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The Brothers Karamazov | Page Crimps
Key takeaways from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov
My sister picked me up a copy of The Brothers Karamazov for my birthday a while back. I let it sit because I was dreading the slog, but once I picked up the book and dove in, I was utterly captured by the characters, the story, and the nuanced themes. It’s since become an all time top 3 book for me.
Let me start by introducing the brothers.
The oldest brother, Dmitri, is a man of passion. Dmitri succumbs to his impulsive desires to his detriment while maintaining a view of himself as an honorable man.
Another brother, Ivan, is an intellectual who struggles to reconcile his pull towards reason and rationality with his pull towards some semblance of an objective morality.
An illegitimate brother, Smerdyakov, is this latter archetype carried to its extreme in the favor of reason and rationality with morality nowhere to be found.
Finally, we have our hero, Alyosha. Alyosha is a pious individual who may seem at times to be a fly on the wall, but in reality is the man whom all others are pulled towards resembling in one way or another. Alyosha is the witness to the psychology of our roster of characters. By being a witness without judgement, he is walking most truly in the footsteps of his God. This is because he doesn’t subscribe to the idea that men are to be judged for their worst actions, but rather their best intentions.
At the end of the book, our hero gives a speech to a gathering of boys telling them to go out into the world and become men by loving each other and their common man. They have suffered together, and therefore shared a deep intersubjective experience.
Love unconditional is the best way to navigate the world, and Alyosha knows this.
In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky writes to a world whose interest in religion is waning, and he makes an argument through storytelling for why a path of love in our common man is a path worth reconciling with the reason of enlightenment that killed Christianity in it’s blindly accepted form.
The spirit of a man devoid of a moral structure is devoid moreover from a connection to his fellow man.
Why do I call this ‘Page Crimps’?
Readers who’ve been with me for a while may remember the pattern language description from my first entry to this series on Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I add this blurb to all my Page Crimp posts to loop in new subscribers as to the name and format of these editions of my newsletter.
When I'm reading a book, I crimp the corner of pages that include ideas or passages that stick out to me. When I finish reading, I then write out those passages and ideas in a notebook, generally including why they stuck out to me. To extract further value out of this practice, I aggregate the most broadly valuable ideas for consumption on this newsletter, once a month. My notes here are no substitute for a good book. My highest hope is not that this series be used as an alternative too engaging in a good read, but as a tease to pickup the book and enjoy the ride yourself.
On to it —
p44 | A quote from a character who is a monastery elder:
“A man who lies to himself and listens to his lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others.”
p64 | Our characters still at the monastery, the elder explains why ‘Christ’s Law’ is the only law that can truly reform a criminal. Mechanical labor doesn’t root out evil. He explains how if society judged its’ criminals in the same mode as the church does, it would know who to bring back from excommunication or be merciful from punishment with in order to reunite them with society in a healthy way.
Going over my notes in hindsight, I think that this is one of the most foreshadowing sections of the whole book, and you’ll see that my last note returns to this idea put forth by the same elder who is quoted above.
p82 | Brother Ivan proclaims his theory from an article he’d had published:
“If there is no immortality of the soul, then there is no virtue, and therefore, everything is permitted.”
p171 | Another character from the monastery, Father Paissy metaphors how science has left the most learned scholars poor in spirit. He says that they have aggressively examined all the parts of what is truth, and yet been blind to the whole of truth.
The whole of truth, he suggests, can only be found in spirit, not through reductionist examination.
p194 | A quote from a character named Madame Khokhlakov to Alyosha:
“Don’t believe in women’s tears, Alexie Fyodorovich—I’m always against the women in such cases and for the men.”
p215 | Alyosha attempts to reconcile a dispute between his brother Dmitri and an old captain through a gift of charity, but in the final moments of this exchange, the old captain throws Alyosha’s gift to the ground, stomps on it, and runs off.
