In this famous chapter of Dostoyevsky’s classic novel The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan and Alyosha—two of the book’s four brothers—meet at a restaurant. Though both in their early twenties, the brothers possess dramatically different personalities. Ivan, who is a few years older, is a brilliant and cynical author; the spiritual and innocent Alyosha is a novice at a monastery, where he has become attached to the holy Father Zossima, a celebrated religious figure. Alyosha has just asked Ivan the question: “Will you explain why you don’t accept the world?” What follows is Ivan’s answer.
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
“I must make one confession,” Ivan began. “I could never understand how one can love one’s neighbors. It’s just one’s neighbors, to my mind, that one can’t love, though one might love those who live at a distance. I once read somewhere of the saint, John the Merciful. When a hungry, frozen beggar came to him, he took him into his bed, held him in his arms, and began breathing into his mouth, which was putrid and loathsome from some awful disease. I am convinced that he did that from “self-laceration,” from the self-laceration of falseness, for the sake of the charity imposed by duty, as a penance laid on him. For anyone to love a man, he must be hidden, for as soon as he shows his face, love is gone.”
“Father Zossima has talked of that more than once,” observed Alyosha. “He, too, said that the face of a man often hinders people not practiced in love, from loving him. But yet there’s a great deal of love in mankind, an almost Christ-like love. I know that myself, Ivan.”
“Well, I know nothing of it so far, and can’t understand it, and the mass of mankind are with me there. The question is, whether this lack of ability to love is due to men’s bad qualities or whether it’s inherent in their nature. To my thinking, Christ-like love for men is a miracle impossible on earth. He was God. But we are not gods. Suppose I, for instance, suffer intensely. Another can never know how much I suffer, because he is another and not I. And what’s more, a man is rarely ready to admit another’s suffering. Why won’t he admit it, do you think? Because I smell unpleasant, because I have a stupid face, because I once trod on his foot. Besides there is suffering and suffering; degrading, humiliating suffering such as humbles me—hunger, for instance. But when you come to higher suffering—for an idea, for instance—he will very rarely admit it, perhaps because my face he thinks is not the face of a man who suffers for an idea. And so he deprives me instantly of his favor, and not at all from badness of heart. Beggars, especially genteel beggars, should never show themselves, but ask for charity through the newspapers.
“One can love one’s neighbors in the abstract, or even at a distance, but at close quarters it’s almost impossible. If it were as on the stage, in the ballet, where if beggars come in, they wear silken rags and tattered lace and beg for alms dancing gracefully, then one might enjoy looking at them. But even then we should not love them. But enough of that. I simply wanted to show you my point of view. I meant to speak of the suffering of mankind generally. But we had better confine ourselves to the sufferings of children. That reduces the scope of my argument to a tenth of what it would be. Still we’d better keep to children, though it does weaken my case. But, in the first place, children can be loved even at close quarters, even when they are dirty, even when they are ugly. The second reason why I won’t speak of grown-up people is that, besides being disgusting and unworthy of love, they have a compensation— they’ve eaten the apple and know good and evil, and they have become ‘like God.’ They go on eating it still. But children haven’t eaten anything, and are innocent. Are you fond of children, Alyosha? I know you are, and you will understand why I prefer to speak of them. If they, too, suffer horribly on earth, they must suffer for their fathers’ sins, they must be punished for their fathers, who have eaten the apple. But that reasoning is of the other world and is incomprehensible for the heart of man here on earth. The innocent must not suffer for another’s sins, and especially such innocents! You may be surprised at me, Alyosha, but I am awfully fond of children, too. And remember, cruel people, the violent, the rapacious, the Karamazovs are sometimes very fond of children. Children while they are quite little—up to seven, for instance—are so remote from grown-up people; they are different creatures, as it were, of a different species. I knew a criminal in prison who had murdered whole families, including several children. But when he was in prison, he had a strange affection for them. He spent all his time at his window watching the children playing in the prison yard. He trained one little boy to come up to his window and made friends with him. . . . You don’t know why I am telling you all this, Alyosha? My head aches and I am sad.”
“You speak in such a strange way,” observed Alyosha uneasily, “as though you were not quite yourself.”
