When I first read the Brothers Karamazov there were chapters that I read quickly and without much thought. Either they were to do with description and plot or if they were to do with psychological, philosophical or theological issues I was unable to see the interest. Some topics that clearly interest Dostoevsky or his characters didn’t interest me. They appeared to me to be dead issues, things that were discussed in the 19th century between educated Russians that were so tied to this place and time that they could not involve me. It is interesting however is that sometimes a chapter that seemed of no particular interest some years ago can suddenly become of vital interest. The fault therefore may lie in me if even now I read and reread a chapter and fail to grasp why it actually does concern me. There are still many such chapters. There are whole areas of the novel that I leave unmined. But each time I read they get fewer.
When I first read Book 3, Chapter 7 “Disputation” I don’t imagine that I paid it much attention. There is an argument about martyrdom that no doubt struck me at the time as remote. I imagine that I read this chapter at about the same time that I read a work by Kierkegaard’s pseudonym H.H. “Does a human being have the right to let himself be put to death for the truth?” Likewise I imagine that I read through this article without paying a great deal of attention. I would have been looking for things that I could use in my dissertation. Perhaps I found a quote or two which would at the very least show my examiners that I had read this book. But it would all have seemed so remote, so very long ago. When I thought of Christian martyrs I thought of films like The Robe or Quo Vadis. I would have thought perhaps of Saint Stephen the first martyr. I might even have remembered the first line of Good King Wenceslas. Christian martyrs were people from long ago.
This is no longer the case however. On July 26th 2016 a French priest Jacques Hamel was martyred. Suddenly both Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard seem very vital to me indeed.
The discussion in the chapter involves the story of a Russian soldier who was captured by Muslims and who told by them to renounce Christianity and accept Islam or suffer torture and death. He refused and was flayed alive praising Christ. Fyodor Pavlovich, although with cynicism, thinks the soldier should become a saint. But his servant and probably his illegitimate son Smerdyakov puts forward a counter argument. He says “there would also have been no sin, in my opinion, if on such an occasion he had even renounced Christ’s name and his own baptism in order thereby to save his life for good deeds with which to atone in the course of the years for his faintheartedness” (p. 128)
This in essence is a utilitarian argument. Smerdyakov is weighing up the good and the bad. If there were a sin in renouncing Christ this could be made up for by the good deed that the soldier might be able to do afterward. The sum of human happiness might in this way be greater if he renounces Christ and lives than if he refuses to do so and dies.
Fyodor Pavlovich immediately disagrees “How could there be no sin in it? What nonsense! For that you’ll go straight to hell and be roasted like mutton” This is in essence a deontological argument. If something is wrong it is wrong even if it leads to an increase in happiness. It is wrong to kill someone for instance even if by doing so I would make hundreds happier than they otherwise would be. Right and wrong is not about weighing up the balance of happiness or unhappiness for that is not to take seriously the duty I have to do the right thing.
Smerdyakov switches his ground. His first argument is that to renounce Christ would be a sin, but it would be outweighed by good deeds. He next argues that renouncing Christ would not be a sin at all. It is by such gradual shifts that he is shown to be a casuist.
The essence of Smerdyakov’s argument is that “as soon as I say to my tormentors ‘No, I’m not a Christian and I curse my true God,’ then at once, by the highest divine judgement, I immediately and specifically become anathema”. The argument is that by renouncing Christ the person immediately is excommunicated. Smerdyakov continues his argument in the following way “at the very time when I immediately become cursed by God, at that moment … I become a heathener … and my baptism is taken off me and counts for nothing” (p. 129). But why should this make such a difference? Smerdyakov explains “since I am no longer a Christian, it follows that I’m not lying to my tormentors when they ask am I a Christian or not, since God himself has already deprived me of Christianity, for the sole reason of my intention and before I even had time to say a word to my tormentors”
This is quite clever. If I am excommunicated for renouncing Christ, then the mere intention to do so will be enough. If I make up my mind to renounce Christ then I am already not a Christian by the time I say I renounce him. Smerdyakov goes on “If I’m not a Christian, then I can’t renounce Christ, because I’ll have nothing to renounce”. This however is casuistry and playing with words. It may be that if a Christian renounces Christianity in his heart or by intention then he ceases to be a Christian. But even this is in fact debatable. Can I be said to solve an arithmetical problem if I can solve it in my head, but when I try to solve it on paper I can’t. But Smerdyakov is disguising the fact that the person who renounces Christianity whether internally or externally was a Christiana and has ceased to be a Christian. It may be that having ceased to be a Christian internally he can no longer renounce Christianity to his captors because he has already ceased to be one. But nevertheless he was a Christian before capture and however he arrives at ceasing to be a Christian, he has done so by renouncing Christ. He cannot escape this by playing with words. He may not be able to renounce Christ to his captors, but he nevertheless did renounce Christ in his heart.
