Dostoevsky Knew

How the three main characters in The Brothers Karamazov represent the world we are living in today.

Detail from an 1872 portrait of Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov. (Wikipedia)

Dostoevsky predicted it already. In his classic novel The Brothers Karamazov, there are three main characters that represent the world we are living in today.

There is Ivan, who represents the “postmodernist.” Ivan is today’s progressive liberal: he is a relativist and a nihilist, who postulates that there is no fundamental truth and rejects universal moral and spiritual values. Ivan preaches that “there is no God and therefore everything is permissible.”

Alyosha, Ivan’s youngest brother, is the novel’s main character and represents the opposition to the progressive-liberal ideology. Besides being kind and smart, Alyosha is a man with a mature religious faith, moral values, and integrity. His outlook on life is similar to that of Søren Kierkegaard, and he believes that morality requires an unconditional commitment towards what is objectively good. Alyosha believes that a highest truth exists. Father Zosima, an Orthodox Christian monk who mentors Alyosha, says about truth:

Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect, he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself.

Then there is Smerdyakov. He represents all of us, the populace. Smerdyavok, whose name means “son of the stinky one” (the name has also an assonance with the French term “merde“), is Old Karamazov’s illegitimate son. History Professor Dmitry Slapentokh explained that Smerdyakov could choose between two “tutors:” he could be led by Ivan, the relativist, or by Alyosha, the religious figure. Of course, Smerdyakov chooses to follow Ivan, and as a result of Ivan’s teachings that there are no fixed values in life, Smerdyakov concludes that everything is permitted. He embraces the postmodernist ideas even more than Ivan does, and left with no moral restraints, he perpetrates a horrible crime: he kills his own father.

At first, Ivan pretends that he has nothing to do with the murder and claims that Smerdyakov misunderstood him. The truth, however, is that Ivan is morally responsible for the irreversible consequences of his teachings. In the end, after being rejected by Ivan, Smerdyakov commits suicide.

This seems to be the same direction that our society is being led to.

Postmodernism, despite Its relativism, has become an authoritarian dogmatism 

As Ivan preached, today’s postmodernism conceives of an ideal society with liquid contours and no fixed values. It is a liquid and fluid society with no boundaries, and with no social, cultural, territorial, human, or sexual barriers. It is a society that has lost its identity and its moral restraints.

Karl Marx identified the class struggle between rich and poor – between bourgeois and proletarians – as the root cause of the evils of humanity. The advocates of today’s liquid society (borrowing this term from Zygmunt Bauman) have found new “classes” at the basis of social injustices: man as the oppressor of the woman, white people as oppressors of ethnic minorities, Western countries as oppressors of developing countries, Western values as oppressors of other cultures, and so forth.

The supporters of the liquid society believe that if we want to free humanity from these profound injustices, we must carry out a variation of what Marx said: the oppressed (who Marx regarded as the proletariat) must impose itself on the oppressor (Marx’s bourgeoisie) in order to then reach a classless society. The twist today is that those being “oppressed” have been redefined away from the working class to new categories of people, often connected to increasingly expansive and esoteric categories related to gender, race and ethnic origin. Yet, while claiming to strive for equality, the ultimate aim of the liquid society is – in line with Marxism – the imposition of a totalitarian ideology hostile to traditional values (e.g., family and religion) and the promotion of the deconstruction of society and its replacement by a new one. An example is the concept of gender identity, in which there is no longer man and woman, but plural affective-sexual orientations. Yet, that “new society” never quite arrives but is constantly buffeted by new demands for recognition, new twists, new “freedoms” constantly breaking down whatever was there before.

The main twist is that postmodernism, despite its relativism, became an authoritarian dogmatism. It claims that there is no truth or, conversely, that there are many truths, but it imposes on others its own “truth,” and bans and cancels anyone thinking in a different way. In fact, Ivan’s rejection of conventional notions of morality was similarly dogmatic. In today’s world, postmodernism has cancelled doubt, free speech and free will (which postmodernism pretends to champion). Ironically, the dogmas are based on fluid concepts (which sounds like an oxymoron), such as “open borders” or “queer theory.”

