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Something (attempting to be) Profound. For Virgil :D

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In many of his books, the famous Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky lays out, in fiction, ideas that he has struggled through and resolved. In The Brothers Karamazov, his classic novel of ideas, he boldly explores several philosophical issues by creating a dialogue between each side. Especially in books V and VI, he deals with the question of what it means to love humanity by a dialogue between Ivan and Alyosha. In the two chapters, two understandings of both love and humility and their interactions with evil are presented in comprehensive worldviews – first in Ivan's intellectual humanism, then in Alyosha's deep orthodoxy. From the two worldviews a number of questions stem. Does one love humanity objectively or subjectively? Does one love humanity or the God behind humanity? Both men answer differently, and both men's stories end very differently and with very different results. This paper, after examining both worldviews, demonstrates that Ivan’s worldview breaks down because he tries to understand humanity from outside itself, whereas Alyosha’s worldview is victorious because he understands humanity from within itself.

Alyosha, as a devout monk, starts with an all-encompassing definition of love, based on Christ. “Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all God's creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it,” said Father Zossima, Alyosha's beloved spiritual leader and the source of most of the religious themes in the book.1 Alyosha, responding to Ivan's passionate declaration that he loves life, tells Ivan to “love life above everything in the world,” because when a man loves life more than its meaning, he will understand what it means.2

Because of his perspective, Ivan's philosophy is almost diametrically opposed to Zossima's. As a philosophical skeptic, Ivan cannot accept Zossima's worldview because Ivan tries to look at humanity objectively. By looking at humanity from the outside, however, the only thing he is able to see is that there is more evil than good in humanity. Not surprisingly, his worldview turns out to be ultimately self-defeating. Ivan finds that he really is a “young and fresh and nice boy, green in fact!” despite all his attempts to be a rational young philosophe.3 After being scorned by the woman he loves, Ivan realizes that even if he is “struck by every horror of man's disillusionment,” he would still want to live life to the fullest!4 He cannot even manage to consistently despise humanity. Despite his atheistic intellectualism, he “love[s] the sticky little leaves as they open in spring. I love the blue sky, I love some people[...]I love some great deeds done by men, though I've long ceased perhaps to have faith in them[...]”5 Love, he realizes, is not a matter of intellect or logic, but what he calls “loving with one's inside, with one's stomach.”6 He considers this helpless love of life illogical, and yet he loves it in spite of himself.7 Ivan Karamazov is a full-fledged stormy Romantic. He accepts God, but cannot bring himself to accept God's world, even though he knows it exists.8 Like a good Romantic, he loves humanity as an abstract but not as the physical, real man living next door. “It's just one's neighbours, to my mind, that one can't love, though one might love those at a distance,” he confesses to Alyosha.9

But Ivan does not stop there. He discusses his worldview further in his prose poem “The Grand Inquisitor,” a dramatic parable set in the time of the Spanish Great Inquisition, where Christ comes again to earth. All humanity recognizes Him, and He begins working miracles when the Grand Inquisitor appears and sternly carries Him off for questioning. He asks Him: have You come to hinder us from doing Your work, when we have finally corrected Your mistakes?10 When Christ is silent, the Grand Inquisitor proceeds to tell Him that His error was in giving mankind too much freedom, instead of heeding the words of Satan when he tempted Christ in the desert. He continues, saying that all the unsolved historical contradictions of human nature are found in the three things Christ rejected during His temptation.11 In the name of true freedom, Christ refused to use miracle, mystery, and authority both to subdue man and to make him happy.12 The Grand Inquisitor admits that man needs more than bread to live for, but that man would prefer “peace and even death, to the freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil.”13 By refusing Satan's counsel, he says, Christ refused to satisfy the sum of man's desires: “some one to worship, some one to keep his conscience, and some means of [...]universal unity.”14 So in a move that is both touching and horrifying at once, the Grand Inquisitor reveals that for the last eight centuries he and the church have been working with Satan, all in the name of making a stupid, unlovable, ignoble humanity happy in the present, even if that means leading them merrily to destruction in the afterlife.15 Christ's response is silence – and a smile and kiss for the old man before He leaves.