He reflects on why this was the case, and comes to the conclusion that an offended man has a more difficult time when many suddenly become his benefactor—it further harms his pride.
p218 | Alyosha, talking with a girl named Lise who he believes to be his long term suitor, explains to her why he believes this to be the case.
He notes that her soul is lighter, she is more innocent, and has many abilities that he does not have. He also notes that she thinks like a martyr, and has suffered enough to have garnered some wisdom.
p243 | Ivan tells his brother Alyosha how even if God doesn’t exist and was invented, it is holy in and of itself that man was able to craft and pursue this idea of a perfect being. Furthermore:
S'il n'existait pas il faudrait l'inventer!
Roughly translated: If God doesn’t exist, he would have to be invented.
This quote comes originally from Voltaire. You can checkout my past Page Crimps post on Voltaire’s Candide, Zadig and Selected Stories here.
p236 | Before starting his rant that brought us the last few notes, Ivan had proclaimed to Alyosha that he would proceed as stupidly as possible. As he comes to a close, Alyosha asks Ivan why he’d made a point to say this when starting their back and forth, and he answered in short that stupider was clearer. Reason drags on and caveats, but stupidity is brief and guileless.
p253 | The next few notes will come from what is my favorite chapter of the whole book: The Grand Inquisitor. In it, Ivan is running his stream of conscious thought to Alyosha as to how he views religion, the psychology of man, and the interplay between the 2.
On this page, I crimped for the note because Ivan is creating an analogy to a new Tower of Babel being built in their modern age. This tower he says, is being built by men of reason, and that those who believe that man can live without religion or in his words, ‘on earthly bread alone’, will lead the meek as they build this metaphorical tower.
The idea doesn’t end there. This tower he believes will inevitably fall like the 1st and this is how the meek will go on to inherit the earth.
Finally, Ivan goes even further to suggest that there is another class of humanity that may arise to lead the meek without the ‘building of a new tower’ so to speak. This class consists of those that can endure freedom without subscribing to the ideology of reason, religion or any other form of mystery.
p254 | A page later, continuing to build on his argument, Ivan explains in what form humanity seeks to bow down to something other than itself.
Humanity seeks something indisputable so as to justify its submission.
With religion no longer indisputable, this is what has led to humanity’s next era of submission to science and reason.
p258 | Ivan proclaims that a reign of reason will cause humanity to consume itself, because reason, while a useful tool, does not determine where to derive morality.
Morality may be able to be chalked up as common sense for some, but because of humanity’s broader innate desire to see this as something outside itself to subscribe to, again, something indisputable, Ivan believes that someone will return with an explanation for morality that is shrouded in mystery, and this someone will be the one to lead the meek who can’t derive morality from their own common sense.
p313 | The same elder as is referenced above, explains why the freedom that man found in science is actually a false image of freedom. If everything is permitted, then the poor among humanity will feel envy and at worst commit murder, and the rich among us will be isolated and at worst commit suicide of spirit.
Catch my post a while back on the difference between positive and negative freedom? The above comment may make more sense when viewed in this lens. Positive freedom, or ‘freedom too…’, doesn’t offer humanity a clear ideal to pursue, and so it pursues the best versions of itself which is what leads to envy from the bottom, and isolation at the top.
p314 | The elder explains that the monk is free because they reject earthly desires entirely, which leaves them truly free in spirit. To carry on the analogy above, the monk may be pursuing negative freedom, or ‘freedom from…’.
p338 | A quote from Father Paissy:
“…for a young man who is constantly too reasonable is suspect and of too cheap a price—that is my opinion!”
p352 | A character named Grushenka tells Alyosha a fable about a wretched woman who ‘gave an onion’. She tells Alyosha this fable because she sees herself in the woman from the metaphor.
The fable goes roughly like this: The woman was not virtuous in life, and so found herself in the lava pools of hell—charming eh?—and in these pools, she cried out to God for mercy to which God then heard her cries and examined her life’s actions to see if she was worth saving.
