When Dostoevsky wrote his last and greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the revolutionary movement that would lead to Bolshevism was well underway. The terrorist organization People’s Will—one of the first such organizations in the world—performed daring assassinations and was soon to murder Russia’s most liberal tsar, Alexander II. In The Possessed, Dostoevsky had been the first to describe, with astonishing accuracy, what we have come to call totalitarianism. Now he undertook to vindicate its Christian alternative.
Why do so in a novel rather than a treatise? Dostoevsky, and Russian writers generally, regarded the realist novel as more than a literary form. It was a philosophical instrument capable of demonstrating truths that treatises could only assert. As Dostoevsky explained in his article “Mr. D-bov and the Question of Art,” the genre’s requirement that events be plausible and characters believable can be used to expose the fake and reveal the shallow. If, for example, the peasants in a work of radical fiction resemble Frenchmen wearing Russian sheepskins, that only shows the writer’s failure to grasp reality. By contrast, if a novelist could describe Christian love for one’s enemies believably—as Tolstoy was to do in War and Peace and Anna Karenina—then he would have demonstrated that such a state of soul is, though rare, psychologically possible.
Realist plausibility demonstrates real possibility: This idea explains why Russia’s greatest thinkers have been fiction writers. Dostoevsky shaped Karamazov to prove that the Christian outlook, derided as unsophisticated by members of the Russian intelligentsia, offered the deepest understanding of ethics and psychology available.
The Soviets, of course, regarded religion, and especially Christianity, as their main enemy, and right from the start tried to wipe it out in any way they could. But their understanding of faith never ceased to be primitive. When Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, Soviet authorities were sure that his failure to encounter God or angels would convince Christians to give up their beliefs and adopt the “scientific” worldview of Marxism-Leninism.
In Karamazov, the smug Rakitin, who plans a lucrative career in radical journalism, voices progressive clichés that anticipate the Bolshevik attitude to religion. They also sound remarkably similar to the pronouncements of today’s New Atheists. Visiting Dmitri Karamazov, imprisoned on a false accusation of parricide, Rakitin paraphrases the ideas of Russia’s great physiologist Ivan Sechenov, whose book Reflexes of the Brain (1863) had reduced human thinking to brain activity. Abstract thought and agonized choice were in principle no different from simple reflexes, like the narrowing of pupils in bright light. Dmitri finds these arguments more disturbing than the prospect of Siberia, as he exclaims to his brother: “It’s magnificent, Alyosha, this science! . . . And yet I am sorry to lose God.”
Rakitin plans to launch his literary career not by proving Dmitri’s innocence, but by arguing, in proper radical fashion, that Dmitri “couldn’t help murdering his father, he was corrupted by his [social] environment.” When Dmitri asks where morals come from if not from God, Rakitin replies that for a “clever person” all is permitted and he “can do what he likes,” so long as he takes care not to be caught. Society protects itself with laws, but those laws are based solely on their practical utility. Only the naïve believe in morals grounded in something that transcends social convention.
The novel’s intellectual hero, Dmitri’s brother Ivan, grasps these issues much more profoundly than Rakitin. A student of natural science, he understands the implications of a worldview that allows for nothing but morally neutral laws of nature. It is neither moral nor immoral that a dropped coin accelerates at 9.8 meters per second per second, and since people are no less explicable by natural laws than falling coins, morality must be, as we say today, only a social construct. Ivan sees no escape from this conclusion—but unlike Rakitin, he is disturbed by it, because he cannot doubt that human cruelty, especially to children, is absolutely evil.
Torn apart by this contradiction, he withdraws from others. At the university, he supports himself by writing articles under the signature “The Observer,” that is, one who looks on but does not participate. With a dizzying sequence of loopholes, he avoids committing himself to any opinion. No matter what he seems to be saying, he can claim that he was less than serious. Once, when Alyosha asks him whether he is joking, he replies in a joking tone: “Me joking?” Even his articles turn out to be written in a code that few, if any, can decipher. Some take him to be on one side of a question, others on the other, while “some sagacious people” detect a sort of “burlesque.”
