Friday, July 19, 2013

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky: Some Underlying Nuts and Bolts

The following is based on the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of this novel.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky is, in part, an analysis and exploration of the author’s belief in the necessity of human suffering and doubt. Dostoevsky is practicing theology here. He is postulating what is required of a good Christian and a good person. In his worldview, one cannot just be born into happy circumstances, live a virtuous life and find God along the way. Instead, one must experience significant suffering and uncertainty on the path to salvation. Many permutations on this belief are expounded in the lives of various characters as well as through conversations and stories intertwined with the narrative.

Though it is a devil who says,

“suffering is life. Without suffering, what pleasure would there be in it— everything would turn into an endless prayer service: holy, but a bit dull.”,

the theme of pain and doubt being a necessary part of the universe permeates throughout the book.

Included in the narrative is a nuts and bolts philosophical explanation as to why these ills exist and why they are mandatory prerequisites to a truly pious life. There is a segment of the novel that is sometimes known as the Story of The Grand Inquisitor. This is an extraordinary piece of theological musing. Presented as an outline for a prospective poem by skeptic Ivan Karamazov, one of the brothers, it is “written” by Ivan as a critique of Christianity. However, it clearly encapsulates many of Dostoyevsky’s own views, as the attack upon Christianity is unmistakably hollow and ultimately fails. 

I must note that the piece does serve as scathing criticism of what Dostoyevsky sees as a terrible perversion of the Christian thought system, which in the author’s eyes is perpetuated by the Catholic Church and other human institutions.

An official of the Spanish Inquisition, the Grand Inquisitor makes his living by having the innocent burned alive. One day Christ returns to Earth. Though he does recognize Christ for who he is, the Grand Inquisitor has him arrested anyway. What follows is the Grand Inquisitor’s explanation to Christ of both his actions and the actions of the Catholic Church actions, which Dostoevsky identifies with the abdication of free will and of Satan himself.

The Grand Inquisitor focuses on the three temptations that the Devil offered Jesus. He sees these temptations as not only personal; they are actually Satan’s attempt at wrecking God’s plan for the universe. If Jesus had succumbed, free will would have perished. The Grand Inquisitor ironically believes that the rejection of these temptations was a mistake as he views free will undesirable. He advocates an all- powerful earthly church, which provides evidence of abundant miracles, provides material aplenty and is the source earthly power and authority. 

First, Christ refused the temptation of making bread from stones. The Grand Inquisitor, and clearly Dostoyevsky, sees this as God’s unwillingness to provide infinite material necessities to humankind.  If God provided so easily for these needs, then inevitably everyone would become a Christian and follow God in exchange for such security. Thus free will would not really exist.

Paradoxically, the Grand Inquisitor argues that God should provide material security and comfort to all in order to cement worship and religious piety. He says to Jesus, 

“and you rejected it in the name of freedom and heavenly bread. Now see what you did next. And all again in the name of freedom! I tell you that man has no more tormenting care than to find someone to whom he can hand over as quickly as possible that gift of freedom with which the miserable creature is born. But he alone can take over the freedom of men who appeases their conscience. With bread you were given an indisputable banner: give man bread and he will bow down to you”

At the Pinnacle of the temple, Christ refuses to hurl himself down and prove that the Angels will rescue him. The Grand inquisitor explains that a God that provides continual miracles is a God that everyone would follow as a matter of course. Though, once again, the Grand Inquisitor argues in favor of a world where miracles abound in order to convince the masses of God’s existence. Clearly, it is Dostoyevsky’s view that in such a universe, faith and, consequentially, free will would once again be subverted.

Jesus’s final temptation involves him refusing control over the kingdoms of the world. Here, the Grand Inquisitor explains that this is God’s rejection of temporal authority and, not surprisingly, sees this rejection as a blunder. Of course, in the philosophy espoused by the author, a government tied too closely to religion would force its subjects to be Christians, once again negating the concept of free will.

But the Grand Inquisitor argues to Jesus,

“Had you accepted that third counsel of the mighty spirit, you would have furnished all that man seeks on earth, that is: someone to bow down to, someone to take over his conscience, and a means for uniting everyone at last into a common, concordant, and incontestable anthill”

The Grand Inquisitor sees these rejections as flaws in God’s plan. If the Grand Inquisitor had his way, suffering would not exist, miracles would abound, obliterating skepticism, and the governments would enforce religious devotion. Free will and salvation would be unnecessary. 

Obviously, Dostoyevsky views the world’s ills (of which he includes religious skepticism) as necessary components in the concept of free will and the salvation of humanity. It ties in to the author’s message that suffering is also very crucial component in the individual’s successful search for God.

Though not a believer, I have two observations concerning Dostoyevsky’s theology. First it seems logically elegant. It presents a coherent explanation for human suffering and the lack of strong everyday evidence of an omnipotent God. Furthermore, this explanation is supported by at least some parts of the Gospels.

