With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Friday, November 16, 2007

Suffering Children and the Suffering God

(Here is a reflection on the notion of theodicy in Dostoevsky's classic The Brothers Karamazov)

I. Introduction

Since the dawning of the modern period, literature has become exceedingly divorced from any serious engagement with the principles of revealed religion. Many children of the Enlightenment, Voltaire chief among them, cast an imposing shadow of influence upon the literary world by contributing both to a philosophical tradition critical of Christianity as well as to a shift in the conception of what a true author should be. The popular ideal of literature that resulted was one of a discourse claiming its own domain of competence: secular and humanist, largely incompatible and even hostile toward theological themes. And yet, since the modern turn, no figure stands out as prominently as Fyodor Dostoevsky among authors of faith attempting to overcome the Enlightenment paradigm. And his prominence derives precisely from his appropriation and serious engagement with the anti-Christian traditions preceding him. For Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov presents the cumulated critical voices of the Enlightenment’s challenge to faith, as well as a heartfelt Christian response to that outcry. In fact, Dostoevsky claims that few could conceive of a stronger denial of God than that expressed in his work; a denial that his Brothers Karamazov is an intended response to: “You might search Europe in vain for so powerful an expression of atheism. Thus it is not like a child that I believe in Christ and confess Him. My Hosanna has burst forth from a huge furnace of doubt.”[1] Thus, Dostoevsky is presenting us with a Christian faith tempered and solid and not easily discarded. His personal “furnace of doubt” has been fueled by his own dialogue with atheism, across time and across culture; and this furnace becomes incarnated in the character of Ivan Karamazov. In the voice of Ivan one can hear the echoes of Volatire and of Hume, and yet the Russian voice sounds with even more potent a charge. Ivan presents his brother Alyosha with the scandal of a god that allows the suffering of innocent children and thus reveals the god’s distance from true justice. He claims that a god who justifies such suffering is little more than an idol and can have no “real” place in a truly human life; and he concludes that if the price of admission into paradise is innocent suffering, then he, with a nod to Schiller’s “Resignation”(1784), must respectfully return his ticket.[2] And yet, contrary to the impressions of D.H. Lawrence and Albert Camus, Ivan’s voice does not have the last word for Dostoevsky. This author does not end in the fires of the furnace but rather in a “Hossanah.” Within the novel Dostoevsky weaves a number of characters whose voices offer a distinctively Christian answer to the atheism of Ivan, embodying a serious literary engagement with the Christian faith.

Thus, we shall proceed as follows: first, we will illuminate the backdrop upon which Ivan Karamazov finds himself by analyzing more specifically his indebtedness to Voltaire and the Enlightenment. Next, we will examine Ivan’s critique of theodicy as it is presented in “Rebellion” and his proposed alternative to God in the exegesis of “The Grand Inquisitor.” We will then examine the practical consequences of Ivan’s atheism and its relation to the nihilism of “The Devil” and the character of Smerdyakov. Finally, we will examine the particular nature of the Christian God that is imaged by characters such as Alyosha and Zosima and determine whether Ivan’s critique applies or whether an alternative and unique account of God’s relation to suffering can be constructed.;