At least one chief source of the Grand Inquisitor's ire toward Christ is, ironically, a major source of Alyosha's love for Christ: Christ's Incarnation. Redemption was accomplished by God come to the world in the form of a man, emptied of glory, who experienced the life of a perfect human being before being crucified, rising from the dead, and ascending to heaven.16 That Christ was Incarnate implies that God values humanity, crass and unenlightened as the Grand Inquisitor thinks it. The Grand Inquisitor wants to transcend pathetic humanity to become the Savior of humanity himself. In a twisted interpretation of Philippians 2:5-11, he wants to be equal with God, but retain and increase his glory as a man. He is attempting to exalt himself above God by correcting His work.17 For the Grand Inquisitor, “loving humanity” means taking away man's freedom because man does not want it and cannot handle it, not even for the sake of his conscience and freedom.18 For Christ, “loving humanity” means the doctrines of redemption, justification, and sanctification. Although the Grand Inquisitor does not love humankind the way Alyosha does, Ivan says that the Grand Inquisitor had an incurable love of humanity. His way of showing love for humanity, however, was in giving them finite happiness, instead of the long-term goal of reaching the perfection and freedom that comes from Christ.19

The fundamental difference between Ivan and Alyosha is that Ivan withdraws himself from the world and judges man from the outside. Alyosha, on the other hand, loves humanity from within itself; he loves it as a sinner and a man and part of a whole. By virtue of being finite, rather than divine, Ivan is unable to see beyond the flaws, and does not dare love the filthiness he sees because the paradox between good and evil is an unbridgeable gulf to him. Ivan cannot love humanity for its cruelty and ugliness – but is unable to forget that he is not only a man but also a base Karamazov. So for him the rule of life is: Anything is permissible.20 Man is a savage, vicious beast; in fact, he says, the marvelous thing “is not that God should really exist; the marvel is that such an idea, the idea of the necessity of God could enter the head of such a savage, vicious beast as man. So holy it is, so touching, so wise and so great a credit it does man.”21 Yet when he brings God to the problem of evil he recoils. In his conversation with Alyosha, Ivan lays out an intensely painful series of stories of child cruelty that he has collected and asks Alyosha: “Can you admit the idea that men for whom you are building [a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy] would agree to accept their happiness on the foundation of the unexpiated blood of a little victim?”22 Hence the reason Ivan attempts to honorably “return the ticket” to God: Justice is still waiting to be meted out.23

Ivan thinks the problem of theodicy is insurmountable, which leads him to despair and to believe that everything is lawful. However, Zossima and Alyosha do not make the same mistake that Ivan does. They do not impose human order on God. They are content to have faith that the problem of evil is a mystery to them, but not to God. Ivan acknowledges that because God created the world in terms of Euclidean geometry Ivan can never expect to understand God, but he uses that as justification to think in purely finite terms.24 Because he creates this obstacle for himself, Ivan cannot grasp the implications of Christ's love. “To my thinking,” he says, “Christ-like love for men is a miracle impossible on earth. He was God. But we are not gods.”25 He is correct in saying that man is not infinite, but he does not realize that God, because of the Incarnation, does know – exactly and wholly – what being human means. Christ loves humankind in spite of its sins. Take, for example, the end of “The Grand Inquisitor.” It ends with Christ lovingly kissing the old man on his lips and leaving with his permission – leaving with Philippians 2:5-11 still very much true, despite the Grand Inquisitor's attempt to place human constructs on God. His final message to the Grand Inquisitor was of boundless love and mercy, a chance to change and a promise that at the right time all wrongs will be righted, despite the old man's painfully human propensities. This is the message Zossima claims – that through unlimited oceans of love the world will be saved.26

Ivan Karamazov despises humanity because he does not know its foundation, which is God. Ivan is repulsed by humankind because he is ultimately just a man himself, and a Karamazov, and worse, a hopeless one. Smerdyakov's crude attempt to become Ivan's equal by killing Fyodor Karamazov shows Ivan the logical conclusion of his philosophy – that because everything is lawful, Smerdyakov could construe Ivan's unthinking actions as permission to murder his father.27 It is logical, then, for Ivan to want humankind to be stupid, even if it is unlovable. He says that “Intelligence is a knave, but stupidity is honest and straightforward.”28 Expanding on the same point, the Grand Inquisitor tells Christ, “By showing [man] so much respect, Thou didst, as it were, cease to feel for him, for Thou didst ask far too much from him!”29 It would have been more loving, he says, to have asked less of man, and to have freed him from the burden of total freedom of choice in the question of good and evil.30 To tell the truth, the Grand Inquisitor is right in his portrayal of humanity – if and only if humanity is meant to be understood apart from Christ.

