Why The Brothers Karamazov Is Worth Reading

Why Reading Brothers is Hard

The Brothers Karamazov can be an intimidating book to read. Dostoevsky’s writing can seem strange at points. The explosive, dramatic, and perverse characters are jarring and often alienating; Dostoevsky’s penchant for describing pathetic and emotionally painful scenes is unsettling; and the labyrinthine story with the ever-shifting Russian names, dense monologues, and frequent allusions to 19th century Russian culture can be difficult to follow. The very font in this edition is small (and the book already very large!) that it can feel daunting to simply crack the book open.

But what may be most puzzling to Christian readers is how Dostoevsky–himself a devout Christian–subjects Christianity to severe scrutiny through the assaults made upon it by the character Ivan, leaving Alyosha with no response.

Ivan represents the cool, sophisticated, intellectual rejection of traditional faith (Ivan is trained at a university in Moscow), while Alyosha represents the simple, child-like faith of the Church (Alyosha is a novitiate at Russian Orthodox Church in a small town). Throughout the book, Ivan proves himself to be the intellectual superior of the two. And if you do not read the book all the way through the end, you will be left wondering: Why did I just read a book that praised the atheist and left the Christian looking dumbfounded?

Why Reading Brothers is Well, Well Worth It

The story of the book centers around the murder of Fyodor Karamazov, a perverted drunk who is as unlikable as he is wretched. One of his sons, Dmitri, is accused of the murder because of a strange love triangle they are in with a young woman, Grushenka. His younger brother, Ivan, thinks Dmitri is guilty while his youngest, Alyosha, thinks him innocent. The story follows this drama, ending in a classic court room battle between shouting lawyers demanding for justice. But this plot line serves simply as the canvas on which Dostoevsky is wanting to paint a much more serious philosophical and theological drama reflecting on the existence of God, the problem of evil, our responsibility to one another, and the nature of faith.

Two of the most important chapters in the book detail a conversation between Ivan and Alyosha, “Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor,” which set the stage for internal conflict both brothers will have to face as they grapple with God, the world, and their own angst.


Ivan rejects belief in God based in part upon hypocrisy in the church, but more seriously upon the problem of evil–particularly the problem of children’s suffering. Ivan recounts stories of children suffering some of the most wretched, appalling forms of evil and injustice–stories that all had a basis of truth that Dostoevsky gleaned from in his work as a journalist. Ivan confesses that he has no empirical or rational basis for denying that God exists, in fact admits that it seems likely, but simply refuses to acknowledge a God who would permit such events to happen, and thus lives as if God does not exist. “It’s not God that I do not accept, you understand, it is this world of God’s, created by God, that I do not accept and cannot agree to accept.” He even goes so far to say that were he to see visible proof before his very eyes of God’s existence, he would still refuse to believe.

In this chapter, Ivan spends the first half in a lengthy monologue detailing these horrific accounts of suffering–sometimes at the hand of supposed “Christians”–but then turns to anticipate a typical Christian response: God will work all things, even evil things, together for good. That in the end, at the last day, something so beautiful and glorious will be revealed that it will make up for all wrongs, heal all wounds, and the murdered and the murderer will be resurrected and embrace one another together and cry out “Just art thou, O Lord!” But Ivan is morally outraged by this. Who has the right to let toddlers and seven-year-olds suffer, even if “in the end” it all works out? It does not matter if there is some great consolation at the conclusion of history if we had to grind children in the process.

He would rather embrace the world as it is, with all its moral atrocities, with no God, than accept that God would permit such evil and suffering to occur with the aim of “eternal harmony” in the end. “I’d rather remain with my unrequited suffering and unquenched indignation, even if I’m wrong.” Ivan then asks his brother if he were in God’s position and were given the choice of creating a perfect, ideal paradise, but it came at the cost of just one child being tortured–“would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?” Alyosha quietly responds, “No, I would not agree.”

The Grand Inquisitor

But Alyosha reminds Ivan of Jesus Christ and His sacrifice on the cross, something Ivan has not mentioned yet. This leads Ivan to launch into his poem, “The Grand Inquisitor.” In the poem, Jesus again walks the earth, but now he has returned to 16th century Spain, during the worst of the Inquisition, when the Catholic Church was regularly burning heretics on the stake. Jesus is immediately recognized by everyone as he begins performing miracles, even raising a dead girl back to life. But the “Cardinal Grand Inquisitor,” an “old man, almost ninety, tall and straight, with a gaunt face and sunken eyes,” sees Jesus and immediately has him arrested, “And such is his power, so tamed, so submissive, and tremblingly obedient to his will are the people, that the crowd immediately parts before the guard…lay their hands on him and lead him away.”

