Fyodor Dostoevsky’s final masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, responds to profound religious, moral, and philosophical questions current in his time. And in ours. The novel shows multiple ways of living in the world he created. And in ours. It offers a reasoned response to those who reject religious faith as irrational in his time. And in ours. It challenges readers to understand their own lives, to recognize the vision by which whey live, and to see what it means to live their lives in accordance with their own particular vision. In his time and in ours.
The oceans of commentary on the novel display (very roughly) two currents. A “critical” view takes Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov’s vivid and profound challenges to belief in God and religion, the centerpiece of the novel, as unanswerable. In his frontal attack, “Rebellion” (Book IV, Chapter 4), he shows why he cannot accept that our world, rife with undeserved, pointless suffering, could possibly be created by a good and just God. In the following chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor” he portrays the tyranny of religion through his imaginative fable attacking the Roman Catholic Church: The Church fathers the subterfuge of magic, the obfuscation of mystery, and the tyranny of subjugation to keep miserable people “happy” but fettered. Dostoevsky pulls no punches in Ivan’s widely-excerpted attacks on the reasonableness of religious faith. Many commentators find the rebuttal Dostoevsky penned to be a total failure.
The other admires the vision of the novel, expressed through the unfailing involvement of Alyosha Fyodorovich Karamazov, the guidance of Father Zosima (the elder to whom Alyosha conformed while living in the monastery), and the powerful love that graced Dmitri Fyodorovich Karamazov and the seemingly wanton Agrafena Alexandrovna Svetlov (Grushenka), as showing the only way to care with and for our neighbors who share with us the ravaged ikon of God’s world. These visionary reactions see a harsh and fearful active love the only possible way to care for suffering people when no cure of all their ills is humanly possible.
In The Karamazov Case: Dostoevsky’s Argument for His Vision I argue that both currents are too shallow. The critics fail to plumb the depths of the whole argument Dostoevsky makes in and by the novel. The visionaries recognize facts of Ivan’s testimony, but assume on faith that the vision nonetheless stands as portraying a worthy life. Dostoevsky is much more subtle and powerful than either recognizes.
First, much of the commentary assumes the adequacy of the essentialized, binary “faith vs. reason” approach. Joseph Frank, the superb biographer of Dostoevsky and interpreter of his work, epitomizes this, writing that “the main theme of the novel [is] the conflict between reason and faith.” This is simply an unexamined modernist bias. Dostoevsky himself portrays not two forms of life (“reason” versus “faith,” Ivan vs. Alyosha/Zosima), but at least six mentalités: materialism (Ivan), realism (Alyosha et al.), irrational sensualism (especially Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov), incoherent superstition (Fr. Ferapont), religious naïveté (peasant believers), and selfish manipulation (Rakitin); an incipient seventh form of life, that of the blinkered bureaucrat or “apparatchik” (some judges, lawyers, doctors) is not fully developed. The argument begins with portraying what it means to live in these forms of life and seeks to show how realism is the only life worth living. The “faith vs. reason” optic deceives both skeptics and visionaries alike, obscuring Dostoevsky’s passion, his vision, and his whole argument.
Second, Dostoevsky has two interrelated arguments to make his case. One is the argument in the novel, the response of realists to evils in the world and the inadequacy of materialism. Never once (except in a parody of the “Good Samaritan” parable) does Ivan act to help others. He never asks why the horrors he narrates occur, but only reports “the facts” about the horrors. In contrast, Dmitri in a dream sequence asks why these occur, the first step to addressing such evils concretely. Moreover, Ivan’s “Rebellion” uses “I” or the equivalent sixty-three times in eighty-one lines, according to Robert Louis Jackson, while Alyosha’s “Speech at the Stone” uses “we” and its variants fifty-seven times in a similar length speech. Ivan’s materialism is that of an isolated cognitive monad; and, if one analyzes his utterances in Book IV, Chapter 3 (never anthologized), his views are self-defeating. Close reading shows that Ivan’s argument flails, at best.
The other argument, by the novel, is against the materialistic pseudo-Kantianism of some Russian radicals of Dostoevsky’s time—and individualistic materialism of any time. Ivan’s inability to move beyond the “facts” he discovers, guided by Kant’s first great question, “What can I know?” leads him both to contemplate committing suicide after the apogee of his life. He winds up paralyzed in madness by the end of the novel. Ivan’s egoism is self-destructive. In contrast, Alyosha shows that pure reason uncovering the facts requires that we engage in practical reasoning, asking what we can and should do. Dostoevsky revises Kant’s second great question. The novel asks and answers “What can we do?” Dostoevsky’s answer is not a categorical imperative necessary to earn happiness, but the narrative of a life devoted to reconciliation, caring with and for others. That sort of life can bring happiness as a gift, not a merited reward. And through the harsh and fearful love strewn throughout the novel, but especially in the gift of love Grushenka and Dmitri give each other, Dostoevsky shows “What may we hope?” We together may hope that love like theirs is an ikon transparent to the infinite Love at the heart of reality. And we can have true hope only if we live in love, whatever form love takes for us. But as Kant himself noted, there can be contentions, but no proofs, in aesthetics.
Dostoevsky’s whole argument is cognitive, active, and aesthetic. He does not demonstrate his claims, but elucidates what it means to live in these forms of life in and by the narrative. The argument of The Brothers Karamazov is polyphonic. As Mikhail Bakhtin put it, “The unity of the polyphonic novel—a unity standing above the world, above the voice, above the accent—has yet to be discovered.” Why? Because the novel is dialogic. It is incomplete until the readers take it up and allow themselves to be challenged by it. Whatever unity is given is found in and through the readers’ responses to the novel.
The polyphony of the novel gives the readers room to react. Any one of the mentalités may be the most adequate and accurate. Sensualism, irrationalism, manipulation—all of these are prominent forms of life in his day. And in ours. Dostoevsky does not prove the case beyond a doubt, even though what he contends is clear. Readers must decide. In his day and in ours. The Brothers Karamazov is a profound challenge: can we understand that we are making the future real, living in and living out a vision displayed as we think, judge, act and hope?
Of course, the novel reveals much more, from the author’s anti-Semitism, ethnic prejudice, and antipathy to Roman Catholicism, to his understanding of human nature, his view of church-state relations, and his own commitment to realism, however much he struggled intellectually and personally. Nor does his argument limit “realism” to Christianity or to any religion or to any particular secular stance. Realism is found in the many possible responses to “What can we know, what ought we do, and what may we hope?” Dostoevsky challenges his readers to answer these questions in their own particular circumstances, however varied they may be. Then and now.
Terrence W. Tilley is Emeritus Professor of Theology, Fordham University.
The Karamazov Case is his fourteenth book