The way to impose the dogmas is to threaten and use psychological violence on anyone thinking in a different way. Whoever dares to doubt or challenge the dogmas has to be cancelled, erased and purged, like how Joseph Stalin doctored photos to visually cut his enemies out from the past, present, and future. As a consequence, people either willingly become like Smerdyakov, blindly following Ivan, or are forced to become like him. No one is allowed to challenge the Marx-inspired categories of oppressors and oppressed and its derived ideological theories. Those who dare to go against or doubt the diktats are to be de-humanized and demonized, in order to justify violent attacks against them and their suppression.

For this reason, whoever even tries to doubt that gender is not a social construct is labeled as “homophobic,” “bigoted,” “fascist,” “racist,” “stupid,” or “coming from the Middle Ages”(By the way, who said that the Middle Ages were the Dark Ages? The Middle Ages laid the foundations for the modern world. Without the Middle Ages we would not have Dante, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Lorenzo de’ Medici).

After the demonization, comes the purge and the forced removal from society. This is how Western society is being torn apart, according to the strategy of “divide et impera” (divide and conquer), which is a tyrannical expedient for controlling and governing people, by dividing the society into several parts in a way that provokes rivalry and foments discord.

Furthermore, the supporters of the liquid society need to keep alive the categories of the “oppressed” and the “oppressors,” since without them they cannot legitimize their authoritarian control over society. For example, until few years ago, we were taught that races do not exist. Intellectuals, activists and journalists would repeat: “There is only one race: the human race.” But today, we have Critical Race Theory, which instead teaches us that races apparently do exist, and the worst of all races is identified as the “white” race (the “oppressor”). People are now categorized by their skin color, and the great irony is that anyone who rebels against this categorization is labeled a “racist.”

Postmodernism leads to social anomie

However, a liquid society is deeply disorienting, since even if there are dogmas, there are no truly fixed boundaries. For example, concerning gender, the fact that the pronouns of an individual (from the Latin in-dividuus, meaning undivided and not-divisible) can be plural “they-them” is a contradiction in terms and leads to a disoriented and unbalanced personality. In fact, trying to divide an individual into parts implies the individual’s own death, because the individual can exist only as a unit.

Some may ask: “So what about intersex people born with some combination of male and female organs?” It is worth noting that the term “intersex” does not confer or create a new sexual category to the well-known sexual binary represented in masculine and female, since the individual would only generate (if not sterile) gametes corresponding to their sex.

Supporters of the liquid society are instead convinced that there are more than 100 genders, among which pops up even a “moon-gender,” which would identify people whose gender comes out at night.

Human beings also need order, as a moral principle that is within us, and liquid society, by definition, cannot be organized or ordered as it attempts to sweep all before it. Postmodernism seems instead to lead us to social anomie (term introduced by Émile Durkheim to define the lack of social and moral regulation), self-destruction, and, as in the case of Smerdyakov, to suicide. It is no surprise then that our postmodern society seems to be at war with natality and in favor of euthanasia even in the case in which a person is not actually terminally ill.

Of course, all these confusing theories end up harming more than helping. In the case of gender theories, the fact that a man can identify himself as a woman leads to paradoxical consequences. For example, in a country that promotes quotas for women in political bodies, those quotas would be given again to men that say they are women. Furthermore, all these books on great women that can be role models for girls will also list men among the “wonder women.” Hence, little girls to be empowered will have to look up to a man.

This is where Alyosha comes in with his conservatism. He is not free of guilt himself, but he strives against relativism and nihilism, and to build a foundation for further progress. Contrary to postmodernists, Alyosha, who believes in a higher truth, does experience doubt. Dostoevsky writes in The Brothers Karamazov that genuine faith is to be tried by doubt: “The hosanna must be tried in the crucible of doubt.”