II. “All’s Well” and the Enlightenment Heritage

In The Brothers Karamazov, one enters a Russia that is angst-ridden: in the midst of rapid change with a constant stream of ideas flowing in from Europe, disrupting the traditional identification of national character with Orthodox Christianity. And as the novel as a whole may be seen as a battle for the Russian soul between the ideas that the different characters represent, it is not surprising that we find a number of characters giving dramatic life to principles of the Enlightenment. Yet while figures such as Rakitin, Smerdyakov, and Miusov exhibit these principles to a lesser degree (in the dismissal of religious practice, intellectual pride, disputes with the clergy, fear of Ultramontanism, etc.), Ivan is the only character who concerns himself with a critique of theodicy.[3] And as Ralph Wood points out, what is unique about Ivan is that he does not pose the question of theodicy as a philosophical conundrum.[4] In contrast to Leibniz and Hume (and even modern thinkers such as Plantinga and Mackie), for whom there is a theoretical imperative in approaching theodicy, for Ivan there is a moral imperative to deny God’s existence. He does not attempt to demonstrate the invalidity of Aquinas’ “five ways,” nor does he attempt to show the fruitlessness of any argument from design; rather, he is compelled to deny the existence of a god who is monstrously indifferent to the suffering of the innocent. In this, Ivan’s most prominent forerunner is Francois Arouet de Voltaire, who was arguably the most anti-philosophical opponent of theodicy. The foundation of Voltaire’s critique is also based on a moral imperative. It is existential: he means to expose the practical absurdity of the common attempts to rectify God and evil, thus betraying the social and political concerns that for him take precedence over mere theory. Voltaire’s main target is a form of the Leibnizian argument put forth in the Theodicy (1709) which can be summarized as follows: God is omnibenevolent and omnipotent, but insofar as any created world is not God, it entails a degree of imperfection and thus limited goods; no possible world could have the congruence of a real world and contain all possible goods; thus, God creates the best of all possible worlds, meaning that with the smallest (though necessary) instantiation of evil. God’s perfect goodness ensures that the world we live in is filled with the most possible goods and the least evil. To propose a world exceeding it in goodness is to either deny God’s goodness or concoct a world incompatible with reality. And yet, it is the unreality of such a perfect world that Voltaire argues for. He unleashes a relentless assault upon such a vision in his novel Candide (1759) and his “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster”(1755). In both works he presents an aesthetic account of the immensity and senselessness of evil that in its very nature cries out against the portrayal of suffering as a necessary ingredient in the perfect world. In Candide, a satire, we find a cast of quite comical characters who are subject to excessive suffering and misfortune at every turn; and some of the examples of extreme suffering that Voltaire narrates are reminiscent of those Ivan employs (such as the ruthlessness of Slavic soldiers toward the young[5], the atrocities committed against the Old Woman when she was a child[6], etc.). Throughout the story we find philosophically inclined characters, such as the seemingly immortal Dr. Pangloss, who constantly remind Candide that “all is for the best,” and that all things, even the most inanely particular among them, are arranged for the greater good. Here Pangloss exhibits a parody of the Leibnizian formula, and Voltaire arranges his narrative to show the inhumanity and impracticality of such a view. Indeed, the world of the novel is the worst of all possible worlds, which highlights Pangloss and others as detached from experience, their theorizing having made them deaf to the practical incredibility of their position. We find a perfect example in the scene in which a storm overcomes the ship owned by Jacques, the Anabaptist, and before Candide can rescue him from drowning, he is stopped by Panglos: “…he was prevented by the philosopher Pangloss, who proved to him that the Lisbon roads had been expressly created for the Anabaptist to be drowned in them. While he was proving this a priori, the vessel sank…”[7] Philosophy has become for them a system of denial in a world overcome with evil. Only when one abandons theoretical philosophy can he become sensitive to the insanity of the world and perhaps work to change it. Thus, the final words of Martin in the story: “Let us work without theorizing…tis the only way to make life endurable.”[8]The Brothers Karamazov. Voltaire’s focus upon practical awareness and the ability to justify one’s views only by translating them into a lifestyle are themes that become central to Ivan’s atheism in

In “The Poem on the Lisbon Disaster,” a reflection on the devastating earthquake of 1755, Voltaire continues the critique against some of the logical consequences of Leibniz’s argument with more attention given to God. Just as Ivan will, out of empathy, stand in the place of suffering children, so too does Voltaire stand in for the innocent victims at Lisbon[9]. He calls into question the consequentialist notion that I, for instance, should have to suffer for the future benefit of another; that I should be valued less than those of a future generation. This is a theme taken up explicitly by Ivan in his denial that suffering children should “get thrown on the pile, to manure someone’s future harmony with themselves.”[10] There is no rational argument for why a future good should be preferred to mine. The poem also questions the constraint that Leibniz places on God’s freedom, with natural laws dictating the endurance of evil in the finite sphere. And yet such laws cannot but be inferior to God’s freedom, and should not constrain his good will.[11] Further, Voltaire questions other related answers to the problem: one claiming suffering is punitive for the deserving soul; another claiming that the Incarnation rescues us from suffering. Yet in the former case, no reason can be provided for why the earthquake occurred at Lisbon and not any other equally sinful city, or how such a view applies to the young and the innocent who perished[12]; and in the latter case, Voltaire appeals to the seemingly evident fact that the Incarnation has done nothing to restore the world to harmony: “He visited the earth, and changed it not!”[13]

