Dostoevsky on the Individual

dostojewskijThe following passage from The Brothers Karamazov is taken from one of the “Talks and Homilies” of the Elder Zossima – one of the key characters in the novel. His thoughts echo earlier articles here that contrast man as “individual” (isolation) to man as Person (brotherhood and communion).

Look at the worldly and at the whole world that exalts itself above the people of God: are the image of God and his truth not distorted in it? They have science, and in science only that which is subject to the senses. But the spiritual world, the higher half of man’s being, is altogether rejected, banished with a sort of triumph, even with hatred. The world has proclaimed freedom, especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs: only slavery and suicide! For the world says: “You have needs, therefore satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the noblest and richest men. do not be afraid to satisfy them, but even increase them” – this is the current teaching of the world. And in this they see freedom. But what comes of this right to increase one’s needs? For the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; for the poor, envy and murder, for they have been given rights, but have not yet been shown any way of satisfying their needs. We are assured that the world is becoming more and more united, is being formed into brotherly communion, by the shortening of distances, by the transmitting of thoughts through the air. Alas, do not believe in such a union of people. Taking freedom to mean the increase and prompt satisfaction of needs, they distort their own nature, for they generate many meaningless and foolish desires, habits, and the most absurd fancies in themselves. They live only for mutual envy, for pleasure-seeking and self-display. To have dinners, horse, carriages, rank, and slaves to serve them is now considered such a necessity that for the sake of it, to satisfy it, they will sacrifice life, honor, the love of mankind, and will even kill themselves if they are unable to satisfy it. We see the same thing in those who are not rich, thile the poor, so far, simply drown their unsatisfied needs and envy in drink. But soon they will get drunk on blood instead of wine, they are being led to that. I ask you: is such a man free? I knew one “fighter for an idea” who told me himself that when he was deprived of tobacco in prison, he was so tormented by this deprivation that he almost went and betrayed his “idea,” just so that they would give him some tobacco. And such a man says: “I am going to fight for mankind.” Well, how far will such a man get, and what is he good for? Perhaps some quick action, but he will not endure for long. And no wonder that instead of freedom they have fallen into slavery, and instead of serving brotherly love and human unity, they have fallen, on the contrary, into disunity and isolation, as my mysterious visitor and teacher used to tell me in my youth. And therefore the idea of serving mankind, of the brotherhood and oneness of people, is fading more and more in the world, and indeed the idea now even meets with mockery, for how can one drop one’s habits, where will this slave go now that he is so accustomed to satisfying the innumberable needs he himself has invented? He is isolated, and what does he care about the whole? They have succeeded in amassing more and more things, but have less and less joy.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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6 responses to “Dostoevsky on the Individual”

  1. Pastor Chad Avatar
    Pastor Chad

    I am always amazed at how Dostoevsky speaks directly to our situation. Who will set us free from this prison of our own making? Only Jesus. Only Jesus.

  2. Gail Hyatt Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I am reading Brothers Karamazov at your recommendation. Over the holidays, I bought the book on tape and listened to all 10 hours enjoying it, however feeling unsatisifed when it was over. I could not imagine why this book was the favorite of so many.

    As I did some investigation, I came to realize that the unabridged version was actually a 37 hour recording. I had downloaded an abridged version without realizing it. I was given less than 1/3 of the story. I discoverd this when I was researching favorite quotes from the book. Over half of the favorite quotes I found were never read to me at all. Most were the words of Elder Zossima.

    So, now I have a hard copy of the book (trans. Pevear & Volokhonsky) and I’m starting over. (At least I can pronounce the names now.)

    Thank you for the quote above. It is a jewel which gets more fascinating the more it is studied. It will be like a treasure for which I will hunt as I explore the pages of Brothers Karamazov.

    Thanks again for recommending this book to me.

    To God be the glory,

  3. Marcus Avatar

    I am completely blown away by this excerpt. How deep, true, and fundamentally Orthodox that article is! I love the unspoken question presented here: “what are we to do about this?”. I must read this book now if there was any doubt before.

  4. Sean Avatar

    As always, Dostoyevsky is speaking for the past, present and future. Just prophetic. If only more people (myself among them) could realize what these words really mean.

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