can’t say that Dostoevsky was a good or a happy person… He was
mean, corrupt and full of jealousy. His entire life he was a
victim of passion, which would have made him ridiculous and
miserable, if he had been less intelligent and less mean. In
Switzerland, right before my eyes, he treated his servant so
badly that the man revolted and exclaimed ‘…but I too am a human
I remember the impression that those words gave
me… addressed to someone who always taught humane feelings to
the rest of mankind”.
These words belong to Strachov, a man who knew
Dostoevsky quite well (see Gerard Abraham, Dostoyevski),
however, they were based on a misunderstanding: Dostoevsky
never sought to teach kindness and humaneness to mankind.
Dostoevsky was never a moralist; on the contrary, we could
assert that in his overall opus he wittingly and systematically
did nothing but battle Morality, to a provocative degree.
However, we shouldn’t rush into concluding from this, that
Dostoevsky was a preacher of immoralism. Dostoevsky had the
passion of truth. He had the power to penetrate human behaviour
and reveal to us in the most dramatic (and convincing) manner
that whatever Morality presents as “moral” is never purely
“good” , and that man can never eliminate evil with Morality,
given that absolutely no-one can be purely good. Furthermore,
throughout his entire opus he never ceased to preach that what
mattered in human existence was not morality, but freedom; and
that only that which is free is truly good. What Dostoevsky
wants to convey to people is that to classify people as “good”
and “bad” is based on a lie and that the only way to defeat evil
is for one to freely take it upon himself. Dostoevsky is not an
given that he never ceases to describe evil as a tragic state
and a calamity for man; however, he is an amoralist(*),
because he believes deep down that Morality can never lead to
man’s redemption from evil.
In this homily, I shall try – in the restricted
time that I have at my disposal – to analyze this position by
focusing our attention on mainly two points: (a) on the matter
of good and evil and (b) on the matter of freedom. I will try
towards the end to make a theological evaluation of Dostoevsky’s
stance towards the problem of morality.
The problem of good and evil
The notion of Morality is based on discerning
between good and evil as far back as the time of Socrates, who
is regarded as its founder. “As defined in all the contemporary
dictionaries, the general study of good and the general study of
proper practice constitute the main opus of morality”
Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 1955,
Without discerning between good and bad, the notion of morality
This discernment usually takes on two forms. One
form is the characterization of actions or sentiments,
motives, dispositions etc., as “good” or “bad”. If one
loves, either in his actions or his dispositions or intentions,
then it is something “good” – always according to the prevailing
morality – whereas if he hates, it is regarded as something
“bad”. This is how the general principles of morality arose –
and always analogous to the cultural, religious, philosophical
etc. prerequisites of every era and every society.
The other form that the discerning between “good”
and “bad” takes is the characterization of Persons as
“good” or “bad”. In the
Anglo-Saxon morality of recent years, which also influenced the
mentality and the culture of our own societies, this form of
discernment between good and bad people led to the appearance of
the notion of “character”. The “character” is the
subject, on which are “engraved” certain qualities – good or bad
– ie., it is the subject of morality. The notion of “character”
is especially implemented in art – in fact, in literature, in
stories, the theatre etc., (for example, we call “characters”
the heroes of a literary work).
Both at a level of general principles of
morality, as well as of characters, Dostoevsky persistently
refuses any discernment between “good” and “bad”; in other
words, he denies the very basis of morality. At the level of
general principles Dostoevsky regards love as the supreme moral
main thing is to love others like
yourself; that is everything – nothing else is necessary»,
written at one time.
And yet, it was impossible to separate it from hatred. He
writes characteristically in the Underground – one of his
early and soul-stirring works: «I
went so far, as to reach the certain conclusion that love
–literally– consists of the strange right to torment the one you
love. During my musings in the Underground I imagined
love like a fight that begins with hatred and ends in moral
For this reason, the strange conclusion is – for Dostoevsky –
the amazing truth which he expresses with the complaint: «In
my hatred for the people of our land there is always a nostalgic
agony: why can’t I hate them without loving them?... and in my
love for them was a nostalgic sorrow: why can’t I love them
without hating them?»
