On Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1880 novel, focusing mostly on the “Rebellion” and “Grand Inquisitor” chapters, featuring Mark, Wes, Seth and Dylan at the Caveat in Lower Manhattan.
How can we reconcile ourselves to the existence of evil and suffering? The character Ivan Karamazov gives an argument that we just can’t. This is a variation of the classic argument from evil against the existence of a good God (A good God couldn’t possibly allow evil to exist, and yet evil does exist). Ivan vividly argues that some innocent children suffer horribly, and nothing could justify this. Any alleged divine plan by which such suffering is necessary for a greater good would be simply monstrous. So even if you admit that God exists (which Ivan does), then the rational response to this is rebellion against God.
The fact that rational human behavior does not follow directly from an accurate assessment of the state of the world, but is instead a matter of choice, is what causes Dostoevsky to be typically categorized as an existentialist. His character Ivan sees this world and decides he must rebel, while Ivan’s brother Alyosha who is hearing the story ultimately decides that he can respond by choosing to love others in very concrete ways.
These two responses are mirrored in Ivan’s subsequent story wherein Jesus visits Earth during the Spanish Inquisition and is captured by the Grand Inquisitor, who explains to Jesus why the Church no longer follows the stringent teachings of Jesus, which the Inquisitor characterizes as requiring freely chosen faith. In Jesus’ famous temptation in the desert by the devil, Jesus was offered the option to simply use miracles to convert stones to bread, which would feed the world and in so doing provide concrete evidence to any doubters, but he (mistakenly, according to the Inquisitor) said no. The Catholic Church, by contrast, offers its worshipers (which they aim to encompass the whole world) a plentiful diet of miracles, of bread, and of authoritative rules, so that people no longer have to choose, or struggle, or even think. The ultimate outcome of such ideas would be according to Dostoevsky a dystopia much like that described in our last live show, Brave New World.
Instead, Dostoevsky demonstrates (largely through the behavior of Alyosha and his teacher Zosima) that we should embrace life with all its evils and just try to make them better, one good deed at a time. While our episode 164 on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, we got a picture of a saintly character who through his sheer saintliness actually drives the people surrounding him to become worse, Alyosha is all about actually connecting with people even given their hubris and self-lacerations and trying to help them from wherever they’re at. In the latter part of the book, he engages with a group of boys to help them have respect and compassion for each other.
But does this sort of practical response actually address Ivan’s challenges or merely ignore them? For a more rationalist response to the problem of evil, see our episode 253 on Leibniz’ Theodicy. Dostoevsky, like Leibniz and other Christian apologists, claims that we are just to limited to apprehend the grand plan, but while Leibniz thinks we can still understand abstractly that it must be good, Dostoevsky doesn’t think this is enough: We must as emotional beings have some way to cope with the world, and he thinks that we all (even Ivan) have an innate desire to embrace life, and this provides the key for how to “solve” the cosmological problem of evil on a personal, individual level. Again, this emphasis on developing individual attitudes toward the world is characteristic of existentialism.
We read the Norton Critical Edition of the text, which includes not only an extensively tweaked version of the widely read Garnett translation by Susan McReynolds, but also many relevant passages from Dostoevsky’s journals and influential critical essays.
Losing track of the characters we mention? Review with this list.
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