Watch Gary Saul Morson and Jacob Howland Discuss the Dostoevsky Problem

Two leading scholars joined Mosaic‘s editor to look at why compassionate people, like the brilliant Russian author, can so often hate the Jews.

Portrait of the author Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoevsky (1821-1881), 1862. Found in the Collection of State Museum of Literature, Omsk. Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images.

Portrait of the author Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoevsky (1821-1881), 1862. Found in the Collection of State Museum of Literature, Omsk. Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images.

Response
Dec. 28 2023
About the authors

Gary Saul Morson is the Lawrence B. Dumas professor of the arts and humanities at Northwestern University and the author of, among other books, Anna Karenina in Our Time (Yale).

Jacob Howland is McFarlin professor of philosophy (emeritus) at the University of Tulsa. His research focuses on ancient Greek philosophy, history, epic, and tragedy; the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud; Kierkegaard; and literary and philosophical responses to the Holocaust and Soviet totalitarianism.

Jonathan Silver is the editor of Mosaic and the senior director of Tikvah Ideas, where he is also the Warren R. Stern Senior Fellow of Jewish Civilization.

In this month’s feature Mosaic essay, the literary scholar Gary Saul Morson argues that the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky presents a conundrum:

On the one hand, he was the great writer of compassion for all who suffer. On the other, he became, toward the end of his life, an extreme anti-Semite. So the first question is: how was it possible for these two impulses to cohere in the same consciousness, and how did Dostoevsky reconcile them?

There are few writers with as much psychological depth, or literary brilliance, which is why his anti-Semitism is so troubling, both in itself and as an example of a larger phenomenon. Today one can find many well-intentioned people, some with prestigious credentials, who support the oppressed and the downtrodden, but as soon as the conversation turns to the Jews, their compassion gives way.

To discuss what he calls the Dostoevsky problem, Mosaic invited Morson to speak with Jacob Howland, a philosophy professor who’s written much on Dostoevsky, and with Mosaic’s editor Jonathan Silver. The conversation took place on December 19, 2023 on Zoom. A recording and a transcript are available for subscribers below.

 

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Jonathan Silver:

Welcome ladies and gentlemen to this conversation with the Northwestern University literary critic, Professor Gary Saul Morson, to discuss his essay: “Why Dostoevsky Loved Humanity and Hated the Jews.” It’s a pleasure to welcome Professor Morson along with the provost and director of the Intellectual Foundations program at the University of Austin, Jacob Howland. As an aside, Jacob wrote a six-part study for Mosaic of Homer’s Odyssey and the book of Genesis.

In the second half of the 19th century, Fyodor Dostoevsky, already in middle age, composed five great novels, which one can characterize as dark, violent, tragic, and also subtle. They express an analysis of the human condition that haunts readers even now and that has influenced some very great modern philosophers and writers, including Friedrich Nietzsche. One of his great themes would be humans’ extraordinary talent for making themselves miserable. We long for happiness and contentment and for all to be set right in the world, but we have an incredible capacity to sabotage ourselves. And that capacity for sabotage teaches us that suffering and pain are elemental and permanent features of the human condition, and we delude ourselves when we think that we can escape our agonies. Our life’s work, Dostoevsky seems to suggest, is to disentangle those delusions from the truth of who we are.

Of course, our purpose over the next hour is to probe Professor Morson’s essay about the Dostoevsky problem, not only in and of itself so that we can learn something about one of the most psychologically penetrating writers since the advent of the novel, but also for what Dostoevsky and the Dostoevsky problem might reveal to us about the moment we’re living in now. If a writer as devoted to responding to suffering with compassion as Dostoevsky could at the same time feel such anger and hatred toward the very small nation that has endured perhaps more suffering than any other people on the face of the earth—that is, the Jewish people—then we have a dilemma. And this dilemma, moreover, is one we hear echoed by the Western adversaries of Israel now: people who think themselves dedicated to overthrowing systems of oppression and prejudice in order to right historical wrongs and elevate communities of people subject to dishonor and discrimination, who at the same time despise the Jewish people despite the dishonor and discrimination they’ve suffered.

I’m going to begin with a brief discussion with Professor Morson about his essay. Then Professor Howland will join in and pose his own questions. But before that, I want to thank Mosaic subscribers and members of the Mosaic circle who make discussions like this one possible. We rely on your investment in our work to commission essays like this and to host these discussions.

Turning to the essay: its premise is that Dostoevsky is an exemplar of compassion. Saul, maybe you could start by introducing his work a bit and explaining how that’s so?

Gary Saul Morson:

Dostoevsky had an understanding of psychological depth, and the conscience, and the inner workings of the mind. And he was particularly concerned with questions of cruelty and humiliation, and their psychic effects. His first work, which is a good place to start, was called Poor Folk and was written when he was quite young. It’s the book that made his reputation. From the title you’d guess that it’s about how bad poverty is, and in a sense it is about that. But what really struck the most influential critic of his day was that it wasn’t really about material deprivation so much as about the way in which a poor person suffers humiliation, and, worse still, internalizes the humiliating view that others have of him. And that internalized humiliation is more shocking than anything else. As the critic said, “Your poor little clerk here doesn’t even think he has the right to his own suffering, the right to complain. That’s how beaten down he is.”

