Those who know Fyodor Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov will remember that the final chapters of the book are dominated by the trial of the eldest of the three Karamazov brothers, Dmitri. Dimitri stands accused of having murdered his father, Fyodor Pavlovich. The two men were in competition for the affections of the young ingénue, Grushenka, and Dmitri had made public threats to do grave harm to his father if he were not paid three thousand rubles he felt were rightfully his. The evidence against the accused is damning, but Dmitri maintains his innocence, and for a good while, even we the readers are left unsure as to his guilt or innocence.

The arguments of both the prosecution and the defense are quite lengthy, but they are worth revisiting, perhaps now more than ever. In them, Dostoyevsky prophetically depicts the cultural consequences of the notion of a family as something determined not by nature but by consent—an idea that, as we all know, has come to dominate our modern society.

Prosecution vs. Defense: Battling for the Soul of Russia

From the very beginning of the trial, what becomes clear very quickly is that it is not the crime itself that will take center stage, but two competing narratives about the state of Russian society: one by the prosecution, the other by the defense. The prosecutor, Ippolit Kirillovich, an elderly civil servant at the tail end of a humble career, begins by informing the jury that “the real horror” of the case is not the murder itself, but the fact that such “dark affairs have almost ceased to horrify us.” The “real crime here,” he argues, is not this isolated act of murder, but rather “that we are so used to it.”

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

Whence comes “our indifference, our lukewarm attitude towards such affairs?” asks the prosecutor. The answer, of course, is that Russian society itself has lost its way. To Kirillovich, Dmitri Karamazov is Russia, and Russia is Dmitri Karamazov: a foolish libertine finally gone too far, a once-noble soul now corrupt and open to scorn, a passionate spirit that has degraded itself in undisciplined lusts. Dmitri Karamazov represents all that has gone wrong with a once-proud and once-great nation. The course is clear: convict Dmitri Karamazov and save Russia from its decadence and decline.

Pitted against our lowly, local prosecutor is a man reputed to be one of the greatest defense attorneys in all of Russia, a man identified only with the single name “Fetyukovich,” as we might say “Madonna” or “Sting” or “Hillary,” with no need for further identification. This gifted attorney has been drawn away from his preeminent position among St. Petersburg’s sophisticated elite due solely to the notoriety of the trial. (Think, in this regard, of O.J. Simpson’s “Dream Team.”)

Our brilliant young defense attorney’s first move is to turn the prosecutor’s opening argument on its head. The sorry state of Russia’s soul should convince the jurors that they must exonerate poor Dmitri, not convict him. Who, after all, made the poor boy into the wretched man he has become? No one but his disreputable father who, by his lack of care of the boy, showed himself to be no sort of father at all.

“Let us be brave, gentlemen of the jury,” he tells them, “let us even be bold”:

it is even our duty to be so in the present moment and not to be afraid of certain words and ideas . . . No, let us prove, on the contrary, that the progress of the past few years has touched our development as well, and let us say straight out: he who begets is not yet a father, a father is he who begets and proves worthy of it.

Note the ingenious, almost subliminal insertion of the idea that they must “not be afraid” of “the progress of the past few years,” a progress that, if we are not too timid to embrace it, will cause us to realize that uncaring, irascible fathers are not fathers at all. One might have simply made this claim straight out, of course—that bad fathers are not really fathers—but the brilliant young defense attorney clearly thinks there is a certain something to be gained by tying his point about “worthy” fathers to claims concerning cultural “development” and modern “progress.”

“Oh, of course, there is another meaning, another interpretation of the word ‘father,’” our gifted young defense attorney adds slyly: “it insists that my father, though a monster, though a villain to his children, is still my father.” “But this meaning is a mystical one,” he insists, “which I do not understand with my reason but can only accept by faith… like many other things that I do not understand, but that religion nonetheless tells me to believe.”

“Progress” and the Meanings of Words

Faith vs. reason. Tradition vs. progress. Our brilliant young defense attorney is pulling out all the stops, sounding all the notes he knows will echo in the minds and hearts of the enlightened members of his audience. For if he is to convince them to jettison their traditional moral code forbidding killing, he knows he must first undermine the other fundamental element that made up “traditional” Russian society: namely, its traditional devotion to religion. And what better way to undermine it than in the name of “progress” — a progress that can only come about if they are “not afraid” of “new words and ideas”?

For you see, in this brave new world, words no longer mean what they used to. The classical meanings of words such as “father” or “murder” must give way to new social realities, to the modern demands for “progress.” In this new world, words are no longer to be understood as more or less adequate expressions of the truth of things—as signs pointing to reality—but as tools of the social engineers whose business is to build the vast, bold social structures of modernity. Indeed, when the traditional meanings of words get “in the way,” they must be demeaned, diminished, and made to seem laughably naïve or foolish.

As a species of ideological partisanship and rhetorical acumen, our young defense attorney’s move here is quite brilliant. And yet, upon examination, the argument is rather odd, is it not? Defining a father as the man who biologically begets a son is a “mystical notion,” he tells the jury. And yet, one would have thought that any meaning of the term “father” other than the biological one would have been considered “mystical.” But not here—not, we might say, for the purposes of this trial; not when words have to be bent to the purposes of social “progress.”