Zossima does not think humanity is perfect or perfectible apart from Christ. He and Alyosha understand Ivan's dilemma, but respond to it with acceptance. They do not ignore sin, but approach it as sinners themselves. As Zossima says, “Remember particularly that you cannot be a judge of any one. For no one can judge a criminal, until he recognizes that he is just such a criminal as the man standing before him, and that he is perhaps more than all men to blame for that crime.”31 Alyosha does not attempt to deny that he has a streak of Karamazov sensuality.32 Alyosha chronicled Zossima's tales of duels and dissipation before Zossima became a monk.33 Nevertheless, Zossima invites the monks to cover it with love. “If you can take upon yourself the crime of the criminal your heart is judging, take it at once, suffer for him yourself, and let him go without reproach,” says Zossima.34 He is willing to accept the mysterious aspects arising from Christianity, and feels no compunction about it (or about anything else) being beyond his grasp. Using Job, Zossima explains that the actions of God, though for a purpose, are not necessarily understandable by human reasoning. “How could God give up the most loved of His saints for the diversion of the devil[...]and for no object except to boast to the devil?[...]But the greatness of it lies just in the fact that it is a mystery – that the passing earthly show and the eternal verity are brought together in it,” he says.35 The reason Zossima and Alyosha willingly accept the mystery is because they are not, like Ivan, imprisoned in solipsism but are capable of real change. “You have forgotten Him, and on Him is built the edifice, and it is to Him they cry aloud, 'Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed!'” says Alyosha to Ivan.36 Christ kisses the Grand Inquisitor at the end of the story because He is the foundation and the chief cornerstone of sanctified humanity, so He is the only one who can be infinitely merciful and loving. He is giving the Grand Inquisitor the gift of time to choose whose work the man is really doing. Christ's death and resurrection gives man what the Grand Inquisitor says man must have more than anything: something to live for.37 Christ by His sacrifice leads men to freedom, and because of His sacrifice men can be free to recognize what Christians call the imago Dei – the image of God in man. That image is what lifts man and makes him noble, in spite of his sins.

Unfortunately, the idea of the imago Dei and our understanding of Christ's sacrifice do not solve the problem of evil the way Ivan desires it to be. by our understanding of Christ's sacrifice. The imago Dei does, however, undergird the Christian understanding of both physical man and sin. According to Philippians 2:5-11, Christ valued humankind, as depraved as it is, so highly He came in the form of a man, emptied of glory, to save it. Christ's intervention, contrary to the Grand Inquisitor, was not meddling but stemmed out of His nature, out of which also was created the world and all the rules (both moral and, to use Ivan's own word, Euclidian), governing it. Christ's sacrifice on the Cross cannot negate those principles written into the fabric of reality. Ivan could not let himself believe in God because he did not think justice was answered.38 But he was incapable of understanding that he had perfect justice in the body and blood of Christ. If there was some way to impose Euclidian constructs on abstract philosophies, Ivan would discover that not only justice but perfect justice was perfectly administered.

The final results are hope and faith versus unbelief and despair. At the end of the book, Ivan lies ill and unconscious, and Dostoevsky does not reveal whether or not the man survives. The complete viciousness of Ivan's worldview has been revealed to him in the person of Smerdyakov, but Ivan is still tied to his philosophy that “everything is lawful” because he sees no way out. Christ is still not real to Ivan, although the Devil is. Even Ivan's own inconsistency works against him. Despite his horror at humanity and his established belief that Dmitri killed the elder Karamazov, he makes plans to help Mitya escape, and he loves Katerina Ivanovna more passionately than ever. He wants to be part of humanity, but he thinks he must chose either his conscience or his humanity. He does not realize that it is his conscience, flawed and imperfect as it is, tied to Christ, that makes him human. Alyosha has pity on Ivan, and watches over him as he lies ill, and sees that he is ill because of “'The anguish of a proud determination. An earnest conscience!'' God, in Whom he disbelieved, and His truth were gaining mastery over his heart, which still refused to submit.”39 Although Alyosha acknowledges that Ivan might very well be lost, he prays for him and has faith that Ivan will understand the supra-rationality that God is showing him.40 Ivan, it seems, must be driven to Christ by sorest trials to realize that here is a happy, logical, and just reality in Christ and His nature, rather than the collapse into self that inevitably follows a philosophy such as Ivan's.