Almost all of Dostoevsky’s novels explore humiliation to the point where they can be hard to read. They can make you wince, and you’re not even sure if it’s because you identify with the humiliated and you can’t stand that he has to suffer so, or because you identify with those witnessing the humiliation and can’t stand to watch. It’s very uncomfortable to witness somebody being humiliated; you become morally involved. And his most memorable characters are incredibly sensitive to human suffering. They can’t stand the existence of evil, even the things that everyone else takes for granted. These characters focus on certain examples of suffering and want to do something extraordinary to end it, to change things. And in Crime in Punishment that leads the hero to murder—but murder out of compassion. This may seem paradoxical, but then again a lot of the killing in the world happens because of people who think they’re compassionate.

Jonathan Silver:

Before you go on, explain this point a bit more. Nobody sees himself as cruel, and very few people think of themselves as doing evil. Instead, evildoers often think of themselves, in some sense, as motivated by goodness. Is that how Dostoevsky saw it?

Gary Saul Morson:

Yes. Before they take my class, some students think the people who do evil in the real world are like Spiderman villains who sit there and say, “Oh, I just love evil and I’m going to do it.” But if that’s your notion of evil—and it’s one shared by a lot of people—you’ll never be able to understand what evil is. Almost nobody ever thinks that he’s doing evil; people always think they’re doing good. In his study of the Gulag, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes people whose job was to torture people under interrogation, knowing these people to be innocent. And he gets into their heads, and tries to understand what they were thinking and how they concluded that this was a good thing to do. How does that happen? Unless you can understand that, you will simply not understand evil at all, and you also won’t understand the potential for evil in yourself. Most people who do real evil justify it to themselves, and think they’re compassionate. How do you know you’re any different?

Unless you begin to ask that question about yourself, you’re likely to wind up doing evil if you’re ever in that position. Even when the Holocaust or other evils are taught today in schools, the perpetrators tend to come off as cartoon Nazis or white racists who have nothing to do with us and who love kicking puppies and torturing babies. And then they’re contrasted to the good people who are all good and never do anything bad; they’re just victims of others or trying to help them. And that’s not the way the world is. And if you think that way, first of all, you won’t be able to understand evil or do anything to prevent it. And second of all, you won’t know when it’s tempting you yourself. That’s what you get out of Dostoevsky’s understanding of evil.

Jonathan Silver:

So then is it fair to say that Dostoevsky is a writer of compassion insofar as, by portraying humiliation and shame and torment and agony in his characters, his fiction serves as a vehicle through which readers can feel a certain sort of compassion toward his characters? And that Dostoevsky also hopes that these feelings of compassion could also kindle in readers’ hearts the dearly held Christian virtues that seemed to animate him?

Gary Saul Morson:

To get a sense of what Christianity meant to Dostoevsky as an author, it helps to look at his description of Charles Dickens as a great Christian writer. There’s no theology in Dickens. There’s almost no overt mention of Christianity in Dickens. What he meant was that Dickens inspires compassion for the poor and the suffering. And that’s how Dostoevsky thought of Christianity and of his own literary goals. First and foremost, he saw Christianity as the philosophy of compassion and love for the suffering. If you try to probe his theological beliefs, first of all, you’ll find they don’t seem to matter very much, and if they do, they’re probably heretical anyway. But he’s not thinking of belief, but of something else.

Jonathan Silver:

Another way to describe his key psychological insight is in terms of the reality of sin. He may not be thinking along those lines, but it is recognizable to more traditional forms of Christian belief.

Gary Saul Morson:

Yes. One of the titular characters in The Brothers Karamazov at one point describes incredible harm inflicted on children. All these cases by the way were real, but Ivan Karamazov describes them in a way that turns your stomach. And he asks himself whether evil is just a bad quality or inherent in our nature; that is, is evil something that can be educated away or is it deeply buried in human nature at some fundamental level? What Ivan leaves out, and what Dostoevsky would’ve said were he speaking in his own voice, is the potential for good also goes all the way down. But Ivan is so overtaken by the stories of the torture of children and other unnecessary suffering, and the fact that people can actually enjoy inflicting such suffering, that he has trouble imagining how the good fits into human nature too.

Jonathan Silver:

Crime and Punishment is very much a book about coming to reckon with your true self and setting aside the delusions you might have about yourself. You would expect a cynical writer to find that, underneath the bourgeois, conventional, law-abiding personality—which turns out to be a delusion—there is a primal, harsh, moral monster. But that’s not the case at all in this book. Raskolnikov, the main character, pretends to be harsh and willing to undertake cruelty for the sake of justice, but the novel’s drama lies in the discovery that there’s actually a more decent, soft-hearted, kinder person underneath. In that connection I can’t help but wonder what Dostoevsky might make of the many useful idiots that are defending Hamas right now, walking around pretending to be cruel and tearing down hostage posters and storming into restaurants to tear down flags and all of that. Underneath it, there might be something like Raskolnikov down there.

