Dostoevsky: Russian Prophet
'So great is the worth of Dostoevsky that to have produced him is by itself sufficient justification for the existence of the Russian people in the world: and he will bear witness for his country-men at the last judgement of the nations.' - Nikolay Berdyaev (1923)
On the anniversary of Dostoevskys birthday I thought Id whip up some of the great quotes that he came up with. Delving deeper into his literary works over the past few weeks, Ive realised a few quotes would not do him justice. This man had a profound understanding of the 'human condition'. And he developed his thoughts not in the abstract confines of some comfortable existance, but in some of the harshest realities man can experience. Here is an essay Ive managed to whip up based mainly on issues of God, morality, and the age old problem of good and evil:
In contemplating the creation of the novel The Idiot, Dostoevsky wrote in a letter to A.N. Maikov that he hoped to focus the work around a question 'with which I have been tormented, consciously or unconsciously all my life--that is, the existence of God.'Dostoevsky's personal struggle with the question of faith, and also his own experience with trying doubts as a believer, are manifested in the characters he writes. A large number of Dostoevsky's books are written within the framework of a Christian doctrine, juxtaposing characterizations of believers and non-believers, enforcing the ultimate good and reason that follow from possessing a faith. Dostoevsky also describes however, the mental suffering and questioning inherent in the step of realizing the 'truth' of Jesus Christ.
Early in his adulthood he became involved in a group known as the 'Russian Utopian Socialists', influenced by Belinsky, a well known literary critic. The partnership formed by the two presumably shook Dostoevsky's faith, as his revered mentor found that 'as a socialist, he had to destroy Christianity in the first place. He knew that the revolution must necessarily begin with atheism.'
He was arrested for 'the circulation of a private letter full of insolent expressions against the Orthodox Church.' Evidently, he had forgotten his mother's teachings. While in prison (where the only book allowed was The Bible) it appears Dostoyevsky began to reemerge as a believer, writing in a letter to Mrs. N.D. Fonvizin: 'I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly and more perfect than the Savior;...If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not the truth.'
The regeneration of his faith is evident and steadfast in novels such as The Brothers Karamazov, Devils, The Idiot, and Crime and Punishment. This spiritual rebirth took place within the confines of a Siberian prison, where Dostoevsky was amassing a large storage of information on the capacity for evil in men. That Dostoevsky was able to cultivate a belief within such a hostile environment demonstrates the strength of his conviction.
SUFFERING AND GOD
The primary source of doubt that plagued Dostoevsky was his struggle to reconcile the suffering evident in the world and the notion of a loving God. Berdyaev, in an explanation of Dostoevsky's intense focus on freedom as the answer points out that, 'for him the justification both of God and of man must be looked for in freedom...' This freedom is further defined: ‘The lesser freedom was the beginning, freedom to choose the good, which supports the possibility of sin; the greater freedom was the ending, freedom in God, in the bosom of God...The dignity of man and the dignity of faith require the recognition of two freedoms, freedom to choose the truth and freedom in the truth’. But free goodness, which alone is true, entails the liberty of evil. That is the tragedy of that Dostoevsky saw and studied, and it contains the mystery of Christianity. And consequently it revokes Ivan's argument in The Brothers Karamazov, for if evil necessitates freedom, than it is through humans that evil and suffering occurs, and therefore God cannot be blamed. Freedom is also required however, so that we are allowed to fully appreciate God's love by choosing it. You cannot have a world, both free and good, human imperfection will not allow for it. As Berdyaev finishes, "The world is full of wickedness and miserly precisely because it is based on freedom, yet that freedom constitutes the whole dignity of man and his world."
In a letter to N.L. Ozmidov, in 1878, Dostoevsky writes: "Now assume there is no God or immortality of the soul. Now tell me, why should I live righteously and do good deeds if I am to die entirely on earth? .And if that is so, why shouldn't I (as long as I can rely on my cleverness and agility to avoid being caught by the law) cut another man's throat , rob, and steal..."
Truly this sums up why there can be no morality without God.
Dostoevsky attacks secular humanists who are so remote from reality that even when they love humanity they despise humans because of their own inability to achieve or to create paradise on earth. His novels The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment are best examples of the poisonous effect of such ideals on the common human. The rebellion of these humanists against the system and the reality of human life becomes more important, thus love becomes the filter and the servant of pride and ideals. The cause of 19th century liberals becomes more important to them than the actual human being that might not fit the picture of their perfect and humane society. According to Dostoevsky the liberals ‘love humanity more than an individual man.’ Yet he does not represent their behaviour as genuinely evil. Their hate towards humanity arises exactly from the opposite: love. Secular humanists see so much evil, crime and inhumanity, they cannot stop it so they rebel. Ivan Karamazov and his rebellion are purely of that kind. He is not vile, he just cannot understand that there might be a solution for such suffering, especially in the case of children who are innocent in Christianity. That is why Ivan asks: ‘Love life more than the meaning of it?’ To know the meaning of life is more important to him than to actually do something about the human suffering. For him humanity is merely an abstraction which happens to be surrounding him. He thinks that by knowing logically and rationally, the mystery of life problems would be solved.
