Monday , June 17 2024

The philosophy of Dostoevsky: Chapters 2 and 3 Review

Chapter 2

A lady of little faith

Katerina Khokhlakova is a fairly minor character in Dostoevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’. She is the mother of Lise, the little girl who begins the novel as an invalid, but who later develops a close loving relationship with Alyosha. Madame Khokhlakova in the end is not an especially sympathetic character. She is vain and foolish, and is used at times as a sort of comic relief. But the chapter in which she first appears in conversation with Father Zosima has a very deep discussion of faith. In this chapter, “A lady of little faith” (p. 53-59), she is not referred to by name. The reader only later finds out who she is. Perhaps, this is intentional. Her surname sounds slightly ridiculous, like a parody of Ukrainian. It goes well with her later ridiculousness, but she does not at all appear ridiculous in this initial conversation. Rather, she puts forward concerns that must touch many readers.

Madame Khokhlakova says to Father Zosima that she suffers from lack of faith. She does not quite dare say that she lacks faith in God, but she lacks faith in the idea of life after death. Really, this is just a matter of politeness, for the one issue goes with the other. From a Christian perspective, to cease to believe in life after death is to cease to believe in God. If a person believes in a Christian God, a belief in life after death follows as a matter of course. Although she believed, mechanically as a child, she wonders now if faith came about because of the fear of death, thus that it is a product of man’s fear and unwillingness to accept that after death there is nothing. She wonders if when she dies there will simply be a grave and nothing more. She comes to Father Zosima looking for proof. She wants him to convince her.

Zosima immediately says that there is no question of proof, but that it is possible to be convinced. He says “Try to love your 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 the 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” (p. 56)

How can it be that by loving others a person will be convinced about the existence of God and immortality? One way to understand this is through an appreciation of the work of Søren Kierkegaard and the Epistle of James. In the Epistle of James the emphasis is on actions. The author of James writes, for instance, “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith and have not works? … faith if it hath not works is dead” (James 2: 14-16). Kierkegaard throughout his authorship shows a great deal of respect for the Epistle of James, which in itself is somewhat surprising as he was brought up a Lutheran and Luther notoriously called James an ‘epistle of straw’.

In the first discourse of For Self-Examination (p. 13-51) Kierkegaard looks closely at a text in the first chapter of James which includes the following:

“But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.” (James 1: 22-25)

Kierkegaard asks himself “What is required in order to look at oneself with true blessing in the mirror of the Word?” He answers “The first requirement is that you must not look at the mirror, observe the mirror, but must see yourself in the mirror” (p. 25). How though can a person see himself in a mirror without observing the mirror? If however, we reflect that the mirror is God’s word, there may be an answer? Kierkegaard is saying that a person must not look at God’s word and only see the words; rather he must see himself in the words, or see that the words apply to him. What this means is that the words require something of him, and that thing is action.

There are all sorts of ways of putting off action. One of these is to interpret. He writes “God’s Word is indeed the mirror … but how enormously complicated.” (p. 25). He reflects on the fact that the Bible is frequently difficult, hard to understand and that there are many interpretations. We don’t know which books are authentic and who wrote them. But if a person looks at the mirror in this way, it will always remain confusing.  The task is to see yourself in the mirror, but what prevents this is if the person continues endlessly to interpret. The problem with scholarship is that it is a way to avoid acting. The scholar can always reflect that he will just come up with a slightly better interpretation of this or that passage before acting on it. The crucial thing however, is not to interpret, but to realise that the text applies to me. Kierkegaard writes that “when you are reading God’s Word, it is not the obscure passages that bind you but what you understand, and with that you are to comply at once” (p. 29). The amount of scholarship required to act according to God’s word is so minimal that all that is required has already been done. We have had for hundreds of years a reasonably accurate translation of the Bible and this contains enough clear statements of required actions to last a lifetime.