Gary Saul Morson:

I really like your reading of the novel. It’s not always read that way, but I really like your reading. I’m sure that’s part of what Dostoevsky had in mind. As to your point about those people who are tearing down these posters: many probably think they are good people, compassionate for the suffering of Palestinians or others. Some of them are, but there are all sorts of motivations or ways of thinking that lead to that kind of behavior. Part of what motivated me to write this essay was that I was thinking about Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism, and when I first started teaching Russian literature half a century ago, at that point you weren’t allowed to talk about it because he was our great figure, and you weren’t supposed to destroy his reputation. But I wrote about it then anyway.

What is it that goes through people’s minds? There was a book that came out at the time called Dostoevsky and the Jews, by a man named David Goldstein, who laid out all the evidence. But his only explanation was “it’s virulent anti-Semitism, which spreads like a disease.” Certainly people in their own heads don’t think that they’re the subject of that kind of mental disease. Goldstein turns anti-Semitism into something like demonic possession: a force from outside. It can’t be that simple. There must be more to it than that or you wouldn’t find decent people drawn to hating Jews.

The next time I really thought about this was when I was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. And there were, on the faculty, two experts on Chinese literature and history, a married couple, who justified the most horrible things in the Cultural Revolution, and yet they were the gentlest, most decent people you’ve met. They adopted poor children abandoned in the ghettos. How do these two things fit together? It’s not so simple. A lot of these Hamas sympathizers are probably very decent people; some of them are not at all decent people; and some of them would be decent people except for the fact that some ideology that they think is good is distorting their vision.

Jonathan Silver:

Let’s come then to the question of Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism. One could read his big five polished works of literature, his great novels, and not necessarily come away thinking that this is an anti-Semitic writer. What’s the evidence?

Gary Saul Morson:

Jews don’t play much of a role in his novels. And when they do, it’s usually connected to the plot of the novel, not some agenda of hating the Jews. The evidence comes from outside of the great novels. And what’s more, it only comes in a very brief portion of his life, roughly the last five years. At the time he was publishing a really interesting periodical—he thought of it as a new literary genre—called A Writer’s Diary. The idea of it was every month he would bring out one issue, and he would be the sole editor, publisher, and writer of everything in it. And it would contain a mixture of genres: memoir, autobiography, fiction, crime reporting (he’d go to trials and report on what he saw). It was hard to sustain this, but for a few issues he sustained it beautifully.

Then he gets caught up in all sorts of issues concerning the persecution of the Serbs and Bulgarians and other Orthodox Christians by the Ottomans, who were the imperial overlords in the Balkans at the time, and were doing terrible things. Dostoevsky becomes obsessed with this topic, and focuses increasingly on foreign policy. It’s in those essays that anti-Semitism begins to appear [in his writing] really for the first time. Then it appears over and over again, and it gets worse and worse. And the worst passages are really, really almost as bad as you can get.

The first translator of the Writer’s Diary into English was actually arrested in the U.S. during World War II because of his activities as a member of something called the Russian American Nazi Party, and there’s little doubt that he translated this book because of the anti-Semitic passages. There’s a much better translation that’s available now, by a real scholar. But when I first encountered the book, that was the only translation. Those passages really are very bad, and the question is: how does Dostoevsky reconcile his anti-Semitism with his compassion, and why does it suddenly appear at this point when it hasn’t been part of his life before? You can read his novels and not know anything about it. You get more anti-Polish sentiment in his novels than anti-Jewish sentiment, and there’s not even very much of that.

Jonathan Silver:

Just give us a taste of the sort of anti-Semitic ideas in these essays.

Gary Saul Morson:

Earlier you said something about Jews being the people who have suffered the most. People were writing that to Dostoevsky too. How can you use the nasty term zhid? It’s true, he would reply, that here in Russia Jews are not allowed to move out of the Pale of Settlement. Their residence is restricted. But the Russian peasant was a slave under serfdom, [which only ended in 1861]. That’s much worse, isn’t it? He would tell Jewish correspondents, “You’re not the only people who suffer, and you don’t want to recognize others’ suffering.” And of course there are other peoples who suffer, and in some cases suffer more. So his response to accusations of anti-Semitism would be one of deep resentment, as if the accuser were trying to overlook the suffering of others. And then of course he thought that Jews were partly responsible for that suffering because they exploited the serfs. He read articles in the Russian press about how Jews were supposedly exploiting the newly liberated blacks in America the same way. So he begins to think that Jews are doing these awful things, and he really believes it.

And then he asks, “Why are they doing it?” And here you have to get how Dostoevsky thinks about history and people. He thinks of history as a story about fundamental principles and peoples as personalities who carry these principles. So there is a Protestant or a German idea and there’s a Catholic idea. The Catholic idea, he thinks, goes way back before even Christ, as a view of life. The Catholics had this view, but before them the Romans had it. And then there’s a view of life that the Jews have, and he thinks it’s tied to their religion. In fact, he thinks there are no Jews who don’t believe in God because they all have to have this idea that he attributes to them.

