On Rebellion, Appeasement, and a Fellow Sailor Named Ivan

Dear courteous reader, I have recently been reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov for the fourth time. I used to love ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ chapter the most, but this time it’s quite different. Upon rereading the book, I found myself more captivated by a chapter entitled ‘Rebellion’. The passage tells the story about Ivan Karamazov, who is―as described on the back cover of my Signet Classics edition―’brilliant and morose’, discussing many things with his brother, Alyosha, who is a gentle and loving novice monk.

One of the things that fascinated me was the discussion about injustice present on the world. Ivan gives several actual examples of injustice and harm inflicted on the children, whom he considers ‘innocent’. In case you haven’t read the book, one of the stories told by Ivan goes like this:

This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty―shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy, because she didn’t ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement. It was her mother, her mother who did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child’s groans! Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, Alyosha, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? The whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to ‘dear, kind God’! I say nothing of the sufferings of grown-up people, they have eaten the apple, damn them, and the devil take them all! But this little ones!…

His case is perfectly unanswerable, at least for me. I’m sorry, I don’t have what it takes to answer the question posed by Ivan. His reasoning is also valid, and―if this of a considerable importance to you, dear reader―this so-called ‘problem of evil’ was also the thing that brought me to a Nihilistic conclusion. I still don’t have the answer to this question, honestly.

It’s such a shame that Ivan’s response is to refuse the golden ticket. I think it’s his response that eventually leads him to his desperation (at the end of the book, he completely loses his mind). I don’t blame him, really; in fact, I have sympathy for him, because ‘that question’ is formidably strong. It may be the case that he views life from an extremely mathematical point of view so that when he encounters injustice, he simply cannot accept it.

For this mystery one can do nothing but to believe. Maybe ‘that Love’ is indeed so great and so unfathomable that in the end it requires us to ask ourselves this question: when Love comes into the equation, shall Justice prevail? Ah, sorry, let me put it this way: when Love comes into the equation, can Justice prevail?

But Alyosha, I don’t want to corrupt you or to turn you from your stronghold. Perhaps I even want to be healed by you.

 Ivan Karamazov

P.S.: By writing the closing paragraph I’m not intending to nullify Justice, that’s why I end it with a question mark. The answer can go either way, really. Plus, consider this: is His math the same as our three-dimensional, Euclidean math?


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