Dostoevsky and Social Issues
One Possible Answer: God

Savic Rasovic

In Dostoevsky's novels pain and some heavy burden of the inevitability of human suffering and helplessness form Russia. And he depicts it not with white gloves on, nor through the blisters of the peasant, but through people who are close to him and his realities: city people who either have faith, or secular humanists who are so remote from reality that even when they love humanity they despise humans because of their own inability to achieve or to create paradise on earth. His novels The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment are best examples of the poisonous effect of such ideals on the common human. The rebellion of these humanists against the system and the reality of human life becomes more important, thus love becomes the filter and the servant of pride and ideals. The cause of XIX c. liberals becomes more important to them than the actual human being that might not fit the picture of their perfect and humane society. Through these problems and opposites which cross and overlap each other, Dostoevsky depicts social issues, especially the problem of murder, through an image of people who go through pain. He presents a graphical experience of ones who do not know how to deal with humanity and its problems. Dostoevsky himself does not give a clear solution nor does he leave one with the certainty of faith for an example. He says himself:

Finding myself lost in the solution of these questions, I decide to bypass them with no solution at all. (From the Author. The Brothers Karamazov)
Through the presentation of crime and the issue of money which is often connected to it, Dostoevsky retells a Bible story. His answer to the problem of evil and human life filled with suffering, at least the most persuading one, for a better society and better social conditions is active love. That is not the love that is directed towards the humanity as a whole, but towards the individual: "Strive to love your neighbor actively and indefatigably" (II, 4). For Dostoevsky such love is a false one and he presents it through such characters as Rakitin, Perkhotin and even Luzhin:
Consciousness of life is superior to life, knowledge of the laws of happiness is superior to happiness--that is what we must fight against. (The Dream of a Ridiculous Man , p. 382)
One of greatest evils for Dostoevsky are the so-called liberals who "love humanity more than an individual man." Yet he does not represent their behavior as genuinely evil . Their hate towards humanity arises exactly from the opposite: love. Secular humanists see so much evil, crime and inhumanity, they cannot stop it so they rebel. Ivan Karamazov and his rebellion are purely of that kind. He is not vile, he just cannot understand that there might be a solution for such suffering, especially in the case of children who are innocent in Christianity. That is why Ivan asks:
Love life more than the meaning of it? (II, 3)

Ivan as any average intellectual, wants to know. To know the meaning of life for him is more important than to actually do something about the human suffering. Ivan forgets that one human life is as important as the entire humanity. For him humanity is merely an abstraction which happen to be surrounding him. He thinks that by knowing and logically, rationally finally understanding the mystery of life problems would be solved. For Alyosha, the only answer is love for life, regardless of the meaning and the logic behind it. To help people and try to forgive them if they do wrong or help them if they need help is all that Alyosha wants. Faith in God and people is the only way to live with love. To believe in God and to have trust in human nature and destiny means to forgive and to repent. It means not hurting others. Ivan gets trapped by the power of his own intellect and his own pride: the pride that pulses in humans who want to know more. Ivan contradicts himself with his rebellion. On one side, everything is permitted, because there is no God (Ivan is an atheist), on the other the rule of despotic Inquisitors who claim that there is God, but "know" the truth: that there is no God. Ivan desires rebellion against the Father and his father, the proclamation of a man-god, but in the same time Ivan looks at people like himself as fathers to the masses. Raskolnikov does the same. He separates people on ordinary and extraordinary. His superman is permitted everything :
I simply intimate that the "extraordinary" man has the right... I don't mean a formal, official right, but he has the right in himself, to permit his conscience to overstep...(Crime and Punishment. III, 5)

Ivan praises the idea of God, "which entered the head of such a savage, vicious beast as man" (Brothers Karamazov, V, 4). So he also thinks most of people unworthy. How can a man that despises humanity love it at the same time? If humans are like that than who has a right to be a Superman or the Inquisitor. Yes, it is true that there are bad humans, but one cannot go and hate all of human race for the fault of some. Without love the salvation and better society are impossible. Sonya and her sacrifice for others and her forgiveness are the best example. She has God because she knows that she is as big of a sinner and no better than others, and she still loves people, she does not want to be better for the purpose of egotistical pride.

