Socrates and Alyosha Karamazov

Image: “The Road by Gadshill – Prince Henry, Poins, Peto, Falstaff, etc.” by Samuel Middiman after Robert Smirke (ca. 1803)

Socrates and Alyosha Karamazov: Victimhood between Separation and Communion

Octavian Gabor

Victimhood permeates the contemporary way of understanding the world, for what appear to be good reasons. Empathy has become our chief virtue, regardless of the voices who believe it is not always rational to make decisions according to it,[1] and inclines us to see victims everywhere. At times, victimhood becomes a status that entitles you to expect rewards from others, with empathy as the first reward. People’s empathic responses to the suffering of another may thus become an absolute criterion according to which their moral character is judged.

There are also people who describe the victimhood mentality as a feature of the weak. Whether this refers to voices on the political spectrum during the 21st century, or just to Socrates’ attitude toward his wife when she lamented his fate the day of his execution, this is just the other face of the victimhood coin, opposite the one described above.

What I think is more interesting, and therefore explore in this article, is the attitude of the one who, even when harmed, cannot comprehend the categories created by the notion of victimhood and cannot countenance this kind of separation between people. I will discuss this attitude by exploring two situations. The first one comes from Socrates and his claim that a good man cannot be harmed. The second stems from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Karamazov Brothers and reveals how a good human, contrary to the Socratic perspective, can only be good in communion.

There is something attractive and at the same time terrifying about Socrates’ unattachment—and, therefore, impassibility—faced with the misfortunes of life. Evincing no feelings of frustration, anger, or resentment after any unjust treatment, let alone an unjust condemnation to death, is a feat that few can accomplish and even fewer can sustain. Just imagine responding to a colleague who has mistreated you or to a family member who has violated your trust in the vein in which Socrates does at the end of the Apology:

a good man cannot be harmed either in life or in death, and […] his affairs are not neglected by the gods. What has happened to me now has not happened of itself, but it is clear to me that it was better for me to die now and to escape from trouble. That is why my divine sign did not oppose me at any point. So I am certainly not angry with those who convicted me, or with my accusers.[2]

Besides the utter difficulty of reaching a mental state that allows you to think like this, your words will most likely be received negatively by others, who will be completely baffled or even offended by your lack of reaction. “Do we matter so little to you that our actions do not even touch you?” You will bother even bystanders, who will be offended by your lack of emotions and your inability to perceive yourself as a victim, because your attitude, so they may say, denies evil and does not acknowledge your suffering and, by consequence, the suffering of others who may be in your situation.[3]

Of course, Socrates does not deny evil. On the contrary, he acknowledges that people can have evil intentions. Immediately following the words quoted above, he also states that his lack of anger toward his accusers does not mean that they can walk free. They are free as far as he is concerned, since he does not hold anything against them, but they are responsible because their actions had a purpose. They did not want Socrates’ well-being when they accused and convicted him; “they thought they were hurting me, and for this they deserve blame.”[4]

Anyone who knows Socrates’ story would agree that he does not consider himself a victim. People around him do, like Crito, who comes to him in prison prior to the execution and encourages him to run away. Crito’s argument rests on the fact that Socrates has been harmed, and thus he must harm back, which is equated with fighting against the laws that took him to prison: this is a genuine instantiation of the idea of justice in the Greek world, benefitting friends and harming enemies.[5] But Socrates waits calmly for his execution, without any interest in responding to others in the same manner in which he was attacked.

Socrates’ lack of emotion is appealing. First, rationality is appealing in itself, especially if it is equated with being a good man. A good man cannot be harmed either in life or death because a good man lacks nothing; rationality is all he has, and it does not depend on others. Nothing that someone else does can make him better or worse: who would not want to be such a person? This is especially so because, second, lack of emotion eliminates suffering. If people’s actions do not move me emotionally, then they do not make me suffer either. To avoid suffering, I must become good in this Socratic way, deprived of emotions.

At the same time, the Socratic model is terrifying. First, it suggests that one should not fight evil. On the surface, this may seem a capitulation before evil, and Crito appears to read it this way. But Socrates shows that fighting evil on the terms imposed by evil is equivalent to giving being to that which has no being. Second, and this is the most terrifying aspect of Socrates’ answer, it suggests that I can be good in the absence of the other. This means that I can be who I am without paying attention to anyone else.

