Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Karamazov Brothers (Suffering of Children)

“Listen: I’ve confined myself to children to make it clearer. I’ve said nothing about all the other human tears in which the world is drowning; I’ve deliberately limited my thesis. I’m a flea on the face of the earth, and I admit in all humility that I cannot understand in the least why things are the way they are. It must be men themselves who are to blame; they were offered paradise, but they wanted freedom and stole fire from heaven knowing that they would be unhappy, so there’s no need to pity them. Oh, in my poor, earthly, Euclidean mind I know only that suffering exists, that no one is to blame, that one thing leads to another just like that, that life goes on and things find their own equilibrium in the end – but then, that is just Euclidean non-sense, I know that, and when it comes down to it I can’t agree to live by it! What difference does it make to me that o one is to blame and that I accept it – I must have retribution, otherwise I’ll do away with myself. And that retribution must not be at some unspecified place and some unspecified time, but here and now on earth, here I myself can witness it. I have believed, so I want to witness it for myself, and if by then I’m already dead, may I be resurrected, for it would be too awful if it were all to come to pass without me. It was not for that that I suffered, that I, evil sinner that I am with my agonies and misdeeds, might be exploited for the benefit of someone else’s future harmony. I want to see the lion lying down with the lam with my own eyes, and the murdered rising up and embracing their murderers. I want to be here when everyone suddenly finds out the why and the wherefore of everything. This is the desire on which all religions on earth are based, and I am a believer. But then, what about the children, what shall I do about them? That’s the question I cannot answer. For the hundredth time I repeat – the questions are endless, but I am only considering the children because in their case what I have to say is incontrovertibly clear. Listen: if everyone has to suffer in order to bring about eternal harmony through that suffering, tell me, please, what have children to do with this? It’s quite incomprehensible that they should have to suffer, that they too should have to pay for someone else’s mill, the means of ensuring someone’s future harmony? I understand the universality of sin, I understand the universality of retribution, but children have no part in this universal sin, and if it’s true that they are stained with the sins of their fathers, then, of course, that’s a truth not of this world, and I don’t understand it. Some cynic may say that the children will grow up and will in time sin themselves, but he didn’t grow up, that eight-year-old torn apart by the dogs. Oh, Alyosha, I’m not blaspheming! I understand how the universe will shake when heaven and earth shall unite in a single paean of praise, and all that lives and has lived will cry out, “You are just, O Lord, for your ways are revealed to us!” When the mother embraces the murderer whose dogs tore her son apart, and all three shall cry out weeping, “You are just, O Lord” – that, of course, will be the summit of all knowledge, and all will be explained. But here’s the snag; that’s just what I can’t accept. And while I’m still on this earth I resort to my own methods. You see, Alyosha, perhaps it really will happen like that, and I shall live to see it or be resurrected, and then perhaps I too, seeing the mother embracing her child’s torturer. will cry out in unison with them, “You are just, O Lord,” but it will be against my will. While there’s still time I want to guard myself against this, and therefore I absolutely reject that higher harmony. It’s not worth one little tear from one single little tortured child, beating its breast with its little fists in its foul-smelling lock-up, and praying with its unexpiated tears to its “Dear Father God!” No, it’s not worth this, because those tears have remained unexpiated. And they have to be expiated, otherwise there can be no harmony. But how, how can they be expiated? Surely it isn’t possible? Or is it going to be done by avenging them? But what’s the good of avenging them, what’s the good of consigning their murderers to hell, what good can hell do when the children have already been tortured to death? And how can harmony exist if hell exists too? I want forgiveness, I want to embrace everyone, I want an end to suffering. And if the suffering of children is required to make up the total suffering necessary to attain the truth, then I say here and now that no truth is worth such a price. And above all, I don’t want the mother to embrace the torturer whose dogs tore her son apart! She has no right to forgive him! Let her, if she will, forgive him her own suffering, her own extreme anguish as a mother, but she has no right to forgive the suffering of her mutilated child; even if the child himself forgives, she has no right! And if that is so, if the right to forgive does not exist, then where is harmony? Is there in all the world a single being who could forgive and has the right to do so? I don’t want harmony; for the love of humankind, I don’t want it. I would rather that suffering were not avenged. I would prefer to keep my suffering unavenged and my abhorrence unplacated, even at the risk of being wrong. Besides, the price of harmony has been set too high, we can’t afford the entrance fee. And that’s why I hasten to return my entry ticket. If I ever want to call myself an honest man, I have to hand it back as soon as possible. And that’s exactly what I’m doing. It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha; I’m just, with the utmost respect, handing Him back my ticket.”

“That’s rebellion,” Alyosha said quietly, without looking up.

” ‘Rebellion?’ I wouldn’t have expected to hear such a word from you,” said Ivan thoughtfully. “Can one live in a state of rebellion? For I want to live. Tell me honestly, I challenge you – answer me: imagine that you are charged with building the edifice of human destiny, whose ultimate aim is to bring people happiness, to give them peace and contentment at last, but that in order to achieve this it is essential and unavoidable to torture just one little speck of creation, that same little child beating her breast with her little fists, and imagine that this edifice has to be erected on her unexpiated tears. Would you agree to be the architect under those conditions? Tell me honestly!”

“No, I wouldn’t agree,” said Alyosha quietly.


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