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!