These words come like a bulldozer, that tears
down any clear discernment between good and bad – even at the
level of the highest moral value, which even for Dostoevsky
himself is love.
can one say thereafter about the other moral values, which are
relative and change from era to era? Good and bad never become
disconnected; they never part, under any circumstance.
To Dostoevsky, this applies not only
at the level of moral values, but also with persons. All of
Dostoevsky’s heroes are simultaneously good and bad.
The notion of a “moral” character is nonexistent in Dostoevsky.
We need only to pause at his most important and extensive work,
the Brothers Karamazov, which involves a wide range of
characters, from every social stratum and psychological type:
from the old debauched father Karamazov to the ascetic son
Aliosha, the other son, Ivan the intellectual atheist, to the
monk Zosima, the masochist Lisabeta, to the carnal Grushenka.
The underlying cause for the unfolding of this story was the
strange circumstances behind the murder of old Karamazov, which
proves that morally guilty are practically all of his sons – not
only the actual murderer, but also those who albeit de facto
innocent had let their hearts develop criminal intentions. In
this work, almost every main character commits some crime or
other – perhaps not in actions, but certainly in thoughts. Even
Aliosha is not lacking in guilt, given that he didn’t succeed in
averting or preventing the crime.
For Dostoevsky, the problem is not a
moral one, but a profoundly existential one. Man – every man –
is a mixture of cunning and simplicity, chastity and lust,
kindness and meanness. Dimitri says:
was a scoundrel, and yet, I loved God… Good and evil are in a
monstrous coexistence within man». The Grand
Inquisitor is impressed by this contradiction in
people: corrupt people are often
good-natured; criminals are tender and sensitive, puritans and
moralists are callous and cruel…everyone is equally capable for
good and for evil.
This realization, that each person is bad and
simultaneously good, abolishes Morality and presents
Dostoevsky as a nihilist: this is human nature, it cannot be
healed with anything, evil permeates goodness, non-being
traverses existence. Thus,
Nietzsche will find in the person of Dostoevsky
his great teacher, the prophet of his nihilism.
But we need to pause here carefully.
Is Dostoevsky truly a nihilist?
What is the deeper meaning beneath his anti-moralist
significant observation is that by demolishing morality which
differentiates people into good and evil, Dostoevsky
undermines the arrogance of humanism, which believes that with
morality, it can eradicate evil from the world. In this
manner, Dostoevsky theologizes Patristically: the salvation of
man cannot come from man himself, but only from God.
by recognizing in every person the coexistence of good and evil,
Dostoevsky invites everyone to refrain from censuring other
people and concentrate their interest and their care on their
own sins. That way, they simultaneously attain repentance and
love. Dostoevsky thus moves within the spirit of the Gospel,
but also of the neptic Fathers (“grant me, O Lord, that I
might see my own trespasses, and not pass judgment on my brother”
– a prayer by Saint Ephraim)
and most importantly, the mixture of good and evil that
characterizes human nature does not necessarily lead to
nihilism. Most revealing are the details that Dostoevsky
describes in his work The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. In
realizing that everything in a person’s life is a mixture of
opposites (good-bad, logical-illogical), the hero of the story
becomes deeply shaken and his very faith in existence is also
«I felt that I was totally indifferent if the world existed,
or if it never existed; I began to feel with all my being that
nothing existed. At first I thought that many things had
existed in the past, but then I realized that nothing had ever
existed in the past either – only that I had imagined it
existed, for some reason. I slowly came to understand that
neither in the future will anything exist».
This nihilism could only lead to suicide.
The hero of the story indeed decides to kill himself. However,
just when he was about to execute his plan, a scared and
trembling little girl that seemed desperate for some reason,
asked for his help; and that “ridiculous man” changes his plan.
That which made him find some meaning to his otherwise senseless
existence was his meeting with the “Other”. It
is the “Other” who provides him with the transcendence of
nihilism. Dostoevsky takes us to the edge of the
precipice, but doesn’t leave us in the void. That which
cannot be doubted is the existence of the Other.
