The Moral and Spiritual Dilemma of Fyodor Dostoyevsky

By Lorand Laskai

English II

Philosophers throughout history have often resorted to the fictional medium to convey their thoughts and ideas.  Such has been the case with Voltaire’s Candide, Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathusta, and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea. Yet seldom has an author been successful in attempting the reverse – transcending the demarcation between literature and philosophy. The 19th century Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky is the rare exception. While Dostoyevsky strongly dismissed the notion that he was a philosopher, his writing, which dealt with topics ranging from the existence of God to ethics and order, was profoundly philosophical. He has hence left an indelible mark on philosophy.

It is, however, not Dostoyevsky’s novelty or wit that has eternalized him within the annals of philosophical thought, but rather his uncertainty. Notwithstanding his firm devotion to Christianity, Dostoyevsky was frequently troubled by ideas that contradicted his faith. Yet instead of dismissing them, he endeavored to discover truth by maintaining all possibilities before reaching a conclusion. His novels, in particular The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment, reflect this propensity to entertain all ideas: the main characters all embody a defined philosophy towards life, which manifests in their actions, thoughts and intentions. How these characters fare as the plot progresses, surmounting or succumbing to the challenges they are dealt, indicates Dostoyevsky’s ultimate conclusion, in respect to their embodied philosophy. Thus it is possible to read his novels not only as a story, but also as debate – one that surely once raged in Dostoyevsky’s own head.

Early into his career as a writer, Dostoyevsky became embroiled in Russian politics.  Like many members of the intellectual community of his time, he was disenchanted with Russia’s autocratic tsarist government, and sought to provide Russia with a better alternative. He began publishing essays touting atheism and boldly calling for liberal reforms, and associating himself with the Petrashevsky Circle — a progressive underground organization, composed of followers of the French Socialist Utopian, Charles Fourier (Encyclopædia Britannica). It was not long, however, before his vocal opinions got him into trouble: at 24 years old, Dostoyevsky was arrested for treason and sentenced to hard labor in Siberia (Encyclopædia Britannica)

Under the brutal conditions of Russia’s desolate north, Dostoyevsky experienced an utter transformation in terms of faith and personal philosophy. He became disillusioned by his prior convictions in western philosophy, progress and atheism; rejecting everything western, he became a fierce nationalist and a devout Orthodox Christian (Gallagher). He began to disdain the intellectual class whom he was once a part of, finding their struggle to manufacture a perfect society fanciful and inane (Peaver). Instead, he concluded that only through people’s acceptance of the tenants of Christianity could a better world be created (Gallagher).

Yet Dostoyevsky was not anachronistic: he, like many living during the late 19th century, realized that the medieval pillars upon which religious piety stood were crumbling (Gallagher). The once infallible tenants of Christianity, to which people adhered lest they be stricken by righteous punishment, were now openly defied. Although many intellectuals saw the ebbing away of religion as positive, Dostoyevsky feared that this lack of faith would render society devoid of morality; it would thus lose the only bulwark preventing it from degenerating into utter nihilism (Gallagher). As Dostoyevsky’s character Ivan from The Brothers Karamazov, famously pronounced, “If God is dead, all is permitted” (The Brothers Karamazov 496).

Dostoyevsky addressed this concern directly in his first post-labor camp novel, Crime and Punishment. The plot focuses around Raskolnikov, an impoverished ex-student, who at the beginning of the novel murders an old, unscrupulous pawnbroker and her pregnant sister. While Raskolnikov covets the pawnbroker’s wealth, Raskolnikov does not perpetrate the murder solely for financial reasons. He was also acting upon his nihilistic principles (Gallagher). Raskonikoy views the laws and morals of society as confines for the mentally weak. Those of exceeding talent and ability or “supermen,” as Raskonikoy refers to them, are not obligated to follow society’s arbitrary laws, for it will only impede their ability and potential (Kiskaddon). Raskonikov constantly evokes Napoleon, claiming that just as Napoleon sacrificed millions of people in his military campaign to dominate Europe, his talent will render him immune from all legal and moral repercussions. Raskonikov, therefore, murders the pawnbroker as a means of confirming his beliefs. As he proclaims after he commits the murder, “It wasn’t a human being I killed, it was a principle!” (Crime and Punishment 492). That is, he endeavored not to kill a human, but to defy a principle – namely the laws and morals of society. 

Raskonikov carries out his murder perfectly, leaving no evidence upon which he could be incriminated. Yet his evil deed does not grant him the gratification and confidence he anticipated. The opposite occurs: his mind becomes clouded by torturous moral confusion, and he becomes irrationally afraid of being caught (Gallagher). The exact elements of society – laws and morals – that Raskonikov thought he was immune from, end up haunting him. In the end, Raskonikov finds solace in Sonya, a devout Christian, who persuades Raskonikov to turn himself into the authorities and accept his punishment.

