The Triumph of Ethics over Doubt: Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov





In a wonderful book, Furnace of Doubt, Arther Trace displays an encyclopedic knowledge of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s life and work, and Trace brings this knowledge to bear on Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880), the work which Trace regards as the most mature and comprehensive expression of Dostoevsky’s thought. Trace argues that in his early years Dostoevsky shared the optimistic assessment of human nature found among leaders of the Enlightenment, Romanticism and Socialism. After his exile in Siberia, however, Dostoevsky had little reason to believe that humanity was anything but degenerate. The balance of this dialectical shift in Dostoevsky’s thought is found in The Brothers Karamazov where the hope for humanity’s salvation stands in contrast to humanity’s moral depravity. Dostoevsky, according to Trace, ultimately concludes that religion, and religion alone, can save humanity from itself (7-49).

Trace provides an excellent analysis of Dostoevsky’s thought in general and The Brothers Karamazov in particular, and I do not wish to detract from the value of his work as a whole. But I am going to argue with one of the major emphases of Trace’s book.

Trace contends that Dostoevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov, asserts the religious belief in God and immortality in an effort to make ethical living meaningful so that humanity will depart from its path of self-destruction. In Dostoevsky’s view, according to Trace, without God and immortality there is no point to virtuous living. For Dostoevsky the significance of virtue depends upon “a God who promises immortality, a God who rewards and punishes in the next life” (30). Trace, in other words, finds that Dostoevsky is engaging in theological ethics. Dostoevsky is asserting theological beliefs with the hope that such beliefs will secure the meaningfulness of virtue.

I find, however, that Dostoevsky is engaging in ethical theology rather than theological ethics. Dostoevsky is proclaiming the significance of virtue which triumphs over religious doubt; he is not heralding religious dogma in order to conquer human depravity. He is providing his readers with a moral life which conquers intellectual ambiguity; he is not emphasizing the triumph of belief over moral degeneracy. Dostoevsky, in other words, is deriving theology from ethics, not ethics from theology. Through the course of The Brothers Karamazov ethical scrutiny becomes the means by which morally destructive ideas are rejected and, consequently, the means by which intellectual ambiguity is overcome. Where Trace finds an emphasis on the assertion of religious belief, I find an emphasis on the ethical values which take precedence over and lead to religious belief.

Dostoevsky is engaging in an enterprise very close to Kant’s pure practical reasoning. In the Critique of Practical Reason Kant’s insistence upon the meaningfulness of humanity’s moral obligation leads him to argue for immortality and the existence of God. Since, for Kant, the moral obligation to attain the highest good is meaningful, there must be an immortal state in which the highest good can be attained and a God who can assure such attainment. As Kant reasons from the meaningfulness of the moral obligation to his belief in immortality and God, so also Dostoevsky.

Further, the fact that there are similarities between the enterprises of Kant and Dostoevsky may be more than mere coincidence. Dostoevsky was familiar with Kant and Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason from childhood, and Dostoevsky may have built his ethical theology in The Brothers Karamazov upon Kant’s moral philosophy. Attempts to derive theology from ethical theory are rare; and, as far as I can determine, Kant was the first to make such an attempt. The rarity of such an endeavor and Dostoevsky’s familiarity with Kant’s ideas suggest more than mere coincidence.

Ethical Theology: Ivan and Alyosha

The story of The Brothers Karamazov, as the title suggests, centers around the relationships that exist among members of the Karamazov family. Fyodor Karamazov is the biological father of three legitimate sons (Dmitry, Ivan and Alyosha) and one illegitimate son (Smerdyakov). Smerdyakov is the result of Fyodor’s seduction of a retarded girl who wandered the streets of the Russian village where the Karamazov’s lived. I report that Fyodor is the “biological father” of these sons because he is not much of a father in the paternal sense of the term. Fyodor loves the life of hedonistic debauchery far too much to be a either a devoted father or husband. Dmitry’s mother, after she had abandoned Fyodor, died young, and Fyodor’s second wife, the mother of Ivan and Alyosha, also suffered an early death. Dmitry, Ivan and Alyosha were cared for by relatives while Smerdyakov was taken in as one of Fyodor’s household servants.

After Dmitry, Ivan and Alyosha all return home, Dmitry demands that his father surrender an inheritance left to him by his mother. Fyodor, however, claims that there is no such inheritance. As the very long story continues, Fyodor is murdered, and Dmitry becomes the logical suspect. Although Smerdyakov is the actual murderer, the circumstantial evidence against Dmitry is overwhelming. Dmitry is convicted, but Ivan and Alyosha arrange for his escape.

As far as understanding the novel’s ethical and religious message is concerned, the most important relationship is that which exists between Ivan and Alyosha. Ivan is an intellectual whose unresolved questions prevent him from making a commitment to ethical living. Ivan’s convictions are, as the author of James puts it, “like the surf of the sea driven and tossed by the wind,” and his philosophical doubts repress his sense of moral responsibility (1:6, N.A.S.V.). In contrast, the triumphant Alyosha is driven by a sense of moral responsibility which, in spite of doubts, leaves him with a mind-set of religious faith. Alyosha is a “doer of the word,” and, in fact, his active virtue appears to be far more important to him than the theology he professes.

Ivan: Intellectually and Ethically Uncommitted

How are we to describe Ivan Karamazov in terms of his religious or non-religious convictions? Is he an atheist, an agnostic, or a disgruntled believer? The truth is that Ivan is not committed to any one of these positions; he is, above all, a man of reason, an intellectual, who delights in exploring one idea after another. The result of Ivan’s intellectualism, however, is indecision and ethical paralysis.

