Comparing Sermons in Dostoevsky’s Literary Universe

This exploration begins with a comparison between two poignant sermons delivered in Dostoevsky’s novels, which vividly encapsulate the author’s profound engagement with the human spirit. A sermon, at its heart, is not merely a religious discourse; it’s an emotional outreach that encourages us to confront and reflect upon the deeper moral and spiritual questions of life. In Dostoevsky’s narratives, these sermons transcend their religious origins to probe the complexities of love, suffering, and redemption.

Alyosha’s Sermon: Embracing Memories and Morality

In the tranquil setting of a graveside in “The Brothers Karamazov,” Alyosha Karamazov addresses a group of young boys, imparting a sermon that intertwines the innocence of youth with the binding force of human connection. This is no ordinary farewell; it’s an impassioned plea to remember and cherish the acts of kindness and bravery shown by their young friend, Ilyusha. Alyosha’s words underscore the significance of carrying forward the memories of love and compassion as beacons against the adversities of life.

His message is deeply rooted in Christian values, emphasizing that the recollection of goodness can inspire and fortify us against life’s darker urges. It’s a hopeful vision that suggests even the smallest acts of kindness are not forgotten but are seeds for future benevolence.

Marmeladov’s Confession: Desperation and the Search for Redemption

Contrasting sharply with Alyosha’s hopeful message is the desperate sermon delivered by Marmeladov in “Crime and Punishment.” In the dim light of a tavern, he pours out his soul to Raskolnikov, revealing the depths of his despair and degradation. Marmeladov recounts the tragic sacrifices made by his daughter Sonya, juxtaposing his own downfall into alcoholism against her purity and selflessness.

His confession is charged with a gritty realism about human frailty and a desperate clinging to the possibility of divine forgiveness. Marmeladov seeks not just sympathy but a path to redemption, believing fervently in a higher power that understands and forgives the most abject of sinners.

Uniting Themes, Diverging Tones

Both Alyosha and Marmeladov use their sermons to delve into the fabric of human connection, emphasizing empathy and the shared experience of suffering. They highlight the potential for memories—whether of innocence or pain—to catalyze moral and personal transformation.

However, the tones of their messages could not be more different. Alyosha’s sermon radiates hope and the potential for moral growth through communal support and cherished memories. In contrast, Marmeladov’s discourse is a harrowing journey through personal torment and societal neglect, ultimately seeking solace in the prospect of divine compassion.

Biblical Echoes and Human Reflections

The sermons also incorporate profound biblical references that enhance their philosophical depth. Alyosha reflects the Gospel’s messages of forgiveness and child-like faith, while Marmeladov’s narrative mirrors the biblical stories of redemption and suffering, akin to the trials of Job.

Concluding Thoughts: The Power of Dostoevsky’s Sermons

Through these sermons, Dostoevsky not only crafts compelling narratives but also invites readers to reflect on fundamental aspects of the human condition. The discussions of love, redemption, and the resilience of the human spirit in the face of suffering offer a timeless meditation on the capacity for both great kindness and great despair.

In examining these sermons, we not only enter Dostoevsky’s rich literary landscapes but also engage with enduring questions about what it means to live meaningfully in a complex and often harsh world.

Shakespeare & Dostoyevsky: A Mirror into the Human Soul

In our journey through literature, every so often we stumble upon characters that seem more real than the very people we interact with daily. The works of William Shakespeare and Fyodor Dostoyevsky offer such characters, each a unique prism reflecting the depths of the human spirit and psyche.

Masters of Manipulation: Dive into the world of Iago (Othello) and Smerdyakov (The Brothers Karamazov). These characters, in their cunning and malevolence, expose the profound vulnerabilities within us all. Their tales force us to ask the uncomfortable questions: Are we, too, susceptible to manipulation? How much of our own reality is shaped by the unseen hands of internal desires and external influences?

Existential Enigmas: The introspective spirals of Hamlet and Ivan Karamazov offer an intimate exploration of the soul’s eternal philosophical battles. As they grapple with profound existential dilemmas, they stand as powerful allegories for our own internal conflicts. Both characters challenge us to face the moral quandaries of our age and ask: In our search for meaning, are we, like them, lost in a maze of our own creation?

Innocence and the Shadow of Temptation: In the stories of Desdemona and Grushenka, we are confronted with the interplay between societal perceptions and individual morality. These characters, one the embodiment of innocence and the other of temptation, compel us to reflect on our judgments and biases. They ask us: To what extent are our views on right and wrong influenced by the society we inhabit?

