The struggle against sin: The Brothers Karamazov

I struggle to explain my faith. I am never a fan of the terms that some Catholics use to describe the fact that they aren’t doing enough to stay in touch with the church, or to express that they experience doubt about God, their relationship with him, or the way they understand him. ‘Lapsed’ ‘Culturally Catholic’ ‘Afraid of hell but also of the sins of the church’.

The way I see it, experiencing doubt, dipping in and out of success in keeping the sacraments, trying, and failing, to not sin, and never knowing quite where you stand with the church is simply being a Catholic at all. When I have my own struggles with it, which is always, I’m reminded of so many stories of ardent Catholics who have struggled with the church and their Christian spirituality, and that as long as I keep the sacraments and try not to sin, things should be okay. Last summer, I got to think about it a lot more, because I read The Brothers Karamazov.

Dostoevsky and the Art of In Medias Res - Helping Writers Become ...

I picked it up with no understanding of what it actually was. I knew nothing about Dostoevsky and remarkably the blurb talks of a ‘courtroom drama’, perhaps the least informative take on the events of a novel that has ever made it to print on the cover of such a widely circulated classic. Instead of a courtroom drama, I was taken through extended and pretty well-executed take on an idea at the core of Christian thought.

Let’s be clear, though it has been presented this way elsewhere. The Brothers Karamazov is not a Christian manifesto and Alyosha, the book’s ‘good’ character, is not Christ. Instead of presenting a world view, a list of the ways to live and the ways not to live, for which we have the gospels, Dostoevsky’s take is useful in that it presents the core of Christianity not as a guidebook, but as a struggle. That is, a struggle against the self and the temptation to sin. In doing so, it offers a fundamental rejection of the idea of a ‘good’ person, or a ‘bad’ person.

By presenting his main character, Mitka, as so obviously a sinner, and yet giving the reader every opportunity to empathise with him, to see him do good things, to see him love his brothers or give to peasants or refuse to pass judgment on those around him, Dostoevsky shows us what every person is like. Nobody is evil, as Mitka surely cannot be described that way, they are simply weak in the face of temptation. There are only sins and virtues, and vices and mercy. In this way, he presents Christianity for what it actually is. Yes, it is obviously a religion, for if Jesus walked the earth and all he said was true, that is the most important event in all creation and our place in it is indisputable, but it is, perhaps even more influentially for those who don’t believe, a chapter in the history of human thought, an attempt to grapple with the things we see in our to day to day lives which just do not seem to add up.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

This was what I liked the most about The Brothers Karamazov, not the preachy ‘nuggets of wisdom’ Dostoevsky throws out through his face-man, Alyosha. Perhaps it is harsh, but I like to think of Alyosha as the reader’s ‘Wizard of Oz’, seemingly all-knowing and infallible, but really a crusty, angry Dostoevsky hunched at a typewriter behind the curtain, preaching the virtue of love to the ‘masses’, all while proudly hating not only Jews and Catholics, with both of whom he appears to have had much in common theologically, but also all of ‘the West’, whatever the fuck that meant then, let alone what it means now.

Instead of an ‘Analects of Alyosha’, I saw Brothers as a presentation not of a Christian treatment for a sick world, but a Christian diagnosis of it. Brothers, frankly, taught me nothing about how to resist the temptation to sin, but it made a compelling argument that it exists, and that it causes all the world’s problems. Sometimes, in politics, I used to say that ‘a mountain of sin is standing between us and progress.’ I meant this applied to everyone, including me.

Exploring this wasn’t Dostoevsky’s only success. He also tackled one of humanity’s most difficult questions. How do we square in our hearts good people who do bad things? How do we understand that the world’s greatest sinners, murderers and traitors and genocidal racists, can be full of love for their friends, can be generous to the needy, or willing to suffer for the good of others? The answer Brothers offers is pretty compelling: Because they failed to be brave in a moment of weakness.

Even more compellingly, how do we deal with our own sins? Every person reading this will have made terrible mistakes in their life, whether they can call them to mind right now or not. Brothers includes some beautiful reflections on how traumatic our own malevolence can be. Whether it is the way Mitka feels tortured by how he treated ‘Whiskbroom’, a man he dragged by the beard out of the local into the street, and whose son was bullied for the incident afterward, or how that same boy could not sleep for weeks, because he tricked a dog into eating meat with needles in it, and it ran off crying to die in the woods. To his credit, Dostoevsky clearly understands that it hurts us when we do bad things, and that doing bad things doesn’t make someone a bad person. On this, he provokes thought with real success.

Of course, doing horrible things is wrong. I’m reminded of the quote on page 696 of Brothers, which describes their father’s ‘moral code’ as ‘let the whole world burn so long as I am alright.’. It’s hardly a sentiment anyone with a solid ethical foundation could approve of, but if you peel it back, and look closely, you’ll see the operative part of that sentence is not ‘let the whole world burn’. Actually, it’s ‘so long as I am alright’. That’s not malevolence, but fear. In this way, Brothers said something I feel I already knew about Christianity but had never quite put to words.

The only way we defend ourselves against sin and the world against evil is by being brave, and sometimes, really brave. To suffer, sometimes terribly, to do the ethical thing. The way Christ did on the cross. Whether one truly believes the crucifixion of Jesus Christ even happened, or whether they think is simply a story, there is no disputing that the idea has wriggled into world history and is here to stay. Where the gospels outlined virtue, with the stories of Jesus and the simple order to ‘be like Christ’, fiction like Brothers can outline why it is actually so damn hard.

A 1930s illustration for The Brothers Karamazov

After all, doesn’t everyone think that deep down that they are a good person? Understanding ourselves, both as individuals, and collective, means squaring our enormous capacity to be malevolent, to be violent, to be angry and out of control, to kill, lie, bully, cheat, judge, and steal, with the fact that we then go home and love our families, give to charity, and sacrifice our days for the future of our children. The Brothers Karamazov explores this question the only way the author knows how, in the framework of temptation and sin.

However, it can be quick to steer out of its lane. Not only does Dostoevsky fail to express the meaning of virtue (I’m not sure this was a goal of his in fairness), but where he inadvertently tries, I don’t even really agree with him. Even his ‘good’ characters are highly judgmental, performative, and concerned with the opinions of others, and often focus on pleasing everyone rather than achieving a more difficult, but more ethical, outcome. Readers can see they’re intended to have weaknesses, but when looking closely, can also see places where those weaknesses are being presented as strengths.

“So long as everyone is happy” appears to be the Dostoevsky’s personal equivalent of “so long as I am alright”, but that doesn’t always represent an ethical outcome. He did, however, at least show that it is real, that everyone does virtuous things, and that everyone sins. In the end, Brothers is a showcase of just one core tenet of Christian thought, that there are no good or bad people, only sins and virtues. At that, it succeeds.

Rather than a quote, I’ll finish with a tip for my fellow Catholics and Christians, one that has been on my mind since I finished up Brothers. When you talk about your faith to secular friends, try using the word ‘spirituality’ to describe it. In my own experiments, saying ‘my Christian spirituality’ rather than ‘my religion’ or ‘my faith’ has brought something personal to what some non-religious people seem to imagine as the homogenous blob of religion and can reveal what Christianity really is. Which, to his credit, is very close to what Dostoevsky claimed it was: a personal struggle. A daily fight against sin, a struggle to be good, fought so often alone. One that we take up not because we’ve been told to by some man in Rome in a big white hat, but because we believe in something greater than ourselves.

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