Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is sometimes called a work of “philosophical fiction.” It is a very Russian novel and as one of the titular brothers observes, “All real Russians are philosophers.”1 Paramount among the philosophical concerns of the book are the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, which are usually linked together as the modern atheist rejects both. As another brother asserts, “For the real Russians the question of the existence of God and immortality . . . are of course first and foremost, and they should be.”2 And yet the book makes precious little attempt to argue the logic or evidence for or against the truth claims of religion. On several occasions it suggests that seeking logical “proofs” is the wrong approach to dealing with religious questions. Instead, characters are shown to wrestle with the existential problems of an atheistic worldview, particularly with regard to loving others, navigating the moral dimensions of the world, and finding motivation to serve mankind.
“Existential” is a loaded term, particularly in reference to philosophy and literature, and it is not the intention of this paper to unpack all of its nuance. The differentiation I am trying to set up between rational and existential can be illustrated by a quote from Timothy Keller, who says:
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is both intellectually credible and existentially satisfying. I’ve come to see over the years that those are the two tests of any valid worldview, philosophy or religion. It has to be both rational, coherent, and it has to be true. It has to meet my needs. It has to connect with my experience.3
Thus, existential problems pertain to the livability of a worldview, that is, its application to real experiences and human needs.
The examples of religious characters in The Brothers Karamazov suggest that modesty is appropriate for Christians when engaging with doubters and skeptics seeking answers. Early in the book, Elder Zosima, the spokesperson for orthodox religion in the story, tells a doubting “Woman of Little Faith” who comes to him for proof: “No doubt is devastating. One cannot prove anything here, but it is possible to be convinced.”4 Two chapters later, speaking to another “unhappy” person who has been toying with the idea of God and the soul, Zosima observes, “The question is not resolved in you, and there lies your great grief, for it urgently demands resolution.” When the man asks, “But can it be resolved in myself? Resolved in a positive way?”, Zosima replies:
Even if it cannot be resolved in a positive way, it will never be resolved in the negative way either — you yourself know this property of your heart, and therein lies the whole of its torment . . . May God grant that your heart’s decision overtake you still on earth, and may God bless your path!5
In both these interactions, Zosima rejects the idea that there is any irresistible proof for the existence of God that he can offer. This does not entail that belief in God is somehow irrational or anti-reason — one can have very good reason to believe in God and the soul. Rather it suggests that there is an element of assent, or choice, that cannot be compelled by reason alone. The woman can be “convinced,” and Zosima prays that the man’s “decision” overtake him before he dies. These decisions can be more or less rational, depending on the grounds underlying them. Remaining agnostic in an effort to not choose is, itself, a choice. And sometimes the choice to follow a belief is necessary to unlock evidence for that belief, as in the case of trusting that someone has good intentions towards you leading to the confidence necessary for authentic interactions that lead to a friendship that could not be assumed ahead of time. Limiting oneself to only what can be rationally demonstrated in an effort to avoid error is a surefire way to never attain any truth, and ultimately an unsatisfactory way to live.6
So how might one be convinced? The “Woman of Little Faith,” whose actual name is Madame Khokhlakov, came to doubt her belief in the supernatural when she was confronted by a secular explanation of the origins of religion which one might hear anywhere today: “And they say that all came originally from fear of the awesome phenomena of nature, and that there is nothing to it at all.”7 She has believed since she was a little child, “mechanically, without thinking about anything,” and now as an adult is challenged by the claim that religion sprung from an irrational source: “What? I think, all my life I’ve believed, then I die, and suddenly there’s nothing?”8 The thought torments her and she goes to the elder for resolution.
Elder Zosima, who knows human nature well and knows Madame Khokhlakov more particularly, responds that while proof is not available “in this world” she can be convinced “By the experience of active love.” He tells her to try loving her neighbors actively and tirelessly.