However, proponents of postmodernism want people to renounce to doubt. It is possible to see that in the debate over COVID vaccine passports (Green Pass), which reminds us of the “internal passport” used under the Soviet regime without which a citizen could not move inside his country. If someone doubts the real effectiveness of restrictions based on whether people are vaccinated against COVID in the time of Omicron, then that person is accused of being “anti-science.” Science usually looks for answers using doubts. However, in the liquid society, “science”, or rather scientism, is the new religion that has replaced Christianity. This was predicted by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World -instead of crosses, people would use the capital letter “T” as a symbol of belief, because it represents the Model T Ford, the first mass-produced automobile.

Yet, as suggested by Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, the “faith in science” coincides with the overestimation of a “limited” conception of knowledge, as it relates to a narrow range of phenomena, and with a “fideistic” attitude towards calculation and statistics.

Agamben writes: “As has happened many times in the course of history, philosophers must again enter into conflict with religion, which is no longer Christianity, but science or that part of it that has assumed the form of a religion. I do not know if bonfires will return and books will be put on the Index, but clearly the thought of those who continue to seek the truth and reject the dominant lie will be, as is already happening before our eyes, excluded and accused of spreading fake news (news, not ideas, because news is more important than reality!).”

Meanwhile, through COVID restrictions and the mandatory use of masks even in open spaces, postmodernism have reduced us to a faceless society, especially the servile underclass masked in the photos of the unmasked great and powerful. It is not a coincidence that ancient Greeks called the slave “aproposon, ” meaning “without face.” Agamben writes:

A country that decides to renounce its own face, to cover the faces of its own citizens with masks everywhere is, then, a country that has erased every political dimension from itself… Individuals now move in isolation from each other, they have lost the immediate and sensitive foundation of their community and can only exchange messages directed at a faceless name… [people] deprived of their relationship with the face, are irreparably alone, however much they try to communicate with digital apparatuses… a faceless society, a society without a past and without physical contact, is a society of ghosts and as such doomed to a more or less rapid ruin.

Patricide as deicide

In The Brothers Karamazov, Smerdyakov’s patricide plays a central role to further understand today’s society. The killing of the father is a metaphor for deicide. Theology Professor Ralph C. Wood states: “Philosophical deicide results in existential parricide. The mental killing of God breaks the deepest of human bonds. It is thus fitting that Ivan the perverted intellectual should end in madness.” In fact, Ivan ends up in a final insanity. It is worth noting that Dostoevsky published The Brothers Karamazov in 1880, and two years later, in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche published The Gay Science, in which it is declared that “God is dead. ” In the parable about a madman, Nietzsche writes: “Where has God gone?’ he cried. ‘I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. We are all his murderers.'”

In addition to deicide, the patricide is also a metaphor for the killing of the Fatherland. In English, it is more common the term homeland (or motherland), but in Russian, as in Latin “patria” (from pater, meaning father), is отечество (“otechestvo,” from отец that means father). Hence, Ivan’s postmodernism killed God, the land of one’s ancestors, and everything that it represents: the past, the history, and the ancestors’ traditions and values. Wood adds: “Ivan suffers the hellish laceration of the soul that occurs when freedom is exercised negatively—not to engender life but to bring death.”

Professor Jordan B. Peterson explains that Nietzsche’s conclusion from the death of God is that our ethical system is going to collapse, as the foundation was pulled out from underneath human beings. Hence, Peterson reasons, Nietzsche believed that human beings would have to find and create their own values:

[However,] there is a problem with that, because it does not seem… that people are capable of creating their own values, because you are not really capable of molding yourself just any old way you want to be like. You have a nature that you have to contend with… So it is not a matter of creating our own values, because we don’t have that capacity, it might be a matter of rediscovering those values, which is what [Carl] Jung was attempting to do… So, I think, Nietzsche was actually profoundly wrong in that recommendation [of human beings creating their own values]…”

We can stretch this argument and say that, concerning gender theories, as much as postmodernist proponents try to create new values and substitute themselves to God, at the end there is a human nature that they have to contend with.