He focuses on the passages in the Bible that talk about God saying you have to destroy all the other tribes in the land of Canaan, and then he asks, so if there were now not 80 million Russians and 3 million Jews, but the reverse, how would the Jews behave to the 3 million Russians? What would they do to them? What they did to the people whom God told them to exterminate in ancient times? Wouldn’t they do the same thing, wouldn’t they do even worse? That’s a sample of the sort of thing he writes. And it’s bloodcurdling, because if these people would destroy you and kill you, then of course you’re justified in defending yourself by persecuting them.

Jonathan Silver:

There’s also an interesting similarity to today in the fact that it is questions of foreign policy and the manipulation of foreign governments by a small cadre of Jewish networkers that draw Dostoevsky to anti-Semitism. That habit of mind and that perception of reality is active in Dostoevsky and it’s also active in some of Israel’s critics today.

Gary Saul Morson:

Absolutely. For example, the way Dostoevsky viewed what was going on in the Balkans was that the Turks were persecuting all these poor Orthodox Bulgarians and Serbs. Russia wanted to come to their defense. But in the balance of power at the time, England’s commercial prosperity allowed it to curb Russian intervention, because Britain was siding with the Turks. Who was the prime minister of England at the time? Disraeli. Is it an accident that he’s a Jew? But Dostoevsky goes further: in Western Europe, it may be that Jews are controlling everything. But it’s also the case that their idea that life is nothing but materialism has also been taking over Western Europe, so that you don’t even need Jews to have that connection. The English think this way without Jews. So that’s why they wind up with Disraeli—because they think in a “Jewish way,” naturally they select a Jewish leader. Dostoevsky thinks that this is really what’s happening. Once you begin to think not of individual people, but of a people as carriers of a single quality or idea, you’re going to wind up with a story where there are evil peoples who are just evil, all of them.

Jonathan Silver:

Despite the fact that that would seem to contravene the central psychological insight of Dostoevsky’s novels, which is a rejection of that Manichean tendency to see pure evil and pure good in character types, but instead to recognize the brokenness that lurks underneath the surface of each one of us. I want to come to Professor Howland in just a moment. But my last question for you in this part of our conversation is to ask if you can now offer an attempt at reconciliation between Dostoevsky the literary psychologist in the novels and this raving lunatic who’s writing these essays.

Gary Saul Morson:

I don’t think he was a raving lunatic because that suggests madness. I don’t think it’s madness. I think it’s bad thinking, which a sane person can have. The essay talks about it in detail, but he bought into certain ways of thinking of the world and believed in certain “facts” which were not facts. If you believed in those facts, and if you saw the world in terms of that ideology, you would wind up hating Jews out of compassion, because they’re the people who do all the evil in the world.

Now I imagine that is true of a lot of people. If you buy into a lot of the ideology that is common on campuses now, you can easily wind up thinking that one group of people or another is simply evil to the core. Of course, it’s likely to be Jews, but other times it’s other people. And the problem is that kind of thinking, which divides the world that way. This is, by the way, the most famous sentence that Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago—a book well worth reading; it’s the 50th anniversary of its publication right now—the line between good and evil does not run between races, as the Nazis thought, or social classes as the Marxists thought, or between any groups; it runs through every human heart, including your own. That’s what you have to believe in order not to fall into that kind of thinking, and not to exonerate yourself or your own group.

Jonathan Silver:

Professor Howland, I hand it over to you.

Jacob Howland:

First I want to thank you, Saul, for this really rich and wonderful essay. You remind us that Dostoevsky, both in his example and his novels, shows us that we contain multitudes and that in fact opposites dwell right next to each other. In his novels, there’s the thinnest line between love and hate. Or between compassion and concern for human rights on the one hand, and murder on the other. This is something we have to get our heads around today.

Gary Saul Morson:

I grew up surrounded by Communists in New York, and these were people who were justifying the sort of stuff that Stalin was doing and yet really, really were motivated by some compassion in many cases—not all cases, but in some cases. Communism is now eliminating all the suffering in the world, they thought, in which case we have to justify it. It happens. It really does happen. Ideology is the thing that makes it happen most, but it’s not that uncommon.

Jacob Howland:

Indeed. I want to explore something that’s already come up in this conversation. Jon mentioned this important point that really Dostoevsky displays certain habits of mind that we see in Israel’s critics today. You note in your article, which is really wonderful and rich, Dostoevsky’s insistence that nations must observe the same moral laws as individuals, which I happen to think is politically quite naïve. But in any case, critics of Israel seem to agree with Dostoevsky in applying the standards of individual morality to the IDF, as it wages a war for the nation’s survival. So my question is this: does this confusion of two kinds of moral law—and those are his words, “the laws that govern individuals” and “the laws that govern armies”—does this confusion spring from anti-Semitic malice, or does it spring today more from simple ignorance of the nature of political reality?

Gary Saul Morson:

Let me dissect your question. There are a lot of assumptions in it that I’m not sure that we all have to share. But first, what does he mean by the idea that nations should observe the same morality as an individual? He means that, since you wouldn’t allow a child to be tortured in front of you, if you could stop it, then the same principle applies to a group. By this logic the U.S. should not have allowed the Holocaust to happen; we should not have allowed the genocide in Rwanda to happen, since we could have stopped it. That’s what’s really behind this sort of thinking for Dostoevsky. Tolstoy, by the way, did not think this way. He thought that intervening means killing people and you shouldn’t do that. And they had this long debate across the pages of their different [publications] about when you do that. And you see it’s a fairly complex question, because in intervening you can wind up intervening when you shouldn’t intervene. It can be very difficult.

