The “accursed question” that hovers in the minds of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s central characters in The Brothers Karamazov is whether or not God exists. Furthermore, if God does exist, what is the moral meaning of this fact in a society that has increasingly less interest in religious faith? During his lifetime, Dostoevsky witnessed Russia veering toward socialism and worried that the political ideology’s rejection of divine faith would lead to moral decay. He also worried that the philosophical musings of the intellectual class, for which the author had contempt, sought ways to rationalize immorality. In the novel, Dostoevsky uses Ivan to embody the intellectual class’s atheism and cynical view of humanity. In contrast, his brother Alexei represents devotion to God’s grace and faith in the ultimate goodness of humanity, despite the world’s inexplicable depravity. Thus, the brothers’ disagreement in the novel represents the contention between intellectuals and clergy members regarding Russia’s moral destiny. Dostoevsky uses this debate over faith and reason to explore the precariousness of religious faith in a nation that wanted to believe in divine goodness but became too disillusioned with the world’s corruption to maintain faith. As the novel unfolds, Dostoevsky argues that goodness can be found in the world if people accept it as it is, instead of pursuing grand miracles or living according to the whims of intellectual circles.
For Ivan, the Orthodox Church’s existence is essential in maintaining the current social order and some semblance of civilization. He doesn’t regard the institution’s role as genuinely spiritual, given his insistence that there is neither a God nor an afterlife, but as correctional—helping to right the paths of those who cannot find their own way. When Ivan and Alexei’s father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, suggests that “mysticism” should be abolished across Russia, forcing the devout to “reason,” Ivan counters that once “the truth” shines forth, Fyodor will be the first “to be robbed and then abolished.” The “truth,” according to Ivan, is that God doesn’t exist. Faith in salvation keeps the masses complacent with a system of inequality that unfairly benefits men like Fyodor. Once people abandon their faith, they will reject the system that oppresses them. In keeping with his view of the remedial purpose of religion, Ivan has written an article saying that, without “immortality of the soul, there is no virtue.” Ivan appears to believe that others require the promise of an award—that is, going to heaven—or the fright of being sent to hell, to ensure good behavior. He, on the other hand, doesn’t require faith for moral guidance. Believing himself to be a person of superior intelligence, he thinks that he can independently discern what is morally righteous without the rewards and punishments of religion.
In contrast, Alexei believes in both God and the afterlife, though his faith initially hinges on his belief in miracles. His need to believe in the presence of something extraordinary to assure himself that he lives in a just world nearly costs him his faith and illustrates the precariousness of religious belief. When Ivan posits that it is “impossible to love one’s neighbors,” and that most people only do so out of a sense of duty, Alexei counters that he “knows” that “there is still much love in mankind, almost like Christ’s love.” Ivan considers such love a “miracle impossible on earth,” due to people’s inability to overlook others’ unflattering qualities, such as “a bad smell” or “a foolish face.” Ivan’s cynical view of love is rooted in an awareness of human weakness, while Alexei’s arises from his belief that people are capable of achieving divine grace. Alexei’s faith in God makes him optimistic about the human capacity for love, while Ivan’s pessimistic view of the world makes him skeptical.
However, Alexei’s total faith in human goodness leaves him easily disappointed when others fail to demonstrate the love that he believes is innate. He’s appalled by the monks who gossip about how quickly a stink emanates from the body of the elder monk, Zosima, equating it with an “odor of corruption.” For them, the smell uncovers the unholiness of a monk who “taught that life is great joy and not tearful humility.” Witnessing such pettiness and unkindness from those who are supposed to epitomize God’s goodness nearly results in the collapse of Alexei’s faith, which is only restored when he witnesses goodness in Grushenka, the woman desired by both his father and his eldest brother, Dmitri, and who supposedly epitomizes depravity. Alexei thus realizes that goodness needn’t be revealed through miracles, but that it often surfaces in the most ordinary of circumstances and can be manifested by anyone.
The novel ultimately asserts that faith is not to be found in a monastery or based on grand, sweeping miracles; instead, faith is found in “[sojourning] with the world,” embracing the flawed reality that Ivan found so unbearable and believing unceasingly in the capacity for human grace. Alexei’s faith is restored when he witnesses goodness in Grushenka, a woman known for her sexual wantonness and greed. She expresses sympathy for him after hearing about the death of Zosima, who served as Alexei’s moral guide. Through this encounter, Alexei ultimately realizes that goodness often surfaces in the most ordinary of circumstances and can be manifested by anyone, even those who are judged most harshly by society.
