There is this scene in the Brothers Karamozov that represents the modern profession of philosophy so well, or at least several very standard archetypes in it. The characters, or what they represent, are so familiar to me that I was brought up short. I struggle in that world because I struggle with this standard, the types and personalities, and the way conversation happens. In fact, it was the contrast in rhythms of conversation that first caught my attention.
The setting is this: two of the brothers Karamozov, along with their father and a prominent townsperson their father’s age, go to visit a monastery to talk with an “elder” or holy man. Only one of the brothers reverences the elder, while the others are all much too worldly and sophisticated to genuinely respect him, although they all pretend to, more or less. Dostoyevsky is making a point here that the sophisticated gentry are too sophisticated to be able to see what they are missing from religion, because the elder is shown to be the real deal when he leaves the worldly folk waiting in his room while he talks to some people who have been suffering and come looking for advice and blessing. In his conversations with them, he shows genuine interest and concern rather than reliance on platitudes, and gives sound advice. To a grieving mother, he acknowledges that she cannot be consoled, but suggests that in time her grief will be lessened. Someone asks forgiveness for something they have done, and he gives it, saying that he is a sinner too. He argues with someone who attributes miraculous healing powers to him, which I found particularly endearing. His conversations with the assorted supplicants are engaging and show understanding and compassion.
When the elder returns to his rooms there is a striking contrast in the tone of the conversation. The sophisticated men are discussing an article written by Ivan, the middle brother Karamozov. I cringed at this. Even the language is so typical of philosophy. “[The article] brings forth much that is new… [read: just outrageous enough]… but I think it cuts both ways [read: I don’t know what to think, but want to sound impressive–very typical move, from undergrads up]. It is an article written in answer to a book [read: written by a young scholar, just starting out to make a name for himself, and also note the total passive voice and lack of names or reference to authors as living human beings].” Entering this conversation, in contrast to comforting the supplicants, it is so striking how the humanity is stripped away. Would I have passed on grad school if I had had this experience at an earlier time? Maybe, but more likely I would have thought I could find a way to change the system, or resist.
Then there are the characters in this conversation. They are wonderful, especially Pyotr Miusov. Ivan is the center of attention, the academic hotshot. He comes off as rational, self-assured. He is an example of what people mean when they talk about getting pulled into someone’s orbit, or an idea or person as sexy. It’s so important that the view he defends is just the right kind of shocking and outrageous (he is “opposed to the separation of church and state”).
Father Paissy defends Ivan (or his views) unreservedly, using the pronoun “us”. He is over-eager, showing that he is uncritical in his response to Ivan, perhaps even that he doesn’t think for himself. This is a rookie play–even grad students know better than to show this sort of wholehearted approval of anyone else’s views. He is fervent, ending his comments with “so be it! so be it!”
Father Iosif, librarian monk, describes Ivan’s work as “interesting…but… the argument cuts both ways.” This is another way of not thinking for oneself, since it doesn’t really say anything.
Fyodor Pavlovich, Ivan’s father, says uncharacteristically little, while Alyosha, Ivan’s pious (and therefore simpleton) brother is also quiet, but this is typical for him.
Pyotr Miusov is the real gem. He is a generation older than Ivan, so not inclined to be swept away by the younger man’s style, and also a bit threatened by the hotshot. He remembers when he was at the cutting edge and is irritated by being treated as irrelevant. He tries to insert himself in the conversation but is so irritated that he can’t play the game (also he is not an intellectual, and lacks the easy way with words that Ivan has). Despite this he counters Ivan’s paragraphs of abstract reasoning with a couple of well-placed anecdotes which show that he understands it for what it is, as well as another side of Ivan (as someone who has deep-rooted religious doubts).
The elder, Father Zosima, returns from blessing the poor and the suffering into this conversation. He engages with the substance of the argument, showing more depth than Father Iosef, while withholding his own view, showing more critical distance than Father Piussy. Miusov’s story about Ivan, the elder sees into Ivan’s heart, and talks to the heart rather than the head. He calls Ivan out on his innermost fears, and the hotshot blushes and, strangely, receives a blessing from the priest. Would that more academic discussions ended this way.