“By the way, a Bulgarian I met lately in Moscow,” Ivan went on, seeming not to hear his brother’s words, “told me about the crimes committed by Turks and Circassians in Bulgaria through fear of a general uprising of the Slavs. They burned villages, murdered, outraged women and children, they nailed their prisoners by the ears to the fences, left them till morning, and in the morning they hanged them— all sorts of things you can’t imagine. People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel. The tiger only tears and gnaws, that’s all he can do. He would never think of nailing people by the ears, even if he were able to do it. These Turks took pleasure in torturing children, too; cutting the unborn child from the mother’s womb, and tossing babies up in the air and catching them on the points of their bayonets before their mother’s eyes. Doing it before the mother’s eyes was what gave zest to the amusement. Here is another scene that I thought very interesting. Imagine a trembling mother with her baby in her arms, a circle of invading Turks around her. They’ve planned a game; they pet the baby, laugh to make it laugh. They succeed, the baby laughs. At that moment a Turk points a pistol four inches from the baby’s face. The baby laughs, holds out its little hands to the pistol, and the Turk pulls the trigger in the baby’s face and blows out its brains. Artistic, wasn’t it? By the way, Turks are particularly fond of sweet things, they say.”
“Ivan, what are you driving at?” asked Alyosha.
“I think if the devil doesn’t exist, then man has created him. He has created him in his own image and likeness.”
“Just as man created God, then?” observed Alyosha.
“ ‘It’s wonderful how you can turn words,’ as Polonius says in Hamlet,” laughed Ivan. “You turn my words against me. Well, I am glad. Yours must be a fine God, if man created Him in His image and likeness. You asked just now what I was driving at. You see, I like to collect certain facts, and, would you believe, I even copy anecdotes of a certain sort from newspapers and books. I’ve already got a fine collection. The Turks, of course, are included, but they are foreigners. I have Russian examples that are even better than the Turks. You know we prefer beating—rods and scourges—that’s our national institution. Nailing ears is unthinkable for us, for we are, after all, Europeans. But the rod and the scourge we have always with us and they cannot be taken from us. Abroad now they scarcely do any beating. Manners are more humane, or laws have been passed, so that they don’t dare to flog men now. But they make up for it in another way just as national as ours. It is so national that it would be practically impossible among us, though I believe we are being inoculated with it, since the religious movement began in our aristocracy.
“I have a charming pamphlet translated from the French describing how, quite recently, five years ago, a murderer, Richard, was executed— a young man, I believe, of twenty-three, who repented and was converted to the Christian faith at the scaffold. This Richard was illegitimate and had been given as a child of six by his parents to some shepherds on the Swiss mountains. They brought him up to work for them. He grew up like a wild beast among them. The shepherds taught him nothing, and scarcely fed or clothed him, but sent him out at seven to herd the flock in cold and wet, and no one hesitated to treat him in this way. On the contrary they thought they had every right, for Richard had been given to them as chattel, and they did not even see the necessity of feeding him. Richard himself described how in those years, like the Prodigal Son in the Gospel, he longed to eat of the mash given to the pigs, which were fattened for sale. But they wouldn’t even give him that, and beat him when he stole from the pigs. And that was how he spent all his childhood and his youth, till he grew up and was strong enough to go away and be a thief. The savage began to earn his living as a day laborer in Geneva. He drank what he earned, he lived like a brute, and finished by killing and robbing an old man. He was caught, tried, and condemned to death. They are not sentimentalists there. And in prison he was immediately surrounded by pastors, members of Christian brotherhoods, philanthropic ladies, and the like. They taught him to read and write in prison, and expounded the Gospel to him. They exhorted him, worked upon him, drummed at him incessantly, till at last he solemnly confessed his crime. He was converted. He wrote to the court himself that he was a monster, but that in the end God had given him light and shown grace.
“All Geneva was excited about him—all philanthropic and religious Geneva. All the aristocratic and well-bred society of the town rushed to the prison, kissed Richard and embraced him: ‘You are our brother, you have found grace.’ And Richard did nothing but weep with emotion: ‘Yes, I’ve found grace! All my youth and childhood I was glad of pigs’ food, but now even I have found grace. I am dying in the Lord.’ ‘Yes, Richard, die in the Lord; you have shed blood and must die. Though it’s not your fault that you knew not the Lord, when you coveted the pigs’ food and were beaten for stealing it (which was very wrong of you, for stealing is forbidden); but you’ve shed blood and you must die.’ And on the last day, Richard, perfectly limp, did nothing but cry and repeat every minute: ‘This is my happiest day. I am going to the Lord.’ ‘Yes,’ cried the pastors and the judges and philanthropic ladies. ‘This is the happiest day of your life, for you are going to the Lord!’ They all walked or drove to the scaffold behind the prison van. At the scaffold they called to Richard: ‘Die, brother, die in the Lord, for even thou hast found grace!’ And so, covered with his brothers’ kisses, Richard was dragged to the scaffold, and led to the guillotine. And they chopped off his head in brotherly fashion, because he had found grace. Yes, that’s characteristic. That pamphlet is translated into Russian by some Russian philanthropists of aristocratic rank and evangelical aspirations, and has been distributed gratis for the enlightenment of our people.
