Redeeming the Ubermensch
It used to be the case that a true liberal arts education–a thorough study of the Great Conversation–was an essential part of the American educational system. This education is what provided that enlightened and virtuous citizenry necessary for active public life, the likes of which our forefathers were so desirous. Unfortunately, it is not the case, today. Most resonate closely with Samuel Clemens’ characterization of classic literature: “A classic is a book people praise but don’t read.”
The following is a snippet, a tiny peek, a brief glance, into that Great Conversation through a fictional dialogue about some of the characters in The Brothers Karamazov, a 700-plus page Russian novel published in 1880 by the brilliant, Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Perhaps, something about the Great Conversation will resonate with you. Be sure to let me know in the comments. I’m extremely interested in your thoughts.
Redeeming the Ubermensch
The visitor rapped the laurel knockers harder the second time, hoping to rouse someone in the ominous mansion.
His first knock was discreet, fearing the family had already retired for the evening. He was sure the old professor wasn’t accustomed to receiving callers unannounced at this late hour. But on the second knock he abandoned all discretion.
He was here now. Fortune had brought him safely the three miles across the frozen earth in the bitter-cold darkness; there was no reason to think she would abandon him now. By means of modern transportation, the trek was not altogether difficult. On foot mid-winter, though, it was a worthy adversary, able to beat an average man, one with less intense vitality, back to the warmth and comfort of his own familiar home.
The visitor wasn’t looking forward to a conversation with the old professor, but he believed there was a remedy for everything. And whether by force or by fraud, he knew gaining the old man’s trust would be his remedy.
Anyone who believes that new benefits make men of high station forget old injuries is deceiving himself, he thought.
But there was something else. Before reading The Brothers Karamazov, sleep welcomed him each night like the embrace of an affectionate lover. Now it rejected him, bitterly mocked him, like a woman scorned by unrequited love.
He slammed the knockers against the ornate mahogany doors of the old house a third time, but they remained tall and silent, unmoved.
He was just acquiescing to the notion Fortune had teased him, and was entertaining frostbite as a necessary fate, when a noise from behind gave him a start. He did an about-face and was staring down the barrel of a late 19th-century Mosin–Nagant.
He raised his hands slowly, the left one clutching a tattered book. Then he took a couple slow steps backward toward the towering portals. Before either said a word, the grand doors creaked open slightly. A light from inside the house cast a yellow vertical beam on the man in front of him. It illuminated the square jaw of a determined rifleman outfitted in the Russian panoplia: frunzenka, greatcoat, ammunition belt, and valinki. From the crack of light behind him, an old man’s voice broke the silence.
“Pavel, you can lower your rifle. I think our visitor is harmless. Would you agree, neighbor?”
The young visitor nodded, and as an afterthought, included: “Yes… Yes, sir. Harmless.”
Pavel lowered the rifle, and stood silently, staring down the visitor with bitter, cold eyes. He lowered his hands, still clutching the tattered tome, and turned cautiously to face the voice in the doorway.
A white-haired man in his mid-seventies filled the entrance to the house with his large frame. It was the old professor, at ease in evening clothes, slippers, and a smoking jacket. Holding a book in his right hand, he raised a pipe to his lips with the other, and drew on it thoughtfully.
“Pardon me,” said the visitor, bowing low. “I’m so sorry to call at such a late hour, especially unannounced and uninvited. It’s never my purpose to inconvenience a man, especially one as important as you, sir. But the matter is of great necessity.”
“I should think so, man” said the old professor. “Calling on a worthless old man after eleven o’clock would indeed suggest μεγάλη ἀνάγκη. Well, come inside, seeing this must be a matter of life and death.” With a wave of his pipe, he motioned the visitor to follow him.
The visitor took his cue and followed the old professor into the house, glancing to see if Pavel would follow or not. But he was already gone. The old professor closed the door behind them and led the visitor to the library in the heart of the expansive house. It smelled of pipe tobacco and old books. Leather volumes covered the walls from floor to ceiling. The old professor laid his book down on a pile of others haphazardly stacked on a table next to two large reading chairs, then stepped to the hearth to tend the fire. He heated the room to what seemed to the visitor an uncomfortable temperature.
“Is this an occasion for cognac? Or shall we drink tea?” the old professor asked.
“Tea would be just fine, sir. Thank you.” The young visitor said.