It does not follow that I must become selfish in order to be good. On the contrary, the Socratic requirement is to do good to all, regardless of what they do to us. This is not because of mercy, however, but rather because of a principle of benevolence that stems from a complete lack of emotion. I do not need to do good to others in order to be good; rather, if I am good, my actions will follow suit. I emphasize, though: it is not through action that I become good. I am already good prior to doing anything for anyone else, just by achieving a state of rationality.

Being serene and without attachment, however, is not the only way to be good. When we think of good people in literary works—perhaps the place where human imagination can create the best people possible—one of the first to come to mind is Dostoevsky’s The Karamazov Brothers, specifically the character of Alyosha Karamazov, who spends his life responding to the needs of his brothers, father, and various other people who require his presence.

Even though he is the book’s “hero,” Alyosha is introduced as a non-hero: a hero who, as the author claims, has nothing remarkable about him. Most of all, he is a man “of indeterminate character, whose mission is undefined.” The lack of determinations is the first sign that Alyosha is not truly an individual character in an Aristotelian sense—a member of a species. If he were, he would be understood according to the type to which he belongs. Dostoevsky, however, claims that Alyosha belongs to no type: we cannot have a typological knowledge of him, and there are no features about him that would designate him as special. (Perhaps this is the feature of a good human being—he cannot be placed in any other category than that of being good, but even this in a peculiar way.) The only way in which we can understand Alyosha, then, is through his relationships.

There are moments in the novel when others harm Alyosha, but he is not a victim. One scene in particular reveals this attitude. It begins with six boys who throw stones at another boy who retaliates by throwing back as many stones as he can. The story breathes of “righteousness”: the boys do not even think that they could be in error. The lonely kid is a “rat”; “it’d serve him right if we killed him”—can you imagine little children saying this about a former friend? What reason could justify such hatred?

Alyosha, the youngest Karamazov brother, is surprised as well. He decides to find out the reason from the boy himself, although the children try to stop him: “watch out, he’s not afraid of you, he’ll stab you without warning when you’re not looking.”[6] But Alyosha goes. He sees a small child “of no more than nine.” The child, however, makes fun of him: “monk in a funny skirt.” Alyosha does not respond and turns to walk away. At that moment, the kid picks up the biggest stone and hits Alyosha in the back. To many, this act of violence would be sufficient evidence that the boy is a “rat,” as the other kids said. Even Alyosha himself blurts out, “they were right after all when they said that you steal up on people.”[7] But notice Alyosha does not give the boy a name; he does not call him a “rat” or a “coward.” He only accurately describes an action. And he does not retaliate.

The first sign that you are a victim is your portrayal of your abusers: you place them into some category, which means you separate them from yourself. They are, at least, persecutors, and their inclusion in this category marks the separation that their act of violence brings into the world. I would say, however, that their act of violence only marks a potential separation. For this separation to become fully active, it has to receive an acknowledgement from the one who was abused, which begins with placing the one who has harmed into a category.

Alyosha, however, does not want to acknowledge the wickedness of Ilyusha, the child who has thrown a stone at him, although he does not shy away from pointing out that Ilyusha’s action was evil. As it always happens when you refuse to be a victim, the ones who harm you are further infuriated, because your refusal of victimhood also means that you refuse the identity that they desire for themselves. The child is, thus, infuriated, and he bites Alyosha’s finger, causing him even more pain. On the surface, this is further evidence of the child’s wickedness.

At this point, Alyosha has every reason to get angry and to write off the child as a “base human being,” as the child’s former friends have described him. But Alyosha does something completely different. With his “gentle eyes,” he looks at the boy and says, “Even though I don’t know you and have never seen you before, I can’t imagine that I’ve done nothing, otherwise you wouldn’t have hurt me so much. So, what have I done? Tell me what you’ve got against me.”[8]

Here, Alyosha refers to a certain kind of responsibility—the one that a person has for one’s own actions. Alyosha is not guilty; he has not done anything wrong. By all accounts, he should be considered a victim. But a world with victims and perpetrators is a broken world, or a world of separation. And regardless of how forcefully evil actions invite the actualization of such a world, Alyosha refuses to follow the invitation.