Raskonikov’s ultimate faith reflects Dostoyevsky’s conclusion of the prospect of a nihilistic future – that is, a future where people defy the moral standards of society. Dostoyevsky believes that although people may not live a Christian lifestyle, certain moral laws intrinsically bind humans (Gallagher). Raskonikov’s victims were far from affable: the pawnbroker odiously exploited poor students, and her sister, while innocent, was unintelligent and promiscuous. Nevertheless, Raskonikov was overwhelmed by inexplicable and unshakeable guilt. He simply could not surmount the intrinsic moral laws, which Dostoyevsky believes bind all humans. Dostoevsky further believed that since people could not circumvent the moral laws that bind all humans, people eventually would come to accept the Christian faith (Gallagher).

Dostoyevsky was also troubled by the argument that Christianity should be used to control the masses. If people are given the freedom to choose what faith they live by, some invariably will not embrace a moral or Christian lifestyle; they will instead choose a life of hedonism and depravity. Humanity is simply too flawed and imperfect to be expected to always choose right from wrong.Thus, according to this argument, it should be the church’s prerogative to make decisions of morality and faith for them (Kiskaddon). In doing so, humanity’s freedom may be extinguished, yet a better world will be created, free of the evils that humans would otherwise inflict upon themselves. Creating such an order does not require coercion, for humans will knowingly give up their freedoms in the name of stability and peace (Kiskaddon).

This contention was addressed in the characters Ivan and Aloysha Karamazov, from Dostoyevsky’s last, and perhaps most famous, novel The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan Karamazosev is a gifted and intelligent rationalist, who holds a cynical view of humanity; he is, nonetheless, disturbed by all the senseless suffering in the world, and obsessed with finding a solution to humanity’s plight. His younger brother, Alyosha Karamazov, serves as Ivan’s foil: he is a deeply spiritual and altruistic novice at the local monastery, who believes in an active love for humanity by not passing judgments and trying to prevent the suffering of everyone around him.

During a debate between Ivan and Alyosha, Ivan asserts that God is responsible for the downfall and misery of humanity. To elucidate his claim he tells a parable, entitled “The Grand Inquisitor.” In the story, Christ appears in Inquisition Spain, where, instead of being greeted warmly, he is quickly apprehended by the authorities and thrown into a jail cell. The Grand Inquisitor visits him and says that if let free, he will threaten everything the church had accomplished. The Inquisitor proceeds to provide a cascade of criticism saying:

Instead of taking men's freedom from them, Thou didst make it greater than ever! Didst Thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to the freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil? …So that, in truth, thou didst Thyself lay the foundation for the destruction of Thy kingdom, and no one is more to blame for it (The Brothers Karamazov 523).

The Inquisitor tells Jesus that he misjudged humanity; it is not freedom which humans cherish, but stability. Christ could have provided this by accepting the devil’s three temptations: if he made bread from stone people would follow him to feed their bellies; if he performed miracles, people would submit to his will in awe; and if he ruled over the kingdom of mankind he could have ensured humanity’s salvation. Yet Jesus did not; he wrongly relied on human’s capacity to freely choose right from wrong. It is hence the church’s responsibility to provide where Christ could not.

Alyosha is too distraught by his brother’s cynicism to effectively rebut Ivan’s remarks; however Alyosha justifies faith by free will through his actions (Kiskaddon). As the plot progresses Alyosha helps Koyla, a 14-year-old boy, reconcile with his alienated and dying schoolmate, Ilyusha. Kolya, when he first meets Alyosha, conveys a distain for religion, calling it a tool for “the rich and powerful to keep the lower classes in slavery” (The Brothers Karamazov 1160). However, after witnessing Alyosha’s love for Iluysha and his family, Kolya begins to accept Christianity, so much so that Kolya becomes overjoyed with religious piety and, evoking the martyrdom of Christ, exclaims “Oh, if I, too, could sacrifice myself some day for the truth” (The Brothers Karamazov 1614).Although not explicitly mentioned, Dostoyevsky’s conclusion on the freedom of faith is implied at the plot’s end: Alyosha’s active love helps improve humanity bit by bit, while Ivan, for a variety of reasons, becomes overwhelmed by guilt and eventually deranges into insanity. Dostoyevsky thus views freedom – even if it necessitates evil – as a crucial aspect of religion (Kiskaddon). A society composed of docile believers, Dostoyevsky insists, can never replicate the intensity in faith of those who choose Christianity out of their own free will, for freedom is required if one is to truly appreciate God’s love (Kiskaddon). Kolya could have been forced to believe in Christianity, either by his parents or because of the need of food and security. But he would have never developed the intensity of religious piety that he experiences when he chooses Christianity out of free will.

