Notes On Dostoyevsky


Fyodor Dostoyevsky is arguably the world’s greatest novelist. His story telling — his command of incident, pace, drama — is marvellous; but even more amazing is his use of what Bahktin called ‘polyphonic’ characters, each given full reign to develop their own standpoint on life as they go through the ups and downs of the story, and all the standpoints given equal weight — including the devil’s standpoint — and thereby creating a true portrait of life’s clashing forces. He lets these forces at work in the ‘stands’ taken by persons in existence truthfully play out, and lets life demonstrate which are the tested and true, which are tested and crumble, which stand up, which fall down.. The author does not take sides, does not intrude, does not editorialize. But it is Dostoyevsky’s almost clinical peeling away of layers of the personality, his ability to probe hidden deeps, that makes him a depth psychologist far ahead of Freud, Jung, Rogers, et al. No one is deeper than Dostoyevsky, in uncovering the irrational springs of human existence.

Dostoyevsky is one of the very few Christian novelists [William Blake was a Christian poet] in the world, and certainly among the select few worth bothering over. He struggled for his Christianity, going through distinct phases. It was always for him a problem, never an answer. There is nothing pat, self-satisfied, easy, in Dostoyevsky’s struggle with Christ. The question, for him, posed by any and all religion is= can religion change anything on the ground? If it cannot, then what use is it?

Dostoyevsky worked through and rejected Christian Socialism, though he only developed a more radical religious communalism as a result, a communalism he saw in the Russian peasants and their ‘folk’ religiosity; this human solidarity, and interdependence, has obvious links back to the communalism of indigenous peoples round the world, and doubtless what Dostoyevsky saw, and esteemed, in the ‘Russian people’ was a vestige of the tribal way of holding together. ‘Togetherness’ was the primal manifestation of religious influence upon humanity, and thus should be the first priority of all religious initiative. There are no winners and losers in Dostoyevsky. All are saved, or no one is saved.

Thus, whether you call it ‘Socialism’, or prefer a different term, a more spiritual term such as ‘Communalism’, or the special Russian term ‘Sobornost’ [denoting a gathering of all the people where a conclusion is only reached if all voices are respected, expressed and listened to, and are in final total accord– thus a Sobor is a Council, and represents the Way of ‘Conciliarity’], Dostoyevsky remained firmly adhered to an anti-individualist, anti-collectivist, but radical togetherness of human beings. If Christian Socialism was dropped, it is because it is not radical enough. In real ‘communion’ one with another, we carry each other, suffer for each other, are helped and help, and most radical, we take the faults of others onto ourself, as if they were our own. Thus, in this radical togetherness we are also forgiven and forgive.

The ‘spirit’ of Dostoyevsky’s ‘gathering together’ of humans in an unbreakable solidarity is that, as father Zosima says, “each is responsible for all.” This is radical love, not legal rights; it is even beyond ethical duty. Its spirit is, each of us will do anything, at cost to himself, to keep the brother or sister part of the loving relationships. This goes beyond generosity, and needs humility toward others, because even in loving them, helping them, forgiving them, we must not further wound people’s injured pride.

Dostoyevsky insists= ‘we are in it together’, and ‘if one is lost, all are lost.’

A commentator=

“Belensky had taught him, and he never forgot it, that unless all could be saved, no one had a right to be saved” [A. Boyce Gibson, ‘The Religion of Dostoyevsky’, p 74]. And= “The only Christianity which appeals to Dostoyevsky at all is that which includes the wastrels and scoundrels and leaves no one out” [p 94].

“He had to select the dark corners of the world, show that the light which could not penetrate them would not be worthy of worship” [p 75].

“God does not order things for the best, but is with us though we are gripped by the worst” [p 94].



