dimensional block universe but rather a layered cosmos containing multiple orders of being. For Zosima and Alyosha, the material and immaterial worlds are never distant and remote from each other, as in much of western thought. The created and uncreated realms are deeply intertwined, each participating in the life of the other.
Ralph C. Wood, Ivan Karamazov’s Mistake

How strange it is that these many years later, I, too am a believer in “a layered cosmos containing multiple orders of being.” If you haven’t watched Brian Greene you can catch him here. Drag the timer at the bottom to 4:30 or so to skip all the annoying PBS opening commercials.

Such an interstitial cosmos Dostoevsky tells us calls for interstitial living:

It requires the enmeshment of one life with many other lives — not holding oneself aloof as Ivan does, but involving oneself in the suffering of others. Ivan the atheist clips news accounts of suffering children and offers anti-theological arguments about them. Alyosha the monk seeks out the insulted and injured, identifying himself with them. He addresses the philosophical problem of evil with deeds no less than reasons — with his whole life, not with his mind alone. Through his patient and long-suffering friendships, Alyosha helps redeem the pathetic Ilyusha Snegirov, even as he also helps to set the nihilistic Kolya Krassotkin on the path to new life.

Alyosha is able to pull these boys out of their misery only at great cost to himself. Dostoevsky makes clear in the novel’s final scene, when the boys gather to cheer Alyosha as if he were their savior, that he is a true icon of Christ, a man through whom the invisible light of eternity brightly shines. Yet Alyosha deflects all praise away from himself and toward Christ. As the only Man who has suffered absolutely everything, says Alyosha, Christ alone has the right to forgive absolutely everything — even the tormentors of children.
Ralph C. Wood, Ivan Karamazov’s Mistake

Yet Alyosha’s mere mention of the “only sinless One” so enrages Ivan that he comes forth with his “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” his final and perhaps most effective assault against Christ. You can follow René Girard’s take on all that here.

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Redemption — Fyodor Dostoevsky

April 20, 2012

A reading selection from The Brothers Karamazov.The speaker is Dostoevsky’s character Father Zossima, who, hours before his death, relates to his fellow monks the story of his conversion, in which his only brother, Markel, played a crucial role.

***********************************************

BELOVED FATHERS AND TEACHERS, I was born in a remote northern province, in the town of V—, of a noble father, but not of the high nobility, and not of very high rank. He died when I was only two years old, and I do not remember him at all. He left my mother a small wooden house and some capital, not a big sum, but enough to keep her and her children without want. And mother had only the two of us: myself, Zinovy, and my older brother, Markel. He was about eight years older than I, hot-tempered and irritable by nature, but kind, not given to mockery, and strangely silent, especially at home with me, mother, and the servants. He was a good student, but did not make friends with his schoolmates, though he did not quarrel with them either, at least not that our mother remembered.

Half a year before his death, when he was already past seventeen, he took to visiting a certain solitary man of our town, a political exile it seems, exiled to our town from Moscow for freethinking. This exile was a great scholar and distinguished philosopher at the university. For some reason he came to love Markel and welcomed his visits. The young man spent whole evenings with him, and did so through the whole winter, until the exile was called back to government service in Petersburg, at his own request, for he had his protectors.

The Great Lent came, but Markel did not want to fast, swore and laughed at it: “It’s all nonsense, there isn’t any God,” so that he horrified mother and the servants, and me, too, his little brother, for though I was only nine years old, when I heard those words I was very much afraid. Our servants were all serfs, four of them, all bought in the name of a landowner we knew. I also remember how mother sold one of the four, the cook Anfimia, who was lame and elderly, for sixty paper roubles, and hired a free woman in her place.

And so, in the sixth week of Lent, my brother suddenly grew worse — he had always been unhealthy, with bad lungs, of weak constitution and inclined to consumption; he was tall, but thin and sickly, yet of quite pleasing countenance. Perhaps he had caught a cold or something, in any case the doctor came and soon whispered to mother that his consumption was of the galloping sort, and that he would not live through spring.

Mother started weeping; she started asking my brother cautiously (more so as not to alarm him) to observe Lent and take communion of the divine and holy mysteries, because he was then still on his feet. Hearing that, he became angry and swore at God’s Church, but still he grew thoughtful: he understood at once that he was dangerously ill, and that that was why his mother was urging him, while he was still strong enough, to go to church and receive communion. Hr knew himself that he had been sick for a long time; already a year before he had once said coolly at the table’, to mother and me: “I’m not long for this world among; you, I may not live another year,” and now it was as if he had foretold it.

About three days went by, and then came Holy Week. And on Tuesday morning my brother started keeping the fast and going to church. “I’m doing it only for your sake, mother, to give you joy and peace,” he said to her. Mother wept from joy, and also from grief: “His end must be near, if there is suddenly such a change in him.” But he did not go to church for long, he took to his bed, so that he had to confess and receive communion at home.

The days grew bright, clear, fragrant — Easter was late that year. All night, I remember, he used to cough, slept badly, but in the morning he would always get dressed and try to sit in an armchair. So I remember him: he sits, quiet and meek, he smiles, he is sick but his countenance is glad, joyful.

He was utterly changed in spirit — such a wondrous change had suddenly begun in him! Our old nanny would come into his room: “Dear, let me light the lamp in front of your icon.” And before, he would never let her, he even used to blow it out.

“Light it, my dear, light it, what a monster I was to forbid you before! You pray to God as you light the icon lamp, and I pray, rejoicing at you. So we are praying to the same God.”

These words seemed strange to us, and mother used to go to her room and weep, but when she went to him she wiped her eyes and put on a cheerful face. “Mother, don’t weep, my dear,” he would say, “I still have a long time to live, a long time to rejoice with you, and life, life is gladsome, joyful!”

“Ah, my dear, what sort of gladness is there for you, if you bum with fever all night and cough as if your lungs were about to burst?”

“Mama,” he answered her, “do not weep, life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we do not want to know it, and if we did want to know it, tomorrow there would be paradise the world over.” And everyone marveled at his words, he spoke so strangely and so decisively; everyone was moved and wept.

Acquaintances came to visit us: “My beloved,” he would say, “my dear ones, how have I deserved your love, why do you love such a one as I, and how is it that- I did not know it, that I did not appreciate it before?” When the servants came in, he told them time and again: “My beloved, my dear ones, why do you serve me, am I worthy of being served? If God were to have mercy on me and let me live, I would begin serving you, for we must all serve each other.”

Mother listened and shook her head: “My dear, it’s your illness that makes you talk like that.”

“Mama, my joy,” he said, “it is not possible for there to be no masters and servants, but let me also be the servant of my servants, the same as they are to me. And I shall also tell you, dear mother, that each of us is guilty in everything before everyone, and I most of all.”

At that mother even smiled, she wept and smiled: “How can it be,” she said, “that you are the most guilty before everyone? There are murderers and robbers, and how have you managed to sin so that you should accuse yourself most of all?”

“Dear mother, heart of my heart,” he said (he had then begun saying such unexpected, endearing words), “heart of my heart, my joyful one, you must know that verily each of us is guilty before everyone, for everyone and everything. I do not know how to explain it to you, but I feel it so strongly that it pains me. And how could we have lived before, getting angry, and not knowing anything?” Thus he awoke every day with more and more tenderness, rejoicing and all atremble with love. The doctor used to come to us: “Well, what do you think, doctor, shall I live one more day in the world?” he would joke with him.

“Not just one day, you will live many days,” the doctor would answer. “You will live months and years, too.”

“But what are years, what are months!” he would exclaim. “Why count the days, when even one day is enough for a man to know all happiness. My dears, why do we quarrel, boast before each other, remember each other’s offenses? Let us go to the garden, let us walk and play and love and praise and kiss each other, and bless our life.”

“He’s not long for this world, your son,” the doctor said to mother as she saw him to the porch. “From sickness he is falling into madness.”

The windows of his room looked onto the garden, and our garden was very shady, with old trees; the spring buds were already swelling on the branches, the early birds arrived, chattering, singing through his windows. And suddenly, looking at them and admiring them, he began to ask their forgiveness, too: “Birds of God, joyful birds, you, too, must forgive me, because I have also sinned before you.” None of us could understand it then, but he was weeping with joy: “Yes,” he said, “there was so much of God’s glory around me: birds, trees, meadows, sky, and I alone lived in shame, I alone dishonored everything, and did not notice the beauty and glory of it at all.”

“You take too many sins upon yourself,” mother used to weep.

“Dear mother, my joy, I am weeping from gladness, not from grief; I want to be guilty before them, only I cannot explain it to you, for I do not even know how to love them. Let me be sinful before everyone, but so that everyone will forgive me, and that is paradise. Am I not in paradise now?”

And there was much more that I cannot recall or set down. I remember once I came into his room alone, when no one was with him. It was a bright evening, the sun was setting and lit up the whole room with its slanting rays. He beckoned when he saw me. I went over to him; he took me by the shoulders with both hands, looked tenderly, lovingly into my face; he did not say anything, he simply looked at me like that for about a minute: “Well,” he said, “go now, play, live for me!” I walked out then and went to play.

And later in life I remembered many times, with tears now, how he told me to live for him. He spoke many more such wondrous and beautiful words, though we could not understand them then. He died in the third week after Easter, conscious, and though he had already stopped speaking, he did not change to his very last hour: he looked joyfully, with gladness in his eyes, seeking us with his eyes, smiling to us, calling us. There was much talk even in town about his end. It all shook me then, but not deeply, though I cried very much when he was being buried. I was young, a child, but it all remained indelibly in my heart, the feeling was hidden there. It all had to rise up and respond in due time. And so it did.

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Dostoevsky and the Catholic Church — David Allen White

January 20, 2011

 

David Allen White is a professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland and provides here an introduction to Dostoevsky and his relationship with the Catholic Church.

“Dostoevsky absorbed the New Testament in prison. He also learned an important life lesson. Earlier, in a letter to his brother Mikhail, he had written, “Man is an enigma. This enigma must be solved. And if you spend all your life at it, don’t say you have wasted your time; I occupy myself with this enigma because I wish to be a man.” Part of the enigma clarified for him during his prison years. He discovered that not all the underprivileged were high-minded or good. Many were degenerate scum. He rejected the “noble peasant” idea found in most of Tolstoy’s writing and realized men must be judged one by one, on their individual merits. Social class could not be used as a key to defining character.

He also learned from experience something about the savage nature of human beings. Through observation of his fellow prisoners he saw that we are disordered creatures, subject to outbursts of irrational passions and destructive action. The more the individual personality was confined and controlled, the more subject it became to these frenetic explosions of willfulness. Part of this turbulence could be defined as a desire of the individual will to express its own freedom. Human freedom had a compulsive need to demonstrate its own existence. Dostoevsky’s great biographer Joseph Frank puts the idea this way, “To fulfill this drive, men will sacrifice all other goods and values; and if they are unable to satisfy it in any way, the results can be disastrous.”

Dostoevsky himself proved this “disastrous” freedom by making a bad marriage in 1858 and giving in to his temptation for gambling, a vice that haunted him for his entire life but did produce his brilliant dissection of the addiction, The Gambler. He also came to be afflicted with epilepsy. He distanced himself from his old friends as his political views became more and more conservative. He saw clearly that man does not above all need material well being in this world, but rather spiritual redemption. What Christ taught mankind, he now knew, was that salvation can come only through suffering. Man must be ready to share the sufferings of Christ in order to find salvation. In a world increasingly absorbed with progress and utopias and comfort, Dostoevsky shouts, “No! Christ lives and what He teaches us is that we must suffer.”

Such belief could be neither easy nor constant in the modern world. “I will tell you that I am a child of the century, a child of disbelief and doubt. I will remain so until the grave. How much terrible torture this thirst for faith has cost me and costs me even now which is all the stronger in my soul the more arguments I can find against it. And yet God sends me sometimes instants when I am completely calm. At those instants I love and feel loved by others and it is at those instants that I have shaped for myself a Credo where everything is clear and sacred to me. This credo is very simple. Here it is: To believe that nothing is more beautiful, profound, sympathetic, reasonable, manly, and perfect than Christ. And I tell myself with a jealous love that not only is there nothing more but there can be nothing more. Even more, if someone proved to me that Christ is outside the truth and that in reality the truth were outside of Christ, then I should prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth.”

