In 2010, I picked my copy of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov from my bookshelf. I had made a few attempts at it, but with life’s interruptions, the eight hundred pages were daunting. I now felt guilty that I had not read a book that was influential to so many writers and readers. A quick read would take me, a slow reader, about 30 hours, but this was not a book to dart through. It contained depths of philosophical thought.
There is the adage, ‘It takes a worried man to sing a worried song.’ It was of no surprise that a Google search for images of Dostoevsky revealed a middle-aged man with an unkempt beard and receding hairline. A skeletal face. Serious, with an ailing complexion. A profile revealing the tell-tale face of a man who experienced considerable injustices. Diagnosed with Grand Mal Epilepsy as a teenager, a last-minute reprieve from a firing squad, exiled to Siberia, death of his second wife whom he loved, death of his child from an epileptic convulsion and the distress of raising a troubled teenager.
However, if the Karamazov book is anything to go by, it was the existential angst that troubled Dostoevsky later years. Mourning the repeated inhumanity of Russian society, he inevitably turned to thoughts of Divine justice. A question that is as relevant today as it was two centuries ago.
When he was exiled to Siberia, an old widow supplied him and his fellow prisoner’s hospitality. She signalled out Dostoevsky and gifted him with a Bible. He later wrote, in his letters ‘I am a child of this age, the child of disbelief and doubt, until now and even to the grave. What a terrible torment this thirst for faith has taught me, and now cost me, which is stronger in my soul, the more in me the arguments to the contrary’ The Bible, she gave him, was still in his possession at his death.
Fascinating that The Brothers Karamazov was, despite careful reading, I never found that attributed phrase where Alisha said to his atheist brother, ‘If there is no God, then all things are permissible.’ The problem lies in the translation it seems. Nonetheless, the aphorism stands as a valuable argument for objective morality and the personal God. Why does something exist rather than not exist? Why are humans who are apparent chemicals that have come about in the big cosmic game of chance directed by this virtue called justice? Is all the goodness and wickedness carried out by humans all for nothing? Are the acts carried out by Pol Pot, Putin, Stalin, and others, permissible? Will there not be a great judgement? If we are alone in this dark universe the anything goes. But we’re not alone.
We are governed by an invisible force that bends towards justice. We feel it in our lives daily. I say bends because we are free moral agents on a level playing field where goodness and wickedness meet. There’s too much wickedness for God to exist some might say. But isn’t the reverse also true? There’s considerable goodness.
Why would any virtue exist in a universe that just happened? I see medical staff going to war-torn countries and risking life to provide care for those who are not their kin. What about Ignacio Echeverría, the 39-year-old Spanish lawyer who confronted the terrorists in the 2017 London Bridge attacks and sacrificing his athletic future and life in the process? There’s the stranger who sacrifices a kidney for the person he will never meet. The millions of charitable givers who make life more endurable for orphans in Brazil, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and other parts of the world. These acts defy the theory of reciprocity allogrooming. These acts describe altruism in the true sense. Just pure, unconditional love. And history is filled with such acts.