But you could also agree with that premise, and then still ask, “What is the moral thing to do?” It’s not so simple. For example, if you are attacked by somebody who is bent on killing you, as an individual, and if you let the person go they’re going to come after you again, you have to do something to prevent that—whether it’s getting the person locked up or something else. You can’t allow them to go free if they’re going to kill you and your family. You could say that’s what the IDF is doing. This group has said they’re going to do this brutality on a larger scale every single time. So it’s not necessarily immoral or different from the morality of individual life to go in and prevent them from doing so.

Jacob Howland:

Yes. I do think there is a confusion between morality and politics, and I think that it comes out when we see critics of Israel saying, “Look, you’re fighting Hamas, but you’re killing these innocent civilians.” And then you reply, “Well, Hamas hides behind innocent civilians,” for example.

But let me go on to another question, and this really concerns the historical mission of the Jewish people. And here again, I think Dostoevsky exemplifies a certain turn of mind that ignores, oddly enough in this case, the moral mission of the Jews. He writes that God promised the Jews, and this something that you quote in your article, “Thou art the only one before God. Destroy the others or enslave and exploit them.” Dostoevsky says God promised this to the Jewish people. Now this interpretation perversely turns the people of Israel whom God intended to be a light unto the nations into the first among nations in moral darkness. They’re the ur-nation in some sense, right? And he argues also, and this is part of the argument that you lay out in your essay, that the Russians, not the Jews, will be the saviors of mankind. They’re the ones who are going to be the light unto the nations.

Gary Saul Morson:

That’s right. That’s the answer unique among Russians. By the way, this has been a fairly common Russian idea: that they’re the only truly Christian nation; they’re the only nation that is really bent on sacrificing themselves for others.

Jacob Howland:

So there is here something like the Christian idea of supersessionism, [that the Church replaced the Jews as God’s new chosen people, an idea rejected by many Christian theologians]. But, at least in its best version, even supersessionist Christians accept that the Jews were the chosen people, and it’s just that Christ comes along. Dostoevsky’s doing something else. First, he redefines what it means to be chosen by saying, “God said go out and enslave and dominate.” And then he argues that it’s actually the Russians who are going to be the moral and spiritual saviors of mankind. My question is this: is all anti-Semitism at bottom a kind of biblically rooted mimetic imitation and moral rivalry—not between individuals as in Dostoevsky’s novels, but between nations? I’m thinking here, for example, of the influence of the story in Genesis that it was Isaac who was Abraham’s favorite, not Ishmael, which I think has a big influence on Islamic history and the rivalry that follows. Is this sort of the kernel, the source of anti-Semitism—the influence of this story, this biblical plot line, if you will?

Gary Saul Morson:

Well, first of all, I don’t think there’s a single source of anti-Semitism. It’s been around in so many cultures for so long, that there are many, many, many sources of it. What’s interesting is how these many, many sources tend to converge on a single way of acting. But I would doubt that what has been an important source in Christian countries is the same as in Muslims countries.

Jacob Howland:

That’s fair enough.

Jonathan Silver:

One could abstract from these versions of anti-Semitism and see a commond denominator in the very fact of chosenness, the Jews’ self-understanding as being a chosen people set apart yet eternally able to be neighbors in a host culture, at times able to live in peace in the host culture, but never fully assimilable into a host culture. And that very fact is shared in both Muslim and Christian settings and secular settings as well. The Jews simply refuse to allow themselves to disappear into another nation. And that must have to do with anti-Semitism’s expression in these different forms.

Gary Saul Morson:

I’m sure that’s true, because the way it would seem if you’re looking from the other side is not that they refuse to be merged but that they insist on being separate, on eating differently—refusing even to sit down and eat with us—which in many cultures is a sign of utter contempt. So it looks like complete contempt and condescension. It can look that way, but of course if you don’t do that, then you lose your identity.

You can see how this could work from both sides, but ideologically I’m not sure that even that chosenness is always what’s important. It is one of the things that’s often important. But if you think about the anti-Semitism of the last 200 years in Europe, it very often comes from people who don’t believe in any religion whatsoever. The idea of rival chosenness that obsesses Dostoevsky is not to going to occur to them. If what you were saying was the only cause [of anti-Semitism], then all we have to do is eliminate faith in God and anti-Semitism will disappear because then nobody would care about chosenness, but that’s clearly not true.

Jacob Howland:

This question of chosenness also bears on suffering, because if you look at the logic of being a light unto the nations, that means the other nations are in darkness. And you could go to the Plato’s cave allegory—what happens when someone tries to bring light into darkness?

Suffering is built into this whole system. Now Dostoevsky wants to say that Russians have suffered more than the Jews. It’s not clear to me that their suffering is explained, at least by Dostoevsky, as their being this light. But it seems to me that that must be part of it, right? That is, the Russians are going to suffer for the sake of all humanity.

