By David Starr
I. Introduction: His Life and Project
Fyodor Mihailovich Dostoevsky was not my mother’s idea of a great Christian writer. He wrote fiction, though he recognized that fact as a problem: In The Brothers Karamazov he has the attorneys at Dmitri’s murder trial discredit each other’s cases as novels. Could there be a truthful novel? In The Adolescent a nice tutor from Moscow advises young Arkady that a Russian novel needs more romance and nobility than his story — the novel ironically ending with these comments. Dostoevsky did not mean to write fiction as ordinarily conceived. What did he intend? I think he wrote investigations of the soul, hypothetical analyses of the sickness and healing of the human spirit, with himself as primary experimental subject. In one of his darkest tales, Notes from the Underground, his protagonist, in an utterly humiliating moment, observes, “I think it was a mistake to begin writing ... At least I’ve felt ashamed all the while I’ve been writing this story: so it’s no longer literature, but corrective punishment.” Dostoevsky intends to strip the soul bare, to know himself at all cost.
His writings do not flinch at disgraceful behavior and shocking events. We find cruelty, gambling, murder, adultery, lies, plots, child abuse and neglect, suicide, drunken riots — constant scandal: A besotted would-be theologian in Crime and Punishment lets his devout adolescent daughter become a prostitute to support the sick and suffering family he neglects. The Idiot deals with a truly good prince who loves a beautiful woman wounded by childhood exploitation; the tale ends tragically, as good will is devastated by destructive passion. In The Devils we find a strangely attractive yet malicious man who has intentionally done great harm to a child; this man seduces political idealists into a murder plot to unite them through mutual guilt. Thirty eight years before Lenin, Dostoevsky’s revolutionaries discuss the liquidation of a hundred million Russians in a “fight for the common cause," as a "new religion takes the place of the old one.” In The Brothers Karamazov a dissolute father and son are sexual rivals; parricide results. Whatever things are “true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of good report... virtue [and] praise…” are not his obvious themes.
Dostoevsky wrote of scandal. Is such writing a scandal? Sigmund Freud thought so. He condemns Dostoevsky’s personal life as morally deficient, his religious and political beliefs as “retrograde,” and the content of his novels as criminal. He says:
"The temptation to reckon Dostoevsky among the criminals comes from his choice of material, which singles out from all others violent, murderous, and egoistic characters, which points to the existence of similar tendencies in his own soul, and also from certain facts of his life, like his passion for gambling, and perhaps the sexual abuse of a young girl."
Why does Freud suppose that Dostoevsky’s ability to place himself in the mind of a criminal shows not compassion, but complicity or guilty experience? His analytic theory seems to require that Dostoevsky hated his father, feared castration, lusted after his mother and had other very specific vices, in order to explain his gambling, epileptic seizures, competitiveness, and alternating sympathetic affection and harsh criticism of other writers. I think it odd that Freud is offended by descriptions of cruelty and vice, while insisting that the ultimate causes of virtue itself and social order are incest, paternal hatred, collusion in violence and prehistoric parricide. Is it more scandalous to recognize such horrors as real, or to insist that they are the means whereby primal instinct created the civilized heritage of all humans? To halt abusive processes or heal their victims is not a scandal. If Freud is partially right about the mechanisms of evil, does he offer an effective antidote? I believe Dostoevsky does, and that there is more psychological truth in his novels than in Freud’s theory.
Metropolitan Antony Khrapovitsky wrote: “Regeneration is what Dostoevsky wrote about in all his novels: repentance and regeneration, falling into sin and correction...” Moved throughout his career by love for mankind and using his own suffering to find insight into everyman’s struggle with the violence of pride, lust, envy and hatred, Dostoevsky came to genuine understanding and a prescription for our sufferings. Concentrating on the psychology of repentance and the redemptive power of love, he devoted himself to untying the knot of human self-destruction; for not moral intentions, but the passions that thwart them are the problem. With constant reference to the Orthodox spiritual tradition, he wrote “on behalf of all and for all.” His early work admires Christ and seeks ideals in His example; he later articulates Orthodoxy itself as the truth underlying the best in his early work.
His debut, “Poor People,” is a study in compassion for the suffering of people worthy of love and respect in all their imperfection and limitations. “The Double,” written in the same year (1846), is an astute psychological study of the disintegration of a person. The idealism of the first story and the ironic edge of the second show their author’s very early commitment in equal measure to self-giving love and to the harsh discipline of truth, without which it cannot he realized. Social idealism led him into revolutionary politics in the late 1840’s; his death sentence was commuted to five years each of imprisonment and military service in Siberia. His philanthropic writing continued through the 1860’s: The prison novel, Notes from the Dead House, explores the strength and generosity of people imprisoned by or for their passions; it also honors the loving understanding of the Russian people for their captive brethren. Though crime has a philosophy which cannot he grasped from fixed points outside the criminals life; the Orthodox heart recognizes it as suffering and criminals as patients. His experience was that charity for Christ’s sake could elicit resurrection of the spirit, whereas punishment hardened souls by its very severity. Given a Gospel hook on the way to prison, he developed intense personal reverence for Christ by reading it, but only a decade later, did he begin to see the Gospel as an intelligible key to the mystery of self-induced suffering.
He bore the scars of a painful childhood and the grace of the Spirit of Christ from infancy. The effects of a pious mother and churchly rearing were countered by the harshness of an angry father. His mother died when her son was sixteen, and his father was murdered by his abused serfs before Fyodor’s 19th birthday. Their son, susceptible to love and pained by abuse as any human being, responded with energy and intelligence that were a clear gift of God. In his published Diary, he attributed his spiritual rebirth to what he learned in prison and exile from plain Russian Christians. In the last year of his life he wrote:
"So don’t tell me that I do not know the people! I know them: it was because of them that I again received into my soul Christ Who had been revealed to me in my parents’ home and Whom I was about to lose when, on my own part, I transformed myself into a 'European liberal.'"