As the novel begins, Dmitri, an army officer with a dangerous temper, has been quarreling with his father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, who is one of the most loathsome characters in world literature. Believing in nothing, Fyodor Pavlovich relishes clever mockery of anything anyone else might hold sacred. Laughing at notions of personal dignity, he loves to play the buffoon and humiliate himself in public to show his perfect contempt for the regard of others.
“You can easily imagine what a father such a man would be,” the narrator remarks. “He completely abandoned the child of his marriage with Adelaida Ivanovna [Dmitri], not from malice, nor because of his matrimonial grievances, but simply because he forgot him.” Literally forgetting one’s child’s existence transcends ordinary mistreatment to become something almost supernaturally awful. When Miusov, a relative of Dmitri’s mother, offers to take the boy off his hands, Fyodor Pavlovich indulges his fondness “of acting, of suddenly playing an unexpected part, sometimes without any motive for doing so, and even to his own direct disadvantage,” as in this case. He “looked for some time as though he was surprised to hear that he had a little son in the house. The story may have been exaggerated, yet it must have been something like the truth.” Fyodor Pavlovich treats Ivan and Alyosha, the sons of his second wife, the same way, and so all three brothers were brought up by others and, as the novel begins, have only just met.
Dmitri discovers that his father has squandered what should have been Dmitri’s inheritance from his wealthy mother. He is even angrier that his father has been using his ill-gotten wealth to lure Grushenka, a woman of dubious repute with whom Dmitri has become erotically obsessed. As a joke, Fyodor Pavlovich has suggested they turn to the holy Father Zossima to resolve the conflict and so, as the action commences, Fyodor Pavlovich, his three sons, and Miusov meet in the monk’s cell. Alyosha, who worships Zossima and has been residing in the monastery to be near him, fears that either his buffoonish father, his atheist brother Ivan, or the condescending, fashionable liberal Miusov will show disrespect.
Dmitri arrives late, and so Fyodor Pavlovich has an opportunity to play the fool and provoke Miusov into inappropriate behavior. Resenting Ivan’s offhandedness toward him, Miusov paraphrases a shocking speech that Ivan has made “in a company of ladies,” a venue that suggests Ivan may have been less than serious. According to Miusov, Ivan claimed that since there is no law of nature making people care for others, if they do care it is only because they have believed in something beyond those laws, such as immortality. If that belief were destroyed, Ivan concluded, “every living force maintaining the world would be dried up.” Meaning would prove as illusory as goodness, and “nothing would then be immoral, all would be permitted, even cannibalism.” As this famous argument is often paraphrased: “If there is no God, all is permitted.”
The monks also discuss Ivan’s article about an apparently obscure topic, the proper jurisdiction of ecclesiastical and state courts. The article encodes a meditation on a question obsessing Ivan: Why should one not commit crimes if it is to one’s advantage to do so? “State courts” represent a secular reason: If one is caught, one will be punished. But what if there is no possibility of being caught? “Church courts” stand for a religious reason: One does not commit crimes, simply because to do so is wrong. Moral law governs the universe as surely as natural law.
To Ivan’s surprise, Zossima, one of Dostoevsky’s brilliant psychologists, decodes both Ivan’s article and his speech to the shocked ladies. He observes that Ivan is either blessed in believing that all is permitted, or else most unhappy. “Why unhappy?” Ivan smiles. Zossima explains: Because “you don’t believe yourself in the immortality of your soul, nor in what you have written in the article on Church jurisdiction.” Amazed that he has been understood, Ivan pleads that he “was not altogether joking.” That’s true, Zossima answers:
The question is still fretting your heart. . . . But the martyr likes sometimes to divert himself with his despair, as it were driven to it by despair itself. . . . [so] you too divert yourself with magazine articles, and discussions in society, though you don’t believe your own arguments and mock at them inwardly. . . . That question you have not answered, and it is your great grief, for it clamors for an answer.
“But can it be answered for me in the affirmative?” asks Ivan—meaning, Can I find faith and meaning? “If it can’t be decided in the affirmative, it will never be decided in the negative,” Zossima answers. That is, if Ivan cannot find faith, he will never become a contented atheist, but will keep on seeking faith. “That is the peculiarity of your heart. . . . But thank the Creator who has given you a lofty heart capable of such suffering.”
