“Something shapeless, and impossible to understand as well.”

Now to look at one of those messy monologues I complained about yesterday: Ivan Fyodorovich on the merits of ecclesiastical courts. He believes the state of the world would be much improved if criminals were excommunicated rather than confined or executed. As Father Paissy says, “the Church ought to be transforming itself into the state, from a lower to a higher species,” and if that were to happen criminals would have a much greater deterrent. According to Ivan, “[t]ime and again…the criminal of today says to himself” that “‘I stole…but I have not gone against the Church, I am not an enemy of Christ.’” Exile and hard labor don’t reform criminals, but they would be reformed if they were dealt with by the Church:

If anything protects society even in our time, and even reforms the criminal himself and transforms him into a different person, again it is Christ’s law alone, which manifests itself in the acknowledgment of one’s own conscience. Only if he acknowledges his guilt as a son of Christ’s society—that is, of the Church—will he acknowledge his guilt before society itself—that is, before the Church. Thus, the modern criminal is capable of acknowledging his guilt before the Church alone, and not before the state. If it were so that judgment belonged to society as the Church, then it would know whom to bring back from excommunication and reunite with itself. But now the Church, having no active jurisdiction but merely the possibility of moral condemnation alone, withholds from actively punishing the criminal of its own accord.

Ivan’s monologue is, I would say characteristically for Dostoevsky, bizarre. “Full of ruts and roots and switchbacks and dust.” Unpacking it, I took a cue from its own hint, late in this passage, of “society as the Church.” What if we just tightened it up a bit?

If anything protects society even in our time, and even reforms the criminal himself and transforms him into a different person, again it is Christ’s law alone, which manifests itself in the acknowledgment of one’s his own conscience. Only if he acknowledges his guilt as a son of Christ’s member of society—that is, of the Church—will he acknowledge his guilt before society itself—that is, before the Church. Thus, the modern criminal is capable of acknowledging his guilt before the Church society alone, and not before the state. If it were so that judgment belonged to society as the Church, then it would know whom to bring back from excommunication and reunite with itself. But now the Church society, having no active jurisdiction but merely the possibility of moral condemnation alone, withholds from actively punishing the criminal of its own accord.

Wielding this red pen I uncover the real conflict at the heart of the issue. The Church represents society, and when that relationship is made transparent, it is society that stands in stark contrast to the state. Thus the Russian state does not represent society, the vast gulf between the two illustrated here through the issue of ecclesiastical courts, which would (at least according to our several interlocutors) represent society and, in doing so, would bring justice and reform to the country. Which the state—now de-legitimized—has no hope of doing.

Also, note that while the state holds this illegitimate monopoly on justice, society fails to do its part and looks on complacently as criminals are ineffectively punished and fail to reform. Tsarist Russia’s corrupt political system has corrupted civil society as well.

I can only clear up the mess for a moment, though, because on the next page Ivan Fyodorovich reveals the context-dependency of his solution: “Russian criminals still have faith. Though who knows: perhaps a terrible thing would happen then—the loss of faith, perhaps, would occur in the desperate heart of the criminal, and what then?” Then neither the state nor the Church can legitimately represent society…and what then?

2 comments to “Something shapeless, and impossible to understand as well.”

  • Excellent. Head on crash with the miserable ecclesiastical courts debate. Pure fun!

    The one way that the constant references to the church are really necessary is that it’s the way Ivan keeps reinforcing the insult.

    This, now this will come back. I’m coming back here when I get to the Grand Inquisitor.

  • nicole

    Yes, I really think you have to do the head-on crash with a lot of this. Otherwise you’re just stuck with maybe a bit of mysticism and something that seems vaguely “deep.” I have to make a point of it, though; I haven’t done that yet with the Grand Inquisitor.

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