This existence of the Other – which gives meaning
to existence – is neither the virtues nor the malices of the
Other (that is, his morality); it is his existence, and his
existence alone. Morally speaking, the Other is an
illogical thing – a mixture of opposites – of good and evil. It
would be ridiculous to approach him as a “moral hypostasis”.
Only his existence – bared of every moral characteristic – gives
meaning to our own existence also. If there is any worth in
our existing, in not committing suicide, in not making fools of
ourselves, it is because the Other exists.
But for Dostoevsky, the Other (as presented in
the Dream of a Ridiculous Man) is not a mere hypostasis, a
being. It is a suffering existence. That is the
particular characteristic of Dostoevskyan existentialism. For
Dostoevsky, the transcendence of nihilism – which is what
gives meaning to our existence – is the acceptance of
affliction. For Dostoevsky, there is one – and only one –
choice for man, instead of suicide. Ivan Karamazov expresses
it, with the dilemma: either the cross or the noose. “Tomorrow”
he says “the
cross, but not the scaffold. No, I shall not hang myself. I
could never commit suicide.”
And as the devil said to Ivan “people
suffer, but they live; they live an actual life, not an
imaginary one, because it is life when you suffer.”
For Dostoevsky, suffering and passion have a
metaphysical content; there is a kind of “metaphysics of
suffering”. Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment” kneels
before Sonya and kisses her feet, saying:
kneeled, not before you, but before all of suffering mankind».
And Zosimas explains that he kneeled before Dimitri Karamazov,
with the following words: «Yesterday, I knelt before all that
going to suffer».
rise to a question:
Could it finally be - for Dostoevsky - that the
Cross is the ultimate, the loftiest Good? Is it possible that
we have here a “morality of the Cross”, in which suffering is
given an eschatological hue, itself becoming a part of the
Kingdom of God or even the life itself of the Holy Trinity –
something like the “Suffering God” by Moltmann? A trend such as
this appears to exist in the Russian tradition and is even
perhaps a part of the Russian soul itself. We find this in the
theological thought of Bulgakov or even in the reposed Elder
Sophrony of Essex. Could this be true of Dostoevsky also?
Others, better versed in Dostoevsky, will have to
answer that question. Personally speaking, it is my opinion
that while the Cross and suffering are, to Dostoevsky, the only,
real and undoubted reality in human existence, the only antidote
to the absurdity of the morality which ignores the illogical
coexistence of good and evil within the same person,
nevertheless, to the Russian author, this is not the ultimate
metaphysical good. The ultimate metaphysical good is for him
the transcending of suffering, and not suffering itself. The
Cross is the only true reality in existence, but it is not also
the ultimate one.
At the end of the section titled “The trials of a
soul” in the Brothers Karamazov, Dimitri sees a terrifying
dream. In the charred remnants of a burnt-down village, a
peasant woman is trying to flee and save herself, and by her
side is an infant that is suffering from hunger and is trying to
breastfeed from its mother’s dried-up breast. Then Dimitri
–writes Dostoevsky – “felt
a sudden pang of pity, that he had never felt before, rising
into his heart and making him want to cry, to do something for
all those people, so that the infant would cry no more, its
somber, bony-thin mother no longer weep, and so that tears would
no longer exist from now on.”
That is how Dostoevsky envisages an ultimate good, beyond the
suffering. The Cross must be overcome, by the Resurrection.
Pain has no place in the Kingdom of God. Love embraces
suffering, not to give it any metaphysical content, but in order
to convert it into joy. Dostoevsky doesn’t state it, but he
implies it: the Divine Eucharist is the foretasting of joy, not
sorrow – not even of “joyous sorrow”.
We mentioned earlier that Dostoevsky’s heroes are
a mixture of good and evil and that we would be searching in
vain to find someone morally perfect among them. Suffering is
the only truth, by which (upon accepting it in the person of the
“Other”) we transcend nihilism and comprehend that it is worth
existing. But beyond all that, that
which gives meaning to existence is the Resurrection.
«So, does our religion truly say that all of us
will rise up from the dead and live again, and see each other
-Without a doubt we will be resurrected…and we shall joyously,
happily tell each other everything that happened… Aliosha
- Oh, how wonderful it will then be, Kolia blurted out.