As readers of Dostoevsky a century later were to recognize, the Soviets took the idea that “all is permitted”—if done in the name of the Party—quite literally. Their position was not that one should use force to the extent necessary. That view implies that one should at least economize, killing no more than one has to, and so implicitly accepts the Christian view that life is sacred. Lenin and Trotsky insisted that no true materialist can believe that. The sign of a true Bolshevik, therefore, was preference for the most violent methods. Ivan invokes cannibalism—people seen as so much meat—as the logical consequence of the materialist worldview, and the Soviet Union became, so far as I know, the first society to practice self-cannibalism on a mass scale. Unlike Western progressives, who imagined it was possible to retain the idea of the sanctity of human life along with the conviction that people are just complex material objects, the Bolsheviks recognized what “all is permitted” truly meant.
The novel’s plot tests not only the “scientific” belief that morality, as the radical critic Dmitri Pisarev put it, resembles food preference—I dislike mustard, and you dislike murder—it also sets out to prove a specifically Christian understanding of life. Again, it is Ivan who articulates the opposing view.
Mistakenly imagining that Grushenka is visiting his father, Dmitri bursts into the house and attacks Fyodor Pavlovich, whom Ivan protects. Discussing this episode with Alyosha, Ivan coldly observes, “One reptile will devour the other.” Horrified, Alyosha asks whether anyone is “worthy” to wish for another person’s death. Ivan offers two responses. The first, already familiar, is that the question makes no scientific sense: “The matter is most often decided in men’s hearts on other grounds much more natural.” By “natural” Ivan means according to the laws of nature, which do not allow for moral judgment. Then he offers an entirely different response. Let us suppose that good and evil really do exist, and that moral judgment does make sense. Such judgments, he contends, would apply only to actions, not to mere wishes. “And as for rights—who has not the right to wish?”
As Alyosha is well aware, the Sermon on the Mount extends moral judgment from actions to wishes. If you lust, you have committed adultery in your heart; and anger, the desire to kill, is itself a sin, even if less grave than actual murder. The idea that wishes are actions, and can be judged as such, characterizes Christianity and differentiates it from secular or Old Testament thinking.
In Dostoevsky’s view, the Christian view of wishes reflects an understanding of human psychology far more sophisticated than the alternatives, and the novel’s plot demonstrates why. To be sure, demonstrating the psychological profundity of Christianity does not prove Jesus’s divinity, but it does make it harder to dismiss Christianity as primitive.
Perhaps even more than Dmitri, Ivan hates his father. That much is apparent to the character who actually commits the murder for which Dmitri is tried, the one whom all three brothers call “the valet Smerdyakov.” Smerdyakov (whose name means “the one who stinks”) is in fact the son of Stinking Lizaveta, a fool-in-Christ who has been raped on a bet by Fyodor Pavlovich. Smerdyakov is therefore the unacknowledged half-brother of Ivan, Dmitri, and Alyosha, and we can sense his resentment when even Alyosha asks whether he has seen “my,” rather than our, “brother Dmitri.” A brilliant psychologist, he constructs a plan to destroy his family and, with the exception of Alyosha, succeeds.
He does so by luring Ivan into a conspiracy to have his father murdered. Only later does Ivan realize that he has consented to this plan, which Smerdyakov presented in an easily decipherable code (a technique Smerdyakov has learned from Ivan himself). Ivan has chosen to leave the code undeciphered, precisely because he wishes his father dead. In a chapter titled “For a While a Very Obscure One,” Ivan finds himself, to his own surprise, chatting with Smerdyakov, whom, he feels, has begun to speak to him with too much familiarity, as if—“goodness knows why! . . . there was some sort of understanding” between them. Advising Ivan to leave town on some errand of his father’s, Smerdyakov gives Ivan enough information to deduce that if he leaves, either Dmitri will kill the old man, or Smerdyakov will kill him and frame Dmitri. If Ivan leaves, he will have consented tacitly to this plan.