The Bible never promises that the truth will be easy; Ivan Karamazov drank the dregs of the cup of that difficult truth. It is still open-ended: does he even survive? Is he redeemed? His nihilistic philosophy, with Smerdyakov as protege, drove him to a breakdown. Does he give it up? It is hard to tell, but Zossima and Alyosha answer his dilemma with love, both in philosophy and in action. They do not try to solve the problem of cruelty but are satisfied that their duty is to love humanity with a Christ-like love, and that they can love because Christ is the foundation of that love. They love humanity as men, not as gods themselves, and they love humankind because God created it and gave it meaning. Creation came out of God's nature, and it is still perfect: Love covers a multitude of sins.41

Updated 06-09-2011 at 10:40 PM by andave_ya



  1. andave_ya's Avatar
    This is a ten page paper on The Brothers Karamazov that I wrote for my Russian Literature class last semester. Garnered me a 97, so it better be good :P.
  2. Virgil's Avatar
    It's good. I would definitely give this an A as an undergraduate paper. If this were a graduate level paper I might critique that you never really explicated Alyosha 's philosophy. You transposed it as essentially Zossima's. I do think it's subtly different than Zossima's. Remember Zossima was satisfied as being a monk while Alyosha decides at the end (look at it as a growth from the beginning of the novel) to go out into the world. I think you could have shown Alyosha's philosophy through his actions, his engagement with the dying boy and the suffering characters in the novel and that fine speech to the young boys at the end. It seemed like the paper was a little out of balance from what you projected in the opening. Be that as it may, it was very good and I enjoyed reading it and you deserved a high grade.

    Quick questions on style. (1) Do they still require MLA style? Your citing through footnotes is not how we were taught. Page citation in MLA was author and page number bracketed with parentheses. Like this (Dostoevsky 345). Footnotes were limited to background information that would not follow in the paragraph. (2) You began a sentence with "In other words..." I know a lot of scholarly papers and even published books do that, but really it's not a good practice, at least in my opinion. If you really meant "in other words," it would be redundant and therefore unnecessary. What you really intend with the sentence is an amplification of what came before, so therefore it's more than just a rephrasing. You see that a lot in non lit students. Lit students tend to be better writers. Look back on that sentence and see how it would sound if you took it out the phrase (just the phrase) and went straight to the amplification.

    Thanks my friend. You made me feel like I was in college again!
  3. andave_ya's Avatar
    Virgil, thank you so very much for taking the time to read this paper and comment on it for me! That means a lot to me. After looking it over after I posted it, I didn't expect anyone to bother reading it, much less commenting on it! Thank you!

    You're right, I did basically interchange between Alyosha and Zossima. It never occurred to me to specify the difference the difference between the two, which could've pushed the paper a bit further (the difference you pointed out is significant - that Alyosha kept growing beyond where Father Zossima stopped.)

    My literature professor asks for either MLA or Turabian formatting. I used Turabian formatting out of habit, because that's what I'm required to use for my other papers, although I've been warned that the farther I get in my lit courses, the more the prof will require MLA.

    It sounds much better without the "In other words!"

  4. Virgil's Avatar
    You're welcome. And my pleasure. I think you'll find MLA style easier.
  5. mtpspur's Avatar
    Well when I saw it was Virgil and the subject my first (of course) thoughts were WHY oh Why did I waste her time going on and on about NCIS and White Collar redeemed only partially by Clark Aston Smith. You MUST read Thomas Watson's Body of Divinity--you MUST. Then I will have achieved a worthwhile goal.