But how does Smerdyakov think this helps the soldier. He argues “Who even in heaven … will ask an unclean Tartar to answer for not being born a Christian, and who is going to punish him for that” God will not punish the Tartar because it is “not his fault that he came into the world unclean, and for unclean parents” Smerdyakov wants to conflate the situation of the soldier who renounces Christ with someone who never was told about Christ. His argument is that by renouncing Christ the soldier really becomes a Muslim and therefore is in the same position as a Tartar who was brought up with no knowledge of Christianity. But this conflation is clearly false. For the soldier was born a Christian, was baptised and did know about Christ. However he arrives at becoming a Muslim his situation is different from someone who was born and brought up a Muslim.
Smerdyakov’s argument leaves his fellow servant Grigory dumfounded. It is indeed superficially a clever argument. But it only works by gradually shifting the ground and the terms. The soldier’s history of being a Christian is not changed by his conversion to Islam. His sin of renouncing Christianity is not annulled by him becoming a Muslim, because even if he is now a Muslim he was a Christian. By subtly shifting the terms of the argument Smerdyakov is able to confuse those with whom he argues. Once more this is the tactic of the casuist.
Dostoevsky is really writing something of a parody of what he considered to be the Jesuit style of argument. Fyodor Pavlovich says to Smerdyakov “Ah, you stinking Jesuit, who taught you all that? But it’s lies, casuist, lies, lies, lies” (p. 130)
The language of the discussion is frequently coarse and vulgar, but it is also direct. We could hardly have this discussion today because it would be offensive to Muslims, Catholics and Jesuits. We are not allowed to call Muslims heathens. We must all agree with each other, even when in fact we disagree. In this way we try to hide the true difference that is between us. I am not suggesting that we should insult other faiths or other belief systems. But it would be well if we could recover some of the directness. We should be able to say to a Muslim I think your belief is incorrect. I disagree with you. Much of what you believe contradicts what I believe. Of course you should be free to believe what you please. I respect that. I cannot in any way prove that I am right and you are wrong. But let us at least admit that we differ. I believe Jesus was the son of God and was divine as well as human. I believe he rose from the dead. You don’t. You think he was merely a prophet. At the same time you think Mohamed was a prophet. I don’t. You think the Koran is divinely inspired. I don’t. Let us be clear about where we differ. It doesn’t mean that we have to hate each other. Perhaps if we recognise our difference it will be easier for us to be friends. After all I can be friends with an atheist. We differ about our beliefs. That which I think is true, he thinks is false and vice versa. But we can respect each other’s right to disagree. There is no ecumenism between Christianity and atheism. But for the same reason in the end there is no ecumenism between denominations that believe different things.
Fyodor Pavlovich makes the point that before his tormentors the soldier may be in the right, but he has still renounced his faith within himself and that this makes him cursed and anathema. Smerdyakov agrees “There’s no doubt, sir, that I renounced it within myself, but still there wasn’t any sin especially, and if there was a little sin, it was a rather ordinary one” (p. 130).
Again Smerdyakov just keeps shifting the goal posts. When faced with a counterargument he just comes up with a new argument. This is essentially a parlour game. Smerdyakov just wants to get one over on his master. He wants to display his ability to argue. We are not getting any closer to what he actually believes himself. Indeed everything he says about Christianity and other faiths is simply reflecting the conventions of his time. But what does he himself believe. This we won’t know for some time yet in the novel. Perhaps we will never know. Smerdyakov is the dark heart of the novel. He is the illegitimate son of a holy fool whose father was a rapist. His very name smells and stinks of his origin in Stinking Lizaveta. He is a brother and yet not a brother. Is he part of the title of the novel or is he not. Ivan, Dmitry and Alyosha do not treat Smerdyakov as a brother nor do they even admit that he is a brother. But they must have been aware of the gossip that told them that Fyodor Pavlovich was his father. The limit of Alyosha’s kindness is Smerdyakov, just as the limit of God’s kindness is Judas. Smerdyakov is anathema from his birth. He doesn’t need to renounce anything to achieve this status. He was born with it. Such a person always wants to take revenge for the simple fact that he was born at all.
