Dostoevsky on Sobornost: Are We Our Brothers’ and Sisters’ Keepers?

With the debates raging in America over healthcare reforms, I was reminded this morning while reading an article on Dostoevsky’s novel, Brothers Karamazov, of our lack of sobornost, an important teaching emphasized by the Russian Orthodox Church.  Sobornost (cоборность) is a Russian word meaning, “spiritual community of many jointly living people.”[1] Twentieth century Russian philosopher, Nicholai Lossky, father of theologian Vladimir Lossky, approached sobornost from a Hegelian-influenced perspective, viewing sobornost as a synthesis or even mystical unity that brings human beings together in order to work for a common, social good.  Sobornost is in many ways the antithesis of Western individualism, or any ethos that manifests a “so long as I’m taken care of, it’s not my problem attitude.”  In stark contrast, as N. Lossky expresses the concept, sobornost speaks of many individuals freely united on the basis of their common love for “absolute values,” and who are willing to relinquish (a kind of kenotic giving up) certain benefits for the sake of the good of the whole.Alyosha Karamazov

If you are familiar with Brothers Karamazov, you immediately perceive the way in which the sobornost theme permeates nearly every page of the novel.  In interesting essay entitled, “The Biblical Story of Joseph in Dostoevskii’s The Brothers Karamazov,” Richard C. Miller shows how this mystical connection of humankind plays itself out in the complex relations of the Karamazov brothers.  In particular, Miller focuses on the role of one fugal line in Dosteovsky’s polyphonic text, viz., Zosima’s interpretation of the biblical story of Joseph (of course mediated by Aloysha and thus adding another melodic line into the mix).  Among the many scriptural references in Brothers Karamazov (BK hereafter), we also encounter a long discussion on the book of Job.  As Miller explains,

the stories of Job and of Joseph are counterparts.  Job’s dealing with the nature of man’s relationship with God, Joseph’s with man’s relationship to his fellow man—his own brothers and his father.  […]  The two themes of these biblical works correspond to the two major areas of investigation in The Brothers Karamazov. Man’s relationship with God is the subject of great internal struggle for each of the brothers.  Alesha [=Alyosha] must face it after the death of his elder, Dmitrii [=Dmitri] confronts it in prison, and Ivan is persistently hounded by the problem almost from the first pages of the novel.  Both the Joseph story and Doestoevskii’s [=Dostoevsky][2] novel explore the motivation underlying fraternal and filial interactions.  In both works the protagonists are brothers who share the same father but were born of different mothers.  Although there is no one-to-one correspondence between the personalities of the major characters—Jacob and Fedor [=Fyodor], for example—the dynamics of family relations produce similar conflicts and passions.  The responsibility of each man for his brother, envy, vengeance for past wrongs, all feature prominently in both works (654).

Dostoyevsky PortraitNumerous threads could be taken up here, but I’ll have to limit myself to a few.  As Zosima’s story unfolds, we discover that his own conversion came about through his (mystical, grace irruption) realization of his intimate connection to humankind, that is, to all human beings, as well as to creation as a whole.  When Zosima was a young man, the woman he loved decided to marry another man.  Filled with vengeance, Zosima challenged the man to a duel.  The night before the duel, Zosima in a fit of rage beat his servant, Afanasey.  The next morning Zosima awoke to the singing of birds and the sun reflecting its brilliance in God’s creation.  He sensed a strange harmony of creation at play, which made him recall the words of his deceased brother, Markel who had been converted prior to his death.  Markel had come to see his solidarity with his fellow humans, which provoked him to proclaim, “everyone is guilty before every other human being of everything, and if only people would come to realize this, it would result in a kind of paradise on earth.” This experience moves Zosima to see his own guilt and to seek the forgiveness of his servant, as well as that of his thoroughly shocked dueling partner.  As a result of his conversion, Zosima constantly speaks of the need for active love which is a mark of true spiritual regeneration.  Each of the brothers (excepting Smerdiakov) undergoes this spiritual transformation, first through a falling to the ground and dying to oneself and then a rising to newness of life expressed in showing mercy toward others.