Feeling that Smerdyakov has deeply insulted him, Ivan has an urge to beat him. Had he done so, or even considered why he wanted to, there would have been no murder. Instead, Ivan chooses “not to think.” And this is one way evil happens: We arrange not to know something that would oblige us to act. Our wishes are realized “against our will,” but we have willed that very situation. Whenever our thoughts approach the unwanted information, alarm bells go off and we direct our attention elsewhere. In this way, we provide ourselves with a spurious alibi. As Ivan leaves town the next day, he finds himself saying, “I am a scoundrel!”—but, again, does not ask why.
Fyodor Pavlovich is indeed killed, and all evidence points to Dmitri. In fact, at the last possible moment Dmitri resists the impulse to murder, and it is Smerdyakov who finishes the job. When Ivan returns, he senses something fishy in the charge against Dmitri and demands that Smerdyakov decode their earlier “obscure” conversation. Smerdyakov does so, but in another code, so that only part of the terrible truth is revealed; and the same thing happens during the second interview. Each time, Ivan becomes more and more overwhelmed with unbearable guilt. In the third interview, Smerdyakov at last tells Ivan that he is “the rightful murderer.” Seeing Ivan’s hands tremble, Smerdyakov mocks him with having claimed that “all is permitted.” Ivan goes mad.
Novels of ideas create an irony of outcomes: The hero’s experience refutes his theory. In this case, more than one theory fails the test. To begin with, the person who claimed “all is permitted” suffers terrible guilt. What’s more, his guilt shows that, as the Gospel teaches, wishes have moral value.
Ultimately, most evil comes from wishes we do not, and never would, act upon. In contrast to determinists, Dostoevsky believed that at any given moment more than one thing might happen. Each moment contains a cloud of possibilities, some more likely and some less, only one of which will be realized, at which point a new cloud of possibilities appears. Wishes shape the cloud of possibilities. In an atmosphere filled with hatred, evil is more likely to happen, even if no one would knowingly commit it. Our wishes create evil by shaping the cloud.
The Russian philosopher Aron Katsenelinboigen told the story of his son’s plan to take an expensive and delicate piece of photographic equipment to summer camp. “You won’t come back with it,” Katsenelinboigen advised, but his son replied, “Don’t worry, there are lockers and whenever I am not using the camera, I will keep it there.” During the summer a flash flood ruined everything in the lockers. “You’re still wrong,” the boy contended, because you couldn’t have known there would be a flood. Of course I didn’t predict a flood, Katsenelinboigen answered, but I knew that in a situation rife with dangers you cannot control—a situation where a dark cloud of possibilities looms—something unwanted is bound to happen.
Father Zossima explains that most evil happens because otherwise good people—in fact, all of us—wish it. That is the deep meaning, moral and psychological, of Jesus’s lesson about wishes, which the novel’s plot demonstrates. It explains why, in Zossima’s words, “Everyone is responsible for everyone and for everything.”
On his way to his third interview with Smerdyakov, Ivan runs into a drunken peasant, who is bound to freeze to death before morning. Always the “observer” who does not get involved, Ivan passes by, an act that alludes to the parable of the Good Samaritan. After Smerdyakov demonstrates his complicity in the murder, Ivan goes back and rescues the peasant. He has recognized the falsity of his idea that nonparticipation offers a moral alibi. In his case, that idea has led to his failure to detect his own involvement in a conspiracy.
All is permitted, wishes have no moral value, and only active participants are morally responsible. The novel’s plot demonstrates the falsity of all three theories.
Karamazov is not just Christian, it is also specifically trinitarian. The Holy Spirit, no less than God the Father and God the Son, plays a key role in the novel’s argument.
The chapters devoted to the Trinity include its most famous passages, especially a sequence of three chapters, “The Brothers Get Acquainted,” “Rebellion,” and “The Grand Inquisitor.” In the first of these chapters, Alyosha and Ivan, eager to know each other, meet in a stinking tavern to learn and reveal (in Ivan’s words) “as quickly as possible my essential nature. . . what I believe in, and for what I hope.” Since they are Russians, they agree, that means discussing “the eternal questions.”
