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Miracles and Mysteries in The Brothers Karamazov

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.


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On Dostoevsky’s conception of authority in The Brothers Karamazov

An ugly side of humanity exposed itself when members of the social news sites digg.com and reddit.com crucified an artist whose books failed to live up to the refined tastes of the digg and reddit community.  The relevant posts can be found here (digg) and here (reddit).

It is with some embarrassment that I admit the treatment of this artist brought tears to my eyes. My first thoughts were along the lines of “What if the author is child whose parents helped publish his first attempt at a novel to encourage his creative expression?” Would this experience forever crush the naive enthusiasm for writing that had developed in someone who could have otherwise developed into a great talent? Then I wondered what would have happened if Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, the first part of which was narrated by a retarded man, was judged and dismissed by the first page in a similar manner. Or what if the book was intended as science fiction satire, and the narrator’s bad grammar a clever version of the “unreliable narrator” device?

I soon realized, however, that my “don’t judge a book by its cover (or first page)” rationalization was not sufficient to account for the strength of my feeling.  However, at the time, I also happened to be reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and following the webcasts about the book from Professor Dreyfus’s course in Existentialism in Literature and Film at the University of California, Berkeley.  The lectures were enlightening in many ways, but of particular interest to me was Professor Dreyfus’s insight into Dostoevsky’s attempt to “existentialize” various key Christian doctrines such as baptism, confession, miracles, the incarnation, and of course, the crucifixion. Dostoevsky’s intent was to explain certain religious teachings in terms of everyday human experience.  Thus, for example, baptism is explained as a lasting childhood memory of kindness, and miracles are explained, not as events which contradict the laws of physics and chemistry, but as meaningful coincidences and revealing dreams.  As a secular person, religious doctrines are usually far off my radar, so I am certain that I would have missed this key aspect of the book were it not for the webcasts.

It suddenly dawned on me that, with respect to the above posts on the social news sites, I was witnessing a modern version of the crucifixion in a form similar to that existentialized by Dostoevsky.  Here was a man relentlessly mocked based on nothing more than the evidence of the bad grammar and simple-mindedness of the narrator on the first page of an original novella.  On this flimsy evidence, the author was held up as nothing less than the symbol of a deteriorating popular culture itself- a culture that all too often celebrates the crude, the immature and the stupid.

My husband wondered how I could feel so badly for this author when he could only benefit from all the attention and the many “positive reviews” of his book on Amazon.  In fact, my husband went on to point out, this author had quite possibly sold more books as gag gifts than many struggling authors sell in a life-time.  Far from providing comfort, however, these reflections only served to further validate my thoughts, for they pointed to the fact that the people mocking this artist are inextricably part of the same culture.  These are the members of the social news sites which also showed enthusiastic support for such exemplars of intelligence and taste as, for example, Hot Chicks Who Date Douchebags and Explosions and Boobs. It seems to me then, that to the extent the book is a product of that culture, the tormentors bear the same guilt as the author.  To the extent, however, that this artist dared to place his individual stamp on this shared culture by creating a original work of art, the author has proven himself infinitely greater than the lemmings mocking him.

I suddenly saw that this person’s ultimate potential as a writer and the merits of this particular book were irrelevant. The point is that the author did not let himself be defined by culture, but rather, working as a part of and within his culture, he created something original.  Is there any greater destiny or higher purpose in the life of man than to develop his potential as an individual? And what surer means to achieve this goal than creative expression?  What right do these people, blindly following the crowd, have to judge this author as an individual?

It was then that I remembered there were some unanswered questions posed by Professor Dreyfus in his lectures on The Brothers Karamazov concerning the nature of authority as well as the role of crucifixion.  In one lecture, Professor Dreyfus noted that in The Grand Inquisitor (a kind of story within the story of The Brothers Karamazov), Dostoevsky set up the question of authority as an issue with which he would be concerned.  However, Professor Dreyfus wondered where in the book Dostoevsky solved this riddle by showing his readers the wrong ways and the right way to exercise authority.  In another lecture, Professor Dreyfus put forth a second set of questions concerning the nature and role of crucifixion: why is it that there needs to be someone who suffers for the sins of everyone?, how would one go about suffering for everyone?, and how can the suffering of one person somehow make the world better, or fix something that was bad before?  It is my contention that the questions about authority on the one hand, and crucified on the other are very closely related, and in the following paragraphs, I will attempt to explain why.