This refusal stems from a view of responsibility that Alyosha has inherited from Elder Zosima, the young Karamazov’s mentor: “When, however, he [the monk—after all, just another human being] realizes that not only is he worse than any layman, but that he is guilty before all, for everything and before everyone, for the sins of all men, individually as well as collectively, only then will the goal of our seclusion be attained.” And Zosima continues: “It is only through this realization that our hearts will be moved to boundless, universal, all-consuming love.”[9]

When Alyosha meets the schoolboys, he is coming from the monastery, so he is most likely in his mentor’s spiritual frame of mind. Responsibility, as Zosima understands it, requires the absence of separation, so the concept is not connected with justice. The question is not whether I am responsible legally, but rather whether I am responsible for all of humanity, which lives in me.

Alyosha’s words toward the child presuppose that, if Ilyusha becomes evil, nobody can blame him for it. The only thing one can do is figure out the way in which he or she is responsible for the brokenness of the world. The world’s healing must, of course, begin with calling that which is evil by its own name, but also with acknowledging that the only one I can hold responsible for it is myself. I bear responsibility for the world because I contribute to the ugliness of the world without even meaning to do so.

In The Karamazov Brothers, there are plenty of examples of people who “become evil.” How does Fyodor Karamazov become the man that he is? What about Mitya or Ivan? Do we not all share this world and somehow influence it for better or worse? This attitude does not deny individual responsibility. In fact, if I am responsible for the entire world, I am also responsible for my own actions. But if I look at someone else, I can no longer say that he or she is responsible because I have already placed that responsibility on me. I cannot even call on their own responsibility for the world’s faults, because this responsibility can only be conjugated in the first person singular.

One may argue this responsibility demolishes a human being because of the huge weight it places on one’s shoulders. Truly, it sounds as if you would not even be able to raise your eyes from the earth. And still, the suffering of others, all the others, calls on me to respond to them. It is this strong request for my presence that should give me the power to rise. For if I remain demolished by my responsibility, then instead of thinking of others, I only focus on myself—a false responsibility, even if it may look “virtuous.”

There are moments in people’s lives when things are not going well. In such moments, they may consider themselves victims. The perpetrator may be another human being or just life itself, bad luck, or the suffering caused by beholding so much ugliness in the world. These are moments of separation, when we are invited to separate ourselves from the world and others. The easiest reaction is to acknowledge the separation already pressed upon us by confirming the definitions given by the persecutors: “you are my victim.” Dostoevsky shows that a good man like Alyosha refuses the ticket of victimhood.

Alyosha, however, also has his moment of weakness. Elder Zosima, his spiritual father, dies, and people begin speaking badly about him. His corpse stinks instead of emitting the sweet fragrance of myrrh. People are ready to say that he is not a saint because there is no material proof that can give them the certainty they desire. Alyosha hurts; “it was not miracles he needed; rather, some ‘supreme justice’ that he believed had been violated, and as a consequence of which violation his heart had been so cruelly and unexpectedly wounded.”[10]

In this moment, when ‘supreme justice’ becomes his focus, Alyosha could change into Ivan, a person who rejects the world because it does not fulfill his own requirements of beauty. In his famous attack on God’s existence—perhaps one of the best expressions of the problem of evil to be found in philosophical and literary thought—Ivan refuses creation because of the suffering of innocent victims. He cannot accept the idea that “the people for whom you are building the edifice have agreed to buy their own happiness with the price of the unexpiated blood of a little tortured child.”[11] The world of perpetrators and victims cannot lead to universal love and salvation, Ivan tells his brother. “It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha,” Ivan says. “I’m just, with the utmost respect, handing Him back my ticket.”[12]

Now, when the memory of his spiritual father is harmed, Alyosha has the same reaction as Ivan: because of his love, he first thinks of justice, and he wants justice for Elder Zosima. This implies that he also accepts the division between victims and perpetrators, so he is no longer different, a good man, as he has been described.

