Happy 200th birthday to Dostoevsky!
Reflections on one of history's greatest novelists; A video premiering on how his ideas that can help us live well today; Should we diversify the Great Books Canon?; Win a year of Wondrium!
This week, we’ll explore:
Lessons on the meaning of life from Dostoevsky, the greatest novelist in history
Premiering NOW: Lessons on the human condition from Dostoevsky’s novels
An invitation: Should we diversify the Great Books canon?
Giveaway: One year of Wondrium! (Formerly the Great Courses Plus)
First of all, Happy Veterans Day! My deepest thanks to those of you reading this who have personally served and sacrificed for our country, as well as to those of you who have loved ones who have served.
I did not realize until this year that Veterans Day—or Memorial Day as we call it in Canada, where I grew up—falls on Dostoevsky’s birthday, too.
Before turning to Dostoevsky, I’d like to apologize for the several weeks of silence. It’s been a wonderfully full November so far.
I spent last week in the Washington D.C. area at The Teaching Company / Wondrium HQ on set and in pre-production meetings in preparation for the filming of my Great Courses series, called Storytelling and the Human Condition, this spring.
Following my D.C. trip, I spent the first half of this week in Dallas, Texas, where I had the privilege of speaking to over 2,000 high school students and 200 education professionals, about the important difference between civility and politeness, the topic of my forthcoming book from St. Martin’s Press. Spending time with such a thoughtful group of people this week gave me hope for our future.
I’m grateful for these opportunities, but also thankful to have no more travel plans between now and the holiday season—especially since our baby girl is set to arrive December 25th!
Now that my busy season is behind me, I’m ready to settle in and embrace the holidays. I think I might have even convinced my husband to let us assemble our Christmas decorations early this year! He normally has a strict “no Christmas music or decorations until after thanksgiving” policy. His thinking is grounded in the noble desire to preserve the magic of Christmas music and the season right up until the holiday.
And it’s true, Christmas music can easily be overdone!
But I still find such prohibitions arbitrary and capricious, and I think we’ll decorate this weekend.
What do you think of my husband’s preference to wait until after Thanksgiving to let Christmas begin—agree or disagree?
What are your family’s Christmas decorating / music policies and traditions? I’d love to hear them.
Write to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know!
Lessons from Dostoevsky, the greatest novelist in history, the perils of materialism in modern life
Fyodor Dostoevsky was born in Moscow 200 years ago today—November 11th, 1821.
He died in St. Petersburg, Russia in February 1881, at the age of 59.
Dostoevsky is among the greatest psychologists, novelists, and storytellers who has ever lived.
Today we’ll explore some of Dostoevsky’s favorite themes and most important ideas through reflecting on two of his most famous works: A passage in his novel The Brothers Karamazov known as The Grand Inquisitor, and another of his famous novels, Crime and Punishment.
Reflecting on these works will help us think with greater depth about two ideas essential to meaningful lives as human beings:
The parable of The Grand Inquisitor will challenge us to think about how we might nourish our immortal souls—the spiritual and eternal parts of our humanity—in a world and era that is obsessed with the temporal and material.
Crime and Punishment will help us reflect on why virtue is its own reward—and vice its own punishment.
The Grand Inquisitor on nurturing our immortal souls in an age of materialism
I first encountered Dostoevsky when I took a class in college called Influential Christian Thinkers. As part of this class, we read and discussed Dostoevsky’s parable known as The Grand Inquisitor, which is a passage within his epic 1880 novel The Brothers Karamazov—arguably the single greatest novel of all time.
The Grand Inquisitor is among the most famous passages in modern literature. It is a story recited by Ivan Karamazov, one of the titular protagonists in the The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan is sharing the story with his brother, Alyosha, a devout Christian, in an attempt to explain to Alyosha why he has refused to accept the precepts of the Christian faith.
Ivan is an intellectual atheist, and represents what Dostoevsky views as the greatest threat to Christian faith as well as to psychological and social tranquility: materialism.
The story begins with the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Christ returns to Inquisition-era Spain, a fifty year span between the late 15th and early 16th centuries. He arrives in a quiet and inconspicuous manner, but everyone recognizes him at once. Reminiscent of miracles from the Gospels, Christ heals a blind man and raises a young girl from the dead.
Then, the Grand Inquisitor arrives.
Seize him, the Grand Inquisitor instructs his guards. Christ is imprisoned and condemned to be burned to death the next day. The Grand Inquisitor visits him in his prison cell to interrogate him.
