The Brothers Karamazov and existential philosophy

The Brothers Karamazov is a philosophical masterpiece that invites readers to consider some of the most fundamental questions of the human experience. Written by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the novel is a nuanced and deeply moving exploration of themes such as the nature of faith, the existence of God, and the search for meaning.

At the heart of the novel are the Karamazov siblings – Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha – each of whom grapples with these philosophical questions in their own unique way. Dmitri, the eldest, is torn between his duty to his family and his desire for personal freedom, a conflict that echoes the ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre and other existentialist philosophers who emphasize the individual’s freedom and responsibility. Sartre argued that individuals are “condemned to be free,” meaning that they are constantly faced with choices and must take responsibility for their actions. This idea is reflected in Dmitri’s struggle to reconcile his obligations with his own desires.

Ivan, the middle brother, grapples with the existence of evil in the world and his own sense of morality, a dilemma that has been explored by existentialists such as Martin Heidegger and Søren Kierkegaard. Heidegger, in his work “Being and Time,” argued that individuals must confront their own mortality and the meaning of their existence to live authentically. Ivan’s questioning of the existence of God and the nature of evil can be seen as an attempt to grapple with these existential questions.

Alyosha, the youngest, serves as a foil to his siblings, embodying a more spiritual and compassionate approach to life that is reminiscent of the philosophy of figures such as Gabriel Marcel and Paul Tillich. Marcel, a Catholic philosopher, emphasized the importance of human relationships and the role of love in finding meaning in life. This can be seen in Alyosha’s compassionate and loving approach to others. Tillich, a theologian, argued that individuals must overcome their “anxiety of meaning” to find true fulfillment. Alyosha’s spiritual quest can be seen as an attempt to do just that.

Through their interactions and conflicts, Dostoevsky paints a portrait of the human condition that is both complex and deeply moving. The Brothers Karamazov is a novel that invites readers to consider the big questions of life and how they relate to their own experiences, and it remains as relevant and thought-provoking today as it was when it was first published over 150 years ago. Of course, the above nod to existentialism is just the start, but it is a start.

Whether you are a seasoned reader of philosophy or simply looking for a challenging and rewarding literary experience, The Brothers Karamazov is a must-read. It is a novel that will stay with you long after you turn the final page, inviting you to continue the conversation and explore its themes in your own life.

Image depicting the epigraph in the Brothers Karamazov, Luke 12:24.

The Brothers Karamazov and Kierkegaard’s four stances toward life

I have always been fascinated by the ways in which the characters in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov can be understood and interpreted. One approach that I find particularly interesting is to consider the characters through the lens of Søren Kierkegaard’s four stances towards life: the aesthetic, the ethical, the religious, and the absurdist. I turned this blog post into a YouTube video as well (see below).

In this interpretation, the father, Fyodor Karamazov, could be seen as representing the absurdist stance. He is characterized by his focus on pleasure and the present moment and is more concerned with enjoying the sensory experiences of life than with its deeper meaning or purpose. This is reflected in his hedonistic lifestyle and his neglect of his responsibilities as a father.

The eldest son, Dmitri, could be seen as representing the aesthetic stance, which is characterized by a focus on pleasure and the enjoyment of life. Dmitri is deeply concerned with sensual pleasure and the immediate experience of life, and his actions and choices are often driven by these desires. However, this focus on the present moment also leads Dmitri to struggle with moral dilemmas and the consequences of his actions, as he tries to reconcile his desires with his sense of right and wrong.

The illegitimate son Smerdyakov could also be seen as representing the aesthetic stance. Smerdyakov is described as being deeply cynical and hedonistic and is primarily motivated by his own desires and the pursuit of pleasure. He is also portrayed as being deeply aware of the inherent meaninglessness and absurdity of existence and seems to reject traditional systems of morality and meaning.

The middle son, Ivan, could be seen as representing the ethical stance, which is characterized by a commitment to moral values and principles. Ivan is deeply troubled by the existence of suffering and evil in the world and grapples with questions of morality and the nature of good and evil. This struggle ultimately leads Ivan to reject traditional systems of belief and meaning, as he confronts the limits of reason and the inherent absurdity of existence.

The youngest son, Alyosha, could be seen as representing the religious stance characterized by a belief in a higher power or transcendent reality and a focus on spiritual matters and the search for meaning and purpose in life. Alyosha is drawn to the teachings of Elder Zosima and seeks to find solace and understanding in his faith. However, he also grapples with the inherent meaninglessness and absurdity of life (especially through his father) and must find a way to reconcile this realization with his belief in a higher purpose or meaning. Overall, these four stances can be seen as representing different ways of approaching and understanding the experiences and challenges of life and can provide insight into the motivations and struggles of the characters in The Brothers Karamazov. Whether one is more drawn to the hedonistic desires of Dmitri and Smerdyakov, the moral dilemmas faced by Ivan, the spiritual search of Alyosha, or the meaningless existence of the father, there is much to discover and contemplate within the pages of this classic novel.

This blog post as a video (““):

Image depicts Dmity, Ivan, and Aliyosha

Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov: A Greek Tragic Hero and a Christian hero

In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov is a complex and multifaceted character who embodies many of the qualities of a modern Greek tragic hero. Tragic heroes are characters who are doomed to suffer and fail due to their own flaws or weaknesses, and who struggle to find meaning and purpose in a world that is often cruel and arbitrary.

Like some Greek tragic heroes, Ivan is a deeply philosophical and intellectual character, who is obsessed with ideas and questions about the nature of God, free will, and the meaning of life. He is constantly questioning and doubting and is willing to engage with complex and challenging ideas even when it is difficult or uncomfortable. This intellectual curiosity and bravery are admirable and make Ivan a hero in his own way.

At the same time, however, Ivan is also deeply troubled and suffering, torn by guilt and self-doubt. His quest for truth and understanding ultimately leads him down a path of despair and nihilism, as he becomes convinced that there is no meaning or purpose in the world, and that God is either non-existent or malevolent. This sense of despair and hopelessness is tragic and makes Ivan stand close to the tragic heroes of Greek myth.

We can also relate Ivan’s hero to his brother Alyosha, who is more of a spiritual hero. Both men share the same father and mother, and they both strive for purity but in very different ways. As a course at Harvard noticed, there is an important distinction that you can make in German between Reinheit and Lauterkeit. While the precise meanings of these terms can vary depending on the context in which they are used, they are often associated with ideas of purity and honesty.

Reinighet is often translated as “cleanliness” or “purity,” and refers to the state of being free from dirt, contamination, or impurities. It can be used to describe a wide range of things, including physical objects, ideas, or abstract concepts. This is the purity the Greek hero Ivan pursues, who wants to wash away all distractions and dark thoughts.

Lauterkeit, on the other hand, is often translated as “honesty” or “fairness,” and refers to the quality of being open and honest with oneself and others. It is often associated with ideas of integrity, righteousness, and moral virtue. This is the purity the spiritual hero Alyosha pursues, who instead wants to transform the darkness into something positive, and therefore he wants to join the monastery.

So, yes, heroism is present in the Brothers Karamazov, but in a multitude of ways, especially as expressed by Ivan and Alyosha.

Image by Greg Montani from Pixabay