Ruminations on Religion and Morality

Neil Ramaswamy


While the majority of my blog will contain informa(tiona)l musings about the world, I did want to post an essay I wrote of which I was particularly proud. I read The Brothers Karamazov in the summer of 2020, but large parts of the novel went right over my head. Determined to better understand this master work of Dostoevsky, I took a class on Dostoevsky, taught by the wonderful Vladimir Golstein. The following essay by no means delivers a seminal interpretation of the Karamazovian condition, but it did, for me, deliver the satisfaction of knowing that I had begun to understand a book whose ideas I once held woefully inaccessible.

Unravelling Man's Mystery:
Trial and Religious Transformation in The Brothers Karamazov

At eighteen years old, Dostoevsky professed that "man is a mystery [that] needs to be unravelled[...] I am studying that mystery because I want to be a human being." In these words, Dostoevsky makes clear that examining the human condition is a defining characteristic of one's own humanity. Central to this understanding of the human condition is the understanding of the self, and The Brothers Karamazov makes clear that characters with a religious conviction are those most successful in this pursuit. Religion gives characters a way to change by supplying a framework through which to judge the morality of their behavior; atheism, on the other hand, does not require any such introspection, leading to cynicism and stagnation. Zosima and Dmitri critically engage with their past debaucheries, and through religion and repentance, are able to embark on redemptive journeys. The atheism of Smerdyakov and Ivan, however, requires no grappling with ambiguous moral dilemmas, which leads to their respective death and demise. In addition to this religious commentary, Dostoevsky dramatizes the importance of individual and personal approaches to moral assessment. In painting a trial in which hypotheticals and construed "facts" are used to judge Dmitri, he shows that external assessments of character prove unfit to judge a character. Ultimately, The Brothers Karamazov advocates that individuals use religion and self-assessment to create lasting character change; this introspection, in turn, allows characters to better understand the mystery of man, the unravelling of which Dostoevsky held vital in existing as a human being.

Through the lives of Zosima and Dmitri, Dostoevsky portrays religion as a tool through which to find redemption and second chances, while the atheism of Smerdyakov and Ivan leads them to fatal outcomes from which they cannot recover. To dramatize religion as a tool through which to spiritually and morally mature, Dostoevsky portrays characters who mature most as the characters who adopt religion. Like Dmitri, when Zosima was entering adulthood, he "transformed into an almost wild, cruel, and absurd creature[...] and with [his money] threw [himself] into a life of pleasure, with all the impetuousness of youth, without restraint, under full sail" (Dostoevsky 295-96). In addition to this description of generic depravity, Zosima also details his attitudes towards women: it was "hard and fearful [...] to part with the temptations of a depraved and free bachelor's life" (296). While most readers might associate the chasing of women with the never-redeemed Fyodor Karamazov, Zosima's "free bachelor" lifestyle closely parallels the sensual Fyodor, who held orgies "in the house right in front of his [sixteen-year-old] wife" (13). In drawing these seemingly disparate characters together, Dostoevsky refutes the argument that all holy and moral individuals were born as such. Thus, he sets the scene for transformation.

Zosima's acceptance of God comes at the same moment as the beginning of his transition from a man of arrogance and debauchery to a man more honorable; this concurrency suggests that it is God that enables Zosima change. After striking his servant Afansy "in the face with all [his] might," Zosima understands that his actions were a crime: "a sharp needle [goes] through his soul" (297, 98). As the seeds of religion had already been planted in Zosima's soul, he is able to see his actions as a crime against humanity. Immediately thereafter, he sees the beauty of God's world—the shining sun, the glistening leaves, the singing birds. Seeing all of these natural elements, Zosima reminds himself of the world's innocence—including that of his servant—and decides to throw himself at his servant's feet, asking for forgiveness. His transformation is not limited to his interactions with his servant; he decides to attend his duel but not to shoot at his opponent. After intentionally missing his shot, his exclamations about God's "divine gifts" and nature's being "beautiful and sinless" suggest that he has grown wiser. While this connection to God's world is not necessarily common to all transformations in The Brothers Karamazov, the connection to God and optimism is. Interestingly, Zosima, in the next subsection of Book VI, becomes an almost holy figure, listening to the mysterious visitor's confessions without judgement, similar to how Christ and saints listen to the confessions of mortals. This mode of living continues for the rest of his life, from listening to the squabbling Karamazovs in his cell to the grievances of his monastery's visitors. Thus, Zosima functions as Dostoevsky's epitome of transformation, coming to share many of Christ's functions even though he originally lives a base, "Karamazovian" lifestyle.

