Dostoyevsky on the Modern Era

Cody Hoesly

So I just finished reading The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  The 1880 novel, written by a man nearly executed but ultimately sent to Siberia for his leftist activism, preceded the Russian Revolution of 1917 by not so very much.

In the book, there is a passage where two men have a conversation.  One is a murderer who ultimately redeems himself; the other a future monk.  The murderer shares with the future monk some interesting thoughts on a timeless subject: selfishness.  Reading the passage, I was struck by how much this passage speaks to today, especially the questions that arise in our state and national politics with regard to taxes and everything else: our whole social and political outlook. 

While Communism (or the various other -isms) aren't the solution, I find Dostoyevsky's depiction of the problem, and hope for a better way, enlightening and encouraging.  The passage is put in the context of the monk's retelling of the conversation...

I looked at him; he was speaking with great emotion and gazing mysteriously at me, as if he were questioning me.

"And that we are all responsible to all for all, apart from our own sins, you were quite right in thinking that, and it is wonderful how you could comprehend it in all its significance at once. And in very truth, so soon as men understand that, the Kingdom of Heaven will be for them not a dream, but a living reality."

"And when," I cried out to him bitterly, "when will that come to pass? and will it ever come to pass? Is not it simply a dream of ours?"

"What then, you don't believe it," he said. "You preach it and don't believe it yourself. Believe me, this dream, as you call it, will come to pass without doubt; it will come, but not now, for every process has its law. It's a spiritual, psychological process. To transform the world, to recreate it afresh, men must turn into another path psychologically. Until you have become really, in actual fact, a brother to everyone, brotherhood will not come to pass. No sort of scientific teaching, no kind of common interest, will ever teach men to share property and privileges with equal consideration for all. Everyone will think his share too small and they will be always envying, complaining and attacking one another. You ask when it will come to pass; it will come to pass, but first we have to go though the period of isolation."

"What do you mean by isolation?" I asked him.

"Why, the isolation that prevails everywhere, above all in our age -- it has not fully developed, it has not reached its limit yet. For everyone strives to keep his individuality as apart as possible, wishes to secure the greatest possible fullness of life for himself; but meantime all his efforts result not in attaining fullness of life but self-destruction, for instead of self-realisation he ends by arriving at complete solitude. All mankind in our age have split up into units, they all keep apart, each in his own groove; each one holds aloof, hides himself and hides what he has, from the rest, and he ends by being repelled by others and repelling them. He heaps up riches by himself and thinks, 'How strong I am now and how secure,' and in his madness he does not understand that the more he heaps up, the more he sinks into self-destructive impotence. For he is accustomed to rely upon himself alone and to cut himself off from the whole; he has trained himself not to believe in the help of others, in men and in humanity, and only trembles for fear he should lose his money and the privileges that he has won for himself. Everywhere in these days men have, in their mockery, ceased to understand that the true security is to be found in social solidarity rather than in isolated individual effort. But this terrible individualism must inevitably have an end, and all will suddenly understand how unnaturally they are separated from one another. It will be the spirit of the time, and people will marvel that they have sat so long in darkness without seeing the light. And then the sign of the Son of Man will be seen in the heavens.... But, until then, we must keep the banner flying. Sometimes even if he has to do it alone, and his conduct seems to be crazy, a man must set an example, and so draw men's souls out of their solitude, and spur them to some act of brotherly love, that the great idea may not die."

The translation is apparently from the Constance Garnett version.

Comments

  • (Show?)

    Just goes to show that authors are free to assert any situation exists and to offer their own solutions to said situations. When he says:

    But this terrible individualism must inevitably have an end, and all will suddenly understand how unnaturally they are separated from one another. It will be the spirit of the time, and people will marvel that they have sat so long in darkness without seeing the light. And then the sign of the Son of Man will be seen in the heavens.... But, until then, we must keep the banner flying.

    It reminds me of that Larsen cartoon with a blackboard full of equations. Somewhere in the middle of all of that math it says:

    A miracle occurs

    I'm a big fan of individuality and not because I want to hoard my wealth. Unlike Dostoyevsky, I think that the ideal person should strive for autonomy.

    Where I may agree with him is over the concept of empathy. We need to teach our children to stand on their own as much as possible, and to be ready to lend a hand to those who are less able to do so.

  • iggir (unverified)
    (Show?)

    i think you're better off with guidance from the parable of the Grand Inquisitor:

    "Receiving bread from us, they will see clearly that we take the bread made by their hands from them, to give it to them, without any miracle. They will see that we do not change the stones to bread, but in truth they will be more thankful for taking it from our hands than for the bread itself! For they will remember only too well that in old days, without our help, even the bread they made turned to stones in their hands, while since they have come back to us, the very stones have turned to bread in their hands. Too, too well will they know the value of complete submission! And until men know that, they will be unhappy. Who is most to blame for their not knowing it?-speak! Who scattered the flock and sent it astray on unknown paths? But the flock will come together again and will submit once more, and then it will be once for all."

    <h2>then again, it's basically the GOP's mission statement.</h2>

connect with blueoregon