Dostoevsky and the Glory of Guilt

There are only a very few authors whose works bear the power of changing the way the whole world is perceived by people. Fyodor Dostoevsky is one of those authors; and one of the ways that Dostoevsky has made his mark on human souls is his presentation of guilt. Not the feverish guilt of Raskolnikov associated with crime and punishment, but rather the guilt that is not necessarily condemnable because it is necessarily commonplace. Dostoevsky’s stories challenge people to accept this guilt that is the lot of humanity, and to accept that all are their brothers’ keepers. Everyone is guilty for everyone else, and in this guilt lays the restoration of innocence in a brotherhood that cannot be broken.

The concept of mankind as a family drives deep in Russian tradition. This principle is called sobornost, meaning a spiritual community of many conjointly living people. Sobornost was a cultural doctrine to promote unity and cooperation as opposed to individualism, and was eventually taken up as an illustration of the Mystical Body of Christ. The attitude of sobornost embraces all who are guilty of wickedness in open acknowledgement of personal guilt and personal wickedness. All are Adam, if not Cain. All are the Grand Inquisitor. All are guilty.

There was a practice in old Russian towns that illustrates sobornost and the mentality that moved people to live out its love. When a condemned criminal was carried off in a cart to execution, the people would follow behind, weeping for the doomed felon. They would cry out to him, begging him to pray for them when he reached the other side; even exclaiming that he went to die in their place—all being worthy of a death in one way or another; all being guilty. Is such compassion misplaced, even towards a grave offender? It is difficult, to say the least. The only thing to cling to in times of depravity is that hate is not a solution. Hate only makes more monsters. As Fyodor Dostoevsky famously said, “To love someone means to see them as God intended them.”

Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov made the idea of sobornost, of all people being equally guilty, eternal in the history of human thought. “There is only one way to salvation,” Dostoevsky writes in the voice of the Elder Zossima, “and that is to make yourself responsible for all men’s sins. As soon as you make yourself responsible in all sincerity for everything and for everyone, you will see at once that this is really so, and that you are in fact to blame for everyone and for all things.” The notion of common responsibility arising from common culpability gives a powerful and staggering impetus to this holy and humanitarian philosophy. Given that all men are bound together on this earth, it is therefore true that everything that everyone does has some bearing, some effect, some influence, on others, whether known or unknown. “In sinning,” Dostoevsky wrote again in Demons, “each man sins against all, and each man is at least partly guilt for another’s sin. There is no isolated sin.” Every man and woman is constantly sowing seeds of themselves, wherever they go, whatever they do; and with that, comes the responsibility to put down good seeds, as the mystical sense of the universal human condition and community unfolds.

In what way we are all responsible for the sins of all is impossible to say precisely—but it rings true, jarring though it is, if it is true that all men are obliged to love one another and be the presence of Christ to one another. The failure in this latter regard only fosters the failures in following Christ. It is, without doubt, the responsibility of all Christians to provide that example, that care, and that love. The crimes of the wayward reflect on all who have been baptized into Christ. That is a harsh saying—but it may very well be so. It is for mankind to take responsibility for his fellow men, that no one might be lost to the wolves.

Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic author who presented moments of violence and grace so commingled they are difficult to prize apart, and that is her point. It is a point O’Connor shared with Dostoevsky, whom she revered and referred to often. In her celebrated and controversial 1953 story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” an old woman, a grandmother, finds herself staring down the gun barrel of a serial killer as his henchmen execute her family. There is a strange and almost sublime moment in this horror when, facing death at the hands of a psychotic villain, she murmurs, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” Living in her mortality, the grandmother utters something profoundly tender and profoundly true, seeing her murderer as her child—her responsibility. She is shot three times through the chest upon this utterance, but the victory is hers. She sees the truth of things for the first time in the shadow of death, and it is a vision of personal responsibility as a parent to a child. Dostoevsky draws this parallel as well in The Brothers Karamazov as Dmitri exclaims, “we are all responsible for all. For all the babes, for there are big children as well as little children. All are babes.”

Dostoevsky is a prophet. Not a prophet of politics or psychology, but rather a prophet of humanity, portraying and predicting the eternal struggle of man and the eternal salvation that suffering presages. His novels present a world teeming with people groping through guilt for a purpose they do not fully understand, often trading defiance for either despair or determination as the inescapable truth becomes clear: there is, on earth, no alleviation of the human condition. This is the conflict whose significance is just beyond the comprehension of his protagonists, though they fight tooth and nail towards its realization. Dostoevsky’s position that redemption lays in trial, love, and mutual responsibility is prophetic only because it was prophesied long before he put pen to paper. The prophetic power of this prince of the Russian writers lies not in his ability to resolve the metaphysical torments of humanity, but in his ability to represent the torments that lie in the attempt to resolve them humanly. All are guilty and must suffer; and all must learn to bear it, if they are to find deliverance.

We are all responsible for the sins of our brethren, our babes, our own children. That is the truth to cling to with solemn sadness and prayerful solicitude as we all await our divine verdict. We must, poor folk that we are, undertake the wellbeing of the human race, accepting this responsibility in the knowledge of our own tremendous guilt and the gratitude that we can be forgiven. Again, from The Brothers Karamazov, “Love a man, even in his sin, for that love is a likeness of the divine love, and is the summit of love on earth.” Let us take these words of Fyodor Dostoevsky to heart and accept the consequences of our humanity with faith, hope, and love, though the whole world call us idiots. For it is only in embracing our guilt that we may embrace our glory.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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