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November 22 2019 10:43 EST

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky, adapted from Vasily Perov painting, 1872, Tretyakov Gallery

Fyodor Dostoevsky, (adapted) Vasily Perov, 1872, oil


since 01.01.06

Introduction to Philosophy

Dostoevsky, "The Problem of Evil"

Abstract: The death of an innocent child is seen to be an inescapable objection to God's goodness.

  1. Why does Ivan think that children are innocent and adults are not? Why does he think we can love children when they are close, but we can only love our neighbor abstractly?
  2. Does the General deserve to be shot for turning his hounds upon the child? Explain an answer from a religious point of view.
  3. What does Ivan mean when he says, "I hasten to give back my entrance ticket."
  4. List five or six possible explanations which are sometimes taken to account for the death of an innocent child in a universe created by God
  5. What does Alyosha mean when he says to Ivan, "That is rebellion"?
  1. Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) is a Russian novelist whose works anticipate existential psychoanalysis.
    1. Several biographical points should be briefly mentioned.
      1. Both parents died before Dostoevsky graduated from a military engineering academy in St. Petersburg.
      2. He was arrested, sentenced to death, but after a mock execution and a commuted sentence, he was sent to a Siberian penal colony for four years.
      3. Dostoevsky suffered from epilepsy; he experienced a conversion experience to Christianity.
      4. Aside from the brief early acclaim for Poor Folk, he did not receive literary fame until several years before his death.
      5. His influence is profound upon twentieth century writers and philosophers.
    2. In the Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche writes, "Dostoevski, the only psychologist, incidentally, from whom I had something to learn; he ranks among the most beautiful strokes of fortune in my life…"
  2. "The Problem of Evil" as discussed in The Brothers Karamazov:
    1. Notes are arranged in response to the questions stated above in reference to the chapter "The Problem of Evil" in Reading for Philosophical Inquiry.
      1. Why does Ivan think that children are innocent and adults are not? Why does he think we can love children when they are close, but we can only love our neighbor abstractly?
        1. Innocence, for Ivan, has to do with the intention of an act rather than the outcome of an act. The child is innocent because the child did not intend to hurt the hound. Since an adult can intend do harm when there are not harmful consequences, an adult cannot be experientially innocent as a child could be.
        2. We can love our neighbor abstractly in the sense that all people have the same nature, but once we come to know the foibles of our neighbor, we lose sight of human nature. People in general share no disagreeable qualities; specific persons have specific disagreeable qualities which can distract us from loving them. Children have not yet developed the adult idiosyncrasies such as mistrust, greed, and cruelty. Dostoevsky seems to see naivety as innocence and the consciousness of adults as awareness of right and wrong.
      2. Does the General deserve to be shot for turning his hounds upon the child? Explain an answer from a religious point of view.
        1. "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." (Matthew 5:38:45.)
        2. "If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman's husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe." (Exodus 21:22-25.)
      3. What does Ivan mean when he says, "I hasten to give back my entrance ticket?"?
        1. Ivan says he accepts God simply. He apparently believes in a classical Euclidean creation: there is an underlying order and meaning to life with an eternal harmony with regularity and law.
        2. It's the world, itself, created by God that he cannot accept.
        3. Ivan doesn't accept the world, and he states he will take his own life. He reveals the feeling, "Stop the world, I want to get off."
      4. List five or six possible explanations which are sometimes taken to account for the death of an innocent child in a universe created by God.
        1. The problem described by Ivan is the example of a child, as his mother is forced to watch, being torn apart by hounds set upon him by the master. Ivan asks how can we account for the suffering of the child.
          1. Eternal harmony: Suffering and evil will vanish like a mirage at the end of the world. Just as seeing the individual colors of the rainbow does not indicate to us that all colors taken together produce white, so likewise seeing the individual events of live does not indicate to us that all events taken together produce the whole picture of the universe.
          2. Consciousness: "Good" and "evil" are polar concepts—without sin we cannot have known good and evil. (In Christianity, the eating of the apple represents the origin of consciousness.) Without the possibility to do harm, people could not be conscious of what is good—people would not be people, but robotic.
          3. Trust Alone: The suffering of the innocent child is simply beyond human understanding. I.e., it's absurd. The problem of evil is a mystery because Christianity is not an idea but is essentially a nonintellectual way of life. as it is.
          4. Freedom: Given paradise, people preferred freedom. It's our freedom which makes us people as opposed to other natural processes. The existence of evil is the price paid for free choice. Human beings qua human beings could not choose only the good. (A crucial question Dostoevsky suggests is whether people actually seek freedom. Moreover, would God allow freedom of choice in the afterlife?)
          5. Future Harmony: Evil events will produce something better in the future for others (e.g., consider cases where there is a "necessary evil" or cases where the ends justify the means.) For example, my suffering today will produce a better world for my children and others in succeeding generations. The world course is getting better and better—we are overcoming evil before the final redemption at the end of the world.
          6. Paying for father's crimes: We all share responsibility for what has happened in the past. "The sins of the father are visited upon the sons." (Source of the quotation results from a violation of the second Commandment: worship not a graven image. "For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God and visit the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation." Cf., Deuteronomy 5:8-10 and Exodus 20:5.)
          7. Saving the world from a future evil: The child would have grown up to sin (perhaps be a mass murderer). By his death by the hounds, the world is saved from his future evil deeds.
          8. Suffering is necessary for the price of truth: No truth can be won without overcoming evil is some form. Some kinds of good can only originate from evil events.
        2. Additional oft-cited accounts for the problem of evil do not address the cases of the suffering of an innocent child and do not address the cases of nonmoral evil such as flood, tornado, and earthquake.
          1. God's punishment for evil behavior: God is a just God and punishes unrighteous behavior which leads human beings either to repentance or rebellion.
          2. Evil is a test or trial: Evil is necessary for improvement of the soul, spiritual growth, and testing faith.
          3. Evil does not exist: Evil is an illusion or a lack of the being of goodness. Evil arises arises at the disappearance of goodness.
      5. What does Alyosha mean when he says to Ivan, "That is rebellion"?
        1. Alyosha is suggesting that Ivan has forgotten that there is a God who could forgive the guilt resulting from the death of the child.
        2. For Ivan no just God would permit a crime like the suffering of an innocent child. Ivan believes God is just, but he rejects the world God has created.
    2. The crucial aspect of Dostoevsky's approach to the problem of evil in the Brother's Karamazov is how can we believe rationalizations of solutions in the face of the horrors of natural atrocity and the death of a small child.
Further Reading:
  • The Brothers Karamozov A Website from Dartmouth College summarizing a variety of materials relating to Dostoevsky's novel including translations, introductions, study questions, exercises, and additional links.