So look at what he does: he says the Jews aren’t the chosen people; far from being a light unto the nations who are in darkness, they are the [worst] nation. They are the darkness themselves and now we are going to be the ones who are [the light]. There’s a kind of mimetic rivalry here. Going back to Dostoevsky: in The Brothers Karamazov, there’s a rivalry between Ivan and [his brother’s fiancée] Katerina over who can dominate the other in their moral humility—even in their suffering. And that is exactly what’s happening with Dostoevsky. [He creates a moral rivalry between Jews and Russians].

Gary Saul Morson:

Absolutely. One of the ideas that Dostoevsky returns to over and over again, something we see around us all the time, is that some people enjoy being victims. There’s a character in Karamazov who says, “Sometimes it’s very pleasant to take offense.” And the reply is, “Not only pleasant, but positively distinguished.” You become morally superior. Karamazov was all about cultivating being heard, you could even say moral masochism, because you become morally superior when you’re a victim. Let’s be honest, there are Jews who do that themselves. We’ve all seen it. “I’m a Jew. I’ve inherited all the suffering. I’m morally superior to you guys.” When I see that, I don’t find it morally uplifting. But it’s one of the bad things about human nature, and we see it here with Dostoevsky. We are the victims and therefore we are morally superior. The next step is, “You are not morally superior. You are the ones who are only pretending to be victims; we really are.” That will always be the next step.

Jacob Howland:

Here’s another paradox. Dostoevsky is a very paradoxical person, a very paradoxical author. He was an unsurpassed critic of revolutionary utopianism, and for those who haven’t read The Possessed or Demons—however you want to translate the title—there’s a chapter called “With Our People,” in the middle of the book, which just is quite incredible in this way. It’s funny and it’s tragic. Here’s Dostoevsky, a critic of revolutionary utopianism, who ultimately embraces a kind of messianic utopianism. And in fact, I picked up from your article that he echoed Hegelian and Marxist theories of historical necessity in maintaining that the fall of Constantinople and therefore the Ottoman empire, and the millennium, were inevitable. He has passages that say [the unfolding of history] is going to be spontaneous, as if it were nature unfolding itself.

Now messianic utopianism is, I believe, foreign to the authentic spirit of Judaism. It’s not that there haven’t been Jewish messianic utopianists, of course there have. But I think it’s foreign to the authentic spirit of Judaism, for which the Messiah has always not yet come. This is a kind of Jewish lack of impatience, if you will. And that’s a deep strain in Judaism. And today we live in an age of real impatience and we want to solve the riddles of history and so forth. To what extent is Jewish resistance to the temptation of messianic utopianism, even if it’s only implicit, a source of anti-Semitism in our politically impatient age? That is, to those revolutionaries who want to bring into being some kind of utopia, is there a sort of instinctive understanding that the Jews are going to stand in the way because they take up the task of doing the work but not finishing it?

Gary Saul Morson:

I have to quarrel with how you put something there.

Jacob Howland:

Okay, great.

Gary Saul Morson:

You say this is authentic Judaism. This is your view of what Judaism is, but you don’t get to decide for everybody what’s authentic.

Jacob Howland:

True enough.

Gary Saul Morson:

One of the reasons why so many of the Russian Bolsheviks or other revolutionaries were Jews was because they were exaggerating the messianic element. Just read Trotsky. It can’t be a coincidence that these are people raised in Jewish cultures. I think you get both kinds of Jews. And the messianic part of Judaism I think does show itself in people like Trotsky or maybe even Marx. I think what I would say is that Jews should view Judaism the way you say. I certainly find it a lot more sympathetic. But I’m not sure that they always have or that they all do, and maybe the danger lies in the ones who don’t. The Jews who have been messianists have caused a lot of harm.

Jacob Howland:

One more question. This is a big one, but we can have a short answer. You begin your essay by rejecting the notion that evil can be explained by demonic possession. But Dostoevsky himself speaks of nihilistic evil as a kind of demonic possession in his book The Possessed. And in my view, again, pure evil seems to transcend explanation no less than pure good. You’re not going to give a reason for it. It’s what Primo Levi, for example, calls useless violence: the purest evil is just torture for its own sake.

And it seems to me that pure evil is more than just an absence of good. Theologically, it’s often been explained as an absence of good, but rather it is an act or a force in its own right. So my question to you is: can we really abandon theological categories in speaking of evil? I’m not suggesting that you do abandon them, and I understand the whole point of your essay is to try to understand what we called useful idiots earlier. But I wonder, if we’re really dealing with evil, ultimately we need some kind of theological terms.

Gary Saul Morson:

Yes, I think we do. You have so much history of religious thinking about the nature of evil. Just to banish the deepest part of the heritage of the last 2,000 years [is a mistake]. Those categories really do make a difference. And yes, there’s a passage in Dostoevsky’s novel, The House of the Dead, which is a fictionalized version of his time in the Siberian prison camp, where he encounters one of the criminals who were there who just clearly enjoyed being cruel, torturing children. And maybe there was some advantage Dostoevsky thinks he gets from torturing children, and this criminal looks at him with utter pity, [and explains], “You think with contempt! You think I need a reason to be cruel?” Here Dostoevsky is encountering pure evil for the first time, trying to make sense of it, and not being able to. And yes, of course you are intended to describe that as demonic possession. In The Possessed, the demon turns out to be not literal demons, but ideology that affects the brain the way a demon would. And so the danger is ideology, but you don’t understand how ideology works unless you understand the demonic.