Warning: spoiler alert for The Brothers Karamazov*

The problem of authority

Dostoevsky sets up the problem of authority as an antinomy.  He puts it forth in the clearest form towards the end of book, right before Dmitry’s trial.  At this point in the book, the narrator notes that everyone in attendance agreed that the evidence was conclusive and Dmitry must have committed the crime.  However, the majority of males in the audience, many with “stern, frowning faces . . . equivocally desired retribution for the criminal . . . ” (840) In contrast, the woman were “irrevocably convinced” that Dmitry would “‘be acquitted on grounds of humanity, of the new ideas, the new emotions that are now about,’ etcetera, etcetera.” (847)

The men, in other words, took a traditional view of authority which implies the existence of something like absolute guilt and innocence. According to this view, one person’s fate is decided from the perspective of a wholly innocent authority.  If the person is judged to be guilty, he bears the sole responsibility for his crime, and the most extreme forms of punishment are warranted (e.g., Siberia).  This view can be thought of as representing an ideal of justice governed by the principle of retribution.

The women, on the other hand, appear to believe that environmental circumstances coupled with Dmitry’s Dmitry’s “>Karamazovian nature compelled him to kill his father.  As the crime was inevitable, and Dmitry had no real choice in the matter, he was a victim and could not be held responsible for his actions.  This view seems to lead to complete anarchy, where no one can be held responsible for anything, and no one can be in a position to judge anyone else. On the other hand, this view can also be thought of as representing an ideal of justice governed by the principle of mercy.  The idea is that, if a man is shown mercy, he will see that “I am guilty before all men and am the most unworthy of all men” and that “men are better than I.” (953) This realization will then cause the criminal to repent and spend the rest of his life in atonement for “the numberless debt that stands before him from this day.” (953)

The two polar positions are also represented by the public procurator and Dmitry’s defense counsel, and are spelled out in great detail in the two closing speeches.  Many of the main points are further highlighted when the crowd interrupts at various times to applaud the speaker.  The speeches bring to mind the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus‘s play The Eumenides, which depicts the trial of Orestes for the murder of his mother.  In this play, Apollo takes the role of the defense attorney for Orestes against the Furies thirst for revenge on behalf of his mother’s spirit. The comparison is interesting to me, because in the Greek play, reason seemed to represent both justice and mercy taking a stand against a savage and barbaric notion of vengeance.  For Dostoevsky, reason seems to play a dual role:  on the one hand, seemingly overwhelming evidence is marshaled by the prosecutor in support of his call for retribution, on the other hand, the defense counsel turns reason in on itself and argues that the “evidence” can be used to support just about any story and that, therefore, mercy is the only reasonable option.

The role of crucifixion in resolving the antinomy

Dostoevsky’s means of solving this antinomy follows directly from his conception of connectedness.  For Dostoevsky, everything and everyone is connected, and “all is like an ocean, all flows and is contiguous, and if you touch it in one place it will reverberate at the other end of the world.” (414) There can be chains of good, but there can also be chains of evil.

Each day and hour, each minute walk close to yourself and take care that your inward form is well-apportioned.  Perhaps you have walked past a little child, walked past him angry, with a foul remark, with a wrathful soul, it may be that you did not notice him, the child, but he saw you, and your inward form, unattractive and impious, may have remained within his unprotected little heart.  You were not even aware of this, but by that very fact it may be that you have sown a bad seed in him, and it may grow, and all because you did not guard yourself in the presence of a young child, because you had not tutored in yourself a love circumspect and active.

-Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, From the Discourses of the Elder Zosima, Concerning Prayer, Love and the Contiguity with Other Worlds

Thus, it is very easy for a person to begin or perpetuate a chain of evil, as illustrated, for example, when Alyosha deeply offends Grushenka by refusing to look at her.  On the other hand, there is also a seemingly infinite number of places any one person could intervene to stop a chain of evil and transform it, through love, to an “onion” (good) chain.  Dostoevsky therefore takes a very broad view concerning crimes of omission, which is brought into sharp focus with respect to Ivan’s role in the crime.  In Dostoevsky’s view, it appears that any person who fails to stop a crime shares at least some part of the guilt with the acting criminal.

. . .realize that you yourself are guilty, for you might have brought light to the evil-doers, as the only sinless one, and you did not shine.  If you had shone, then with your light you would have illumined the path for the others, too, and he that committed the evil deed might not have committed it in your light.

-Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, From the Discourses of the Elder Zosima, Is it Possible to be a Judge of One’s Fellow Men?  Of Faith Unto the End

In light of Dostoevsky’s views concerning crimes of omission and the connectedness of all things, what first appears to be the bizarre ramblings of a delirious child and an old monk is seen to embody a profound Christian truth:  “each of us is guilty before the other for everything.” (374) Moreover, this is a truth that is seldom recognized by those who presume to judge the acts of their fellow human beings.**

Recall again the virtual crowd on the social news sites mocking an artist from within a shared culture, and consider the following biblical verses, the first of which is the response of Jesus on the cross to the mocking crowd as found in Luke:

Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.  Luke 23:34

Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself, for you who judge practice the same things.  Romans 2:1

Let the person among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone . . .  John 8:7

Now consider the death of Fyodor Pavlovich in The Brothers Karamazov. The true murderer was someone who, as a child, never met with agape love, but instead was told that he was “inhuman.” That set the stage for him to lap up “the new ideas, the new emotions that are now about,’ etcetera, etcetera” (847) in the culture, and come to the logical conclusion from this that “all things are lawful.” (808).   The murderer acted with no motive to speak of, but purely as a creature of culture.  Thus, everyone attending Dmitry’s trial bore some guilt for the murder.  In a delirious rage, Ivan Fyodorovich accuses the crowd:

‘Oh, I am in my right mind, all right . . . and it is a villainous mind, the same as yours, the same as theirs, the lot of them, those . . . p-pug-mugs!’ he said, turning suddenly to the public.  ‘A father has been murdered, and they pretend they are frightened,’ he ground out with malicious contempt.  ‘They give themselves airs before one another.  Liars!  They all desire the death of their fathers.  One vile reptile consumes the other . . . Were it not for the parricide they would all lose their tempers and disperse in a rage . . . Circuses!  ‘Bread and Circuses‘!’

-Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, A Sudden Catastrophe (emphasis added)

Given Dostoevsky’s view of the connectedness of all things and the infectious nature of evil, crucifixion becomes a necessary means of stopping an evil chain.  Evil must, so to speak, bottom out somewhere:  it grows and grows until it is at last definite, recognizable, and unignorable.  At that point, the crowd rises in horror to publicly expose and root out the evil. In a kind of false unity, but unity nonetheless, the crowd finds someone to hold responsible, and crucifies the last link in the chain.***  A person can only serve as the last link in a chain of evil if they take the suffering upon themselves in the right way, however, which brings me to my next point.

The proper exercise of authority

Authority must be exercised with compassion, in a way that recognizes the suffering of the one crucified and helps him to understand the important role he must play in putting an end to the chain of evil.

Bear in mind that you can be no man’s judge. For a criminal can have no judge upon the earth until that judge himself has perceived that he is every bit as much of a criminal as the man who stands before him, and that for the crime of the man who stands before him he himself may well be more guilty than anyone else.  Only when he grasps this may he become a judge . . . And even if the law itself appoints you as his judge, then act even then to the best of your ability in this same spirit, for he will go away and condemn himself even more harshly than your judgment . .

– Fyoder Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, From The Discourses of the Elder Zosima, Is it Possible to be a Judge of One’s Fellow Men?  Of Faith Unto the End

According to Dostoevsky, sometimes, it is even appropriate for a judge to take the suffering upon himself.