But how does Smerdyakov argue that the sin of renouncing Christ is only a little one? Smerdyakov uses the Biblical text about faith being able to move mountains as his starting point. Jesus says for example “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.” Matthew (17:20) But Smerdyakov makes the following point. If he is an unbeliever he is no worse than a believer, for neither of them can in fact move the mountain. The issue then of a believer being tormented by Muslims would not even then arise for “then it wouldn’t even come to torments, sir, for if at that moment I were to say unto that mountain: ‘Move and crush my tormentor,’ it would move and in that same moment crush him like a cockroach, and I would go off as if nothing had happened, praising and glorifying God” (p. 131)
Again this is quite a clever argument. Smerdyakov is saying that by failing to move the mountain I demonstrate that I lack faith, because if I had just the least little bit I would be able to move the mountain. But if I lack faith then I am anathema. The argument is that the position of someone who has faith and the position of someone who renounces it is essentially the same, for neither really has faith, not even a grain of it, because neither can move the mountain. Smerdyakov concludes that the soldier might just as well save his skin.
What is Jesus saying when he says that if I have the least faith then I can move a mountain? Did he expect people in the world to be able to move mountains? Imagine if there were even two such people in the world as the novel supposes. Two at most in the Egyptian desert can move a mountain. What consequences would this have? It would have a similar consequence as if there were people who could stop the world from spinning or the sun from setting. Jesus is setting an impossible standard for faith. The reason for this is that God is radically transcendent. He is in a dimension of which we know nothing whatsoever apart from through revelation. God is quite literally beyond our reason. So too we can have no rational understanding of Jesus Christ. His existence involves a contradiction. His death and resurrection involve something equally impossible as moving a mountain or the world stopping spinning. Jesus is saying that none of us will have faith in the fullest sense so long as we are on earth. The believer and the unbeliever are in the same position. The one leaps in order to embrace faith, the other fails to leap and relies on science and reason. But neither can ever have knowledge of God nor understand the contradiction at the heart of Christianity.
Smerdyakov’s argument is casuistry. Jesus spoke about faith in many different ways. He used the metaphor about mountains to show that faith is an impossibility. But he also at other times said that faith is the simplest thing, something that little children can have. To pick on quote at random and use it against Christianity is not a sincere way of arguing. But in the end I think Smerdyakov’s point is valid.
God would not punish the soldier for renouncing his faith. It would be human all too human for someone to renounce his faith in these circumstances. The atheist cannot move the mountain, nor can the believer, nor can the Catholic, nor can the Muslim. God in his mercy will treat us all the same, including Smerdyakov and including Judas.
But where Smerdyakov is wrong is to suppose that there is no distinction between renouncing my faith and not renouncing it. Jesus is saying that I will always have doubt. It is this doubt that prevents the mountain moving. The reason is that it is a condition of my existence that I doubt. If I ceased to doubt I would already be sitting with the Father. But even with doubt I can still believe. If I ceased to doubt then I would have knowledge. But I can never have knowledge of God, nor indeed of the contradiction involved in Christianity. But even though I lack knowledge, I can still believe in Christianity. Therefore there is a distinction between the atheist, the Muslim and the Christian. We all are full of doubt. None of us can move mountains. But we do believe in different things.
But there is something rather odd about this whole discussion about martyrdom. What is it to be a martyr in Christianity? Are there any martyrs who became such by killing someone else? I know of none. This is the main distinction between martyrdom in Christianity and martyrdom in Islam. There may in history have been soldiers who fought for Christianity, but they did not become martyrs because they killed someone else, but rather because they were themselves killed by others.
But what is interesting is that the discussion about martyrdom involves a rather unusual situation. What is unusual is that it involves a choice. The soldier in the story is presented as being asked by his captors to renounce Christianity. But what would stop the soldier saying the words his captors wanted to hear while keeping his faith intact inwardly. Would this be possible, or is faith a matter of action? But I can surely pretend. Schindler pretended to be a Nazi while saving Jews. A spy in the Cold War may have pretended to be a loyal communist while working for the CIA. Where is the sin in pretending? And yet there are examples of Christian saints who were executed because they refused to renounce their faith.
