Dostoevsky and the Glory of Guilt
By Sean Fitzpatrick
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.
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