Through the act of rebellion against the social norms and the Christian dogma secular liberals, or humanists, forget about fellow human beings as being fallible as much in thought as in action. In those moments, great defenders of liberal thought and love for humanity forget that they might not have the definite answer, thus they fall into the same trap as their predecessors who thought that they knew what is the best for people and enforced their ideas. They all become ‘living gods.’ They all want to spare humans from the burden of their own selves, ‘for only we, we who guard the mystery, shall be unhappy.’ They preach lies instead of the truth, thus they develop a different kind of love: tyrannical love. The Christian love has to be free.
One either accepts the Word or one does not, one either believes that even the sparrow has its place in God's mercy or one goes around raving against God, simultaneously talking of his necessity. Dostoevsky shows such attitude, such part time rationalizing as worthless and very often dangerous. 'They, following science, want to base justice on reason alone, but not with Christ, as before, and they have already proclaimed that there is no crime, that there is no sin. And that's consistent, for if you have no God what is the meaning of crime?'
Can one go on living with the thought of how much suffering there is? Does one rebel against the society, then try to establish a new one, forgetting that society does not come to be of itself, but is built by human beings: beings imperfect and ready to hurt and rebel against their fathers, against the idea of 'old', or the society of the past and present.
THE CHRISTIAN SOLUTION: LOVE
Through the presentation of crime and the issue of money which is often connected to it, Dostoevsky retells a Bible story. His answer to the problem of evil is active love. the only answer is love for life, regardless of the meaning and the logic behind it. Faith in God and people is the only way to live with love. To believe in God and to have trust in human nature and destiny means to forgive and to repent. It means not hurting others. That is not the love that is directed towards the humanity as a whole, but towards the individual: ‘Strive to love your neighbor actively and indefatigably’
In order to defeat evil one has to start with the assumption that there is goodness. To rebel violently because of a child's death only brings greater evil. Ivan does not love others nor does he love himself. Father Zosima makes this idea very clear in The Brothers Karamazov: 'All things are atoned for, all things are saved by love. If I, a sinner, even as you are, am tender with you and have pity on you, how much more will God. Love is such a priceless treasure that you can redeem the whole world by it, and expiate not only your own sins but the sins of others’. Dostoevsky's solution lies in exactly the opposite from the class struggle and the solution that it brings. All of those strives bring only shifts and turns but are still based on hate and not on love. Insofar as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul. If you attain to perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of your neighbour, then you will believe without doubt, and no doubt can possibly enter your soul. Ivan recognizes that same necessity and usefulness of God. However, he does not really believe in God, thus he does not believe in the immortality of the soul and in justice. He does not love. Without a belief in the existence of justice crime has no meaning. His idea of God is worthless because he is an atheist, he does not believe. The only way out is through true and honest belief that things have a purpose and that it does matter to be good and not to hurt others. One cannot solve any problems unless one truly believes that what is done has a purpose. When one starts looking at humanity as a whole one will not find many good things and one will never have any happiness. Only by looking at the individual can one acquire a moment of happiness and exaltation of the soul, such as Alyosha's experiences in the field (The Brothers Karamazov). Faith is not a rational path, but it equips one with love. Only by having certain values and love for others can the family as the basic unit of the society survive. To improve the society and social conditions and to free people from evil on Earth is impossible. The belief that there is immortality of the soul and that there is God who takes care of humans is necessary. Dostoevsky believes that you have to have true faith in order to attain happiness and to create the ground for better life. Intellectual discussion and the acknowledgment of the necessity for the God as an idea or a Prime Mover become worthless the moment it is meant as a lie. It has to be the Truth, there has to be faith. If one lives a lie his bitterness that the dream and the ideal are impossible will only lead to madness, hate, and ultimately suicide or murder. One has to give active love. So the ultimate answer to the suffering and the injustice in the world is love. What higher feeling is there in human existence? Again there is no rational way to explain and to really lead one on that path of faith. The possibility of such belief is real because humans are able to love. That means that they must be able to suffer for others, they also must be able to forgive. 'Love all men, love everything.' Dostoevsky cannot go further than that.