The Real Devil foreword

Fyodor Dostoyevsky And Satan (Reflections by Ted Russell)

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Fyodor Dostoyevsky And Satan (Reflections by Ted Russell)

The Brothers Karamazov by the great nineteenth-century Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky is one of the gravest and most absorbing novels ever written; yet it in no way promotes a belief in an immortal Devil. In a book of impressionistic realism, Dostoyevsky is concerned with the anguish caused by the dual nature of man, in which a mythical Satan has absolutely no role, function or place, and therefore does not intrude. In fact, the only time Satan is introduced at all, is, late in the series, when Ivan hears that Smerdyakov’s murder of Fyodor was the result of his (Ivan’s) nihilistic words and actions, suggesting that the father’s murder would be a blessing to the whole household. He returns to his rooms, falls ill with fever and delirium, during which he is haunted by a realistic spectre of the devil which suddenly emerges from his soul, revealing his true nature to himself. Up till now, Ivan’s nihilism had no room for conscience, at all. Belatedly, and long overdue, that latent conscience is born in him by the sudden awareness of the evil consequences of his overtly professed philosophy. Significantly, Ivan’s feverish vision of awareness is lost on his audience; it is not believed in by any in the court to whom he confesses it. It is, actually, a message from Dostoyevsky to his readers.

If Dostoyevsky had wanted to bring in a real, external Satan, he would have introduced him earlier, in the most famous section of the book (The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor) where, in an inn, Ivan disclosed to Alyosha that he believed in God, but that he could not accept God’s world. What the two discussed there was the dual nature of man, which has been the continuing theme of the whole novel. There, Ivan’s account of another of his delusional dreams, this time in poetical form, spells out his case against Christ, and his anger at a God who permits innocent children to suffer. But it is not through the mouth of a Satan, but of a worldly wise old Inquisitor during an auto-da-fe - an execution by burning of heretics - in 16th century Seville. A stranger appears in the village, and performs a miracle. The people identify him as Christ. The Grand Inquisitor appears, and arrests the stranger, intending to burn him at the stake next day. He reproaches the stranger: “Is it Thou?”, he asks, ”You had no right to come. We have corrected thy work.” Ivan’s implication is that Christ’s message is far too hard for any to follow, no one can ever reach His impossibly high standards. No one wants freedom; all they need is security. So, the Church has changed the standards, to an achievable norm - and so who needs Christ now? The Inquisitor offers Christ liberty if He will go and “come no more.” According to Ivan, his poetical dream has Christ accepting the Inquisitor’s offer. He silently kisses the old man’s lips as He leaves, disappearing forever. 

 But it doesn’t end there. The dream is all in the mind of Ivan. No place there, at all, for Satan. Christ has come with impossible requirements for man. The Church, realizing the impossibility of Christ’s requirements, has changed it all, and kissed Christ off. That’s all we need, Ivan the nihilistic Intellectual argues. Alyosha, however, knows better. Zossimar has taught him that the true Christian faith, if not that which the Church has tampered with, is not as helpless as Ivan would have it. The standard it demands is certainly attainable, and does work. Active love is far more important than anything that Ivan’s totalitarian system could ever reach. Had not Zossimar said:

 “ ... love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labour and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science”.

The theme of the novel is that of a father and his four sons (born of three different mothers) and the effect of sensuality and inherited sensuality on them and on all with whom they come in contact. The father is murdered, and in the course of the consequent investigation the reader is led to consider all the possible paths for mankind.

Dimitre, the sensuous oldest son, depicts the way of the senses; Ivan, the atheistic, intellectual son, represents Western intellectualism, arguing that all things are permissible; Alexey (called Alyosha), the third son, is a gentle boy influenced by Zossimar, an elder in the nearby monastery (whose positive teachings are central to the novel); and Smerdyakov (the actual murderer), the illegitimate son representing the debased way of scepticism and secularism. 

Dostoyevsky prefaces his novel with a quotation from the Gospel of John, that relates to the underlying theme of the book: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit”. Throughout the novel, each brother must learn this truth in his own experience: “Fall to the earth, die, and, then be reborn”.

There is no Satan in The Brothers Karamazov. Zossimar’s unassuming but firm Christian teachings continue to be central to the whole of the novel, and constitute a complete rebuttal to Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor mythical legend - a poetic, invented dream that meets its catharsis in the final, self-revelation to Ivan, in his moment of truth. For his later dream’s self-revelation that his other half is a “private devil” - the bad side of his dual nature ( “the real spectre in his soul”) - is consistent with what he had, himself, initially and tentatively postured to his brother Alyosha in the preamble to The Grand Inquisitor: “I think the Devil doesn’t exist and, consequently, man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness”.


(1) Stephen Mitchell, The Book Of Job (New York: Harper Collins, 1992).

(2) John Robinson, In The End God (London: James Clarke, 1950).

(3) Paul Tournier, The Person Reborn (New York: Harper & Row, 1975) p. 6.

(4) Elaine Pagels, The Origin Of Satan (Harmondsworth: Allen Lane / The Penguin Press, 1996).

(5) Neil Forsyth, The Old Enemy: Satan And The Combat Myth (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987) p. 107.

(6) See P. Day, An Adversary In Heaven: Satan In The Hebrew Bible (Atlanta, GA: Scholar’s Press, 1988) pp 69-106.

(7) C.L. Meyers and E.M. Meyers, The Anchor Bible: Haggai, Zechariah 1-8 (New York: Doubleday, 2004 ed.) p. 184.

(8) A.L. Oppenheim, "The eyes of the Lord", Journal of The American Oriental Society Vol. 88 (1968) pp. 173-180.

(9) In addition to Pagels op cit, see Knut Schaferdick, “Satan in the Post Apostolic Fathers” in Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., Theological Dictionary Of The New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971) Vol. 7 pp. 163-165 and George F. Moore, Judaism In The First Centuries Of The Christian Era (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1927) Vol. 1.

(10) Elaine Pagels, op cit pp. 100,111.

(11) Gustave Hoennecke, New Testament Studies (Leipzig: Heinrichs, 1912) p. 208.

(12) Raymond Brown, The Gospel According To John (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1966) pp. 364-376.

(13) J. Garrison, The Darkness Of God: Theology After Hiroshima (London: S.C.M., 1982), especially pp. 8,173,174.

(14) P. Dumitriu, To An Unknown God (New York: The Seabury Press, 2005) p. 59.

(15) Flannery O'Connor, The Violent Bear It Away (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).

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