Dostoevsky introduces his readers to Ivan’s intellectualism very early in the novel. Even as a boy Ivan exhibited an uncanny aptitude for education, and this aptitude for learning compelled him to enter the university. Not long after he graduated, Ivan published an article on the ecclesiastical courts, and Dostoevsky’s remarks about the article tell us a great deal about Ivan.

The most remarkable thing about it was that the topic seemed to be quite outside Ivan’s field, since he had specialized in the natural sciences…. After examining various opinions that had already been expressed on the subject, Ivan presented his own views. The impact [of the article] was due mostly to the tone and to the unexpectedness of the conclusions. First many clerics greeted the author as one of their camp. Then, not only secularists but even outright atheists joined in the applause. Finally, however, some perspicacious persons decided that the whole article was a hoax, an insolent joke he played on them all. (18)

Here is Ivan Karamazov in a nutshell. He dabbles in things outside his field for the sheer enjoyment of intellectual activity. As a typical intellectual, he surveys all the current literature on his subject and then offers his own opinion. The article is warmly received by clerics, secularists and atheists alike because Ivan himself vacillates among the factions. Hovering above, while dabbling in, the various camps of opinion, Ivan presents an article which contains parts appealing to everyone, and when Father Zosima expresses doubts about whether Ivan actually believes in what he wrote, Ivan admits that although that the article was not merely a joke, Zosima’s doubts may be justified (80).

Ivan can appeal to atheists because he can speak as an atheist. When asked by Fyodor, in the presence of Alyosha, to render his serious opinion on the question of God’s existence, Ivan curtly replies, “No, there is no God” (159). When asked a second time, Ivan emphatically repeats his answer.

But Ivan shows his mental gymnastics when on the following day, during a conversation with Alyosha at an inn, he informs Alyosha that he was simply teasing, trying to provoke a reaction (281). In subsequent discussion with Alyosha, Ivan begins to speak like an agnostic. He suggests that the question of God’s existence is beyond the Euclidean brain of humanity which is capable of grasping only a finite realm with three dimensions of space. Ivan says,

And so, my dear boy, I’ve decided that … I cannot possibly understand about God. I humbly admit that I have no special talent for coping with such problems, that my brain is an earthly, Euclidean brain, and that therefore I’m not properly equipped to deal with the matters that are not of this world. And I would advise you too, Alyosha, never to worry about these matters, least of all about God–whether He exists or not. All such problems are quite unsuitable for a mind created to conceive only three dimensions. (282)

But then, in the same conversation, Ivan the atheist/agnostic suddenly begins to speak as if he were an orthodox believer. Ivan affirms the existence of God and appears, at first, to embrace God’s plan for history.

And so not only do I readily accept God, but I also accept His wisdom and His purpose, of which we really know absolutely nothing, the divine order of things, the meaning of life, and the eternal harmony into which we are all to be fused. (282)

Ivan, however, has taken the posture of belief solely for the purpose of pursuing an even deeper line of inquiry with Alyosha. Even if Ivan were a believer, he lets Alyosha know that his belief could only be rebellious in nature. He can accept the existence of God, but “in the final analysis” he cannot accept “this God-made world” (283). Ivan’s reasons for rebelling against the world that God created are twofold, and they are presented in two famous chapters entitled “Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor.” Both of Ivan’s reasons relate to the problem of evil and stem from Ivan’s aloof sense of compassion for human suffering.

In “Rebellion” Ivan protests against a God-made world in which innocent children suffer for the sake of some supposedly grand harmony in the future. Ivan relates the suffering of innocent children in several horrible tales, one of which involves a five-year-old girl who is hated by her allegedly refined and educated parents. The parents kick her, flog her, make her eat excrement and smear it all over her face, and lock her in the outhouse on the coldest nights.

Imagine the little creature, unable even to understand what is happening to her, beating her sore little chest with her tiny fist, weeping hot, unresentful, meek tears, and begging ‘gentle Jesus’ to help her, and all this happening in that icy, dark, stinking place [the outhouse]! (291)

This God-made world, according to Ivan, is a train leading humanity through all kinds of horrors in order to reach some glorious destination, and having witnessed some of these horrors, Ivan does not believe the train ride can ever be justified. Even if there is some future harmony where all will be reconciled and made right, the harmony cannot possibly be worth the price of present sufferings. Ivan protests,

No, I want no part of any harmony; I don’t want it, out of love for mankind. I prefer to remain with my unavenged suffering and my unappeased anger–even if I happen to be wrong. I feel, moreover, that such a harmony is rather overpriced. We cannot afford to pay so much for a ticket. And so I hasten to return the ticket I’ve been sent…. It isn’t that I reject God; I am simply returning Him most respectfully the ticket that would entitle me to a seat. (295-96)

This God-made world also includes what Ivan apparently believes to be an extreme burden of freedom, and in “The Grand Inquisitor” Ivan protests against this burden. Ivan’s fictional story of the Grand Inquisitor relates the return of Christ to Seville during the Spanish Inquisition of the sixteenth century, “when throughout the country fires were burning endlessly to the greater glory of God” (299). As Christ heals a blind man and raises a child from the dead, a ninety-year-old cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor, recognizes him and orders guards to imprison him.