The more you succeed in loving, the more you’ll be convinced of the existence of God and the immortality of your soul. And if you reach complete selflessness in the love of your neighbor, then undoubtedly you will believe, and no doubt will even be able to enter your soul. This has been tested. It is certain.9
At first blush this can easily sound like a cheap platitude, but it is much more than that.10 Can one who succeeds in loving — setting aside for now whether that is possible without the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit — possibly believe that what she is loving is merely meaninglessly fluctuating atoms, or that her love itself is the necessary result of chemicals in the brain responding to stimuli? If the materialist is right, consciousness is a sort of psychical phosphorescence arriving from a particular pattern of molecules that is not tied to any sort of soul that wills and feels and chooses for itself. Zosima does not offer an argument against the secular assertions regarding the evolutionary origins of religion, but rather suggests that one could not possibly live a life of love with the cognitive dissonance that would arise from a consistently held materialist view of the world. This is an existential argument rather than an intellectual one.
Just as prevalent a theme as “active love” in the book is the existential problem of evil. This problem is most often present with the middle Karamazov brother, Ivan the atheist scholar. Early in the book Ivan is reported to believe that belief in God and the immortality of the soul have been the basis for all human morality up until this point. He concludes that
“believes neither in God nor in his own immortality, the moral law of nature ought to change immediately into the exact opposite of the former religious law, and that egoism, even to the point of evildoing, should not only be permitted to man but should be acknowledged as the necessary, the most reasonable, and all but the noblest result of his situation.”11
Ivan does not deny the claim: “Yes, it was my contention. There is no virtue if there is no immortality.”12 Rakitin, a cynical seminary student with aspirations to journalism and a marriage of fortune, echoes the sentiment in the aphorism, “Everything is permitted to the intelligent man.”13 This is a recurring concept throughout the book with which multiple characters wrestle.
While some might think such a life of unrestrained hedonism liberating and attractive, Ivan does not think so. He looks at his own father, Fyodor Karamazov, a drunken, womanizing swindler, and says to his brother: “Fyodor Pavlovich our papa, was a little pig . . . but his thinking was right.”14 Note the “little pig” part. Ivan still wants to make moral judgments. He cannot bring himself to admire his father, who by worldly standards has been very successful in life, amassing a fortune and living a life of cognac and orgies while largely avoiding the consequences of his ill behavior. But Ivan cannot admire such a man, and readers are repelled by almost everything about him.
In addition to his revulsion towards the hedonist implications of atheism, Ivan has an even greater problem: he is terribly sensitive to the evils of the world. In a meeting with his brother Alyosha at a bar, he expounds upon the evils that he has cataloged from newspaper clippings. The chapter “Rebellion” includes some of the most disturbing images ever put into literature, from atrocities committed during war, to abusive parents, to abusive gentry, especially focusing on the suffering of children.15 If Ivan is going to call all the atrocities he lists “evil,” and not merely hostile to the gene pool or against his own or his culture’s personal tastes and preferences, he needs a standard of right and wrong to appeal to. Put into syllogistic form:
P1) Ivan believes that if there is no God, everything is permitted.
P2) Ivan cannot look at the abuse enacted upon children and say that it is permissible.
C) Therefore, Ivan must believe there is a God.
While this takes the form of a deductive syllogism, note that the second premise is supplied subjectively, that is, existentially. He cannot bring himself to say that children suffering is morally acceptable.
With such reasoning it would seem that Ivan should be a faithful theist, but the more popular “problem of evil” troubles him as well. He is willing to accept the necessity of God, both because he cannot fathom how wicked men could have invented such an idea, and also for the sake of moral condemnation, but he cannot bring himself to accept “God’s world.” How could God allow so much evil and suffering? Ivan offers — and rejects — a panoply of answers: free will, solidarity, a future justice, and even a final eternal harmony in which “there will occur and be revealed something so precious that it will suffice for all hearts, to allay all indignation, to redeem all human villainy, all bloodshed; it will suffice not only to make forgiveness possible, but also to justify everything that has happened with men.”16 He admits that if there is a God then God’s ways are necessarily higher than his ways, and that with his finite, “Euclidean” mind, he cannot expect to see or understand why God allows what he does. But Ivan also does not want there to be any explanation for evil’s existence. “I want to remain with unrequited suffering. I’d rather remain with my unrequited suffering and my unquenched indignation, even if I am wrong. Besides, they have put too high a price on harmony ; we can’t afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket.”17 As he questions the goodness of God, though, he does so fully aware that the alternative is not having a foundation from which to call evil evil.