If you are able to take upon yourself the crime of the man who stands before you and is judged by your heart, then lose no time, but do so and suffer for him yourself, while letting him go without reproach.

-Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, From the Discourses of the Elder Zosima, Is it Possible to be a Judge of One’s Fellow Men?  Of Faith Unto the End

The ideal use of authority is illustrated best in the book by Alyosha, when he intervenes during the “stoning” of little Ilyusha by six other boys.  Although Ilyusha taunts and throws rocks at Alyosha too, Alyosha does not retaliate.  Instead, he repeatedly asks of the boy how it came to be that Alyosha had done something to harm him.  The little boy then bites Alyosha’s finger to the bone, and still, Alyosha does retaliate.  In this scene, which recalls the biblical imperative to “turn the other cheek,” Alyosha has taken upon himself the suffering of the little boy, and in so doing, puts an end to the chain of evil that led to the stoning incident.

The forms of judgment elaborated in the antimony do not serve to stop the chain of evil. If one presumes absolute guilt and innocence, and assigns the full responsibility of a crime to one person, an injustice has also been committed:  namely, the criminal’s dual role as a victim as well as a perpetrator goes unrecognized, and the people in the chain that introduced the evil to the perpetrator go unpunished.  Thus, if the perpetrator is brought to understand his suffering and punishment in a retributive sense, all he sees is injustice with respect to others who were not caught or punished for their evil deeds.  This he is likely to stew over, and later use as a rationalization for committing further crimes, further perpetuating the chain of evil.  On the other hand, if the perpetrator is brought to understand that, although he is the basest of the base among men, he will go unpunished solely because the one judging him is infinitely greater and wiser than he, he will more likely than not continue to act the base role assigned to him, as well as attempt to bring everyone else down to his level.  That evil can be spread in this way is illustrated by Fyodor Pavlovich in the beginning of the book when he plays the buffoon at the monastery and explains:

When I go among people I do indeed always feel that I’m more vile than any of them and that they all take me for a buffoon, and so I say to myself: ‘Very well, I really will play the buffoon . . ‘

-Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, An Inappropriate Gathering

Before this scene, the Elder Zosima warned Fyodor Pavlovich to “above all, do not be so ashamed of yourself, for it is from that that all the rest proceeds.” (62)  This same kind of evil shows up again when Grushenka feels ashamed of herself before “a man like [Alyosha].” (454)

Dostoevsky understands all too well that that empirical truth that people who live in crime have often been victimized themselves – they grow up surrounded by crime and poverty and see no other alternatives open to them – the abused becomes the abuser.  The only way out of this cycle seems to be through transformative suffering.  The role of the judge is not condemnation, but compassion.  The judge must greet the criminal with agape love, and, understanding that he is a victim as well as a perpetrator, accept him as an individual -both the good and the bad.  The judge is then in a position to bring a criminal to understand that there is another alternative: namely, he may affirm the good within him and continue the chain of agape love.  Only with this understanding will the criminal be capable of bringing an end to the chain of evil that has so ensnared him.

Thus, with respect to the author crucified on the social news site, criticism may have been appropriate, but only constructive criticism from those who have read the entire book. Further, only individuals can properly serve as judges, group-think cannot lead to a fair evaluation.  And, finally, perhaps in this case, it is only fellow artists who could have a deep enough understanding of the difficulties of the task faced by the author to be able to adequately illustrate for him how to overcome and transform the deficiencies he is inadvertently perpetuating.

With respect to criminal justice, there is possibly no greater example of this type of compassion than that offered by the legendary defense attorney Clarence Darrow, who must have been channeling Dostoevsky in his argument on behalf of Leopold and Loeb:

I know, Your Honor, that every atom of life in all this universe is bound up together. I know that a pebble cannot be thrown into the ocean without disturbing every drop of water in the sea. I know that every life is inextricably mixed and woven with every other life. I know that every influence, conscious and unconscious, acts and reacts on every living organism, and that no one can fix the blame. I know that all life is a series of infinite chances, which sometimes result one way and sometimes another. I have not the infinite wisdom that can fathom it, neither has any other human brain. But I do know that if in back of it is a power that made it, that power alone can tell, and if there is no power then it is an infinite chance which man cannot solve . . .