The task for Kierkegaard is to take the Bible personally. Thus he writes “If you are to read God’s Word in order to see yourself in the mirror, then during the reading you must incessantly say to yourself. It is I to whom it is speaking” (p. 40). The reason why this is crucial is that it is instrumental in creating the Christian self. He writes:

“If God’s Word is for you merely a doctrine something impersonal then it is no mirror – an objective doctrine cannot be called a mirror, it is just as impossible to look at yourself in an objective doctrine as to look at yourself in a wall. And if you want to relate impersonally to God’s Word, there can be no question of looking at yourself in mirror, because it takes a personality, an I, to look at yourself in a mirror; a wall can be seen in a mirror, but a wall cannot see itself or look at itself in a mirror” (p. 43-44)

If a person reads objectively, he cannot see himself in God’s word for there is no self to see. Reading personally creates the “I” and thus creates the Christian self. Recognising that the Bible applies to the self is instrumental in creating the self which recognises that the Bible applies to it. When the self is objective, like a wall, it can be seen, but it is not self-conscious because it is not conscious of itself as a spirit or a soul and thus it cannot see itself. The self is created when it relates itself to God through relating itself to God’s word. To do this however the self must be personal and it achieves this through relating itself to itself. The self-relation is achieved through the recognition that God’s word applies to it. The self relates to the self that it sees in the mirror of God’s word and thus at the same time relates to itself and to God. The whole passage about correct reading as opposed to scholarship is about how the Kierkegaardian self is created. It is by following God’s word by loving one’s neighbours that the sense of self, the sense of spirit is created. By relating myself to God’s word, I relate myself to God. I see myself in the mirror, relate myself to myself, but also relate myself to another.

Kierkegaard writes that the “The demonstration of Christianity really lies in imitation” (p. 68). From a perspective that sees belief as a matter of reason this is absurd. Kierkegaard is saying that through imitation a doubter will lose his doubts. But if a person doubted due to lack of reasons, why would he imitate? Kierkegaard though is looking at the matter in a different way. By imitating Christ a person demonstrates that he is a Christian. Moreover, if Christian belief (faith) is action, which is what has been learned from James, then if a person does not act, he does not really believe it. If he does not believe, then he doubts. The only solution to doubt is action. To act is to cease to doubt, and to cease doubting is to cease looking for reasons.

We can now see an interpretation of how Father Zosima’s advice to Madame Khokhlakova can help her to have faith. If we see faith as a matter of action, then by acting, by loving others, the person automatically has faith. Faith that just contemplates, that fails to act, is a lifeless thing. No wonder then that she does not feel it.

Moreover, if Kierkegaard is right, it is through action, through loving others, that the spiritual self, (the self that relates itself to itself and relates itself to others and indeed God) is created. If a person fails to act, if he fails to follow God’s word, he will lack any sense of the spiritual. Only when a person relates to God’s word does he relate to God and in doing so create the soul.

In this sense it may even be that the atheist is right. He does not believe in the soul, he does not believe in immortality. He is right as for him these things are not. Only by acting in a loving manner does a person develop faith and with it the sense of himself as a soul, as a spiritual being. Perhaps, only in this way does he enable God to create this immortal soul. If this is so, then how we live our lives really is decisive. Not because God will punish us, but because if we have not related to him at all, there is nothing for him to save.

We see as the conversation between Madame Khokhlakova and Father Zosima continues that she is attempting to avoid action. She dreams of great, kind deeds. She dreams of being a nun of giving up everything, of not being frightened by sores and dirt. Father Zosima brings her back down to earth by saying maybe one day you will actually do a fine deed. She realises that her dreams of acting kindly would fail as soon as someone showed ingratitude. Father Zosima comes up with a similar anecdote of a doctor who hates people individually but loves humanity. Again we see someone who loves in theory but not in practice. What is to do be done? Zosima is very kind and gentle. He thinks that it is a lot if the person is already aware of his fault, aware of his lack of action. The key is to begin acting. He says “Do what you can and it will be reckoned unto you. You have already done much if you can understand yourself so deeply and so sincerely” (p. 57). This however only works if the person is sincere and genuinely repentant about his lack of action.