Those who encounter him acknowledge this. Rakitin, who is not among the most gracious characters of the novel, rejoices in the fallen Alyosha: “My word! So we’re capable of raising our voice just like any other mortal.”[13] In other words, Alyosha has descended to our level; he is mud, just like us, someone with no moral superiority. To finalize Alyosha’s new definition, Rakitin gives him sausage during lent and invites him to Grushenka with the obvious purpose of compromising him.

Alyosha is upset with God because of a world in which the person he loves most is a victim. To get some revenge against Him, he decides to seal the new description of the world and goes to Grushenka with the purpose of using her and letting himself be used by her. “I’m not rebelling against my God, I merely ‘refuse to accept His world’,”[14] Alyosha says, using the words of Ivan, the one who treats the problem of evil from the perspective of justice. His attitude evinces a passion for justice that refuses the ticket to participate in the suffering of the world. As Terrence W. Tilley beautifully argues in The Karamazov Case: Dostoevsky’s Argument for His Vision,

In returning his ticket, Ivan is refusing to participate, as much as possible, in the human condition, in understanding it, and in righting it. He is not refusing to watch—in fact, he observes well. But in refusing to participate in the world, he cuts himself off from the only arena in which there is meaningful freedom.[15]

In the encounter between Grushenka and Alyosha, however, Dostoevsky returns to his view of a world that can be redeemed by refusing to actualize its potentiality of separation between perpetrators and victims. Since evil is present, this potentiality is as real as it can get. Refusing to actualize it means transcending it into beauty.

Here, then, is how the scene between Alyosha and Grushenka unfolds. Grushenka sits on Alyosha’s lap while he is dressed in a cassock, like a monk. At one moment, though, she finds out that Zosima has died, and Alyosha’s pain becomes visible to her. Crossing herself devoutly, she says, “My God, and here am I sitting on his knees!”[16] At that moment, Grushenka no longer sees Alyosha as an object to have fun with or take advantage of, but perceives in him a suffering soul—someone with whom she can have communion. Thus, she offers him her hand, rescuing him from the abyss into which he was about to fall. This little gesture, her getting up from his knees in order to spare him, awakens Alyosha:

Rakitin, don’t mock me for rebelling against my God. I don’t want to bear a grudge against you, so try to understand how I feel. I’ve lost a treasure such as you’ve never had, so you’ve no right to judge me now. Look at her! Did you notice how she spared my feelings? When I came here I expected to find a wicked person—I was attracted to her because I am mean and wicked myself, but instead I found a true sister, a treasure—a loving soul… She spared me… I’m talking about you, Agrafena Aleksandrovna. You’ve uplifted my soul.[17]

Alyosha has not come to Grushenka to be uplifted, but because he felt wicked—a manifestation of his reading of the world in terms of good and evil, victims and perpetrators. He wanted to lose himself in someone else’s wickedness. He wanted to use Grushenka, just as she would use him. Grushenka, however, who has been portrayed as a temptress throughout the novel up to this moment, reacts to him as someone responsible for the world’s suffering and lends him a saving hand.

There are two ways to be with another in hell. At the beginning of their encounter, Grushenka and Alyosha are ready to consume the other for her or his own benefit. They are ready to devour the other in a world in which they already consider themselves victims. Later, after Grushenka’s pity, they are still in hell, but only externally. The world is still in suffering; people still unjustly mock Elder Zosima. Grushenka herself still lives in a world in which she was abandoned by others. According to justice, there are still victims and perpetrators. Their own suffering and the suffering of the other people create an external hell, but the care one displays for the other by “sparing him,” by giving him a loving hand, transforms hell into an internal heaven. Even the darkest dungeons are filled with light when someone loves you.

At this moment when he has fallen, instead of being devoured by Grushenka, Alyosha receives a helping hand from her. This is because Grushenka sees his suffering. She has also lost someone and, most importantly, she has also desired justice. Her hand is the occasion to return to peace, to come out of the war between good and evil presupposed by justice. That war rages on: there are always people who suffer, whether because of others’ evil actions or simply because of their own participation in a suffering world. But joining this battle means refusing the world as it was created and, inevitably, being tainted by evil. Choosing a side is already a bad choice.