Religion similarly aids Dmitri's transformation from a violent, unrestrained "Karamazov" to a more repentant, self-aware man who is willing to atone for his past sins. Like Fyodor and the young Zosima, Dmitri's sins relate largely to sensual experiences with women: "I was leading a wild life there. Father said I used to pay several thousand to seduce girls [though it,] in fact, never required any money" (108). Comically, Dmitri admits to having seduced girls without having to use money—this financial distinction, perhaps, is the only distinction between him and the young Zosima, who also led a "wild" bachelor's life (though Dmitri does later spend money to try to win over Grusha). Additionally, Dmitri speaks about how he "loved depravity [and] the shape of depravity" and how "there were no such back lanes, physically, but morally there were" (109). From the narrator's backstory about Stinking Lizaveta, the readers can draw a parallel between the moral "back lanes" about which Dmitri speaks, and the "back way" down which Fyodor comes when he rapes the hapless Lizaveta (97). Through all of these debaucheries, Dmitri believes that his sensuality and attraction to physical beauty is "fearful because it's undefinable[...] because God gave us only riddles" (108). Not yet having begun to fully believe in God and his world, Dmitri thinks that the world in which he lives is mysterious, containing meaning that he cannot uncover. Dostoevsky portrays Dmitri and Zosima to originally have these shared doubts about God as they grapple with sin. Again, Dostoevsky renders Dmitri ready for a religious transformation, from licentiousness to virtue.

Dmitri's adoption of religion is the driving force behind his transformation from a sensualist to a man willing and ready to repent for his sins. Before Dmitri's adoption of religion, he believes that God's world is a "riddle" that he is unable to solve. When Alyosha sees him in prison, however, he reveals that "in these past two months, I've sensed a new man in me [...]! He was shut up inside me" (591). Dmitri's newfound appreciation for God accompanies this transformation, in that he states that convicts will "start singing a tragic hymn to God, in whom there is joy! Hail to God and his joy! I love him!" (592). Sensing God's joy, Dmitri has no objection for being punished for his crimes: he, unlike Rakitin and Ivan, does not believe that everything is permitted. While some readers might see Dmitri's planned escape as a mechanism to avoid punishment, Dmitri desires to escape to America to work and serve his own penal servitude: "I still take heart from the thought that I will not be running to any joy or happiness, but truly to another penal servitude, maybe no better than this one!" (764). In America, he plans to "immediately set to work, digging the land [...] in solitude" (765). Dmitri's belief in God and disbelief that everything is permitted allows him to recognize the extent of his idleness and moral shortcomings, from chasing women to engaging in bar fights; additionally, this recognition enables him to understand his need of punishment and penal servitude. Thus, Dmitri's adoption of God within the novel enables him to start his regeneration. While Dostoevsky does not show the readers the outcome of Dmitri's plans to escape, his plan to renew himself suggests religion's transformative power.

While it is clear through Zosima and Dmitri that religion has the power to renew, it is important to recognize that atheism has the opposite effect, resulting in character stagnation and even deterioration, as it provides no way through which characters can evaluate the moral impact of their actions. Atheists, in the way that Dostoevsky presents them, prove materialistic, focusing on mathematical, concrete aspects of reality. When Fyodor, for example, discusses hell, he wonders whether devils have hooks: "hooks? Where do they get them? What are they made of? Iron? Where do they forge them? Have they got some sort of factory?" (24). Hell's immaterial significance—a state in which occupants can no longer love, as Zosima says—is unfathomable to atheists and disbelievers in God, for their belief system fails to encapsulate that without physical form, like love. This belief system precisely leads Ivan and Smerdyakov, among other characters, to commit and undertake actions that harm others: in their minds, everything is permitted. Hauntingly, Smerdyakov admits to Ivan that he kills Fyodor seemingly without any specific reason and states that "if there's no infinite God, then there's no virtue either, and no need of it at all" (632). Smerdyakov, who admits to having learned from Ivan and therefore lives blind to virtue, sees no reason to change. Ivan, though his conversation with the devil and confession in court suggest that he might be starting to change, his realizations come too late, and he ends the novel with an unresolved brain fever. Even more woefully, Smerdyakov kills himself and is mourned by nobody. These tragic, sudden endings of Dostoevsky's atheists suggest that modes of thinking that fail to evaluate the moral repercussions of actions are dangerous not only to society's growth, but also to that of the individual.