Why should this boy’s life be bound up with Frederick Nietzsche, who died thirty years ago, insane, in Germany? I don’t know. I only know it is. I know that no man who ever wrote a line that I read failed to influence me to some extent. I know that every life I ever touched influenced me, and I influenced it; and that it is not given to me to unravel the infinite causes and say, “This is I, and this is you.” I am responsible for so much; and you are responsible for so much. I know that in the infinite universe everything has its place and that the smallest particle is a part of all. Tell me that you can visit the wrath of fate and chance and life and eternity upon a nineteen-year-old boy! If you could, justice would be a travesty and mercy a fraud.

-Clarence Darrow, summation in Leopold and Loeb (emphasis added)

Darrow insisted upon arguing solely in front of a judge, and declined the right to trial by jury for fear that the trial would become a circus that could only end with the boys being sentenced to death.  The two boys defended by Darrow were spared their lives by the judge, but sentenced to life in prison.

* All page number references in parenthesis are to Penguin Classics 2003 edition of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov, translated by David McDuff.

** Professor Dreyfus maintains that Zosima’s statements on this particular point do not represent the solution to the antinomy.  I do not agree.  Zosima has the answer, or at least the beginning of the answer, to nearly all of the antinomies set up in the book.  Professor Dreyfus also notes that other commentators have held that Zosima represents Dostoevsky’s view on this point, and I think Dreyfus’s claim that Zosima goes wrong here is in need of much further evidence than the mere assertion that it just seems wrong, because, for example, it does not make sense for Zosima to hold himself responsible for remote horrors occurring in Africa.  Rather, it seems to me that Zosima’s view on this point follows directly and logically from his views on connectedness, which Professor Dreyfus seems to accept.  By his objections, Professor Dreyfus does raise an important question concerning the limits and degree of responsibility of any given individual for the evil of the world.  However, this question also appears to be answered by Dostoevsky through Zosima’s discussion with Fyodor Karamazov concerning the dangers in feeling ashamed before others, a theme that occurs throughout the book, particularly when Grushenka misinterprets Alyosha’s demeanor for disgust directed towards her.  It appears then, that the guilt one bears before all creatures does not mean that one is necessarily more guilty than everyone else or that one bears sole responsibility for the evils of the world – that would result in shame before one’s fellow-men, which only results in further evil.  It is rather a sense of shared responsibility that Zosima is referring to by the statements in point.

Further, picking up Professor Dreyfus’s example of the remote occurrences in Africa, let’s take, for example, the case of child soldiers. Can a person in the West share some responsibility for the murder and torture victims of a child soldier operating in Somalia or Sierra Leone?  According to UNICEF, child soldiers most often join the army either “voluntarily” because they have no other choice or means of survival,  or they are kidnapped and forced into service.  Once a part of the army, they are “socialized” into violence, usually by witnessing the torture and murder of other individuals, even friends and family members, and/or being tortured, beaten and drugged themselves.  Given these circumstances, are these children to bear full responsibility for the evils they commit for their regimes?  A good case could be made that the children are also victims.  So should the handlers and trainers be responsible, many of whom were also retained previously as child soldiers themselves?  Or should the African governments be held responsible?  And if the governments should be held responsible, who is it that should be holding them accountable?  No one?  Such would be the view of those who hold man has no right to judge the actions of another.  The West, perhaps?  Certainly, if the world made it a priority, they could intervene and stop such practices.  But they don’t.  Why?  The governments of the West are democratically accountable.  Ultimately then, the reason for the non-intervention turns on the priorities of the citizens of those countries.  Perhaps the decision for non-intervention (or minimal intervention) is even morally justifiable, but even if so, these children soldiers and their victims are still suffering because the world’s resources are devoted to other causes, both public and private, elsewhere.  This can be viewed as a crime of omission on a large scale.  The evil in the world bottoms out, so to speak, on the lives of these children and their victims. Certainly, a case for shared responsibility can be made, and I strongly believe this is the case Dostoevsky is making.