When Alyosha becomes wicked, he does so because of his fight against evil. His anger and desire for justice stem from his unacceptance that evil (the condemnation of Elder Zosima) is about to win. Alyosha is about to lose the war against evil because he wants to fight it with his own hands. At that moment, however, Grushenka reminds him that his soul is the true battlefield between good and evil—as is hers—and he recovers, extracting himself from the fight.

It may seem as if the lesson here is to become passive, to no longer enter any kind of action, and to simply wait for some sort of salvation. Dostoevsky is very careful, though, to show that the refusal of justice and of the separation between victims and perpetrators does not mean passivity. At the end of the novel, Alyosha himself calls to action, encouraging the children at Ilyusha’s grave to offer “spring onions”[18] to others, good memories that may save them in their moments of darkness. He encourages the children to give birth, by their actions, to beauty in other people’s souls.[19] A life beyond good and evil presupposes work, but it is a work without attachment, one that allows you go calmy to sleep after a tiring day during which you have heard terrible confessions from your brother, as Alyosha does in the third book of the novel.

People who do not consider themselves victims do not understand the world in a mechanistic way, governed primarily by cause and effect. They are free in a world that does not fail to insist they are not. Socrates and Alyosha provide two different models in this regard. Socrates opens the path, but resolves it in a state of potential isolation from all.[20] Alyosha, however, shows that freedom is not based on individualism, on a separation between oneself and the world to which one belongs. On the contrary, it rests in a sense of primordial responsibility before all, which is the highest expression of personhood.;

dePICTions volume 4 (2024): Victimhood

[1] See, for example, Paul Bloom, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, New York: Ecco, 2016.

[2] Plato, The Apology, translated by G.M.A. Grube, in Plato, Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997, 41d. All quotes from Plato follow this edition.

[3] Martha C. Nussbaum points out that “philosophers and non-philosophers alike have seen anger as appropriate in situations of oppression, and as linked to the vindication of self-respect. It is, then, not surprising that non-anger should have struck many onlookers as strange, unmanly, even revolting” (Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016, 220).

[4] Plato, The Apology, 41d.

[5] See M. W. Blundell, Helping Friends and Harming Enemies: A Study in Sophocles and Greek Ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

[6] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Karamazov Brothers, translated by Ignat Avsey, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994, 224. All quotes from The Karamazov Brothers are from this translation.

[7] Dostoevsky, The Karamazov Brothers, 226.

[8] Dostoevsky, The Karamazov Brothers, 226.

[9] Dostoevsky, The Karamazov Brothers, 206.

[10] Dostoevsky, The Karamazov Brothers, 427.

[11] Dostoevsky, The Karamazov Brothers, 308.

[12] Dostoevsky, The Karamazov Brothers, 308.

[13] Dostoevsky, The Karamazov Brothers, 429.

[14] Dostoevsky, The Karamazov Brothers, 429.

[15] Terrence W. Tilley, The Karamazov Case: Dostoevsky’s Argument for His Vision, London: T&T Clark, 2023, 88.

[16] Dostoevsky, The Karamazov Brothers, 442.

[17] Dostoevsky, The Karamazov Brothers, 442.

[18] See the story about the spring onion, recounted in the chapter that features the encounter between Grushenka and Alyosha. The story tells of a wicked old woman who is sent to hell after death. Her guardian angel hands her a spring onion to release her from a burning lake. The woman grabs it, and the onion (her only good deed, when she gave it to a beggar woman) lifts her out of the flames, along with the others who grab onto her. The onion holds until the moment when the woman refuses to help the others, pushing them back into the burning lake because “it’s my onion, not yours” (443).

[19] See also the beautiful account of Dostoevsky’s call to active love found in Paul J. Contino, Dostoevsky’s Incarnational Realism: Finding Christ among the Karamazovs, Eugene: Cascade Books, 2020: “The person’s graced capacity to love actively is Dostoevsky’s answer to what seems like senseless suffering” (189).

[20] This should not be read as a final judgment on Socrates’ life. Socrates is in prison because he went to the agora manifesting his responsibility to the people of Athens. As God’s gift to the city, as he describes himself in The Apology (30d-e), he assumes this responsibility and attempts to free people from their own ideologies even if this should lead to his own death.