One of my reading goals for 2015 was to read The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It’s been on my to-do list for years and years. Many pastors, thinkers, and writers have it on their best of lists. In fact, my favorite novelist in college, Kurt Vonnegut, wrote that “There is one other book, that can teach you everything you need to know about life… it’s The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but that’s not enough anymore.” Though I thought the read would be a worthwhile chore, it has been anything but. Halfway through the book and I find myself agreeing with Vonnegut, The Brother’s Karamazov is among the best books ever written.
The following quote is from a character in the book, Elder Zosima – a dying monk, as he preaches his last sermon. It rings true almost a century and a half later:
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 the 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 wolrd is becoming more and more united, is being formed into brotherly communion, by the shortening of distance, 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 destroy 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, horses, 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, while 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 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 vistor and teacher used to tell me in my youth. And therefore the idea of serving makind, 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 innumerable 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.