Gary L. Browning also takes up the theme of active love and our responsibility toward others in his essay, “Zosima’s ‘Secret of Renewal’ in The Brothers Karamazov.”  Browning highlights a key phrase in the novel, “each is guilty for all,” the force of which is lost in many translations, including Constance Garnett’s otherwise excellent translation, in which the phrase is rendered, each is “responsible for all.”  The Russian variants of this phrase, of which there are many scattered throughout the novel, all include forms of the verb, “виновать” (vinovat), which means “to be guilty.”  For example, when Zosima exhorts the Karamazovs, who were visiting him at the monastery, to love one another and all human beings, he says, “каждый единый из нас винован за всех и за вся,” (“every one of us is guilty for all and everything” [XIV]).  Is this just a pessimistic, nihilistic view of humankind and our relation to others?  No.  According to Zosima, the realization that we are guilty, not only for our own failings but are also implicated in the wrongdoings of all people  is  that which moves us out of our atomistic, self-absorbed and self-imposed shackles and frees us to experience love and  intimacy with God and others.

How are we guilty for all and everything?  Zosima tells us in his “Conversations and Exhortations,” gathered and mediated through Alyosha.  (Here Dostoevsky’s moral theory goes beyond both Kant’s and Mill’s, in a sense using sobornost to unite or synthesize what is best in both).  First, each of our lives provide inadequate examples for others.  (As a parent, this is strikingly clear to me).  In addition to bad examples, even our best examples do not have the power (solely in and of themselves) to fully liberate another.  This is shown in Alyosha’s failure to transform Fyodor.  Second, we judge others unjustly and with insufficient information.  Dostoevsky brings this home in a powerful way in Dmitri’s unjust sentence of guilty.  The medical “experts,” leading sociologists of the day, and a few clever witnesses were able to convince the jury of Dmitri’s guilt—all of which illustrates the way in which human judgment fails and often miserably.    What path then ought we follow? The path of confession, forgiveness and humble, active love—a path made possible by the One who died, fell to the ground, and a rose in new life which He offers to all who will receive it. 


[1] Ozhegov and N. U. Shvedova, Explanatory Dictionary of the Russian Language.

[2] Oh for the day when Russian transliterations are standardized!

Williams on Dostoevsky’s Faith and Ivan’s Inquisitor

The church and postmodern culture blog recently posted my brief essay, “Rowan Williams on Dostoevsky’s Faith and Ivan’s Inquisitor.”  If you are interested in Dostoevsky and did not have time to read my recent multi-part series on Dostoevsky, then this short post will perhaps spark your interest.

I highly recommend Williams’ book, Language, Faith, and Fiction:  The Making of the Christian Imagination. Even if you happen to disagree with Williams on various political, social or theological issues, his book on Dostoevsky is well worth your time.  Personally, I found the book spiritually edifying and existentially challenging.  Williams’ explanation of the diabolical, the sacramental nature of reality, the social importance of the role of icons (understood both specifically and broadly), and the need for humans to recognize and embrace a spirit of solidarity–what the Russians call, “соборность” (“sobornost”)–rather than a spirit of individualism, are among the many outstanding features of the book.

The following product description and editorial review appears on the back book cover and was copied from

Product Description
Rowan Williams explores the intricacies of speech, fiction, metaphor, and iconography in the works of one of literature’s most complex, and most complexly misunderstood, authors. Williams’ investigation focuses on the four major novels of Dostoevsky’s maturity (Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Devils, and The Brothers Karamozov). He argues that understanding Dostoevsky’s style and goals as a writer of fiction is inseparable from understanding his religious commitments. Any reader who enters the rich and insightful world of Williams’ Dostoevsky will emerge a more thoughtful and appreciative reader for it.

Reading Dostoevsky is like looking from a high peak at several mountain ranges, some brightly lit, others dark with mist, going back farther than the eye can see. In this breathtaking book, Rowan Williams takes us on a journey through literary art, the nature of fiction, psychological depths, historical and cultural setting and allusion, and beyond all else a world of faith and doubt, of philosophy and theology not dry on the page but moist with tears of compassion. We return to Dostoevsky with new insight and wide-ranging understanding and to real life with fresh perspectives on what it means to be human, to be under threat from the demonic, and above all to sense the dark and urgent presence of the living God. –N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham

Rowan Williams here reveals the originality and daring that have made him such a controversial (and inspiring) leader of his church. The readings demonstrate an impressive grasp of current scholarly criticism of Dostoevsky. But this is not just another book about Dostoevsky. The literary interpretations are guided by an intense humanism that shares at points surprising parallels with radical leftist critiques. As author of a previous book of Sergej Bulgakov, Williams is at home in Russian philosophy, particularly the Orthodox emphasis on kenosis, the voluntary emptying out of Christ’s divine attributes during his time on earth. This aspect of Russian thought was important for Bakhtin, who serves as a kind of dialogic third partner in Williams conversation with his reader. This is a work of learning and passion, a heteroglot blend of literary, ethical, and subtle theological argument that is full of surprising local triumphs of interpretation — and that most un-academic virtue, wisdom. –Michael Holquist, Professor Emeritus of Comparative and Slavic Literature, Yale University

Rowan Williams, in this study of Dostoevsky’s characters, brings to attention the theological anthropology implicit in and generative of the narratives’ dynamics. In his hands, theology becomes not a kind of explanation or completion but both a release, an opening of the narratives to the as yet unsaid, and a clarification of the continuities between the characters and the Orthodox Christianity of the setting. Crucial to this reading of Dostoevsky is an understanding of personal identity not as a possession but as a consequence of an ongoing relational process and an interweaving of freedom with a responsibility for others. As we no longer read Dostoevsky the way we did before reading Mikhail Bakhtin, so also, having read Williams, we no longer will read either Dostoevsky or Bakhtin as we once did. –Wesley A. Kort, Professor of Religion, Duke University

Victor Terras on Dostoevsky and Tolstoi

In his book, Reading Dostoevsky, Victor Terras makes a few interesting comparisons and contrasts between Dostoevsky and Tolstoi.

In regard to heroes, “Tolstoi’s heroes and heroines are ordinary people, engaged in typical relationships, mostly normal ones. The forces that move them are the ones the most men and women know well—for example, the sex drive” (p. 37). With Dostoevsky, “typical relationships” and characters are marginal, as he claims that a “deeper truth” is opened up with exceptional characters and not-so-typical relationships. According to Terras, “normal love affairs do not interest Dostoevsky. Even simple adultery is a nontopic. Dostoevsky is fascinated by passions that seem to be a manifestation of a metaphysical yearning for an absolute, for something that defies reason—in a word, the Eros of Plato’s Symposium. Eros has many forms: the earthly lust of Fiodor Pavlovich Karamazov […] Dmitry’s sensual but more exalted ‘aesthetic’ love, Ivan’s cold intellectual passion, Aliosha’s spiritual agape” (p. 38)

As is well-known, Dostoevsky is found of developing characters such as Prince Myshkin, Aliosha, and Sonia Marmeladov who exemplify genuine Christian agape. Here we might get the impression that this aspect of Dostoevsky is similar to the “old Tolstoi” who often wrote of the purity of love. But, as Terras explains, “the keynote of Dostoevsky’s feeling is different. Nowhere in Dostoevsky is there a real challenge to, must less a putdown of, that powerful god, Eros. There is nothing resembling the old Tolstoi’s squeamish distaste for sex in Aliosha’s extreme chastity, or in Myshkin’s virginity. Myshkin and Aliosha are both bridegrooms. The Dostoevskian saint is chaste because of too much, not too little, Eros” (p. 39). It seems to me that St. Augustine, C.S. Lewis, and Kierkegaard would say the same of the Christian saint.

Whose Notes from the Underground?

This post was inspired by a comment and question that Byron at “Nothing New Under the Sun,” made to one of my recent Dostoyevsky posts. Byron asks, “Does Dostoyevsky agree with his narrator?” The question has been gnawing at me ever since, so I decided to read up on some the relevant critical views on the subject. Though I am no Dostoyevsky expert, the following position presented by Joseph Frank in essay simply entitled, “Notes from the Underground,” is rather persuasive (which means I should nuance my previous posts). So thanks, Byron, for asking this question, as through it my understanding of Dostoyevsky has benefited.