The Grand Inquisitor then interrogates Jesus in prison, forbidding him from speaking, “Why then have you come to interfere with us?” He vows that tomorrow he will have Jesus burned at the stake “as the most evil of heretics, and the very people who today kissed your feet, tomorrow, at a nod from me, will rush to heap the coals up around your stake.” The Inquisitor goes on to explain that when Jesus first came, He came to offer people freedom: Jesus taught that people must choose freely to love Him and follow Him, He did not coerce individuals or manipulate them into belief. But while this is a lofty goal, it comes at the expense of people’s happiness, “for nothing has ever been more insufferable for man and for human society than freedom!” But, not to worry, the Inquisitor ironically assures Jesus, the Church has worked hard to undo this dilemma and has taught people to “lay their freedom at their feet” in exchange for happiness.

“Freedom” gives mankind the ability to chose a noble life, or a base one; to walk in truth or reject it, to pursue wickedness and depravity, to be left to themselves, directionless and unsure as they face the uncertainty of life and its attendant anxiety. It is only when mankind relinquishes their freedom, when they become slaves that true happiness can be found. This, the Inquisitor explains, is what the Church has done for the past 1500 years, absorbing the freedom of the people till they are like cattle, blindly following the dictates of the church. People do not need to worry about their needs, about understanding the world, or about what they should do. They only need the Grand Inquisitor. The church does this by embracing the three things Jesus rejected in his temptation by Satan, “miracle, mystery, and authority.”

The lengthy chapter is an unbroken monologue of the Inquisitor, explaining, more or less, the ethical argument for totalitarianism, why Jesus was foolish to expect so much from weak human beings by placing the burden of freedom upon them, and how the church has now come to realize the wisdom of “that great and intelligent dread spirit,” Satan.

Alyosha eventually responds rapid-fire with emotionally hot, but intellectually vacuous criticisms: “That’s ridiculous!” But Ivan calmly pushes Alyosha’s criticisms over. Ivan’s point in this story is not that he thinks the Roman Catholic Church is literally in league with Satan or would actually burn Jesus at the stake, or is even necessarily about the Roman Church per se. Organized religion, he wonders, may have been created not because there is a transcendent God who wants us to freely love him, but because people eventually realized that society is plagued by the uncertainties and absurdities of life and desire to be simply told what to do, what to believe in, and be fed by an autocratic hand. Perhaps the mystery, authority, and miracles of the Church serve as a “beneficent lie” to lull the masses into a stupor of peace–maybe this is even loving. Both the poem and Ivan’s commentary provide an intimidating challenge to Alyosha’s simple faith–it isn’t real, just useful–a challenge he has little to respond with.

Eventually, Ivan finishes his poem. The Inquisitor’s monologue ends and he sits in front of Jesus, waiting to hear his response. Jesus, however, says nothing. He simply rises and kisses the Inquisitor; a sign of love and grace given even to as cruel as a man as this one. A sign that Ivan has not wholly eradicated all of his childhood Christianity out of himself. The Inquisitor shudders and walks over and opens the prison door, “Go and do not come again…do not come at all…never, never!” Jesus leaves. Ivan explains of the old man: “the kiss burns in his heart, but the old man holds to his former idea.”

Ivan rejects God and therefore, as is repeated several times throughout the novel, affirms that “everything is permitted.” The reason churches teach love of neighbor, according to Ivan, is not because these things are inherently good, but simply because they are useful. Without a divine lawgiver there can be no divine law, and without a divine, universal law, all morality is subjective–everything is permitted. Total and absolute freedom. But mankind cannot live like this. In the words of Nietzsche’s Madman, “to wipe away the horizon…to unchain the earth from the sun,” is to live in the reality of the infinite uncertainty of what to do. So we have institutions like organized religion to create a fanciful lie about God and morality and heaven and hell to alleviate the burden of mankind’s freedom–you need not worry about the absurdity of existence, here is how to live. But for those on “the inside circle”, they who know that there is no God and no standard and no judgment, they know that this isn’t true. Therefore, for them, everything is permitted; they take upon themselves the heroic burden of the absurdity of freedom, perhaps even continuing the lie of objective morality and truth through religion so that the masses need not suffer as they do. This, in some sense, is how Ivan views himself. In fact, at the beginning of the novel we discover that Ivan has written a technical article in a religious journal in defense of an ecclesiological tradition in the Russian Orthodox Church, as if he himself is a true believer, though he isn’t.

And Alyosha? He just sits there quietly.