In contrast, Dostoevsky exposes the flaw in Ivan’s delusion of superiority when the character succumbs to “brain fever,” hallucinates an encounter with Satan, and then eventually goes mad. Ivan’s belief in the power of reason isn’t enough to withstand the fact of human frailty, which includes the likelihood of sometimes being wrong. The “mathematical proof” that fostered his initial belief in his brother Dmitri’s guilt for murdering their father comes undone as a result of learning the identity of Fyodor’s true murderer, the “lackey” Smerdyakov. Ivan also realizes that Smerdyakov isn’t as unintelligent as Ivan believed, revealing the flaw in Ivan’s arrogant intellectualism. Dostoevsky uses Ivan’s delusion of superiority, as well as his eventual descent into madness, to suggest that faith in reason alone does not ensure moral rectitude. For Ivan, it leads to a loss of reason altogether, once he recognizes his father’s true murderer, as well as his own corruption, due to his own murderous feelings toward his father. Alexei, too, has an epiphany in regard to faith. It is not to be found in a monastery but in “[sojourning] with the world”—that is, in embracing the flawed reality that Ivan found so unbearable and believing always in the capacity for human grace.
Faith vs. Reason ThemeTracker
Faith vs. Reason Quotes in The Brothers Karamazov
“‘To insects—sensuality!’ I am that very insect, brother, and those words are precisely about me. And all of us Karamazovs are like that, and in you, angel, the same insect lives and stirs up storms in your blood. Storms, because sensuality is a storm, more than a storm! […] Too many riddles oppress man on earth. Solve them if you can without getting your feet wet.”
“You see, my dear, there was in the eighteenth century an old sinner who stated that if God did not exist, he would have to be invented […] And man has, indeed, invented God. And the strange thing, the wonder is that such a notion—the notion of the necessity of God—could creep into the head of such a wild and wicked animal as man […] As for me, I long ago decided not to think about whether man created God or God created man […] I have a Euclidean mind, an earthly mind, and therefore it is not for us to resolve things that are not of this world […] All such questions are unsuitable to a mind created with a concept of only three dimensions. And so, I accept God […] It’s not God that I do not accept, you understand, it is this world of God’s […] that I do not accept and cannot agree to accept.”
“In my opinion, Christ’s love for people is in its kind a miracle impossible on earth. True, he was God. But we are not gods. Let’s say that I, for example, am capable of profound suffering, but another man will never be able to know the degree of my suffering, because he is another and not me, and besides, a man is rarely willing to acknowledge someone else as a sufferer […] And why won’t he acknowledge it, do you think? Because I, for example, have a bad smell, or a foolish face, or once stepped on his foot […] Beggars, especially noble beggars, should never show themselves in the street; they should ask for alms through the newspapers. It’s still possible to love one’s neighbor abstractly, and even occasionally from a distance, but hardly ever up close.”
“You know, with us it’s beating, the birch and the lash, that’s our national way […] I know for certain that there are floggers who get more excited with every stroke, to the point of sensuality, literal sensuality […] I’ve collected a great, great deal about Russian children, Alyosha. A little girl, five years old is hated by her mother and father, ‘most honorable and official people, educated, and well-bred.’ You see, once again I positively maintain that this peculiar quality exists in much of mankind—this love of torturing children, but only children [….] These educated parents subjected the poor five-year-old girl to every possible torture. They beat her, flogged her, kicked her, not knowing why themselves, until her whole body was nothing but bruises […] they locked her all night in the outhouse, because she wouldn’t ask to get up and go in the middle of the night […] for that they smeared her face with her excrement and made her eat the excrement […]”
“My action is set in Spain, in Seville, in the most horrible time of the Inquisition, when fires blazed every day to the glory of God, and ‘In the splendid auto-da-fé / Evil heretics were burnt.’ Oh, of course, this was not that coming in which he will appear, according to his promise, at the end of time, in all his heavenly glory, and which will be sudden ‘as the lightening that shineth out of the east unto the west.’ No, he desired to visit his children if only for a moment, and precisely where the fires of the heretics had begun to crackle. In his infinite mercy, he walked once again among men, in the same human image in which he had walked for three years among men fifteen centuries earlier.”
“In the deep darkness, the iron door of the prison suddenly opens, and the Grand Inquisitor himself slowly enters carrying a lamp. He is alone, the door is immediately locked behind him. He stands in the entrance and for a long time, for a minute or two, gazes into his face. At last he quietly approaches […] ‘Is it you? You?’ […] ‘Why, then, have you come to interfere with us? […] I do not know who you are, and I do not want to know whether it is you, or only his likeness; but tomorrow I shall condemn you and burn you at the stake as the most evil of heretics, and the very people who today kissed your feet, tomorrow, at a nod from me, will rush to heap the coals up around your stake […]’”
“Freedom, free reason, and science will lead them into such a maze, and confront them with such miracles and insoluble mysteries, that some of them, unruly and ferocious, will exterminate themselves; others, unruly but feeble, will exterminate each other; and the remaining third, feeble and wretched, will crawl to our feet and cry out to us: ‘Yes, you were right, you alone possess his mystery, and we are coming back to you—save us from ourselves’ [….] But the flock will gather again, and again submit, and this time once and for all.”