Zosima compares active love with acting in dreams. This is similar to the idea in Kierkegaard which compares someone who follows Christianity in theory with someone who follows it in practice. But whereas Kierkegaard can be strict, Zosima is very gentle. He accepts that we are weak. Active love is difficult. It is a matter of action, and day to day action, not just one glorious act. It needs perseverance and endurance and patience. But even if someone is as weak as Madame Khokhlakova, there is hope for her. Even if she finds in the end that all her efforts at active love have failed, that she is as far as ever from her goal, then she will find that the miraculous and mysterious power of God is enough to save her and that He always has been guiding her.

In Zosima’s view it is enough to strive to love actively. He expects so very little of us. No more than the mere act of striving. This striving is like Grushenka’s story (later in the novel) of the gift of an onion. The solitary good act in a life of wickedness can be enough to pull us out of the pit. God, perhaps, then does not need more than our striving to be doers of the word. Perhaps, this is enough to create the self for him to save. Perhaps, in the striving alone there is enough self-relation and enough relation to another for the Christian self to come into existence.

Zosima’s account is very gentle as compared to Kierkegaard’s strictness. But that is not to say that Kierkegaard would not have sympathised with Zosima’s view. After all, Kierkegaard continually recognised our inability in the face of Christianity’s demands, our powerlessness in the face of Christ’s example. Madame Khokhlakova is powerless. She thinks that she can do nothing. But so long as she tries just a little and so long as she does not use this sense of powerlessness as an excuse, she, like all of us, can gain faith. Dostoevsky’s account of faith is very gentle. In the end, we only need to give the tiniest thing. One good dead is enough to save us. But this gentleness only works if we do not deceive ourselves. It is for this reason that Zosima warns above all against lies. How can a self look in Kierkegaard’s mirror if it is not honest with itself? A lie destroys the self’s relation to itself and if a person cannot even find himself in the mirror, how can he expect to find God?

The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, Vintage, 1992.

For Self-Examination, translated by Hong and Hong, Princeton University Press, 1990.