The poem argues implicitly along the lines of the ancient atheist argument from evil; one that was soon to be modernized by David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (a work begun roughly the same year as the Lisbon disaster). It is usually expressed in something akin to the following form: if God is omnipotent yet allows evil, how can his will be perfectly good? If God’s will is perfectly good and yet evil occurs, how can he be omnipotent? In the “Poem,” we see a similar logic: it concludes that God is either a sadistic and malevolent character, or he is passionless and coldly indifferent to the plight of man: “God either smites the inborn guilt of man,/ Or, arbitrary lord of space and time,/ Devoid alike of pity and of wrath,/ Pursues the cold designs he has conceived.”[14] Thus, in Candide we find an attack on senseless attempts to rectify suffering in an innately chaotic world; and in the “Poem,” we find the same attack on attempts to rectify a loving and all-powerful God with the suffering of the world he’s crafted. Amid these cries we hear also Voltaire’s critique of intellectualism and his focus on practicality, as well as his empathetic concern for suffering innocents. And these are precisely the concerns that Dostoevsky intended his audience to recognize in Ivan: as the one to whom Voltaire had passed the Promethean torch.

III. From Promethean Outrage to Demonic Nihilism

Through Voltaire, we already have a glimpse of the nature of Ivan’s critique as it is found in Book 5, ch.4 (“Rebellion”) of The Brothers Karamazov.[15] Like Hume, Ivan draws out the incompatibility between suffering and a just God, developing his argument in the context of a friendly dialogue with Alyosha. More so than for Voltaire, the suffering of innocents, specifically children, is at the heart of Ivan’s outrage; and this focus automatically excludes any claim that suffering is punitive. Children, Ivan notes, have had not even a bite of the fruit of Eden, and while he could accept a religious argument that “the wages of sin is death”[16][17] Ivan proceeds to attack any attempt to leave the nature of suffering unchanged, yet integrate it into a systematic vision of the greater whole. He denies that any consolation can be provided by an extrinsic and ultimate harmony (even a heavenly one)[18]; and, as with Voltaire, he denies that the evil is exonerated if children suffer for the sake of their own greater good, or even the benefit of some stranger that has yet to walk the earth. The definitive failure of all these attempts is their inability to demonstrate the necessity of evil either as a natural element of the finite world or of the providential good will of God. Even if the tears of children are the stepping stones to heaven, the evil cries out with a presence that is essentially incomprehensible.[19] The problem for Ivan is that any attempt to attribute justice to God must seemingly integrate excessive evil; and yet no form of integration provides for the poverty of intelligibility posed by suffering. Thus, there results a vision in which God is either no god, or He is a god whose justice exonerates evil and is thus monstrously indifferent. His harmony is not harmony, and if it requires the unrequited suffering of children, then “we can’t afford to pay so much for admission.”[20]practical atheism.[21] Consequently, this is not a theoretical atheism based on any proof of God’s inexistence. Ivan is not concerned with a god of ontology, but as he has exposed a god whose justice is complicit with evil, in the ethical realm, God does not exist.[22] for adults, children who suffer do so as unwilling martyrs. And Ivan hastens to return his ticket. Thus, through his narration of countless tales of excessive suffering and his ability to expose the inherent incomprehensibility at the core of the common theodices (none of which resolve suffering), Ivan has created the foundation for what we might call