Joseph Frank summarizes Dostoevsky’s view of modern man in this way, “Not to believe in Christ and immortality is to be condemned to live in a senseless universe and the characters in his great novels who reach this level of self-awareness inevitably destroy themselves because by refusing to endure the torment of living without hope they have become monsters in their misery.”

This great struggle between belief and disbelief informs all the great novels from Notes From Underground through The Brothers Karamazov. After nursing his wife through her fatal illness and then losing his beloved brother Mikhail, Dostoevsky was granted the grace of a devoted second wife, Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina. Hired to be his secretary, she became his spiritual consolation. He dictated to her the vast fictional canvases on which an array of recognizable human souls struggle with grand passions and high ideas. Dmitri Karamazov says God and the devil are fighting and the battlefield is the heart of man. The novels of Dostoevsky come closer to the core of the modern dilemma than any other body of modern literature and his knowledge of human beings is the keenest in art since Shakespeare.

But some great artists may also be graced by God with another gift. Some artists have oracular flashes, offering up profound prophetic pronouncements. Such instances stretch from the vision of Vergil in his Fourth Eclogue (37 B.C.) which suggests the coming of Our Lord as a child who will bring a reign of peace to a troubled world to the chilling example of the Japanese man in Strindberg’s play The Great Highway (1909) who announces that he is named for his native town Hiroshima just before he steps into a furnace and is incinerated. No artist ever set down more accurate prophetic pronouncements than Dostoevsky.

In his great novel about the revolutionary movement, Demons (1872), Dostoevsky accurately predicted not only the coming of socialism to Holy Mother Russia, as he termed his country, but also the devastating consequences. At more than one point in the novel, he has characters pronounce the cold fact that the revolution will triumph “by radically lopping off a hundred million heads.” Shigalyov, the character presenting the plan, admits a problem, for “Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism.” Dostoevsky seemed to witness the abyss into which his country would descend in the twentieth century. He combines his vision of the nightmare looming over Russia with the incident of the Gadarene swine from the Gospel of Luke, a passage he uses as one of the epigraphs for the novel. He again quotes the passage from Luke when a character in the novel, Sofya Matveevna Ulitin, a woman who travels from town to town passing out Gospels, reads the words at the request of the dying liberal professor, Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, the man whose soft socialist teaching has unleashed the “demons” in the next generation. After hearing the passage, the dying professor says:

Terribly many thoughts occur to me now: you see, it’s exactly like our Russia. These demons who come out of a sick man and enter into the swine it’s all the sores, all the miasmas, all the uncleanness, all the big and little demons accumulated in our great and sick man, in our Russia, for centuries, for centuries! Oui, cette Russie que j’aimais toujours. But a great will and a great thought will descend to her from on high, as upon that insane demoniac, and out will come all these demons, all the uncleanness, all the abomination that is festering on the surface…and they will beg of themselves to enter into swine. And perhaps they already have! It is us, us and them, and Petrusha…et les autres avec lui, and I, perhaps, first, at the head, and we will rush, insane and raging, from the cliff down into the sea, and all be drowned, and good riddance to us, because that’s the most we’re fit for. 

Russia is presented as a possessed madman, out of whom demons will rush, infect others and push multitudes of those so “possessed” into destruction. The connection with Our Lady’s message to the shepherd children at Fatima on the eve of the Russian revolution is unmistakable: “Russia will spread her errors throughout the world.”

Dostoevsky makes many Catholic readers uncomfortable. In many of his novels he rails against the Catholic Church. His knowledge of the Catholic Church, however, came largely from the French socialists who had such a profound influence on him in his youth. Dostoevsky viewed the Catholic Church as an institution that had abandoned its spiritual beliefs in a quest to give mankind earthly happiness. He has the Catholic Grand Inquisitor state to Christ in The Brothers Karamazov, “You promised them heavenly bread, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, eternally depraved, and eternally ignoble human race?”

Dostoevsky related his sense of how the Catholic social preoccupation worked. “The Catholic priest searches out some miserable worker’s family and gains their confidence. He feeds them all, gives them clothes, provides heating, looks after the sick, buys medicine, becomes the friend of the family and converts them to Catholicism.” This sense of the socially obsessed Catholic Church which places earthly comfort before redemptive suffering and peace on earth before peace of soul must make any post-Vatican II Catholic uncomfortable in its precision. The only error when applied to the Novus Ordo Church is that the priest would no longer attempt to convert the family. The sentimental socialism of the nineteenth-century French intellectuals whom Dostoevsky came to despise found a happy home in the post-conciliar Church.

With his insistence on suffering and salvation, the supernatural and sacrifice, Dostoevsky echoes many of the teachings of the Catholic Church. With his prophetic vision of a possessed Russia unleashing her demons into the world, he echoes the prophecies of Fatima, and not only those prophecies that already come to fruition. The above quoted words from the deathbed of Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky in Demons conclude with the following remarks:

But the sick man will be healed and “sit at the feet of Jesus”…and everyone will look in amazement…. Dear, vous comprenez apres, but it excites me very much now…. Vous comprenez apres…. Nous comprendrons ensemble.

David Allen White is a professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland and provides here an introduction to Dostoevsky and his relationship with the Catholic Church.

“Dostoevsky absorbed the New Testament in prison. He also learned an important life lesson. Earlier, in a letter to his brother Mikhail, he had written, “Man is an enigma. This enigma must be solved. And if you spend all your life at it, don’t say you have wasted your time; I occupy myself with this enigma because I wish to be a man.” Part of the enigma clarified for him during his prison years. He discovered that not all the underprivileged were high-minded or good. Many were degenerate scum. He rejected the “noble peasant” idea found in most of Tolstoy’s writing and realized men must be judged one by one, on their individual merits. Social class could not be used as a key to defining character.

He also learned from experience something about the savage nature of human beings. Through observation of his fellow prisoners he saw that we are disordered creatures, subject to outbursts of irrational passions and destructive action. The more the individual personality was confined and controlled, the more subject it became to these frenetic explosions of willfulness. Part of this turbulence could be defined as a desire of the individual will to express its own freedom. Human freedom had a compulsive need to demonstrate its own existence. Dostoevsky’s great biographer Joseph Frank puts the idea this way, “To fulfill this drive, men will sacrifice all other goods and values; and if they are unable to satisfy it in any way, the results can be disastrous.”

Dostoevsky himself proved this “disastrous” freedom by making a bad marriage in 1858 and giving in to his temptation for gambling, a vice that haunted him for his entire life but did produce his brilliant dissection of the addiction, The Gambler. He also came to be afflicted with epilepsy. He distanced himself from his old friends as his political views became more and more conservative. He saw clearly that man does not above all need material well being in this world, but rather spiritual redemption. What Christ taught mankind, he now knew, was that salvation can come only through suffering. Man must be ready to share the sufferings of Christ in order to find salvation. In a world increasingly absorbed with progress and utopias and comfort, Dostoevsky shouts, “No! Christ lives and what He teaches us is that we must suffer.”

Such belief could be neither easy nor constant in the modern world. “I will tell you that I am a child of the century, a child of disbelief and doubt. I will remain so until the grave. How much terrible torture this thirst for faith has cost me and costs me even now which is all the stronger in my soul the more arguments I can find against it. And yet God sends me sometimes instants when I am completely calm. At those instants I love and feel loved by others and it is at those instants that I have shaped for myself a Credo where everything is clear and sacred to me. This credo is very simple. Here it is: To believe that nothing is more beautiful, profound, sympathetic, reasonable, manly, and perfect than Christ. And I tell myself with a jealous love that not only is there nothing more but there can be nothing more. Even more, if someone proved to me that Christ is outside the truth and that in reality the truth were outside of Christ, then I should prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth.”

Joseph Frank summarizes Dostoevsky’s view of modern man in this way, “Not to believe in Christ and immortality is to be condemned to live in a senseless universe and the characters in his great novels who reach this level of self-awareness inevitably destroy themselves because by refusing to endure the torment of living without hope they have become monsters in their misery.”

This great struggle between belief and disbelief informs all the great novels from Notes From Underground through The Brothers Karamazov. After nursing his wife through her fatal illness and then losing his beloved brother Mikhail, Dostoevsky was granted the grace of a devoted second wife, Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina. Hired to be his secretary, she became his spiritual consolation. He dictated to her the vast fictional canvases on which an array of recognizable human souls struggle with grand passions and high ideas. Dmitri Karamazov says God and the devil are fighting and the battlefield is the heart of man. The novels of Dostoevsky come closer to the core of the modern dilemma than any other body of modern literature and his knowledge of human beings is the keenest in art since Shakespeare.

But some great artists may also be graced by God with another gift. Some artists have oracular flashes, offering up profound prophetic pronouncements. Such instances stretch from the vision of Vergil in his Fourth Eclogue (37 B.C.) which suggests the coming of Our Lord as a child who will bring a reign of peace to a troubled world to the chilling example of the Japanese man in Strindberg’s play The Great Highway (1909) who announces that he is named for his native town Hiroshima just before he steps into a furnace and is incinerated. No artist ever set down more accurate prophetic pronouncements than Dostoevsky.

In his great novel about the revolutionary movement, Demons (1872), Dostoevsky accurately predicted not only the coming of socialism to Holy Mother Russia, as he termed his country, but also the devastating consequences. At more than one point in the novel, he has characters pronounce the cold fact that the revolution will triumph “by radically lopping off a hundred million heads.” Shigalyov, the character presenting the plan, admits a problem, for “Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism.” Dostoevsky seemed to witness the abyss into which his country would descend in the twentieth century. He combines his vision of the nightmare looming over Russia with the incident of the Gadarene swine from the Gospel of Luke, a passage he uses as one of the epigraphs for the novel. He again quotes the passage from Luke when a character in the novel, Sofya Matveevna Ulitin, a woman who travels from town to town passing out Gospels, reads the words at the request of the dying liberal professor, Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, the man whose soft socialist teaching has unleashed the “demons” in the next generation. After hearing the passage, the dying professor says:

Terribly many thoughts occur to me now: you see, it’s exactly like our Russia. These demons who come out of a sick man and enter into the swine it’s all the sores, all the miasmas, all the uncleanness, all the big and little demons accumulated in our great and sick man, in our Russia, for centuries, for centuries! Oui, cette Russie que j’aimais toujours. But a great will and a great thought will descend to her from on high, as upon that insane demoniac, and out will come all these demons, all the uncleanness, all the abomination that is festering on the surface…and they will beg of themselves to enter into swine. And perhaps they already have! It is us, us and them, and Petrusha…et les autres avec lui, and I, perhaps, first, at the head, and we will rush, insane and raging, from the cliff down into the sea, and all be drowned, and good riddance to us, because that’s the most we’re fit for.  

Russia is presented as a possessed madman, out of whom demons will rush, infect others and push multitudes of those so “possessed” into destruction. The connection with Our Lady’s message to the shepherd children at Fatima on the eve of the Russian revolution is unmistakable: “Russia will spread her errors throughout the world.”

Dostoevsky makes many Catholic readers uncomfortable. In many of his novels he rails against the Catholic Church. His knowledge of the Catholic Church, however, came largely from the French socialists who had such a profound influence on him in his youth. Dostoevsky viewed the Catholic Church as an institution that had abandoned its spiritual beliefs in a quest to give mankind earthly happiness. He has the Catholic Grand Inquisitor state to Christ in The Brothers Karamazov, “You promised them heavenly bread, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, eternally depraved, and eternally ignoble human race?”

Dostoevsky related his sense of how the Catholic social preoccupation worked. “The Catholic priest searches out some miserable worker’s family and gains their confidence. He feeds them all, gives them clothes, provides heating, looks after the sick, buys medicine, becomes the friend of the family and converts them to Catholicism.” This sense of the socially obsessed Catholic Church which places earthly comfort before redemptive suffering and peace on earth before peace of soul must make any post-Vatican II Catholic uncomfortable in its precision. The only error when applied to the Novus Ordo Church is that the priest would no longer attempt to convert the family. The sentimental socialism of the nineteenth-century French intellectuals whom Dostoevsky came to despise found a happy home in the post-conciliar Church.

