Masters of the Universe: Dostoyevsky and Man’s Sense of Self Determination

“Are you aware that you are conditioned?” – J. Krishnamurti

There is no limit to the depths of man’s despair. And yet, how much of this pain is self inflicted? In his seminal work, The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky parses out perception from reality, desire from need. In almost prophetic terms (the work was completed in 1880), he deconstructs the circumstances that lead to man’s downfall as his tormented characters come to grips with the truth of their lives.

Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov is a pompous, lecherous beast who has no regard for his fellow man. He is abusive to his wives and neglectful of his sons. He inspires the ire and contempt of all who know him, and with this air of disgust, the novel opens.

Dostoyevsky reveals the particular personality of each son and the slights he bears. Dmitri, the eldest, is the most vociferous and unpredictable, qualities that later condemn him. After his mother dies, Mr. Karamazov forgets his son, leaving him to be raised by others, and then maneuvers Dmitri out of his inheritance. Ivan, the next child, born of Karamazov’s second wife, is more calculating and cerebral. His intelligence is what leads to his utter destruction. Alexei, the baby of the family is hailed as the hero of the novel. His genuine kindness, gentle nature, and quiet wisdom draw others to him. Most striking, however (and perhaps the factor that enables the aforementioned qualities), is Alexei’s ability to remain present. He deals with the reality in front of him. He addresses the people as they are and responds to their needs in the moment. This is what distinguishes him as remarkable.

It is not surprising that Alexei has developed in this way as his greatest mentor and influence, Elder Zosima, instills in Alexei a sense of truth and sincerity. In fact, when faced with Mr. Karamazov for the first time, Elder Zosima warns, “a man who lies to himself, and believes his own lies, becomes unable to recognize truth either in himself or in anyone else” (51). Alexei internalizes this and endeavors to be constantly present, keenly aware of others and their circumstances.

Alexei seeks to understand and to be of service. This is what differentiates him from his intellectually inclined brother, Ivan, who is also on a journey for truth, albeit without the drive to serve. Ivan recognizes that “the moment [he] start[s] wanting to understand something, [he] distort[s] the true picture, when what [he] really want[s] is to stick to the facts” (293). Perhaps the reason he cannot “stick to the facts” is rooted in his motives. He is not working for the greater good, to help elevate others, or assist them in their struggles. Ivan is working from his personal inclinations and, therefore, rather than approaching each moment with pure love of discovery, he admits an unmitigated tendency to be inauthentic, disingenuous.

Indeed this is his nature. As the clever Karamazov brother, Ivan is doomed. “Intelligence is tortuous and sneaky,” he determines (283). Reason will bind emotions and justify any deed. Later, in a moment of true despair, Ivan falls into delirium and is visited by the devil who argues this same point. “Wherever I stand becomes the most important spot…so everything is permitted,” the devil asserts (782). This is not a revelatory statement, in fact it is Ivan’s own, but it contributes to his deterioration because it is incongruous with his beliefs. It is a rationalization that defies his heart. Ivan would have done well to heed the words of his brother: “Love should come before logic…only then will man be able to understand the meaning of life.” (277). Alexei lives by this creed, and his life is a testament to its truth.

Similar to Ivan, Dmitri is a victim of his own devices. Bold and proud, Dmitri must stare humiliation and submission in the face if he is to overcome the prison he constructs for himself. Too ashamed to admit his failings, yet unable to prevent his feelings of self-reproach, Dmitri suffers to atone. His sense of honor and justice shackles him to two women who simultaneously love and hate this man with devastating intensity. Dmitri has the capacity to be generous and kind, thoughtful and considerate; but these inclinations are overrun by violent passion and caprice. He abandons his fiancée, falls madly in love with another woman, and in his desperate pursuit of her love, forsakes the values he treasures. He, too, lives a life devoid of integrity.

Both Dmitri and Ivan refute reality. They devise to abandon their internal truths and construct alternate, highly dissatisfying alternatives. All the while rationalizing. All the while suffering. All the while embodying the idea presented by Father Paisii who speaks to Alexei on the eve of Elder Zosima’s death. “They analyzed the parts, and failed to study the whole. Thereby showing a truly astonishing blindness,” he said (204). Blindness of their guilt in their own turmoil and blindness of their power to end it. They will never understand.  But “how can [they] understand when the whole world has been running on false ideas for so long, [accepting] unmitigated lies as truth and [demanding] lies of others,” (and as Zosima points out earlier, demanding lies of ourselves) (363).

The profound philosophies presented in Dostoyevsky’s magnificent work are fiercely relevant today. In stark contrast to Alexei’s approach, our world is rife with distractions. The 21st century does not enable one to be fully present, to engage on any deep or meaningful level with others. In fact, our reality is eerily similar to Dostoyevsky’s assertion that, “mankind has been broken up into self-contained individuals, each of whom retreats into his lair, trying to stay away from the rest, hiding himself and his belongings from the rest of mankind and finally isolating himself from people and people from him…he has trained his soul not to rely on human help, not to believe in men” (366). The parallels are prescient. Social media, technological advancements, geopolitics all factor into the shifting of human values and constructs. (For a deeper understanding of these ideas, read Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.)

I challenge these new mores and the conditioning imposed upon us. I maintain that it is possible to embrace human connection and intuitive understanding. I invite you to explore life and all its experiences. I encourage you to accept the spectrum of emotions. I ask that you stay rooted in the present.

With love for humanity,




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