Dostoyevsky, also, was skeptical of any authoritative institution promising a better world; for this reason, he vehemently opposed both theocrats and socialists (Gallagher). Unlike the Grand Inquisitor, who believed humanity could only be happy through enslavement, Dostoyevsky believed individuality and freedom of expression compose the very essence of humanity. As Nikolai Berdyaev, a follower of Dostoyevsky stated, “The world is full of wickedness and misery precisely because it is based on freedom – yet that freedom constitutes the whole dignity of man and his world” (Kiskaddon). Dostoyevsky, however, was filled with apprehension by what he sees as humanity’s propensity to forsake its freedom by trading it for food, comfort and security (Gallagher). His fears seem almost prophetic of the totalitarian regimes that would rise during the 20th century, like Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who promised “Peace, bread and land” during their ascent to power.

Dostoyevsky was perhaps most confounded by the needless suffering to which he bore witness. If God is just and loving – as Dostoyevsky wanted to believe – why is it that innocent people suffer for no apparent reason? For many, the answer that God acts in mysterious ways sufficed as an explanation — but not for Dostoyevsky. As Ivan, from The Brothers Karamazov says:

Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature... and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on this condition? (504)

For Dostoyevsky the answer was no. He believed in the equal and infinite value of every human (Gallagher). Therefore, he could not accept a system that allowed the innocent to suffer, even if it led to the happiness of many. This is why Dostoyevsky could not accept the intellectuals who were willing to or let people suffer to attain the goal of a better society (Gallagher). If the edifice of Christianity was built on the suffering of the innocent, even if it led to perpetual peace and harmony, he too could not accept it.

Dostoyevsky addresses this internal conflict, with brothers Ivan and Alyosha from The Brothers Karamazov. During Ivan and Alyosha’s debate, Ivan also contends that he cannot accept Christianity, because of the suffering of children, who could never have committed a sin worthy of the pain they sometimes are dealt. He proceeds to tell Alyosha a number of graphic stories of children suffering for inexplicable reasons. Ivan proclaims, "It's not God that I don't accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket,” since “too high a price is asked for harmony” (The Brothers Karamazov 503). By this Ivan means he cannot accept God’s world if it condones such evil; he prefers to find a solution to the suffering of humanity separate from God. Alyosha refutes Ivan’s contention, simply by stating that Jesus sacrificed himself for the sake of humanity, and that humanity is collectively responsible for the suffering individuals endure (Kiskaddon).

Like Ivan’s previous contention, Dostoyevsky’s personal conclusion can be discerned as the plot progresses. Through his active love, Alyosha helps improve humanity, while Ivan becomes too troubled by his own abstract reasoning to do any good. Moreover, unlike Alyosha, Ivan’s rebellion against God leaves him faithless and unable to navigate through some of the novel’s traumatic events. For instance, after the murder of their father, Ivan is unable to cope with what he sees as his direct involvement in his father’s murder. Alyosha recognizes his brother’s anguish, and offers his brother spiritual guidance; however, unable to accept God, Ivan feels obliged to reject Alyosha’s overturns. Eventually, with Ivan unable to alleviate himself of guilt, his anguish turns into a torturous spiral, leading to insanity at the novel’s end. 

Although Ivan’s ultimate faith in The Brother’s Karamazov offers an emphatic rejection of the suffering of innocents argument, Dostoyevsky himself never reached such a certain conclusion: his personal correspondence shows that throughout his life Dostoyevsky constantly wrestled with why the innocent suffer (Townsend). What Dostoyevsky ultimately —albeit hesitantly— concluded is that it is an impossible endeavor to rationalize God, as Ivan attempted. It is only through the universal acceptance of the tenants of Christianity that such suffering can be eradicated from the world (Kiskaddon).

Few writers have ever been willing, within the pages of their novels, to engage in as expatiated a debate as Fyodor Dostoevsky. So passionately did Dostoevsky endeavor to represent all ideas, that when the chapter “The Grand Inquisitor,” from The Brothers Karamazov, was published, many critics wondered if Dostoevsky himself had come to denounce Christianity, and was actually advocating the enslavement of humanity under some authoritative institution (Townsend). It is this passion and willingness to explore all sides of religion’s and philosophy’s most profound questions that made Dostoevsky one of greatest philosophical writers of all time.


Works Cited

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Encyclopædia BritannicaEncyclopædia Britannica Online.

Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010. Web. 25 Apr. 2010  <>.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Constance Garnett. 1880. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

- - -. Crime and Punishment. Trans. Constance Garnett. 1866. N.p.: n.p., .n.d. Print.

Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky Biography. Brandeis University, n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2010.

Gallagher, Jay. “Lecture Notes: Dostoevsky as Philosopher.” UC Davis Philosophy Department. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2010. Kiskaddon, Elissa. “Dostoyevsky and the Problem of God.” Middlebury College’s Russian Department. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2010. Tillier, Caroline. “Dostoyevsky and the Theme of Children.” Middlebury’s Russian Department. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2010.

Townsend, James. DOSTOEVSKY AND HIS THEOLOGY. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2010.

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