Study Guide

The Brothers Karamazov Wisdom and Knowledge

By Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Wisdom and Knowledge

"Besides, I can't bear it that some man, even with a lofty heart and the highest mind, should start from the ideal of the Madonna and end with the ideal of Sodom [...] No, man is broad, even too broad." (3.4.29)

In a typical moment of muddled but surprising eloquence, Dmitri articulates one of the main points of the novel: without spiritual guidance, man's tremendous imagination can't differentiate between good ("the ideal of the Madonna") and evil ("the ideal of Sodom").

[Alyosha's] mind, too, was splintered and scattered, as it were, while he himself felt at the same time that he was afraid to bring the scattered together and draw a general idea from all the tormenting contradictions he had lived through that day. (3.10.1)

Here Dostoevsky paints a particularly sophisticated portrait of what happens when we think. Without an "idea" to make sense of everything that happened, Alyosha can't organize his thoughts: all he has is a muddle.

"For those who renounce Christianity and rebel against it are in their essence of the same image of the same Christ, and such they remain, for until now neither their wisdom nor the ardor of their hearts has been able to create another, higher image of man and his dignity than the image shown of old by Christ. And whatever their attempts, the results have been only monstrosities [...]" (4.1.54)

The skeptic, despite his rejection of Christianity, still needs an idea. This thirst for an idea is inescapably human according to Dostoevsky; you can't argue it away. But without the divine imprint, any idea that the skeptic comes up with necessarily falls short in a grotesque way.

Lise was greatly moved by his story. Alyosha managed to paint an image of "Ilyushechka" for her with ardent feeling, and when he finished describing in great detail the scene of the wretched man trampling on the money, Lise clasped her hands [...] (5.1.7)

Alyosha doesn't speak much, but when he does he's able to provide an image of goodness that can move his readers (in this case, Lise) and bring out the best in them. His image is so compelling that Lise feels deep concern for a poor boy she doesn't know.

"[...] Well, then, what are [typical Russian boys] going to argue about, seizing this moment in the tavern? About none other than the universal questions: is there a God, is there immortality? And those who do not believe in God, well, they will talk about socialism and anarchism, about transforming the whole of mankind according to a new order, but it's the same damned thing, the questions are all the same, only from the other end [...]" (5.3.56)

The irony of Ivan's complaint here is that later on we'll meet the young Kolya, who parrots Ivan's ideas but ultimately abandons them when he meets Alyosha.

"[...] I have a Euclidean mind, an earthly mind, and therefore it is not for us to resolve things that are not of this world [...]" (5.3.64)

This is Ivan's way of putting Dmitri's assertion that man is "too broad" (see Quote #1 above). Ivan insists that he is earthbound, and can't – or refuses to –grasp ideas that transcend the earthly realm, such as religion.

"It is this world of God's, created by God, that I do not accept and cannot agree to accept [...]. Let the parallel lines meet even before my own eyes. I shall look and say, yes, they meet, and still I will not accept it. That is my essence, Alyosha, that is my thesis." (5.3.64)

As a further elaboration of his assertion that he has only an earthly mind (see Quote #6), Ivan believes he would even refuse to believe a miracle (parallel lines meeting) if he should see it.

Ivan laughed, "If you're so spoiled by modern realism and can't stand anything fantastic – if you want it to be qui pro quo, let it be." (5.5.3)

Despite his claim to be completely earthbound, Ivan is the one who indulges in fantastic speculation, while the religious Alyosha is described as a modern realist.

"The dread and intelligent spirit, the spirit of self-destruction and non-being [...] the great spirit spoke with you in the wilderness [...] By the questions alone, simply by the miracle of their appearance, one can see that one is dealing with a mind not human and transient but eternal and absolute. For in these three questions all of subsequent human history is as if brought together in a single whole and foretold; three images are revealed that will take in all the insoluble historical contradictions of human nature over all the earth [...]" (5.5.10)

The problem with the Grand Inquisitor's assertion here is that we only know about the devil's three temptations through the Bible (there is no separate devil's Bible that gives his side of events). The Bible has to make the devil's temptations sound, well, tempting; otherwise, the importance of Christ's rejection of them would be completely lost. Think, for example, how different the story would have been if the devil offered Christ a cupcake.

"Freedom, free reason, and science will lead them into such a maze, and confront them with such miracles and insoluble mysteries, that some of them, unruly and ferocious, will exterminate themselves; others, unruly but feeble, will exterminate each other; and the remaining third, feeble and wretched, will crawl to our feet and cry out to us: 'Yes, you were right.'" (5.5.11)

Ivan's Grand Inquisitor is filled with ironies. Here, he says that without religion man will be led to a self-destructive frenzy – just as Ivan will later in the novel.

"Our people believe tirelessly in the truth, acknowledge God, weep tenderly. Not so their betters. These, following science, want to make a just order for themselves by reason alone, but without Christ now, not as before, and they have already proclaimed that there is no crime, there is no sin. And in their own terms, that is correct: for if you have no God, what crime is there to speak of? [...] Salvation will come from the people, from their faith and their humility." (6.3.f)

This is probably Zosima's clearest critique of Enlightenment thinking, which is portrayed here as a Western European invention, alien to the spirit of the Russian people. Zosima views rationalism as sheer intellectual arrogance. He argues that only the humble Russian people, who accept the place of religion in their lives and in world history, will be able to create a just society.

"Imagine: it's all there in the nerves, in the head, there are these nerves in the brain (devil take them!)...there are little sorts of tails, these nerves have little tails, well, and when they start trembling there [...] an image appears, as it were [...] and that's why I contemplate, and then think...because of the little tails, and not at all because I have a soul or am some sort of image and likeness, that's all foolishness." (11.4.26 )

Dmitri here restates what he learned from the intellectual Rakitin about how the mind works from a purely scientific or neurological point of view. The ridiculousness of Dmitri's understanding again supports the novel's view that truly great ideas don't spring from random chemicals firing in your brain, but from religious inspiration.

"You are a lie, you are my illness, you are a ghost [...] You are the embodiment of myself, but of just one side of me...of my thoughts and feelings, but only the most loathsome and stupid of them. [...]" (11.9.10)

At this late point in the novel, Ivan begins to recognize how his skepticism is really the product of the worst parts of himself, as his attack on his own devil shows.

"There are things that are even worse, even more ruinous in such cases [...] if we are, for example, possessed by a certain, so to speak, artistic game, by the need for artistic production, so to speak, the creation of a novel, especially seeing the wealth of psychological gifts with which God has endowed our abilities [...] psychology, gentlemen, though a profound thing, is still a stick with two ends [...] Psychology prompts novels even from the most serious people." (2.10.3)

The novel has a thing against psychology as a scientific explanation for human behavior. The defense attorney Fetyukovich demonstrates how the prosecutor Kirillovich is led to the mistaken conclusion that Dmitri is the real murderer through his appeal to psychology.

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