The first passage I’d like to talk about is Book 2, Chapter 4: A Lady of Little Faith.
In which a lady has travelled to visit the Elder Zosima and confess to him that she is having a crisis of faith. She recently learned of the idea that there is no afterlife, but only the void after death and it troubles her greatly.
She asks the Elder “How can it be proved? How can one be convinced?” to which Zosima replies “No doubt it is devastating. One cannot prove anything here, but it is possible to be convinced.”
This response reminds me of Jordan Peterson’s lectures where he talks about how the meaningless of life is a rational conclusion and ironclad in logic. But so what? That ‘fact’ is not very useful to living, in fact it is often very detrimental and sends people into existential depression or crisis like the lady in the passage. In this way the meaningless of life is not ‘true’ although one cannot write a ‘proof’ that meaning is possible, one can become convinced that life is meaningful.
Skipping ahead, in the Elder’s chambers we see a repeat of this idea in Zosima and Ivan’s
Skipping ahead, in the Elder’s chambers we see a small repeat of this conversation, this time between Zosima and Ivan.
“Can it be that you really hold this conviction about the consequences of the exhaustion of men’s faith in their immortality of their souls?” the elder suddenly asked Ivan Fyodorovich.
“Yes, it was my contention. There is no virtue if there is no immortality.”
You are blessed if you believe so, or else most unhappy.”
Why unhappy?” Ivan Fyodorovich smiled.
Here Dostoevsky reveals what a great character writer he is. The elder asserts that being freed of all moral responsibility must be a great thing for Ivan, or the complete opposite, and Ivan smiles at the latter.
This is brilliantly done; as I have personal experience with this smile as I suspect many others do. Imagine two strangers standing at a rainy street. Both without umbrellas commenting how the rain makes being outside awful. Then one turns to the other and remarks about his closed umbrella they smile knowingly.
“Because in all likelihood you yourself do not believe in either in the immortality of your soul or even in what you have written about the Church and the Church question.”
“Maybe you’re right…! But still, I wasn’t quite joking either…,” Ivan Fyodorovich said suddenly and strangely confessed – by the way, with a quick blush.
“You weren’t quite joking, that is true. This idea is not yet resolved in your heart and torments it. But a martyr, too, sometimes likes to toy with his despair, also from despair as it were. For the time being you, too, are toying, out of despair, with your magazine articles and drawing-room discussions, without believing in your own dialectics and smirking at them with your heart aching inside you…The question is not resolved in you, and there lies your great grief, for it urgently demands resolution…”
But can it be resolved in myself? Resolved in a positive way? Ivan Fyodorovich continued asking strangely, still looking at the elder with a certain inexplicable smile.
Here is the echo of the Lady of Little Faith’s question, this time asked by Ivan the genius atheist. Can one become convinced that their life has meaning?
“Even if it cannot be resolved in a positive way, it will never be resolved in the negative way either-you yourself know this property of your heart, and therein lies the whole of its torment…”
This last part by Zosima struck me as very profound; if the conclusion that life is bereft of meaning is so true, so iron clad in logic and cemented in reason, then why do we resist the conclusion in our hearts? Even Ivan, a rational, extremely smart atheist wrestle with it in his heart?
Zosima says, like he said to the lady, that it cannot be proven (in the positive way, that life has meaning) but now goes further to also assert it cannot be proven in the negative way. If it could, our minds would resolve this fact like any other and not be tormented by it. No one is tormented by the fact the sky is blue although the sun is white.
So perhaps one can be convinced of their being meaning in life, and that is a lovely thought.
For completeness, here is the rest of what Zosima says:
…But thank the Creator that he has given you a lofty heart, capabale of being tormented by such a torment, ‘to set your mind on things that are above, for our true homeland is in heaven.’ May God grant that your heart’s decision overtake you still on earth, and may God bless your path!”