With his insistence on suffering and salvation, the supernatural and sacrifice, Dostoevsky echoes many of the teachings of the Catholic Church. With his prophetic vision of a possessed Russia unleashing her demons into the world, he echoes the prophecies of Fatima, and not only those prophecies that already come to fruition. The above quoted words from the deathbed of Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky in Demons conclude with the following remarks:

But the sick man will be healed and “sit at the feet of Jesus”…and everyone will look in amazement…. Dear, vous comprenez apres, but it excites me very much now…. Vous comprenez apres…. Nous comprendrons ensemble.

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Reading Selections from “Ivan Karamazov’s Mistake” by Ralph C. Wood

October 15, 2010

Ralph C. Wood is University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University. This is a First Thing’s article published in 2004 and combines a lot of threads of arguments that I have been posting here. It is the finest restatement I’ve come across of Doestoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov which I read in my middle teens one summer and completely misunderstood. The book possessed me.

In fact, I became a mini-me of Ivan, a wise-ass teen who brutally disappointed an uncle who was concerned for my spiritual growth. One of my acts of contrition during my conversion has been to revisit these events and my reading of Dostoevsky to try and figure out how I could have been so wrong, so unthinking, so thoughtless. It’s been fifty years since these events transpired but regret cuts deeply. In this case, time can actually open wounds. Ivan Karamazov’s mistake was my mistake also.

Freedom And Suffering
It is has become commonplace to regard Ivan Karamazov’s “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” as a prescient parable glorifying human freedom and defending it against the kind of totalitarian threats it would face in the twentieth century. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s angry atheist delivers an uncanny prophecy of the omnicompetent, freedom-denying state that would arise in his own native Russia.

But concerning the liberty that is the only cure for state-sponsored oppression, Ivan is terribly wrong. The Christ of the Grand Inquisitor advocates an idea of freedom that Dostoevsky considered an abomination. It is linked to Ivan’s critique of God for allowing innocent suffering. For Dostoevsky, the problem of evil and the question of human liberty are profoundly joined: our answer to one quandary determines our answer to the other. Freedom and suffering are interstitial realities, as the Grand Inquisitor understands, even if he understands them wrongly.

Ivan: A Very Russian Atheist
Western readers of The Brothers Karamazov have remained virtually blind to Dostoevsky’s critique of the Grand Inquisitor. The reason, I believe, is that Ivan’s vision of human freedom is so very near to our own secular notion of liberty, and thus to our increasing relegation of the Christian gospel to the private sphere of mere preference. Though he was a student of Western Christianity and culture, Dostoevsky remained fundamentally Russian in his conception of God and the world, of good and evil, of the sacred and the secular. We cannot properly understand his treatment of these matters, therefore, until we grasp his Orthodox reading of them. Thus must we examine his parable of the Grand Inquisitor vis–à–vis the Orthodox doctrine of human freedom as being founded not on autonomous choice but on communal dependence on God.

Ivan Karamazov is no straw atheist. He gives voice to the philosophical problem of evil perhaps more clearly and cogently than any other speaker or actor, any other philosopher or theologian, in the whole of world literature. Yet he is also a very Russian atheist. He thinks with his solar plexus, as D. H. Lawrence might have said. He is passionately intellectual. Ivan does not pose the question of theodicy as a philosophical conundrum, as it is often posed in the West. From Leibniz through Hume, from Alvin Plantinga to J. L. Mackie, the problem of evil has often been cast in bare intellectual terms: how to think through the contradiction that stands between the goodness, omniscience, and omnipotence of God, on the one hand, and the massive misery and undeserved suffering that characterize God’s world, on the other.

In J.B., his dramatic contemporizing of the Job story, Archibald MacLeish puts the intellectual problem of evil tersely but accurately: “If God is good He is not God. If God is God He is not good.” If God is imbued with the charity which He Himself enjoins His creatures to live by, then He must lack the divine power to create and sustain a world in which such charity obtains: He is not God. If, by contrast, God possesses the sovereignty and strength to perform what He wills, then this misery–riddled world must be proof that He is deficient in love itself: He is not good.

Ivan does not make his case against God’s goodness in this intellectualized fashion. He is not a philosophical thinker who abstracts ideas from experience in order to test their logical clarity and coherence. As Albert Camus observed, “Ivan really lives his problems.” They are matters, quite literally, of life and death, of eternal life and eternal death, of ultimate bliss or final misery. Ivan is willing to face the anguish and terror inherent not only in thinking but also in living without God.

As one who knows the truths of the heart, Ivan also knows that reason alone cannot fathom the deepest things. On the contrary, reason can be put to nefarious uses: “Reason is a scoundrel,” he confesses. Ivan is willing, therefore, to live “even . . . against logic.” Yet he is unwilling to live as a mindless vitalist, embracing life without much regard for its meaning and, even less, with a blithe disregard for its injustice. So huge are the world’s moral horrors, Ivan argues, that they undermine any notion of divine order and purpose.

Ivan’s Quandary
Hence Ivan’s truly wrenching quandary: Can he love life without believing that it has ultimate meaning — believing, instead, that it is godless and absurd? Ivan is young and strong. He brims with intellectual curiosity no less than bodily energy. He wants to travel to Europe and to learn its science and its history. As a good romantic, Ivan cites Schiller’s celebrated line about the “sticky little leaves” whose gummy unfolding in spring seems to signal the whole world’s rebirth. They remind Ivan of all that is precious in life, the glories of human love and natural splendor, the inward movement of all things toward life’s energizing center.

God Does Not Satisfy The Requirements Of Ivan’s Logic
There is still an awful lot of centripetal force on our planet, Alyosha. I want to live, and I do live, even if it be against logic. Though I do not believe in the order of things, still the sticky little leaves that come out in the spring are dear to me, the blue sky is dear to me, some people are dear to me, whom one loves sometimes, would you believe it, without even knowing why; some human deeds are dear to me, which one has perhaps long ceased believing in, but still honors with one’s heart, out of old habit.

It is noteworthy that Ivan makes this confession to his young brother Alyosha just after he has broken off relations with Katerina Ivanovna. Ivan feels as free and light as the air. Living in this detached and uncommitted — indeed, this almost angelic — state, Ivan makes qualifications that are altogether as important as his affirmations. Though he wants to drink life to the lees, he confesses that only “some people” and only “some human deeds” are dear to him, and that he loves them only “sometimes.”

Ivan deliberately denies the teaching of Father Zosima, the head of an Orthodox monastery who also stands at the religious center of the novel. Father Zosima insists that love cannot be selective, that it must be at once universal and concrete, that we must not love those who are conveniently remote so much as those who are inconveniently near.

Already, it is evident, the philosophical and the religious arguments are linked. Ivan not only thinks but also lives in autonomous and anti–communal terms. It is precisely the neighbor whom we cannot love, he insists. The neighbor’s objective and objectionable otherness — his bad breath, his foolish face, his ill manners — threaten Ivan’s sovereign selfhood. Of such a neighbor, Ivan complains like an early Jean–Paul Sartre that “he is another and not me.” Despite his eager embrace of the world, therefore, Ivan wants to remain a solitary and transcendent judge over it, a godlike withholder no less than a gracious giver of praise. Others must satisfy his own criteria before he will embrace them. And because God does not satisfy the requirements of Ivan’s logic, he will not believe in God.

Ivan’s Case Against God’s Goodness
Yet Ivan’s logic is not sophomoric. He makes a strenuous case against God’s goodness. He refuses, for example, to cite the many natural calamities — typhoons and tornadoes, floods and droughts, fires and earthquakes and disease — that seem to disclose a ham–fisted Creator. Ivan knows that such cosmic evils might be attributed to a natural process that is divinely ordered. Like Job, he might discover that, while the natural order seems inimical to human happiness, its operations might have their own purposes, not revealing any divine hostility toward human well–being.

But Ivan is not vexed chiefly with natural evils. He cares about moral evils, about the crimes that we human creatures commit. The standard explanation of such moral evils is that they are the unfortunate consequence of human freedom. God’s uncoerced creatures, so the argument runs, are capable of grossly misusing their liberty. If God were to prevent evil human actions, His world would no longer be free.

Ivan subjects the standard free–will defense of the divine goodness to devastating critique. At best, he says, the free perversion of human will explains only the suffering of adults, the grown–ups who are accountable for the evils that they both cause and suffer. They have eaten the apple of knowledge, says Ivan. Because they have followed the demonic temptation to become “as gods,” they deserve their self–wrought misery.

What this standard theodicy cannot account for, Ivan maintains, is the agony of children whose wills are still innocent. That their suffering results from human cruelty more than natural mishap makes it all the more horrible. As Ivan notices, animals rarely torment their prey. Only our human kind derives erotic pleasure from its savagery, becoming virtual voluptuaries of cruelty. In a passage that would have made even the Marquis de Sade tremble, Ivan declares the awful allurement of unprotected innocence. “It is precisely the defenselessness of these creatures that tempts the torturers, the angelic trustfulness of the child, who has nowhere to turn and no one to turn to — that is what enflames the vile blood of the torturer.”

Ivan offers searing examples of such wanton and motiveless malignity. Indeed, he creates a virtual phantasmagoria of suffering from actual instances of human barbarity that he has read about in Russian newspapers: Turkish soldiers cutting babies from their mother’s wombs and throwing them in the air in order to impale them on their bayonets; enlightened parents stuffing their five–year–old daughter’s mouth with excrement and locking her in a freezing privy all night for having wet the bed, while they themselves sleep soundly; Genevan Christians teaching a naive peasant to bless the good God even as the poor dolt is beheaded for thefts and murders that his ostensibly Christian society caused him to commit; a Russian general, offended at an eight–year–old boy for accidentally hurting the paw of the officer’s dog, inciting his wolfhounds to tear the child to pieces; a lady and gentleman flogging their eight–year–old daughter with a birch–rod until she collapses while crying for mercy, “Papa, papa, dear papa.”

Such evils cannot be justified, Ivan argues, either by religious arguments based on history’s beginning or by secular arguments that look to its end. The Edenic exercise of free will is not worth the tears of even one little girl shivering all night in a privy and crying out from her excrement–filled mouth to “dear, kind God” for protection.

Yet neither will Ivan accept the Hegelian–Marxist thesis that the harmonious final outcome of history sublates its present evils. The notion that such savagery reveals the necessary consequences of human freedom or that it contributes to history’s ultimate result is, to Ivan, a moral and religious outrage. Neither is he any more satisfied with the conventional doctrine of hell, which holds that the monsters of torment will themselves be eternally tormented. Hellish punishment for heinous malefactors would not restore their victims, Ivan reminds us. The impaled babies would not be brought back to life nor would their mothers be consoled, the dismembered boy would not live out his years, the weeping girls would not be comforted. Ivan rejects all such theodicies because they belittle innocent suffering and thus commit unforgivable sacrilege against innocent sufferers. With a dramatic metaphor drawn again from Schiller, he refuses to offer his hosanna for such a world: he returns his ticket to such a life.

Ivan’s brief against belief is intellectually unanswerable. Dostoevsky makes no attempt to provide such an answer anywhere in the course of the novel. He concedes that there is no logical justification for the suffering of innocents. Yet this is hardly to say that there are no theological answers to Ivan. It is rather to say that they will be found, if at all, elsewhere than in abstract argument; they will be located in the realm of religion and politics and the everyday requirements of true freedom.

In seeking to embody such answers in living form, Dostoevsky offers the figures of Zosima and Alyosha as his religious counters to Ivan’s atheist revolt. The most notable fact about the monastic elder and his young disciple is that, unlike Ivan, they are not Euclidean men. They believe that, in the most important matters, parallel lines do indeed meet. Things counter can converge because the deepest truths are not univocal but analogical and paradoxical. Theirs is not a three–dimensional block universe but rather a layered cosmos containing multiple orders of being. For Zosima and Alyosha, the material and immaterial worlds are never distant and remote from each other, as in much of Western thought. The created and uncreated realms are deeply intertwined, each participating in the life of the other.