On his visit to the prison, the Grand Inquisitor chastises Christ for returning and interfering with the work of the Church. The Grand Inquisitor complains that Christ offered humanity freedom of choice at his first coming when, according to the Grand Inquisitor’s sense of moral compassion, Christ should have enslaved the people. In short, the Grand Inquisitor remarks, Christ’s enslavement of humanity with miracle, mystery and authority would have been a far greater service than leaving behind the curse of free choice. Christ, who has remained silent, walks over to the old man, kisses him gently on the lips, and, at the behest of the Cardinal, leaves.

Ivan cannot accept God’s design for the world because there is too much ambiguity involved. Only a few of the strong, like the Grand Inquisitor, can handle the burden of free choice, and out of his compassion for humanity the Grand Inquisitor devotes himself to ruling the lives of those who are overwhelmed by insecurity in the face of decision. As the Grand Inquisitor tells Christ, “We have corrected Your work and have now founded it on miracle, mystery, and authority. And men rejoice at being led like cattle again, with the terrible gift of freedom that brought them so much suffering removed from them” (309).

So what is Ivan in terms of his religious or non-religious convictions–atheist, agnostic or disgruntled theist? Perhaps the best characterization of Ivan’s position is religious skepticism. Ivan’s intellectualism simply does not permit him the luxury of belief.

Moreover, Ivan’s intellectualism also does not allow him to make any practical moral commitments. To be sure, Ivan can express moral sentiments. As we have seen, his reasons for rejecting God’s world stem from his compassion for suffering children and a bewildered humanity. But there is a big difference between expressing compassionate feelings and practicing morality, and while Ivan is capable of using moral sentiments to help win his argument, he is, up until the end of the novel at least, incapable of an applied morality. Appropriately, the compassion to which Ivan gives voice, in “Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor,” is a theoretical compassion; it is not a compassion which finds an active expression in Ivan’s life. Granted, Ivan can think compassionately. But he cannot act compassionately.a

The link between Ivan’s skeptical intellectualism and his inability to commit to the life of moral responsibility is established through Ivan’s view concerning the relationship between religious beliefs and virtue. Ivan is convinced that if there is no immortality or God, then all is permitted. The protection of virtue, for Ivan, falls under the province of religion. Without religion, or more specifically, without belief in immortality and God, there is no point to being virtuous.

In his article on the Church, State and criminal justice Ivan argues that in order to better deal with the problems of criminal justice, the Church should contain the State. Any crime, then, would be perceived as a crime against Christ, and Ivan believes this to be a stronger deterrent than the mere perception that a crime is against the rest of society. Moreover, the ecclesiastical courts could impose penalties of excommunication which would, according to Ivan, have a stronger effect because the criminal would be cut off from Christ and eternal salvation, not only from the rest of his fellow humans. Also, the Church would be concerned with the true spiritual reformation of the criminal, rather than a mere mechanical punishment (68-77).

The Church, after all, is in the business of supporting the belief in immortality and God, and Ivan finds that such belief is essential for the protecting the significance of virtue. An acquaintance of Ivan, Miusov, recounts the arguments he heard Ivan advocate.

Destroy a man’s belief in immortality and not only will his ability to love wither away within him but, along with it, the force that impels him to continue his existence on earth. Moreover, nothing would be immoral then, everything would be permitted, even cannibalism. He [Ivan] went even further, finally asserting that, for every individual–people like us now, for instance–who does not believe in God or immortality, the natural moral law immediately becomes the opposite of religious law and that absolute egoism, even carried to the extent of crime, must not only be tolerated but even recognized as the wisest and perhaps the noblest course. (80)

Ivan’s argument is nicely summarized with the phrase, “there is no virtue if there is no immortality,” and since Ivan has no passion for God and immortality, he has no passion for virtue (80).

Ivan has a passion for life, but his passion is one which, as he admits, “various spluttering moralists” find despicable (276). It is not a passion for tending to the needs of innocent children, feeding the hungry, clothing the impoverished, comforting the sick, or leading a bewildered humanity. Instead, Ivan’s passion is directed toward the admiration of “sticky young leaves emerging from their buds in the spring,” “the blue sky,” “some human beings,” “an act of heroism,” and the achievements of humans who possessed a “passionate faith in the purpose of life” (276). Ivan admires those, such as Alyosha, who have adopted the life of ethical responsibility, but he is not able to adopt that life himself. After Alyosha questions Ivan about the story of the Grand Inquisitor, Ivan responds, “Why must you take it so seriously? Or do you expect me to rush off at once and join the crowd of Jesuits devising corrections of His [Christ’s] work? Don’t you understand that I really don’t give a damn about anything…” (317).

When Dmitry and Fyodor are at odds with one another, before Fyodor’s murder, Ivan informs Alyosha of his plans to leave town. Alyosha asks, “But what about Dmitry and father? How will it end between them?” (278). Ivan’s reply well illustrates his lack of practical, moral responsibility.

“Ah, there you go again with that nonsense! Anyway, where do I come into it? I’m not my brother Dmitry’s keeper, you know,” Ivan snapped irritatedly, but then he suddenly smiled crookedly and added with bitterness: “Does that sound to you like Cain’s answer to God about his murdered brother? Isn’t that what you were thinking just this second? But what the hell, I really can’t stay here and be their keeper. I’ve completed my business here and I’m leaving…. Oh no, my boy, I have my own affairs to take care of, and now that I’ve dealt with them, I’m leaving.” (278)

Ivan has finished his business and is leaving regardless of the possible outcome between Dmitry and Fyodor, regardless of whether, as Ivan phrases it earlier, they devour one another as “one wild beast devours another” (168).