Take an example more familiar and current within the U.S:  tort reform, and in particular, medical malpractice reform.  Currently our system is one of “shame and blame,” in which patients are able to sue doctors or other treatment providers individually or jointly “responsible” for adverse treatment outcomes.  There are many problems with this system, least among them is that it doesn’t appear to be working.  Statistics have shown that medical errors happen more frequently in the United States than other rich countries.  There have been many explanations offered as to why this system of accountability does not work.  One hypothesis that I have heard multiple times is that this “shame and blame” system more often than not creates a culture in which doctors and other health care workers do what they can to protect themselves and their co-workers from lawsuits.  This in turn, even if unintentionally, leads to less emphasis on figuring out exactly what happened – on full disclosure – in order to take appropriate steps to prevent similar mistakes in the future.  One of the most promising solutions proposed is a systems based approach patterned after programs successfully employed in the aviation and nuclear power industries.  For example, in the aviation industry, it is not the pilot’s sole responsibility for the safety of the passengers, but rather the pilot, the maintenance crew, the air traffic controllers, and others all play an important role.  Likewise, in medicine, not only doctors, but also nurses, administrators and the patients themselves all have an important part to play in ensuring a successful outcome.  The approach is backward-looking, in that it is compatible with providing compensation for the victims of the errors, but also forward-looking in a way that the shame and blame system never was:  the new approach focuses on disclosure of errors and the adoption of system-wide checks and preventive measures with the aim of preventing the error from happening again.

Perhaps in the West, it is easier for us to accept this kind of systems-based approached when it concerns negligent errors and global problems for which shared responsibility and diffuse blame seem particularly relevant (environmental problems and climate change come to mind).  It is less easy for us to see how this concept applies when it comes to intentional crimes.  It seems to me, however, that Dostoevsky was interested in eroding this distinction somewhat.  For Dostoevsky, even crimes that we would normally classify as intentional – the murder in the Brothers Karamazov – appeared to be something else.  There was no one person to blame for the murder, rather, the murderer acted as a de-humanized agent of culture (or of the public, in Kierkegaard’s terms).  Given Dostoevsky’s broad view on crimes of omission, as well as the emphasis he places at the end of the book poking fun of the doctor’s alleged ability to testify regarding the defendant’s mental state, and the prosecution and defense arguments concerning the defendant’s intent, there is a strong case to be made that for Dostoevsky, crimes, even intentional crimes, are a societal problem that everyone, at least in the community, shares some degree of responsibility for.  This position appears to me as something like a positive relativism, in which there is never any doubt that any given criminal end is evil (and not just legally, but also morally), but for that evil, there is never any one person solely responsible.  The idea was to turn the culture into a positive force in the lives of individuals, to spread eventually over the whole world.

*** This type of crucifixion, however, by the crowd, would be avoided given the proper exercise of authority. In fact, Alyosha expresses his disgust for this type of crucifixion in the epilogue when Ilyusha’s friends all claim that they also wished to sacrifice themselves for truth and justice (like Dmitry), to which Alyosha replies “[b]ut surely not in such a cause, not with such disgrace, such horror!”  Thus, while crucifixion per se is not needed, it seems that there will always need to be someone able to suffer for the sins of others in order to put a stop to evil chains.

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Kierkegaard and Heidegger: Logicians?

Thoughts after reading Soren Kierkegaard’s The Sickness unto Death

The Sickness unto Death is the short (approx. 130 page) book in which the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard sets forth his famous definition of a self:  a synthesis of the psychical and the physical that relates itself to itself.  The merits of this classic philosophical work have, of course, already been proven by time.  I will not therefore attempt to catalogue its numerous strengths or presume to discuss its weaknesses.  Instead, by writing this review, I intend to point out a few of the things that I found most thought-provoking about the book in light of the philosophical development that has taken place after the book was published.