But this is an unusual case. No one gave Jacques Hamel a choice. There is something missing in the discussion between Smerdyakov and Fyodor Pavlovich. The thing that is missing is described by Kierkegaard in Has a Man the Right to Let Himself Be Put to Death for the Truth.
The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, Vintage, 1992.
The teleological suspension of the ethical and the great man theory of murder: Raskolnikov and Abraham as knights of faith or murderers.
In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov gets into a discussion with Porfiry, the police investigator, about an article Raskolnikov wrote for a periodical. Porfiry notices an interesting point in the article whereby “the extraordinary have the right to commit all sorts of crimes and in various ways to transgress the law, because in point of fact they are extraordinary” (p. 259) Raskolnikov qualifies this statement. He does not think, for instance, that the extraordinary have a duty to transgress, but that they do have the right to. One way, for instance, that this transgression might be allowed is “in the event that the fulfilment of his idea – sometimes perhaps salutary for the whole of mankind – calls for it” (p. 259) He says, for instance, that if the discoveries of Newton could only come about because of the deaths of one or even one hundred people, it would be justified and Newton would have the right to remove those people. It does not follow that Newton has the right to kill whomsoever he pleases or to steal. Only if these deaths are for the sake of something great, is it justified. He goes on to list certain great men like Napoleon who shed innocent blood along the way and, moreover, in creating new laws transgressed the old ones. From this he develops the idea that “not only great , but even those who are a tiny bit off the beaten track – that is, who are a tiny bit capable of saying something new – by their very nature cannot fail to be criminals – more or less to be sure” (p. 260).
Before looking at this in greater detail it might be worth pointing out how this is similar to another story concerning murder. In Fear and Trembling, written by Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Johannes de Silentio, there is a long discussion of Abraham setting out to murder Isaac. The section, however, that most directly corresponds with Crime and Punishment is the one with the heading “Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical?” (p. 54). Kierkegaard describes the ethical as the universal which applies to everyone at all times. The single individual has his telos or goal in the universal and has the task to annul his singularity in order to become the universal. To assert his individuality is to sin and he must surrender this individuality in order to rest once more in the universal. Kierkegaard admits the consistency of this view, but recognises that if it is maintained, then Hegel is right and, moreover, Abraham by being willing to kill his son Isaac is a murderer. On the other hand, “Faith is namely the paradox that the single individual is higher than the universal” (p. 55). This means he can go against the universal morality and Abraham on the basis of being higher than the universal morality can kill his son. This alternative is literally against logic. He writes therefore: “This position cannot be mediated, for all mediation takes place only by virtue of the universal; it is and remains for all eternity a paradox, impervious to thought” (p. 56). It is for this reason that he asserts that “The story of Abraham contains just such a teleological suspension of the ethical” (p.56). The telos for Abraham, the reason he sets out to murder is “because God demands proof of his faith; he does it for his own sake so that he can prove it” (p. 59-60). Abraham because of this telos or goal can teleologically suspend the commands of universal morality, e.g. the Ten Commandments, and commit murder with impunity.
Let’s look a little more closely at the comparison between these texts. For Raskolnikov there does not seem to be anything particularly paradoxical about Newton committing murder in order to develop his theories. He would appear to be using some sort of utilitarian idea that if a greater good emerges from an evil action, then it is justified. Thus a discovery that will benefit millions is justified by the deaths of a few. We think this way quite commonly with regard to war. Killing these innocent Germans is justified by the need to defeat Hitler. However, the idea of the universal ethical applying to everyone, but that under certain circumstances an individual may transgress it is clearly similar to the idea presented in Fear and Trembling. Raskolnikov is suggesting that anyone with individuality, with the ability to say something new, is something of a criminal. Kierkegaard is saying something similar with the suggestion that anyone who wants to be a single individual, who wants to have faith likewise transgresses against the universal.