Second, though I would guess that Dostoyevsky would disagree with this conclusion, it seems more agenda centered as opposed to compassion centered. Though Dostoyevsky champions compassion and mentions God’s love at various points in the text of The Brothers Karamazov, this prerequisite of suffering built into the Universe defiantly puts God’s plan ahead of God’s desire to obviate human pain. In a world of torture, slavery, children murdered before their parents, etc., it becomes, at least for me, a much harder sell to say that God is all loving when the “plan” is more important than preventing these horrors.

I am very aware that Dostoevsky’s interpretation of Christian theology is not universally shared by Christians and is not even embraced by the majority. It is not remotely compatible with my own view of the universe. With that said, not only is it an ingeniously laid out theology, but it is a belief system that Dostoevsky has presented in a way that conveys sublime aesthetic value.

More to come on this work.

Some general commentary on this novel is here.


Sharon Wilfong said...

Really good break down of a segment of my second favorite novel (War and Peace being the first).

I think you analyzed Dostoevsky's thought very well.

What I like about all of Dostoevsky's works is that he breaks the mold on Christian literature. Life simply isn't nice and neat with the good guys winning and bad guys losing.

He shows that all of us are "the bad guys" in need of redemption. He shows how enslaved human kind is to their passions and selfish desires.

I'm glad you see how free will is involved. I have nonbelieving friends ask me, "if God exists, why is there evil in the world?"

My answer is, of course, if there's no God, what paradigm for evil and good are you using?

I've also read and reviewed this book. You can go to

I look forward to reading your future posts on this book.

Suko said...

Interesting review, Brian. Suffering may or may not be part of the search for God, but it is inevitable, I think. This work has also been discussed on The Reading Life, Mel's book blog.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - Indeed one thing that I did not touch upon here is Dostoevsky's point about everyone having so much sin about them. I get the sense that while he recognizes sin and evil, he seems to look at the people who do them with a sense of compassion. At least the character of Alyosha does and he seems to speak for the author.

I actually think that the question of why does God allow suffering to be a fair inquiry and would ask it from the point of view of the belief system that I was inquiring about in order to explore that belief system. Of course as we see here, one can envision a God that allows suffering. Dostoevsky's is just one possible explanation.

I wlll be reading your commentary on this book shortly. I look forward to doing so!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - I totally agree that suffering, at least to some degree is inevitable. I also think that limited amount of it, with emphasis on the limited, is enlightening.

I will check out the commentary on Mel's blog.

Violet said...

I'm an antitheist I can't really engage with D's religiosity, but you've obviously given his theology a great deal of thought. I tend to concentrate on the moral questions contained in D's works from a humanist viewpoint, seeing as how Christianity is foreign territory to me. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - I believe that the existence of God to be unlikely. Yet I am fascinated by theology and religion.

My next post will try to address the incompatibility between my worldview and Dostoevsky's in context of loving this book.

Dwight said...

The complexity of this passage never fails to impress me. In addition to providing some of Dostoevsky's views it helps develop Ivan, too (the narrator seems to disappear here). And it dovetails nicely with the "Rebellion" chapter.

In his biography of Dostoevsky ("The Mantle of the Prophet" volume), Joseph Frank summarizes it very well: Ivan relentlessly rejects "God's world in the name of the very morality of love and compassion that Christ Himself had brought to it. Ivan is here expressing what Dostoevsky saw as the deepest challenge of the Populist mentality to a genuine acceptance of the Christian faith of the Russian people."

Frank also mentions a book I've been meaning to see if it's in translation (I had completely forgot about it): "The Czech critic Caclav Cerny, in a penetrating and too-little known book, saw Dostoevsky (along with Nietzsche) as the culmination of this Romantic tradition of protest against God on behalf of a suffering humanity."

Just wanted to throw those quotes out there. Looking forward to more on this!

Anonymous said...

Your review is excellent, thanks for the explanations.

This book is on my daunting list.

After reading your review, I'm quite sure I should stay away from it. I have no interest in theology. At all. I don't know why, I'm usually rather curious about ideas and Christianism shaped our Western countries, so I should be interested in understanding it better.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Dwight - Now those are interesting quotes.

I do think that Ivan really epitomized, in the authors mind, the predominant intellectual challenge to Christianity.

I think that I understand, to a point, Cerny's point about Dostoevsky, romanticism, protest and suffering, though I am not sure how he fits Nietzsche into that equation.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - Thanks!

Instead of asking why you are interested in theology I think that you should ask why I am interested in at. While I respect the ideas (or at least the ones that are not offensive) I really do not believe much of it. I myself am not sure about the answer to that question :)

This post only touches upon a tiny percentage of what this book is about. I intend to put at least two more.

