Dostoevsky

Dos_we are all connected memeFeodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) needs no introduction.  There are so many specialized studies of his literature, his philosophy, his social relationships and biography as well as investigations into how he influenced generation after generation of Russians and people around the entire world!

As a thumbnail, we can say he was a Russian novelist, philosopher, and critic who condemned the tsarist police and political system, as well as the growing radical revolutionary movements. From a perspective of spiritual philosophy and my particular studies in Russian intellectual history, part of what makes Dostoevsky so fascinating is his struggle to integrate traditional Slavophile themes with the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.

I was first introduced to Dostoevsky in high school.  Crime and Punishment was mandatory reading in our grade 10 or 11 syllabus at my school and initially what we all noticed was how difficult it was to pronounce, verbalize and retain all these foreign-sounding surnames chock full of consonants!  Fortunately, I was blessed with a superb English teacher, who first made us memorize and recite back the whole cast of characters, thereby removing that impediment.

From there, we embarked on this whirlwind voyage into the mind of a very twisted, alienated and frustrated human being who kept musing about so many inconvenient, existential questions as he worked himself into the necessary state of mind to commit murder… and try to get away with it!  I still think it’s one of the best illustrations of NIHILISM — what it feels like when we human beings give up on ourselves and accept ourselves as nothing more than matter, a speck of dirt, worthless and hopeless.  It was very sad.

At University, given my specialization into Russian Intellectual History and concomitant to my Russian language studies, I ended up reading many more essays and novels by the great Dostoevsky.  The one that resonated the most for me, however, was the dreamy, idealistic, thought-provoking treatise: The Brothers Karamazov.  While the whole chapter on the Grand Inquisitor required read after read disentangling all the philosophical and theological implications, it was Ivan’s rebellious plea to conscience that has stayed with me throughout my life:

“Imagine that it is you yourself are erecting the edifice of human destiny with the aim of making men happy in the end, of giving them peace and contentment at last, but that to do that it is absolutely necessary, and indeed quite inevitable, to torture to death only one tiny creature, the little girl who beat her breast with her little fist, and to found the edifice on her unavenged tears – Would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me and do not lie!”

—Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 1861[i]

The Grand Inquisitor is also, however, a very trenchant and compelling treatise on the sorry state humanity often falls into when we forsake the beautiful realization of freedom, for safety and security in the here and now.  Here is the climatic scene in Ivan’s poem as The Grand Inquisitor berates the Prisoner (Christ) for not accepting Satan’s offer of temptation during the 40 days of lent:

“”You want to go into the world and you are going empty-handed, with some promise of freedom, which men in their simplicity and their innate lawlessness cannot even comprehend, which they fear and dread – for nothing has ever been more unendurable to men and to human society than freedom!…

But you did not want to deprive man of freedom and rejected the offer, for, you thought, what sort of freedom is it if obedience is bought with loaves of bread? You replied that man does not live by bread alone…

And then we shall finish building their tower [the Tower of Babel], for he who feeds them will complete it, and we alone shall feed them in your name, and we shall lie to them that it is in your name.  Oh, without us they will never, never feed themselves.  No science will give them bread so long as they remain free. But in the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, “We don’t mind being your slaves so long as you feed us!” They will, at last, realize themselves that there cannot be enough freedom and bread for everybody, for they will never, never be able to let everyone have his fair share! They will also be convinced that they can never be free because they are weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious.

You promised them bread from heaven, but I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, always vicious and always ignoble race of man? And if for the sake of bread from heaven thousands and tens of thousands will follow you, what is to become of the millions and scores of thousands of millions of creatures who will not have the strength to give up the earthly bread for the bread of heaven?Or are only the scores of thousands of the great and strong dear to you, and are the remaining millions, numerous as the sand of the sea, who are weak, but who love you, to serve only as the material for the great and the strong?  No, to us the weak, too, are dear.  They are vicious and rebellious, but in the end they will become obedient too.  They will marvel at us and they will regard us as goods because, having become their masters, we consented to endure freedom and rule over them – so dreadful will freedom become to them in the end! [2]


 

  • [1] Fyodor M. Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. David Magarshack (London: Penguin Books, 1982), 287.
  • [2] Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 296-297.

 

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