While Alyosha has no great retort, no intellectual “take down” of Ivan’s brilliant arguments, the conclusion of the chapter sows a seed of uncertainty in Ivan’s sophisticated reasoning. Eventually, Alyosha reaches over and kisses his brother, exactly like Jesus kisses the Inquisitor. We, the readers, are then immediately to map onto Ivan and Alyosha the figures of the Inquisitor and Jesus himself. Alyosha represents the Christ figure, silent but full of grace. Ivan represents the hardened Inquisitor, shielded by his lengthy arguments and indignation, but stupefied by grace. Ivan is unprepared for that response from Alyosha and uncertain about what it means. Could he–the confident atheist who is critical of the church–really be similar to the Inquisitor?

The Devil

After his encounter with Alyosha, Ivan is troubled by an “unbearable anguish” that he cannot explain. Up to his interaction with Alyosha, he had never shared the Grand Inquisitor poem with anyone, never even wrote it down. So as he is sharing it, it is the first time he is hearing himself give shape and word to the ideas that had been floating in his mind. But Ivan cannot put a finger on what is bothering him and is experiencing, “anguish to the point of nausea.” As will be revealed later in the book, Ivan is slowly beginning to realize that all the sophisticated and fanciful arguments he just espoused are not words he actually wants to live by–he does not want to be the Grand Inquisitor.

The Inquisitor argued so elegantly and voluminously that what he is doing is really out of love for mankind, yet we cannot miss the fact that, in the poem, the old man is planning on executing Jesus. In fact, we are told at the beginning of the poem that just the day before the Inquisitor burned 100 heretics at the stake. And yet this man is to be motivated by love? When individuals rise to totalitarian power out of a vague sense of “benevolence for mankind,” their love for mankind remains largely theoretical, and their disgust for individual persons quite palpable (another major theme in the entire novel). Every communist dictator in the 20th century rose to power with promises of creating a utopia, a brotherhood of man, but killed millions upon millions. This is the same logic of the Inquisitor. And the troubling association of Ivan with the Inquisitor is illuminated as Ivan’s story unfolds, leading him to eventually become disgusted by his own philosophy.

Towards the end of the novel Ivan becomes convinced that he is, in some sense, responsible for his father’s murder. He had some tacit awareness that the murder may happen, but does nothing to stop it. And he is tormented by guilt. However, Ivan also believes that “everything is permitted”–there is no moral law he is bound by, so why does something as tenuous as the mere affiliation with his father’s murder bother him so much? Further, his father deserved to die; he was repulsive person who did nothing but make the whole of society worse. Wouldn’t his murder arguably be justifiable?

As he wrestles with his own guilt, Satan appears to him. Ivan tries to convince himself that he is nothing but a hallucination, a mere fever-dream, but becomes more and more uncertain the longer Satan talks. Scared and insecure, Ivan passionately screams at the Devil that he doesn’t believe he is real. Satan largely ignores him, and begins to defend his existence as really a morally praiseworthy reality. Satan must exist for God to save people. Satan takes up the same line of argument that Ivan used in the Grand Inquisitor: that out of love for mankind, he must persist in his obstinance and rebellion so that he can be the dark contrast to the bright beauty of God. Ivan, aware that Satan is mimicking his own philosophy, angrily tells him to stop sharing such stupid ideas.

Throughout this chapter (“The Devil”) Satan is mocking Ivan, tormenting him with his own arguments, which seemed so eloquent in the dispute with Alyosha but now seems so stupid and deplorable when he hears it himself. At one point, after Ivan angrily scolds Satan for his stupidity, Satan responds that he thought that, “the author of a promising poem entitled ‘The Grand Inquisitor'” would like his reasoning. “I forbid you to speak of ‘The Grand Inquisitor'” Ivan exclaimed, blushing all over with shame.”

Satan then proceeds to regurgitate verbatim another poem that Ivan created when he was younger (“Geological Cataclysm”), pronouncing with youthful optimism the societal benefits of the death of God, how all evils will recede, mankind will advance, harmony will come, and everything will be permitted, to which Satan concludes with, “Lovely!” Meanwhile, Ivan is hunched over, hands over his ears, shuddering. All throughout this chapter, Satan needles Ivan with typical Doestevskyian irony–debasing and tormenting Ivan under the guise of praise. The point obvious to the reader is that Ivan is seeing his philosophy (God does not exist, therefore everything is permitted) crashing down around him. “Everything is permitted” cannot be true–Ivan is being psychologically unravelled as he comes to grips with the fact that, despite his purported philosophy, he is being eaten alive by guilt over his father’s death. Satan is praising him for his ideas!