The notion of a practical atheism is intimately connected with Voltaire’s emphases. The litmus test which God has failed is: how can one’s vision be lived, in a day-to-day existence? The atheism denies the relevance of God for one’s morality and one’s way of life. Yet in the absence of God, what answer can be given? We find Ivan’s answer in the following chapter: “The Grand Inquisitor.”[23] Here Ivan carries on his discourse by way of a poem in which Christ appears in 16th century Spain and is imprisoned by a prominent Catholic cardinal. The cardinal serves as the voice of Ivan’s alternative exegesis of the Christian text. Having denied the place of God in the world, we find here a non-Christian “correction” of the Gospel (mainly Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13) in line with Ivan’s atheist principles. He is working with a conception of humanity and human happiness devoid of the eschatological orientation that he believed ran aground with its implication of suffering. Thus human happiness is conceived in purely secular, earthly terms: comfort from suffering becomes the only standard, even with the admittance that all will end up damned. Christ’s moral standards are revealed as alien and unreasonable, and his actions (namely his selfless love) are inimitable. In the temptation narrative, Christ thus fails to provide for the happiness of mankind by His example and only burdens it with moral freedom; Satan, along with the human agency of the church that serves him, becomes the truly provident being. It is fitting that Satan, originally the “light bearer,” is for Ivan the Prometheus figure who takes from the unjust god what he failed to provide. The vision of the grand inquisitor is one attempt to structure a way of life around the reality of suffering in the absence of a God to defeat it. The grand inquisitor succeeds where Christ has failed, by sacrificially taking upon himself the burdens of the people (moral freedom) and thereby arranging their lives to maximize earthly comfort and minimize the paradigm of suffering that came through in “Rebellion.”[24] Sin is no longer a moral category because any conception of supernatural happiness is disregarded.[25] Overall, we see a purely human, atheistic attempt to deal with the problem of suffering; one that allegedly surpasses that of any god.

And yet Dostoevsky reveals the complications of such a (literally) demonic utopian vision. When “The Grand Inquisitor” is contextualized within the larger narrative of The Brothers Karamazov, the shortcomings of Ivan’s vision become apparent. In rejecting God, Ivan rejects the eschatological dimension to morality and earthly comfort becomes the only narrow moral standard. The grand inquisitor sees moral freedom as a burden and as long as the minimum service required to achieve comfort is paid, one is actually encouraged to sin; that is, a number of acts no longer have ethical value and are thus permitted. Similarly, in rejecting God, Ivan explicitly rejects the immortality of the soul. In doing so, he seems to jettison the only thing that grounds the enduring value of humanity.[26] One can see quite clearly how these features of the atheist answer lead rather seamlessly to the complete evacuation of moral value and responsibility: the “everything is permitted” of a practical nihilism. “Everything is permitted” is a maxim that Ivan explicitly accepts. In this sense, the atheist position undermines itself: its attempt to deal with evil and suffering does not end with a solution to theodicy, but rather a failed attempt to minimize suffering in this life. In doing so it only succeeds in creating a world of valueless morality, one that is ultimately as indifferent to suffering as the god that it rejected in the first place. The atheist has only crafted an idol of himself where a god once stood, and ultimately betrays the deep concern for humanity and justice that inspired his attack on the divine in the first place. Thus, what we have here in place of an eschatological theodicy is what Richard Bauckham calls an “eschatological anthropodicy.”[27] And this falls inevitably into a practical nihilism.

One can trace this devolution in the characters of Smerdyakov and the Devil. Smerdyakov, the story’s murderer, takes his own life; but not before revealing to Ivan that it was precisely his rejection of God and of immortality that gave him the philosophical justification for murder.[28] Smerdyakov embodies the dark implications of Ivan’s morality, exposing its emptiness and eventual impracticality. Faced with the frightening, concrete consequences of his philosophy as well as Smerdyakov’s accusations, Ivan begins to lose his grip on reality.[29] Enter the Devil (in “The Devil. Ivan Fyodorovich’s Nightmare”). Beyond the actions of Smerdyakov, Ivan encounters the nihilism and emptiness of his vision in the incarnation of the very Promethean figure that “The Grand Inquisitor” hailed. Yet here we do not find Milton’s Lucifer; rather the Devil takes the shape of a cunning and shabbily dressed bourgeois. He does not champion a radical atheist crusade: when Ivan asks him about God, he is actually apathetic rather than passionate.[30] He seems only to desire the same kind of comfort that the grand inquisitor called for, yet exposes its utter banality. He also exposes Ivan’s atheism as an anthropodicy, by claiming the necessity of suffering for life: “…for suffering is life. Without suffering, what pleasure would there be in it…”[31] The Devil torments Ivan as the very symbol of his failure to translate his views into a livable life. The Devil is where Ivan ends, and this evokes madness. Yet for Dostoevsky, the Devil is merely the unwilling crucible of doubt on the passage to his “Hossanah.”[32] Having passed through such a crucible, Dostoevsky’s “Hossanah” can come from neither naïve theism nor atheism. Where then does it resound from?