The Frailty of Familial Bonds: Consider the tales of King Lear and Fyodor Karamazov. These capricious fathers, through their very flaws, illuminate the intricacies of human relationships. They are living reminders of the balance between love, responsibility, and ego. Their narratives emphasize the importance of understanding and compassion, underscoring the delicate threads that weave the fabric of family.

At the heart of these parallels between Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky is an age-old truth: humanity, with all its complexities and contradictions, remains a constant across epochs and cultures. Literature, in its finest moments, does not merely tell tales of yore; it holds up a mirror, reflecting our very souls.

To read these authors is not just to engage in literary appreciation but to embark on a journey of introspection. Through the lives, choices, and fates of their characters, we are offered a deeper understanding of our own nature, aspirations, and fears.

In a world perpetually in flux, let the timeless tales of these literary giants guide us, challenge us, and inspire us to transcend our limitations and embrace our shared human experience.

A bridge over troubled waters: The role of philosophy and humanities in driving innovation and change

Sometimes, people give me a perplexed expression when I mention my philosophy degree from university while working on one of the country’s largest intranets – as if they don’t fully understand the connection between the two.

In a world that centers around technology and natural science, however, we must acknowledge the significance of philosophy and humanities in innovation and change. Scientific and systemic progress is significant, but we must not forget the unique perspectives and insights that philosophy, art, and literature bring.

Philosophy helps us question beliefs, develops critical thinking, and encourages us to explore unknown territories. This mental flexibility opens the door to creativity and innovative solutions when faced with challenges. Why not ask Rawls, de Beauvoir, or Kant if your plans will be fair? And why not inquire of Schopenhauer, Camus, or Kierkegaard if your plan can alleviate the burden of existence and make life a little simpler?

Art and literature provide insight into multifaceted human experiences, teaching us empathy, resilience, and adaptability. Literature delves into complex ideas and emotions, helping us understand the complexities of society while broadening our perspective on problem-solving. Art breaks through linguistic and cultural barriers, creating shared communication and collaboration. Why not ask Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky about the profound depths and irresistible heights of a group of individuals? And why not ask Woolf or Arendt about the consequences of bias and inequality?

By embracing interdisciplinary collaboration and utilizing insights from philosophy, art, and literature, we can overcome traditional constraints and achieve our full potential together. In this way, we create a brighter, more innovative future that builds on both natural science, technology, and humanities.

AI and the Russian Soul: A Philosophical Conversation with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Pushkin, and Bulgakov

Scene: A cozy café in St. Petersburg. Five authors have gathered to discuss the implications of technological advancements on the Russian soul.

Tolstoy: “Artificial intelligence confronts us with a philosophical and spiritual challenge. Can a true understanding of human existence be achieved when devoid of our spiritual essence?”

Dostoevsky: “I agree with Leo. If we reduce humanity to mere numbers and statistics, we risk disregarding the human experience, which is defined by suffering and our search for meaning in life.”

Chekhov: “But what about access to technological advancements? If we aren’t careful, progress could leave some people behind. We must ensure equitable access to the benefits of technology.”

Pushkin: “I agree with Anton. But I also see the potential for AI to connect people across cultures and languages, creating a more unified world.”

Bulgakov: “Yes, but we must be careful. AI could also amplify existing inequalities and infringe upon individual freedoms.”

Tolstoy: “I agree with Mikhail. We mustn’t forget that we humans are responsible for imbuing machines with purpose and significance.”

Dostoevsky: “Indeed, Leo. As we confront the question of what it means to be human, we must safeguard our free will against becoming slaves to the machine.”

Chekhov: “But remember that AI is not the end-all solution to our problems. We must always strive to cultivate empathy and compassion in our lives.”

Pushkin: “I see where you’re coming from, Anton. However, I believe having the right intentions when approaching AI can help us build a more just and equitable world.”

Bulgakov: “We must use caution and responsibility as we develop this powerful technology. Let’s ensure AI doesn’t become an instrument of oppression or existing inequalities.”

The conversation was a testament to the enduring spirit of Russian thought and its deep contemplation of the ever-changing world.

