Dostoevsky on the Individual

The following passage from The Brothers Karamazov is taken from one of the “Talks and Homilies” of the Elder Zossima – one of the key characters in the novel. His thoughts echo earlier articles here that contrast man as “individual” (isolation) to man as Person (brotherhood and communion). I plan to offer a series of thoughts on the position of the Christian in a consumer culture.

dostoevskyLook at the worldly and at the whole world that exalts itself above the people of God: are the image of God and his truth not distorted in it? They have science, and in science only that which is subject to the senses. But the spiritual world, the higher half of man’s being, is altogether rejected, banished with a sort of triumph, even with hatred. The world has proclaimed freedom, especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs: only slavery and suicide! For the world says: “You have needs, therefore satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the noblest and richest men. do not be afraid to satisfy them, but even increase them” – this is the current teaching of the world. And in this they see freedom. But what comes of this right to increase one’s needs? For the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; for the poor, envy and murder, for they have been given rights, but have not yet been shown any way of satisfying their needs. We are assured that the world is becoming more and more united, is being formed into brotherly communion, by the shortening of distances, by the transmitting of thoughts through the air. Alas, do not believe in such a union of people. Taking freedom to mean the increase and prompt satisfaction of needs, they distort their own nature, for they generate many meaningless and foolish desires, habits, and the most absurd fancies in themselves. They live only for mutual envy, for pleasure-seeking and self-display. To have dinners, horse, carriages, rank, and slaves to serve them is now considered such a necessity that for the sake of it, to satisfy it, they will sacrifice life, honor, the love of mankind, and will even kill themselves if they are unable to satisfy it. We see the same thing in those who are not rich, while the poor, so far, simply drown their unsatisfied needs and envy in drink. But soon they will get drunk on blood instead of wine, they are being led to that. I ask you: is such a man free? I knew one “fighter for an idea” who told me himself that when he was deprived of tobacco in prison, he was so tormented by this deprivation that he almost went and betrayed his “idea,” just so that they would give him some tobacco. And such a man says: “I am going to fight for mankind.” Well, how far will such a man get, and what is he good for? Perhaps some quick action, but he will not endure for long. And no wonder that instead of freedom they have fallen into slavery, and instead of serving brotherly love and human unity, they have fallen, on the contrary, into disunity and isolation, as my mysterious visitor and teacher used to tell me in my youth. And therefore the idea of serving mankind, of the brotherhood and oneness of people, is fading more and more in the world, and indeed the idea now even meets with mockery, for how can one drop one’s habits, where will this slave go now that he is so accustomed to satisfying the innumerable needs he himself has invented? He is isolated, and what does he care about the whole? They have succeeded in amassing more and more things, but have less and less joy.

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10 Responses to “Dostoevsky on the Individual”

  1. Ben Says:

    So true Father.

    I was just reading this passage yesterday as I am reading The Brothers Karamazov for the first time. I was struck by how prophetic Dostoevsky is. I believe that he died 2 months after its publication. Such a sad thing, he was planning on writing a sequel to The Brothers. Memory Eternal!

  2. Sean Says:

    Strikes with the force of the hammer on the anvil.

  3. Kevin Says:

    “We are assured that the world is becoming more and more united, is being formed into brotherly communion, by the shortening of distances, by the transmitting of thoughts through the air. Alas, do not believe in such a union of people. Taking freedom to mean the increase and prompt satisfaction of needs, they distort their own nature, for they generate many meaningless and foolish desires, habits, and the most absurd fancies in themselves. They live only for mutual envy, for pleasure-seeking and self-display” — Facebook Mission Statement?

  4. fatherstephen Says:

    I had the joy of officiating at a wedding earlier today. No clearer reminder of the commonality of our life in Christ.

  5. Mark Says:

    Great book, that. Dostoevsky is undoubtedly my favorite author, and I have him to thank for helping me in my “re-conversion”.

  6. Lucian Says:

    Had Dostoyevsky been an American, he would’ve entitled his book “The Karamazov Brothers” instead of “The Brothers Karamazov”, and it would’ve probably been something of a success story, kinda like the Wright brothers, or the Warner brothers (and elder Zossima would’ve probably been a witty old man delivering clever sound-bites and one-liners).🙂

  7. fatherstephen Says:

    And it would have been lost to history as banal and beside the point.

    Father Stephen+

    Sent from my iTouch

  8. mary k Says:

    God Bless You Father.
    Thankyou for your blog.

    Although its probably a stupid question and in the wrong place but i didn’t know where to place it can you tell me why Fathers dont often hug people?
    The bible says God is love,does that mean God is loving like hugs and warmth etc or does it only mean only on an altruistic/will level eg:sending Jesus so humanity could have salvation?
    Can a person have hugs and affections and still be able to make the mindframe of Holiness and reverence to God in church or does one cancel out the other?
    I hope that made sense.I’m sorry if it didn’t
    Thankyou

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    Hugs are fine. It’s mostly cultural. Some cultures hug more. Also, some priests may refrain from hugs to avoid temptation. Each person is different. Hugs are not a problem for holiness.

  10. mary k Says:

    Thankyou Father Stephen

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