A portrait of Repin by Gershin, 1884. Often used as a representation of Ivan Karamazov

Dostoevsky, in his brilliance, makes the reader uncertain the entire time whether or not Ivan is actually speaking to the Devil or is merely hallucinating. Either way, Satan embodies the exact mode of thinking and argumentation that Ivan has used to reject belief in God, and Ivan is repulsed by it, leading him to spiral into deeper and deeper pools of self-loathing. By the close of the novel, Ivan is driven to a hysterical madness that nearly kills him. Dostoevsky’s point with Ivan’s story is similar to Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment: ideas–even brilliant, university-trained ideas–have consequences. If you attempt to consistently live as if God does not exist, if “everything is permitted,” then what will you do when your soul tells you otherwise? When you are swallowed by a guilt that you believe doesn’t actually exist?

Truth Shall Win

Alyosha emerges from his conversation with Ivan shaken and disturbed. He is concerned for his brother’s soul, but equally frightened that Ivan may be correct. He immediately flees to his spiritual father, Elder Zossima, “…he will save me…from him, and forever!” He hopes that Zossima will overcome all his fears and doubts, that he will rebuff the intellectual attacks Ivan levied against his faith. Much to Alyosha’s great sadness, Zossima is dying, and instead of providing a response to Ivan’s arguments, Zossima’s death leaves Alyosha in an even greater crisis of faith. Alyosha, dazed by grief, intends on breaking his monastic vows and throwing himself into the arms of an immoral woman, but while there, when faced with temptation, suddenly realizes–inexplicably–that he does not want to abandon his faith, does not want to succumb to despair. He resists and, in fact, leads this woman closer to faith as well.

The book is a fascinating display of a dozen characters who gradually putrefy like blackened bananas over the narrative–everyone, except Alyosha. Space cannot allow for a thorough explanation of this, but what is clear in the whole of the novel is that despite Ivan crushing Alyosha in the intellectual arena, Alyosha wins by the end of the book–not by argument, not by intellectualism, not by rhetorical skill, but by his child-like faith, his lived worldview. The lived worldview of Ivan, on the contrary, is precisely what unravels him, what leads him to the brink of insanity. Alyosha remains the most psychologically healthy, loving, humble, and courageous character, despite sharing the same Karamazovian blood as his father, his brothers. It is his simple faith that breaks through the corrosive acids of despair, of vanity, of selfish passions, of sin.

The Brother’s Karamazov is fascinating on so many levels, but one of the most interesting aspects of this massive novel is this tension between faith and unbelief. Must Christians be able to conquer an “Ivan” in argument for their faith to be viable? Dostoevsky doesn’t think so.

Sophisticated critics of Christianity may seem to possess such impenetrable castles of argument that the typical Christian can despair. How are we supposed to maintain our faith if we can’t win the argument? But life is so much more than the intellectual realm. Arguably, the most important aspects of our life do not come from a kind of mathematical certainty given through proofs or evidence. Love, joy, beauty, laughter, grief, friendship, meaning–none of these are given to us the way an answer at the end of an calculus problem is given to us. They are intuitively experienced. Evidence and logic should corroborate them, certainly. Intuition is not contrary to reason or evidence. But evidence and reason alone are not what we build our lives with–we would have a remarkably thin and anemic set of values if we waited for rational or empirical proofs to demonstrate their validity. If a man was only certain that his wife loved him after she provided a logical syllogism or a certain quantity of empirical evidence, we would deem that man to not only be profoundly unhealthy mentally, but also to have misunderstood what love is.

Apologetic reasoning is important, but it is only one part of what makes Christianity plausible. I have never come across an argument against the Christian faith that I didn’t think had a sufficient answer to it. Ivan himself, after articulating his arguments, immediately realizes that there are problems with it. But Christianity does not become true or false based on an individual’s mental capacities or reasoning. The viability of our faith is not dependent on winning arguments alone, but is corroborated in lived reality, in how we respond to guilt, to shame, to grief; in whether or not we actually love our neighbor, love one another; in our mercy and patience, being willing to kiss the face of those who scorn and mock us. In other words, in our conformity to Christ. Ye shall know them by their fruits.

2 thoughts on “Why The Brothers Karamazov Is Worth Reading

  1. Beautiful post. Fwiw I’d consider modifying the word “plausible” in the last paragraph—maybe it’s just because I’m a lawyer and that word has specific connotations in law but I’d never use that word in reference to a belief I hold, makes it seem like it’s probably wrong but there’s a chance it could be right. “Compelling,” eg, would make the same point while expressing neither certainty nor unlikelihood.

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