To deal with these issues requires going from theism generally to Christianity in particular. Living with the evil in the world is a very real existential problem that troubles even the faithful brother, Alyosha. However, Alyosha posits that while the price of forgiveness may be too high a price for any of us to pay, it is not too high a price for Jesus to pay. Dostoevsky does not elaborate much on the existential satisfaction found in Christ. Christ does, in fact, help one to accept one’s finite position in relation to God and his plan, as Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection offer the reassurance that God knows, cares, and has done something about the suffering of the world. Dostoevsky also neglects any sort of existential satisfaction from the idea of a final judgment of wickedness, and that those unrepentant sinners will not, in fact, enjoy forgiveness and the life promised to those who have found redemption in Christ.
Instead of presenting the positive existential satisfaction to be found in Christ, Dostoevsky again presents a further existential problem of atheism vis-à-vis Christianity. Ivan responds to the idea of Christ making things right in the world with a poem, “The Grand Inquisitor” in which Christ is condemned for not yielding to Satan’s temptation to seize political power over the nations and set the world to rights. The picture Ivan paints of a church-run political society inspired by the Spanish Inquisition sounds abhorrent to most readers, and is itself partly an existential rebuke of the atheist critique of God. The world of the inquisition and enslavement to the Church is not a satisfying picture, and thus reveals the unrealistic expectations of the Christian critic.
Stemming from the ideas of love and morality, the issue of motivation rises to the surface. What can supply the atheist with the motivation for serving mankind, assuming they desire to serve mankind? Rakitin aspires to be a publisher who writes with a socialist lean and slips his atheism past the censors through esoteric writing. He has been visiting Dmitry, the eldest brother, in order to write an article about how Dmitry could not help being a bad person due to his upbringing and the state of society. To Rakitin, people are merely products of their environment and their brain chemistry. He tells Dmitry about modern science and the “little tails” that can be observed in the brain governing human behavior. Dmitry frets over Rakitin’s explanations. “hat’s why I contemplate, and then think . . .because of the little tails, and not at all because I have a soul or am some sort of image and likeness, that’s all foolishness.”18 But Dmitry is simultaneously wracked by guilt and laughs at the notion Rakitin is articulating that Dmitry could not help his bad behavior because of his environment. Rakitin doesn’t understand Dmitry’s motivations at all! Rakitin’s deterministic explanations are untenable to the subject he applies them to, and Dmitry’s position comes across as far more humane:
I’m tormented by God. Tormented only by that. What if he doesn’t exist? What if Rakitin is right, that it’s an artificial idea of mankind? So then, if he doesn’t exist, man is chief of the earth, of the universe. Splendid! Only how is he going to be virtuous without God? A good question! I keep thinking about it. Because whom will he love then — man, I mean? To whom will he be thankful, to whom will he sing the hymn? Rakitin laughs. Rakitin says it’s possible to love mankind even without God. Well, only a snotty little shrimp can affirm such a thing, but I can’t understand it.19
The reader will easily believe the self-dealing Rakitin to be just such a “little shrimp.” He is a seminary student but does not believe in God or anything but what is fashionable and will advance his standing in society. He took advantage of a friend’s moment of weakness to set him up with a loose woman in order to win a bet. When Rakitin argues that people would do better to focus on expanding human rights or at least bringing the price of meat down rather than religious devotion, Dmitry hits back: “And without God . . . you’ll hike up the price of beef yourself, if the chance comes your way, and make a rubble on every kopeck.”20
Dostoevsky presents us with more noble characters than Rakitin to present the struggle of finding motivation to serve mankind without God. Elder Zosima describes meeting a revolutionary, a “fighter for an idea,” who admitted that when he was deprived of tobacco in prison, he was “so tormented by this deprivation that he almost went and betrayed his ‘idea,’ just so that they would give him some tobacco.”21 How is such a person going to be able to fight for mankind? What atheistic principle can supply a compelling motive force for prolonged self-sacrifice? Zosima observes that in modern humanity’s embrace of science, like that espoused by Rakitin, they only have access to that which is sensory and lose out on “the spiritual world, the higher half of man’s being.” But when left with material man, man becomes subject to materialism, and the common cause of serving mankind falls prey to indulgence and competition.22 “No wonder that instead of freedom they have fallen into slavery, and instead of serving brotherly love and human unity, they have fallen, on the contrary, into disunity and isolation.”23 Zosima contends instead that the power to preserve, reform, and serve mankind rests rather with the meek and pious Christian, and that atheist aspirations to serve mankind are Towers of Babel at best.