In Russia at the time the Church was second place and the values of Western European liberal thought were sweeping through. What Dostoevsky saw was that none of those ideas actually improved the status of the masses. Thus, the answer has to lie somewhere else rather than in the assertion of humanists and rationalists that men are gods. What Raskolnikov does is exactly that: he gives himself the license to transgress and to decide to be a god. He rebels against society and its norms. Raskolnikov hates Luzhin and Svidrigaylov, but by killing the old lady and Lizaveta on his way to his own purpose he turns into people as evil as the ones he despises most. Once he crosses the line he does not know where to stop. Geoffrey Kabat writes:
On another, symbolic level, the murder is an attempt to annihilate a symbol of the oppressive forces of a society in which money gives one power over other people's lives and in which lack of money means dependence on others. (V, 124)
The problem of money and its oppressive and evil character is an important issue in Dostoevsky's novels. Raskolnikov is originally troubled because of his financial problems, Sonya is a prostitute to provide for her family, Mitya wants to kill his father for money. Judas betrays Jesus for money. This theme is repeated in Dostoevsky, but there is always something more: in the end the money (as in the case of Rodion or Mitya) is of lesser importance than the actual rebellion against the society and the attempt to change the social conditions which are almost unbearable. They both consider committing suicide, but do not do it because they are lucky enough to meet and to follow a Christ figure. Christ would have forgiven Judas, but Judas did not ask for forgiveness. He felt guilt, but the feeling of guilt is a necessity if one knows of guilt and possesses fear. To know the guilt is not enough: to repent is crucial. Grushenka and Sonya forgive because they have to forgive, but in the first place they know that the guilty have to forgive themselves and take the path of repentance. Otherwise, rationality at its best turns a man into a tyrant, on a smaller scale than the Inquisitor, but still a tyrant. This ego and child rebellion (against every father possible) of Rodion kill Alyona and Lizaveta and that is why he hurts his mother and sister. Joseph Frank writes:
By this time, Raskolnikov has begun to understand how easily a prideful egoism can begin with love and turn into hate. ( Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal 1850-1859.I, 7)

The alternative to the behavior of Svidrigaylov and Raskolnikov in the Crime and Punishment is Sonya or Sofia. Her name implies that Dostoevsky even through this wants to show how foolish the Greco-Roman foundation for the Western thought is. The only person that possesses the ultimate wisdom and the key to happiness is Sonya. The woman of Russia who believes and takes an the role of the mother for her sisters and brothers as well as for Rodion .She loves actively--with her body she sacrifices herself for her family. Sofia is the one with the answer:
Go at once, this instant, stand at the cross-roads, first bow down and kiss the earth you have desecrated, then bow to the whole world, to the four corners of the earth, and say aloud to all the world: "I have done murder." (V, 4)
Raskolnikov will not go because for him authority is another representation of amorality, no better than himself. They do not care about his soul or his remorse. They want to find the murderer and punish him. The point that follows out of is that no judicial system is enough to make one truly feel sorry. The issue of punishment is not what matters. Surely Sonya does not want Raskolnikov to turn himself in because she hates him or because she thinks that he is a vile and evil creature. She wants to save him and she knows that the first path to the savior is the admittance of one's own sin, and desire already exists. Sonya knows that Rodion will not be saved if he is merely sent to Siberia. She follows him with the offer and the example of her Christian love, fulfilling her words and actively loving, hoping that his transgression will not push him away from the world back into his own interior world in which nobody else has a place. Opposite to Sonya is what "humanists" do, what the "extraordinary" men do. Their idea becomes more than the actual humanity, more than the actual substance of that idea. The inevitability of human suffering becomes obvious if one is searching for an answer. Thus just like Raskolnikov and Ivan rejection of such society and life comes, which leads to the "cold and inhumanely callous to the point of inhumanity" (Crime and Punishment, V, 2).