And so, Fetyukovich insists, if the traditional meaning of “father” as a biological parent is merely a “mystical one,” something that one does not understand “with reason, but can only accept by faith” like so many other things that religion tells us to believe, in that case,” he tells them, “let it remain outside the sphere of real life.”

For if we wish to be humane—to be Christians finally—it is our duty and obligation to foster only those convictions that are justified by reason and experience, that have passed through the crucible of analysis, in a word, to act sensibly and not senselessly as in dreams or delirium.

It is only thus, insists our young enlightened attorney, that one can achieve “a real Christian deed,” not merely a “mystical one, but a sensible and truly philanthropic” one.

Sound familiar? Christians are bidden to leave their faith convictions “outside the sphere of real life,” because in real life, Christians, although they may have certain private “rights,” have even greater obligations to society’s modern, progressive demands. They must be, not “mystical,” but “humane,” dwelling in the sphere of “the real” rather than “in dreams or delirium.” It would not be long after this that Freud would describe Christianity as a kind of mass delusion, distinct from the real world of reason and experience. Christians may have the right to believe in their dreams, no matter how delusional, but they also have obligations to society to act “sensibly,” not “senselessly”—and to understand words and categories the way modern society insists they should be construed for the purposes they wish to use them. To insist on the old meanings of terms would be unprogressive, indeed “unreasonable”—an unreasonable imposition of a fundamentally superstitious and delusional faith on reasonable people working tirelessly for social and political “progress.”

There is, of course, no inquiry into what our enlightened defense attorney means when he insists that Christians must strive to be “humane.” This sort of consideration would be out of bounds. Indeed, when poor old Kirillovich, our prosecutor, rises to object to Fetyukovich’s manipulative misuse of the word “Christian” in this context, the trial judge overrules him instantly, demanding, according to our narrator, that he “stay within the proper bounds, and so on and so forth, everything presiding judges usually say in such cases.” In this brave new world, Christians are no longer permitted to define themselves and the boundaries of their own faith communities. “Christianity” must cede its authority to define itself in favor of pious-sounding exhortations to humanistic tolerance.

And at the heart of humanistic “tolerance,” as we all know, is supposed to be that all-healing, all-purpose human emotion, love. And what about that? Well, says Fetyukovich,

Let the son stand before his father and ask him reasonably: ‘Father, tell me, why should I love you? Father, prove to me that I should love you’—and if the father can, if he is able to answer and give him proof, then we have a real, normal family, established not just on mystical prejudice, but on reasonable, self-accountable, and strictly humane foundations. . . . Our tribune, gentlemen of the jury, should be a school of truth and sensible ideas.

And here, we are told, “the orator was interrupted by unrestrained, almost frenzied applause.”

Notice that our enlightened defense attorney has once again turned the trial on its head. Instead of the son appearing before the tribunal in the murder of his father, now it is the father who must justify himself before the tribunal of his son. And if the father fails, then he is no longer deserving of his children’s honor or respect—even of his very life.

And so, according to our enlightened, progressive defense attorney, we must conclude that “the murder of such a father cannot be called parricide.” Indeed, such a murder could be considered parricide, he insists, “only out of prejudice!”

Dostoekvsky the Prophet

Who would have thought when Dostoevsky penned these words that, within a scant hundred years, another jurist in another courtroom would be foolish enough to decree that claiming unwanted unborn babies are still persons deserving of protection was to make a statement that was essentially “religious”; that the origins of human life shouldn’t be left to those who trade in such “mystical” matters as when life begins; and that killing such an unwanted unborn child could only be considered “murder” out of some sort of religious prejudice!

And who would have known that, just a few decades later, another jurist in another courtroom would be so foolish as to decree that restricting the use of the term “marriage” to one man and one woman could be done “only out of prejudice”?

Here, Dostoyevsky allows us a foretaste of the notion of “family” reckoned not “by nature” but “by consent.” How could he have known? Perhaps it was his “reason and experience” that allowed him to see the direction modernity would inevitably lead. Then again, perhaps it was his understanding of what would happen when the traditional, religious, “mystical” meanings of words such as “father,” “son,” “love,” and “human” were replaced by other definitions more suited to the demands of modern progress and contemporary will to power.

Dostoevsky saw clearly that, although we come to know about the fatherhood of God only by analogy with human fathers, once we come to understand the fatherhood of God, then we understand more clearly what true fatherhood is. Contemplation of such realities as they have been revealed to us by their Creator clarifies the signs that point us toward those realities. By contrast, a culture that begins to lose its grip on the concept of the fatherhood of God and man made “in his image” will often no longer be able to understand fatherhood at all, let alone what it means to be a son—or a human being.

In realizing the dangers such a confusion of language would entail, perhaps Dostoyevsky the prophet was simply doing what prophets do: “reading the signs of the times.” It is not without reason, then, that he describes the defense attorney Fetyukovish as “The Adulterer of Thought.” There is, however, another important lesson of the trial, one that we will discuss in tomorrow’s article.