The Lie Becomes the Truth: The Case for Casuistry in a Defense of Dmitrij's Decision

Paul J. Contino, Valparaiso University

The penultimate chapter of The Brothers Karamazov dramatizes Dmitrij's conundrum, which poses a problem for the reader too: Should Mitja escape with Grushenka to America and flee twenty years imprisonment in Siberia? Given the pervading ethos of the novel—Zosima's insistence upon personal responsibility and the laborious practice of active love—is Dmitrij's decision to escape defensible? Readers are divided on the question. In class discussions students usually split down the middle. Critics are divided, too. Gary Rosenshield argues against the defense of Dmitrij's escape, and points to Dostoevskij's hatred of America and the mystical understanding of encompassing responsibility that the author embraced later in his career: morally, Dmitrij's plan is irresponsible; pragmatically, it may even be ridiculous (Correspondence with author). Carol Flath joins the prosecution: Flath argues that "it is inconceivable that Dmitrij should accede to the pressure to flee to America; instead he must go into Siberian exile, go below the earth (in an analogy to Christ's time spent in the tomb, or perhaps to his entire life spent below, here on earth)." If Dmitrij rejects this Christocentric pattern, then Alesha, by supporting Dmitrij's decision to escape, "becomes a tempter" ("Passion," Slavic Review, Fall 1999, 595). Indeed, Dmitrij labels Alesh's defense of escape "Jesuitical," which seems to link Alesha to Smerdjakov and Fetekovich, the novel's lying, casuistical tempters.

In fact, as Alesha insists to Dmitrij, "I must tell you the truth" (Norton Critical Ed., 724)—and in his defense of his brother's decision, he does tell the truth, and employs the Jesuitical practice of casuistry to arrive there. Like other practices in the novel (confession [22], psychology [690]), casuistry "cuts both ways." As employed by Alesha and Zosima, casuistry cuts in the direction of personal responsibility; it entails a kenotic attentiveness to the complex situations of particular persons, and assists the person in making a responsible decision. As the present author has written (in a brief discussion of this issue), Alesha fosters Dmitrij's sense that considerations of "proportion and readiness" must enter into ethical and spiritual decisions: "Though guilty of much, Mitja is innocent of the murder of his father. Twenty years in Siberia, bereft of Grushenka, would be a disproportionate punishment, and given his character, an intolerable burden for him to shoulder. In his fledgling desire to serve he is unready for such a burden" ("Prisoner," Renascence, Summer 1996, 272). Zosima exhorts, "Know measure, know the proper time, study that" (301): Alesha discerns measure and timeliness when he "studies" Dmitrij's case. With recourse to the ethical thought of the early Baxtin, I will develop this argument by showing how the Christian vision of responsibility and active love—articulated and exemplified by Zosima and the "realist" Alesha—demands humble attentiveness to and acceptance of "proportion and readiness."

But could Dostoevskij himself—notoriously anti-Jesuit—endorse such casuistry? Gary Saul Morson observes that when Dostoevskij discusses legal cases in Diary of a Writer, "he preaches casuistry, reasoning by cases. Real ethical consciousness never reasons from the top down but from the bottom up. It proceeds from the particularities of each incident and not from the system of norms into which the case might be made to fit" ("Introduction," Diary, 100). James P. Scanlan counters this view: Dostoevskij was indeed sensitive to particulars, but "[h]is ethical thinking is founded on and dominated by an absolute moral law—the Christian law of love—which is nothing if not universal" (Dostoevsky the Thinker, 103). Both are correct, as William O'Malley's study of The First Jesuits helps us see: the early Jesuits recognized that "circumstances differ from instance to instance," but "[t]he study of cases was facilitate the application of general norms like the Decalogue to different sets of circumstances according to consistent principles...[T]he basic impulse behind casuistry was the desire to clarify complicated moral issues, to sort out claims of seemingly conflicting moral absolutes down from the high heavens of abstraction to the more lowly human reality of time, places, and circumstances" (144).

O'Malley's description of casuistry suggests an incarnational pattern of descent, an analogy to the Word made flesh. It is this Christocentric pattern that suggests the best defense of Dmitirij's decision. Like Dostoevskij, Dmitrij "hates" America, but he will bear his cross there and it will be his site of purifying, purgative pain. Dmitrij humbly accepts his limitations, and embraces Zosima's belief that "if it were not for the precious image of Christ before us, we should be undone and altogether lost"(299). Grushenka has become such a Christic image for Dmitrij; her loving, iconic image mediates grace for him.

When Alesha humbly agrees with his brother that they have been "talking like Jesuits" in arriving at the decision to escape, Dmitrij responds: "I love you for always telling the whole truth" (724). This essay will uncover an irony congruent with The Brothers Karamazov's pattern of surprises: Jesuitical casuistry assists the two brothers toward discernment of the truth. Dmitrij's decision to escape bespeaks a realist's embrace of responsibility, and a commitment to active love as opposed to "love in dreams."