Jacob Howland:

Thank you.

Jonathan Silver:

We have a bunch of questions from the audience. But the first one is very interesting to me, and it’s about forgiveness. Dostoevsky sees himself as a devout Christian and he’s animated by Christian principles and sees those who suffer as encompassed in the grace of the Christian God. And part of the human way in which that love and grace is mediated in the world is through forgiveness. Does that idea play a role in Dostoevsky’s Christianity? Let me just add one other note before you answer. Very often contemporary activism, which is so animated by a similar desire to pursue justice and to see good done on earth, involves a notable lack of forgiveness, so that the historic crimes of this people or that group, to use Professor Howland’s phrase, is “mimetically passed down from generation to generation,” and those people are not offered this sort of forgiveness that is part of the Christian vision.

Gary Saul Morson:

To believe in forgiveness, you have to surrender the idea that you are the chosen agent of justice. People who are cruel don’t think of themselves as cruel; they think of themselves as enforcing justice. It’s the same for people who are envious. Nobody claims to be envious, only to have been treated unjustly. It’s always put it in the frame of justice. The more you think soley in terms of justice, and believe that you are its agent, the less forgiveness becomes possible.

One of Dostoevsky’s key ideas is that justice is a high value, but love and forgiveness are higher. A lot of his late stories deal with things like that. Sometimes you have to overcome something, and one of the ways you overcome it and then grant forgiveness is by looking at yourself and realizing you are not so pure yourself and in other circumstances you might have done something pretty bad too. In fact, maybe you’re about to do it in the name of justice. That should be one impulse that you teach yourself to have, to temper your desire to be the agent of justice in the world. Whenever you have that feeling that it’s you or your group, you need to ask yourself whether that’s so appealing, and whether they’re going to do something bad because you’re helping.

Jonathan Silver:

Here’s a question about the relationship between humiliation and victimhood and its claim of moral superiority. Can you talk about that?

Gary Saul Morson:

If being a victim makes you morally superior, then you may even cultivate moments when you’re victimized. You will look for insults. We see that today. People learn to make a mountain out of a molehill. You may really have been insulted, but you make much more of it than it is because it makes you feel that you’re morally superior. But being morally superior means you can do to others what you want because you’re just paying them back for what’s happened to you. And the more you exaggerate your own suffering, the more you can do to others. At least in my reading of Hitler’s coming to power, he appealed to the Germans’ sense of having been victimized after Versailles. And that therefore they must have a chance to do the same to others. And that appeal is something always to be suspicious of. Another way to put it is that being a victim doesn’t make you morally superior; the way to become morally superior is to be morally better.

Jonathan Silver:

This is a very important note for the Jewish community, as you alluded to earlier. As we are thinking about how to confront the explosion of anti-Semitism that we see around us, there is a very understandable impulse to try to compete in the victimhood Olympics. For instance, we can point out that half of Israelis are Mizrahi and therefore people of color, and that this is something Israel’s Western critics don’t understand. Or we can point out how much the Jews have suffered. And then we can pull out the FBI’s statistics that show crimes against us are more numerous than crimes against other people. And that whole line of thinking is entirely understandable, but in Dostoevsky’s view, wrong.

Gary Saul Morson:

I think one of the things that has produced the present outburst of anti-Semitism in the United States is the kind of thinking people have been taught now for a generation: that the world is neatly divided into oppressors and oppressed. And then once you slot the Jews or anybody else into the oppressor slot, you can do anything you want to them because the world is cleanly divided into good and evil. If that kind of thinking is the problem—and I think it’s a major portion of the problem—then there would be something really perverse in saying, “No, we want the oppressed slot.” You are thus endorsing that kind of thing. Suppose you do get the other slot, then you might just use that moral authority of victimhood as a cudgel against somebody else. The line between good and evil runs through every human heart.

Jacob Howland:

It’s odd because I think that Dostoevsky is right about so much. This way of thinking [about victimization] is foreign to Dostoevsky. I think he would regard it as a version of utilitarianism, one that turns God into a merchant or moral accountant who says, “You did a bad thing to him, so now he gets to do a bad thing to you, and then the books will be balanced.” The problem is that he claims Jews are the historical source of this kind of utilitarian thinking, which we could call an economic model of moral relations. And then he positions the Russians as this spontaneously giving people. They’re not settling scores; they’re superabundantly moral in their giving of themselves.

Gary Saul Morson:

There’s a wonderful book by my colleague, Susan McReynolds, on how this kind of thinking arose out of Dostoevsky’s theological concerns. And it led him through all sorts of heretical views in which he was so concerned with child abuse that he started seeing the central Christian story of God sacrificing his son as a case of child abuse. And it is the Jewish God that does the sacrificing! And gradually his Christianity became Christ-centered but without God the father. It’s a really wonderful book. But of course so much of this is heretical in the eyes of Christian theology. The father and son aren’t supposed to be two separate beings, but parts of a single one. It’s God himself who’s being sacrificed.