In order to defeat evil one has to start with the assumption that there is goodness . To rebel violently because of a child's death only brings greater evil. Ivan does not love others nor does he love himself. He does not accept the most important of all, and what is crucial to Sonya and Alyosha: forgiveness. He cannot forgive himself, for he is accusing himself of Fyodor's death, and he goes mad. The Grand Inquisitor and Ivan come very close together in their hate towards humanity. They hold the opinion that Christ made a mistake when he sacrificed for the human race. What they do not understand is that Christ, with his kiss, again and again dies and sacrifices himself. Christ does not lose faith in humans and in the possibility of goodness, even though there is evil. He forgives. Sonya forgives, she expresses wisdom with her actions. In The Brothers Karamazov , and Crime and Punishment , active love is the highest value and the only remedy to all of humanity's problems! Sonya's hand movements, Zosima's bow, Christ's kiss are a definite and the ultimate answer that Dostoevsky has to offer to the people. Father Zosima makes this idea very clear:
If you are penitent you love. And if you love you are a God. All things are atoned for, all things are saved by love. If I, a sinner, even as you are, am tender with you and have pity on you, how much more will God. Love is such a priceless treasure that you can redeem the whole world by it, and expiate not only your own sins but the sins of others. (Brothers Karamazov. II, 4)
From the story "Akulka's Husband ," in which there is everything but regret on the side of the killer, faith in God is the only path to sanity. Dostoevsky was a young man when he heard these stories. How could he live otherwise, if he really actively loved people, but take the belief in God as a necessity? The belief that the idea of God should be there because otherwise everything would be allowed is Ivan's perspective. His claim that society should be based on the Christian dogma, and that crime should not be only against the state, but also against Christ, is exactly the opposite of what to believe and to really love Christ means. Christ did not set out to punish the transgressors, but he gave them all the love that he could give: forgiveness and love:
Remember particularly that you cannot be a judge of anyone. For no one can judge a criminal, until he recognizes that he is just such a criminal as the man standing before him, and that he perhaps is morethan all man to blame for that crime. (Brothers Karamazov. VI, 3)

For Ivan, eternal justice does not exist, and he also does not believe that there are guilty. But after that he accuses people of being evil and he does not forgive them. So he needs a lie to cover the fact of the human mortality. The only problem is that God is not a lie, at least not for Dostoevsky. Ivan would establish the rule of the Inquisitor: he would establish a system that uses Christ for its own survival. To actively love means to believe and not to calculate or believe only nine hours a day or when it is helpful to one's survival

Through the act of rebellion against the social norms and the Christian dogma secular liberals, or humanists, forget about fellow human beings as being fallible as much in thought as in action. In those moments, great defenders of liberal thought and love for humanity forget that they might not have the definite answer, thus they fall into the same trap as their predecessors who thought that they knew what is the best for people and enforced their ideas. They all become Grand Inquisitors and "living gods." They all want to spare humans from the burden of their own selves, "for only we, we who guard the mystery, shall be unhappy." They preach lies instead of the truth, thus they develop a different kind of love: tyrannical love. The Christian love has to be free. This is where the social issue of murder, as in the case of Akulka's husband comes in. He obviously does not feel remorse because he owes something to the government or the system, or to his wife: Forgive me, I'll wash your feet now and drink the water too." (Akulka's Husband)