Dostoevsky portrays religion as an agent of transformation because it encourages moral introspection; his portrayal of an unfair, supposedly "factual" trial evinces his belief that the criminal justice system is flawed, as it takes fundamentally material approaches to complex moral issues. Despite the prosecutor's insistence that the "mathematical" facts he presents are true, his evidence comes from characters who make assumptions about events that transpire, leading to assertions that only the defense and readers know are wrong. Grigory, as he sees Dmitri running through the yard, makes the assumption that he has killed Fyodor: "'Parricide!' the old man shouted for all the neighborhood to hear" (394). At this point, Grigory has no evidence to make this assertion, and the readers know, after hearing Smerdyakov's confession, that Fyodor was not yet dead, and Smerdyakov was getting ready to enter Fyodor's room to kill and rob him. In addition, the narrator tells the readers that Grigory yells "for all the neighborhood to hear," making clear that putative facts are publicly broadcasted incorrectly from the very beginning of Dmitri's supposed crime. Perhaps if the smearing of facts were localized to only Grigory, Dmitri's reputation would not be hurt, but Marfa also circulates falsehoods. Believing Grigory's words that "he killed… father," Marfa "testifies as she ran'' and gives the "alarm to everyone at the commissioner's house," where she is seen as an "obvious witness" (455). In using words like "tesifies" and phrases like "obvious witness," the narrator indicates that assumptions are unwittingly and unconsciously made into proof that Dmitri is a parricide. The incorrect evidence given by supposed eye-witnesses is one of Dostoevsky's ways of suggesting that externally borne assessments of characters and events can be error-prone and judicially dangerous.

In addition to the excessive belief in eye-witnesses, the way that the prosecutors collect evidence from Dmitri pays no attention to the nuances of his situation. Dmitri insists that he is "a scoundrel, but not a thief, not a thief, anything you like, but not a thief" (492). Dmitri tries to highlight a painful juxtaposition within his soul, a conflict between debauchery and virtue. His base inclinations lead him to want to spend money to win over Grushenka from his father, yet his more virtuous inclinations lead him to not want to spend the money. In this tension, he spends only 1500 out of the 3000 Roubles—a perfect division, one that echoes his struggle. The prosecutors in Mokroye, however, coldly state that "still it's strange that you see it as such a fatal difference" (492). In Dmitri's eyes, there exists a dichotomy, but the prosecutors prove determined to avoid any ambiguity and nuance: "let us set aside any altercation concerning these subtleties and distinctions, and please, come back to the point" (493). After admitting to these prosecutors that Katya and Grusha tore him apart, Dmitri is told by the prosecutor that "in the heat of the moment, [he, the prosecutor] did fail to consider… this matter of female jealousy… if indeed there is a question of jealousy" (495). Despite the prosecutor's seeming awareness of Dmitri's predicament in the first part of his statement, he nevertheless finds a way to challenge it by asking "if there is a question of jealousy." Thus, even during the investigative phase of the trial, we see that the prosecutors prove wholly incapable of evaluating extra-material details.

In addition to depicting the fragility of material evidence, Dostoevsky also indicates that psychological, hypothetical arguments are fallacious in judicial settings. The prosecution's sophistry is so refined that our narrator reports that "Ippolit Kirillovich, [...] evidently chose a strictly historical method of accounting" (715). The narrator's statement proves ironic, as the prosecutor's speech is factual on the surface, but psychological at its core. Ippolit declares, "Let us lay aside psychology, gentlemen, [...] let us turn just to the facts, simply to the facts alone" (709). Immediately thereafter, Ippolit begins to "consider the first alternative—that is, that Smerdyakov was working alone" (709). Though Ippolit says he will restrict himself simply to the facts, he considers hypothetical alternatives to Fyodor's murder, and then disputes them: "where is the moment when Smerdyakov committed his crime? Show me that moment, for without it there can be no accusation" (711). The irony of this situation is that nobody, not even the readers, were able to see the murder of Fyodor: Dostoevsky leaves it intentionally vague, forgoing any detail of Dmitri entering Fyodor's room. In this light, even Ippolit has no exact moment wherein Dmitri commited a crime. Dostoevsky's use of dramatic irony here dramatizes the fallacies embedded within Ippolit's argument—the reader knows that there is is no clear factual basis on which to judge Dmitri, yet Dmitri is made to be "guilty, clearly guilty, utterly guilty" (662).

