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(First of all, if you would like to take a look at an excerpt of The Brothers Karamazov, please take a look at the PDF at the end of the blog! I refer to the passage a few times. Thanks)

In the Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky describes the problem of evil in great detail. We can also get a clear view of his atheism. The protagonist of this novel is Ivan and will be discussed in this piece.

Ivan accepts God, but rejects God’s world, and it is in this sense that he is an atheist. He speaks of the human mind operating within the parameters of the Euclidian mind and how it understands space and time. He refuses to alter the facts of heinous acts committed against children; he states that he does not wish to see them in transcendental or ‘godly ways (i.e. attribute them to god’s plan). The specific evils are, as he determines, hard facts

Turning specifically to The Brothers Karamazov, he describes 6 evil acts committed against children. The evil acts are:

  • The atrocities of the Turks in Bulgaria
  • Richard’s story in Geneva
  • The peasant flogging his horse around the eyes
  • The father whipping his daughter as a source of sensual pleasure
  • The parents abusing their 5 year old daughter, locking her in the privy for the night (the detail of the mother putting excrement in the daughter’s mouth is particularly horrifying, as he describes the daughter whimpering in pain for the night as the mother slept soundly)
  • The serf boy torn to pieces by his landlord’s hounds

Religious people try to justify or understand these crimes and states that it is immoral to use god as justification – we are bound by the parameters of a Euclidian mind. He is approaching it in an emotional way before an intellectual way, this he sees as a ‘human’ way. Intellectualising evil acts evades the problem completely.

He says ‘he will not be healed’. He uses the arguments derived from cruelty of children to give his position strength and power. He accepts God, but refuses to accept God’s world. He bases this on the manner in which suffering is inflicted in children. He makes the reader question their own views – Alyosha’s reaction to the serf boy. The cases were derived from contemporary news reports – factual instances not fictional.

Dostoevsky’s purpose was to link God with any attempts of justifying the atrocities. Doing so alters the facts. It alters the facts as it changes the nature of the situation and what actually happened.  The Euclidian mind cannot speculate or conceive of God, it is unanswerable and meaningless. Religious arguments to the children’s suffering are dismissed as he says they might as well come from ‘another world’. It is incomprehensible to the human hear (based on the Euclidian mind) emphasising emotion over intellect.

The function of is atheism

  • Moral responsibility/ethical response to justify by God emotional responses. The justification of the future happening is purely for the harmony of our minds: not-yet-known changing the facts of what has happened (diminishing the evil acts) bound by parameters of a Euclidian mind.
  • Rebellion. He ‘returns the ticket’ to the world created by God, yet he accepts god. The two follow from Euclidian mind and moral outrage from the acts of evil done to children. His atheism stems from moral outrage
  • No alternative. He accepts god yet he is not religious. He denies the validity of life of worship or religious belief. There are no other possibilities and he cannot accept God’s world. He rebels against god that allows the suffering of innocent children, as he sees it is ‘senseless suffering’.

“Evil is the price of freedom”

The story I wish to focus on is the serf boy torn to pieces by his landlord’s hounds, in particular, Alyosha’s response. The serf boy threw a stone which hit the landlord’s favourite hound – the landlord reacted brutally ending in the boy being torn apart in front of his mother. Ivan asked Alyosha if the landlord deserved to be shot to which he replied yes. It is clear from here that he is pleading for an emotional response. Such a response from Alyosha supports Ivan’s enquiry. It is clear that he is looking for support for the Euclidian mind and this response confirms it.

He states that he doesn’t understand and that he gave up on trying to understand. Trying to understand leads to intellectualising the acts, which ends up distorting the facts, and he is ‘determined to stick to the facts.’

Ivan cannot use the case of adults. Adults have: ‘eaten the apple and know good and evil.’  The children haven’t eaten anything. Children are so far innocent.  “For anyone to love a man, he must be hidden, for as soon as he shows his face, love is gone.”

Stating that children are born with sin is completely insufficient. For if children were born with the sins of their fathers’ crimes, ‘such a truth is not of this world and is beyond my comprehension.’ He states that it is not worth the tears of one tortured child. “What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured?”

Stating that the children would grow up to perhaps commit heinous crimes is insufficient also and distorting the facts, for they did not grow up. To see such acts as a whole is altering the facts – it cannot be seen as a whole it detracts from the fact that these were acts of senseless suffering

Alyosha states that he is living in rebellion by not accepting God’s world, but accepting God, ‘respectfully returning the ticket’. He does not see it as rebellion – ‘one could hardly live in rebellion, and I want to live’. If the torture and death of one tiny creature is the cost of human freedom, how could god consent to be the ‘architect of those conditions’. Alyosha claims that he would not consent on those conditions. There has to be moral repugnance at the very idea. Yet we see in an orthodox view of religion, human freedom has been purchased in the actual world at the cost of countless millions of such tortures. Such a view would contribute to a non-anthropomorphic account of god

We can also see a Nietzschian (“what is man capable of”) and indeed, there has been quite a lot of work done looking into this perspective on Dostoevsky’s work.  We see the moral rule: ‘Everyone is responsible for everyone else’.  That evil is a cost of human freedom is rejected by the Euclidian mind.

Hope you enjoyed my critical look at Dostoevsky’s atheism. Feel free to comment, make suggestions etc…

Excerpt from The Brothers Karamazov: Fyodor Dostoevsky on the Problem of Evil

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