IV. “Ah, Yes, the ‘Only Sinless One’”[33]

Having denied the efficacy of any harmony that integrates suffering, at the end of “Rebellion” Ivan claims that if true harmony is to occur, the tears of the suffering children must be redeemed. He confesses: “I want to forgive, and I want to embrace, I don’t want more suffering.”[34] But he cannot see how there is a single being in the universe with the right to forgive all, and to redeem those tears. To this Alyosha responds with the claim that Christ is that being, and it is on His willful, innocent suffering that the “edifice of human destiny” is being built. The God to whom all will cry “Just art thou” is not the faceless god of a Leibnizian theodicy; rather, all will cry “Just art thou” to the God in Christ. We might then recall one of Ivan’s conclusions: there is either no god or a silent god. To this we may add as a contender the uniquely Christian God that Alyosha is pointing to: the suffering God. What exactly is the response to suffering of a God who Himself suffers?

It is crucial to note that in The Brothers Karamazov, the God of Jesus Christ does not offer us an explanation for evil, nor does He attempt to exonerate it. Dostoevsky is still functioning according to the same standard laid down by Voltaire: the integrity of one’s vision lies in its ability to be translated into a way of life. Is it possible to put forth, in response to a practical atheism, a practical theism; one that has passed through the furnace of doubt? As we have seen, the atheist response to suffering results in a betrayal of Ivan’s initial outcry against the injustice of suffering. What we find in Christ is a God who does not silence such an outcry, but actually appropriates it, sustains it, and Himself cries out against the senselessness of evil. In Christ alone do we find the narrative of a God who actually inhabits the space of the suffering child: Christ is innocent as man, and yet a Son abandoned by His Father to unthinkable suffering and death on the cross. Unlike the god of the philosophers, we have here a God who lives the drama of the suffering child in His very being. And as Bauckham and Moltmann note, in the “Eloi, Eloi…” of Christ’s cry of dereliction, the suffering child finds a “protesting God” in solidarity with him: God crying out against Himself![35] The Christian God is not simply the creator of an unjust world, but also the God who denounces the injustice of that world. As paradoxical as this divided God may seem, the crucial point is that Christ actually stands in solidarity both with suffering innocents (because He suffers innocently) and with Ivan (because He cries out against suffering). While in Ivan’s parable Christ is silent, it seems that had he read Mark 13:34, he would have found a Christ shouting at least as loud as he himself does.

And yet we have seen that Ivan’s atheist position ultimately tends toward nihilism, and thus the abandonment of the foundation of his initial cause. The next logical question is: insofar as God Himself takes up this cause in the crucified Christ, does He likewise undermine that cause or is He able to uphold it? Does Christ’s protest translate into a functioning way of life?

If one looks to the characters of Zosima and Alyosha, one finds this way of life already becoming praxis within the novel. Both are Christological figures, and for both characters, the God of the cross represents the call to loving solidarity. That becomes the principle of their practical theism. In “Women of Faith,” Fr. Zosima consoles a group of women who come to him in sorrow. Addressing one woman mourning her son, he does not offer an a priori account, like Pangloss, of why her son had to die; rather, he likens her to the biblical figure of Rachel and implores her: “And do not be comforted, you should not be comforted, do not be comforted, but weep.” Further, he says: “Only each time you weep, do not fail to remember that your little son is one of God’s angels…”[36] Zosima stands in solidarity by acknowledging the humanity of her suffering, rather than dismissing it. And yet he sees such mourning as compatible with joy. To another woman he says: “Weep, then, but also rejoice.”[37] Zosima seems to express faith in a future, heavenly condition for suffering innocents that does not simply integrate suffering, but overcomes it.[38] Such a state cannot seemingly be deduced from any syllogism. Rather, it is on the epistemic level of mystery, and thus the only proper dispositions toward it can be faith or disbelief, hope or despair. Zosima’s belief that active love can ultimately rectify all sin is intimately connected with Christ’s Resurrection, for only in this does the Christian God promise victory over suffering. Thus, in his call to rejoice even in the midst of suffering, Zosima is making an expression of hope in a future wherein suffering will be overcome.