I-us process of regeneration was a long, hard struggle with the habits and wounds of his life. As we often do, he added to his sufferings even as he sought to resolve them. In his early forties he analyzed human perversity in such studies as Notes from the Underground. But his own passionate obsessions -- with women, literary rivals, and gambling -- consumed most of his adult life until his fiftieth year, after the publication of Crime and Punishment and Idiot. His aspiration in these first two great novels anticipated full realization, yet the proud experiment of Raskolnikov in self-assertion and murder, the redemptive image of Sonya’s active love, and the generous humility of Prince Myshkin still articulated ideals rather than solutions. Despite real insight into human isolation and the wounds of shattered innocence, as of 1869 Dostoevsky was unable to resolve the issues that challenged him; Raskolnikov’s repentance is not fully realized, and Myshkin’s self-sacrifice is pathetically ineffectual.
His crisis began in 1867, while composing The Idiot, and was resolved four years later while struggling with The Devils. His fifties, culminating in The Brothers Karamazov, show his artistic achievement reaching its fulfillment, even as he was resolving the painful issues of his life. He married his beloved Anna Grigorievna in 1867 and gained final victory over addictive gambling through prayer in 1871. He had tried several times to quit, most excruciatingly in the spring of 1868, as Anna, pregnant and then with the sickly infant Sofia, pawned jewelry while he repeatedly lost everything — to her grief and his humiliation. These losses were eclipsed by the death of Sofia in May. Three years later, with another infant in arms a third child on the way, Fyodor for the last time gambled, again catastrophically, and determined to stop. But this time prayer, the love of Anna and the children, and God’s grace made the resolve effectual. He wrote:
"Anya, my guardian angel! A great thing has been accomplished in me, a vile fantasy that has tormented me for almost ten years has vanished! For ten years… since my brother’s death... I kept dreaming of winning, I dreamed seriously, passionately! Now all that is finished. This was ABSOLUTELY the last time! Will you believe, Anya, that my hands are untied now; I had been bound by gambling."
The words proved true. The biographer Frank notes that Freud, who devoted many pages to Dostoevsky’s addiction, had nothing to say about his still more remarkable recovery. The decade from then until his death saw the completion and publication of The Devils, and of The Adolescent and The Brothers Karamazov — on family, death, regeneration and spiritual life.
II. Dostoevsky’s Diagnosis: Scandal
Let us look at the writings of the 70’s to see what Dostoevsky had learned of the human condition and its malady. For him learning was not dogmatic, but empirical, focused on the nature, origin and remedy of his own self-undoing. I have asked if his writings, by revealing scandal and its stratagems, were scandals. Officially, yes. A chapter of The Devils was found too shocking to print and censored; Stavrogin describes his depravity to a saintly Bishop Tikhon without real repentance: what torments him is the suicide of a young girl whom he has raped — using gratitude and fear to draw her into a destructive act, as humiliating to her as it was empty for him. He intentionally provoked her suicide by manipulative violation and cold contempt for her pain and indignation. His motive was not lust but pride and curiosity — to learn how it felt and to challenge God. His victim’s last recorded words, “I killed God,” express his intent. Tikhon, however, assures him that no crime is greater than to "offend one of these little ones,” yet that the crime may be forgiven if he learns what he has done and can repent of it. Even his life can be redeemed. How can it be?
But first, why is such a deed the worst one can do to another person? Let me quote the Gospel cited by Tikhon. The disciples ask who is to have first rank in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus sets a small child in their midst, and says:
"Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whosover shall receive one such little child in My name receiveth Me. But whosoever shall offend one of these little ones which believe in Me, it would be better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe unto the world because of offences! For it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence comes! ... Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, that in heaven their angels do always behold the face of My Father which is in heaven."
“Offense” and “offend” do not mean “what upsets” or “make angry,” as they seem to now; one might translate the Greek skandalon and skandalizo as “cause of sin” and “cause to sin.” Originally a skandalon is a stumbling block, and to scandalize is to cause another to fall. Our Lord is saying that children who by nature are disposed to faith are tripped into unbelief by older people who create obstacles for them, to the horror of their guardian angels and the sorrow of God. This is how the mystery of sin and death is passed on to each generation of fallen humanity. This passage is cited in all three of Dostoevsky’s last novels; to untie a knot, he studies how it was tied.
The Devils deals with a revolutionary conspiracy led by Pyotr Verhovensky and Nikolai Stavrogin. Pyotr is the neglected son of a literary pretender and aesthete, Stepan Trofimovich; Stavrogin is the princely son of Stepan’s patroness. Stepan was the boy’s tutor, subjected him to abusive intimacy and probably molested him. A gifted man of sinister charm, Stavrogin is drawn with deep understanding. Though free and responsible for his acts, he began in a suffering which his crimes repeat. He mixes exalted rhetoric with cruel intimidation, threats, guilt, and blackmail, to win adherents to a “common cause” for which he is willing to sacrifice 100,000,000 lives, though he does not fully believe in it. Are his abstract love of humanity and utter contempt for human life rooted in his own abandonment and betrayal? His eloquent speech is very convincing, even to very substantial followers, and in causes which he himself has abandoned. His cynicism is a central mystery in the novel. Another is that Stepan Verhovensky, whose love of beauty Dostoevsky feels, whose opinions he once held, can repent in a death scene as pathetic as it is hopeful.
The Adolescent is the coming-of-age story of a youth born of the unblessed union of a fickle aristocrat and a peasant woman. His father leaves him to the mercies of a cruel boarding school headmaster and sporadic visits from his loving mother. The peasant to whom the Arkady’s mother is nominally wed has made his broken marriage an occasion to wander Russia on perpetual religious pilgrimage. The young narrator offers one of his stories “at random,” because it is “memorable.” A brutally selfish merchant has ruined a poor man, evicted his widow and orphans, and indirectly caused the death of all but one of them; enraged at the surviving boy for a minor accident, he has him whipped nearly to death. To assuage his guilt he forcibly adopts the boy and subjects him by intimidation to brutal “benevolence,” isolating him from his mother and forcing him to slave away at a parody of education. The terrified boy accidentally breaks an expensive lamp and runs off in panic; cornered at the ferry-dock by a swift river, he jumps in terror and drowns.