“Richard’s case is interesting because it’s national. Though to us it’s absurd to cut off a man’s head, because he has become our brother and has found grace, yet we have our own specialty, which is worse. Our historical pastime is the direct satisfaction of inflicting pain. There are lines in Nekrassov describing how a peasant lashes a horse on the eyes, ‘on its meek eyes,’ everyone must have seen it. It’s typically Russian. He describes how a feeble little nag had foundered under too heavy a load and could not move. The peasant beats it, beats it savagely, beats it at last not knowing what he is doing in the intoxication of cruelty. He thrashes it mercilessly over and over again. ‘However weak you are, you must pull, even if you die doing it.’ The nag strains, and then he begins lashing the poor defenseless creature on its weeping, on its ‘meek eyes.’ The frantic beast tugs and draws the load, trembling all over, gasping for breath, moving sideways, with a sort of unnatural spasmodic action—it’s awful. But that’s only a horse, and God has given horses to be beaten. So the Tatars have taught us, and they left us the knout as a remembrance of it.
“But men, too, can be beaten. A well-educated, cultured man and his wife beat their own child with a birch rod, a girl of seven. I have an account of it. The father was glad that the birch was covered with twigs. ‘It stings more,’ said he, and so he began stinging his daughter. I know for a fact that there are people who at every blow are worked up to sensuality, to literal sensuality, which increases progressively at every blow they inflict. They beat for a minute, for five minutes, for ten minutes, more often and more savagely. The child screams. At last the child cannot scream, it gasps, ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ By some diabolical unseemly chance the case was brought into court. A lawyer is engaged. The Russian people have long called a lawyer ‘a conscience for hire.’ The lawyer protests in his client’s defense. ‘It’s such a simple thing,’ he says, ‘an everyday occurrence. A father punishes his child. To our shame be it said, it is brought into court.’ The jury, convinced by him, give a favorable verdict. The public roars with delight that the torturer is acquitted. Ah, pity I wasn’t there! I would have proposed to raise a subscription in his honor! . . . Charming pictures.
“But I’ve still better things about children. I’ve collected a great, great deal about Russian children, Alyosha. There was a little girl of five who was hated by her father and mother, ‘most worthy and respectable people, of good education and breeding.’ You see, I must repeat again, it is a peculiar characteristic of many people, this love of torturing children, and children only. To all other types of humanity these torturers behave mildly and kindly, like cultivated and humane Europeans. But they are very fond of tormenting children. It’s just their defenselessness that tempts the tormentor, just the angelic confidence of the child who has no refuge and no appeal, that sets the tormentor’s vile blood on fire. In every man, of course, a demon lies hidden—the demon of rage, the demon of lustful heat at the screams of the tortured victim, the demon of lawlessness let off the chain, the demon of diseases that follow on vice, gout, kidney disease, and so on.
“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? Why, 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 these little ones! . . . I am making you suffer, Alyosha. I’ll stop if you like.”
“Never mind. I want to suffer too,” muttered Alyosha.
“One picture, only one more, because it’s so curious, so characteristic, and I have only just read it in some collection of Russian antiquities. I’ve forgotten the name. I must look it up. It was in the darkest days of serfdom at the beginning of the century, and long live the Liberator of the People! There was in those days a general of aristocratic connections, the owner of great estates, one of those men—somewhat exceptional, I believe, even then—who, retiring from the service into a life of leisure, are convinced that they’ve earned absolute power over the lives of their subjects. There were such men then. So our general, settled on his property of two thousand souls, lives in pomp, and dominates his poor neighbors as though they were dependents. He has kennels of hundreds of hounds and nearly a hundred dog-boys—all mounted, and in uniform. One day a serf boy, a little child of eight, threw a stone in play and hurt the paw of the general’s favorite hound. ‘Why is my favorite dog lame?’ He is told that the boy threw a stone that hurt the dog’s paw. ‘So you did it.’ The general looked the child up and down. ‘Take him.’ He was taken—taken from his mother and kept shut up all night. Early the next morning the general comes out on horseback, with the hounds, his dependents, dog-boys, and huntsmen, all mounted around him in full hunting parade. The servants are summoned for their edification, and in front of them all stands the mother of the child. The child is brought forward. It’s a gloomy, cold, foggy autumn day, a perfect day for hunting. The general orders the child to be undressed.