Ivan explains that he rejects not God but the world he created. It exists, of course, but it is unacceptable morally. Sharpening Job’s indictment, “Rebellion” offers the strongest case against God ever made.
More often than not, people defend their beliefs by refuting their opponents’ weakest arguments, showing that for them truth matters less than winning. Dostoevsky refused to do that. He proudly formulated stronger arguments against God than any advanced by atheists. And so, the most powerful arguments against Christianity occur in a Christian novel!
The biblical Job cites many injustices, but Ivan claims to “weaken [his] case” by focusing on only a small portion of them, the sufferings of innocent children. That focus, of course, actually strengthens his case, since one cannot say that young children must have somehow deserved their punishment. What follows is a catalogue of child abuse so heartrending as to be difficult to read—all the more so when we realize, as Dostoevsky’s readers would have, that the examples were real and that Dostoevsky, who was also the world’s greatest crime reporter, had written articles about them. After each example, Ivan offers some standard theodicy: Adam and Eve ate the apple, we could not have known good without evil, the children’s sufferings were necessary to pave the way to paradise, the apparently innocent victims would have grown up and sinned. Ivan does not argue against these exculpations; he merely asks us to compare them with the actual suffering of a particular child. What sort of person would find the abstract argument more convincing? By this method, he refutes not only all defenses of God that have been made but also any that ever could be.
After describing a serf mother forced to watch her child torn to pieces by her owner’s dogs, Ivan insists that she has no right to forgive, even if the child did so. He demands: Could there be someone who could forgive such horrors? Deeply shaken by Ivan’s “catalogue of facts,” Alyosha at last recalls that there is such a Being, and he can forgive because he gave his innocent blood. That is, Ivan is right that the problem of theodicy is unsolvable if we have only God the Father, as Jews and Muslims do, but that is precisely why Christianity also has God the Son. But it turns out that Ivan has prompted this answer to set the stage for his critique of Jesus.
If you can waste a few more minutes, he smiles, I’ll recite this little poem I wrote, “The Grand Inquisitor.” Set in Spain during the Inquisition, it begins with the Grand Inquisitor burning heretics in an auto-da-fé. Fifteen centuries have elapsed since Jesus promised to “come quickly,” and the people long for him. In his infinite mercy, he decides to show himself. Everyone immediately recognizes him, since perfect goodness is unmistakable. Instead of worshipping him, however, the Inquisitor orders the guards to arrest him. The vicar of Christ throws Christ himself into prison! Why? And why do the guards and the common people obey?
Visiting Jesus in his prison cell, the Inquisitor outlines his philosophy. Throughout history, he maintains, two views of life have contended with each other. One belongs to Jesus, the other to the Inquisitor. In our time, Dostoevsky suggests, the Inquisitor’s view takes the form of socialism.
People say they want to be free, but in fact “nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom,” because it entails guilt, regret, and unresolvable doubt about whether life has a meaning at all. Grownups, no less than children, are much happier when others decide for them and assure them that the problems of life have been solved. But Jesus’s truth affirms the opposite: People are free and must freely choose good or evil while maintaining faith in the face of doubt. Doubt, indeed, is essential to faith, which precludes certainty and proof: One does not have faith in the Pythagorean theorem. By increasing people’s freedom, Jesus increased their unhappiness, and so, the Inquisitor chillingly explains, we have “corrected thy work.”
To explain his thinking, the Inquisitor interprets the story of the three temptations, which, in his reading, contains “the whole subsequent history of mankind” and “all the unresolved historical contradictions of human nature.”
“The wise and dread Spirit” first bade you feed mankind by turning stones into bread, but you replied, “Man does not live by bread alone.” But that is precisely why you should have accepted the temptation, the Inquisitor argues. People above all desire certainty, freedom from doubt. They try by violence to impose their gods on others, as if universal consent would constitute proof. They forget that every idea can be doubted. The one thing that cannot be doubted is the physical: No one in pain wonders whether pain really exists. In this sense, matter is certain, which is why materialism is so appealing. Paradoxically, people choose materialism for spiritual reasons!
