My Year with Dostoevsky

Taking on a large task can be daunting at the outset. However, I was eager to start my project of reading as many of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s works as I could over the course of one year. His work is viewed as difficult by some because of the sheer length of some of the novels, references to the cultural milieu at the time, and, of course, all of the Russian names. In the end, however, delving into his work is extremely rewarding with its insights into the human condition, religion, politics, and morality. The world has changed immensely since his time, but we face the same problems that he addressed in an even more accentuated way. His work allowed me to reflect on virtues and vices in myself and in the world at large.

The Virtue of Humility

While reading The Idiot, I couldn’t help but be drawn to the main character: Prince Myshkin. Myshkin is often referred to as a Christ-figure due to his virtue; most especially, his humility. The world views him as an “idiot” because his views and morals do not align with those of the world. He seems simple and naive. This situation in our society has been especially evident during the last few years when one who does not go along with general social narratives is looked down upon as an “idiot” who doesn’t know enough to follow his “intellectual superiors.” Even when we are in possession of Truth, how often do we fail to exhibit the virtue of humility? I reflected on how we often feel the need to show others that we know what is true and what is not. Is this in order to demonstrate facts or to show the world how wise we are? How often are we guilty of the sin of pride without even realizing it? Sometimes we are guilty of this by trying to fit in with those around us and also, conversely, by trying to set ourselves apart from others. Contemplating Myshkin’s virtue has left me to reflect on my own shortcomings but also left me knowing that it’s okay to be an “idiot.”

The Virtue of Charity

During the course of the novel The Brothers Karamazov, a character relates a story of someone he knew who “loved humanity.” He was quoted as saying “I love humanity…but I can’t help being surprised at myself: the more I love humanity in general, the less I love men in particular.” This is a fairly minor scene, but it jumped out to me as something that is extremely prevalent in our society. I see too often an abundance of people outpouring sympathy and “altruism” for people in far away places. A recent example is the war in Ukraine. When it began, we were eagerly “showing our support” for the Ukrainian people who were suffering. Why is it easier to sympathize with others when they aren’t present in our own, daily lives? Is it because that sympathy satisfies our feeling that we love our fellow man? How often do we rush to volunteer at a local soup kitchen, or to donate clothes to the needy in our parish? We probably find it difficult to be charitable to our neighbors who annoy or frustrate us even though it is exactly those people who need our charity more.

The Vice of Intemperance/Imprudence

Switching gears to the negative aspects of human nature, I found that it was all too easy to identify with a few characters not based on their merits but on their flaws. Dmitri from The Brothers Karamazov is not the wild hedonist that his father is but is a more relatable kind of “sensualist” who is very aware of his failings. He exemplifies the internal struggle that so many of us experience. He is aware of higher ideals and strives for them but ends up being dragged down by baser impulses. He recognizes that it is even more pitiable that when pursuing one’s lower nature, one retains the higher ideals.

The Sin of Pride

In the famous story of The Grand Inquisitor, the standalone chapter of The Brothers Karamazov, we see the queen of sins, and it’s presented in its worst form: the pride of not needing God. In this imaginary scene, Christ returns to Earth only to be met by a cardinal who asks: “Why, then, art Thou come to hinder us?” and telling Him “…there is no need for Thee to come now at all.” The cardinal goes on to explain that the Church is busy taking care of the physical needs of its people which are of greater importance to him than their spiritual needs. There are larger implications of this scene as Dostoevsky is taking note of the rise of Modernism and the naturalization of religion in the church. However, I wanted to reflect on the personal rather than institutional form of this pride. How often have we “not needed God”? Have we “taken care of” our own needs and forgotten about Him? It’s so easy to prioritize our physical needs because they are often much more prominent to our senses. Putting food on the table and paying bills, especially in times of hyperinflation, are issues in the forefront of all of our minds but it’s no excuse to abandon our spiritual health.

There are an abundance of themes to explore in Dostoevsky’s works but these are just a few ideas that I took away to ponder upon for self-reflection. The world continues to change at a rapid pace but our human struggles remain the same. Unlike nonfiction works on morality, great literature can be like holding up a mirror; seeing virtues that we can aspire to attain and to see our faults that we wish to correct.

Image: A man takes a book by Fyodor Dostoevsky from the bookshelf. A multi-volume collection of works by the famous Russian writer. Ukraine, Mykolaiv – 10 11 2021

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Chris Bersaw attended Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts and earned a BA in Philosophy. He worked as a teacher for many years and has translated that love of literature and philosophy into his current work at Sophia Institute Press.

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