He saw one moment amongst all her wretchedness in which she gifted an onion to a beggar, and so he said to the Devil to offer her that same onion in the hopes that she may grab it and be pulled out of hell.
When the onion is offered to her, she does indeed grab the lifeline, and is pulled closer and closer to being free from the pools of hell. On her way out, others begin to grab her, trying their own hand to tag along and escape. While the onion holds it’s own pulling the woman out, additional load in tow, she irregardless of this kicks and yells at these folks, shouting frantically that it was her who was to be saved, not them.
At her first successful dislodging of one of these stowaways, the onion breaks, and all fall back into the pits of hell.
p381 | A dialog from the author on the nature of jealousy:
“Jealous men forgive sooner than anyone else, and all women know it….Of course the reconciliation will only last an hour, because even if the rival has indeed disappeared, tomorrow he will invent another, a new one, and become jealous of this new one.”
p558 | Alyosha tells a young boy named Kolya that he will be both unhappy and blessed at the same time. This is because he has the reason to question the world as it is, and the faith to navigate through it in the right direction.
p581 | Lise, talking to Alyosha, is expressing a craving for disorder that discerns him. Upon a moment’s additional reflection, he concludes that this craving for disorder is a product of her rich life. The shelter of wealth that she grew up in has left her adolescent mind craving struggle so as to overcome that struggle and anneal itself into stronger form.
589 | Dimitri—in a somewhat frantic state—proclaims that ‘Chemistry is coming!’ after a dialog with another atheistic character in the story.
He sees truth in his brother Ivan’s theory that if God is dead, then anything is permitted. What’s driving him most mad is in wondering how anyone should know what to do when anything is permitted and the myriad of people living in this new world are one removed from morality as a guide.
p641 | Ivan, going mad, entertains a conversation with a characterization of the devil.
The devil tells Ivan a story about how the world has grown overspecialized, and that the age of universal remedies—religion included—is over.
He tells Ivan a joke that if he had a rare nose affliction, and he saw the best doctors in all of Russia, they would tell him to travel to see the best nose doctor in the world in Paris. Upon arrival, he posits that Ivan would then be told to seek out another specialist, because this hypothetical specialist in Paris was only curing left nostrils, whereas the punchline is that the affliction was in the right.
p644 | In another metaphor to make a point, this apparition of the devil tells Ivan about a man who walked a quadrillion miles, over the course of a billion years so that he may arrive at paradise.
Upon arrival, this man stands for all of 2 seconds and proclaims that he would sooner walk a (quadrillion*quadrillion)^quadrillionth power more than stay there in his boredom.
p645 | Still in conversation with the devil, Ivan is told how the struggle between belief and disbelief in a conscientious man is near impossible to resolve—and that some are quicker to hang themselves than live in the limbo.
p649 | In his closing remarks to Ivan, the devil character speaks to why a day may never come where man loves life in its struggle and all, solely for the sake of relishing the lived experience. He says that this is because there will always be those who can’t see the whole picture, and that the wisest among man will settle for peace amongst themselves—without trying to bring to light others. At worst, some of this subsection of humanity that is wise enough to see past the struggles of life, will lead others astray to promote their own enjoyment, continuing the cycle of suffering in ignorance.
p749 | Dmitri, on trial for his father’s murder, is being defended by his attorney in one of the final speeches of the book. As I’d teased it would be, this point made by the defense is emblematic of the elder’s point back on page 64.
For a moment, Dmitri’s defense assumes the position of the prosecution that he is responsible for his father’s murder—which he is not. Despite this, he urges the jury to consider a verdict of innocent, stating that even if Dmitri is guilty, this may be their only opportunity to offer Dmitri redemption, and to break from the pattern of punishment that would lead to future sins against society.
Next week, I’m going to share my founder’s letter for WAND’s 2 year anniversary.