Re: Great Ideas

(This post refers, in a round about way, to Gabe’s post)

So I haven’t read really any of the supposed “great ideas”. I’ve only read excerpts of Common Sense (and am currently writing an essay incorporating it). I own Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and started it once… So it seems I must know nothing of “great ideas”…

What prompted me to write anything about said post was that I’ve been thinking a lot about Dostoevsky lately (he’s also in said essay) and reading A Writer’s Diary.

Reading Dostoevsky is enlightening in many ways and I’m always impressed by how accute his mind was (in many ways, once again) and how “great” his ideas were. However, his ideas weren’t “great” in the same way that one normally thinks of as “great”. He shows us the “greatness” within ourselves which is the fallen human nature. He shows us the immense amount of responsibility we have with our gift of freedom. As Berdyaev said, “He was ‘cruel’ because he would not relieve man of his burden of freedom, he would not deliver him from suffering at the price of such a loss, he insisted that man must accept an enormous responsibility corresponding to his dignity as a free being.”

And when this freedom (by our own volition) leads us in the wrong way as free beings we will face the consequences. This part is what is important to Dostoevsky-the purgatory process that our mistakes bring us to (as can be seen in Dmitri in The Brothers Karamazov) and stated directly in A Writer’s Diary:

Purification through suffering is easier—easier, I say, than the lot you assign to many of them by wholesale acquittals in court. You only plant cynicism in their hearts; you leave them with a seductive question and with contempt for you yourselves. … They have contempt for you and your courts and for the justice system of the whole country! Into their hearts you pour disbelief in the People’s truth, in God’s truth; you leave them confused…

Long before it became sheik to blame “my upbringing, my parents, my teachers, my education” etc, etc infinity… for ones crimes, Dostoevsky could see that that indeed was where the court system was heading. He makes a very interesting comparison between how the people would call criminals “unfortunates” and the perversion of that term with relation to justice:

…when they use the word ‘unfortunate,’ the People are saying to the ‘unfortunate’ more or less as follows: ‘You have sinned and are suffering, but we, too, are sinners. Had we been in your place we might have done even worse. Were we better than we are, perhaps you might not be in prison. With the retribution for your crime you have also taken on the burden for all our lawlessness. Pray for us, and we pray for you. But for now, unfortunate ones, accept these alms of ours; we give them that you might know we remember you and have not broken our ties with you as a brother.’ … Never have the People, in calling a criminal an ‘unfortunate,’ ceased to regard him as a criminal!

Of course, all this talk of “greatness” is not to say there are is no “smallness” within us humans. To balance his “great” characters there are those such as Sofya in Crime and Punishment and of course Alyosha and Fr. Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov.

However, I think for the modern corrupted world there is probably more need for the vision of precisely this kind of “greatness”.

…if we consider that we ourselves are sometimes even worse than the criminal, we thereby also acknowledge that we are half to blame for his crime. If he has transgressed the law which the nation prescribed for him, then we ourselves are to blame that he now stands before us. (on trial) If we were better, then he, too, would be better and would not now be standing here before us…. now is precisely the time we must tell the truth and call evil evil; in return, we must ourselves take on half the burden of the sentence. We will enter the courtroom with the thought that we, too, are guilty. This pain of the heart, which everyone so fears now and which we will take with us when we leave the court, will be punishment for us. If this pain is genuine and severe, then it will purge us and make us better. And when we have made ourselves better, we will also improve the environment and make it better. And this is the only way it can be made better. But to flee from our own pity and acquit everyone so as not to suffer ourselves—why, that’s too easy. Doing that we slowly and surely come to the conclusion that there are no crimes at all, and ‘the environment is to blame’ for everything. We inevitably reach the point where we consider crime even a duty, a noble protest against the environment. ‘Since society is organized in such a vile fashion, one can’t get along in it without protest and without crimes.’ … So runs the doctrine of the environment, as opposed to Christianity which, fully recognizing the pressure of the environment and having proclaimed mercy for the sinner, still places a moral duty on the individual to struggle with the environment and marks the line where the environment ends and duty begins.


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