Chapter 3
The great leap forward
It is only through writing that I can really know what I think. My views develop and change. The fundamentals don’t normally change a great deal, but the details do. My method is not scholarly. I find most academic writing to be desperately dull and pointless. I rarely now write footnotes. What are they for? I hardly ever read the books or articles that are cited, so all these little footnotes do is show that someone is a scholar and that they play this academic game with success. They are published in journals which no-one reads and write books that are unreadable.
Some good work is no doubt being done in science and medicine, but I rarely come across something that I find interesting in the subjects that concern me such as history, literature, philosophy and theology. The discussion is frequently very narrow and about something that doesn’t matter, an author who ought to have been forgotten, an obscure verse in the Bible or an academic dispute that concerns no-one else. I don’t do this. It is pointless. It is only about being employed and receiving money. I sometimes think that modern day universities have one purpose only and that is to employ academics. The quality of the teaching and the quality of what is written is a disgrace compared to how things were one hundred years and more ago. The reason is that everyone is constrained and dare not say what they think.
Gradually a creeping conformity has taken over nearly every subject that is not grounded in experiment. I refuse to read anything written by Americans. It is simply too dull and depressing. The most original thinkers are tamed and made to conform to the latest political view. The most important issue is not to give offence to anyone. The words and the issues that might cause offense keep growing.  Who knows what will be offensive next.
A person from 1960 would be in trouble if they arrived in the modern world. Much of what they assumed to be unquestionably true would have turned out to be false. Ordinary words that they would use and their beliefs about religion and morality would be considered to be grossly offensive today. An article that I might have published in a philosophy or theology journal in 1960 might get me sacked today. No wonder so much writing is dull and conformist when we are all scared that the western equivalent of the Komsomol will denounce us. They will arrive with their little red books demanding safe spaces and trigger warnings and if we are not careful we will end up in the paddy fields grateful still to be alive. There is a cultural revolution taking place on campus.  No doubt one day it will be considered to be a great leap forward.
At the heart of this revolution is falsity. As ever I return to Dostoevsky in or to explain this. (All quotes from Pevear translation p.44)
At the start of the Brothers Karamazov there is a meeting between the father of the brothers Fedor who is a buffoon and Zosima a wise monk. Fedor continually plays the fool and tells lies. Zosima tells him “A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others.” Because of this such a person ceases to love both himself and others and falls into a degenerate state giving himself up to coarse pleasures and eventually reaches such an extremity of vice that it amounts to bestiality.
Why should this be so? I think it can be explained in Christian existentialist terms. Kierkegaard puts forward the idea that the self is relational. A self is a relation that relates itself to itself and in doing so relates to another. This other is God, but also other people. But if a person lies to himself, his relationship to himself is distorted and founded on falsity. This also prevents the person from relating correctly both to God and other people. Because God is the foundation of an objective morality, the person who lies to himself is left with being able to relate to others only in terms of law or in terms of inclination. Whatever feels good to me I will do so long as I can get away with it. The morality that everyone in 1960 took for granted has been undermined by our great leap forward to such an extent that I cannot even describe vice as immoral. If you have a different partner every night it is me that is wrong for being critical of you. I am a “slut shamer”, you are virtuous. People thus can interact in the way that animals do without respect and solely for the purpose of pleasuring each other. The truth that once was universally acknowledged that certain actions were immoral has been discarded. Even to suggest that certain behaviour is immoral is now condemned. The immorality is to suggest that something is immoral.
In what does the lie consist? In my view it consists in denying that the person has a relationship to God and that he has a soul. Each of us feels free and unconstrained when we act in our daily lives. But the foundation of modern science is to suggest that we are all in essence animals. The great leap forward is the attempt to explain and reduce human nature to biology and the universe to atoms. This is not how I experience the world. The basic feeling I have is that I am free. But science would tell me that this feeling of freedom is an illusion. All is determined. But my ordinary consciousness tells me that I am not matter and atoms causing each other to do things. It tells me that I am something qualitatively different. Science’s attempt to deny my most basic experience means that if I accept this reductionism, I am forced to deny the foundation of my existence. If science is correct, then everything I know about myself is untrue. But this requires that I deceive myself and lie about my everyday experience of freedom. The conflict between the scientific world view about my existence and my own everyday experience means I must either be authentic as a free spiritual being or else lie to myself and deny that I am what I am. It is a desperate situation if a person’s whole existence is founded on a lie. The reason for this is that I lose the authentic relationship I have with myself. I lose the grounding for any sort of objective morality which depends on God (if God does not exist everything is permitted) and I treat everyone else in terms either of what I am legally obliged to do or in terms of my own self-interest. No wonder this ends in bestiality because science tells us we are indeed beasts.