He feels no remorse for the murder and the maltreatment of the woman. The authority did send him to prison, but what he feels is nothing else but the feeling of being punished. There is no remorse and seems that there is no forgiveness. Maybe that is why Dostoevsky does not dwell on his imprisonment too much. He does not want his own punishment to turn into pride: then society does not gain anything from the punishment of the one who transgressed, but plain assertion of its own power. This lapurlative ideology, system for the sake of itself, does not bring the solution. There has to be remorse and real acknowledgment and confession. Not confession for the sake of mere forgiveness, nor that same sentence, "I cannot forgive myself. " For Dostoevsky, that is merely an excuse for pride and self-pity. People find refuge in their theories or in other external factors, such as being deprived from something by birth, forgetting that the quality of life is one's own choice, "don't do to others. " In a secular society every class feels responsible only to its own "natural" or rather accidental surrounding:
The convict is almost always disposed to feel himself justified in crimes against authority, so much so that no question about it ever arises for him. Nevertheless, in practice he is aware that the authorities take a very different view of his crime and that therefore he must be punished, and then they are quits. (Ideology and Imagination. IV, 147)
Dostoevsky's solution lies in exactly the opposite from the class struggle and the solution that it brings. All of those strives bring only shifts and turns but are still based on hate and not on love. When one thinks of God it is not in terms of class one belongs to, or sex or age. One either accepts the Word or one does not, one either believes that even the sparrow has its place in God's mercy or one goes around raving against God, simultaneously talking of his necessity. Dostoevsky shows such attitude, such part time rationalizing as worthless and very often dangerous: suicides and murders. He truly despises it and mercilessly attacks those sins with all his strength and his ambiguous words. Zosima's gives an account of what being without Christ can do:
They, following science, want to base justice on reason alone, but not with Christ, as before, and they have already proclaimed that there is no crime, that there is no sin. And that's consistent, for if you have no God what is the meaning of crime? ( Brothers Karamazov. VI, 3)
This is the danger of Raskolnikov and Ivan's logic. The society around them and around Dostoevsky is one which makes children suffer and turns young, beautiful and wise creatures, like Sonya, into prostitutes. What is the answer? Is one answer possible to it at all? Can one go on living with the thought of how much suffering there is ? Does one rebel against the society, then try to establish a new one, forgetting that society does not come to be of itself, but is built by human beings: beings imperfect and ready to hurt and rebel against their fathers, against the idea of "old," or the society of the past and present. If that is taken into account the only people who do make sense out of human existence, which is best showed and expressed through suffering, are people such as Ilyushka and Sonya. Their argument is much stronger. They are better for the cause of the improvement of social issues than the actual orators for the masses. Why? They offer the solution for peace in one's soul. They offer it with faith in God, not the rational path of the Western thinker or with the denial of a Russian nihilist, but with a leap of faith that charms one against actual, brutal, world. The tyrants, the intellectuals, the Ivans cannot be prevented, but faith can defeat them, over and over again. The bow and the kiss have to exist. Children die, children suffer, society is unjust, people kill for stupid reasons and base, vile feelings. In a world that is hopelessly destined to go on like that, faith, God, are the best answers to our despair. Intellectualism obviously does not bring much advantage or peace--faith and love do. With God one's pride can be defeated, one's responsibility recognized, one's active love awakened, one's soul saved:
By the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbor actively and indefatigably. Insofar as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul. If you attain to perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of your neighbor, then you will believe without doubt, and no doubt can possibly enter your soul. (Brothers Karamazov. II, 4))
Ivan recognizes that same necessity and usefulness of God. However, he does not really believe in God, thus he cannot forgive, he cannot forgive himself, and most importantly he does not believe in the immortality of the soul and in justice. He does not love. Without a belief in the existence of justice crime has no meaning. His idea of God is worthless because he is an atheist, he does not believe. The only way out is not through the lie, with which the Church for centuries managed its affairs, but through true and honest belief that things have a purpose and that it does matter to be good and not to hurt others. One cannot solve society's problems unless one truly believes that what is done has a purpose. That is not the way because when one starts looking at humanity as a whole one will not find many good things and one will never have any happiness. Only by looking at the individual can one acquire a moment of happiness and exaltation of the soul, such as Alyosha's experiences in the field. Faith is not rational path, but it equips one with love. Only by having certain values and love for others can the family as the basic unit of the society survive. Family Karamazov is certainly a vicious example of what the society may come to if society does not hold values which produce love: we are all responsible for each other and we have to forgive each other.

To improve the society and social conditions and to free people from evil on Earth is impossible. The belief that there is immortality of the soul and that there is God who takes care of humans is necessary. Dostoevsky goes further than Voltaire. He believes that you have to have true faith in order to attain happiness and to create the ground for better life. Intellectual discussion and the acknowledgment of the necessity for the God as an idea or a Prime Mover becomes worthless the moment it is meant as a lie. It has to be the Truth, there has to be faith. If one lives a lie his bitterness that the dream and the ideal are impossible will only lead to madness, hate, and ultimately suicide or murder. One has to give active love.

So the ultimate answer to the suffering and the injustice in the world is love. What higher feeling and more positive there is in human existence? Again there is no rational way to explain and to really lead one on that path of faith. The possibility of such belief is real because humans are able to love. That means that they must be able to suffer for others, they also must be able to forgive. "Love all men, love everything" are Zosima's words. Dostoevsky cannot go further than that.

Works Cited:

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Princeton University Press. NJ, 1983.
Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years 1865-1871.
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Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Stories. Tr. Andrei Goncharov.
Progress Publisher Moscow. USSR, 1971.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. A Writer's Diary. Tr. Kenneth Lantz.
Northwestern University Press. IL, 1993.
Kabat, Geoffrey. Ideology and Imagination.
Columbia University Press. NY, 1978.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Tr. Constance Garnett. W-W-Norton & Company. New York-London, 1976.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Devils. Tr. David Magarsshack.
Penguin Books. London, 1953.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Tr. The Coulson.
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