The Iconic Imagination
Ivan remains opaque to this interstitial cosmos that calls for interstitial discernment. Dostoevsky describes it as proniknovenie, an “intuitive seeing through” or a “spiritual penetration.” Such theological sight is the product not of any special intelligence but of the iconic imagination. The icons of Eastern Orthodoxy are produced by a theology of presence rather than one of representation. God’s own splendor is said to radiate through the icon, confronting worshipers with the experience of Uncreated Light.

The icon is not an image that one looks at in order to discern an earthly image of something holy, in an attempt to portray the invisible in visible terms. Nor is it an expression of the artist’s own subjective experience of the sacred. Rather the icon looks out at the beholder. It seeks to open up the eternal realm so that its light might shine forth.

Icons do not seek to embody a discarnate world, but rather to reveal an earthly world that has been rendered transparent by a spiritualization that embraces the entire cosmos. Worshipers are themselves transformed by the invisible light that emanates from the icon, penetrating to the depths of their being and forming their true personhood. At Zosima’s funeral, Alyosha has such a transfiguring experience of this mystical touching of the visible and invisible worlds. It prompts him to repeat the example of his dead master in an iconic gesture of prostration:

Filled with rapture, his soul yearned for freedom, space, vastness. Over him the heavenly dome, full of quiet, shining stars, hung boundlessly. From the zenith to the horizon the still–dim Milky Way stretched its double strand. Night, fresh and quiet, almost unstirring, enveloped the earth. The white towers and golden domes of the church gleamed in the sapphire sky. The luxuriant autumn flowers in the flowerbeds near the house had fallen asleep until morning. The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth to be touched by the mystery of the stars. . . . Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, he threw himself to the earth. . . .

It was as if threads from all those innumerable worlds of God all came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, “touching other worlds.” He wanted to forgive everyone for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself! but for all and for everything, “as others are asking for me,” rang in his soul.

To Become Immortal Is To Become A Unique And Unrepeatable Person
Ivan is blind to this iconic joining of the earthly and heavenly realms, perhaps because he is also blind to the Orthodox understanding of human personhood. After all, he is a man obsessed with Western ideas. Yet Ivan is not a rationalist, as is often said, but rather a thinker who wants to disjoin his thought from its rightful engagement with God and the world. He lives a dichotomous life.

Ivan’s mind is even more severely perverted than his will. He fails to discern, for example, that the doctrine of immortality concerns not only the life that is transfigured in the world to come, but also the life that is meant to be transformed within this world. To use the language of St. Paul found in 1 Corinthians 15 and that of John’s Gospel contained in the novel’s epigraph, mortality is meant to put on immortality, the dying seed to bring forth much fruit. To become immortal is to become a unique and unrepeatable person who has been perfected in both loving and being loved.

No One Can Truly Love Others As He Loves Himself
Ivan’s contention that no one can truly love others as he loves himself is linked, therefore, to his denial of immortality. Ivan holds, as we have seen, that other persons stand like dense Euclidean clumps to block the path of his own autonomy. So long as we are confined within the realm of mere human possibility, Dostoevsky is agreed with Ivan. He despised the soupy benevolence that pervaded much of nineteenth–century European and American culture. “Those who love men in general,” he often said, “hate men in particular.” Yet he also insisted that Christ’s kenosis — the divine self–emptying hymned in Philippians 2 — can accomplish what is humanly impossible: the emptying of human egoism for the sake of true charity. Through this kenotic love that Zosima and his disciple Alyosha both embody, one actually becomes a person by becoming another self — not an Ego but a Thou, a person who exists only in self–giving solidarity with Christ and thereby with others.

When personhood is measured in this kenotic manner, Alyosha can be seen as a credible character, rather than the ghostly and gossamer creature he is often accused of being. Unlike Ivan, Alyosha does not clip newspaper accounts of suffering children and then offer anti–theological arguments about them; instead, he actually seeks out the insulted and injured, identifying himself with them. He joins faith with practice, thinking with doing, thus answering the problem of evil with deeds rather than reasons — with his whole personhood, not with his mind alone.

A True Icon Of Christ
Through his patient and long–suffering friendships with children, Alyosha helps redeem the pathetic Ilyusha Snegirov, even as he also helps to set the nihilistic Kolya Krassotkin on the path to new life. Alyosha pulls these boys out of their misery only at great cost to himself. Dostoevsky makes clear in the novel’s final scene, when the youths gather to cheer Alyosha as if he were their savior, that he is a true icon of Christ, a man through whom the invisible light of eternity brightly shines. Yet Alyosha deflects all praise away from himself and toward Christ. As the only man who has suffered absolutely everything, says Alyosha, Christ alone has the right to forgive absolutely everything — even the tormentors of children. Yet Alyosha’s mere mention of the “only sinless One” so enrages Ivan that he comes forth with his “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.”

One Cannot Scorn The Love Of God And Still Love Human Beings: TheLegend of the Grand Inquisitor
Ivan’s parable appears to be an assault on the character of Jesus, when its real target is humanity itself. Though he professes to love “some men,” Ivan can no more give himself to other persons than he can grant the existence of God. For Dostoevsky, the one follows from the other: one cannot scorn the love of God and still love human beings. Ivan ends as a misanthrope, I maintain, because he has a modern secular conception of freedom that is incapable of fulfillment except by monstrous supermen.

The plot of Ivan’s legend is familiar enough, even if its meaning remains quite obscure. The risen Christ returns to earth in fifteenth–century Seville, where he immediately begins to perform miracles. The people hail him as their liberator from the awful autos da fé that the Spanish Inquisition is carrying out. Jesus is quickly arrested by the church authorities and imprisoned in a dimly lit dungeon. There the ninety–year–old Cardinal Grand Inquisitor relentlessly grills the silent Christ.

This ancient church–ogre accuses Jesus of having required men to live by the strength of their strong wills, cruelly ignoring the fact that they are impotent creatures who can live only for the sake of a swinish happiness. The Inquisitor thus upbraids Christ for having rejected the Tempter’s wilderness offerings of bread and power and fame. These, he says, are the satisfying substitutes that human beings crave. They do not want the awful autonomy that Christ allegedly commanded:

Instead of taking over men’s freedom, you increased it still more for them! Did you forget that peace and even death are dearer to man than free choice in the knowledge of good and evil? There is nothing more seductive for man than the freedom of his conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting either. And so, instead of a firm foundation for appeasing human conscience once and for all, you chose everything that was unusual, enigmatic, and indefinite, you chose everything that was beyond men’s strength, and thereby acted as if you did not love them at all. . . . You desired the free love of man, that he should follow you freely, seduced and captivated by you. Instead of the firm and ancient law, man had henceforth to decide for himself, with a free heart, what is good and what is evil, having only your image before him as a guide.

Misunderstanding The Grand Inquisitor’s Conception Of Freedom
It is astonishing that so many readers have taken the Grand Inquisitor’s conception of freedom as if it were Dostoevsky’s own — and also as if it were true. Camus regarded it as an unprecedented statement of the human cry for liberty against all religious restraints. Camus can make such a claim only because, together with Ivan, he embraces the thoroughly secular conception of freedom that has largely prevailed in the modern West, from John Stuart Mill to John Dewey and John Rawls. Ivan’s Inquisitor belongs to their lineage. Liberty, he declares, entails a brave and lonely autonomy, as each individual determines for himself the difference between good and evil. Jesus serves not as the savior who redeems corporate humanity from sin, therefore, but as a moral example to guide solitary and heroic individuals — having himself trod the same lonely path of self–determination.

Michael Sandel has shown what is problematic about this notion of freedom as consisting entirely of unfettered choices. Such choices are prompted by nothing other than the individual subject and his private conscience acting either on persuasive evidence or the arbitrary assertion of will. Just as this modern secular self is not determined by any larger aims or attachments that it has not chosen for itself, neither does it have obligations to any larger communities, except those it autonomously chooses to join. The one moral norm, it follows, is the injunction to respect the dignity of others by not denying them the freedom to exercise their own moral autonomy. Such an understanding of human liberty, argues Sandel, opposes

[A]ny view that regards us as obligated to fulfill ends that we have not chosen — ends given by nature or God, for example, or by our identities as members of families, peoples, cultures, or traditions. Encumbered identities such as these are at odds with the liberal conception of [persons] as free and independent selves, unbound by prior moral ties, capable of choosing our ends for ourselves. This is the conception that finds expression in the ideal of the state as a neutral framework . . . a framework of rights that refuses to choose among competing values and ends. For the liberal self, what matters above all, what is most essential to our personhood, is not the ends we choose but our capacity to choose them.

Liberty As Absolute Autonomy
Dostoevsky repeatedly attacked this modern secular notion of freedom and personhood, dismissing it scornfully as “socialism.” Astounded by the Inquisitor’s similar idea of liberty as absolute autonomy, Alyosha cries out to Ivan: “And who will believe you about freedom? . . . Is that the way to understand it? It’s a far cry from the Orthodox idea.”

It’s also a far cry from the Jewish and Catholic and classical Protestant ideas of freedom. In all four traditions, we are not made into free persons by becoming autonomous selves who have been immunized from all obligations that we have not independently chosen. Our freedom resides rather in becoming communal selves who freely embrace our moral, religious, and political obligations. These responsibilities come to us less by our own choosing than through a thickly webbed network of shared friendships and familial ties, through political practices and religious promises. In a very real sense, such “encumbrances” choose us before we choose them. There is no mythical free and autonomous self that exists apart from these ties. There are only gladly or else miserably bound persons — namely, persons who find their duties and encumbrances to be either gracious or onerous.

Freedom Is Communal Because It Is Religious
Alyosha’s idea of freedom is communal because it is first of all religious. Athanasius of Alexandria articulated it most clearly in the fourth century: “God became man so that man may become God.” The central Orthodox doctrine is called theosis or theopoesis — the divinizing or deifying of humanity. The Eastern Church does not call for believers to imitate Jesus through the exercise of moral choice. It summons them rather to participate in the life of Christ through the transformative power of the liturgy and sacraments of the Church.

To become persons in the true sense is to become what the New Testament calls “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). The modern secular notion of freedom articulated by the Grand Inquisitor is the very definition of slavery. As Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky observes, the Eastern Church regards choice as the mark not of freedom but of fallenness, as a debasement of true liberty, as a loss of the divine likeness: “Our nature being overclouded with sin no longer knows its true good . . . and so the human person is always faced with the necessity of choice; it goes forward gropingly.”

To deliberate autonomously in the face of alternatives, it follows, is not liberty but servitude. True freedom, says Lossky, is revealed in the Christ who freely renounces his own will in order to accomplish the will of his Father. Alyosha is free in precisely this way. Jesus has not abandoned him to his lonely conscience in order to let him solitarily determine good and evil for himself. The self–emptying Christ has freed Alyosha to empty his own ego, to live and act in joyful obedience to God, and thus to be bound in unbreakable solidarity with his father and brothers, with his friends and enemies, and (not least of all) with the miserable children of his neighborhood.

Freedom As Unencumbered Self–Determining Choice
Given the Grand Inquisitor’s anti–Orthodox conception of freedom as unencumbered self–determining choice, it is not surprising that he should have contempt for the average run of men. He despises their dependence, their animal desire for security and comfort. The Inquisitor thus informs Jesus that the Catholic Church has been forced to correct his impossible summons to autonomy. Rome understands, says the Inquisitor, what Christ did not — that men must first be fed before they can be made virtuous. “Make us your slaves,” the Inquisitor’s masses cry out, “but feed us.”

Thus has the cynical church of the Grand Inquisitor replaced Christ’s purported call for unfettered autonomy with its own sheepish substitutes: “miracle, mystery, and authority.” Yet even these sorry placebos will not finally suffice, the Inquisitor insists, for the modern world will confront men with such scientific wonders and terrors that the vast human horde will not be content even with comfort and security. They will finally demand the antheap of personal oblivion, in order that they might be relieved of their freedom. They want only to live in childish self–indulgence:

Freedom, free reason, and science will lead them into such a maze, and confront them with such . . . insoluble mysteries, that some of them, unruly and ferocious, will exterminate themselves; others, unruly but feeble, will exterminate each other; and the remaining third, feeble and wretched, will crawl to our feet and cry out to us: “Yes, you were right, you alone possess his mystery, and we are coming back to you — save us from ourselves.” . . . Yes, we will make them work, but in the hours free from labor we will arrange their lives like a children’s game, with children’s songs, choruses, and innocent dancing.