Zosima also recites the mantra that one must accept the sins of the whole of humanity as his own. This is not a confused application of morality, but rather the exact antithesis to the denial of human value that Ivan’s system manifests: man is of such immeasurable value that we must willingly suffer with him, even if we are innocent. Alyosha is perhaps the best example of enacting Zosima’s creed in the world outside the monastery. Listening to Ivan relate the stories of children in unspeakable suffering, he asks Ivan not to stop, saying: “Nevermind, I want to suffer, too.”[39] Alyosha is able to engage all those to whom he is sent by Zosima and appropriate their suffering as his own. And just as Christ and Zosima recognize the seriousness of suffering, Alyosha even agrees with much of Ivan’s critique, himself standing in opposition to senseless evil. Further, like Zosima, Alyosha explicitly affirms the immortality of the soul.[40] And as Christ and Zosima refuse to offer any explanation or justification for the suffering they encounter, Alyosha’s only response to Ivan’s critique is the kiss of peace; yet this kiss is also an expression of hope and loving solidarity. It is in the context of the chapter a performative refutation of Ivan’s belief that one cannot imitate the love of Christ.[41]

V. Conclusion

What the God of the Incarnation reveals to us is not only Ivan’s outrage at the injustice of innocent suffering, but also 1) loving solidarity that 2) expresses the immeasurable value of humanity, as well as 3) the resources for faith and hope in a more sophisticated future harmony (through the Resurrection).[42] Ivan’s critique is in itself valid, and is actually affirmed by the Christian God Himself. Yet because the responses follow from a critique of a practical nature, the standard has always been each response’s capacity to craft a functioning lifestyle. And all three of these elements listed above are missing from Ivan’s answer, his atheism: his refusal to accept the possibility of loving mankind individually and appropriating his guilt cuts him off from loving solidarity; his denial of immortality undermines the ground for mankind’s enduring value; and his rejection of an eschatological dimension and his acceptance of a purely secular notion of happiness cut him off from any resources of hope and faith. The denial of all of these leaves him with an undermining nihilism. While on the other hand, in the characters of Zosima and Alyosha, we see a similar concern for the mysterious nature of suffering as well as its injustice. Yet they represent a Christian way of life that does not ultimately undermine the initial protest, but upholds it. They embody a lifestyle in which one can radically love each person and suffer with him willingly; see all mankind as eternally valuable; and believe, hope, and even rejoice in the midst of suffering. It is through these characters and the Christological vision that they practice that Dostoevsky has provided his answer to the question of theodicy, and has thereby fulfilled the test set down by Voltaire and affirmed by Ivan. He thus affirms a practical theism: one that embraces the suffering God as the true God, implicitly denying the god of the theodicies as little more than an idol. It is always to Christ and no other that he cries “Thou art Just, O Lord!” and it is to Christ that he sings his “Hossanah.”

[1] Quoted in Ellis Sandoz. Political Apocalypse: A Study of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1971: pp.106-107.

[2] Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990: p.245.

[3] It is interesting to note that each of the other characters that serve as icons of the Enlightenment Ivan seems to hate. Indeed, Ivan’s playful discussion with Zosima and the other monks in Book 2, Chapter 5 makes Miusov’s concern with Utramontanism seem comical. Whereas figures like Miusov are only strawmen of Enlightement ideas, Ivan represents the definitive and challenging voice.

[4] Wood, Ralph. “Ivan Karamazov’s Mistake.” in First Things: a Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life. December, 2002. http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=2110

[5] Voltaire, Francois Arouet de. Candide. in The Portable Voltaire. edit. Ben Ray Redman. New York: Penguin Books, 1977. pp. 236-239.

[6] Ibid. pp.254-256

[7] Ibid. p.240

[8] Ibid. p.327

[9] Voltaire, Francois Arouet de. “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster.” in A Treatise on Toleration and Other Essays. trans. Joseph McCabe. New York: Prometheus Books, 1994. p.2. Here Voltaire criticizes those proposing the theodicy as lacking the empathy that he seeks to embody: “Tranquil spectators of your brothers’ wreck,/ Unmoved by this repellent dance of death./ Who calmly seek the reason of such storms,”

[10] Dostoevsky, p.244

[11] “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster,” p.2: “Set you this limit to the power supreme?/ Would you forbid it use its clemency?”; p.3: “God holds the chain: is not himself enchained.”

[12] Ibid. p.1: “What crime, what sin had those young hearts conceived/ That lie bleeding and torn, on mother’s breast?/ Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice/ Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?”

