Thursday, August 18, 2011

Suffering and Community in "The Brothers Karamazov"

   In my article about Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy1 I spoke about the fact that one of the things which distinguish Orthodox culture from Western culture is the understanding of the importance of family and relationships.  From my earliest days in school, I was raised to be a completely autonomous human being.  My father, in particular, told me repeatedly that I should never have to rely upon anyone and since both of my parents are only children the day would come that I would have no one left to turn to, so I need to become completely self-sufficient. 
   This notion of personal autonomy and complete self-sufficiency is a product of the Enlightenment and a uniquely Western idea.  Complete self-sufficiency does not involve only our relationships with others, but with God as well.  As a child I was fascinated with religion and religious ideas.  When I presented these ideas to my parents, my father would say, “God is too busy to be bothered with what is going on in our lives.”  Therefore, I should not even consider turned to God because He will not help me.

    What I was told as a child was certainly not unique to me or my family. Since the period of the Enlightenment, which began in the late seventeenth century, these ideas have been alive in the West and finally made their way to Russia at the time that Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) was writing.  In his most famous novel, The Brothers Karamazov, we are introduced to three brothers who are each living out their lives in accord with a particular idea and personal philosophy.

     In one particular scene in the novel, two of the brothers, Alyosha and Ivan, are having a discussion about God. Ivan is the embodiment of Enlightenment ideas.  He does not believe in God and sees himself as a completely autonomous person who does not have to rely upon anyone. However, he also deeply resents his father because he realizes that he is dependent upon his father, to a certain extent, and this dependence goes against his notion of personal autonomy.  Alyosha is a novice at a local monastery. He believes that we are completely dependent upon God and finds a sense of belonging and purpose for his life by being a member of a religious community. 

    Ivan tells Alyosha a story about Jesus which has comes to be known as the legend of “The Grand Inquisitor”.  Ivan’s main struggle is with God’s world.  He cannot make sense of the fact that little children suffer or why, if God is seen as a source of order in the universe there appears to be such randomness and absurdity. 

    Yet before his “rebellion” against God's world, Ivan exclaims to Alyosha, “you are trying to save me, but perhaps I am not lost,” and appeals to the Karamazov “thirst for life regardless of everything,” or regardless of what logic might conclude. Ivan invokes Dostoevsky's “Ridiculous Man”; he speaks of his capacity for irrational love, “loving with one's insides, with one's guts,” and proclaims,

   “Even if I didn't believe in life, if I lost faith in the order of things, were convinced in fact that everything is a disorderly, damnable and perhaps devil-ridden chaos, if I were struck by every horror of man's disillusionment – still I would want to live, and, having once tasted the cup, I would not turn away from it till I had drained it.”

     At the end of his poem; however, Ivan determines to “escape the cup” once aged past his youth, appealing to the other, darker, “bug-like” side of the “thirst for life” – the “Karamazov baseness.”  Thus, the Karamazov “thirst for life” can be seen to correlate to the contrasting forces within Ivan.

     The Grand Inquisitor himself, as Ivan's creation, embodies this same inner struggle; he too was once a genuine believer in the Christian faith. “I too have been in the wilderness, I too lived on roots and locusts, I too prized the freedom with which Thou hast blessed us, I too was striving to stand among Thy elect, among the strong and powerful…But I awakened and would not serve madness.” The Grand Inquisitor has also rejected God's world; he is a reflection of Ivan's own wishes to reconstruct the world in a manner devoid of the misery and suffering at the source of his rejection.

