Thoughts after reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov
I have read The Idiot, and I have read Crime and Punishment. Those books I read ages ago, before law school, but The Brothers Karamazov remained on my “to read” list for years before I finally picked it up this summer. The book just seemed too long, too dark (a parricide?!, even the cover art seemed dreary and depressing), too male (weren’t there any sisters in this book?), and too Christian (questions concerning old church doctrines couldn’t hold any interest to me). I left my copy of the book with my parents in the U.S. when I moved back to Europe after my clerkship. At some point, I asked my mom to send me the book, but she couldn’t find it. When we came back to visit, I looked through my old stuff for it, but I didn’t have any better luck than my mom. The book seemed to have disappeared. I forgot about it for a time. There were other things to read.
Later I ran across Professor Dreyfus’s webcasts of his course on Existentialism in Literature and Film at the University of California, Berkeley. The course featured selections from Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and somewhat to my surprise, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Now, I was really curious. I got another copy of the book and decided to read it this summer.
The book turned out to be a treat to read – every bit the literary masterpiece it was billed to be. I finished reading, satisfied that I’d learned something and happy that the book had been well worth my time. But almost as soon as I’d returned the book to the bookshelf, a funny thing happened: I suddenly found myself moved to tears after seeing an author ridiculed by posts on social news sites. A separate blog post can be found about the incident here. It was as a result of this incident that I ended up picking the book up again and began musing over the unsolved problems as set forth in Professor Dreyfus’s lectures.
In The Grand Inquistor, a story contained within The Brothers Karamazov, a Spanish Cardinal explains that the church was founded upon miracle, mystery and authority. Dostoevsky took it upon himself to explain the significance of these three things in terms of human experience. In my previous post, I blogged about Dostoevsky’s conception of authority. In this post, I will discuss miracles and mysteries.
After my realization with respect to Dostoevsky’s treatment of authority, I went back to Professor Dreyfus’s lectures to see what the remaining open issues were. Although Professor Dreyfus had found the places in the book where Dostoevsky had “existentialized” different doctrines like baptism and confession, he wondered what was meant by the use of the word “mystery” in The Grand Inquisitor. I thought back to my Catholic upbringing, and it seemed to me that I remembered hearing the word “mystery” used with respect to receiving communion. The anointing of the sick also crossed my mind as something that had been explained as a “mystery.” I looked those up on Wikipedia and the Catholic encyclopedia, but found that I was thinking of the seven sacraments.
I asked my husband, who was baptised in the Orthodox church, if he knew anything about Orthodox “mysteries.” He is not religious, and couldn’t remember much either, but looked up taina, the Romanian word for mystery, on the Romanian language version of Wikipedia. He found that the word taina, or mystery, was synonymous with sacramente, or sacraments. Evidently, the Greek word “mysterion” is translated in Latin as “sacramentum.” I also looked up “mystery” on Wikipedia, which confirmed that the word is used in the Eastern Orthodox tradition to refer to what are known as the sacraments in the Western tradition. The seven sacred mysteries (sacraments) are: baptism, chrismation (confirmation), holy communion, confession, holy orders, matrimony, and unction (the anointing of the sick, or “last rites”).
Because many of the individual mysteries were explained throughout Professor Dreyfus’s lectures, this is primarily only of organizational interest. However, what follows is a few notes on each.
- Baptism was explained as a positive, loving childhood memory.
- Chrismation appears to be closely connected to baptism, but it relates primarily to the sign of the cross preformed over someone to “seal the initiate with the gifts of the Holy Spirit,” an act that was preformed by the doctor Herzenstube over Dmitry as a child.
- Dostoevsky allowed a “last supper” for Dmitry when he feasted in the town of Mokroye the night before he was arrested. Holy Communion is taken to commemorate the last supper, which gives me to wonder whether Dmitry’s first feast was the “last supper” and the second feast a communion in commemoration of the first. The other possibility is that communion is represented by, for example, the Elder Zosima sitting down and drinking tea with his former servant. In the description of this meeting, Elder Zosima notes that “between us a great act of human unity had taken place.” Later he recalls:
´What do you want us to do?´they said, ‘sit our servants down on the sofa and bring them cups of tea?´ And then I said to them in answer: `Well, why not, if at least only on occasion?´Then they all laughed. Their question was a frivolous one, and my reply unclear, but I think that it contained a certain amount of truth.
Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, From the Discourses of the Elder Zosima
- The importance of confession was illustrated by the Elder Zosima’s story of the mysterious stranger.
- Ordination was shown by, for example, the Elder Zosima’s dying brother Markel instructing the Elder as a child, in the twilight hour, to “go now and play and live for me!” Another example was Alyosha’s mother dedicating him to the icon, also in the twilight hour.
- No marriages took place in the book, so perhaps Dostoevsky intended to show the importance of this sacrament in his intended follow-up work. My guess is that it has something to do with Professor Dreyfus’s insight that each character in the book seems to have an “existential double.”
- The anointing of the sick was described in detail by Alyosha’s tending to the sick child Ilyusha. In these scenes, Dostoevsky describes the process of reconciliation, forgiveness, and a kind of coming to terms with one’s past deeds. I don’t remember any part of the book in which anyone was anointed with oil or perfume, but I wasn’t reading the book looking for such an incident either. There was an interesting scene in which the dog Zhuchka licked Ilyusha “all over one side of his face,”which makes me wonder whether Dostoevsky might have been making a little bit of fun of the tradition of anointing the sick with oil, but that’s speculative.
One last note about the mysteries: in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the primary mystery is the incarnation of God. The sacraments receive their importance in relation to this, as a means by which man can become reunited with God.
Dostoevsky’s treatment of miracles may be one of the most interesting and thought-provoking aspects of the book. In his lectures, Professor Dreyfus explains how Dostoevsky de-mystifies one of the most mystical parts of Christianity. The task was a difficult one: Dostoevsky had to show how a miracle could both be rare and extraordinary – not something that happens every day – and yet, also something that would not contravene the laws of physics and chemistry. To do this, Dostoevsky seizes upon the transformative power of agape love. What struck me most however, was not the transformation itself – not the content of the miracle – but the mechanism (or perhaps “vehicle” is a better word) for the miracle.
While reading the book, I was struck by this passage during the scene which led to the salvation of both Alyosha and Grushenka:
. . . he might have fathomed that for both there had coincided all the elements necessary to shake their souls in the way that this infrequently occurs in life.
Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, The Onion
“Aha!,” I thought, “there’s an example of a meaningful coincidence!” Another meaningful coincidence was portrayed later in the book, when Ivan runs into the singing bum. Miracles, it seems for Dostoevsky, are mirrored by the work of the devil. While Alyosha is portrayed as being saved by the occurrence of a meaningful coincidence followed by a vision in a dream, Ivan seems to be doomed via the same mechanism: a meaningful coincidence followed by a vision, although in his case it is not clear whether the vision was a dream or a delusion.
I found Dostoyevsky’s use of meaningful coincidence in particular quite fascinating. A meaningful coincidence can be defined as a random event or string of events that are in no way causally connected, but that nonetheless appear subjectively meaningful to the observer. Interest in the same phenomenon had years earlier introduced me to the psychology of Carl Jung, who had formulated a concept he called synchronicity to account for it. Jung published a short book on synchronicity in collaboration with the physicist Wolfgang Pauli. However, the book is no longer available with Pauli’s essay, and because I had difficulties locating either a copy of Pauli’s contribution or the Pauli-Jung letters, I ended up reading a book by a Swedish PhD student, Suzanne Gieser, who had written her doctoral thesis on the relationship between the two giants. It is also worth mentioning that, according to Jung in his book on synchronicity, the concept had also been explored in an essay by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, but I have also been unable to locate that particular essay.
Unfortunately, much of Jung’s essay on synchronicty now seems quite dated, primarily due to his forays into experiments regarding telepathy and psychokinesis. On the other hand, his attempts to find scientific verification of the phenomenon does not strike me as any stranger than, for example, something like the Global Consciousness Project at Princeton, which is based on the hypothesis that “human intention can reduce natural entropy and create greater coherence within a random series of events.” This was essentially the same thing that Jung was attempting to show.