- And now, let us be done with words, and let’s sit at the table
of the condolence meal… here we go, going hand in hand…».
the table of the Eucharist, the communion of
love: behold Dostoevsky’s noblest good. That was the
culmination of his last and greatest work. Perhaps if he had
lived longer, he would have described the Kingdom with the same
eloquence as he had described the Cross in human existence.
If good and evil constitute a combination within
human existence, it is attributed to one and only reason,
according to Dostoevsky: that the greatest power which governs
and directs human existence is freedom.
“How, therefore, did all those wise men ever imagine” – asks the
hero of Underground – “that a person has the need to desire
something in a logical and beneficial manner? Man needs only one
thing: for his will to be entirely independent, regardless what
that independence will cost him and regardless how many negative
consequences that will entail.”
Dostoevsky links that thirst for freedom by man
directly to the problem of morality. Says the hero of
Underground once again:
“I think the best definition of man is the following: a
two-legged, ungrateful being. But that is not all. That is not
his greatest flaw. His greatest flaw is his persistent
immorality. A persistence ever since the Deluge and up to our
time. Immorality, and subsequently irrationality; because we
have known for years and years now, that irrationality is born
only out of immorality. Just take a look at History… there is
only one thing that you cannot assert: that man is governed by
logic… And behold what one encounters every time: people appear
in the world who are very moral, sensible, wise and
philanthropical, whose goal in life is to become if possible
prudent and moral. One would say they want to be useful as an
example to their neighbour and to show him that we can actually
live morally and prudently as people. But what happens
afterwards? It is a proven fact that sooner or later, many of
those philanthropists at the end of their life disprove
themselves and leave their selves behind them as material for
anecdotes – very detrimental ones sometimes.”
For Dostoevsky, logic and morality are
interlinked, and both of them together conflict with freedom:
the hero of Underground,
«what kind of will can I therefore have, when everything is just
a chart, mathematics, and two and two equals four? So, whether I
like it or not, ‘two and two equals four’… Can that be called
For Dostoevsky, the subservience of freedom to
logic and morality is not only impossible; it is also useless
and detrimental for man.
two and two equals four is not life any more; it is the beginning
the hero of Underground.
For Dostoevsky, freedom
that which distinguishes man from animals.
have an amazing infrastructure – unique in kind: the anthill.
Those formidable ants began with an anthill and will surely
finish there – a fact that affords them great honour for their
perseverance and their positive spirit. But a human being…which,
like a chess player that loves only to play and not the purpose of
the game... is only interested in life itself, and not its purpose».
It is worth pausing here a little, because these last words
reveal something important to us: the difference between
ontology and morality. If we replace the word “life” with
the word “being” or “existence”, then for one to be interested
in the "being" and
not in the purpose of "being", is equivalent to regarding the
"being" as the loftiest and ultimate good, and not as the means
towards some moral purpose. If
we place this in the framework of theology, the opportune
question as to the purpose of the divine incarnation is whether
Christ came to make us better people, moral etc., or to make us
exist. All of Western tradition sees the Incarnation as a means
towards the moral perfection of mankind, whereas the Greek
Fathers of the Church focus the purpose of the Incarnation on
the transcendence of death as a threat to man’s being
Freedom is to Dostoevsky an ontological and
not a moral issue: man is not interested in how he will
utilize his existence or how he will improve it, but only in his
very existence itself. That is why (like in the case of Kyrilov
in the Demon-possessed but also in other instances) Dostoevsky
pushes the matter of freedom to its existential extremes:
freedom means to either accept existence as a gift by Someone
(God), or deny your own existence (commit suicide), if you want
to not accept God (in other words, by making yourself God).
Everything in Dostoevsky is played out at an
ontological and not a moral level. Man does not want to
sacrifice the "being" for the sake of a "well-being". And by Christ
giving him freedom – not bread or power or easy living and thus
scandalizing the Grand Inquisitor in the familiar scene of the
Brothers Karamazov – he shows respect for that God-given desire
of man. But even with the Fathers of the Church – for example
Saint Maximus – the purpose of existence is not merely being; it
is well-being. Freedom includes the rejection or the acceptance
of being - of existence itself. However, if by exercising his
freedom man chooses being instead of non-being (that is, suicide
or nothingness), what he does choose is – for Dostoevsky –
nothing more than the ultimate irrationality; in other words,
suffering and passion.