The old professor said nothing in response, but puffed on his pipe, and poked at the logs to keep the fire hot. The visitor scanned the spines of the books on the table only recognizing one, Beyond Good and Evil. He noted the book the old professor had been carrying was The Confessions of St. Augustine, a familiar title, but one he had never read.
“Will you be staying long? Should I take your coat?” The old professor asked glancing sideways at the young visitor. He looked up from the table and they made eye contact. He wanted to keep his coat, but the fire was too hot and he was uncomfortably warm.
“I will try and excuse myself as soon as possible, sir. But if it’s not too much of a bother, I would like to remove my coat.”
Just then Pavel appeared in the doorway of the library without his greatcoat or frunzenka. Instead of a rifle, he carried tea and biscuits with jam. He placed the tray on the table by the books and took the visitor’s coat, then left the room without a word. The young visitor’s eyes followed the lackey until he disappeared into the hallway.
“Please, be seated, man.” The old professor said. He laid the poker aside, gestured to one of the reading chairs, and got comfortable in the other. He poured tea for both of them and then leaned back and drew on his pipe.
“So, to what and to whom do I owe this necessary pleasure of being engaged in such a life-and-death matter?” he said exhaling the fragrant offering. The young visitor sipped his tea nervously and placed the cup and saucer back on the table.
“Sir, my name is both common and irrelevant, but I am a student at Novus University studying under one of your former students, Professor Solovyov—who you taught at the University of Veritas more than a decade ago,” he added suddenly.
“Yes! Yes, man! I am fully aware. But please get to the point. As you are aware, it is awfully late,” The old professor interrupted, examining a pocket watch.
“Yes, sir. Of course. Right. To the point. Well, see… It’s Dostoevsky, sir. Particularly, his novel, The Brothers Karamazov. It has me undone. I mean it has robbed me of sleep.” The young visitor blurted out his words and held up his worn copy. He flushed, cognizant that was not at all what he had intended to say.
“I see. So if I understand you correctly, you disturbed me at this ungodly hour, after my assistant had already been relieved and my wife had already gone to bed, just so you could complain that Vladimir assigned you a book that was not to your taste. I fail to understand how this is a matter of such impudence!”
“Well, that’s just it, Sir. I suffer from a fever since reading the book. And I cannot sleep or eat,” said the young visitor. “I’m deprived of even the simplest diet of bread and wine,” he added.
“Please, relieve my suffering and tell me what this novel has to do with your emotional condition,” demanded the old professor.
“I’m sorry, sir. Maybe I was wrong to bother you. I’m not at all speaking to the purpose for which I came. Let me approach it this way… ahem. Here it is. Last year, Professor Solovyov was appointed the literary chair at the University. Up till now he has seemed a skilled pilot, one we had hoped would artfully navigate our department through dangerous seas to the golden shores of our enlightenment. But most recently, he sabotaged our hopes with a new scope and sequence. He’s turned over the rudder of our good ship to literary Neanderthals and religious narcoleptics who will, no doubt, sink us in the sands of antiquity before any of us reach the shores of Utopia. So, aware of your piloting skills, sir, and your previous estrange– errhh… relationship with the well-meaning professor—I came to attain your help in persuading the stargazer to abandon his weather-beaten course that insults our enlightened sensibilities. Or…ahem… Or— perhaps you could even help us throw him over if necessity demands,” said the young visitor raising his eyebrows and cocking his head in an inquisitive gesture. Then immediately adjusting in the chair to a more dignified poster, he said in a slightly humbled and almost confused tone, “But I must admit, I am a little conflicted, as you might have noted by my irrational outburst just now.”
The young visitor sat quietly for a few seconds gaining his composure, then he spoke more confidently. “But there is something else!” “As I’ve tried to explain, on one hand, I take issue that such anachronistic, antiquated, archaic texts are being forced on our modern sensibilities. It seems of great necessity, in my opinion, to remedy our plight.”
“So you said before, but more plainly,” said the old professor. The young visitor blushed at his reproof, but continued.