Horrified that he has made the boy commit the unforgivable sin of suicide, the merchant cites Matthew 18 to a monastic confessor, to prove he is damned and destined to die in his sins. Correcting him as impertinent, the monk says, “It’s had if a man loses his measure – he’s a lost man. And you’ve become conceited.” He explains:
"…Even the angels of God are not perfect, but the only perfect and sinless one is Jesus Christ our God, whom the angels also serve. You didn’t want the death of that child, you were merely unreasonable."
Reminding him that he has done many things as bad or worse, the monk asks why he is so frightened of a child before whom he is “not even so guilty.” He says, “He appears to me in dreams,” and the conversation ends. After many attempts at repentance and restitution to the boy’s spirit, his mother, and God, in time God grants our merchant the gift of tears. He and the boy’s mother, whom he has wed, finally love each other tenderly, but he must seek salvation in pilgrimage and prayer. The tale ends: “And we hear that he performs his deeds of wandering and patience even to this day, and sends news to his dear wife every year....”
Before dying Makar reminds the former master who took his wife that he has promised to marry her; he accepts blame for the sin of “condoning the weakness” and insists before the children of the union that “marriage covers everything.” He tells the son who bears his name to be zealous to death for the Church, but: “Whatever good you intend to do, do it for God, and not for the sake of envy.” The interpretation in word, deed and image of Matthew 18 is significant: In a context of abused innocence and violated conscience we hear and see how “a new man” can he called up in oneself, and how patient love can help. Arkady, who has survived brutality and neglect with love for the father whom he dare not trust, is given courage to hope for righteousness and to seek it for himself. Unlike the dead boy, he may live to forgive and help with his father’s transformation. The mention of envy is crucial, since most “stumbling” emulates the successful senior model in struggle for mastery, vindication and advantage. The gift of tears signifies both repentance and gratitude; it shows at once grief for the life one has led and recognition of the gift of freedom to relinquish the self born of scandal, trusting in the generosity of God.
The Brothers Karamazov is the novel where Dostoevsky details the process just sketched. It is the story of a wicked father, three legitimate sons and a child of rape. Of the three, the eldest is worst treated and engages in multi-level rivalry with his father. Neglected since his mother’s death in early childhood, raised by servants, educated at the expense of relatives and home from the army, Dmitri is consumed with his quest to acquire all that his father has deprived him of and more. Ivan and Alexei, born of another mother and similarly neglected, have made other lives: Ivan is an intellectual, Alexei a novice in a monastery. Ivan is angry with God for the suffering of innocent children; why should the innocent be made to pay for the sins of their victimizers? In effect he turns Christ’s condemnation of child abuse against God, holding Him responsible for managing the world by sacrificing the innocent to his grand plan. Whatever the result, Ivan finds the price excessive. Could a decent person accept life in an otherwise good world, knowing it to be at the expense of tortured, neglected innocents? Has anyone the right to forgive those who victimize children — even if God is the ultimate sponsor of all the abuse?
Alexei invokes Christ, who can “forgive all and for all, because He himself gave his innocent blood for all and for everything.” Ivan’s condemnation of God’s world is that of a judge who acknowledges neither that he himself has suffered in the process, nor that he may have added to the suffering of others — as he has. How can he separate himself not only from the process to which he has contributed, but also from the ranks of those who have suffered from it? The false objectivity to which he pretends disowns his own suffering, as though he were above the process, like a sort of god. Alexei says Christ can forgive, because He has suffered innocently and intentionally, on behalf of every abuser and for all the abused. Christ is understood to be not only an innocent victim of offense, but also God incarnate. This God is not outside the process; he is involved not as a perpetrator, but as a sufferer of abuse.
Ivan’s reply is a set piece - the Grand Inquisitor prose-poem. Dostoevsky has been greatly praised — not least by Sigmund Freud -- for this radical critique of the Church, though Alexei sees it as praising Christ, not reviling Him. Christ appears in Seville amongst burning heretics during the Inquisition of the mid-sixteenth century. The Grand Inquisitor demands that He leave or be burned as a heretic, claiming He has given the Church the keys to the kingdom and has no right to interfere with the administration of His legacy. Ivan sets Christ against the Church, claiming through his inquisitor that He mercilessly requires of mankind integrity in the face of uncertainty, faith in the absence of knowledge, and love without reciprocation. He treats us as freely able to act as he does, without condition and regardless of circumstances. The Church, on the other hand, is more understanding; with finite requirements and concrete rewards for obedience it replaces Christ’s inhumane demands with a real kingdom, protecting man from the horrors of freedom and civic chaos. Without the practical certainties of indulgences, dispensations and inquisitions, men would have to be gods like Christ to meet the demands of perfection in an imperfect world. They would he defenseless against those who exploit freedom for violence and terror. Thus the Church had to become a state, endure the guilt of duplicity, and pretend to serve the Christ it betrayed; if He were to return, it would also have to treat him exactly as the Sanhedrin did, for the greater good of mankind.
The dilemma is that if the beauty of Christ’s perfection is not humanly possible, the moral stature of the Church, necessary as it is to peace and order, is a hollow sham. Man must then be ruled through a mystified political order in which Christ’s teachings are equivocated and used to the worldly ends He eschewed. Ivan presupposes a Roman Catholic model of ecclesiastical polity which Alexei says most Catholics would reject; only a few of the worst, he says, would accept the idea of the Church as a political conspiracy to correct the errors of Christ with the very things He rejected when Satan offered them to Him in the wilderness: miracle, mystery, and authority. How does this tale respond to Alexei’s invocation of Christ as the Lover of Mankind who can forgive all because He has willingly shed His innocent blood on behalf of all and for all?