Why have you come back? the Inquisitor demands. We have just now finally fixed all the problems you left for us last time you were here.
The Grand Inquisitor explains that he cannot allow Christ to continue his work, because Christ is a threat to the social stability that he and his colleagues have finally obtained. The Grand Inquisitor explains that Christ’s rejection of Satan’s three temptations in the desert was a grave mistake, and that he cannot expect people to follow His example.
Readers may remember the temptations that Christ rejected were:
To turn stones into bread;
To cast himself off the top of the temple;
And to rule the kingdoms of the world.
In rejecting these temptations, Christ rejected the three core temptations of modernity: material comfort, spectacle, and earthly power.
Christ rejected these temporal benefits and creature comforts and instead embraced the transcendent and the promise of the eternal life—the core hope of the Christian faith.
The Grand Inquisitor, however, claims Christ made an egregious mistake. He says that humans cannot handle the burden of freedom. He argues that Christ, in asking humanity to be patient for the life to come, asked too much us—and has in fact doomed us all to suffer.
Feed men, and then ask of them virtue! the Grand Inquisitor cries.
In the parable of The Grand Inquisitor, Dostoyevsky unmasks the the idols of our time.
At the end of The Grand Inquisitor’s cross-examination, he taunts Jesus: We have corrected your mistakes. The people love us for it. When the fire consumes you tomorrow, the people will praise us and reject you as they did fifteen hundred years ago. Judge us if you dare.
Christ responds with silence—silence the Grand Inquisitor cannot tolerate. He notes Christ listening to him with quiet emotion, gazing straight into his eyes and evidently not wishing to raise any objection. The Grand Inquisitor would like the other to say something to him, even if it is bitter, terrible.
Christ quickly and silently approaches the Grand Inquisitor—whom Dostoevsky describes as an old man—and kisses him on the cheek.
The old man shudders. Something has stirred at the corners of his mouth; he goes to the door, opens it and says to Him: Go and do not come back . . . do not come back at all…ever…ever! And he releases him into the town's dark streets and squares.
“The kiss burns within his heart,” Dostoevsky writes, “but the old man remains with his former idea.”
Dostoevsky’s ambiguous ending is a call to action for each of us. How will we respond to the burning in our heart, the longing, as Blaise Pascal puts it, that we each have for eternity?
Can we maintain a concept of—and hope for—the transcendent in a culture obsessed with the material?
Can we appreciate the importance of the material without losing our vision of the transcendent?
Seeking such a balance is worth the effort.
Eternity is at stake.
Crime and Punishment on why virtue is its own reward, and vice its own punishment
In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky explores the question of whether one needs to believe in God in order to feel guilt, and—much like Shakespeare’s Macbeth—what happens to people who experience guilt for things they have done. The story powerfully illustrates the psychological toll of the guilty mind, and evocatively reminds us that while virtue is its own reward, vice is also certainly its own punishment.
The protagonist of Crime and Punishment is Rodion Raskolnikov, a law student in St. Petersburg who is highly intelligent, but also very poor. He has sold or pawned almost everything he has, and is struggling to afford the basic necessities of life.
Raskolnikov decides that killing and robbing a greedy and hypocritical pawn broker in his neighborhood—someone who is very cruel and almost universally despised—is the answer to his problems. Not only does the pawnbroker take advantage of those in need who pawn things in her shop, she has a half-sister who is mentally disabled who she treats as a slave and regularly abuses, physically and verbally.
Before the murder, Raskolnikov justifies the act to himself: he could both escape his poverty, and then do good things in the world! In describing Raskolnikov’s “greatest good for the greatest number” rationalization, Dostoevsky is poking holes in the utilitarian philosophical theories that were gaining traction in his day.
Raskolnikov commits the murder, but when a relative of the pawn broker arrives unexpectedly, he kills her, too. Once the deed is done, he is plagued with guilt and confusion, and the seemingly airtight rationales he told himself before fall apart. He is repulsed by what he has done. He becomes paranoid, erratic, confused.
Interestingly enough, the state of Raskolnikov’s psyche comes to match his name: it derives from the Russian word raskolnik, meaning “schismatic” or “divided.” His crime exacerbates his alienation from himself—his crime fills him with self-loathing—as well as society. Even before his crime, Raskolnikov was prone to delusions of grandeur that divided him from others. His pride in his own intellect led him to believe he was part of a human and social elite to which the normal rules didn’t apply —yet another element of his justification for the murder.