[13] Ibid. p.5

[14] Ibid. p.5

[15] Dostoevsky, pp. 236-246

[16] Romans 6:23

[17] Dostoevsky, p.238

[18] Ibid. p.245: “…‘Just art thou, O Lord!’ but I do not want to cry out with them. While there’s still time, I hasten to defend myself against it, and therefore I absolutely renounce all higher harmony.”

[19] Ibid. p.244: “It’s quite incomprehensible why they should have to suffer, and why they should buy harmony with their suffering.”

[20] Ibid. p.245

[21] Ivan shows the practical nature of his revolt by denying truth itself if it rests on the side of such inhumane theodicies. See Ibid. p.245

[22] We can derive this notion of practical atheism from Voltaire: interestingly, we can perhaps call Voltaire a theist of a sort, insofar as he has a belief in a Euclidean, metaphysical first principle (not unlike the passionless First Mover of Aristotle). Yet the god that he and Ivan deny is the actively involved God of provident history; one who could account for and overcome evil and yet does not.

[23] Ibid. pp. 246-264

[24] Ibid. p.259: “There will be thousands of millions of happy babes, and a hundred thousand sufferers who have taken upon themselves the curse of the knowledge of good and evil.”

[25] Ibid. p.259: “Oh we will allow them to sin, too: they are weak and powerless, and they will love us like children for allowing them to sin.”

[26] Ivan even claims that he can only love humanity in the abstract, but not individually, thus revealing the limitation that the value of man has in his eyes. See Ibid. p.237

[27] Bauckham, Richard. “Theodicy From Ivan Karamazov to Moltmann.” Modern Theology 4:1. October 1987. p.86

[28] Dostoevsky, p.632: “You yourself kept saying then that everything was permitted, so why are you so troubled now, you yourself, sir?”

[29] Interestingly, it is precisely the standard of earthly comfort that Smerdyakov sees as central to Ivan’s desire for his father’s death, i.e. his inheritance. And according to this morality, Ivan has become the very image of his father. See Ibid. p.632: “You love money, that I know, sir,…and most of all you love living in peaceful prosperity, without bowing to anyone...You’re like Fyodor Pavlovich most of all, its you of all his children who came out resembling him most, having the same soul as him, sir.”

[30] Ibid. p. 642: “Ah, so you are serious? By God, my dear, I just don’t know- there’s a great answer for you!” “You don’t know, yet you see God?”

[31] Ibid. p.642

[32] Ibid. p.642

[33] Ibid. p.246

[34] Ibid. p.245

[35] Bauckham, p.93. I am greatly indebted to many of the observations of Bauckham about the peculiarities of the Christian God and how these might be brought to bear on Ivan’s critique. Further, the theology of Jurgen Moltmann has provided a number of fruitful hermenetical points.

[36] Dostoevsky, p.50. Note that by acknowledging the infant’s place before the throne of God, Zosima is implicitly affirming the immortality of the human soul, and thus the lasting value of each human person.

[37] Ibid. p.49

[38] Bauckham, p.91

[39] Dostoevsky, p.242

[40] Ibid. p.134

[41] Ibid. pp.262-264

[42] One may note that what distinguishes the Christologically structured lifestyle from the nihilistic lifestyle of Ivan is precisely the active presence of the theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. It is the refusal of these that condemn Ivan’s vision to nihilism. Thus, Dostoevsky seems to be offering a properly theological answer to a philosophical question; claiming that only with grace can one live with suffering in an unjust world.


  • At 11/29/2007 5:43 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…

    Brother's Karamazov is one of my favorite novels of all time -- it's a classic which, as you show, puts to head all the philosophical background of the time together and demonstrates the consequences of such philosophical perspectives. It certainly shows the influence of both Solovyov and Pobedonostsev! But you are right, it is not just about showing the consequences and those traditions, but to look at the core, show what was good in them and what was wrong, and then provide a way out -- the theodicy which is, as you point out, a central theme of the whole novel.

    Interestingly enough it was supposed to be the first of a trilogy, and the events of the other stories can come somewhat surprising after the end of the first: it was to be about the fall and return to grace of Alexei -- he was abandon his monastic vows and take Grushenka from his brother in the second story; but in the end he was to repent and become a monk after seeing the full effect of sin and the despair it brought to his life.


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