He mentions again in the Underground:
why are you convinced that man only needs that which is normal
and positive and that only bliss is useful for man? You say that
man loves only bliss? But he may love pain just as much. And
pain may be just as useful to him as bliss… Pain? But pain is
also the only cause for awareness… Awareness is far above the
‘two and two equals four’… As
backward as that may seem, surely it (pain) is worth more than
To avoid that “nothing”, that non-being or suicide, one must
choose pain in lieu of being. Dostoevsky gives one the
impression that he is a masochist: Is pain really a good thing?
The notions of good and evil have no place. That
which interests Dostoevsky is whatever is real, not whatever is
moral. The truth is, all of existence is permeated with pain.
What preoccupies Dostoevsky intensely is the existence of pain –
and in fact unfair pain, the way we see it in little children
who cry and despair, without being culpable in any way. This is
the pain that man is called upon to embrace and make his own, if
he does not wish to choose non-being, or nil.
But, when man does choose pain in lieu of being,
he does not make a compulsory choice. Then, and only then, is he
truly exercising his freedom. And then, only then, does freedom
identify – not with nil – but with love. Dostoevsky thus
becomes the theologian of love. According to the words of the
true love is “to make yourself responsible for
all human beings and for the entire world.”
It doesn’t take much effort for one to discover
these ideas by Dostoevsky in the Person of Christ. Dostoevsky
theologizes without saying he does – and he theologizes in an
Orthodox way, in accordance with the tradition of the martyrs
and the saints. Let us summarize his thought, in the light of
Dostoevsky fights against morality for one reason
alone: because, like logic, it deprives man of his most
significant characteristic thanks to which he differs from
animals – that is, freedom. This is man’s
the image of God” – an image that cannot in any way be erased.
Man will always yearn for freedom, regardless how many benefits
logic and morality may offer him.
is not for Dostoevsky that which prevailed as a definition in
western philosophy, namely, the choice between good and evil. A
choice like that is ridiculous in Dostoevsky’s mind, because
good and evil are both mingled in the human existence. Freedom
is an ontological thing; it is to reject that very existence of
If man, by exercising his freedom rejects
existence, he has no other choice except suicide. If, on the
other hand, he accepts existence, then he has no other choice
than to accept it the way it is: that is, as an (irrational)
suffering, as a Cross. That is exactly what happened with the
Incarnation of the Lord.
Acceptance of the Cross signifies identifying
with all those who suffer, an undertaking of responsibility for
all of the pain in Creation – and identifying thus, to the
death. Only then does redemption come from evil, and not
through morality and logic: only with self-sacrificing love.
It is not about masochism, because it is not about the self-satisfaction of a sacrificed one. It is the realization
that the only path to defeating evil and death itself is for one
to voluntarily sustain them both, and even then, for the sake of
the others. Thus,
Dostoevsky – not entirely perchance – chooses as the
frontispiece of his great work the Gospel quote: “If the grain
of wheat that falls to earth does not die,
it will only lay there; but if it dies, it will bear much
fruit.” The Cross is not an end in itself. The ultimate purpose
is the Resurrection. But one doesn’t reach there except only by
passing through the Cross.
In this manner Dostoevsky exercises the most
profound and convincing critique to western tradition, which had
believed that through proper words and proper praxis (morality)
and an effective organizing of the world it would eradicate
evil. The entire 20th century with its wars and the
horror of its inhuman behaviour proved how right Dostoevsky was,
with this critique of his.
His message was a prophetic one, and continues to
Dostoevsky is, above all else, a theologian. He
draws from the monastic –mainly– tradition of our Church, but
also exudes the aroma of the
Eucharistic Communion. However, we need to confess
regrettably that some in our contemporary Orthodox Church with
their theology often prove to have a preference for the logic
and the morality of the Grand Inquisitor.
means 'not concerned with morality' while immoral means 'not
conforming to moral standards' or 'evil'.