“Yet, on the other hand, Dostoevsky— surprisingly, he has awakened something in me. His novel seems to transcend both generation and culture. He writes like a physician examining a patient; he has his fingers on the pulse of the human condition. It’s an enigma to me. I even catch glimpses of myself in each of Fyodor Pavlovich’s three sons, particularly as they reflect their own variations of the old man’s sensuality. It’s as if I’m looking into some sort of magical mirror—if there was such a thing—that reflects three different souls superimposed on my own image. Yet, it’s not me. But it is me. Oh! There I go again, sounding irrational and out of my mind. What I’m trying to say, sir, is I think I am a Karamazov!”
“So, I see. Yes, indeed, you have read Karamazov,” said the old professor, pausing to sip his tea. “But how do you read it?”
“I’m not sure I understand your question, Sir. How do you mean, how do I read it?”
“Is there redemption in the world, or is there not, man? That’s what I mean.”
“That’s precisely the urgent matter that brought me here— Well, I suppose that’s partly the reason I sought you out. I can’t tell what Dostoevsky intends. If there is redemption in the world, he seems to be indicating it must come through suffering, I think. Or, is that not what he means?”
“Would it matter to you if it is?” the old professor asked.
“I think so. Perhaps. I suppose suffering should be welcomed if there is some meaning to it. Why? What are you aiming at?”
“I’m aiming at your real purpose for needing to come here. I think you feign to seek a remedy for your department, to compel me to use some ‘cruelty well’ to persuade your wandering pilot, but perhaps you are really seeking bread at midnight. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say your heart has betrayed your illuminatus sentiendi.”
“Perhaps,” said the young visitor.
“Perhaps nothing! Either you seek bread or you don’t. Either there is redemption in the world, or there’s not. What say you, man? There is time for one conversation tonight. Either we speak of your plot, or we speak of your plight. And I suggest we spend our time on the greater matter.” The old professor’s eyes flared hotly.
“I should like to know what Dostoevsky intends, sir… whether there is redemption in the world, or not.” The boy answered.
“Then you must answer my original question. How do you read the novel? What do you think of the brothers? How do you see them?” asked the old professor.
“Well, my opinion is they are three brothers from one father, a greedy, debauched sensualist, shameless in his perversion. Dmitri, the eldest, is most like his father, although it turns out there exists obscure nobility deep down. Ivan, the full brother of Alexey, is a rationalist, a modern progressive thinker; but he suffers from some mental malady, I think. And, I must admit, I resonate most with this brother, a little more than the others, and perhaps too much.”
“Go on,” urged the old professor.
“Alexey, the youngest, is an enigma to me. Funny he says this of Ivan, but to me he is the riddle. He is the most religious of the brothers, and seems to get on well with children—really, with everyone–but he possesses a rationale, like Ivan, but in a different way. That’s what I can’t quite put my finger on. Other than that, the novel is a boring tome full of overdrawn descriptions, the narrator’s interruptions, and melodrama ad nauseam. Why, if one of the characters were to have passed gas, Dostoevsky would have used a hundred words to describe the ribald anecdote. I think he’s hardly a writer of the caliber of our modern laureates.”
“Yes, hardly,” said the old professor. “But of course you recognize that you have just described, granted with some awkwardness, the platonic soul.”
“I don’t follow. What kind of soul?” the boy asked.
“I’m speaking of the classics, man! And more broadly, The Great Conversation. It’s the most important dialogue for the last twenty-five hundred years—the debate between poets and philosophers that has shaped the civilized world. Tell me, man, as a literary major, you must have knowledge of the classics.” the old professor said.
“Most certainly I am aware of this ‘class of the best.’ I wasn’t born in the heath, sir. I’m no Scythian. But who reads them today? No one, I tell you. To call these antiquated works, classics, is nothing more than ‘idealistic pretentiousness,’ and to waste our time reading them, a great impediment to progress.”
“And that’s why you are upside down that your Professor Solovyov has introduced your department to these literary Neandrathals and religious narcoleptics, I think you called them. But what of your weeping, and lack of sleeping? Can you answer for your condition?”
“Bravo, Solomon! A poet then, I take it?” said the young visitor with hint of victory in his tone.
“A poet, indeed, man. And a philosopher, too.” The old professor smiled and attempted to draw from his pipe, but it had finally extinguished. He put it on the table and looked at his watch again. “After Midnight, man. Are you still up for this?”
“Indeed, if you are,” said the boy. “You were speaking just now of the platonic soul, as I recall.”