There is something else on which this whole lie depends. Let us return to Zosima. He says “A man who lies to himself is often the first to take offense. It sometimes feels very good to take offense. Doesn’t it?” The whole essence of our great leap forward is that we take offence. When I was a student in Cambridge no-one even noticed the old statues. I didn’t know who they were and I didn’t care. I had more important things to concern me. But now someone somewhere takes great pleasure in being offended. First they object to a statue of Cecil Rhodes. If this succeeds they take pleasure in objecting to someone else. Likewise someone finds that a novel from the past has ideas or words that are not current today. Someone must be offended. There are whole industries devoted to people being offended or alternatively to those who want to show that they are so liberal that they always use the currently fashionable term.
I write in a provocative fashion, because it is how I develop my thought. I want to write original articles that contain challenging thoughts. I will no doubt sometimes offend. But the Christian message itself is “offence to the Jews and folly to the Greeks.” This is the nature of truth. The deepest truths cannot be thought. They involve going beyond the bounds of reason. You climb up the ladder and then you throw it away. Truth therefore is folly. Moreover, telling someone he is wrong will always lead to him finding it offensive, especially if he wishes to remain in the wrong. In order to challenge the established way of thinking I therefore have to write things that will sometimes appear strange, (folly), and may also appear to be offensive. This is especially the case if I argue well.
But what we have above all is manufactured offence. Again Zosima describes the person who lies to himself “And surely he knows that no one has offended him, and that he himself has invented the offense and told lies just for the beauty of it, that he has exaggerated for the sake of effect, that he has picked on a word and made a mountain out of a pea”. I come across this so frequently that it has become the essence of our great leap forward. Someone picks out a word in one of my blogs and shares it on social media. Suddenly hundreds or indeed thousands of people tell me how offended they are by this word. They describe me in the worst possible terms. They find ever more innovative ways to show how much they hate me. But not one of them is really offended. It’s all completely inauthentic and false. They want to score points. They dislike my politics. They want to find a way to stop me writing. But not one of these people is really, genuinely offended. They are all the equivalent of the five year old who tells teacher that little Johnny was doing something wrong. The five year old is not offended by Johnny she just wants to suck up to the teacher and get Johnny into trouble. This is the essence of lying to yourself. It is self-deception. It damages you. It doesn’t touch me.
How many words have I written in my 300 plus blogs? Perhaps half a million. Yet still someone may point to a single word that I wrote two years ago and try to use it to condemn me. He only condemns himself.
We have reached the stage where the slightest slip on social media can lead to a storm of protest. But this inhibits all of us. We each have to watch what we say in case we say the wrong word. Suddenly a word that all of us have used without a problem becomes problematic. Who knows what it will be next week. I never once thought the word “Jock” was offensive. But now it may be added to the long list of words that cannot be said. But this is all founded on a lie. The person who objects to the word “Jock” doesn’t really do so. He just wants to be offended.
Whole areas of academic life are now controlled by this false sense of offence and it makes it almost impossible to write freely. It is such good fun for an 18 year old student to scare an elderly professor half to death because he fails to use the latest term for something. Fifty years ago nice people described black people as “coloured”. But that term is no longer fashionable. Fair enough. I too can see the problem with it. We all have a colour after all. But if someone who has not kept up with the fashion inadvertently uses this obsolete term is there any reason to take such an offence? Of course not, but it gives people such a warm feeling inside to condemn others. Look at how they apologise and abase themselves because they made a mistake. There is no greater joy than seeing a sinner repent.
The person who feels continual offense “likes feeling offended, it gives him great pleasure, and thus he reaches the point of real hostility”. The hostility is this. There are lots and lots of people who go about trying to ruin other’s lives because they happen to say something that they pretend offends them. An academic may be sacked for the slip of a tongue. An off-colour joke may lead to a criminal conviction. An argument that contradicts the established orthodoxy may lead to a visit from the police. Someone may be banned from speaking publically at a university because he holds a view that was common place in 1960. No wonder so much writing is dull when the consequences of writing in an interesting way can be so devastating.
This is all founded on a lie. First we lie to ourselves. We lie about what we are. We deny our experiences and we reject what is evident to our senses. We reject 2000 years of religion and 2000 years of moral tradition and in the space of 60 years we construct a worldview that would baffle our grandparents. This too is a lie. Then we say that anyone who does not accept our modern world view must be condemned. They are not even allowed to think that this world view may have flaws. Anyone who does so will find themselves out of a job or in jail. We then call this state of self-censorship “freedom of speech”.
But there may be hope. Ordinary people in Britain rejected this whole modern worldview when they voted for Brexit. No wonder the Stepford Students were so angry. It was a step. A first step. We must cease lying and start telling the truth. God help us if we don’t.

The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, Vintage, 1992.

This post was originally published by the author on her personal blog:

About Effie Deans

Effie Deans is a pro UK blogger. She spent many years living in Russia and the Soviet Union, but came home to Scotland so as to enjoy living in a multi-party democracy! When not occupied with Scottish politics she writes fiction and thinks about theology, philosophy and Russian literature.

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