The devil then tempted Jesus to prove his divinity by casting himself down so that God would save him by a miracle, but “Thou wouldst not enslave man by a miracle.” For miracles banish doubt, and therefore banish faith. Those who believe because of miracles worship blind force. Dostoevsky’s point is that, although Jesus performed miracles, no true Christian bases his faith on them. For the Inquisitor, that is precisely why his church, which has accepted the devil’s temptations, does base its faith on miracles. Doing so makes people happy.
Jesus also rejects the devil’s temptation to rule all the kingdoms and so unite mankind in what the Inquisitor calls “one harmonious antheap.” (The antheap was Dostoevsky’s image of socialism.) Only a handful can endure the burdens of freedom, the Inquisitor charges, which means that Jesus came only for the few, not for the countless millions. “Canst thou have simply come . . . for the elect?” he demands.
The Inquisitor knows that he will be damned for betraying Christ, but he is willing to make the sacrifice. In the tale’s greatest paradox, he outdoes Christ, who gave his earthly life for humanity, by giving his eternal life.
Alyosha exclaims that Ivan’s poem is really in praise of Jesus, “not in blame of him as you meant it to be,” and he is partly right. It is both. Ever reluctant to commit himself, Ivan has composed an indictment that is simultaneously a eulogy. But how, one may ask, can an unrelenting attack constitute praise? Ask yourself: Would you accept the bargain of happiness at the expense of intelligence and choice? Would you allow others to make all decisions for you? I have encountered no one who would make that bargain.
If “Rebellion” considers God the Father, and “The Grand Inquisitor” God the Son, where is the Holy Spirit? The answer appears at the beginning of the brothers’ dialogue. In “The Brothers Get Acquainted,” Ivan confesses that in the face of even the deepest disillusionment, the sheer, biological life force within him would prevent suicide, at least until it diminished with age. Ivan regards that force as base, like his father’s unquenchable sensuality, but Alyosha, instructed by Father Zossima, detects the presence of the Holy Spirit in love of life for its own sake.
Despite his despair, Ivan explains, “I love the sticky leaves in the spring. . . . It’s not a matter of intellect or logic, it’s loving with one’s inside, with one’s stomach.” Alyosha replies that, far from being base, such love is where faith and the sense of life’s meaning begin: “I think one should love life more than anything in the world.” “Love life more than the meaning of it?” Ivan asks. “Certainly,” Alyosha answers, “love it regardless of logic as you say, it must be regardless of logic, and it’s only then one will understand the meaning of it.” Such love regardless of logic is a gift of the Spirit.
Earlier in the novel, a hysterical society lady, Madame Khokhlakova (Madame Guffaw), demands that Zossima prove God’s existence. There’s no proving it, he replies, but you can be convinced of it, and of life’s meaning, if you live a life of “active love.” Faith comes not from theory but from experience, from the bottom up, by living the right sort of life from moment to moment.
For Zossima, that means attending to the prosaic. One must seize the smallest opportunities for kindness and must care for the person right in front of one. Faith requires presence. The radical intelligentsia, as every Russian reader knew, argued the reverse, that present people must be sacrificed to future happiness. The intelligentsia looked for a secular miracle, which they called “revolution,” as if the world could be transformed in a single dramatic action, and as if people spending their lives on terrorism and violence would become humane when in power. They could not have been more mistaken.
One makes a better world by what Dostoevsky liked to call “microscopic actions.” When you walk down the street, Zossima tells the other monks, don’t scowl. A kindly look can shift a person’s mood and affect his next encounter, in an ever-growing chain of effects you will never see. Cast a little bread upon the waters.
At the beginning of the novel, Alyosha still has not internalized this lesson. Though a believer, he shares the psychology of the materialist radicals of his generation. He, too, thirsts for “immediate action” and “swift achievement” visible to all. When Father Zossima dies, Alyosha firmly expects the miracle traditionally confirming sainthood: His body will not stink but emit a pleasant fragrance. The very opposite happens: As if to mock Alyosha’s faith, Zossima’s corpse decomposes faster and smells worse than usual. “I would never have expected such behavior of him,” Madame Khokhlakova absurdly remarks. And yet, we cannot help thinking that Zossima would have chosen exactly this way to teach Alyosha not to base his faith on miracles.