Ivan can give voice to an abstract compassion, an aloof kind of love, but he cannot express that compassion in an engaged manner. Ivan informs Alyosha,

“I must admit,” Ivan began, “I have never been able to understand how it was possible to love one’s neighbors. And I mean precisely one’s neighbors, because I can conceive of loving those who are far away. I read somewhere about a saint, John the Merciful, who, when a hungry, frozen beggar came to him and asked him to warm him, lay down with him, put his arms around him, and breathed into the man’s reeking mouth that was festering with sores of some horrible disease. I’m convinced he did so in a state of frenzy, that it was a false gesture, that this act of love was dictated by some self-imposed penance. If I must love my fellow man, he had better hide himself, for no sooner do I see his face than there’s an end to my love for him.” (284)

“Christ’s love for human beings was,” according to Ivan, “an impossible miracle on earth” (284). Normal human beings are not gods and cannot love their neighbors as Christ did.

Ivan’s disregard for his neighbors, however, is carried to an extreme that even he could not justify when his illegitimate brother, Smerdyakov, takes Ivan at his word and, subsequently, kills their father Fyodor. Ivan unknowingly convinces Smerdyakov that there is no God or immortality and, therefore, no virtue. Before Smerdyakov commits suicide in order to avoid prosecution, Ivan hears Smerdyakov’s confession and his troubling justification.

… I did it above all simply because “everything is permitted.” And the truth is, I learned that from you; you taught me many things … things like, since there is no infinite God, there’s no such thing as virtue either and there’s no need for it at all. You were right there. And that’s the way I understood it. (760)

Smerdyakov is Ivan’s Doppelganger who carries Ivan’s logic to its extreme. As Rubenstein suggests, “Ivan is the thinker; ideas provide the motivation for men of action. Thinkers are not always happy when the men of action such as Smerdyakov translate apparently impotent ideas into real deeds” (249-50).

Ivan is astounded by Smerdyakov’s rationale. Ivan realizes that his intellectualism was in no small way responsible for the death of his father and the plight of his brother Dmitry. With this realization Ivan undergoes an ethical transformation. He finally understands that, regardless of the other ambiguities of human existence, there is virtue. Ivan’s new-found guilt takes him into a state of delirium, in which he struggles with an hallucination of the devil inside himself. But Ivan emerges with the ethical acknowledgment that he must be his “brother’s keeper.” He testifies on Dmitry’s behalf that he is the real murderer and Smerdyakov, his accomplice. Since Smerdyakov commits suicide, Ivan’s story remains unconfirmed, and Dmitry is convicted anyway. But Ivan continues in his attempt to correct his wrong by making plans for Dmitry’s escape. Ivan comes to see that ethical responsibility and virtue are more important than his intellectual games. He learns the lesson that Alyosha already knows, namely, that though life holds many ambiguities, there can be no doubt that there is virtue.

Alyosha: Ethically and Faithfully Engaged

The sharpest contrast between Ivan and Alyosha is not a contrast between skepticism and belief. Ivan can be characterized as a religious skeptic, and Alyosha may indeed be characterized as a man of religious faith. But Alyosha’s religious convictions are subordinate to his ethical concerns, a point which Dostoevsky wants to make near the beginning of his novel.

First, I want to make it clear that young Alyosha was in no sense a fanatic. In my opinion at least, he was not even a mystic. Let me tell you my opinion of him right from the start: he was just a boy who very early in life had come to love his fellow men and if he chose to enter a monastery, it was simply because at one point that course had caught his imagination and he had become convinced that it was the ideal way to escape from the darkness of the wicked world, a way that would lead him toward light and love. (20)

Alyosha enters a monastery out of a desire to find a way to love his fellow human beings, not out of religious zeal.

In fact, on at least one occasion, Alyosha’s ethical compassion leads him to reject the theoretical position of religious zealots. When Ivan delves into the issue of theodicy, he asks Alyosha,

… Tell me yourself–I challenge you: let’s assume that you were called upon to build the edifice of human destiny so that men would finally be happy and would find peace and tranquility. If you knew that, in order to attain this, you would have to torture just one single creature, let’s say the little girl who beat her chest so desperately in the outhouse, and that on her unavenged tears you could build that edifice, would you agree to do it? Tell me and don’t lie. (296)

Alyosha responds, “No, I would not” (296). Alyosha is sensitive to the problems of religious belief and, just as Ivan, finds it difficult to accept God’s world. But, unlike Ivan, Alyosha does not allow the intellectual problems to stifle his active love for humanity. Virtue is more important to Alyosha than dogma.

The primary contrast between Ivan and Alyosha is, then, a contrast between religious skepticism and the virtuous life. The contrast between Ivan’s skepticism and Alyosha’s belief is tangential to a more important ethical message, a message involving the reversal of Ivan’s argument. Ivan asserts that there is no virtue if there is no immortality or God; Alyosha, by means of his mode of life, asserts that there is virtue, a fact which helps him accept immortality and God. Ivan cannot believe and, thus, cannot act virtuously; Alyosha is virtuous and, thus, can believe.

Alyosha’s model for life is Father Zosima, a wise elder who early in the novel tries to mediate the quarrels between Dmitry and Fyodor. Zosima, like Alyosha, is more concerned with loving his fellow humanity than with religious fanaticism or mysticism. Since Alyosha adopts Zosima as his model, Zosima’s teachings and practices provide important insights into Alyosha’s mode of life.