Choosing the best Karamazov translation for you

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky is a true masterpiece, and I re-read it regularly. I also read it in English since many of the major Dostoyevsky commentators and scholars write in English. This book has many English translations, and I have gone back and forth between them before ending in the Oxford World’s Classics version, translated by Ignat Avsey as “The Karamazov Brothers.” There is, of course, no “best” translation of any book, but here I will show you why this translation works best for me.

I can start by comparing one of my favorite passages in the book, where they meet in the monastery, and Father Zosima sees right through Fyodor’s buffoonery. The original translation into English seems to be Constance Garnett’s:

Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself.

For me, who has English as a second language, this is a good translation although it feels a bit formal.

David McDuff has translated the same passage into the following:

The main thing is that you stop telling lies to yourself. The one who lies to himself and believes his own lies comes to a point where he can distinguish no truth either within himself or around him, and thus enters into a state of disrespect towards himself and others. Respecting no one, he loves no one, and to amuse and divert himself in the absence of love he gives himself up to his passions and to vulgar delights and becomes a complete animal in his vices, and all of it from perpetual lying to other people and himself.

For some reason, this translation feels a bit awkward to me, and McDuff has a choice of words and a style that hinder more than help me. I know McDuff appeals to many who have English as their first language, but for me, it doesn’t take me all the way to a good understanding.

A translation that has gained a lot of attention, positive as well as negative, is the one from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Their version of the same text is:

A man who lies to himself and listens to his own 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. Not respecting anyone, he ceases to love, and having no love, he gives himself up to passions and coarse pleasures, in order to occupy and amuse himself, and in his vices reaches complete bestiality, and it all comes from lying continually to others and to himself.

Pevear and Volokhonsky are famous for reinventing Dostoyevsky’s translated language, and we can sense it in just this small text. Some people find this reinvigorating, while others shudder at the thought of translators trying to improve the language of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and more. Initially, I found the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation to be the best, but all the sharp remarks about this translation destroying Dostoyevsky’s text made me look around a bit more.

Finally, I found the translation by Ignat Avsey which I have heard many positive remarks about. Yes, he omits using the Latin Pro/Contra and uses Pros/Cons for Book 5, he calls Book 10 “Schoolboys” instead of just “Boys”, and he omits ‘Brother’ in Book 11 so it is called “Ivan Fyodorovich” instead of “Brother Ivan Fyodorovich”. But no translation is perfect, and he uses a language that appeals to me and many others:

He who lies to himself and listens to his own lies reaches a state in which he no longer recognizes truth either in himself or in others, and so he ceases to respect both himself and others. Having ceased to respect everyone, he stops loving, and then, in the absence of love, in order to occupy and divert himself, he abandons himself to passions and the gratification of coarse pleasures until his vices bring him down to the level of bestiality, and all on account of his being constantly false both to himself and to others.

There is something about the rhythm and choice of words that appeal to me, and that helps me understand the characters.

A final version of the above writing is from Andrew R. MacAndrew and the Bantam Classic version, which also is pleasing to me:

A man who lies to himself, and believes his own lies, becomes unable to recognize truth, either in himself or in anyone else, and he ends up losing respect for himself as well as for others. When he has no respect for anyone, he can no longer love and, in order to divert himself, having no love in him, he yields to his impulses, indulges in the lowest forms of pleasure, and behaves in the end like an animal, in satisfying his vices. And it all comes from lying—lying to others and to yourself.

Another example is the last sentence of the first paragraph in the book, describing Fyodor’s muddleheadedness.


I repeat, it was not stupidity —the majority of these fantastical fellows are shrewd and intelligent enough—but just senselessness, and a peculiar national form of it.


I repeat: here there was no question of stupidity; the bulk of these madcaps are really quite sharp and clever – but plain muddle-headedness, and, moreover, of a peculiar, national variety.


Again I say it was not stupidity—most of these madcaps are rather clever and shrewd—but precisely muddleheadedness, even a special, national form of it.


Let me repeat yet again: this was not a case of stupidity—most of these crackpots are shrewd and cunning enough—but of muddle-headedness, and of a special, typically Russian kind.


Let me repeat: it was not stupidity, for most such eccentrics are really quite intelligent and cunning, and their lack of common sense is of a special kind, a national variety.

Put simply, Avsey’s and MacAndrew’s languages make the text more direct and lands in my mind in another way that the other translator’s texts do.