      The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor finds Christ on the steps of the Seville Cathedral during the Spanish Inquisition, restoring sight to an old man and bringing a little girl back from the dead. Discovered by the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor, he is arrested and sentenced to be burned at the stake. The Grand Inquisitor views Christ's presence as a step backwards in his own work; in Christ's rejection of the Devil's three temptations, he sees a rejection of happiness for mankind for the sake of freedom. The Grand Inquisitor, noting Christ's error, asks, “Didst Thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil? Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering.” The Grand Inquisitor and his church have “corrected Thy work, and founded it upon miracles, mystery, and authority” – corresponding to the three temptations of the Devil – under the false guise of Christ himself.”  Humanity can never be free, for it is “weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious.” Thus, members of the church – the few “wise men” - sacrifice themselves for the happiness of others, while deprived of the very freedom Christ wished to provide them. 2

    Despite declaring the Inquisitor to be an atheist, Ivan also has the Inquisitor saying that the Catholic Church follows "the wise spirit, the dread spirit of death and destruction," i.e. the Devil, Satan. He says "We are not with Thee, but with him, and that is our secret! For centuries have we abandoned Thee to follow him?" He, through compulsion, provided the tools to end all human suffering and for humanity to unite under the banner of the Church. The multitude then is guided through the Church by the few who are strong enough to take on the burden of freedom. The Inquisitor says that under him, all mankind will live and die happily in ignorance. Though he leads them only to "death and destruction," they will be happy along the way. The Inquisitor will be a self-martyr, spending his life to keep choice from humanity. He states that "Anyone who can appease a man's conscience can take his freedom away from him."

    The Inquisitor advances this argument by explaining why Christ was wrong to reject each temptation by Satan. Christ should have turned stones into bread, as men will always follow those who will feed their bellies. The Inquisitor recalls how Christ rejected this saying, "Man cannot live on bread alone," and explains to Christ "Feed men, and then ask of them virtue! That's what they'll write on the banner they'll raise against Thee." Casting himself down from the temple to be caught by angels would cement his godhood in the minds of people, who would follow him forever. Rule over all the kingdoms of the Earth would ensure their salvation, the Grand Inquisitor claims.

     The segment ends when Christ, who has been silent throughout, kisses the Inquisitor on his "bloodless, aged lips" instead of answering him. On this, the Inquisitor releases Christ but tells him never to return. Christ, still silent, leaves into "the dark alleys of the city." Not only is the kiss ambiguous, but its effect on the Inquisitor is as well. Ivan concludes, "The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man adheres to his idea." 3

      Throughout the rest of the novel Ivan struggles with the idea of human cruelty and the role that he plays in perpetuating such cruelty.  In fact, he is driven to the point of insanity when he appears at his brother, Dmitry’s trial and professes that it was he, and not Dmitry, who responsible for the death of their father.  Ivan did not physically kill his father, but becomes convinced that his desire that his father would die was the impetus which set everything in motion and lead to the death of his father at the hands of the family cook, who is also the illegitimate half-brother of these three men. 

    It is in this exchange with his brother that Ivan is showing his need for relationship.  Even though his views are not completely accepted by Alyosha, Ivan still wants to know that his younger brother does not reject him because of his views and asks him that directly.  Alyosha tells Ivan that he does not reject him and this can be seen as a source of comfort to Ivan.

    The importance of this dialogue between Alyosha and Ivan is two-fold.  It helps to gain insight into Ivan’s thought process and to be able to understand his world-view, which impacts how he interacts with others, and it gives the reader an opportunity to understand how important the role of dialogue is in regard to Dostoevsky’s personal philosophy and writings.

    While we might, and I use the phrase loosely, want to think of ourselves as autonomous human beings who do not need the approval of others and can operate independent of the rest of the world, the fact is that this is not true.  The Ancient Greek philosophers, particularly Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, wrote about the important of dialogue and the fact that we are “political animals” by nature.  We do not exist in a vacuum and we not only desire, but truly need the approval and support of others, even if we do not want to admit it.

    The Grand Inquisitor is Dostoevsky’s way of showing what Utilitarianism would look like if it were accepted as a lived philosophy.  Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) proposed a philosophy called Utilitarianism which taught that ethical principle to be followed was “the greatest good for the greatest number.”  If more people benefit from a particular action than are hurt by it, then it is permissible and, in fact, encouraged. 

    Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor has set himself up as the judge to determine who would suffer and whether or not this suffering in the greatest public interest. He believes that suffering is inevitable, so he might as well use it to his advantage. This includes burning people at the stakes that he considers heretics and even burning Jesus at the stake.  Such philosophical ideas may have some immediate positive emotional appeal; however, once the consequences of these ideas are taken into consideration they often lose their appeal. 

    Fyodor Dostoevsky, a deeply religious man, believed that we are created in the image and likeness of God and are therefore connected to one another at a very profound level.  This idea was not accepted by many people who became proponents of Enlightenment ideas in Russia and it is not accept by many people today. 

    What was the patriarch of this family like?  Fyodor Karamazov is portrayed as a rather self-absorbed man who believes in the notion that he is an autonomous human being; however, he too craves the attention of others.  However, instead of receiving such attention in a positive way, he chooses to act like a clown.  It has been said that there is no such thing as “negative attention” because any attention at all is better than no attention for someone who craves it so badly.

     Dmitry is very much like his father; however, instead of taking on the role of a clown, he takes on the role of a scoundrel.   Throughout the novel, the only thing that is important to Dmitry is his own well-being and happiness.   However, everything changes for him while he is in prison. 

     After being convicted of the murder of his father, Dmitry is sent to prison and one evening he has a dream in which he encounters a little child who is suffering.  Dmitry is moved with pity for this child and wants to find a way to relieve his suffering, but, instead, the little child kisses Dmitry on the head and comforts Dmitry instead.

     Dmitry tells his dream to Alyosha and declares that he is willing to suffer in prison if it means that others can be happy.  Dostoevsky is asking a profound question.  Does someone’s happy have to come at the expense of someone else’s suffering?   Dmitry has spent his life thinking only about himself and now he is prepared to offer himself as a “martyr for happiness”. 

     Alyosha, moved by his brother’s new found compassion, said that there is an alternative to this idea.  The novel ends at the grave site of Illyusha Snegiryov, a child who had been mistreated and emotionally abused by his classmates.  Illyusha’s father, Captain Snegiryov, had earlier been publicly humiliated by Dmitry and this brought shame on the entire family. 

     IlIyusha was excluded from any “community” developed by the other boys in his village and his suffering became a source of amusement for them.  All of these things contributed to Illyusha becoming more and more ill. 

     At one point, Illyusha becomes convinced that he had killed a little dog.  His caretaker, who knew the truth, refused to tell Illyusha that the dog had recovered.   However, as Illyusha was close to death the other boys in the village experienced a sense of conversion.  Instead of excluding Illyusha, they chose to include him in their “community” and his caretaker brought the little dog to him.  Seeing how happy this made Illyusha was a source of joys to these little boys.

     While at the gravesite, Alyosha tells these boys that they will never forget IIlyusha.  Illyusha was a fine, caring, loving, young boy who wanted to be happy. He tells the boys that they should love each other and that they will always remember when they were at the grave stone.  The twelve boys, now in tears, take each other by the hand and return to the Snegiryov family home. 

    The issues discussed by Dostoevsky in this novel are very profound.  Written in the 1870s, this novel could just have easily been written in 2000.   His last, and perhaps greatest, novel raises many important questions which will be asked by generations to come.  How we answer these questions will determine whether we choose to live in isolation from each other and treat others as a means to an end or in community and see each other sources of support and encouragement as we continue the journey of life.

     Another major point that Dostoevsky made was the need for forgiveness.  The Grand Inquisitor does not see any value in forgiveness and this is true of many people today.  Forgiveness is the only thing that restores relationships and allows us to live in harmony.   Suffering is part of human life and it is important that we not only avoid becoming a source of suffering for others, but that we join with others in their suffering and share their burden with them.

                                                  End Notes

1)                                                                                      “Things Done in the Name of Love”

2) “The ‘Legend of the Grand Inquisitor’:  Moral Transformation in Brother Karamozov” (accessed 8/17/11)

3)”The Grand Inquisitor”  (accessed 8/17/11)

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