Let’s look at these individuals practically. Raskolnikov is a murderer of a pawnbroker. Is the justification for this murder the theory that he developed in his article? It’s not clear that it is, though perhaps the theory contributed to the state of mind, which led him to murder. He is poor, but thinks that he has the potential to do great things, if only he had some money to get started. Let’s imagine that he gets away with the murder and goes on in life to create these great things, a cure for cancer, a solution to poverty etc., etc. Would the murder that got him started be justified? Obviously, this depends on whether we are willing to follow the utilitarian theory of ethics, by which the murder could under certain circumstances be justified, given that it led to a greater happiness. But what of the poor pawnbroker? It did not help her happiness. The more deontological side of ethics cries out that this murder was wrong, that we cannot use people, that they are not a means to an end. However, and this is the crucial point, all of this depends on Raskolnikov getting away with it. But this getting away with it likewise applies to all of the other great men. If Newton needs to kill a hundred people to develop his theories, but gets caught immediately, upon killing the first of them, he will straight away be tried, convicted and imprisoned or executed. The same goes for Napoleon. If he starts a coup and kills hundreds, all will be well if he wins and becomes the Emperor. But if he loses, he will be tried as a traitor. It may well be possible for these people to justify themselves with hindsight. History may judge them kindly. But the risk for the individual who acts outside the bounds of the law and the ethical is that history will not be there to judge. These people are not great yet. And so the law will see no mitigation.
Let’s take Abraham. He acts because God commands him and to show his faith. He acts for the sake of this telos or goal, which he takes as being higher than his duty to the ethical, his duty to Isaac. But just as when Raskolnikov murders for the sake of a higher goal, we still have to take into account the interests of the pawnbroker, so there is a danger that in Kierkegaard’s account he forgets to take into account the interests of Isaac. Abraham wants to fulfil God’s command. He wants to show his faith. But what of what Isaac wants? Perhaps, Isaac, too, wants to fulfil God’s command and show his faith.
But again let’s look at Abraham’s situation practically. What would have happened to Abraham if he had actually killed Isaac? Let’s imagine that a person today felt that he was commanded by God to kill his son. What would happen if I took my son to a mountain and killed him with a knife? When caught by the police, what would happen if I said God commanded me to do it as a test of faith? I would immediately be tried for murder and would most certainly be detained in a prison or in a mental hospital. Abraham, too, would have faced whatever laws existed when he lived. No doubt, these would have been rather harsh, an eye for an eye, etc. Abraham is only really justified in two circumstances. Either he gets away with the murder, no one finds out, or he doesn’t have to commit the murder, the sheep is provided.
But how does this affect individuality? Of course, there are genuine moral dilemmas, where individuals must make up their minds in difficult circumstances. As Sartre asks somewhere, should I look after my aging grandmother or join the resistance? There are instances like Napoleon where someone must dare in order to succeed, where the risk is great and failure may mean death. But these situations are relatively rare.
What strikes me as odd in both Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky is the idea that it is not possible to express individuality, to be a single individual with something new to say, without being a criminal in some way. There are laws that apply to everyone. But these laws only apply to certain things and to aspects of life that affect everyone else. There are massive areas of private life which are unconstrained by law, especially if laws are written such that I have the liberty of a liberal morality that says so long as I harm no one else I may do as I please. In such circumstances I can think what I please, write what I please. What need have I for criminality?
Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling is deliberately putting forward an extreme example of faith. Abraham’s example does transgress the universal. But most faith even if it is likewise a belief in a paradox and an acceptance of the absurd, need not transgress universal morality. As a Christian I must believe the paradox, and logical contradiction of God made man (God and not God) who died but rose again (dead and not dead), but who left me with an example to imitate and the task to follow him and live how he lived. Here my faith does not require me to transgress the universal. Quite the reverse.
There may be a teleological suspension of the ethical, but as Kierkegaard will develop in works such as “For Self -Examination” our task is to be doers of the Word, followers of the Book of James, and that requires no such heroics. And yet the task is far more difficult than that faced by either Abraham or Raskolnikov. So difficult indeed that almost no one, except perhaps a saint, is able to do what is required.
Fyodor Dostoevsky Crime and Punishment translated by by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, London, Vintage, c1992
Søren Kierkegaard Fear and Trembling ; Repetition edited and translated by Howard Hong and Edna Hong, Princeton, Princeton University Press, c1983.
This post was originally published by the author on her personal blog: https://www.effiedeans.com/2018/06/the-philosophy-of-dostoevsky.html