Exiting the high-pressure live situation of our last episode, Mark, Wes, Seth, and Dylan ponder the 1869 novel in a more leisurely way. First, we revisit the prime “problem of evil”-related arguments in the book, and then look at textual passages to see how the various brothers deal with the problems of existence in an imperfect world.
The Christian story says that evil and suffering can be somehow balanced out, atoned for, or otherwise washed away, but how would this work? What attitude does a sinner need to take to be forgiven? Clearly not all evildoers will be repentant, and it seems pretty shifty if their sin can be expiated via divine fiat (e.g. Christ dying on our behalf, or as in the book, monks and other Christians taking responsibility for the sins of mankind as a unit via love). The existentialist position here seems to be that the global balance of suffering and forgiveness is really none of our concern; we can only act and love locally, and that can make life bearable for us and those around us, end of story.
According to the Grand Inquisitor’s argument, freedom is not going to be an adequate response to the problem of evil, not because many evils have nothing to do with people’s free choices (e.g. natural disasters), but because freedom is too difficult for people to handle, especially if they’re hungry or otherwise suffering. This idea of freedom being a curse is common among existentialists, so we talk a bit about where Dostoevsky’s view falls in that range, so far as we can tell. Like Buber, another religious existentialist, the solution to the vertigo of freedom is to focus on others and their needs, which provide pretty clear moral guidance without any sort of religious authority or objective moral law having to usurp our decision-making powers. We might not always know how to help people, but the only way to better figure that out is to better communicate with and understand them. This all provides us something positive to do with ourselves, so we don’t instead throw ourselves into the dramas of honor and sexual conquest (like Dmitri) or want to just check out of the whole human condition (like Ivan).
We also try to fit Dostoevsky’s ethics into Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity. The character Smerdyakov may map on to the “sub-man,” who doesn’t take responsibility for his actions and is really just a brute with no apparent inner life despite some artistic skills and surface-level cleverness.
Next episode, we’ll be talking about Friedrich Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man.