A human being is, according to Kierkegaard, “a synthesis of the infinite and finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.”  A human being is not a self, however, until this psychical-physical synthesis relates itself to itself.  As is readily apparent, Kierkegaard does not shy away from paradox and self-reference.  In fact, it often seems as though he regards self-reference as having a significant role to play in the solution to various different forms of inevitable contradiction.  Contrast this to view of most logicians, who regard self-reference as a source of contradicton and paradox.   In fact, self-reference has in the past been regarded as such a problem-child that one of the most typical ways of dealing with it is, in effect, to disinherit it, and kick it out of logical systems entirely (e.g., Alonzo Church’s or Bertrand Russell’s theory of types).

Kierkegaard goes on to define “God” as “that everything is possible.”  He also states the definition in reverse, and notes “that everything is possible means the being of God.”  Further, he defines imagination as the “medium for the process of infinitzing.”  That is, it is not a particular type of “capacity,” but instead the “capacity instar omnium” (the capacity for all capacities).  Definitions like these leave one with the impression that The Sickness unto Death is the book that results when you attempt to apply logic to the human soul.  Such a description, however,  contains not a little bit of irony, as Kierkegaard himself  notoriously railed against attempts to “rationalize” Christianity.  Perhaps Kierkegaard would find enough humor in the irony to forgive my painting of him as a logician.

Here, as well as in Fear and Trembling and other books, Kierkegaard maintains his sharp distinction between the religious and the ethical (for him the stage governed by reason) by locating the religious in the realm of paradox and contradiction.  But today, logicians are more fascinated than ever by these very phenomenon, some even taking the view that true contradictions exist.  I wonder, if Kierkegaard were around today, would he consider himself a dialetheist?

Kierkegaard appears to have an clear grasp of different logical levels and what he refers to as the “chasmic qualitative abyss” between them.  He often even refers to God and man in precisely this sense, as “two qualities separated by an infinite qualitative difference.”   He also seems to possess a natural understanding with respect to how collisions between these logical levels lead to mind-bending paradoxes and contradictions.  This understanding is, to me, the most significant aspect of Kierkegaard’s work, and the key to understanding it.

This peculiar internal logic strikes me even more forcibly in the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who was largely influenced by Kierkegaard.  Heidegger is very obscure writer, and often different to read, but the difficultly is not the same as, for example, it is with the French post-modernists, who seem to write nonsense in some kind of an attempt to prove that everything is nonsense.  Rather, the difficulty with Heidegger is in the structure of his writing:  he also employs a lot of self-reference, and often lacks a vocabulary to reach the underlying level he attempts to explore.  Thus, he often stops to clarify that what he is saying does not “beg the question” or amount to a circular argument.  Usually, when at first glance he seems to be arguing in a circle, you come to realize that he is not, because he has switched to a different level, and is trying to explain a higher level in terms of one underlying it.  Strangely enough, I haven’t found any commentators discussing the structural aspect of Heidegger’s work, or Kierkegaard’s, for that matter.

In the early 20th century, the logician Bertrand Russell published a book explaining some of the more eccentric pieces of Leibniz’s philosohpy through the prism of the then recent developments in classical logic.  According to Russell, what might first appear as fantastical about Leibniz’s views, was actually the result of Leibniz’s strict application of the principles of logic as he understood at the time of his writing.   Unfortunately, Leibniz lacked the mathematical tools to formalize and clarify his expositions.

I am of the opinion that a similar exercise with respect to Kierkegaard and Heidegger would be a worthwhile pursuit.  That is, interpreting Kierkegaard and Heidegger through the lens of modern paraconsistent logic, would, I suspect, prove to be highly valuable.  After all, it often seems that the greatest advancements in thought are first arrived at intuitively, it is only much later that we have the tools available for formalization.

To the objection that a logical analysis of Kierkegaard’s work must necessarily take it out of the realm of the religious and away from God, contrary to Kierkegaard’s intent, I reply with Kierkegaard’s own words:  “to be able to be forward toward God, one has to go far away from hm.”

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