It seems to me however, that a better line of inquiry into the phenomenon of the meaningful coincidence might be through memetics, a modern theory concerning cultural information transfer. This is because the probability of, for example, hearing or seeing of a certain word or concept should be the same both before and after any partiuclar individual learns about that concept. Memetics shows that this is not always the case, as certain words and concepts seem to appear with greater frequency in society at different times. Thus, memetics seems to provide a way for distinguishing the phenomenon from cognitive biases such as the recency effect or the confirmation bias.
The picture of cultural diffusion painted by memetics also seems relevant to Dostoevsky’s conception of the spread of agape love. As Professor Dreyfus pointed out, his idea appears to be that pioneering or originating spirits (e.g., Markel in the book) are destroyed by radical revelations because they do not yet have the vocabulary and means to effectively communicate and share their vision. In an intermediate stage, the revelation becomes institutionalized, and supported by an isolated community of individuals sharing the same beliefs (e.g., Zosima in the monastery). The last stage occurs when it is spread among the general public (e.g., Alyosha’s role). I can’t help but to relate these three stages to a more general conception of the diffusion of ideas, and think of Cantor, Boltzman and Nietzsche, each of the same generation, and all driven mad by radical new ideas undermining the quest for certainty in each of their respective fields: physics, math, and philosophy.
Finally, according to Littlewood’s law, the laws of probability guarantee each person about one miracle per month. Of course, Littlewood does not use meaningful coincidence in his definition of miracle, but merely defines a miracle as an exceptional event occurring at a frequency of about one out of a million other events. Because he then defines “event” as something occurring every second, he concludes that exceptional events, or miracles, must be commonplace. That leads me to wonder: are meaningful coincidences also too commonplace to count as miracles? After all, even my waiting to read the Brothers Karamazov for so long, running across the Dreyfus lectures after I had become an attorney and was tuned into issues concerning authority, and finally, seeing the cruel posts on Reddit and Digg mocking an author . . . these events were a string of coincidences that turned out to be meaningful, to be sure, but could this be called a miracle?
My answer is no, because I think Dostoevsky intended to limit his definition of miracle by requiring the coincidence to (1) have a very profound significance in the life of the individual, one capable of pushing him over the edge towards faith, or, in the case of the devil’s work, damnation, and (2) be linked to a dream or vision. On the other hand, it is also possible that Dostoevsky was trying to distinguish minor and major (mediate and non-mediated) miracles by using a two-fold notion, but I think the former is more probable.
**Update** Professor Dreyfus places a big emphasis on framing the antinomies in terms of the Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox positions, the Orthodox position being the “solution.” I am not convinced that this framework, while helpful in some cases, is always so significant, simply because the views of the religions are not so divergent in every aspect treated by Dostoevsky. For example, what is the difference between the Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox view on miracles? With respect to the framework of the Grand Inquisitor, as Professor Dreyfus points out, Jesus rejects miracles, whereas the Catholic Church as represented by the Cardinal manufactured miracles for the people in supernatural forms. But apart from that, it appears that miracles in all three religions involve the contradiction of the laws of physics and chemistry, as contrasted with Dostoevsky’s view, which involves no such contradiction.
Perhaps Professor Dreyfus’s framework makes more sense with respect to the mysteries, but here, the problem is exactly the opposite as that in the case of miracles: the formulation is quite confused in the framework of the Grand Inquisitor, but makes more sense in the comparative religious framework. Recall that the primary mystery is the incarnation, or God’s presence on earth, which the seven sacraments commemorate. It is hard to see, in the framework of the Grand Inquisitor, how Jesus could reject the mystery of his own incarnation. What was rejected by Jesus was rather God’s intervention to save him from death on earth. But, on the other hand, the high degree of formality and often luxuriant rituals surrounding the sacraments in the Catholic tradition was a major point of contention throughout the Protestant Reformation. Many Protestant denominations now either don’t celebrate all seven traditional sacraments, or have demoted their significance and importance. God’s kingdom is not on earth for the Protestants. The Orthodox tradition, however, does not limit the number of sacraments, and in general has more of an emphasis on the substance than the form. Dostoevsky seems to have taken the Orthodox view a step further, focusing on the significance of the sacraments as they occur in the life of the individual – existentializing the sacraments, so to speak – and leaving them very little if any formal or ritual properties. Thus, while the Catholic tradition is too formal, the Protestant tradition was equally wrong in assigning to the sacraments so little importance. The Orthodox view resolves this antinomy by focusing on the substance and significance of the sacraments, keeping them, and not the formal or ritual properties.