Zosima’s philosophy of life centers around the ethical constructs of love and responsibility. When dealing with the problems of parishioners and others who have come to him for advice, Zosima constantly emphasizes the importance of love and responsibility. A woman was married to an old man who beat her terribly, and when her husband became sick, she apparently either allowed him to die or aided his death. Although she has confessed and repented, she is still afraid to die, and she comes to Zosima for spiritual guidance. Zosima counsels her,

As long as your repentance does not weaken, God will forgive everything…. How could there be a sin that would surpass the love of God? … And forgive your departed husband all the harm he did you. Become truly reconciled with him. For if you repent, you love, and if you love, you are with God. Love redeems and saves everything. If I, a sinner like yourself, am moved and feel compassion for you, how infinitely much more will God! Love is such an infinite treasure it can buy the whole world and can redeem not only your sins, but the sins of all people. So go and fear no more. (59-60)

To love, for Zosima, is to be with God. Love is the divine, and, therefore, appropriate moral response to the world.

In Zosima’s philosophy of life a strong sense of being responsible for the entire universe accompanies the command to love. To love the world is to be responsible for the world. For those who have gathered in his cell, near the end of his life, Zosima speaks on moral responsibility.

For I want you to know, my beloved ones, that every one of us is responsible for all men and for everything on earth, not only responsible through the universal responsibility of mankind, but responsible personally–every man for all people and for each individual man who lives on earth. Such an awareness is the crown of a monk’s life and, indeed, the crown of any human life on earth. (196)

Father Zosima knows that Alyosha has taken to heart his message to love all of God’s creatures and to take responsibility for humanity’s sins; and so, before his death, Zosima sends Alyosha out into the world where love and responsibility can find an applied expression.

Because Father Zosima was so saintly, the people of his community expected a miracle to follow his death. Instead, Zosima’s body quickly began to putrefy and rot, an indication to some that the elder’s teachings were satanic. Alyosha questions God’s justice in the matter and, momentarily succumbing to the temptation of Rakitin, a rather contemptuous seminarian, Alyosha agrees to visit Grushenka, a woman of ill repute. But after Alyosha has spoken with the lady, he discovers that she is not the sinful woman he expected; rather she is remarkably sensitive, understanding and compassionate. Finding in Grushenka a suffering heart, Alyosha returns her compassion, seeking to reconcile Grushenka to herself and her world. To a confused Rakitin, Grushenka reports the following of Alyosha.

I can’t tell you what it was. I wouldn’t know. He just spoke straight to my heart and turned it upside down…. Perhaps he was the first one, perhaps the only one, to take pity on me–yes, that may be it! Why didn’t you come to me sooner, Alyosha, my cherub? (432)

Kneeling before Alyosha, Grushenka continues, “‘I’ve waited all my life for someone like you,’ she said. ‘I knew he’d come one day and forgive me. I believed he’d love me, unclean as I am, love me truly, and not just like an animal…” (432).

Grushenka had promised to pay Rakitin if he could deliver Alyosha to her home, and even though Rakitin brought Alyosha to Grushenka with a cruel intent of corruption, Alyosha shows no animosity toward him. Through the encounter with Grushenka Alyosha’s faith in love is restored, and later, in a dream of Jesus’ coming to the wedding of Cana, Alyosha’s faith in God and the teachings of Zosima is vindicated. In his dream of the wedding feast at Cana, Alyosha envisages Father Zosima, along with Christ, calling him to a joyful life of love. Zosima applauds Alyosha’s salvific work with Grushenka, and when Alyosha awakes, he realizes that nothing can shake the validity of the elder’s life and message.

Incorporating the teachings and practices of Zosima Alyosha attempts to be the reconciling force for his world. Fyodor, Dmitry, Ivan and Alyosha are members of a family torn apart for various reasons, and Alyosha seeks to resolve their personal problems and reconcile their differences with one another.

Although Alyosha certainly has reason enough to hate his father, he is always loving and forgiving toward Fyodor.

Moreover, Alyosha offered his father something that he had never had before–a complete absence of contempt for him. Indeed, Alyosha treated him with invariable kindness and a completely genuine and sincere affection, which Karamazov little deserved. (110)

Even though Fyodor treated young Alyosha and his mother terribly, Alyosha never judges him and never stops caring for him.

Alyosha, unlike Ivan, is his brothers’ keeper. Alyosha lends understanding, rather than judgment, when a repentant Dmitry tells of the seductive and avaricious circumstances surrounding his engagement to a lady named Katerina. Further, at Dmitry’s request, Alyosha agrees to terminate Dmitry’s engagement to Katerina and to ask Fyodor for 3,000 rubles so that Dmitry can repay Katerina the money he had stolen from her. After Dmitry’s conviction for the murder of Fyodor–a conviction in which Katerina, confused by her love for Ivan, played a major role–Alyosha convinces Katerina to visit Dmitry so that the two can forgive one another. Alyosha never believed that Dmitry was Fyodor’s murderer and had always hoped that the two could overcome their hatred for one another. When Dmitry is wrongfully convicted, Alyosha assists in planning Dmitry’s escape by offering to bribe the appropriate officials.