If you assume Christ is not God, that God is impotent, or that man is not a free spiritual being made in God’s image, then of course the Church is unrealistic and ineffectual; or if capable of any earthly good, it must be such a conspiracy as that represented in Ivan’s poem. In fact the Grand Inquisitor is the social engineer who on earth exactly corresponds to the child-victimizing god of the previous chapter, permitting some evil where necessary for the overall benefit of his constituency. By setting Christ against the Church, Ivan takes Christ for a foolish idealist, unless he himself intended the loosing and binding power of the keys he used as the Inquisitor uses it. In that case he would he a dissembler and the original Grand Inquisitor. Alexei says the tale unintentionally praises Christ, because He believes that man is free, created in the image of God, able to participate in the life of Christ, and that the inquisitor’s accusation is false. The many who with Freud take the passage as an incisive critique of God and the Church do so because they make Ivan’s assumptions: If there is no God, the Church must he either an ineffectual lie, or a vile conspiracy. Since there is evidence for both, they see the passage as a brilliant expose.
Another voice in the novel alludes directly to the 18th chapter of Matthew; Alexei’s spiritual father and guide, the Elder Zosima, says, "Love children especially, for they, too, are sinless, like angels, and live to bring us tenderness and the purification of our hearts and as a sort of example for us. Woe to him who offends a child.” He with Jesus presents children to his disciples as examples of humility and fitness for the kingdom of heaven. Saying they believe in him and presenting them as images of the greatest in the kingdom, Christ means what Zosima says. Zosima, with horror at the effects of drunken or abusive parents, said, “I have even seen ten-year-old children in the factories: frail, sickly, stooped and already depraved.” Children, innocent from birth, are frightfully vulnerable.
Let me belabor this a little, since opinions differ: Latin theologians since the fifth century have held that we are born guilty of Adam’s sin and to some extent disabled for good. Augustine says that we are not only born guilty, but inherently committed to rebellion and enmity with God; thus we cannot even repent without Divine intervention. Since we are unable to cooperate with our salvation, God must decide unilaterally who will he saved. Official Catholicism is more moderate; it holds that though born guilty and unable to avoid sin, we are free to cultivate virtue and repent as reason dictates. Earliest tradition and Orthodoxy, however, hold that we are mortal and spiritually weakened by ancestral sin, yet born innocent and by God’s grace free to seek goodness. St. Ambrose, says:
"[Boys] do not know how to act deceitfully and artfully. Do not condemn these children, of whom the Lord says: “Except ye be converted and become as this child, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” So also the Lord Himself, Who is the Power of God, as a Boy, when He was reviled, reviled not again, when He was struck, struck not back. Set then thy mind on this — like a child never to keep an injury in mind, never to show malice...."
St. John Chrysostom sums up the consensus of Tradition:
"And the child which He set in the midst I suppose to have been a very young child indeed, free from all these [evil] passions. For such a child is free from pride and the mad desire of glory, and envy, and contentiousness; and all such passions, and having many virtues, simplicity, humility, unworldliness, prides itself upon none of them; which is a twofold severity of goodness; to have these things and not to be puffed up by them."
The Church Fathers generally agree that we arrive pure from the hand of God, but are born into a perilous world of traps and temptations set by the Evil One through earlier victims already habituated to offense. As St. Paul expresses it in the Epistle to the Hebrews:
"Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, He also himself took part of the same; that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death... and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage."
Zosima notes that exploitation isolates, and a world of total isolation is the natural tendency of politics, even in its most cooperative, communist form. Each of us falls and suffers for his own sin, but the solidarity of human nature gives us great influence on one another, for ill as well as good; though sin is individually voluntary, human life is essentially social.
Christ is emphatic about the danger of offense (scandal) because it, not genetics, is the prime vector of the contagion of sin from one generation to another. The greatest guilt we can generate is that of inducting a new, pure generation into a world of scandal; it is the work of Satan himself, as we can see by considering Eve’s Fall. St. John of Damascus in the Nativity Matins shows her seduction to be a clever abuse of God’s image implanted in us. He says:
"Christ our Defender, Thou hast put to shame the adversary of man, using as a shield Thine ineffable Incarnation. Taking man’s form, Thou hast bestowed upon him the joy of becoming godlike: for it was in hope of this that of old we tell from on high into the dark depths of the earth."
Christ vindicates Eve’s desire to be godlike; having created her in His image, He answers the Slanderer by showing God to be gracious and Eve the victim of deception. He who said, “Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil,” could not be telling the truth about the God Who had made Adam and Eve in his image, animating them with his own breath and the impetus to become like him. All His prohibitions and instructions were to that end. We can see in this archetypal account the structure of all subsequent scandal: Satan has fallen through opposing God and now envies man’s position in the divine favor. Hating man, he implants his own attitude in man, using the natural desire implanted in Adam and Eve, with the suggestion that God begrudges man the very good He has already granted him. Eve, perhaps less than a day old, is childlike in innocence and disposed to trust; these very things are used against her. Envy is the motive, naturally good the bait; false imputation of the tempter’s own motive to God is the trap, and the mirror-play of image and likeness the means whereby evil moves innocence to mistrust and misapprehend the good: “For God created man to be immortal, and made him to be an image of his own eternity; but through the Devil’s envy came death into the world: and they that hold to his side find it.”
III. Co-suffering Love
The mystery revealed in Christ is that we can voluntarily take responsibility for one another and effect the good of others by joining Christ's sufferings in redemptive action. St. Paul says that to know Christ and the power of His resurrection means sharing in the communion (koinonia) of his sufferings. To the Corinthians he says, “...As ye are partakers (koinonoi) of the sufferings, so shall ye be also of the consolation.” Zosima has in mind this sharing in the sufferings of Christ when he urges the brethren to love each man fearlessly “…also in his sin, for this likeness of God’s love is the height of love on earth.” This love must be active, unconditional, and ready to suffer, he says:
"…[D]o not say, ‘Sin is strong ... and we are lonely and powerless....’ There is one salvation for you: Take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it really is so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all."