“That’s correct,” said the old professor rising to stoke the fire. He put another log in the hearth and set it to blazing again. Then he returned to his chair, repacked his pipe, and lit it anew. “You would do well to familiarize yourself with Plato, man. Men were quite right who said, ‘The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.’ He is a philosopher, well known, among other things, for his pursuit of justice in the polis, a project of great import to your modern sensibilities I would think.”
“A barbaric enterprise compared to our modern cities,” scoffed the young visitor.
“The polis was more than just a city,” The old professor continued. “It was the community of man in totum. The Republic is a good place to start with the time we have. Through the voice of Socrates, Plato leads us to see the polis is nothing more than the ‘soul of man writ large.’ In other words, we can see the condition of the soul of individuals by examining the strengths and weaknesses of the various regimes. But the regimes are a conversation for another time. The platonic soul is like this: The noetic, or the head, is the rational part of man. The thymotic, or heart, is his spirited part. And the epithymotic, or loins, speaks to his appetitive nature.”
“Fascinating! Then in light of the platonic soul, would you suggest Dmitri reflects epithymotic, Alyosha the thymotic, and Ιvan the noetic? Is this what I understand you to say?”
“Quite right, man. That’s at least the beginning. In light of what we’ve just discovered, let me expound a little more on each of the brothers to bring you further on your way. Dmitri’s name is derived from the Greek goddess, Demeter, of the Eleusian mysteries. As you’ve already noted, he’s an appetitive man, earthy, an insect. His god is Eros. Like a man who climbs a ladder drawn to something higher, he is always moving, driven toward a definite end, just like Andrey’s horses drive him to his end in Mokroe. He is Aristotle’s picture of vice—always deficient or in excess of the mean. But in the end, he is Augustine, a man who after a tragic fall with respect to a woman, is redeemed amidst great suffering of his soul.”
“Then Dostoevsky does intend to say there is redemption in the world—and through suffering!” shouted the boy!
“Yes, for some. But are we ready to wake the dead just yet?” said the old professor.
“Pardon my outburst, sir,” said the boy.
“Next let us examine Alyosha and Ivan. I think it would do us well to start with Alyosha. What do you say?”
“Suit yourself. Of course, I’m most intrigued by Ivan, but I suppose you have your reasons for starting with Alyosha.” The boy said.
“Indeed. In Dostoevsky’s project, these brothers are like the wings that guide the Wright brothers’ flying machine while Dmitri is the pedal motor that gives the story its thrust. Dmitri’s pathos drives the conversation in the narrative, and Alyosha and Ivan steer the reader through the perennial themes debated by the poets and the philosophers over the last twenty-five centuries. Alyosha, Dostoevsky tells us, is actually the hero of the story. But he too has the Karamazov soul.”
“Yes, I see that. Rakitin nearly sold him to Grushenka for twenty-five rubles.”
“Even heroes are not beyond falling,” said the old professor. “Dostoevsky shows us in Alyosha, and in Father Zosima, that the best of men are men at best. But we should speak more on that at another time. What’s most important about Alyosha, as his name implies, is that he is a monk in the world. He is like Plato’s philosopher-king who leaves the contemplative life to go back into the cave to rescue men from his images, his idols.”
The scholars continued for several hours discussing Alyosha, what Dostoevsky meant about a corn of wheat falling into the ground and dying, the myth of the metals, Augustine, Aquinas, and whether man can be both enlightened and virtuous if there is no God. It was here the conversation turned to Ivan and his poem about the ‘Grand Inquisitor.’
“The night is nearly spent,” said the old professor. “And we must continue this conversation on another night to explore ‘The Grand Inquisitor,’ but let me speak at last of Ivan, before the day breaks.”
“Yes, I’m eager to hear your thoughts on Ivan,” said the boy.
“To understand Ivan, fully, one must imagine two others in the story that manifest possible outcomes for the soul of Ivan.”
The boy sat up and scooted forward to the edge of his chair.
“First, some groundwork. His name is also derived from Greek, Iωαννης. He is noetic, a philosopher, an atheist—more an agnostic, really—with a vision of humanity reminiscent of Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Nietzsche. In his poem, ‘The Grand Inquisitor,’ Ivan reasons that Christ failed man by giving him freedom, because ‘freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together…’ This is because mankind is ‘weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious’ in his natural state. He argues it would have been better for Christ to have conceded to the temptations of Satan for man’s sake. What I am saying is, he does not reject God, per se; he rejects his world. He says so himself. Ivan is a tomb and an enigma–shut up like a riddle.”