After discussing a number of views of various literary critics, and pointing out Dostoyesky’s own hints at what he is doing in his footnote 1[1] of the text itself, Frank sums up his take in the following paragraph:

“Notes from the Underground has been read as the psychological self-revelation of a pathological personality, or as a theological cry of despair over the evils of ‘human nature,’ or as a declaration of Dostoyesky’s supposed adherence to Nietzsche’s philosophy of ‘amoralism’ and the will to power, or as a defiant assertion of the revolt of the human personality against all attempts to limit its inexhaustible potentialties—and the list can easily be continued. All these readings, and many more, can plausibly be supported if certain features of the text are singled out and placed in the foreground while others are simply overlooked or forgotten. But if we are interested in understanding Dostoyevsky’s own point of view, so far as this can be reconstructed, then we must take it for what it was initially meant to be—a brilliantly Swiftian satire, remarkable for the finesse of its conception and the brio of its execution, which dramatizes the dilemmas of a representative Russian personality attempting to live by the two European codes whose unhappy effects Dostoyevsky explores. And though the sections have a loose narrative link, the novella is above all a diptych depicting two episodes of a symbolic history of the Russian intelligentsia” (pp. 219-220).

This is not, however, to say that aspects of Dostoyesky’s own life and experience are not present in his fictional character. “As the underground man belabors his own self-disgust and guilt, was not Dostoyevsky also suppressing his self-condemnation as a conscience-stricken spectator of his wife’s death-agonies, and repenting of the egoism to which he confessed in his notebook?” (p. 219).

[1] As Frank points out, in footnote 1 of Notes from the Underground, Dostoyevski provides a clue to his audience as to the “satirical and parodistic nature of his conception.” However, the strength and passion Dostoyevsky’s character overpowers or clouds the nature of the work as a satirical parody, which often results in a straightforward reading.

Nietzsche and Dostoyevski on the Effects of a "Purely" Scientific Metanarrative

“And here you have begun upon it. Indeed, if there really is some day discovered a formula for all our desires and caprices—that is, an explanation of what they depend upon, by what laws they arise, how they develop, what they are aiming at in one case and in another and so on, that is a real mathematical formula—then, most likely, man will at once cease to feel desire, indeed, he will be certain to” (Fyodor Dostoyevski, Notes from the Underground, Part I.VIII).

In a similar vein, Nietzsche writes,

“If science produces ever less joy in itself and takes ever greater joy in casting suspicion on the comforts of metaphysics, religion, and art, then the greatest source of pleasure, to which mankind owes almost its whole humanity, is impoverished. Therefore a higher culture must give man a double brain, two brain chambers, as it were, one to experience science, and one to experience nonscience. Lying next to one another, without confusion, separable, self-contained: our health demands this. […] If this demand made by higher culture is not satisfied, we can almost certainly predict the further course of human development: interest in truth will cease, the less it gives pleasure, illusion, error, and fantasies, because they are linked with pleasure, will reconquer their former territory step by step; the ruin of the sciences and relapse into barbarism follow next. Mankind will have to begin to weave its cloth from the beginning again, after having, like Penelope, destroyed it in the night. But who will guarantee that we will keep finding the strength to do so?” (paragraph 251, “Signs of a Higher and Lower Culture”).

Both authors seems to be saying that passions (as found in religion, art, etc.) are what drive us forward and that science (utilizing “objective” reason) lacks this kind of drive, as it functions as a kind of regulator of passion. In essence, the scientific metanarrative claims that truth lies in science, not in metaphysics and religion. However, according to Dostoyevski and Nietzsche, if all we have is truth (meaning the truth of science), we would have no reason to keep on living because the kind of truth science gives is a humble truth and does not satisfy the core of our being. As a result, we have to have another side to us—a side strictly separate from the other side—a side that inspires us and motivates us to press on. Here of course we see many similarities with Kant who restricts science to a realm of universally valid judgments—a realm primarily of quantifying and doing experiments that are reproducible. In contrast, religion and metaphysics according to Kant cannot produce these universally valid judgments because we have no faculty for making universally valid judgments for objects beyond our possible experience.

Though I would not agree with the dichotomous view so prevalent in the thinkers above, I do see their critique of scient-ism, as well as their desire to understand the human person as something more than a “rational animal” (i.e., a more holistic view of the human person) as “on the mark” and instructive for believers.