These sayings are hard to grasp and harder to accept for people acculturated to individualism. To suppose we have no responsibility for others separates us, denies our common nature, mutual suffering, and responsibility to God for each other. It is hard to see how we are responsible for corruption in national politics, our neighbor’s had habits, or epidemics in Africa, even if we have been negligent, compromised, passed up chances to do good, and done intentional harm. How much harder is it to see how Christ, who knew no sin, could be “made sin for us?” How could the sufferings of Christ make us righteous, or we share His suffering on behalf of others? This last question is close to the one raised by Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor: If Jesus did accomplish a heroic, saving act for mankind by virtue of His human perfection and, as the Church teaches, His divinity, is it realistic or just cruel to think weak, flawed mortals could do the same thing? The greater the act, the more the thought of it overwhelms. The Grand Inquisitor thought integrity in the face of suffering and temptation was a worthy challenge for a few, but excessive for most men. Yet Jesus says, “Be ye perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
Zosima challenges the humanist critics of the Gospel, “And the scoffers will themselves be asked, ‘If ours is a dream, then when will you raise up your edifice and make a just order for yourselves without Christ?” St. Paul describes the mystery of co-suffering:
"Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the Church, of which I became a minister according to the divine office which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to His saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory."
His point is not that Christ’s work is incomplete, but that it continues, and He has not left His people to do these things alone. As He says in the Gospel of John, the mystery of perfection is one of mutual indwelling, in which the image of the Holy Trinity is realized in man. Our unity of being and manyness of persons are realized in love, through God entering our nature:
"The glory which Thou hast given Me I have given to them, that they may be one even as We are One, I in them and Thou in Me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that Thou hast sent Me and hast loved them even as Thou hast loved Me."
Without these assumptions it is not possible to make sense of much in our text.
If the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection were simply an economic-juridical transfer of Christ’s merits to us, or elements of an edifying myth, the Inquisitor’s accusation would he true; for in neither case could we live the life commanded by Christ and described by St. Paul. Fr. Zosima speaks of the Russian monks as preparing the salvation of Russia and the world, because they have kept “the image of Christ fair and undistorted, in the purity of God’s truth, from the time of the ancient fathers, apostles and martyrs,” awaiting the moment to reveal it to those who have lost or distorted it. “The star will shine forth from the East,” he says. The image of Christ is not a concept or a doctrine; it is the life of Christ continually enacted and transmitted in the Church, in undistorted Apostolic continuity of doctrine, practice and Spirit — not a mere succession of ceremonial touches. Such contact is necessary, but not sufficient. Redemptive responsibility for the sins of the world is not possible in our isolated, private selves, but only as bearers of Christ and His Cross. He accepted the consequences of sin, assuming mortal flesh and entering the fallen world. We can do no less, if we have received His nature.
The novel bears this principle out abundantly in the life of its “future hero,” Alexei, most especially in his interaction with children. I have summarized Ivan’s indictment of God’s world for its misuse of children, and noted his despair at the possibility of living up to Christ’s example of perfect freedom from worldly passion. Alexei, on the other hand, accepts Zosima’s teaching and example of loving suffering with people. Just before the conversation with Ivan, Alexei had run into a group of schoolboys in a stone-throwing fight with another small boy; befriending the whole group he approached the angry child, Ilyusha, who apparently initiated the incident. The boy, whom he approached sympathetically, hit him and broke down in tears when asked why. Only later does Alexei discover that Ilyusha’s poor, disgraced father was publicly beaten by his brother Dmitri, and that the boy’s schoolmates had been teasing him about this father. We learn still later that the teasing followed an important event: Ilyusha’s friend and senior schoolmate, Kolya, had just broken with him for a nasty trick which Ilyusha had played at the suggestion of Alexei’s sinister illegitimate brother, Smerdyakov. The trick was to get a dog to eat a piece of bread with a pin in it, and watch the excitement — a despicable act, which Smerdyakov had persuaded him would be fun to watch. Instead, it caused great pain in the dog, which ran away and was supposed dead.
No wonder the boy was upset: Tricked into a trick for which he felt mortal guilt and shame, he had lost a dog he loved, been rejected by his best friend, seen his father disgraced, and then been stoned by former comrades — to say nothing of his having an insane mother, sick sister, and dire poverty. Alexei shortly after the biting incident learned of the beating given Ilyusha’s father by Dmitri and began trying to patch things up, getting his brother to apologize, and finding help for the destitute, sick family. He established a friendship with the family and got the other boys to mend their relations with the now-ailing Ilyusha; but as the novel goes on, Ilyusha’s illness becomes a chronic, wasting disorder from which he is to die. When Alexei finally locates Kolya, the older boy who had not been in the stone throwing group, and enlists him to help cheer up the dying Ilyusha, Kolya turns out to have saved the dog and changed its name to Perezvon. Kolya has taught him many tricks to cheer up llyusha, when Kolya thinks his friend has learned his lesson. Thus before the death of Ilyusha there is a reconciliation with all his friends, genuine repentance from the boys who have committed or suffered offense, and a surprise resurrection of the dog, now named in Church Slavonic for a solemnly triumphant peal of church-bells.
Alexei’s involvement with the boys has done much to save the dignity, love, self-respect and future well-being of most of the children and some of the adults in this subplot. The dark shadow on it all is the sinister Smerdyakov, who will turn out to have murdered his reputed father and master. Persuaded by Ivan, whose intellect he admires in a lackey’s way, that there is neither a God nor an immortal soul, and an enlightened person must follow his inclinations courageously in defiance of any and all moral considerations, Smerdyakov holds that “All things are permitted.” Though always morbid, this fellow of the lowest social status once had an interest in religion. One wonders where the darkness began. Fyodor Paviovich had in effect disowned all his sons. Yet one of them is the loving and lovable Alexei. Would Smerdyakov have been teaching animal abuse to relatively innocent children, much less killing old sensualists, if Ivan hadn’t been teaching nihilistic ethics? Would Ivan have had such views without his father’s depressing behavior? If Dmitri hadn’t been disowned, cheated and taunted by his father, would he have been heating up seedy collection agents? If Ilyusha’s father had been a stronger, better man, would the boy have been so vulnerable to family shame and his own guilt? One only knows that such trains of abuse have to end. If people are free, they can and must find the grace to stop the spiral of scandalous offense, beginning with the intelligence to see how.