Alyosha is also committed to Ivan. He works to create a good relationship between himself and Ivan even though the two exist in entirely different worlds. Desiring the best for Ivan and realizing that Ivan and Katerina have strong feelings for one another, Alyosha tries to convince them that they love each other and are only tormenting themselves with their denial. After Ivan tells Alyosha his story about the Grand Inquisitor, Ivan asks Alyosha whether his brother would now abandon him because of his ideas. In a show of brotherly love modeled after Christ’s reaction in Ivan’s story, Alyosha “stood up, walked over to him, and, without a word, kissed him on the lips” (317). Alyosha does not abandon his brother. When Ivan is disoriented and agonizing over his indirect responsibility for the death of his father, Alyosha offers comfort rather than scorn or blame.

Alyosha’s practical ethical commitment, however, extends beyond his immediate family. We have already mentioned his compassionate encounter with Grushenka, but Alyosha is understanding, loving and respectful toward all those he encounters. When Lise, a young, capricious and partially paralyzed girl, boldly ventures to show her adolescent love for Alyosha with a mysterious letter, Alyosha takes her seriously and treats her with the dignified consideration she so desperately needs. When, with a sneeze, Alyosha abruptly interrupts the outcast Smerdyakov and Maria in their courtship at the Karamazov summerhouse, Alyosha is apologetic, courteous and gracious even though Smerdyakov is only a servant and Maria merely a beggar. But apart from his concern for Grushenka, Lise and Smerdyakov, Alyosha’s commitment to the practice of virtue is best observed in the story line concerning Ilyusha.

When Alyosha sees Ilyusha, a young and frail schoolboy, attacked with a bombardment of rocks by six other boys, he makes an effort to become friends with the boy in order to understand the antagonism. Alyosha walks calmly up to Ilyusha, but Ilyusha throws rocks at him as well and then nearly bites Alyosha’s hand in two. Alyosha, however, shows no anger.

We learn later that Ilyusha’s father, Captain Snegirev, had been attacked by a Karamazov, Dmitry, for no apparent reason. In a fit of rage Dmitry had pulled Snegirev by his beard out of an inn and into the streets. Dmitry continued to beat Snegirev while a humiliated Ilyusha looked on, a fact which serves to explain Ilyusha’s initial contempt for Alyosha, another Karamazov. Katerina, Dmitry’s fiance at the time, had heard of the incident and sent Alyosha with 200 rubles to make up for Dmitry’s cruelty and to help alleviate some of Snegirev’s financial problems. When Alyosha arrives at Snegirev’s home, he learns of the family’s situation and begins to make friends with Ilyusha. Alyosha becomes sympathetically excited as Snegirev contemplates the possibility of providing medical care for his sick family members and the possibility of moving to another town where he could escape embarrassment and find work. Out of pride, however, Snegirev ultimately refuses Katerina’s gift.

When Ilyusha begins to die, Alyosha visits his bedside often, attempting to provide comfort, attempting to reconcile the boy with his shamed father and attempting to reconcile the boy with his schoolmates, whom Alyosha has persuaded to offer friendship with their own visits to Ilyusha’s bedside. When Kolya, one of Ilyusha’s newly restored friends, and Alyosha meet at the dying Ilyusha’s home, he and Alyosha immediately become good friends because Kolya recognizes Alyosha’s goodness and because Alyosha treats the young philosopher as an equal. “Kolya was absolutely delighted with Alyosha. What pleased him most of all was the Alyosha treated him like an equal and talked to him as if he were ‘a real adult'” (645).

The Brothers Karamazov ends with Alyosha addressing Ilyusha’s schoolmates after Ilyusha’s funeral.

“You know boys,” Alyosha said, “you needn’t be afraid of life! Life is so good when you do something that is good and just….”

“Karamazov,” Kolya said suddenly, “can it be true, as our religion claims, that we shall all rise from the dead, come back to life, and meet again, Ilyusha too?”

“We shall certainly rise and we shall certainly all meet again and tell each other happily and joyfully everything that has happened to us,” Alyosha said laughingly but, at the same time, fervently. (936)

As Alyosha and the boys depart hand in hand for the funeral repast, Kolya leads the boys in a round of cheers for Alyosha.

In the “‘Hurrah for Karamazov!'” Arther Trace finds a great rhetorical expression of “the eventual victory of the saving power of belief in God-and-immortality over the destructive powers of unbelief which Dostoevsky with all the energies and power and genius at his command had tried to demonstrate” (139-140). In Kolya’s exclamation Trace finds “a symbol of the triumph of belief over unbelief, the triumph of God over Satan, the triumph of man over himself in spite of himself” (141).

If, however, my analysis is correct what should be found in the “Hurrah for Karamazov!” is the triumph of virtue over unbelief. In sharp contrast to Ivan’s intellectual arguments that there is no virtue without immortality and God, Alyosha proclaims that there is virtue and, therefore, “laughingly but, at the same time, fervently,” there is immortality. Alyosha says, “Life is so good when you do something that is good and just.” Alyosha transcends the intellectualism of Ivan with ethical responsibility.

The best summary of Dostoevsky’s ethical theology in The Brothers Karamazov is found in the advice of Zosima to a Mrs. Khokhlakov, who has doubts about the reality of God and immortality. Zosima says that the assurance of both lies in love. “Try to love your neighbors, love them actively and unceasingly. And as you learn to love them more and more, you will be more and more convinced of the existence of God and of the immortality of your soul” (64). This is the teaching of Zosima that Alyosha’s life is meant to verify, and this is ethical theology rather than theological ethics.