In despair, Alyosha allows Rakitin to take him to Grushenka, who has wished to seduce him out of sheer resentment at his moral purity. At that very moment, however, Grushenka, too, is going through a moral crisis, and the two sufferers listen empathetically to each other. She recounts a Russian folk tale conveying an important theological message. A wicked woman dies and finds herself in the lake of fire. Her guardian angel, distressed at her sufferings, recalls that the woman did one good deed in her life: She gave an onion—as small a gift as one can imagine —to a beggar. All right, God replies, you take that onion and pull her out of hell with it. The gleeful angel holds out the onion and the woman grasps it and is slowly lifted above the lake. Hoping to be saved with her, other sinners grab her legs, but she kicks them away, saying, “It’s my onion, not yours!” At that moment the onion’s stem breaks, and the woman has been roasting in hell ever since.
The story has several morals, the most important of which is that even the smallest good deed can matter. When Alyosha, exhausted but with renewed faith, returns to the monastery, he listens to a monk reading the Gospel over Zossima’s corpse. The novel includes the words Alyosha hears—the novel’s core lesson—interspersed with his drowsy thoughts about them. Surprisingly, the text Dostoevsky chooses as Christianity’s essence is not, as in Crime and Punishment, the raising of Lazarus or any other dramatic moment. Quite the contrary, he chooses the marriage at Cana—a story that occurs only in the Gospel of John, narrates a moment Jesus deems outside his mission (“mine hour has not yet come”), and describes a miracle hidden from all but a few. The governor of the feast does not detect it.
Dostoevsky’s point is that what matters most is not high drama but ordinary goodness, not exceptional moments but ordinary ones. Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said, “God must love the common people because he made so many of them,” and Dostoevsky would have said the same about ordinary moments. Jesus, Alyosha reflects, performs his first miracle for unremarkable people, so poor they could not afford wine at a wedding. “And indeed,” Alyosha asks himself, “was it to make wine abundant at poor weddings He had come down to earth?” In a sense, it was. The most important miracle is hidden and does not resemble a miracle at all: the Holy Spirit’s presence at each prosaic moment, allowing us to live aright. And joy, as the unascetic Zossima explains, is also the Spirit’s gift.
As he dozes off, Alyosha imagines that he attends an eternal, heavenly marriage of Cana, where Father Zossima is one of the guests. Everyone here gave an onion, “only one little onion,” Zossima explains, and you are here because today you did too. Jesus is also present, not fearsome as Alyosha at first supposes, but sharing in the simple joy of ordinary people. When Alyosha wakes he is aware “that something firm and unshakeable as that vault of heaven had entered into his soul.” Suddenly, he “threw himself down on the earth. He did not know why he embraced it.” He senses the beneficent universal connectedness of all things, as if “threads from all those innumerable worlds of God” in the stars linked his soul with everything living: “He longed to forgive everyone and for everything, and to beg forgiveness.” “‘Someone visited my soul in that hour,’ he used to say afterwards, with implicit faith in his words.” Giving an onion, he has been touched by the Holy Spirit.
In Dostoevsky’s hands, the novel became a theological instrument, a way to elucidate the existential meaning of the idea of the Trinity. The Brothers Karamazov makes claims that seem simple but are often denied. The Christian understanding of ethics and psychology is the most sophisticated ever developed. God made us free, and faith must be a free choice in the face of doubt. The smallest acts of goodness make all the difference. And the only way to sense life’s meaning is to live rightly, moment by moment.
If the twentieth century showed anything, it is that the opposite view entails the worst evil. We must believe in the existence and value of individual choice. We must accept good and evil not as social conventions but as absolutes; and we must acknowledge, as Zossima says, that “everyone is responsible for everyone and everything.” Above all, we must never place our faith in revolutionary violence or any other secular miracle. Instead, we should discover real life, and the genuine opportunity for goodness, in the prosaic. One can always attend the marriage at Cana.
Gary Saul Morson is Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University.