Jacob Howland:

I think you could say that Dostoevsky’s novels are all about demonstrating the human consequences of the working out of ideas. But it seems as if he sees history a certain way, and he sees Jews a certain way, because he begins with the wrong ideas. Let’s just take the child-sacrifice thing again. He wants to see the Jewish God as some kind of cruel God. But this is also based on a misreading of the Akeidah, [the story of the binding of Isaac], which is a rejection of child sacrifice. And then he attributes the wrong original ideas to the Jews and then sees history coming out of that to its inevitable consequences. The question is why does he do that to begin with? It’s a very strange thing.

Gary Saul Morson:

He is like Ivan Karamazov, tortured to the point of distraction by stories of the suffering of children. And he went to child abuse trials. He’s the world’s greatest crime reporter. And he found awful cases of child abuse and then of progressive liberal attorneys using the latest theories to get the perpetrators off. They argue that the defendants aren’t really responsible; only societies are responsible. Something’s wrong with this way of thinking. It then takes just one step to associate those values with the Jews. But he’s certainly not unique in thinking that liberal values are carried by Jews. But it’s an important part of how he goes wrong. He also gets his facts wrong.

Jonathan Silver:

I have to say that there’s something very unsatisfying about arriving at that place and allowing ourselves to feel content in saying that Dostoevsky gets the facts wrong, and if only he’d gotten them right his exquisite tracing out of the consequences of those facts would lead to a morally superior place. Because we all are reading the news constantly and reading contradictory claims. They did hit the hospital; they didn’t hit the hospital. There are tunnels; there aren’t tunnels. There were beheadings; there weren’t beheadings. And we know some of these things are indisputable facts and others are lies. And we want to say to our critics, “You just don’t understand the facts. And if you only understood the facts, then you would see things as we do.” And we should be wary of that.

Gary Saul Morson:

Yes. But there are many different things that lead people to anti-Semitism. In some people, it’s getting the facts wrong: they’ve never been taught about the Holocaust; they’ve been taught evil things about Jews. For some of those people, changing the way they’re taught in school might make a difference. For the people who hate Israel because they buy into an ideology that divides the world into good and evil along the lines of “oppressor” and “oppressed,” getting the facts right isn’t going to make any difference.

Jonathan Silver:

Right. There are dozens and dozens of questions here, so I’m going to have to choose just one last one and put it to both of you. Is there a correlation between compassion for the world and anti-Semitism? Does one notice any kind of correlation like that, such that devotion to compassion found in some anti-Semites makes their anti-Semitism more intense, and why would that be if it were so?

Gary Saul Morson:

That’s a really good question. If what you think you’re doing is fighting suffering, then whoever’s the agent of suffering is going to be someone you really want to fight against. If you view Jews as Nazis, you’re going to fight against them. But I don’t think there’s a necessary connection there. Compassion can really lead to compassion. You just need to be a little suspicious, a little skeptical of your own ability to divide the world neatly into right and wrong. Apply the gaze that you apply to others to yourself and see what happens. If you get into the habit of doing that, it won’t guarantee you come up with the right answers, but it will go a long way to prevent you coming to the worst answers.

Jacob Howland:

I think one problem is that much compassion today is directed today toward humanity as such, toward an abstraction. And the Jews have certainly suffered from this. We know during the Holocaust that the Western nations would report on Nazi atrocities, and issue statements, but they wouldn’t necessarily mention the Jews by name. And we’ve seen something similar in the responses of some university presidents. Immediately after October 7, or after subsequent anti-Jewish incidents, they’ve said things like, “We condemn all sorts of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.” As if it were the case that at some of these Ivy League schools there was rampant Islamophobia and people were calling for the murder of Muslims and so forth. These become ways of erasing the Jews, and I guess you could give a lecture about the Enlightenment roots of this attitude. And it goes back to what we discussed earlier, about the digestibility or assimilability of the Jews. Wouldn’t it better if they were just human beings?

But that way of thinking conceals the particularity of Jewish suffering. And I would even make the case on the other side: when Jews are notable for doing good things, it’s also ignored. Abstraction is a fundamental feature of modern life. And by the way, one last thing I would say is that we are a very small minority, which is something that we forget frequently. Kids in college may as well be looking at the shadows on the wall of Plato’s Cave, in that their view of Jews is so mediated. Thus for them the Jew is an oppressor or a settler colonialist or something. And I think that’s a real problem.

Gary Saul Morson:

I agree. Part of what’s producing this tendency is that we silo ourselves off; we only talk to people we agree with, and therefore anybody we disagree with must be truly evil. And a lot of times you never encounter reasonable people who vote differently than you. And when you silo yourself, it’s easy to think of other people as evil—just like before there was integration, you could think of evil as another race. You don’t think that way about people living next to you. Siloing teaches people a habit of mind which then gets carried over to the Jews.

More about: Anti-Semitism, Dostoevsky, Russian literature