As a final comparison, we can hear the different versions of how Mrs. Khoklakova and her daughter Lise are introduced:


Mrs Khokhlakova, a wealthy lady, always dressed with taste, was still quite young and very comely in appearance, somewhat pale-skinned, with very lively, almost completely black eyes. She could not have been more than thirty-three years old and had been a widow for about five years. Her fourteen-year-old daughter suffered from paralysis of the legs. The poor girl had been unable to walk for about six months, and had to be wheeled around in a long Bath-chair on rubber-rimmed wheels. She had a charming little face, somewhat thin from sickness, but cheerful.


Mrs Khokhlakova, the mother, a rich lady who always dressed with taste, was a person still quite young and very pleasant to the gaze, somewhat pale, with eyes that were very lively and almost completely black. She was no more than thirty-three, and she had already been a widow for some five years. Her fourteen-year-old daughter was afflicted by a palsy of the legs. The poor young girl had been unable to walk for the past half-year, and she was wheeled about in a long bath chair. She had a charming little face, somewhat thin from her illness, but full of gaiety.


Madame Khokhlakov, the mother, a wealthy woman, always tastefully dressed, was still fairly young and quite attractive, slightly pale, with very lively and almost completely black eyes. She was not more than thirty-three years old and had been a widow for about five years. Her fourteen-year-old daughter suffered from paralysis of the legs. The poor girl had been unable to walk for about half a year already, and was wheeled around in a long, comfortable chair. Hers was a lovely little face, a bit thin from illness, but cheerful.


Mrs Khokhlakova, a wealthy lady, always dressed with taste, was still quite young and very comely in appearance, somewhat pale-skinned, with very lively, almost completely black eyes. She could not have been more than thirty-three years old and had been a widow for about five years. Her fourteen-year-old daughter suffered from paralysis of the legs. The poor girl had been unable to walk for about six months, and had to be wheeled around in a long Bath-chair on rubber-rimmed wheels. She had a charming little face, somewhat thin from sickness, but cheerful.


Mrs. Khokhlakov, a wealthy woman, always tastefully dressed, was still young and very pretty; she was rather pale, with very lively, almost black eyes. She was no more than thirty-three and had been a widow for five years. Her fourteen-year-old daughter, whose legs were paralyzed, had been unable to walk for six months and had to be pushed around in a wheelchair. She had a charming face, a little emaciated by sickness, but cheerful.


In this version, MacAndrew leads the way in portraying the mother and her daughter in front of me. The language is not a hindrance but his version is true to the original. For example, he describes the mother as “very pretty” instead of comely in appearance, or pleasant to the gaze.

Finally, an interesting remark from Avsey, is that the book should be called “The Karamazov Brothers” since that is the order of words English speaking people use:

One need go no further than the title, the standard English rendering of which is The Brothers Karamazov. This follows the original word order, the only one possible in Russian in this context. Had past translators been expressing themselves freely in natural English, without being hamstrung by that original Russian word order, they would no more have dreamt of saying The Brothers Karamazov than they would The Brothers Warner or The Brothers Marx.

Don’t lie to yourself

“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”

― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

By far, this is the quote by Dostoyevsky that has had the most impact on me. Privately, to prioritize my time and energy, professionally to look through the intranet industry I work in. Some things can become the truth, just because we repeat them too many times for ourselves. Finally, we become like the frog entering the cold water, and never noticing the temperature gradually rising until it dies from not escaping the boiling water. Nobody wants to be bitter on the deathbed, but people are every day. Don’t be one of them.

“Above all, don’t lie to yourself” is a good start to any day. We all have limited resources and we owe it to ourselves, and others, to make the best of it. By telling ourselves the truth regarding who we are, were we stand, what feels good, what feels bad, and where we should move, we listen more to our hearts than to our minds. I promise, you will never regret that. Ceasing to love is never worth it.

The Double by Dostoyevsky – a movie that saves this year of movies

[blockquote cite=”Dostoyevsky” type=”left, center, right”]We have all lost touch with life, we all limp, each to a greater or lesser degree.[/blockquote]

No matter how hard Godzilla pounds its enemies, angry people chase bitter people in cars, or secret agents pretend to be happy, none of them beat this movie this year: The Double based on Dostoyevsky’s work.

An interesting take on what would happen if we met ourselves, but with different personality traits. And it goes back to the choices we make in life, the crossroads where we select which way to take. Learning from another version of yourself, formed by other impressions, but still the same as you.

If you want to read the original book, I found the Double online at Penn State University.