Dostoevsky reveals scandal in order to heal it. Our Lord said of persecution, “For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known. What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in light: and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops.” The passion of Christ is the scandal of scandals, and the Grand Inquisitor is Dostoevsky’s revelation of the spirit of scandal — the lie that Christ must be co-opted or killed again, crushing the hope of the ages and the possibility of redemption. The general form of scandal as the passing on of offense and accusation is richly revealed in Fyodor Pavlovich, Ivan, Dmitri, Ilyusha and Smerdyakov. All, once innocent, became victims or targets for that very reason; their freedom was enlisted in its own downfall. Even Fyodor Pavlovich is not excluded; though we do not know the details of his original corruption, Zosima tells him to stop lying to himself and taking and giving offense:
"Above all do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does discern any truth and falls into disrespect towards himself and others. Not respecting anyone, he ceases to love, and having no love, he gives himself up to passions and coarse pleasures,... and... complete bestiality."
Even Fyodor Pavlovich is afforded the respect of a free man who might regain his senses: “You’ve known for a long time what you must do; you have sense enough: do not give yourself up to drunkenness and verbal incontinence, do not give yourself up to sensuality, ... above all ...do not lie.” Zosima sees a core of truth even in the father of most of the lies in the novel. Dostoevsky says as much at the end of the first chapter; having described a bit of Fyodor’s scandalous behavior together with a report of residual conscience, the narrator interjects, “Both versions may very well be true ... In most cases, people, even wicked people, are far more naive and simple-hearted than one generally assumes. And so are we.”
In the midst of the Grand Inquisitor chapter Dostoevsky reminds us that human intelligence is inalienably free; the inquisitor accuses Christ of fatal and culpable error in desiring the love of man:
"Instead of the firm 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 - but did it not occur to you that he would eventually reject and dispute even your image and your truth if he was oppressed by so terrible a burden as freedom of choice?"
The Inquisitor tries to appeal to Mosaic law as though it were man’s original support, yet despite himself refers unmistakably to St. Irenaeus of Lyon’s famous saying:
"The ancient law of human freedom is clear: since God made him free from the start, having his own power, as also his own soul, to obey God’s prescription voluntarily and not coerced by God."
The Inquisitor testifies against himself of the created image of Christ the Logos in us, for even in Ivan and his father the image of Christ is inalienable, as long as they are human.
Dostoevsky weaves the Gospel of John into “The Wedding at Cana” chapter, to show pointedly that his Christ is not a “Christ figure” illustrating a general principle, but the incarnate Word Himself; Alexei’s virtue is not merely his personal achievement, but that of Christ. The chapter in a sense portrays Alexei’s conversion; for even he has not escaped the process of scandal. His beloved Zosima has fallen asleep in the Lord, and his body smells prematurely of corruption; envious monks are taking malicious pleasure in the supposed expression of divine disfavor. Alexei paraphrases Ivan, “I do not rebel against my God, I simply ‘do not accept His world.’” Alexei wants to get away from the monastery and heads for the very place where his father and brother have sought solace — Grushenka’s house. A monastic novice in search of sausage, vodka and a beautiful woman is very close to rebellion. Saved by the compassion of a better woman than he hoped to find, he returns to the monastery unscathed, to pray for — or to — his elder, and does so late at night, in the cell where Fr. Paissy is reading the Gospel According to John over the body.
What follows is a visionary conversation between an exhausted young man praying, the Gospel read by the monk, and a dream of great significance: Alyosha is at a wedding feast where the Savior and his Mother are giving joy to the poor guests; for he came not only to die, but to share and brighten the life of man. Zosima invites Alyosha to the feast and directs him to Christ. Alyosha is afraid. His elder says:
"Do not be afraid of Him. Awful is His greatness before us, terrible is His loftiness, yet He is boundlessly merciful, He became like us out of love, and He is rejoicing with us, transforming water into wine, that the joy of the guests may not end. He is waiting for new guests ... now and unto ages of ages. See, they are bringing in new wine."
Alyosha’s heart burns, as the water of his created being is transformed into supernatural wine by the divine Spirit, and rising, he accepts the invitation. He goes outside, where the mystery of the earth touched and merged with the mystery of the stars under the shining dome of heaven. He fell weeping to the ground, loving the earth and all upon it, longing to forgive and be forgiven by and for everyone, and sensing that others were also asking for him. It was as if the threads of all those innumerable worlds of God all came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, touching other worlds. The narrator describes:
"But with each moment he felt clearly and almost tangibly something as firm and immovable as the heavenly vault descended into his soul. Some sort of idea, as it were, was coming to reign in his mind — now for the whole of his life and unto ages of ages. He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life, and he knew it and felt it suddenly in that very moment of his ecstasy. ‘Someone visited my soul in that hour,’ he would say afterwards with firm belief in his words...”
We have the word that such things happen from a man who prayed, struggled, and in his fiftieth year was freed of addiction to live a life of insight, resolve and unity with the saints. For Dostoevsky’s characters, preachments and plot lines are not mere wishful thinking, but the experimental records of a life constantly and voluntarily tested by Christ’s Truth through conscientious struggle and agonizing honesty.
IV. Concluding Observations
At the end of the book Alyosha consolidates the surviving boys in prayer and loving memory of Ilyusha, reminding them of the good they have done in caring for him, of the good of his response, and especially of the great good Ilyusha did in bringing them together in love. Assuring them of the certainty that he and they will rise again, he leads them hand in hand to the funeral dinner. What Dostoevsky did with his gift was much the same, though he did it for a nation, binding them together in the memory of Pushkin and the resolve to remember Holy Russia to the glory of God and for the good of mankind. It was done by the power of the same Christ, and the truth of his novels lies in that he used them to bring to light the evil of scandal with tender compassion for his suffering characters, but most especially for all who suffer the same things and need redeeming divine compassion, given in Christ and through Him by all who in solidarity with Him embody his love.
