These pleas to Alyosha are Father Zossima’s last requests. Now he tells all assembled the reasons why Alyosha is so very special to him. Once, the elder says, he had an older brother who influenced him tremendously. Alyosha bears a particularly strong resemblance to that brother — physically and spiritually. Then Zossima begins to reminisce.
He was born to a noble family of only moderate means. His father died when he was only two years old, and he was reared with his mother and the brother he spoke of. The brother, eight years older than Zossima, came under the influence of a freethinker and was soon a source of sorrow to the mother. He ridiculed her religious observances and her devout beliefs. Then, at seventeen, he contracted consumption, and the family was advised that he had but a few months to live.
During the months he waited for death, a tremendous spiritual conversion took place in the boy. He became extremely pious and spoke continuously about the need to love all of God’s creatures, even the little birds in the garden. He asked the servants to feel that they were his equal and often said that he wished he could be a servant to the servants.
Besides his brother, Zossima says that there has been another influence on him: the Bible. This book, he says, is a testament of the extent of God’s love for all men. Zossima mourns for those who cannot find the vast love that he finds contained in the Bible.
But Zossima’s affection for the Bible has not been lifelong. As a youth, he was sent to a military academy in St. Petersburg and soon neglected both the Bible and his religious training. After graduation, he led the carefree life that a typical young officer might. He courted a beautiful lady whom, he was sure, returned his affections, but while he was absent she married someone else. Zossima was insulted and immediately challenged her husband to a duel. But, waking on the morning of the duel, he looked out, saw a fresh, clean beauty on all of God’s world, and remembered his dying brother’s exhortation: love all of God’s creatures. He leaped from his bed, apologized to a servant whom he had beaten the night before, and made plans for his duel. He would allow his opponent to take the first shot; afterward, Zossima would drop his pistols and beg the man’s forgiveness. This he did. But the officers accompanying Zossima were shocked by the strange behavior. They questioned him and were even more surprised at the explanation: he had, he said, decided to resign his military commission and enter a monastery.
Zossima fast became the talk of the town. One night a mysterious stranger visited him and begged to hear the motives that prompted Zossima’s actions. Zossima talked at length to the man and for many nights afterward. Then, after hearing the whole of Zossima’s story, the man made a confession of his own: years ago he killed a woman out of passion, and someone else was blamed for the deed. The man in question, however, died before he was tried. Now the perpetrator of the deed has wife and children and has become one of the most respected philanthropists in the community. But, he moans to Zossima, he has never found happiness for himself. In spite of an apparently successful life, he has always needed to confess. This, in fact, he finally did, and in public, but no one believed him; they thought that he was temporarily deranged. Not long after his confession to Zossima, the man falls ill. The elder visits him and is thanked greatly for his guidance. Zossima, until now, has never revealed the man’s secret.
The elder pauses and begins to speak to Alyosha of what it has meant to be a monk. Zossima feels that the Russian monk is, of all persons, closest to the Russian folk and that ultimately the salvation of Russia will come through these common people who, he feels sure, will always remain orthodox in their beliefs. He also talks of the equality of all people and hopes that everyone can someday be truly meek and can accept a servant as an equal and, in turn, function as a servant to others.
True equality, he says, is found only in the “spiritual dignity of man.” As an example, he tells of an old servant’s giving him a sum of money for the monastery. This, the elder reveals, is the ideal reversal in action; a master-servant relationship exists no longer.
Zossima admonishes his listeners to love all of God’s creatures and to take on the responsibility of all men’s sins. He explains that often God expects many things that we cannot understand with human logic. Man, for example, should not judge his fellow men — even criminals — says Zossima; man must pray for those who are outside the church, for there does not exist a material hell. There is only a spiritual hell, he says. He then collapses to the floor and reaches out as though to embrace the earth. Joyfully he gives up his soul to God.
Because of their positive quality, Dostoevsky inserts the final views of Father Zossima next to the questioning disbeliefs of Ivan Karamazov. They act somewhat like a counterbalance to the many ideas presented in Book V.
Unlike Ivan, Zossima is didactic — the most didactic character in the novel, perhaps in all of Dostoevsky’s writings. His ideas are too abstract to be presented as Ivan’s were; his ideas are too profound to be presented in any other way than by simple exhortation.
Parts of Zossima’s philosophy have, of course, been discussed in earlier books, but here almost all of his tenets are gathered together and presented either by examples from his own life or through exhortations and miniature sermons. In one sense, Zossima is an extension of earlier Dostoevskian characters, but, because of his personal history, he is much more than a mere abstraction of the author’s ideas. Surprisingly, Father Zossima is a rather robust character, one who undergoes many diverse experiences before dedicating his life to the monastery. There are reasons for his convictions; he is no conventional saint.