Judging movements by their fruit is not the same as a logical proof, but it is telling that all the major reform movements and service institutions were undertaken by Christians: from hospitals and orphanages to universities, the abolition movement, and the civil rights movement. Meanwhile, attempts at atheist utopias have floundered at best or turned to violence and bloodshed at worst.
Much more could be said on these themes in The Brothers Karamazov — it’s almost 800 pages — but in the interest of avoiding spoilers and allowing the examples to be enjoyed further in their original context, this is a fitting place to conclude. Much more could also be said about what Dostoevsky leaves out, including a clear presentation of the gospel, or intellectual responses to atheist challenges to Christian faith. But a novel, even a philosophical one, is perhaps best at painting pictures rather than crafting syllogisms. In this case, Dostoevsky offers his readers many pictures of the existential difficulties of the atheist, suggesting that love, morality, and motivation are better enjoyed by the theist, and especially by the Christian.
1 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), 588.
2 Ibid., 234.
3 Timothy Keller, “Who is this Jesus?” Gospel in Life, 19 June 2020, https://podcast.gospelinlife.com/e/who-is-this-jesus-an-open-forum/
4 Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 56.
5 Ibid., 70
6 To explore these epistemological themes further outside a Russian orthodox context, see pragmatist philosopher William James’s essay “The Will to Believe,” C.S. Lewis’s essay “On Obstinacy in Belief,” in The World’s Last Night and G.K. Chesterton’s chapter “The Maniac,” in his book Orthodoxy. The pragmatist philosopher William James, who was not a Christian himself, discusses in his essay “The Will To Believe” how it can be necessary to make decisions regarding compelling, pressing questions in the absence of incorrigible evidence, and how often belief is a prerequisite to evidence. C.S. Lewis makes a similar point in “On Obstinacy in Belief” about how one cannot believe in proportion to the empirical evidence the existence of other minds, the benevolence of one’s friends, and the faithfulness of one’s wife. Trying to constantly test the hypotheses would destroy the conditions of friendship and faithfulness. Still further, G.K. Chesterton talks about the limits of rationality. The madman and the conspiracy theorist are very rational, while the completeness of their systems does not allow for very much; their rationality is a tight, albeit circular argument.
7 Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 56.
10 Perhaps more troublesome it sounds like a works based system of trying to achieve faith, and the assumption that one can muster up the motivation to tirelessly love mankind in order to learn to have faith is unrealistic but for the work of the Holy Spirit already in play. It may help to bear in mind that Madame Khokhlakov is described as having “Little Faith” not “No Faith,” meaning it is not a regimen to earn faith but rather to practice sanctification.
11 Ibid., 69.
13 Ibid., 589.
14 Ibid., 593.
15 For, as Ivan reasons, perhaps adults brought their suffering upon themselves, but who could not but be upset by the sufferings of children?
16 Ibid., 236.
17 Ibid., 245.
18 Ibid., 589
19 Ibid., 592.
20 Ibid., 592.
21 Ibid., 316.
22 Ibid., 313.
23 Ibid., 316.