Thursday, December 20, 2012

Dostoevsky and the Sandy Hook Massacre

Note to my readers: Novels can present and elucidate difficult moral and psychological issues in ways that no other medium can match. The horrifying massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, again demonstrates that Dostoevsky’s greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov, has as much relevance today, in 21st-century America, as it did in late-nineteenth-century Russia, when it was written.


I’ve been thinking about Ivan Karamazov lately, and so--a Google search revealed--have a number of columnists, including Ross Douthat of the NYT; Sean Kirst of the Syracuse Standard; and Chris Owen, a blogger on religious topics. In “Pro and Contra,” Part 5 of The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan, the oldest brother, and his youngest brother, Alyosha, the putative hero of the novel, discuss the existence of god and the existence of evil in the world. Ivan, who is a learned man, has been reading news accounts of the suffering of small children at the hands of their parents and other tormentors. As a good-hearted, empathetic man, Ivan cannot accept the existence of such evil in the world and explains to Alyosha, a novice monk, why the suffering of small children leads him to despair and doubt about a benevolent God.

The writers I cited above focus on one answer to Ivan’s argument--given implicitly by Alylosha and later in the book more explicitly by Alyosha’s mentor, the kindly Father Zossima-- that at judgment day all will be revealed and we will understand the necessity for suffering. But Ivan doesn’t buy it.

It is not, he tells Alyosha, that he doubts the existence of God, rather that he cannot accept a system in which the ultimate happiness of mankind depends on the unavenged tears of innocents.

"Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end,” Ivan tells Alyosha, “but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature ... And to found that edifice on its unavenged tears: would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?” Ivan asserts that he would not accept such a bargain, that such a price for admission to heaven is much too high. “And so,” he concludes in one of the most famous passages in the novel, “I hasten to give back my entrance ticket.... It's not God that I don't accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket."

The moral arguments in The Brothers Karamazov (and other works by Dostoevsky) are so effective because the writer created such believable characters, real-seeming people we can identify with and understand, even when we do not agree with them. Ivan’s arguments have always resonated with me, just as Alyosha’s or Father Zossima’s have rung true to other readers.

Today, more than 130 years after Dostoevsky completed his great novel, Ivan’s words make me  think of Sandy Hook and what happened there. At present it appears possible, even likely, that this unspeakable tragedy may lead to some small measures toward national gun control. It is clear from accounts in the news and on TV that the slaughter has changed a lot of minds on all sides of the political spectrum. If this new perspective does lead to some restrictions on gun possession, it will be a very good thing for our country.

But a part of me hangs back from celebrating. If sensible gun control laws are finally implemented, the message seems to be that a rational gun control policy could not even have been talked about until after the brutal sacrifice of twenty small, innocent children. I can’t help but wonder what Ivan Karamazov would have to say.


  1. While I'd be delighted to see this demented nation move toward gun control sanity, I'd much prefer that the Sandy Hook killings never happened, even if it leads to countless lives saved. But I always sucked at the college "What if" debates: If you could save thousands of people by pressing a button to kill one unknown person in China, would you do it? Nope. What if it was a bad person? Nope. What if it would save your family? Nope. The whole world? Nope. What if God told you to do it? Nope. Which doesn't make much sense, really, since I wouldn't hesitate to use any means necessary to save my family from an attacker. But I seem to have some moral absolute against sacrificing one to save many, which is where God and I part ways. Maybe it's the convenience of the scenario; just press a button and an unseen, unknown human drops dead. Killing should be horrific and messy. We should see and smell the hot sticky blood on our hands. Maybe I have trust issues: how do I know the situation is really what it's purported to be?
    My fellow-students would insist that I couldn't just refuse to consider killing one person to save the world. Such a question required soul-searching and agonizing....Nope. I guess I believe that any world requiring such an act to save it isn't worth saving, and any God who demands such an act isn't worth worshiping. Pretty simple, really. (Strange how the unknown victim was always some poor sap in China. Racist much?)

    1. Thank you so much for this post, Kate. This is exactly Ivan Karamazov's position, and mine too. I've been trolling the Internet for new entries on Dostoevsky lately, and there have been a lot, most "inspired" by Sandy Hook, and most relating to that section of The Brothers Karamazov (including the parable of the Grand Inquisitor). The odd thing is that Dostoevsky himself apparently believed that Alyosha's and Zossima's appeals to faith negated Ivan's very strong argument, but pretty much they didn't.

    2. Here is a comparable thought experiment. What if we didn't begin from the idea that the system in which we operate was set up by some Other outside of it. What if everything that has happened, wars, famine, disease, genocide, was the result of our having at one time acquired human consciousness--what in the Bible is called the knowledge of good and evil. If you could wipe out all the terrible things in history in exchange for this moment giving up your consciousness, your ability to reason and judge and respond, perhaps to live the existence of my pet cockapoo--would you do it?

    3. Good thought experiment, Becky, and thanks for commenting. I'm not sure that I agree consciousness, as you define it, is limited to humans. My own personal belief is that it is a property of the universe, like gravity, say. In any case, would I give it up, whatever it is, in exchange for a universe without cruelty.... maybe. I'll have to think about it some more.