We noted near the beginning that Joseph Frank found it remarkable that Freud, having devoted a substantial article to arguing that Dostoevsky’s vices and particularly his gambling were results of perverse passions induced by childhood trauma, never mentions the recovery from gambling addiction. Though Freud saw the deficient fathers and parricides in his novels as evidence of his thesis, the very novel in progress at the time of Dostoevsky’s deliverance from addiction was Devils, in which a pathetic father, Stepan, found repentance; and a spiritual father, Tikhon, reveals to Stavrogin that he must find his own repentance for his terrible sin against the young girl who committed suicide. Dostoevsky was just finishing the first part of the novel, when he left the gambling tables for the last time. I believe his final effectual repentance caused or was affected by realizing his responsibility for his life and forgiving his father. In The Adolescent the father of Arkady’s flesh is incipiently reformed by illness, and by novel’s end it is possible he may shoulder responsibility to marry Arkady’s mother. We have no certainty Versilov will keep his promise, but we have spiritually authoritative testimony that it is possible. Tikhon, Makar and Zosima in these last great novels attest to a spiritual presence on earth and within the characters’ lives of the Heavenly Father bearing the love of Christ and assisting in the transformation of the novels’ protagonists.
Freud did not think such a spiritual cure realistic, but Dostoevsky proves that it is possible. We have mentioned the words of Father Zosima to Father Fyodor: "Stop lying, most especially to yourself, for that destroys receptivity to truth, which yields contempt, from which inability to love must follow." On Zosima’s account to adhere to truth can yield respect, love and forgiveness. The same realization freed Dostoevsky’s from gambling and made his love for Anna and his children effectual. Did it also enable him to forgive his father? In Crime and Punishment and The Idiot the protagonists’ fathers are simply missing, but in Devils, The Adolescent, and Brothers Karamazov we have poor excuses for fathers who are either repentant or capable of repentance. Dostoevsky had been such a father, and in 1871 finally ceased to resemble his most pathetic characters in this respect. He repented and it seems at the same time learned how to forgive fathers. If Freud is right about any of the elements of his pathology, then its cure must indicate a reversal or removal of the cause.
Even Fyodor Pavlovich has a vestigial soul, and we learn to see him through the forgiving eyes of Alyosha and in the authoritative light of Zosima’s admonitions. We understand Dmitri’s anger and Ivan’s contempt and even find Smerdyakov’s pathetic hatred understandable. Even Dmitri and Ivan finally begin to lose their destructive passions. Is this realistic? It may not be common, but it is real, and Dostoevsky is our witness. There may be a particle of truth in Freud’s aeteological speculation, but there is surely no room in his psychoanalytic theory for Dostoevsky’s kind of therapy; for its basis is excluded from Freud’s supposed causal nexus. Without freedom, how can there be healing? Though Freud knows that the patient must actively participate in his cure, human activity is never distinguished from passion. Freud confines himself to the passions and assigns agency only to physical instinct and its manifestations, yet the mystery Freud recognizes in the creative process of Dostoevsky’s art must refer itself to a greater Mystery, as Dostoevsky finally understood.
He says of Pushkin, that his poetic genius was at most assisted by external stimuli, “...calling forth in him what lay hidden in the depth of his soul, the organic unity of the internal wholeness of which encompassed all the principles of his creative work.” The source of this wholeness is Christ, in whose image we were created, and by whose Incarnation that image is renewed among us and, especially those enlightened by the Gospel and the mystery of the Church. Man without Christ subverts his nature, pretending to be god and making man — gods of or for himself — i.e., persons or the state. Christ the God-man corrects this, enabling men to become god-bearers in the Spirit of loving union with each other, in Him. Such sources of literary activity surely apply to Dostoevsky himself at least as much as Pushkin, of whom he spoke them in the 1880 address and in its defense later the same year — even more, since Dostoevsky’s spiritual struggle seems more evident.
That he understood himself far better than Freud did is attested by the fact that he was cured of gambling and many other ills not by himself, as Frank implies, but by Christ, as Dostoevsky himself understood through repentance and regeneration. That he knew human nature deeply appears in his ability to recognize, as few moderns do, that the generic physiological and socio—economic causes that limit us interact with and are affected by the personal will. Such freedom is not incompatible with causality, since environmental causes affect us differently as we voluntarily change how we relate to them. In the image of the Holy Trinity, man is one in being while existing in distinctly embodied persons, and because human being is prior in the order of creation to other causes, we need not choose between individual moralism and amoral passivity before material causes. Dostoevsky articulates why he subscribes to neither:
"…[T]he people are aware... that they themselves are guilty in common with every criminal. Still, blaming themselves, they do not prove thereby that they believe in 'environment'; on the contrary they believe that environment is wholly dependent on ... their uninterrupted repentance and self-betterment. Energy, work and struggle — these are the things which reform environment. By work and struggle alone, independence and the sentiment of self-respect are being achieved... That is what the Russian people, by a strong feeling, are tacitly conceiving in their concealed idea of the misfortune of the criminal."
He learned from the Orthodox people that co-suffering love is the Way of the God-man. Having embraced the word of Christ and taken His yoke upon them, by His Spirit men have access to His energy. Dostoevsky, having found that access, found empirical theology, and that Truth gave him freedom.
If anyone understood Dostoevsky better than he understood himself, it may have been the authentic healer of souls from whom he sought help after the death of his son Alexei. It seems fitting to give the last word to a real elder who knew him, and on whom he in part modeled his Elder Zosima. Starets Amvrosy of Optina commented after his visit to his hermitage near Kaluga in 1878, “This is a man who repents.”
David Starr is a professor at St. John’s College
1) Notes from the Underground, trans Pevear and Volkhonsky (Vintage, 1993), Part II, Apropos of the Wet Snow, p. 129.
2) Demons, Pevear/Volkhonsky translation (New York: Knopf-Everyrnan, 1994-2000), p. 408.
3) Philippians 4:8, KJV.
4) Freud, Sigmund, “Dostoevsky and Parricide,” in Stavrogin’s Confession, translated by Virginia Woolf and S. S. Koteliansky (New York: Lear Publishers, 1947), p. 88. Of his personal life, he says, “... penitence becomes a technique to enable murder to be done...a characteristic Russian trait.” Of his faith and patriotism, “[He] threw away the chance of becoming a teacher and liberator of humanity; instead, he appointed himself its jailer.”
5) Freud, p.89.
6) The psychosomatic account of Dostoevsky’s epilepsy is now much contested and very uncertain.