Inverting The Gospel
Inverting the gospel entirely, the Grand Inquisitor declares that only the Master Managers like himself will suffer. Yet these new secular christs of the omnicompetent state will bear their torment heroically. Knowing their totalitarian paternalism to be a gargantuan lie, they nonetheless retain the courage to feed it to the gullible millions: “For only we, we who keep the mystery, only we shall be unhappy. There will be thousands of millions of happy babes, and a hundred thousand sufferers who have taken upon themselves the curse of the knowledge of good and evil. Peacefully [these multiplied millions] will die; peacefully will they expire in [Christ’s] name, and beyond the grave they will find only death. But we will keep the secret, and for their own happiness we will entice them with a heavenly and eternal reward.”

The Final Prophecy Of The Grand Inquisitor
This final prophecy of the Grand Inquisitor is perhaps the most frightening augury in the entirety of Dostoevsky’s work. With amazing prescience, he foresees the rise of the totalitarian state that has dominated much of late–modern life, killing more people by violent means than in all of the previous ages combined. This is the era of blood, and ours is the culture of death. That Dostoevsky mistakenly linked our calamity with the Catholic Church, and that he did not foresee its first triumph in his own beloved Russia, hardly invalidates his vision.

On the contrary, Dostoevsky was right to prophesy that, if we begin (as Ivan does) with absolute anti–communal freedom, we will end (again as Ivan does) with absolute anti–communal slavery, whether in its individualist or its totalitarian form. Were Dostoevsky living at this hour, he might well ask whether the American reduction of nearly every aspect of human existence, including religion itself, to either entertainment or commodification constitutes a yet worse kind of herd–existence than the one Ivan describes — a subtler and therefore deadlier attempt to relieve humanity of its suffering and sin, and thus of its real character and interest.

Given Ivan’s horrifying vision of this grim and Christless future, it is not surprising that Alyosha regards Ivan’s “poem” as praising Jesus rather than reviling him. Yet Alyosha does not commend the Christ of the parable because he commands autonomous self–determination as the answer to a totalizing politics of oppression. Rather, the Jesus of Ivan’s legend is to be praised because his silence indicates his patient confidence that evil will eventually undo itself, and that Ivan is to be embraced rather than condemned in his concern for the suffering of innocents.

Ivan had in fact ended his parable by having the silent Savior gently kiss the Inquisitor on “his bloodless, ninety–year–old lips.” Alyosha instantly recognizes that Ivan’s imagination was groping for the profoundest of all truths — that nothing other than God’s self–emptying love can answer bitter unbelief. To bring home the point, Alyosha repeats Christ’s act: he kisses the tormented Ivan. It’s another Russian iconic gesture of humility and submission, and it calls for a recompensing kiss of humble recognition and identification. Ivan will not grant it, for then he, too, would be called to embrace the same kenotic suffering and joy that imbue Alyosha’s entire life. Instead, Ivan dismisses Alyosha’s act as mere plagiarism. Ivan must rid himself of this Christ–like gesture that is the real answer to human agony. It is appropriate, therefore, that the Inquisitor’s final command to the truth–gesturing Christ who kissed him is not Maranatha , but “Go and do not come again . . . do not come at all . . . never, never!”

If God Is Dead, Everything Is Permitted
Alyosha, as Christ’s earthly embodiment, will not depart. Instead, he confronts Ivan with the moral and religious consequence of his atheism. If God is dead, Alyosha famously declares, “everything is permitted.” We must not misread Alyosha here. He does not deny that men can be moral without believing in God. He insists, instead, that such morality has no ultimate basis, that freedom understood as self–construction hovers over an abyss of nihilism, and thus that all godless peoples and cultures await their inexorable plunge into the barbaric void. The first epistle of John defines sin precisely as lawlessness. Ellis Sandoz observes that John of Damascus, the eighth–century Greek theologian, linked this definition of sin to the larger claim that barbarism is the primal heresy: “Every man as independent and a law unto himself after the dictates of his own will.”

Dostoevsky regards individualist autonomy not only as barbaric but also as satanic. Perhaps the chief of Ivan’s demonic deceptions is the widespread acceptance of the Inquisitor’s argument that “miracle, mystery, and authority” are pathetic necessities for weak–willed men. Just as Ivan misreads freedom to mean unencumbered self–determination, so does the Inquisitor pervert the meaning of miracle, mystery, and authority. Nowhere in the novel does God perform miracles by jumping in and out of His creation like a divine factotum who accedes to human petition if it is sufficiently pious. It is exactly such a sentimental and superstitious understanding of miracles — namely, as God’s arbitrary violation of the natural order to heed clamant human request — that Alyosha is required to surrender. Hoping that Zosima’s corpse would be wondrously preserved, giving off the sweet odor of sanctity, Alyosha is horrified when it putrefies prematurely. The saint’s rapidly rotting body demonstrates to Alyosha that God is not a sacred Santa Claus who brings him whatever he wants. In the “Cana in Galilee” chapter, Alyosha learns that miracles do not precede and thus produce faith; rather, they follow faith as the by–product of the transformed life. That Alyosha can kiss the earth and bless the creation despite its rampant suffering, that he can live as a monk in a sex–sodden world, that he can increase men’s joy amidst human misery as Christ increased it by turning water into wedding wine — this, he learns, is the true miracle: the divine possibility that overcomes human impossibility.

Like a brittle Enlightenment philosophe, perhaps a Diderot or a Comte, the Inquisitor also slanders mystery. He reduces it to a cynical mystification, to a new secular priestcraft, a political anesthetizing of the masses with the morphine of heaven. “For only we, we . . . keep the mystery,” he boasts. For him, mystery can be hoarded as a weapon in his arsenal of deceit, as a spiritual poison gas meant to blind true vision and stifle true thought. For Alyosha and all other believers, by contrast, the mysterion enlivens such vision and thought. It’s a word that can also be translated sacrament. The mystery of God is thus not a riddle or a conundrum, not a brain–straining puzzle; it is the one reality that prompts an endless delectation of mind no less than heart and soul. “In the proper religious sense of the term,” writes Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware, “‘mystery’ signifies not only hiddenness but disclosure. . . . A mystery is . . . something revealed for our understanding, but which we never understand exhaustively because it leads into the depth or the darkness of God.”

Perversely, if also consistently, Ivan has the Inquisitor voice a skewed understanding of authority. He regards it as the tyrannical power of the state or the church to suppress individual autonomy. For him, authority can have only the negative meaning of raw coercive force. For Alyosha, again in notable contrast to the Inquisitor, true authority (both human and divine) invites free submission of the will for the sake of the good — submission to the rightly constituted state, to his elder Zosima, to the incarnate Christ, to the merciful God. Free subjection of the will begins in penitence, as when Zosima confesses that all men are sinners and that he is the worst. It ends in the acceptance, even the embrace, of suffering.

Perhaps the novel’s chief irony is that Ivan has turned rightful religious concern for injured innocents into wrongful personal justification of his own hatred and scorn. Claiming to care about the world’s innocent sufferers, Ivan cannot care for the creature who is his own closest kin, his father. In a nightmare interview with the Devil, Ivan is made to recognize his own moral culpability for his father’s death. He had poisoned Smerdyakov’s mind with the demonic gospel that God is dead and that all things are permitted. Acting out what Ivan had intellectually advocated, Smerdyakov has killed old Fyodor in a dreadful demonstration that, in a godless world, absolutely nothing is forbidden. Since Satan is the primal deceiver, it is no wonder that Ivan has been made into his agent. Dostoevsky maintains that demonic perversions of mind are no mere intellectual failings: they issue in demonic perversions of will. Philosophical deicide results in existential parricide. The mental killing of God breaks the deepest of human bonds. It is thus fitting that Ivan the perverted intellectual should end in madness.

Yet Ivan’s final insanity is not to be explained as psychosis alone. In the Orthodox tradition, to deny the presence and reality of God is to be subject to a psychopathic condition. Not sharing the Western doctrine of original sin, the Orthodox hold that every person retains an efficacious awareness of God, even after the Fall. “Just because it is light,” writes Vladimir Lossky, “grace, the source of revelation, cannot remain within us unperceived. We are incapable of not being aware of God, if our nature is in proper spiritual health. Insensibility [to God] in the inner life is an abnormal condition.” Lossky adds, far more darkly, that total unawareness of God “would be nothing other than hell, the final destruction of the person.” It follows that Zosima is not a golden–hearted humanist when he defines hell as “the suffering of being unable to love.” He is describing Ivan’s spiritual condition exactly. Ivan suffers the hellish laceration of the soul that occurs when freedom is exercised negatively — not to engender life but to bring death. “Death for a person,” declares Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas, “means ceasing to love and to be loved, ceasing to be unique and unrepeatable, whereas life for the person means the survival of the uniqueness of its hypostasis [personification], which is affirmed and maintained by love.”

To possess true freedom and personhood through love is, in Dostoevsky’s view, to suffer rightly. It is to accept responsibility, not only for one’s own sin, but also for the sins of others. All theodicies fail if they do not recognize that only the embrace of innocent suffering can answer the infliction of innocent suffering.

One who is willing to suffer for Christ’s sake must be willing, moreover, to suffer fools. Father Zosima exhibits such foolish suffering when, early in the novel, he makes a low bow of humility before the cruel buffoon who is old Fyodor Karamazov. It is an act utterly unlike the abstentions practiced by Nietzsche’s Übermensch. The Overman is akin to a lion who has claws but refrains from using them. He doesn’t show mercy so much as he seeks to humiliate the weaklings of the world with his contemptuous self–restraint. Though having the rightful authority to condemn the despicable old lecher, Zosima gestures forth his solidarity with Fyodor in bowing down before him.

Unlike the Overman, Zosima identifies himself with the wretched creature. He knows that old Fyodor has become a buffoon, in large part, because everyone regards him as a fool. In secret pride and contempt for others, he fulfills their scornful judgment. Zosima refuses such judgment. He humbles himself before the despicable Fyodor, discerning in him the divine image and likeness: a person meant for agapeistic community rather than buffoonish autonomy.

For Dostoevsky, the gospel of suffering in communal love is the only lasting answer to the perennial problem of evil and thus to the perennial question of human freedom. It is a gospel peculiar neither to East nor West because it is centered in the common Christian ground of the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection.

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Reading Selections from “Dostoevsky and the Mystery of Russia” by David Allen White

October 8, 2010

Fyodor Dostoevsky

This was an article in “Latin Mass” magazine back in 2001. I really enjoyed it and, as is my habit, have hacked it up into reading selections and bolded the good parts. I particularly liked the section dealing with Doestoevsky and  the Roman Catholic Church.  Dr. David Allen White has been for 21 years a professor of World Literature at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD.

The Novel
The novel is the baby of the major literary forms. The lyric poem stretches back to the Homeric Hymns and the Psalms, the epic to Homer; drama prizes were being distributed in Athens in the fifth century B.C. and the short story is as old as the myth, the fables of Aesop and the parables of Our Lord Jesus Christ, not surprisingly a master of the short narrative given His larger creation. The novel, however, rises out of a potent combination of the printing press, the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the rise of the middle class and an increase in leisure time. The new reader with some time on his hands and some pocket money quite reasonably wanted to read about what he knew best  himself. The novel thus is born in realism and becomes the place where the writer captures or recreates the details of recognizable worlds.

Cervantes
The first acclaimed and successful popular novel, and perhaps still the greatest, is Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605). The dusty roads, the inns, the mountains, the cheese and the bread and the rusty armor, all are rooted in a reality new to literature.

Cervantes’ great novel established another significant defining element of the novel at its inception. The early novels were comic in nature. Examining a real world, they of necessity were social. Many of the early novels depicted the usual social dance of love and marriage, work and play, gain and loss. Even the hugely popular Robinson Crusoe (1720) looked at the attempt to build a little world of one’s own on a desert island. Comedy’s central concern is the tension between individuals and the society in which they attempt to live and such tensions rooted the novel in a recognizable, but artistically shaped, real social order.