The last seal on our desperate condition is what Dostoyevsky’s novels explore as ‘hurt pride.’ In hurt pride, we refuse any and all help. This is why those who realize how really broken they are at depth can only be helped by others who are equally aware they are broken at depth; for this cause, the Messiah had to be broken like us, disrespected like us, disbelieved like us.. In the most abject and full scale brokenness, we cannot be helped by the morally superior, the mystically illumined, the intellectually exalted, dwelling on a higher plane to us. Help from them merely humiliates us further, and there can be no accepting of help if it humiliates the already humiliated.. “..if one’s sense of significance has been mauled or stunted or deformed it is bound to appear in an exaggerated form, and to be particularly intractable” [Gibson, ibid, p 53]. Only if we are all equally culpable, equally hurt and equally disadvantaged by our common destruction, can we help and be helped by one another — without that so-called ‘help’ humiliating us further when we are already humiliated enough by existence, our circumstances, our history.

The unique insight of Dostoyevsky is that “..people can only remain in spiritual togetherness if there is absolutely no assumption of superiority.. and if all set to work with each other on the assumption that all crimes and merits are shared out. Thus togetherness is combined with an acute sense of individual responsibility” [ibid, p 49]. The key to this solidarity where we are equally lost and equally found, with no one above and no one below, is that each person has to overcome self-will. Father Zosima, in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, unpacks the full meaning of= “Each is responsible for all.” This includes taking on oneself the sins and errors and faults of others as if they were really one’s own, and ceasing to project one’s own indolence and impotence onto others.. If we do not humble ourself, turning self-will on its head, we will end up in that pride of Satan that leads us, in some implacable way, to reject the Way of Love that God enacts. “You can be together with people [living in an organic communion with them] if you pull down your walls and so humble yourself that your help and availability will humiliate nobody” [ibid, p 48].

In short, for Dostoyevsky ‘human failure to hit the mark’ – sin in Greek — starts with ‘self-interest’, individualism as greed, avarice, taking what you want at the expense of communion with others, but it does not end there. It progresses to that self-will which creates the locked-in — impenetrable and invulnerable — state of pride. “Even at the height of his crusade against bourgeois individualism, …he realized that it was not enough to give oneself to another: the real problem was to do it without humiliating. For pride is perhaps all that the other has left to him, and in the name of all that he is he will stand out against the kindness which threatens to deprive him of it. As has often been pointed out, Raskolnikov does not commit his murder for gain, but to show that he is somebody..” [ibid, p 48].

To help someone, we must humble ourself. We must be as low down and derailed as they are, also as willing to change.. Consequently, we are as much helped as helping, in any redemptive deed for our fellows sharing the joy and pain of the human condition..

‘Love of the neighbour’ acknowledges the primal reality of human togetherness as a radical communalism — ‘Sobornost’ in Russian: it means a gathering or council that excludes no one, but includes all, and rejects both absolutism from the top, and the majority vote from the bottom, but seeks, rather, a third way beyond both of these Western tendencies by virtue of reaching the accord of each and all. In fact, it is accepted that the Spirit has not spoken until unanimity of everyone, with no dissenters left out, is arrived at. This creates a ‘unity-in-diversity’ which protects against, and eliminates, either the tyranny of the collective over the individual, or the individual imposing his will in such a way as to fragment the collective.

For Dostoyevsky, the selfishness of the individual that generates greed, avarice, theft from the communion with others, and injury to its very nature of sharing, needs the radical generosity of love to overcome it. But harder to over-come is our self-will, the spiritual pride that means we do not know how to help without humiliating, nor how to accept help without being humiliated. The helping imperative of love is impossible to fulfill, whilst we remain essentially proud in ‘self-will’, not simply mean and possessive in ‘self-interest.’

Generosity is not enough.. Humility has to partner it.

‘Emptying the will’ [kenosis] does not mean total negation of our freedom. Nor is it subjugation to another’s power. Dostoyevsky believed that without freedom, we cease being human, and freedom therefore has the connotation of ‘not being interfered with’, and a ‘natural anarchism.’ In emptying the will, we do not lose our freedom by entering some cosmically undifferentiated condition where we no longer have to carry the burden of choice. Emptying the will means restoring our will to love, as God loves, and as we are called to love one another. If God is humble toward us, to the extent of sharing in our nadir of humiliation, then this is the reality of love, and the only way we can really love other people. It is this peculiarly powerful mix of generosity — willingness to go to any lengths for love — and humility — willingness to be as defiled and disregarded as those we love in order to communicate love to them — that marks the divine-human love which can be called Messianic.

