Alyosha and the schoolboys


Photo taken in the Museum of the Romanian Peasant in Bucharest.


During moments of tension, it is always difficult to perceive in your opponent a human being in need. When someone hates me, the first inclination is to blame that person; if I perceive he does evil against me,  I may immediately believe that he is fully responsible for whatever he does. There are plenty of such examples in life or in literature. One may think of election seasons, or of many stories from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Just consider this little event, when a boy, Ilyusha, throws stones at others. What could have made him that angry? How can a good human being, a little boy who loves his parents, who is also loved by them, become bad?

The scene in Dostoevsky is quite familiar: six boys, filled with righteousness, throw stones at another boy, who retaliates by throwing back as many stones as he can. The familiarity of the story stems from its “righteousness”: the boys do not even think that they would be in error. The lonely kid is a “rat”; “it’d serve him right if we killed him”–can you imagine little children saying this about one of their previous friends? What could be the reason why hatred is justified?

Alyosha, the youngest Karamazov brother, is surprised by this as well. And he decides to go find out the reason from the boy himself, although the children want to prevent him: “watch out, he’s not afraid of you, he’ll stab you without warning when you’re not looking” (p. 224 in the Oxford edition). But Alyosha goes. He sees a small child “of no more than nine.”

But Ilyusha made fun of him (“monk in a funny skirt”), so Alyosha began to walk away. At that moment, the kid got the biggest stone and hit Karamazov in the back.

This was evidence that the boy was a “rat,” as the other kids said, and even Alyosha blurted out, “they were right after all when they said that you steal up on people” (226). But notice Alyosha did not give him a name; he did not call him a “rat” or a “coward.” He only accurately described an action. And he did not retaliate.

Of course, this infuriated the child and he bit Alyosha’s finger, causing him even more pain. Even more evidence of the wickedness of the child.

Wouldn’t anyone expect Alyosha to get angry? To leave the boy alone and ignore him completely, as such a “base human being” would deserve? But Alyosha said something completely different. With his “gentle eyes,” he looked at the boy and said: “Even though I don’t know you and have never seen you before, I can’t imagine that I’ve done nothing, otherwise you wouldn’t have hurt me so much. So, what have I done? Tell me what you’ve got against me” (226).

Alyosha mentions here a certain kind of responsibility–the one that a person has for one’s own actions. Alyosha is not guilty; he has not done anything. But Alyosha is someone who lives under a different kind of responsibility as well, which is described by Fr. Zosima, the young Karamazov’s mentor: “When, however, he (the monk–after all, any human being) realizes that not only is he worse than any layman, but that he is guilty before all, for everything and before everyone, for the sins of all men, individually as well as collectively, only then will the goal of our seclusion be attained.” “It is only through this realization that our hearts will be moved to boundless, universal, all-consuming love” (206).

When he met the schoolboys, Alyosha came from the monastery, so from the same frame of mind that Fr. Zosima had. This responsibility has nothing to do with justice. It is not whether I am responsible legally, but rather whether I am responsible for the entire humanity because it lives in me.

So, if Ilyusha becomes evil, I cannot blame him for it, but I am the only one who can bear the responsibility because I contribute to the ugliness of the world without even meaning to do so. In The Brothers Karamazov, there are plenty of examples of people who “become bad.” How does Fyodor Karamazov become the man that he is? What about Mitya or Ivan? Do we not all share this world and somehow influence it for good or bad? This does not deny individual responsibility. In fact, if I am responsible for the entire world, I am also responsible for my own actions. But if I look at someone else, I can no longer say that he or she is responsible because I have already placed that responsibility on me. I cannot even call on their own responsibility for the world’s faults, because this responsibility can only be conjugated in the first person singular.

One may say that this demolishes a human being. Can you imagine what it would mean to carry that huge load on your shoulders? Truly, it sounds as if you would not be able to even raise your eyes from the earth. And still, the suffering of others, all the others, calls on me to respond to them. It is this strong request for my presence that should give me the power to come up. For, if I remain demolished by my responsibility, then instead of thinking of others, I focus on me–a false responsibility even if it may look “virtuous.”

Sometimes, there are moments in my (as I said this can only be conjugated in first person) life when things do not go well. In those moments, I may be lucky enough to have one person coming toward me and giving me a flower or an embrace. Doing so, even without knowing, that person may save me from falling further into darkness, into lack of hope. But there are moments when, while being in darkness, I meet people who push me even further into my darkness because they judge me according to the darkness in which they have found me. They would not even realize that they do it; they would not even think about it, because the only thing they would see is the “righteousness” of their position, the legality according to which I would be in the wrong. Or it may be that, because of their own problems, they would not be in the position to embrace someone else–especially someone whom they may despise. Even so, in my wrongness, I would still need to feel responsible for their inability to help me. But wouldn’t the world be more beautiful if, instead of pushing me from the cliff, they would hold an open hand?

If Ilyusha did not have someone like Alyosha in his life, he would have died before his biological death because he would have been consumed by hatred. A boy, a nine years old boy. A “rat,” as his friends described him. Someone who’d be served right “if we killed him.” There may be so many people in my life whose suffering I did not perceive because I judged them according to the evil things in which they engaged. How corrupted must my soul be if I’m incapable of perceiving their suffering?

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About Tavi's Corner

Blogging on ancient philosophy, communist persecution in Romania (including deportation to Siberia), and Orthodox Christianity. I've translated books from Romanian to English, and I also write about them from time to time.
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