The Growth of Tragedy
Not until the eighteenth century in France did the novel take a turn down more shadowy lanes. Perhaps because the French knew in their deepest being the dark possibilities of social disruption, their novelists turned the comic dance of the novel into a more solemn walk. Novels such as Manon Lescaut (1731) and Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782) begin to direct the movement of the novel down darker and more haunted paths.

The nineteenth century saw the haunted darkness expand in the gothic novel and the novel of unfulfilled romance. The novel seemed capable of exploring all possibilities of human experience and new perspectives opened up, most importantly, the perspective of the tragic.

Tragedy is the “rara avis” among literary forms. The grandest and most powerful of visions, tragedy is the most difficult to capture. Greece in the fifth century B.C., England at the turn of the seventeenth century, France in the latter part of the seventeenth century all produced tragedy, but the nineteenth century saw tragedy move into new forms, the opera or music drama and the novel. America produced one great tragic novel, Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). When the last golden arch falls into the dust and the last video or computer screen goes blank, America will be remembered for two astonishing accomplishments the placing of a man on the moon, the result of our great science and engineering skills and our great wealth, and a novel about a mad sea captain and a white whale, the product of our troubled spiritual foundations.

Count Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky
Tragedy in the novel reached its apotheosis in the nineteenth century in Russia in the works of those two giants of the long fiction form, Count Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Tolstoy certainly possessed great genius and his accomplishments are remarkable. His influence cannot necessarily be called beneficial, however. His great epic/tragic novel War And Peace serves up a vision of history firmly in line with contemporary philosophical thought. Tolstoy’s view of history denies the “great man” theory of history and, operating in line with Hegelian principles, presents history as an inevitable flow of events. The “great man” in the novel, Napoleon, by trying to impose his own will on events is crushed by the forces of inevitable movement, while the wise old Russian general, Kutuzov, observes the pattern of the sweep of change and accommodates himself to it, thus securing victory. The greatness of Tolstoy’s vision lies not in his illustration of recent theories but in his creation of the world of Russia in the Napoleonic wars, the soirees, the battles, the landscape, the first love of Natasha, the courage of Andrei, the questions of Pierre.

Tolstoy’s greatest tragic vision lies in Anna Karenina, a profound moral tragedy. This masterwork also provides insight into Tolstoy’s Christian vision. He believed himself a Christian and spoke the language of Christianity, but with a restricted vocabulary. Tolstoy’s Christianity is grounded in forgiveness, charity, virtue, brotherhood and peace. It is a vision stripped of the supernatural. This is the reason that Tolstoy became so important to the peace movements of the mid-twentieth century. His views strongly influenced men such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. The crux of this vision of action attaches man only to earth; no transcendent spirituality or drama of eternal salvation informs the work.

Dostoevsky’s Early Years
Dostoevsky’s works bubble over with life-and-death struggles of suffering and loss, salvation and damnation. Born in 1821, he did not come as did most other major Russian writers of the century from the landed gentry. His father, an authoritarian figure, worked as a doctor in a small town. His mother, a devout woman, had an enormous influence on her children. In his later days he stated, “I came from a pious Russian family. In our family we knew the Gospel almost from the cradle.” His mother read him the Gospels as well as the lives of the saints. The tales permeated his imagination from his earliest years.

A single episode from his childhood provided another defining moment in his faith. The family would leave the small town where his father worked to vacation in the countryside. On one such vacation, the young Dostoevsky was walking in the woods when he heard voices shouting that a wolf was loose in the area. The young boy, terrified, began trying to retrace his steps but found himself lost in the woods. He saw a peasant plowing a field in the distance and ran toward him. The man smiled and comforted the boy, pointed him toward home and reassured him by saying his eye would remain on the youngster all the way to the boy’s home. The peasant then said, “Now, Christ be with you, now, go!” and he made the sign of the cross over the child, afterward crossing himself. Dostoevsky remembered that he returned home with a feeling of complete security.

He went to study at a military-engineering school, even though from his earliest days he hoped to be a writer. His father insisted that he receive a science-based education and the young man complied with his father’s wishes. He proved to be an adequate student in a curriculum that along with the science and engineering studies included religion, history, architecture, Russian language and literature, French language and literature, German language and literature, portrait drawing and art history.

He immersed himself in the popular ideas of the day and read heavily in the great romantic writers  Schiller, Hugo, Balzac, his first publication being a translation of Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet. He absorbed a theory of German philosopher and romantic aesthetician Friedrich Schelling who taught him that art is a means of “metaphysical cognition, the means by which the highest transcendent truths are revealed to mankind.” He imagined himself as an artist with a high calling and saw his art as possessing a high mission for the good of the Russian people.

The Petrashevski Group
He served his time in the military and then decided to pursue his life’s ambition to become a writer. His first novel Poor Folk (1846) received very positive reviews as it powerfully stirred up compassion for the disadvantaged, being in line with the social concerns of the day. By 1848 he had begun to associate himself with the Petrashevski group in St. Petersburg, young intellectuals devoted to the study and implementation of the ideas of the French utopian socialists. The socialist movement in St. Petersburg consisted of two separate wings: those who based their ideas on Christian principles of assisting the poor and downtrodden, and the atheist faction who abandoned any mention of Christianity, claiming its adherents had done nothing over the centuries to improve social conditions. Dostoevsky felt himself torn between the two groups, longing to be intellectually radical but possessed of a heart shaped by the Gospel reading and saints’ lives from his childhood.

In 1849 the group was arrested and charged with having read banned material and setting up a printing press to distribute controversial and forbidden material. Dostoevsky was condemned to death with the others. The morning of the execution, wearing the hoods on their heads and hearing the guns cocked, they learned that their sentences had been commuted to exile and imprisonment in Siberia.

The arrival at the prison in Siberia returned his thoughts to his childhood. Outside the walls, women who had followed their husbands into exile waited and watched. They pleaded with the officers to free the new prisoners and when their requests were refused, the women handed copies of the New Testament to the prisoners and, making the sign of the cross in the direction of the inmates, called out blessings on them.

Dostoevsky And The New Testament
Dostoevsky absorbed the New Testament in prison. He also learned an important life lesson. Earlier, in a letter to his brother Mikhail, he had written, “Man is an enigma. This enigma must be solved. And if you spend all your life at it, don’t say you have wasted your time; I occupy myself with this enigma because I wish to be a man.” Part of the enigma clarified for him during his prison years. He discovered that not all the underprivileged were high-minded or good. Many were degenerate scum. He rejected the “noble peasant” idea found in most of Tolstoy’s writing and realized men must be judged one by one, on their individual merits. Social class could not be used as a key to defining character.

He also learned from experience something about the savage nature of human beings. Through observation of his fellow prisoners he saw that we are disordered creatures, subject to outbursts of irrational passions and destructive action. The more the individual personality was confined and controlled, the more subject it became to these frenetic explosions of willfulness. Part of this turbulence could be defined as a desire of the individual will to express its own freedom. Human freedom had a compulsive need to demonstrate its own existence. Dostoevsky’s great biographer Joseph Frank puts the idea this way, “To fulfill this drive, men will sacrifice all other goods and values; and if they are unable to satisfy it in any way, the results can be disastrous.”

His “Disastrous” Freedom
Dostoevsky himself proved this “disastrous” freedom by making a bad marriage in 1858 and giving in to his temptation for gambling, a vice that haunted him for his entire life but did produce his brilliant dissection of the addiction, The Gambler. He also came to be afflicted with epilepsy. He distanced himself from his old friends as his political views became more and more conservative. He saw clearly that man does not above all need material well being in this world, but rather spiritual redemption. What Christ taught mankind, he now knew, was that salvation can come only through suffering. Man must be ready to share the sufferings of Christ in order to find salvation. In a world increasingly absorbed with progress and utopias and comfort, Dostoevsky shouts, “No! Christ lives and what He teaches us is that we must suffer.”

Such belief could be neither easy nor constant in the modern world. “I will tell you that I am a child of the century, a child of disbelief and doubt. I will remain so until the grave. How much terrible torture this thirst for faith has cost me and costs me even now which is all the stronger in my soul the more arguments I can find against it. And yet God sends me sometimes instants when I am completely calm. At those instants I love and feel loved by others and it is at those instants that I have shaped for myself a Credo where everything is clear and sacred to me. This credo is very simple. Here it is: To believe that nothing is more beautiful, profound, sympathetic, reasonable, manly, and perfect than Christ. And I tell myself with a jealous love that not only is there nothing more but there can be nothing more. Even more, if someone proved to me that Christ is outside the truth and that in reality the truth were outside of Christ, then I should prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth.”

His View Of Modern Man
Joseph Frank summarizes Dostoevsky’s view of modern man in this way, “Not to believe in Christ and immortality is to be condemned to live in a senseless universe and the characters in his great novels who reach this level of self-awareness inevitably destroy themselves because by refusing to endure the torment of living without hope they have become monsters in their misery.” This great struggle between belief and disbelief informs all the great novels from Notes From Underground through The Brothers Karamazov. After nursing his wife through her fatal illness and then losing his beloved brother Mikhail, Dostoevsky was granted the grace of a devoted second wife, Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina. Hired to be his secretary, she became his spiritual consolation. He dictated to her the vast fictional canvases on which an array of recognizable human souls struggle with grand passions and high ideas. Dmitri Karamazov says God and the devil are fighting and the battlefield is the heart of man. The novels of Dostoevsky come closer to the core of the modern dilemma than any other body of modern literature and his knowledge of human beings is the keenest in art since Shakespeare.

Dostoevsky As Prophet
But some great artists may also be graced by God with another gift. Some artists have oracular flashes, offering up profound prophetic pronouncements. Such instances stretch from the vision of Vergil in his Fourth Eclogue (37 B.C.) which suggests the coming of Our Lord as a child who will bring a reign of peace to a troubled world to the chilling example of the Japanese man in Strindberg’s play The Great Highway (1909) who announces that he is named for his native town Hiroshima just before he steps into a furnace and is incinerated. No artist ever set down more accurate prophetic pronouncements than Dostoevsky.

In his great novel about the revolutionary movement, Demons (1872), Dostoevsky accurately predicted not only the coming of socialism to Holy Mother Russia, as he termed his country, but also the devastating consequences. At more than one point in the novel, he has characters pronounce the cold fact that the revolution will triumph “by radically lopping off a hundred million heads.” Shigalyov, the character presenting the plan, admits a problem, for “[s]tarting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism.”

Dostoevsky seemed to witness the abyss into which his country would descend in the twentieth century. He combines his vision of the nightmare looming over Russia with the incident of the Gadarene swine from the Gospel of Luke, a passage he uses as one of the epigraphs for the novel. He again quotes the passage from Luke when a character in the novel, Sofya Matveevna Ulitin, a woman who travels from town to town passing out Gospels, reads the words at the request of the dying liberal professor, Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, the man whose soft socialist teaching has unleashed the “demons” in the next generation. After hearing the passage, the dying professor says:

Terribly many thoughts occur to me now: you see, it’s exactly like our Russia. These demons who come out of a sick man and enter into the swine  it’s all the sores, all the miasmas, all the uncleanness, all the big and little demons accumulated in our great and sick man, in our Russia, for centuries, for centuries! Oui, cette Russie que j’aimais toujours. But a great will and a great thought will descend to her from on high, as upon that insane demoniac, and out will come all these demons, all the uncleanness, all the abomination that is festering on the surface…and they will beg of themselves to enter into swine. And perhaps they already have! It is us, us and them, and Petrusha…et les autres avec lui, and I, perhaps, first, at the head, and we will rush, insane and raging, from the cliff down into the sea, and all be drowned, and good riddance to us, because that’s the most we’re fit for.

Russia is presented as a possessed madman, out of whom demons will rush, infect others and push multitudes of those so “possessed” into destruction. The connection with Our Lady’s message to the shepherd children at Fatima on the eve of the Russian revolution is unmistakable: “Russia will spread her errors throughout the world.”

