Fr. Zosima's Love: Can It Withstand Nietzsche's Critique of Moral Values?

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Arts and Humanities | Philosophy


Dennis Beach, Philosophy


Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th-century philosopher, believes that restrictive values, particular Christian values have no objective reality. Not only, he claims, do they not hold sway over us unnecessarily, but they result from and cause damage to our ability to live life. Fr. Zosima, a character from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, makes one of the most eloquent cases for Christian values, and in particular for his doctrine of love, which impels every person to act with love towards everyone else. This restrictive doctrine, which prevents such seemingly natural instincts as hatred, violence, lechery and general barbarism, from Nietzsche’s view, surely damages its practitioners’ ability to respond to life. Specifically, Nietzsche would expect to see from such a character as Fr. Zosima a characteristic pattern of behavior, which Nietzsche locates in religious figures in Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morals. If Zosima’s values do what Nietzsche is afraid they will do, we should see manifested in him Nietzsche’s archetypal behavior patterns for priests. Zosima, however, proves to be beyond the scope of Nietzsche’s criticisms. He fails to live up to Nietzsche’s expectations of his behavior, and even seems to excel at doing the opposite: responding well to life. What enables Dostoevsky to portray a character so committed to Christianity yet so far removed from the pitfalls of restrictive values? It turns out that Dostoevsky understands many of the problems with values. As we see from analyzing other characters in the novel, other values aside from Christianity can breed ressentiment. Even in a vacuum of values (as we see in Ivan Karamazov) the subconscious and the desires it breeds in us can lead to ressentiment-like behavior. By way of explaining the contrast between Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, then, we can say that Nietzsche has much more confidence in the benign nature of the subconscious than does Dostoevsky, who doesn’t trust it at all. Both of these great thinkers, however, centered many of their beliefs around acceptance. Zarathustra, a hero from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra struggles to be able to accept the last man. Zosima accepts the apparently irreconcilable conflict of innocent suffering. Certainly between two diametrically opposed figures in thought we can neither hope nor should we try for a perfect reconciliation. From a bit of agreement on their parts, however, we might derive some hope that some sort of objective answer to the question of how we ought to live our lives can be pursued in good faith.