On Dostoevsky – V.V. Zenkovsky

“Dostoevsky – A Collection of Critical Essays” published in 1962 contains an essay by Prof. V.V. Zenkovsky, author of “A History of Russian Philosophy”. Examining the great writer’s philosophical and religious views, Prof. Zenkovsky notes:

…his conviction that hidden in man is a great force, capable of saving man and the world. The only misfortune is that mankind does not know how to make use of this force. In “The Diary of a Writer” Dostoevsky once wrote (1877): “Man’s greatest beauty…and greatest purity…are turned to no account, are of no use to mankind…solely because there has not been genius enough to direct the wealth of these gifts.” …. “We do not understand,” says Starets Zosima, “that life is a paradise [at present], for we have only to wish to understand this and it will immediately appear before us in all its beauty.”  The remarkable words of Versilov (in “The Raw Youth”), concerning a painting by Lorrain, express this same idea: light and truth are already in the world, but they remain unnoticed by us. “A sense of happiness, such as I had never before experienced, pierced my heart to the point of pain.”  ….  In the materials for “The Possessed” we find the following passage:

“Christ walked on earth to show mankind that even in its earthly nature the human spirit can manifest itself in heavenly radiance, in the flesh, and not merely in a dream or ideal–and that this is both natural and possible.”

In defense of Dostoevsky’s support for mystical ethics, Zenkovsky continues:

…. [T]he moral impulses are not determined by feeling, rationality, or reason, but primarily by a living sense of God. Where this sense is lacking, the inevitable result is either an unlimited cynicism, leading to psychic disintegration, or mangodhood. On the other hand, Dostoevsky…felt very deeply the injustice and falseness of self-enclosed individualism…. The formula ‘all are guilty for all’ is Dostoevsky’s: all men are connected in a mysterious unity which contains the potentiality of genuine brotherhood. ….

The mystical foundation of morality is expressed with great force and boldness in the words of Starets Zosima uttered before his death (“The Brothers Karamazov”):

‘God took seeds from other worlds and sowed them on this earth…and they germinated…. But that which grows lives and enjoys vitality only through its sense of contact with other mysterious worlds…. Much on earth is hidden from us, but in exchange we have been given a secret and hidden sense of our living bond with another world….’

These words formulate Dostoevsky’s mystical ethics: our vital and genuine relationship to life is measured only by a love which exceeds the boundaries of both rationality and reason. Love becomes super-reasonable, rising to a sense of inner connection with the whole world, even with the dead, and with inanimate objects. (‘Brethren, love each thing. Love each thing and you will comprehend the mystery of things.”) This universalism of love is wholly sustained by a living sense of God.

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