Dostoevsky and the Catholic Church
Dostoevsky makes many Catholic readers uncomfortable. In many of his novels he rails against the Catholic Church. His knowledge of the Catholic Church, however, came largely from the French socialists who had such a profound influence on him in his youth. Dostoevsky viewed the Catholic Church as an institution that had abandoned its spiritual beliefs in a quest to give mankind earthly happiness. He has the Catholic Grand Inquisitor state to Christ in The Brothers Karamazov, “You promised them heavenly bread, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, eternally depraved, and eternally ignoble human race?”10

Dostoevsky related his sense of how the Catholic social preoccupation worked. “The Catholic priest searches out some miserable worker’s family and gains their confidence. He feeds them all, gives them clothes, provides heating, looks after the sick, buys medicine, becomes the friend of the family and converts them to Catholicism.”11 This sense of the socially obsessed Catholic Church which places earthly comfort before redemptive suffering and peace on earth before peace of soul must make any post-Vatican II Catholic uncomfortable in its precision. The only error when applied to the Novus Ordo Church is that the priest would no longer attempt to convert the family. The sentimental socialism of the nineteenth-century French intellectuals whom Dostoevsky came to despise found a happy home in the post-conciliar Church.

With his insistence on suffering and salvation, the supernatural and sacrifice, Dostoevsky echoes many of the teachings of the Catholic Church. With his prophetic vision of a possessed Russia unleashing her demons into the world, he echoes the prophecies of Fatima, and not only those prophecies that already come to fruition. The above quoted words from the deathbed of Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky in Demons conclude with the following remarks:

But the sick man will be healed and “sit at the feet of Jesus”…and everyone will look in amazement…. Dear, vous comprenez apres, but it excites me very much now…. Vous comprenez apres…. Nous comprendrons ensemble.

Russia will be healed; Russia will sit at the feet of Our Savior and the whole world will be amazed. “In the end my Immaculate Heart will triumph, Russia will be converted and a period of peace will be granted to mankind.” Heaven granted this man, a modernist, a tormented doubter, a gambler and epileptic, a foe of socialistic Catholicism, a novelist, a glimpse of the Fatima prophecies before heaven chose to reveal them to the world, a fact that presents us with mysteries as to the nature of art and the will of God. In his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov , Dostoevsky has the wise elder Father Zossima on the brink of the grave say, “This star [the image of Christ] will shine forth from the East.” The same promise has been given us by Our Lady and we who suffer here in the maelstrom of the modern atheistic, materialistic world still await that glorious moment.

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Reading Doestoevsky’s The Idiot On A Metaphysical-Religious Level

August 10, 2010

 

Holbein's "Deposition of Christ"

Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot in 1867–1869, and today it is considered one of his greatest works, along with Notes from Underground (1864), Crime and Punishment (1866), The Possessed (1872), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880). In The Idiot Dostoevsky hoped to portray the ideal of a “positively beautiful individual,” a man who wishes to sacrifice himself for others. Prince Myshkin is a sort of Russian Christ who represents the values Dostoevsky deemed the highest and most noble: altruism, meekness, kindness, and brotherly love.

As Dostoevsky saw sexual passion as inherently selfish, it is not surprising that Prince Myshkin is a completely asexual character. Though he develops romantic feelings toward Aglaya, he subordinates them to a higher ideal of pity and compassion that he expresses in his relationship with Nastassya Filippovna. Facing the “dark world” of corruption and moral decay that he meets in society, he inevitably perishes.

On the metaphysical-religious level Prince Myshkin and Ippolit Terentyev are the main antagonists. Although Ippolit has no objective reason to hate Myshkin, he senses in him an ideological adversary: “I hate you all, every one of you ! — it’s you, Jesuitical, treacly soul, idiot, philanthropic millionaire; I hate you more than every one and everything in the world! I understood and hated you long ago, when first I heard of you: I hated you with all the hatred of my soul” (335/249). There is extrinsic evidence that Dostoevsky himself saw things in this way. “Ippolit is the main axis of the whole novel,” we read in his notebook (277). Kolya speaks of Ippolit’s “gigantic idea” without defining it. But the fact that Ippolit’s idea is apparently developed further and commented on by Kirillov in The Possessed allows us to identify the “gigantic idea” as the rejection of an absurd life. It is up to Myshkin to refute this idea.

In effect, Ippolit reverses what is known as the argument for the existence of God “from design”: the actual condition of the world is in his experience such that it makes faith in God impossible. The conflict between Myshkin’s faith and Ippolit’s revolt parallels the antinomy [vocab: a contradiction between two statements that seem equally reasonable] of Christ absolute spiritual significance and the particular facts of history, Christ’s promise of immortality and physical death continuing as ever before.

The repeated introduction of the theme of execution and Ippolit’s condition as a man doomed to death before he has started to live leads up to the scene in front of Holbein’s “Deposition of Christ,” a picture that could cause a man to lose his faith, as Myshkin observes. Ippolit, referring to the same picture, utters the ultimate challenge to faith:

The question instinctively arises: if death is so awful and the laws of nature so mighty, how can they be overcome? How can they be overcome when even He did not conquer them, He who vanquished nature in His lifetime, who exclaimed. “Maiden, arise!” and the maiden arose — ”Lazarus, come forth!” and the dead man came forth? Looking at such a, picture, one conceives of nature in the shape of an immense, merciless, dumb beast, or more correctly, much more correctly, speaking, though it sounds strange, in the form of a. huge machine of the most modern construction which, dull and insensible, has aimlessly clutched, crushed and swallowed up a great priceless Being, a Being worth all nature and its laws, worth the whole earth, which was created perhaps solely for the sake of the advent of that Being. (451/339)

The helplessness of mortal man facing inexorable nature causes Ippolit to draw some practical and hypothetical conclusions. He realizes that he could commit the most heinous crime with guaranteed impunity because his case would assuredly not come to trial: he would die before under the solicitous care of the authorities, who would be anxious to keep him alive for his trial. This conceit presages Ivan Karamazov’s maxim: “If there is no immortality, everything is lawful.” On the practical side, too, Ippolit realizes that every conceivable activity or plan he might consider is made senseless by his impending death.

Furthermore, Ippolit reaches the same conclusion as Kirillov does, with a more elaborate argumentation: choosing the time of his own death by committing suicide is the only way in which he can assert his independence from the dumb power of nature. Like his successor in The Possessed, Ippolit is loath to admit that his suicide will be an act of despair more than an act of revolt. Vladimir Solovyov, in his third “Discourse on Dostoevsky” (1883), made the point that any man who becomes aware of universal evil, as Ippolit does, but is unable to see also universal good — that is, God — is inevitably driven to suicide. Ippolit in fact perceives nature not only as indifferent but also as malevolent, cruel, and mocking. At the same time, he is unaware of any beneficent saving principle.

Like Ivan Karamazov, Ippolit does not explicitly deny the existence of God but resolutely rejects His world: “So be it! I shall die looking straight at the source of power and life; I do not want this life! If I’d had the power not to be born, I would certainly not have accepted existence upon conditions that are such a mockery” (457/344). Yet at the same time Ippolit — again like his successors Kirillov and Ivan Karamazov — loves life and asks why he must be so alienated from it: “What is there for me in this beauty when, every minute, every second I am obliged, forced, to recognize that even the tiny fly, buzzing in the sunlight beside me, has its share in the banquet and the chorus, knows its place, loves it and is happy; and I alone am an outcast” (45 5/ 343). Myshkin, a few pages later, echoes Ippolit’s sentiment (466/352).26 The theme of man’s discord with God’s world is made explicitly anti-Christian as Ippolit sarcastically rejects the Prince’s “Christian arguments, at the happy thought that it is in fact better to die” (455/342).

Ippolit himself suggests an escape from this situation: perhaps man or, rather, man’s conscious mind does not understand the world correctly and human alienation from the cosmos is due to a misunderstanding of some divine truth. It is up to Prince Myshkin to resolve this misunderstanding, although Ippolit has unwittingly found the resolution himself when he quits staring at Meyer’s wall (the wall is a symbol of the cul-desac into which reason takes man even in Notes from Underground) and becomes involved in the fate of another human being, the unfortunate young doctor who gets another chance at life through his efforts.

Myshkin, who is specifically identified as a self-proclaimed Christian believer (423/3 17), presents the alternative to Ippolit’s self-conscious solipsism: personal experience of a reality that transcends individuality. Vladimir So1ovyos who was the first to translate Dostoevsky’s fiction into the language of academic philosophy, said, “Nature, separated from the Divine Spirit, appears to be a dead and senseless mechanism without cause or goal — and on the other hand, God, separated from man and nature, outside His positive revelation, is for us either an empty abstraction or an all consuming indifference.” Dostoevsky set himself the task to realize this “positive revelation” in a fictional character. Prince Myshkin’s role as a symbol of man’s salvation is enhanced by many significant details that make him a Christ figure.

Extrinsic evidence (Dostoevsky’s notebooks and correspondence) suggests that in Prince Myshkin Dostoevsky wanted to create an absolutely beautiful character, though fully aware of the insurmountable difficulty of this task. Mochulsky suggested that Dostoevsky’s artistic tact caused him to halt “before the immensity of this task” and made him reduce the Prince to something closer to ordinary human stature. Rut we know that Dostoevsky never relinquished his plan to write “a book about Jesus Christ.”

An entry to this effect is found in one of his last notebooks. In surveying world literature, Dostoevsky came to the conclusion that Christ was the only character in all literature to answer the definition of an “absolutely beautiful character” and that the closest approximation to it was Don Quixote, a wise madman and ridiculous to boot. Accordingly, Myshkin was made not only a Christ figure but a quixotic figure as well, with Don Quixote a notable and explicit presence in the text. The fact that Myshkin is explicitly presented as a Christ figure makes the observation, appealing in itself, that Myshkin’s story is a version of the Dionysian myth somewhat redundant. The notion that Jesus Christ was yet another hypostasis of “the. suffering god” was around before Nietzsche popularized it.

Prince Myshkin returns to his native Russia from the mountains of Switzerland and returns there at the end of the novel. An innocent idealist, he enters a cruel, greedy, mercenary, decadent, but functioning society that refuses to appreciate his virtues. Kjetsaa has suggested that the ‘Johannine principle of the word made flesh and entering the world was the idea. that guided Dostoevsky in creating this character. Prince Myshkin is of ancient noble lineage but impoverished and a recipient of charity until informed that he has come into a large inheritance, which he claims on his return to Russia.

His physical appearance reminds one of an icon qf a Russian saint, and he has some pronounced monkish traits tie is a virgin at twenty-six, painfully chaste, has a love for medieval manuscripts and calligraphy, even wears a cloak that resembles a monk’s cassock and cowl He has a saint’s humility, an unconditional willingness to forgive any., wrong, and ‘refuses to be provoked to anger. by violence.’ When Ganya slaps his face he responds by saying, “Oh, how ashamed you will be of what you’ve done” (142/99)

Rogozhin calls him “such a sheep,” and he is called an “idiot” by various parties throughout the novel, although he is during the whole action of the novel obviously quite sane. His “terrible power of humility” (an idea of Myshkin’s, echoed by Ippolit) is that of the kenotic3’ Christ of the Eastern church, Christ who has divested Himself of all His glory and may appear in the hypostasis of a humble beggar.

Myshkin has other Christ-like traits. He is pure, in mind and a virgin He is attracted to children (90/57—58) He pities Marie, a “fallen woman,” and meets with the hostility of self-righteous local authorities, the pastor and the schoolmaster. The many blatant biblical echoes in the tale of Marie (the parable of the prodigal son, the washing of feet, the Mary Magdalene theme) enhance Myshkin’s Christ-like image. He seems clairvoyant, though his penetrating understanding of people is psychologically motivated by the genuine interest he takes in people and by his willingness to see things from their viewpoint (for example, 23 8/172 and 469/354). He inwardly relives not only all the terrible suffering that is part of the human condition, but also the evil and murderous passions that cause it. He knows very well how Rogozhin feels. Aglaya at one point says that though he is sometimes “sick in his mind,” he has more wisdom than all other people and that of all the people she knows only her mother has some of that wisdom (471-72/356).