7) See Freud, note 1, and pp. 91-114 for the full account.
8) Noted Russian theologian of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and founder of the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile in the early days of the Soviet terror.
9) Khrapovitsky, Bl. Met.. Antony of Kiev, Dostoevsky‘s Concept of Spiritual Rebirth, trans. L. Koehler (Synaxis Press: Dewdney, B.C., 1980), p. 11.
10) Zapiski iz Mertvago Doma, trans. as Notes from the House of the Dead by David McDuff (London: Penguin, 1985), Part I, Chapter I, p. 36.
11) Ibid, e.g., pp. 80, 145.
12) There is some debate about this in the biographical literature, but still I think general agreement that the death was neither by natural causes nor by accident.
13) The Diary of a Writer, trans. B. Brasol (New York: Braziller, 1954), August, 1880, Chapter III., p. 984.
14) Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865—1871 (Princeton: 1995), pp. 426-427.
16) Devils, p. 698.
17) Devils, “Stavrogin’s Confession,” 3; cf. Matthew 18.
18) The text of Matthew 18 is repeatedly cited in Dostoevsky’s works and becomes a major theme in his last novels.
19) Matthew 18:1-10.
20) Devils, pp. 40-41: When the child was eleven, his tutor used to awaken him at night; the ironic narrator says, “When the friends wept, throwing themselves into their mutual embraces at night, it was not always over some little domestic anecdotes. Stepan Trofirnovich managed to touch the deepest strings in his friend’s heart and to call forth in him the first, still uncertain.., sacred anguish, which the chosen soul, having once tasted and known it, will never exchange for any cheap satisfaction.” He adds that it was good — none too soon — that “the youngling and his mentor were parted by the child’s departure for boarding school."
21) Podrostok, trans, by Pevear; Volokhonsky as The Adolescent (New York: Everyrnan, 2003), III.3.iii-iv., pp 368, ff.
22) Ibid., Part III, Chapter Four, sect. ii.
23) See The Brothers Karamazov, Part II, Book v, Chapter 4, “Rebellion.”
24) Ibid. (pp. 246 - 248, ff.) of the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation, (Everyman’s Library, 1992).
25) Freud, p. 87; cf. p. 103-104.
26) Ibid., “The Grand Inquisitor,” pp. 254-260.
27) Ibid.; cf. Luke 4:1-13.
28) Of course they beg the question of the existence of God and support atheism by the fallacy of affirming the consequent.
29) Ibid., III. vi. 3., f., “Of Prayer, Love, and Touching other Worlds.” (p. 319)
30) “Otrocha” like the original Greek paidion is diminutive, and “maliy” in the Slavonic Gospel like micros in Greek means “small”.
31) Ibid., III. vi. 3. f., “Some Words about Masters and Servants.” (p.315)
32) See, e.g., Augustine, Enichiridion on Faith, Hope and Love, § 25-27; cf. Retractions, 1:8-9.
33) Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I . ii .Q. 82.4 and Q. 85. 2. "The natural good of practical reason, Justice, is equally and innately lost in all men, but not wholly lost; so all are born guilty and morally impaired, but not completely bereft of rationality and choice."
34) St. Ambrose of Milan, Three Books on the Duties of the Clergy, I. xxi. 93. (Roberts, Alexander and Donaldson, James, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series: Volume X.).
35) St. John Chrysostom, Homily LVIII on The Gospel of Matthew, §3 Roberts and Donaldson, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Volume X).
36) Hebrews 2:14-15.
37) Brothers Karamazov, III. vi. 3. f. (p. 318); cf.
38) Homily LIX on the Gospel of Matthew, § 1-4.
39) The Festal Menaion, translated by Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, 1969, Faber and Faber, London, p. 279.
40) Genesis 3:4-5.
41) Genesis 1:26-27.
42) Wisdom of Solomon 2:24: "pthono de diabolou thanatos esielthen eis ton kosmon, peirazousin de auton oi tes ekeinou meridos ontes".
43) Philippians 3:10: "yper emon amartian epoiesen, ma eneis genometha dikaiosune theou en auto".
44) II Corinthians 1:7
45) Brothers Karamazov, III .vi .3. g (p. 318-319)
46) Ibid., III.vi..3. f (p. 20)
47) 2 Cor 5:21: "yper enion amartian epoiesen, ma emeis genometha dikaiosune theou en auto".
48) Matthew 5:48.
49) Brothers Karamazov, III. vi. 3. f. (p.3l6).
50) Colossians 1:21-27.
51) John 17:22-23.
52) Brothers Karamazov, III. vi.3. e. (p. 313).
53) Matthew 10:26-27.
54) Brothers Karamazov, I. ii. 2. ( p. 44).
55) loc. cit.
56) Brothers Karamazov, I. LI (p. 9).
57) Brothers Karamazov, II. v. 5. (p. 255).
58) Irenaeus of Lyon, Adversus haereses IV.37. I (Rouet de Journel, Enchiridion Patristicon’ [Freiburg: Herder, 1951 §244)
59) Brothers Karamazov, III. vii. 2. (p. 341).
60) Ibid., III. vii. 3. (p. 361-362)
61) Ibid., p. 362-363.
62) Freud, p. 95-107.
63) Diary, p. 977
64) Ibid., p. 980: “I perceive this in our history, in our gifted men, in the creative genius of Pushkin. Let our land be poor, but this destitute land ‘Christ, in a serf’s garb, has traversed, to and fro with blessing.’ Why shouldn’t we embrace His ultimate Word? Wasn’t He Himself born in a manger?”
65) Ibid., p. 1005.
66) The letter quoted from Frank above (note 11) actually begins with the profession that his repentance is genuine because it is part of a regenerative spiritual process; i.e., a gift of Divine grace. See Konstantin Mochulsky, Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, Princeton, 1971, p.
67) Diary, p. 15.
68) Chetvertikov, Sergius, Elder Ambrose of Optina, Kaluga, 1912; English trans. Platina, CA, 1997), p. 213. I add this with thanks, at the suggestion of Fr. Panteleimon of Holy Cross Hermitage.