While the trial in and of itself dramatizes the perils of materialism, a comparison between Dmitri's situation and the discussion of ecclesiastical courts further supports this idea that religion is a redemptive tool and that fact-seeking courts are harmful. Ivan observes that purely pagan courts engage in "the mechanical cutting off of the infected member" for the "preservation of society" (64). Zosima, on the other hand, believes that real punishment is "not a mechanical one such as just been mentioned, [... as] the only frightening and appeasing punishment [is that] which lies in the acknowledgement of one's own conscience" (64). The result of Dmitri's trial is mechanical: the jury decides that he is to spend twenty-years in the mines. Because their verdict is incorrect, Dmitri does not acknowledge his supposed crime, exclaiming that "I am not guilty of my father's blood!" (753). Yet Dmitri's own conscience, as mentioned earlier, allows him to grapple with his previous sins, admit to the injustices he did commit, and make a vow to reform himself. Zosima predicts a transformation as such, detailing that the Church, if given the opportunity to make moral judgements, would "bring the excommunicated back[... and] regenerate the fallen" (66). Dmitri's plans to undertake a life of work and self-imposed penal servitude suggests a transformation in the purest sense: he does not need a government or society to condemn him, for he has decided to condemn himself. This outcome is that which yields the most change, as seen with Zosima and Dmitri, in contrast with Ivan and Smerdyakov.

If religion is a redemptive tool vital to introspection, and external assessments of character are error-prone, then Dostoevsky must suggest that individuals be given the freedom to make moral appraisals of themselves. His framing of the The Grand Inquisitor, who believes in taking man's freedom away to achieve morality, indicates Dostoevsky's deep belief that the struggle to find integrity is what brings meaning to life. The Grand Inquisitor first tells the silent Jesus that his decision to let man be free brought more trouble than resolution:

Instead of taking over men's freedom, you increased it and forever burdened the kingdom of the human soul with its torments. [...] Instead of the firm ancient law, man had henceforth to decide for himself, with a free heart, what is good and what is evil. [...] They will finally cry out that the truth is not in you [and that you] abandoned them to so many cares and insoluble problems (255).

The Grand Inquisitor believes that in giving man the ability to make his own judgements, Jesus introduced hardship without which man would be better off. Thinking this way, the Grand Inquisitor would believe that the torments through which Zosima and Dmitri went were more burdensome than not; on the other hand, according to this logic, the mathematical, black and white logic with which Smerdyakov and Ivan approached the world would let them lead better lives. However, Dostoevsky's depiction of Smerdyakov and Ivan's death and demise suggests that such a world view is not beneficial. The Grand Inquisitor's prediction that religious characters will feel abandoned by God proves opposite to reality, as both Dmitri and Zosima experience profound moments of being connected to God, even as they experience hardship. In this way, Dostoevsky's characters seem to refute the assertions the Grand Inquisitor makes, and Dostoevsky undermines the validity of the Grand Inquisitor's argument against freedom. Interestingly, the Grand Inquisitor believes that if he were to hold freedom from man, "only we, we should keep the mystery, only we shall be unhappy" (259). Here, the mystery to which the Grand Inquisitor refers is "what one lives for'' (254). That Zosima and Dmitri are the individuals who do find happiness provides an incredible situational irony through which Dostoevsky indicates that finding what one lives for is the mystery towards which man should work.

Dostoevsky portrays Zosima and Dmitri as arrogant and wild bachelors who, through religion, change into more morally just individuals. The atheism of Ivan and Smerdyakov, on the other hand, allows them to act without restraint, as their modes of thinking allow everything to be permitted. Through depicting a trial that incriminates Dmitri on the basis of incorrect material evidence and sophistic character analysis, Dostoevsky suggests that external assessments of character are error-prone, and do not have the transformative power that religion does. These two ideas, when taken together, suggest that humans must be given the opportunity to explore the moral effects of their own actions with religion and that the Grand Inquisitor's idea of taking away man's freedom to achieve purity is fundamentally flawed: it both denies man the ability to explore his own nature, and makes, on behalf of man, the assumption that he is not strong enough to live virtuously. Thus, The Brothers Karamazov affirms Dostoevsky's belief in the religiously aided exploration of man's mystery—that is, human nature and spiritual struggle—as a path towards lasting character change.