To help, and be helped, we must be emptied of self will, but our hurt pride blocks this. It is the last obstacle. ‘Fear and Pride’, a crazed friend once announced, are the last enemy of the human venture.

Fear can be overcome through deeper acquaintance with God. The pride that protects, solaces, and walls in, fear is harder to break. If your heart has not broken, it is not because you are so tough, so robust, as you probably believe, but because your pride has put your fear in a marble tomb. Proudly you sit on the cold stone, thinking its inflexibility is a sign of spiritual advancement. It is, on the contrary, the sign of advancement in the ‘indestructibility’ that is Satanically evil. The hardened heart, the Jews called this. The callous heart, they added, about it.

The issue of hurt and twisted pride subtly underscores our descent into hell. Our life cannot be changed, it is set on its ruinous course, because we cannot help, or be helped, by another human being.

Pride — not just fear — means the flight away from the Nothing becomes the descent into the Nothing.


Again, hurt pride is implicated in our inability to forgive and be forgiven.

When we remain stuck in Satanic judgementalism, accusing and condemning others in their error of living, and absolving ourselves of the same error, this is also the result of pride. “As has often been pointed out, there is not much in the Gospels about sexuality.. but there is a great deal about pride, and especially about the moral self-congratulation of the righteous” [ibid, p 55]. “..religion not only enjoins humility on each of us individually; it also enjoins us to devote our humility to the service of our neighbour, especially if he is running into trouble. But to humble oneself without love may be just a complicated form of pride. From the other end, being [forgiven] may be felt as an insult; those set in their alienation will cling to it as the last remnant of their self-respect. Above all they will not consent to be forgiven. ..forgiveness is an unequal relation; even if the forgiven feels the need of it, he is humiliated in his own eyes if he accepts it. [Thus] it is harder to be forgiven than to forgive. The only people in fact who can be trusted with forgiveness are those who at the same time acknowledge their solidarity in sin with the forgiven. Otherwise, forgiveness, like justice, is an instrument of oppression” [ibid, p 57].

Lucifer was an angel of light who fell through pride; he was not a mud raker. He deals in false light, false illumination and false charisma. He can simulate any human excellence, and therefore there is no advanced spiritual condition where we are home and dry. Even Buddhists acknowledge that enlightenment can be infected by a subtle pride. If this spiritual pride can infect even our attempt to love, to the point of forgiving and being forgiven, creating “obduracy of injured pride in the forgiven, and.. clumsiness and insensitivity in those who forgive” [ibid, pp 57-58], then we need to remain vigilant, and continue struggling. We are not there yet, not at all..

To repent, to help and be helped, to forgive and be forgiven: this is the strong meat and drink of our spiritual struggling, and it is decidedly not pap for children. We are all in it together. When we embrace that, and do the homework on ourself needed to practice that– then we are on the road out of hell.

Then we cry for others, and cry out of our self, and love can answer.

Failing that, we remain radically alone, abandoned, cold, for as long as we will ‘hold out’ against the heartbreak which, alone, can redeem.

If our heart is broken, and we know it is, and we cease hellish escapades and hellish escapes to cancel out its truth, we can be redeemed.


To descend inexorably into hell is the falling down of passion. To come out of hell, little by little, through repenting, through giving and receiving help, through forgiving and being forgiven, working with God and working with other people on the way, is the muscle, and heart, of passion.

Only passion whose heart is more on fire than the desert can cross the empty wastes.

Pit= weak neglect of truth; deadness inescapable.

Furnace= strong betrayal of truth; burning unrelievable.

Void= cowardice before the truth, and indifference to its obligation to action; falling without end.

Passion is what descends; passion is what can be reborn, ascending back up from deeps to go back into the world, to confront deeps.