Concerning the amount of background material that Zossima gives, it is most important that we see him against such relief. If the elder’s theories are to be accepted as valid, we cannot view him as an isolated or even as a repressed person who turns to religion in order to escape the world’s rejection. Zossima was not an introvert; his youth was wild and reckless, filled with “drunkenness, debauchery, and devilry.” He was popular with his fellow officers and with people in general. His conversion and his subsequent religious dedication, therefore, are grounded in motivated reality.
The account of the duel and Zossima’s actions show him to be a person of physical courage as well as of moral courage. It is significant that the conversion was brought about by his remembering some of his dead brother’s ideas about loving life and respecting all things in this world. From this time onward, these ideas become more and more central to Zossima’s final philosophy of life.
Concerning suffering, Zossima’s explanation of why he bowed down to Dmitri has its roots deep in Dostoevskian philosophy. In Crime and Punishment, for example, the protagonist bows down before a prostitute because he sees in her “the suffering of all humanity.” Suffering, Dostoevsky felt, was the genesis of retribution. Only through great suffering can a man be purified of his sins, and it is this process that Zossima sees within Dmitri.
In speaking of his love for the Bible, Zossima says that the book’s basic lesson is this: one must realize the vast love that God has for mankind. At first, admittedly, such a realization is not easy. It is difficult to accept God giving his beloved Job to the devil for no other reason than to boast to his opponent. But the value of the parable, says Zossima, lies in the fact that it is a mystery “that the passing earthly show and the eternal verity are brought together.” This, of course, is diametrically opposed to what Ivan believes. He refuses to accept any idea that cannot be comprehended by earthly logic. But for Zossima, the greatness of God lies in the fact that man cannot comprehend God’s ways and that some things of earth must remain a mystery. Only with such a mystery does man realize the full extent of God’s glory. If man could comprehend all, then God would lose his sense of majesty. Again in contrast to Ivan (who loves humanity but cannot accept the idea of suffering that God imposes upon man), Zossima says that “one who does not believe in God will not believe in God’s people. He who believes in God’s people will see His Holiness too, even though he had not believed in it till then.” The elder insists on practicing active love for mankind; only through love will one come to believe in God. For the present, Ivan would disagree. He spends his time intellectualizing over abstruse problems; he has no time left for active love.
With the appearance of the mysterious stranger, Zossima is put to his first test. It would have been easy to tell the stranger that he has suffered enough and that there is no need for him to ruin his life and his family’s life by making an open confession. But Zossima is quietly persuasive in his efforts to get the stranger to recognize his errors. There is no attempt at coercion, but simply a quiet plea for him to perform that which his conscience tells him must be done.
As Zossima confides his wisdom to Alyosha, the reader should be aware that the elder’s views are essentially those by which Dostoevsky himself tried to live, or at least wished to live. Particularly, Dostoevsky was interested in these concepts:
1. The Russian monk and his possible significance. — Zossima believes that the salvation of Russia would come from two sources — the Russian monks and a vast, idealized section of the Russian population that he referred to as the Russian people, or the Russian folk. The monks, however, were even more important than the folk if the regeneration of Russia was to be accomplished. From the monks would come the energy and ideas of purity and love. The monk, Zossima believes, practices obedience, fasting, and prayer, believing that these three disciplines will accomplish for him the only true freedom: sacred freedom. Such freedom is forever denied the man who exists in contemporary society, the slave to mechanical and material frivolities; he will never attain the freedom needed for a pure understanding of life’s meaning. He is too involved with life to be able to contemplate life. Only the monk, a man who has “freed himself from the tyranny of material things and habits” can conceive great ideas and serve them. In essence, this is the elder’s answer to the question posed by the Grand Inquisitor and Ivan. Only in freedom can man conceive of ideas great enough to make life worth preserving.