The Protestant-Orthodox-Catholic framework is also problematic with respect to the issue of authority, but there is evidence that something like this is what Dostoevsky had in mind. Dostoevsky sets up this antinomy most clearly at Dmitry’s trial at the end of the book. The choice appears to be between a standpoint of absolute guilt and innocence, and a standpoint from which “everything is possible” and no one can be held responsible for anything. The answer seems to involve recognizing different degrees of guilt and innocence. Crucifixion is what results when one person is held absolutely responsible for their actions, because there will always be others sharing at least part of their guilt. Does this fit in the Protestant-Orthodox-Catholic framework? Perhaps. Such a formulation is suggested toward the beginning of the book, in the chapter entitled May it Come to Pass, during the discussion at the monastery concerning Ivan’s article on the jurisdiction of the Ecclesiastical-Civil Court. During this discussion, the Elder explicitly addresses the question of authority in these terms by comparing 1) the separation of church and state in the “Lutheran lands,” 2) the State as Church in Rome (later explicitly tied to the Grand Inquisitor formulation of this antinomy by Father Paisley’s note that this is precisely the “third temptation of Satan”), and finally, 3) Russia, in which the Church plays a role alongside the State, tending to criminals who have “been punished all too severely by the justice of the State.”
How does the formulation in the beginning of the book relate to the formulation in the latter part of the book? Of particular note in the beginning discussion is Ivan’s response to the assertion that “the Church is a kingdom not of this world.” Ivan is concerned with refuting this Protestant viewpoint, which appears to take the Church out of the business of judgment – and therefore criminal justice – entirely. This calls to mind Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, which emphasizes Abraham’s absolute independence from societal standards of right and wrong: he answered only to God. Dostoevsky appears to reject this view, and the Elder notes that this view logically ends in a kind of relativism, as the “recent theories” confirm that there are no real crimes (against morality), but instead the so-called criminal acts are instead “merely an act of revolt against an unjustly oppressive power.” This is the view that appears to be behind the “everything is permissible” argument, and the “new ideas, the new emotions that now about, etc.” referenced in the case against Dmitry.
On the other hand, Dostoevsky also rejects the Catholic ideal of Church as State. According to the Elder, justice in this model has been supplanted by the pagan view of the State where legality has replaced morality, leading to a law and evidence-based, fact-finding methodology which only “mechanically amputates” and deports the offending citizen, while doing nothing to treat the heart and mind of the criminal. This is the black and white, absolute guilt vs. absolute innocence view represented by the prosecutor in Dmitry’s trial. It is only Orthodox justice which brings to a criminal conscience awareness of his (moral) guilt before society, and thus makes possible his reform. At the time of the Brothers Karamazov, the Russian church acted alongside the State in responding to the needs of the criminals, but the Elder’s ideal was for the State to eventually raise to the level of the Church in its form of (spiritual as opposed to legal) judgment (exactly the opposite of what happened in Rome, when the Church stooped down to the level of the State with respect to justice and crimes against the State accordingly also became crimes against the Church).
In summary with respect to authority, the Catholic church as State appears to represent the idea that one person who is absolutely guilty, can be judged by another, absolutely innocent person by employing scientific methods of investigation. The Protestant church then represents the idea that no one could be judged by anyone else, and the Orthodox Church occupies a position somewhere in the middle, allowing for a kind of qualified, compassionate judgment with the aim of ending evil chains and setting into motion chains of agape love.