The Kantian Connection

Dostoevsky’s ethical theology in The Brothers Karamazov is very similar to Immanuel Kant’s metaphysics of morals. The first edition of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was published in 1781, and in the preface to the second edition (1787) Kant reports that he had “found it necessary to deny knowledge [of transcendent realities], in order to make room for faith” (29). In the Critique of Pure Reason Kant had denied the knowledge of supersensible realities by exposing the questionable presuppositions upon which the traditional arguments for the existence of God are founded.

In his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) Kant begins to explore a method which will eventually make room for the postulates of faith, provided that such postulates are based upon the experience of morality. Foundations begins with the common human experience of moral duty and inquires into the a priori principles which would make this experience possible. These a priori presuppositions or principles are freedom and the moral law, which Kant expresses in terms of the categorical imperative to “treat humanity … always as an end and never as a means only” (54). Without the reality of the moral law and the freedom to realize its demands, the human experience of morality would be illusory.

In Critique of Practical Reason (1788) Kant continues to build a metaphysics of morals which reasons from the realm of practical experience, rather than from the realm of theoretical speculation. Reason, for Kant, must include practical reason, that is, reason must engulf assumptions necessary to secure the meaningfulness of our practical experience. These assumptions or these postulates of pure practical reasoning include the immortality of the soul and the existence of God.

Kant contends, in the Critique of Practical Reason, that humanity experiences a moral obligation to seek the highest good, and the highest good which humanity is obligated to seek consists of virtuousness and happiness combined (117). Virtuousness consists of fulfilling of ones duty for duty’s sake, obeying the moral obligation merely because such obedience is the proper course of action or, in other words, a “fitness of the will to the moral law” (126). Happiness is the condition of one for whom “everything goes according to wish and will” (129). But the happiness involved in the highest good is predicated on the condition of being virtuous. Virtuousness makes one worthy of happiness, and happiness is the crown or reward of virtue. The highest good, then, refers to a state of being happy while one is also virtuous (123).

Kant argues, however, that the highest good is not ultimately attainable in the natural world we currently inhabit. This is true because complete virtuousness or “complete fitness of the will to the moral law … is a perfection of which no rational being in the world of sense is at any time capable” (126). Living in this world of sense one will inevitably find that his/her virtue is distorted by motives other than the pure desire to uphold the moral obligation. Moreover, in the world which we currently inhabit, we are aware that happiness does not necessarily follow virtue. Indeed, we find that we might often be happier if we were to ignore our moral duties, and the fact that we consent to fulfill our duties does not necessarily make us happy. As Kant notes, “there is not the slightest ground in the moral law for a necessary connection between the morality and proportionate happiness of a being…” (129). So the complete attainment of the highest good lies beyond the reach of human beings in the natural world.

Yet, if it were ultimately impossible to attain the highest good, then our experience of the moral obligation to seek the highest good is a fallacious fantasy which directs us toward illusionary goals. “If … the highest good is impossible according to practical rules, then the moral law which commands that it be furthered must be fantastic, directed to empty imaginary ends, and consequently inherently false” (118). If it is truly impossible to attain the highest good, then why try?

In order for our experience of the moral obligation to be meaningful, pure practical reason demands that the final attainment of the highest good must be possible. The moral law demands that “we should seek to further the highest good”; and, therefore, pure practical reason demands that attaining the highest good “must be at least possible” (129).

We must then, according to Kant, assume the existence of another life in which the attainment of the highest good is indeed possible. If the attainment of the highest good is possible, as it must be if our moral experience is meaningful, and if the attainment of the highest good is not finally attainable in the world which we currently inhabit, then we must assume the immortality of the soul or a continued existence in another world after our death. “Thus the highest good is practically possible only on the supposition of the immortality of the soul, and the latter, as inseparably bound to the moral law, is a postulate of pure practical reason” (127)

Moreover, since an afterlife does not in itself necessarily guarantee that happiness will be the reward of virtue, we must assume the existence of a cause which can provide such a guarantee. Since our present world does not necessarily reward virtue with happiness and since we are not able to guarantee that another world will be any different, we must, if our moral experience is meaningful, assume the existence of a cause which is able to assure the attainment of happiness in accordance to virtue. God is the cause which assures the attainment of happiness in accordance to virtue. The attainment of the highest good, or the apportionment of happiness in accord with virtue, can only be possible “on the supposition of the existence of a cause adequate to this effect, i.e., it must postulate the existence of God as necessarily belonging to the possibility of the highest good…” (129).

In summary form, Kant argues that the meaningfulness of our moral experience demands that the highest good be ultimately attainable. The ultimate attainment of the highest good implies the existence of an afterlife in which the highest good can be attained and a God who can assure such attainment.

As Kant proclaims the significance of morality and as he utilizes the human experience of morality as a practical groundwork to proffer belief in immortality and God, so also Dostoevsky. Both Kant and Dostoevsky presume the moral obligation is not an illusion, and both find that the human experience of morality receives its most meaningful explanation when we posit immortality and the existence of God. Dostoevsky’s Ivan is in some sense an embodiment of the skepticism of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Alyosha may be viewed as an embodiment of Kant’s categorical imperative to treat humans as ends in themselves and never merely as means, and it is the obvious significance of this categorical imperative which eventually leads both Kant and Dostoevsky to embrace immortality and God.