After the monk gives birth to example and philosophy, the renascence begins, and within the Russian folk a new Russia is nourished. The folk, of course, can never hope to completely emulate the life of the monk, but because of their living close to the soil and to basic matters of life, they can easily assimilate the wisdom of the Russian monk. Of course, Zossima realizes that the average peasant sins occasionally, but he also believes that the peasant realizes that he is wrong in his sinning. This realization will be his salvation, for man must first recognize righteousness as the supreme virtue; this the folk do. One must not despair of the peasant, Zossima counsels, for even in his sinfulness and in his ignorant ways, “salvation will come from the people, from their faith and their meekness,” an idea very often advocated by Dostoevsky. He uses, for example, Sonia in Crime and Punishment as such a type, the so-called passive redemptive character, and suggests that through the passive acceptance of faith and by extreme meekness, salvation will be achieved. The folk are Zossima’s hope, for they believe basically as does the monk. The elder says that “an unbelieving reformer will never do anything in Russia. Even if he is sincere in heart and a genius, the people will meet the atheist and overcome him.” But if one considers the widespread atheism that followed the Communist revolution in Russia, Dostoevsky perhaps never wrote anything that proved to be so absolutely incorrect as this prophecy of Father Zossima.
2. Of masters and servants, and of whether it is possible for them to be brothers in spirit. — Zossima advocates absolute equality for all men. True dignity does not come from the possession of great material wealth. Dignity, the elder says, is derived only from an inner sense of personal worth; it is able to respect another person without envying that person. When man attains such dignity, he creates a unity, a brotherhood in which a master may associate with a servant without losing either self-respect or dignity. This is Zossima’s utopia, founded on “the grand unity of man,” preserved by men who long with all their heart to be the servants of all.
3. Of prayer, of love, and of contact with other worlds. — Zossima admonished his adherents to pray for others, even those who have sinned. God, he says, will look favorably upon any sinner who stands before Him, proving that someone is offering up a prayer for that sinner. Again the elder re-emphasizes to those assembled his strong belief in the power of positive love. “Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things.” By loving, man gains new respect for everything in God’s world. Thus “we must love not occasionally, for a moment, but for ever.”
One of Zossima’s principal ideas that particularly touches Alyosha is the elder’s view of man’s responsibility for another’s sins. Zossima maintains that everyone must make himself “responsible for all men’s sins . . . for as soon as you sincerely make yourself responsible for everything and for all men, you will see at once that it is really so and that you are to blame for every one and for all things.” If one carries this idea to its logical conclusion, we see that Alyosha must eventually take partial responsibility for the murder of his father. This he indeed does, finally realizing that man must become an active participant rather than a passive observer of life.
Concerning man’s limitation of understanding all that is holy, Zossima says that man is given a mystic sense of his loving bond with the other world. Like Ivan, the elder admits that man cannot understand the mysterious ways of God, but, for Zossima, the very existence of something so mysteriously unexplainable is proof that man owes love and allegiance to a higher power. Zossima takes Ivan’s premises, therefore, for his proof of God’s existence. “On the final judgment,” says the elder, “man will not be asked to account for things which he cannot comprehend, but only for those things he understands.”
4. Can a man judge his fellow creatures? — Zossima believes that no one can judge a criminal. First, one must recognize that no man is only a criminal, and perhaps more than all other men, the seemingly innocent, and not the allegedly guilty, is most to blame for whatever crime has been committed. Alyosha uses such a theory when he refuses to judge Dmitri; furthermore, during his brother’s trial, he forgives him. From a realistic point of view, Zossima’s views on the criminal are too ideal. Zossima would allow a criminal to go free and hope that he would come to condemn his acts. Such idealism is touchingly naive.
And with the same sort of idealism, Zossima advocates kissing the earth, “love it with an unceasing, consuming love.” Love of the mother earth, one might note, is central to many of Dostoevsky’s novels. In Crime and Punishment, the murderer Raskolnikov is told to go and bow down to the earth, which he has defiled because of his crime. In the poem from Schiller that Dmitri often recites, there is a hymn of praise for the earthly existence. In total loving, then — loving even the earth — Zossima says that man can realize an ecstasy that is a “gift of God,” not given to many but certainly to the elect. The ideal of a spiritual elite is foreign to Ivan’s thinking, but Zossima believes in such a minority and stresses that they should be proud of being elect; their examples will lead others to God’s light.
5. Of hell and hell fire, a mystic reflection. — Zossima’s views on this subject do not conform with the orthodox views of the church. Later Ferapont will allude to this fact when he drives the devils from Zossima’s cell. Zossima absolutely does not believe in a material hellfire, one that burns and punishes. To him, hell is spiritual agony, growing out of the inner conscience of the damned. If there were material punishment, he says, it would alleviate the spiritual punishment because of its intense physical pain. The greater punishment, the spiritual punishment, is the sinner’s recognition that he is forever separated from God. Zossima strays even further from the teachings of the church by his prayers for the condemned. He prays for them because “love can never be an offense to Christ.”