“Yes, but I feel I understand Ivan,” said the boy. “He makes sense to me.”
“Then you are here of necessity. Do you think often of killing yourself? With such a hell in your heart and your head, how can you live, man? How can you love? You can’t endure it long!”
“I admit, I share his affliction,” said the boy, lowering his eyes.
“Then you share a fate with one of two other Ivans,” said the old professor.
“So you started to say earlier, but who are they?” urged the boy.
“Don’t you know, yet? Have we not been all night at this conversation? Do you not feel the weight of your options? Think, man. It’s the lackey, Smerdyakov, and the child, Kolya.”
“Smerdyakov hung himself out of despair for committing parricide,” said the boy.
“No, no, no, man! Not out of despair because of his parricide, but for Ivan’s philosophy. Without God ‘All things are lawful,’ Ivan taught Smerdyakov. And what did his note say? ‘I destroy my life of my own will and desire, not to blame anyone.’”
“True, he willed the end of his earthly existence. But what of the other, sir? The child, Kolya, who laid under the train, but arose unharmed? Wasn’t he one of Alyosha’s band who bragged of killing a goose by his mere suggestion?”
“Yes, he was. But what of his end?” The professor asked.
“He spoke of eternal memory, of religion, and of seeing his friend, the poor captain’s son, again. I suppose he hoped—” The boy looked up and stared deep and intently into the old professor’s eyes.
“Hurrah, Karamazov! Bravo!” said the old professor. Just then the clock in the hall chimed seven times.
“Perhaps, we could discuss this further at another time?” the boy asked suddenly. “I didn’t realize the time. I have class in one hour and it’s quite a trek back on foot.”
“Yes, of course. Besides, it’s time for the sleeping to wake. Oh, and you mustn’t worry about walking on your own. Pavel has a troika ready. He will take you where you need to go,” said the old professor.
He stood and led him to the entry, handed him his coat which had been hanging in the hallway, and opened the large front doors. The day had dawned, and the sky was low and gray. Snow was falling in large flakes.
The boy was refreshed by the cold air. Immediately, he noted how the old professor took on a venerable appeal in the dawn’s light. At that very instant, Pavel emerged with the troika.
The boy climbed in. Pavel whipped up the horses and they sped off, thundering down the way. As they reached the gate, the boy turned, waving, and yelled: “Thank you, Professor. Thank you. The name is Ilyushechka, sir. But you can call me, Ilusha.”
FOR FURTHER READING
Alexander, Bruce K., and Curtis P. Shelton. A History of Psychology in Western Civilization, p. 84.
Bechtel, Paul M. The Confessions of St. Augustine (books One to Ten). Moody Press ed. Chicago: Moody Press, 1981.
Benardete, Seth. Plato’s Symposium. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Bloom, Allan David. The Republic of Plato. 2nd ed. New York: Basic Books, 1991.
Cowan, Louise. “The Necessity of the Classics.” The Intercollegiate Review, 2001, 4.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, and Constance Garnett. The Brothers Karamazov: The Constance Garnett Translation Revised by Ralph E. Matlaw : Backgrounds and Sources, Essays in Criticism. New York: Norton, 1976.
Gage, Warren. “The Great Conversation.” Lecture, The MACCS Lectures from Knox Theological Seminary, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 2013-2014.
Hutchins, Robert Maynard. The Great Conversation. 1959.
Machiavelli, Niccolo, and Peter E. Bondanella. The Portable Machiavelli. Hammondsworth, Eng.: Penguin Books, 1979.
Nietzsche, Friedrich, and Walter Kaufmann. The Portable Nietzsche With New Bibliographies. Harmondsworth, Middlesex [u.a.: Penguin Books, 1976.
Ross, W. D. The Nicomachean Ethics. Oxford (Oxfordshire): Oxford University Press, 1980.
About Scott Postma
Scott lives in North Idaho collecting more books than he'll ever read in a lifetime. He helps people cultivate their capacity to perceive and appreciate the good, the true, and the beautiful by sharing rich insights into the arts and humanities, meaningful perspective on faith and culture, and valuable tips on writing and teaching. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.