It is also worth noting that Alyosha appears to be the real character moved by rationalism, while Ivan, who is moved by his postmodernist ideas, is the irrational character. Even though it may seem that Ivan is the rationalist one, it is quite the opposite. Pope Benedict XVI explained that reason has its origin in the Logos (which means “word” and “reason”). In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Gospel of John. In April 2006, during an encounter with the youth in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI said:

Either one recognizes the priority of reason, of creative Reason that is at the beginning of all things and is the principle of all things – the priority of reason is also the priority of freedom -, or one holds the priority of the irrational, inasmuch as everything that functions on our earth and in our lives would be only accidental, marginal, an irrational result…

In this sense, Smerdyakov’s patricide represents deicide as much as it represents the death of Reason, and Ivan’s irrational postmodernism is the real responsible for it.

Conclusion

Russian philosopher and Christian existentialist Nikolai Berdyaev, who was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1922, said: “Conservatism is not something preventing upward, forward movement, but something preventing you from sliding back into chaos.” However, the great question of our time is what is to be the nature of this conservatism that should oppose the utter bankruptcy and contradictions of postmodernism, or better the late-stage liberalism that took the shape of progressive-liberalism or woke-ism. There is ahead both trap and opportunity. How will the great causes of nation, family and religion be best protected from the flood that threatens to wash all away and how strong and broad of an alliance can be forged against the coming threat?

Eventually, Dostoyevsky bets on Dmitri, the oldest Karamazov brother, who is innocent, but takes the responsibility for the patricide committed by Smerdyakov. Dmitri takes the blame, as he too wished for his father’s death. During his time in prison, Dmitri, who has a close relation with Alyosha, goes through a spiritual conversion. Dostoyevsky shows us that we are all Smerdyakov, but we can be Dmitri, and though a shared responsibility for humanity there is a hope for redemption. “Everyone is really responsible to all men for all men and for everything.”


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About Anna Mahjar-Barducci 2 Articles
Anna Mahjar-Barducci is an author and a Senior Researcher at the Washington-based think tank MEMRI. She currently lives in Jerusalem.

7 Comments

  1. After reading this outstanding article, I was surprised to see that there is no Ignatius Critical Edition of The Brothers Karamazov.

  2. Such an important book, but one that is very challenging to read. I have made two attempts so far and have been unsuccessful on both occasions. I tend to lose my bearings in the long discourses. Maybe the third time will be the charm!

    • Welcome to the world of lengthy discourse, a hallmark of much Russian literature. Tolstoi’s War & Peace devotes about 1/3 of its 800 pages to war and military strategy. If Dostoyevsky seems long, prepare for mind-numbing shock if you wade into Solzhenitsyn’s never-ending Gulag (in three volumes). OTOH, Chekhov’s short stories offer digestible small bites while rendering flavorful bursts of the pre-revolutionary Russian character.

    • I would try listening to it on Audible. There’s a wonderful, unabridged edition read by Constantine Gregory. I’m part way through the book now, after trying to read it twice before. It’s going better this time! Also, I loved this article. Many points brought up, I had not considered. Well done!

  3. Whatever we believe, or need to believe, is not measured as much by the beliefs we profess with ease, rather it is that which we choose to believe, or need to convince ourselves we believe, about the nature of evil. Everything else is either derivative or skewed by the escape mechanisms we create to avoid faulting ourselves for sin even within our professed religious commitments. We often lie to ourselves as Father Zosima warned against, never more so than about the nature of evil, seeking to explain it in ways that are easy to externalize. Generally, we explain evil in terms of other people, or impersonal forces that “no one could have foreseen.” We create ideologies of determinism, and the pretensions of modern academics has made this easy. When such a large percentage of us having achieved the vanity inducements of university educations, we are more vulnerable and willing to accept analysis that create fictions that make it easier to construe evil as exclusive to those as dissimilar or determined by dissimilar forces from those virtues we prefer to think are determinative in our lives and those similar to ourselves. This sort of thought is the real reason sacramental life is declining in the Church. Loss of humility correlates with the loss of a sense of sin.

  4. Thank you Anna Mahjar-Barducci for this brilliant and insightful article. I am inspired to begin reading The Brothers Karamazov today.

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