Oh, we will allow them to sin, too; they are weak and powerless, and they will love us like children for allowing them to sin. We will tell them that every sin will be redeemed if it is committed with our permission; and that we allow them to sin because we love them, and as for the punishment for these sins, very well, we take it upon ourselves [….] And they will have no secrets from us. We will allow them or forbid them to live with their wives and mistresses, to have or not to have children—all depending on their obedience—and they will submit to us gladly and joyfully. The most tormenting secrets of their conscience—all, they will bring to us, and we will decide all things, and they will joyfully believe our decision […] Peacefully they will die, peacefully they will expire in your name, and beyond the grave they will find only death.”
The people are festering with drink and cannot leave off. And what cruelty toward their families, their wives, and even their children, all from drunkenness! […] But God will save Russia, for though the simple man is depraved, and can no longer refrain from rank sin, still he knows that his rank sin is cursed by God and that he does badly in sinning. So our people still believe tirelessly in truth, acknowledge God, weep tenderly. Not so their betters. These, following science, want to make a just order for themselves by reason alone, but without Christ now, not as before, and they have already proclaimed that there is no crime, there is no sin. And in their own terms, that is correct: for if you have no God, what crime is there to speak of?
In Europe, the people are rising up against the rich with force, and popular leaders everywhere are leading them to bloodshed and teaching them that their wrath is righteous [….] Yet the Lord will save Russia, as he has saved her many times before. Salvation will come from the people, from their faith and their humility [….] I have been struck by the true and gracious dignity in our great people […] I can testify to it myself, I have seen it and marveled at it, seen it even in spite of the rank sins and beggarly appearance of our people. They are not servile, and that after two centuries of serfdom. They are free in appearance and manner, yet without any offense. And not vengeful, not envious. “You are noble, you are rich, you are intelligent and talented, very well, God bless you. I honor you, but I know that I, too, am a man [….]”
“I am perhaps the only man in all of nature who loves the truth and sincerely desires good. I was there when the Word died on the cross and was ascending into heaven, carrying on his bosom the soul of the thief who was crucified to the right of him, I heard the joyful shrieks of the cherubim singing and shouting ‘Hosannah,’ and the thundering shout of rapture from the seraphim, which made heaven and all creation shake. And, I swear by all that’s holy, I wanted to join the chorus and shout ‘Hosannah’ with everyone else. It was right on my lips, it was already bursting from my breast…you know, I’m very sensitive and artistically susceptible. But common sense—oh, it’s the most unfortunate quality of my nature—kept me within due bounds even then, and I missed the moment!”
“Someone takes all the honor of the good for himself and only leaves me the nasty tricks. But I don’t covet the honor of living as a moocher, I’m not ambitious. Why, of all beings in the world, am I alone condemned to be cursed by all decent people, and even to be kicked with boots [….] There’s a secret here, I know, but they won’t reveal this secret to me for anything, because then, having learned what it’s all about, I might just roar ‘Hosannah,’ and the necessary minus would immediately disappear and sensibleness would set in all over the world [….] No, until the secret is revealed, two truths exist for me: one is theirs, from there, and so far completely unknown to me; the other is mine. And who knows which is preferable…”
“‘The thing is that I am precisely in my right mind...my vile mind, the same as you, and all these m-mugs!’ he suddenly turned to the public. ‘A murdered father, and they pretend to be frightened,’ he growled with fierce contempt. ‘They pull faces to each other. Liars! Everyone wants his father dead. Viper devours viper…If there were no parricide, they’d all get angry and go home in a foul temper…Circuses! ‘Bread and circuses!’ […] Calm yourselves, I’m not mad, I’m simply a murderer! […] I have no witnesses. That dog Smerdyakov won’t send you evidence from the other world…in an envelope. You keep asking for envelopes, as if one wasn’t enough. I have no witnesses…except one, perhaps [….] He’s got a tail, Your Honor, you’d find him inadmissible! Le diable n’existe point!”
“He was a nice boy, a kind and brave boy, he felt honor and his father’s bitter offense made him rise up. And so, first of all, let us remember him, gentlemen, all our lives. And even though we may be involved with the most important affairs, achieve distinction or fall into some great misfortune—all the same, let us never forget how good we once felt here, all together, united by such good and kind feelings […] You must know that there is nothing higher, or stronger, or sounder, or more useful afterwards in life, than some good memory, especially a memory from childhood, from the parental home [….] If a man stores up many such memories to take into life, then he is saved for his whole life.”