Before the tragic plot comes to a head, Myshkin for a moment considers to escape it all, perhaps to return to Switzerland, but then decides that this would be cowardly and that he will have to enter this world and meet the challenge that it offers him (344/256). This suggests that Myshkin, like Jesus Christ, has a mission

In spite of all his moral qualities, Prince Myshkin is an apparent failure. He returns to the mental asylum he came from without having significantly affected the lives of most people he met. They “go on living as before and have changed but little” (668/508). A notebook entry confirms this but adds, “But wherever he did touch someone, he left an indelible trace everywhere” (242). The Prince may be held responsible for Nastasya Filippovna’s tragic and Aglaya’s disappointing fates.

There are critics who understand the allegoric message of The Idiot to be a negative one. Murray Krieger properly entitled his interpretation “The Curse of Saintliness.” Some other critics have suggested that although Dostoevsky’s original intent was to present a positive alternative to Ippolit’s pessimistic existential philosophy, the integrity of his creative imagination forced him to let Myshkin, Ippolit’s ideological antagonist, fail dismally. These critics do  consider the fact that Jesus Christ was in their terms a failure: people went on living as before and changed but little even after He departed this world. Some of the most beloved saints of the Russian church were not successful prelates but humble martyrs or “fools in Christ.” Myshkin’s response to Ippolit’s challenge has to be found in something other than the plot of the novel.

Edward Wasiolek, in his book Dostoevsky: The Major Fiction (1964), put it this way; “The..Prince is a success because for a moment he is able to kindle the faith in others of a truer image of themselves; for a few minutes he is able to quiet, by his own suffering, the rage of insult upon insult.” This moves success from the level of action and good deeds to the level of attitudes of the human soul. Kjetsaa, among others, has pointed out that it is precisely this idea that answers the question as to the novel’s religious message. He suggests that in the context of Dostoevsky’s Russian Orthodox faith the attitude of a man’s heart, his responsiveness to God’s grace, the degree of his spirituality, rather than his moral accomplishments, are the measure of a Christian’s progress.

In a conversation with Rogozhin in chapter 4 of part 2, Myshkin brings up this topic. He tells of a murderer who begs God for mercy even as he cuts his victim’s throat and of a young mother who crosses herself as she sees the first smile on her baby’s face, then observes that “religious feeling does not come under any sort of reasoning or atheism, and has nothing to do with any crimes or misdemeanors” (252-53/183-84). Dostoevsky’s works have a pattern of tolerance of sins of commission. His drunks, thieves, frauds, and even murderers are often treated with sympathy. They also have a pattern of stern judgment of sins of omission — that is, a lack of compassion, kindness, and forgiveness.

With his own example and with those that he reports, Prince Myshkin acknowledges the irresoluble antinomy between the Orthodox Christian’s position and that of the unbeliever. Michael Holquist has defined this antinomy in terms of two aspects of time: chronos and /kairos. There is unstoppable, irretrievable, entropic chronos: Nastasya Filippovna cannot retrieve her innocence, Myshkin cannot stop the unfolding catastrophe, Rogozhin cannot escape his fate. Christ died on the cross, a son of man, nor did He stop the course of history..

This is the only kind of time the unbeliever Ippolit knows, time as man’s enemy, time the destroyer and the bringer of death. But there is also kairos: the good time, the right time, the moment of epiphany, the moment when chronos comes to a stop, all of which Ippolit mockingly rejects (425/318). It is here that Myshkin’s epilepsy acquires a symbolic meaning. He is subject to the course of time in a real world (only Christ is beyond time), but during the moment of ecstasy before a fit time does have a stop (258/188). The experience described by Myshkin is real and not to be confused with “abnormal and unreal visions” triggered by opium, hashish, or wine; it is in fact an experience of reality quintessentially compressed.

Early on in the novel, Myshkin expresses his intuitive awareness of a reality other than that of mundane experience: “I kept fancying that if I walked straight on, far, far away and reached that line where sky and earth meet, there I should find the key to the mystery, there I should see a new life a thousand times richer and more turbulent than ours” (82/51).

Myshkin’s function on the religious-metaphysical level of the novel is “not to alter the course of the action but to disseminate the aura of a new state of being.” This “state of being” is one of communion and unity with the all, with God, and hence with nature and humanity. Somewhat surprisingly the explicit statement to this effect is made by Ippolit and not by Prince Myshkin: “In scattering the seed, scattering your ‘charity,’ your kind deeds, you are giving away, in one form or another, part of your personality, and taking into yourself part of another; you are in mutual communion with one another… All your thoughts, all the seeds scattered by you, perhaps forgotten by you, will grow up and take form” (447/336).

This “state of being” means overcoming the separation from God, nature, and humanity that comes in the wake of human individuation and surrender to hostile chronos. This victory over human alienation is easier for the Orthodox Christian, since Orthodox Christianity, taking a less extreme view of the effect of original sin than the Western church, perceives man as inherently divine as well as earthly, while Western Christendom stresses man’s sinful earthly nature. To Dostoevsky, at Orthodox Christian, moments in which man’s divine nature allows him to commune with God and His cosmos are a part of reality

Ippolit, an unbeliever and a self-centered, alienated individual looking for the absolute but finds none because he looks for it for and within himself. Myshkin, a believer, gratefully accepts what God, nature, and men bring him because he has overcome his sense of separateness. At one point Prince S. suggests that Myshkin believes in finding paradise on earth (380/ 282). However, in several passages in the novel we learn that Myshkin at one time suffered precisely from a sense of separateness and alienation: “What affected me most was that everything was strange [chuzhoe, which is perhaps better translated by “alien”]; I realized that. I was crushed by the strangeness of it. I was finally roused from this gloomy state, I remember, one evening on reaching Switzerland at Bâle, and I was roused by the bray of an ass in the marketplace” (78-79/ 48).

Later in the novel, Myshkin remembers how he had “stretched out his hand to that bright, infinite blue, and had shed tears” because “he was utterly outside all this” (466/351). However, Myshkin’s alienation is different from Ippolit’s. It is not alienation through individuation, the inevitable result of human free will and a condition that follows the fall from grace, but rather the pristine condition of a soul that is awakening to a consciousness of self, of its freedom, and of God.

The allegoric role of Nastasya Filippovna is announced early in the novel. As Myshkin is left alone with her photograph, he raises it to his lips and kisses it (104/68). Adelaida, on seeing it, says: “With beauty like that one might turn the world upside down” (105/69). Nastasya Fi1ippovna is no ordinary beauty. (Adelaida, it must be noted, is herself an exceptionally handsome woman.) Nastasya Filippovna’s is a beauty illuminated by an aura of the ideal. Mochulsky, who on the empirical plane describes Nastasya Filippovna as a “proud beauty” and “wronged heart,” projects her on the metaphysical plane as “a symbol of beauty,” seduced and degraded by “the prince of this world.”

Myshkin immediately recognizes in her divine Psyche, an emanation of the world soul. In a somewhat less fanciful way, one may see Nastasya Filippovna as a symbol of pure beauty cast into a world that is incapable of appreciating beauty. Totsky, Ganya, Epanchin, and Rogozhin, each in his own way, futilely seek to possess her. Totsky, who fancies himself an aesthete, is really a common lecher, who reduces the radiant beauty of an innocent maiden to the glamor of a demimondaine.

Rogozhin, obsessed with the urge to possess her, does not realize that he is pursuing beauty, an ideal entity, which must inevitably elude his violent carnal passion. Nastasya Filippovna tells him that his passion for her is no different from his father’s obsession with the accumulation of money, also a futile pursuit of a forever elusive goal. Rogozhin, wiser than his father, kills her. Only Myshkin can perceive the ideal of pure beauty in her. Myshkin, who says that “beauty will save the world,” cannot save Nastasya Filippovna. The very context (423/317) suggests that he was wrong. This agrees with the message of The Brothers Karamazov, where Dimitry Karamazov, a believer in the power of beauty, learns that it is not beauty that saves the world, but faith.

Nastasya Filippovna’s beauty suffers the same fate as Prince Myshkin’s saintliness. In mundane, temporal terms, it does not save anyone. It does turn the world upside down, and it causes Nastasya Filippovna and all the men around her nothing but grief. But as a vision, as the symbo1of an ideal, it is an immediate revelation of the divine. Again, this makes more sense in an Orthodox Christian context than it does in a secular context.

The Orthodox belief that ideally the human face has retained the divine features of God’s face, a belief on which the worship of icons is based, makes Prince Myshkin’s reaction to Nastasya Filippovna’s portrait more understandable.

The irresoluble contradiction between two opposing principles is underlined by recurrent bursts of strident dissonance, scandal, and violence that disturb the otherwise placid world of middle-class St. Petersburg. Prince Myshkin’s appearance coincides with an eruption of disorder, discord, and ultimately misery and death in the world he has entered. This is allegorically significant. The temporal world to which Christ descended was one of discord and violence. The disharmonious world of The Idiot falls in line with the orientation of modern religious novels by Graham Greene, François Mauriac, Heinrich Boll, Anthony Burgess, and others.

The conjuring of scandals is one of Dostoevsky’s great specialties, and The Idiot features a long line of them. The Prince is a party to a series of scandalous scenes. Varya spits in her brother’s face, who tries to attack her, is stopped by the Prince, and slaps the Prince’s face (142/99). Rogozhin’s drunken crowd crashes the genteel gathering at Nastasya Filippovna’s, and a climactic scandalous scene ensues (184/131-32). Nastasya Filippovna disrupts a gathering that has already seen much unpleasantness by announcing that Rogozhin has bought up Evgeny Pavlovich’s IOUs (337/251). A bit later there comes the horsewhipping scene (391/291).

The scene between Aglaya and Nastasya Filippovna ends in another scandal. Finally, Nastasya Filippovna runs away from her wedding. Myshkin is unable to prevent any of these scandals. Yet his reaction is in each case that of a Christian, not to say that of a Christ figure. The allegoric message of this is that religious feeling “has nothing to do with crimes and misdemeanors” or, more specifically, that the essence of religion does not lie in the successful prevention or curtailment of scandalous behavior, impropriety, violence, or crime but in a willingness to meet these acts with forebearance, kindness, and courage.

The same applies to a series of executions that appear in the text in one form or another throughout the novel. They are another symbol of the jarring dissonance between the principles of chronos and kairos. Myshkin brings up this theme twice at the very outset of the novel and immediately establishes the cruel paradox it entails:

The uncertainty and feeling of aversion for that new thing which would be and was just coming was awful. But he said that nothing was so dreadful at that time as the continual thought, “What if I were not to die! What if I could go back to life — what eternity! And it would all be mine! I would turn every minute into an age; I would lose nothing, I would count every minute as it passed, I would not waste one!” He said that this idea turned to such a fury at last that he longed to be shot quickly. (83-84/52)

The point of this is, of course, that the condemned man will, if his life will be indeed spared, go back on his promise to live a life beyond the tyranny of chronos. He will not “turn every minute into an age” but will waste it, as most men do most of the time.

Subsequently several further executions are brought up. The Countess Du Barry pleads with her executioner for another moment of life (227/164). The boyar [vocab: A member of a class of higher Russian nobility that until the time of Peter I headed the civil and military administration of the country] Stephan Glebov, impaled under Peter the Great, Chancellor Osterman, who went through a mock execution (571-72/432-33), and finally Thomas More (580/440) are brought up to illustrate the idea that in earlier days men were “of one idea” and therefore capable of making death a meaningful part of their existence, while “modern men are broader-minded — and I swear that this prevents their being so all-of-a-piece as they were in those days” (572/433).

We also hear that the Prince is “collecting facts relating to capital punishment” (426/319). There is also the description of Holbein’s “Deposition of Christ,” Ippotit’s “Essential Explanation,” and the death of Nastasya Filippovna under Rogozhin’s knife. In all of these instances Prince Myshkin is more than a passive observer. Rather, he vicariously experiences each death as though it were his own, each execution as though he were the victim — and the executioner. This powerful assertion of dissonance, discord, and death is deeply meaningful, because it does not disturb the Prince faith or his serene acceptance of the world as it is.

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