The child is stripped naked. He shivers, numb with terror, not daring to cry. . . . ‘Make him run,’ commands the general. ‘Run, run!’ shout the dog-boys. The boy runs. . . . ‘At him!’ yells the general, and he sets the whole pack of hounds after the child. The hounds catch him, and tear him to pieces before his mother’s eyes! … I believe the general was afterwards declared incapable of administering his estates. Well—what did he deserve? To be shot? To be shot for the satisfaction of our moral feelings? Speak, Alyosha!”
“To be shot,” murmured Alyosha, lifting his eyes to Ivan with a pale, twisted smile.
“Good!” cried Ivan delighted. “If even you say so . . . You’re a pretty monk! So there is a little devil sitting in your heart, Alyosha Karamazov!”
“What I said was absurd, but…”
“That’s just the point that ‘but’!” cried Ivan. “Let me tell you, novice, that the absurd is only too necessary on earth. The world stands on absurdities, and perhaps nothing would have come to pass in it without them. We know what we know!”
“What do you know?”
“I understand nothing,” Ivan went on, as though delirious. “I don’t want to understand anything now. I want to stick to the facts. I made up my mind long ago not to understand. If I try to understand anything, I will be false to the facts and I have determined to stick to the facts.”
“Why are you testing me?” Alyosha cried. “Will you say what you mean?”
“Of course, I will. That’s what I’ve been leading up to. You are dear to me. I don’t want to let you go. And I won’t give you up to your Zossima.”
Ivan was silent for a minute. His face became all at once very sad.
“Listen! I spoke of children only to make my case clearer. Of the other tears of humanity with which the earth is soaked from its crust to its center, I will say nothing. I have narrowed my subject on purpose. And I recognize in all humility that I cannot understand why the world is arranged as it is. Men are themselves to blame, I suppose: They were given paradise, they wanted freedom, and stole fire from heaven, though they knew they would become unhappy. So there is no need to pity them. With my earthly, Euclidian understanding, all I know is that there is suffering and that there are none guilty; that cause follows effect, simply and directly; that everything flows and finds its level— but that’s only Euclidian nonsense, I know that, and I can’t consent to live by it! What comfort is it to me that there are none guilty and that cause follows effect simply and directly, and that I know it—I must have justice, or I will destroy myself. And not justice in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth. Justice that I can see myself. I have
believed in it. I want to see it. And if I am dead by then, let me rise again, for if it all happens without me, it will be too unfair. Surely I haven’t suffered, simply that I, my crimes and my sufferings, may manure the soil of future harmony for somebody else. I want to see with my own eyes the lamb lie down with the lion and the victim rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been about. All the religions of the world are built on this longing, and I am a believer.
“But then there are the children, and what am I to do about them? That’s a question I can’t answer. For the hundredth time I repeat, there are numbers of questions, but I’ve only taken the children, because in their case what I mean is so unanswerably clear. Listen! If all must suffer to pay for eternal harmony, what have children to do with it? Tell me, please. It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they, too, furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future? I understand solidarity in sin among men. I understand solidarity in retribution, too; but there can be no such solidarity with children. And if it is really true that they must share responsibility for all their fathers’ crimes, such a truth is not of this world and is beyond my comprehension. Some jester will say, perhaps, that the child would have grown up and have sinned, but you see he didn’t grow up, he was torn to pieces by the dogs, at eight years of age.
“Oh, Alyosha, I am not blaspheming! I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be, when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.’ When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear. But what troubles me is that I can’t accept that harmony. And while I am on earth, I hurry to take my own measures. You see, Alyosha, perhaps it really may happen that if I live to that moment, or rise again to see it, I, too, perhaps, may cry aloud with the rest, looking at the mother embracing the child’s torturer: ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ But I don’t want to cry aloud then. While there is still time, I want to protect myself and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its tears to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her sons to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will. Let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a person who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much. And so I give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return the ticket to Him.”
“That’s rebellion,” murmured Alyosha, looking down.
“Rebellion? I am sorry you call it that,” said Ivan earnestly. “One can hardly live in rebellion, and I want to live. Tell me yourself, I challenge you—answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last. Imagine that you are doing this but that it is essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that child beating its breast with its fist, for instance—in order to found that edifice on its unavenged tears. Would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me. Tell the truth.”
“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.