Guy Savage said...

I think Dostoevsky, who imo, is one of the greatest writers of all time, is a hard person to pigeonhole in matters of religion and politics.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - Dostoevsky does seem to be one of the greats. At least in this novel, while his religious beliefs are complex, he seems to be fairly obvious about what be believes.

Harvee said...

Wonder if Dostoevsky ever read about Buddhism, which says that all life is suffering. The only way to escape it is to tune out, meditate, and reach a higher plane.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Brian, you take the "Grand Inquisitor" section much less ironically than I do. How do you fit it in with the other voices in the novel - with Ivan's devil, or with Alyosha's saint? Perhaps they all coexist more than I understand.

I suppose by "Catholic" you mean "Orthodox"?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - On the Catholic issue I thought that Dostoyevsky was taking a shot at the catholic Church.

From the point of view that The Grand Inquisitor was written to discredit the Christian worldview, and contend that if God exists he should eliminate suffering, perform lots of miracles, and provide material plenty, and that I think that Dostoevsky's message was the complete opposite, I think that the entire segment was ironic.

It seemed that both Alyosha and the Devil supported a world where suffering was a necessity.

You may however be seeing angles that I am not seeing. Dostoyevsky was so complex!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - The Buddhist connection is interesting and I think that there is something to it.

On the other hand the necessity of suffering is for a different reason I think in Dostoyevsky's view as opposed to Buddhism. If I understand Buddhism (and I am admittedly on shantey ground here), it sees suffering as an inevitable part of the universe that must be accepted in order to find enlightenment. I do not think the acceptance was important to Dostoyevsky, instead suffering was test for believers to keep their faith in the face of adversity.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I see. I do not really believe that Dostoevsky has any real interest in or for that matter knowledge of the Catholic Church, but that is a good idea, taking the Catholicism of the Grand Inquisitor story seriously. Very interesting.

As Alyosha says: "They don't even believe in God perhaps. Your suffering Inquisitor is a mere fantasy." Maybe so. But maybe not.

Lucy said...

Brian, this must be one of my favourite posts of yours. I've only read The Brothers Karamazov once, but I found it to be a great, immense piece of literature. I found it quite comparable to War & Peace in that it covers so many topics, views and questions of morality. It's a book I'd love to read again. In fact, I must read it again!

I remember finding the characterisation of Alyosha incredible. So much is incorporated into his opinions and actions, and he's a character we can all learn from. Comparing the brothers also gave me a lot to think about.

I look forward to your further thoughts!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - You are making me think that the Grand Inquisitor, the character,as well as the catholic Church in the story, was a stand in for Orthodoxy.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lucy - Thanks!

Indeed this was a grand novel. Perhaps one of the greatest.

I will go out on a limb and say that the characterizations were in line with Shakespeare. Alyosha was incredible. So were some of the darker personalities. I will be visiting one of the more nefarious ones in an upcoming post.

Caroline said...

I always wanted to read this, especially because of the theological aspects. I've studied comparative religion and even wanted to study theology at some point, even though I'm not a Christian. Born and raised a Catholic but I've long ago realized I'm drawn to Hinduism.
Anyway. I really wa nt to read this soon.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Though I am not a believer at all, it would be a stretch to call me an agnostic as I lean strongly to atheism, I too find theology and belief systems fascinating. The way it is presented here more very fascinating.

There is a lot more here then just theology too, as I will post about soon.

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

Oh, this is totally fascinating!! I have read only one work by this great Russian author -- "Crime and Punishment", and that was years ago. Still, it left an enduring impact, and I'd like to read it again.

As for "The Brothers Karamazov", I haven't read it, but, now that I've read your views on it, I must definitely get to it! I was brought up Catholic, and, during the course of my life, have also attended Protestant churches. I have also investigated, but alas, in a very cursory manner, other religions. I am still struggling with the very same problems this novel seeks to address. Therefore, I must make every effort to read it!

The problem of evil and suffering is a perennial one. I don't know if anyone, or any one religion, has a truly satisfactory answer....

Anyway, thanks for the insightful, thought-provoking review!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Though I am not a believer in Dostoevsky's worldview I actually think that if one believed in an all powerful God who has some care for the human race, but who is willing to allow great suffering to occur, it makes logical sense.

Larissa Volokhonsky said...

We shouldn't forget that "The Grand Inquisitor" is Ivan' musings, and Ivan is indirectly responsible for his father's murder. Dostoevsky constructs his vision by juxtaposing to Ivan's the character of Mitya, who suffers innocently and of Zossima with teaching on forgiveness.

Brian Joseph said...

Hello Larissa - Than you for stopping by and commenting. It is an honer :)

Indeed, I like to think theoretical framework of the story of the Grand Inquisitor supports the story and the characters that Dostoevsky constructed.