But as he soon learns, Raskolnikov cannot escape his conscience. He begins to deteriorate rapidly. Porfiry Petrovich, the special investigator assigned to the case, is a shrewd student of criminal psychology, and understands that Raskolnikov’s crumbling mental state proves his guilt. Throughout the novel, Petrovich gently, slowly pokes at Raskolnikov, and chips away at his tough exterior sheltering his crime.
Eventually, Raskolnikov is so wracked with guilt he realizes he cannot live with himself without paying for what he has done. He turns himself in to the authorities and confesses to his crimes. He is sent into exile in Siberia, a fate he contentedly accepts. Punishment is the only way he can escape his guilty mind.
Some readers of Crime and Punishment have posed an interesting questions: Does Porfiry Petrovich, the canny inspector who fosters Raskolnikov’s guilt and eventually causes him to turn himself in—really exist at all?
Or is Petrovich a delusional manifestation of Raskolnikov’s conscience and guilt-ridden mind?
Proponents of this view point to the fact that there are things that Petrovich says in his interactions with Raskolnikov that Petrovich couldn’t possibly know, suggesting that he is in fact a figment of Raskolnikov’s own imagination.
We can never know for certain whether this provocative theory corresponds with Dostoevsky’s intent, but we do know that the author would have an unequivocal answer to the question of whether we need God to have a concept of morality and guilt—Dostoevsky would say that, whether or not we choose to recognize that a higher power has ordained laws of right and wrong, such laws seem to be ingrained in our hearts and minds.
Complying with the moral laws of the universe, Dostoevsky insists, promote social harmony and mental tranquility; defying them, meanwhile, yields alienation, despair, and psychological deterioration.
In Crime and Punishment Dostoyevsky seems to be refuting a famous line from The Brothers Karamazov (a line that echoes Nietzche): “But what will become of men then?... without God and immortal life? All things are permitted then, they can do what they like?”
In Crime and Punishment, however, Dostoevsky seems to say that even if one doesn’t believe in God or immortal life, there are certain laws of the moral universe that one can never escape. Dostoevsky is in good company in holding this view, which is shared by such thinkers as Socrates and Confucius—who lived millennia before him, and in places far away from Dostoevsky’s native Russia.
Raskolnikov’s worst punishment for his crimes were self-imposed. He fell apart emotionally and psychologically, losing his sense of self, nearly losing his very soul.
This is reminiscent of the line from The Book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible that says, “The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion.” (Proverbs 28:1)
This is how guilt works. We feel like we’re running even though no one may be pursuing us. Though we might be able to hide the ugliness of our souls and past from others, we cannot hide from—or deceive—ourselves.
What do you think about these ideas?
Do you think that today we prioritize the material and temporal at the expense of the eternal? What are some ways that we might remedy this imbalance in our lives—and nurture our immortal souls to the end of cultivating the fullness of our humanity?
Do you agree with Dostoevsky that virtue is its own reward, and vice its own punishment?
An invitation: Should we diversify the Great Books canon?
What would it look like to open up the “Great Books” canon? While Cornel West has suggested “blowing up the canon,” what might it look like to diversify it?
The fact is there are many important thinkers whom history has overlooked. Great Book lists and volumes, such as Mortimer Adler’s project at the University of Chicago—admirable as that and other such projects are—have historically excluded women and people from minority backgrounds.
This is unfortunate because it means that it is easy to miss out on some very important contributions to the Great Conversation and the broader humanistic tradition.
Join me as I discuss these ideas with Dr. Anika Prather of Howard University and Anya Leonard of Classical Wisdom, where we will explore how a “new canon” can ground us in the wisdom of the past while meeting the needs of the present—and how we can overcome some of the common, contemporary challenges to the idea of a canon of “Great Books” in the first place.
The conversation will take place Thursday, Nov 23, 12-1 EST.
Please feel free to forward this invitation to anyone you think might be interested in joining us. A recording of the conversation will be made available to all who register.
I hope you’ll join us for this important dialogue!
Giveaway: One year of Wondrium!
To thank you for being part of this community, and to help you nurture your curiosity and life of the mind, I’m giving away a ONE YEAR subscription to Wondrium, the world’s best resource for the insatiably curious!
To enter, forward this missive to a friend, send me a note at email@example.com with your interest in being entered.
Even if you don’t win this month’s giveaway, you can sign up for a FREE month here!
Thank you for being part of the Civic Renaissance community!
I am grateful you are here and part of this movement dedicated to moral, intellectual, and cultural renewal.