  • Dostoevsky, a Review An extraordinarily insightful explanation and analysis of Dostoevsky's life and works in an thoughtful review of Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet by James Wood for The New Republic, reprinted by Powell's Books.

  • Problem of Evil. Extensive summary approaches to the problem of evil in philosophical, literary, and religious thought by Radoslav A. Tsanoff in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas.

  • Stephen Law on the Problem of Evil. This interview on Philosophy Bites with Stephen Law, Heythrop College, University of London, editor of Think, by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton provides a concise exposition of the logical and the evidential aspects of the problem of evil. The discussion includes the questions of what makes a belief reasonable, whether God exists, theodicy, free will, and nonmoral evil. Law concludes that it is unreasonable to believe in the existence of a wholly good or wholly evil god.

  • “Theodicy” Leroy E. Loemker's entry in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas maintained by the Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia Library discusses the problems raised by the presence of evil in the universe and the presence of a wholly good omnipotent God. Both philosophical and theological theodicies, together with their criticisms, are presented.

  • Tragic and Comic Visions in The Brothers Karamazov: Joyce Carol Oates examines the psychology and the ideas of the novel from the point of view of Dostoevsky's creativity.
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“And, truth to tell, nothing was more important on earth than a child's suffering, the horror it inspires in us, and the reasons we must find to account for it. In other manifestations of life God made things easy for us and, thus far, our religion had no merit. But in this respect He put us, so to speak, with our backs to the wall. … Thus he might easily have assured them that the child's suffering would be compensated for by an eternity of bliss awaiting him. But how could he give that assurance when, to tell the truth, he know nothing about it? For who would dare to assert that eternal happiness can compensate for a single moment's human suffering? He who asserted that would not be a true Christian, a follower of the Master who knew all the pangs of suffering in his body and his soul.” Albert Camus, The Plague trans. Stuart Gilbert (New York: Random House, 1991), 224.

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