The similarity between Kant’s metaphysics of morals and Dostoevsky’s ethical theology may be more than coincidental. We know that Dostoevsky was familiar with Kant from childhood. Nikolai Mikailovich Karamzin’s works, History of the Russian State and Letters of a Russian Traveller, were part of Dostoevsky’s educational diet. In fact, Dostoevsky wrote in 1870, “‘I grew up on Karamzin” (qtd. Frank, Seeds of Revolt 56). Karamzin’s Letters of a Russian Traveller, recount travels in Switzerland, Germany, France and England, and in Germany Karamzin pays a visit to Kant at Königsberg just a year after the publication of Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason.

In the following quotation Karamzin recounts Kant’s explanation of the derivation of immortality and God from moral experience.

“Activity is man’s lot. He can never be completely content with that which he has, but is always striving to obtain something more. Death surprises us on the road toward something we still desire. Give a man everything he desires and yet at that very moment he will feel that this everything is not everything. Failing to see the aim or purpose of our striving in this life, we assume there is a future where the knot must be untied. This thought is all the more attractive to man, since here there is no balance between joy and sorrow, between pleasure and pain. I take comfort in the fact that I am already sixty and that soon I shall reach the end of my life, for I hope to begin another, a better one.

“When I consider the joys I have known, I now feel no pleasure, but when I remember those occasions when I acted in conformity with the moral law inscribed in my heart, I am gladdened. I speak of the moral law. We might call it conscience, a sense of good and evil–but it exists. I lied. No one knows of my lie, yet I feel ashamed. When we speak of the future life, probability is not certainty; but when we have weighed everything, reason bids us believe in it. And suppose we were to see it with our own eyes, as it were? If we were much taken with it, we would no longer be able to interest ourselves in the present life, but would be in a continuous state of languor. And, in the opposite case, we would not be able to comfort ourselves by saying, midst the trials and tribulations of the present life, ‘Perhaps it will be better there!’ But when we speak of destiny, of a future life, and so on, we presume the existence of an Eternal Creative Reason which created everything for some purpose and everything good. What? How? But here even the wisest man admits his ignorance. Here reason extinguishes her lamp and we are left in darkness. Only fancy can wander in this darkness and create fictions.” (40-41)

Dostoevsky’s preeminent biographer, Joseph Frank, writes, “The influence of Karamzin’s Letters on Dostoevsky has never been explored in detail, but it is certainly more important than this neglect implies” (Seeds of Revolt 56). The import may well be found in The Brothers Karamazov.

Given Dostoevsky’s connection to Karamzin and Karamzin’s connection to Kant, there is sufficient reason to believe that Dostoevsky was familiar with Kant’s metaphysics of morals from childhood. Moreover, we know that Dostoevsky’s interest in Kant extended beyond the childhood introduction afforded to him by Karamzin. In 1854, upon Dostoevsky’s release from the Omsk stockade and his compulsory enlistment in the Russian Army, Dostoevsky wrote his older brother, Mikhial, asking that Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason be sent him. We do not know that Dostoevsky ever received the Critique of Pure Reason, but the letter to Mikhial does inform us of a continuing interest in Kant (Frank, Years of Ordeal 169).

The fact that ethical theology is a very rare enterprise which appears to have begun with Kant also tends to support the link between Dostoevsky and Kant. Dostoevsky and Kant could have arrived at the same innovative methodology while working separately; but, given what we know about Dostoevsky’s interest in Kant and his reading of Karamzin, it is easier to believe that Dostoevsky derived his literary framework for ethical theology from Kant.

Admittedly, however, the connection between Kant’s moral philosophy and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is not as secure as one might wish. Dostoevsky himself never pays homage to Kant for the direction of the novel, and although we know Dostoevsky was familiar with Kant, we do not know the extent of that familiarity. Nevertheless, I believe there is sufficient evidence to propose the link, and regardless of whether or not Dostoevsky derived his ethical theology directly from Kant, the two thinkers do present similar strains of thought.


Dostoevsky refers to Alyosha as the “hero” of his novel because Alyosha calls humanity from its intellectual void into the realm of life (1). Above the speculative reasoning of Ivan, Alyosha heralds the life of virtue. While Ivan protests a God-made world where innocent children suffer, Alyosha makes it his task to meet the needs of those innocent children (Lise, Ilyusha, Kolya and the others). While Ivan complains about the burden of human freedom, Alyosha is kissing the world. In short, where Ivan calls humanity to philosophical turmoil, Alyosha calls humanity toward moral responsibility.

Through Alyosha’s character Dostoevsky urges his readers to find the meaning to life in spite of the questions, ambiguities and doubts which surround human existence, and he urges his readers to find the meaning of life in ethics. Dostoevsky’s primary assertion is not religious belief, but the value of the ethical life which ends in religious belief. Only after one recognizes the manifest significance of the good life can one affirm with Alyosha that there is an immortality and a God. It is ethics, much more than theology, which conquers what Dostoevsky refers to as his “furnace of doubts” (xiii).

Works Cited

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Translated by Andrew H. MacAndrew. Introductory Essay by Konstantin Mochulsky. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.

Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976.

________. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Practical Reason. Translated with Introduction by Lewis White Beck. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1956.

________. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1929.

________. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals: Text and Critical Essays. Edited by Robert Paul Wolff. Translated by Lewis White Beck. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1969.

Karamzin, N. M. Letters of a Russian Traveller, 1789-1790. Translated and abridged by Florence Jonas. New York: Columbia University Press, 1957.

Rubenstein, Richard L. After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism. Indianapolis, Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1981.

Trace, Arther. Furnace of Doubt: Dostoevsky & “The Brothers Karamazov”. Peru, Illinois: Sherwood Sugden & Company, 1988.

Leave a Comment