Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Please, for the love of all that is reasonable, stop quoting Dostoyevsky.

I've been watching a fantastic debate between Christopher Hitchens and Rabbi David Wolpe. I was enjoying at least the hope that this debate would follow with solid intellectual honesty and some concessions would be made.

Unfortunately, midway though Wolpe's opening statement, it occurred to me that he hasn't read a single letter of Dostoevsky.

This is clear when he utters a statement I've heard from many who clearly haven't read 'The Brothers Karamazov': Wolpe says, "Ivan Karamazov says in Dostoevsky's novel, famously, that "without God everything is possible (sic)." Except Dostoevsky feared that eventuality".

Read the Brothers Karamazov. I have. You might be surprised to find that Ivan Karamazov never says such a thing. Ivan, one of the two aforementioned 'brothers', was an atheist and did declare (early on) that there was no such thing as immorality. But the sort of immorality that Ivan admonishes is the very divine command argument that I think we all can agree is wrong. Is it not pernicious to do something only because of promise of reward when you die or (conversely) threat of punishment if you don't?

Isn't it simply better to be good for the sake of goodness? Or for the sake of your brother? (hint, hint)

Ivan's philosophy cannot be diffused down to this completely fabricated quotation. To do so would be to rob the character and the author who created him the credit he deserves for encountering, before even the philosophers that defined the school of Existentialism, existentialist though. I see much more uncertainty with Ivan as the novel progresses, instead of uncertainty, and the suggestion that this reduction is at all valid robs the literature of vast meaning.

Furthermore, to suggest that Dostoevsky himself shared this view is perhaps more deleterious. Now, not only is it suggested that a main character draws such simple conclusions, but the author of one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century is portrayed as "fearful of its eventuality", as though the Brothers was some warning against atheism!

This sort of intellectual dishonesty is poisonous.

Shame on Mr. Wolpe. And shame on those who continue to misquote Dostoevsky to advance their theism.

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