Dostoyevski’s Theologico-Existential Insights from the Underground

Ведь мы даже не знаем, где и живое-то живет теперь и что оно такое, как называется? Оставьте нас одних, без книжки, и мы тотчас запутаемся, потеряемся, — не будем знать, куда примкнуть, чего придержаться; что любить и что ненавидеть, что уважать и что презирать? Мы даже и человеками-то быть тяготимся, — человеками с настоящим, собственным телом и кровью; стыдимся этого, за позор считаем и норовим быть какими-то небывалыми общечеловеками. Мы мертворожденные, да и рождаемся-то давно уж не от живых отцов, и это нам все более и более нравится. Во вкус входим. Скоро выдумаем рождаться как-нибудь от идеи. Но довольно; не хочу я больше писать “из Подполья.” (Ф.М. Достоевский, Записки из подполья, Часть II.X)

Why, we don’t even know what living means now, what it is, and what it is called? Leave us alone without books and we shall be lost and in confusion at once. We shall not know what to join on to, what to cling to, what to love and what to hate, what to respect and what to despise. We are oppressed at being men—men with a real individual body and blood, we are ashamed of it, we think it a disgrace and try to contrive to be some sort of impossible generalised man. We are stillborn, and for generations past have been begotten, not by living fathers, and that suits us better and better. We are developing a taste for it. Soon we shall contrive to be born somehow from an idea. But enough; I don’t want to write more from “Underground.” (Fyodor Dostoyevski, Notes from the Underground, Part II.X)

Именно свои фантастические мечты, свою пошлейшую глупость пожелает удержать за собой единственно для того, чтоб самому себе подтвердить (точно это так уж очень необходимо), что люди все еще люди, а не фортепьянные клавиши, на которых хоть и играют сами законы природы собственноручно, но грозят до того доиграться, что уж мимо календаря и захотеть ничего нельзя будет. Да ведь мало того: даже в том случае, если он действительно бы оказался фортепьянной клавишей, если б это доказать ему даже естественными науками и математически, так и тут не образумится, а нарочно напротив что-нибудь сделает, единственно из одной неблагодарности; собственно чтоб настоять на своем. А в том случае, если средств у него не окажется, — выдумает разрушение и хаос, выдумает разные страдания и настоит-таки на своем! Проклятие пустит по свету, а так как проклинать может только один человек (это уж его привилегия, главнейшим образом отличающая его от других животных), так ведь он, пожалуй, одним проклятием достигнет своего, то есть действительно убедится, что он человек, а не фортепьянная клавиша! Если вы скажете, что и это все можно рассчитать по табличке, и хаос, и мрак, и проклятие, так уж одна возможность предварительного расчета все остановит и рассудок возьмет свое, — так человек нарочно сумасшедшим на этот случай сделается, чтоб не иметь рассудка и настоять на своем! Я верю в это, я отвечаю за это, потому что ведь все дело-то человеческое, кажется, и действительно в том только и состоит, чтоб человек поминутно доказывал себе, что он человек, а не штифтик! хоть своими боками, да доказывал; хоть троглодитством, да доказывал. А после этого как не согрешить, не похвалить, что этого еще нет и что хотенье покамест еще черт знает от чего зависит… (Ф.М. Достоевский, Записки из подполья, Часть I.VIII)

It is just his fantastic dreams, his vulgar folly that he will desire to retain, simply in order to prove to himself—as though that were so necessary—that men still are men and not the keys of a piano, which the laws of nature threaten to control so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar. And that is not all: even if man really were nothing but a piano-key, even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse out of simple ingratitude, simply to gain his point. And if he does not find means he will contrive destruction and chaos, will contrive sufferings of all sorts, only to gain his point! He will launch a curse upon the world, and as only man can curse (it is his privilege, the primary distinction between him and other animals), may be by his curse alone he will attain his object–that is, convince himself that he is a man and not a piano-key! If you say that all this, too, can be calculated and tabulated—chaos and darkness and curses, so that the mere possibility of calculating it all beforehand would stop it all, and reason would reassert itself, then man would purposely go mad in order to be rid of reason and gain his point! I believe in it, I answer for it, for the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key! It may be at the cost of his skin, it may be by cannibalism! And this being so, can one help being tempted to rejoice that it has not yet come off, and that desire still depends on something we don’t know? (Fyodor Dostoyevski, Notes from the Underground, Part I.VIII)