One Can Find Purpose by Virtue of Self-Emptying

Transfigured by virtue, Alyosha Karamazov falls to the Earth’s surface and embraces the ground with a gentle river of tears and promises forgiveness for all in a critical scene of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. Bits and pieces of the mysterious world of God are placed together into a magnificent moment of clarity and from the weather-beaten soil rises a fighter with a heart filled to the brim with love. Purpose in an apparent dim world unveils itself through the expression of active love, therefore suggesting that one truly finds him or herself by the agency of self-emptying as opposed to self-assertion which is tied to suffering. God is love itself, and possessing active love is, “such a priceless treasure that you can buy the whole world with it” (Dostoevsky, 52). Thus human beings who forcefully maintain everyone is a slave of blind fate and victim of meaningless accidents, alienate themselves from the “Hidden God” tradition of relational identity in the form of self-emptying through active love (Frank, 40-43). The idea of possessing meaning has traversed into the twenty-first century where the younger generation, facing an overall dissatisfaction with life, leans toward a more individualistic lifestyle that shies away from love and results in an epidemic of loneliness.

Elder Zosima preaches his notion of an interconnected world united by love, and he compares this world to an ocean where a singular drop can be echoed to the other end of the world (Dostoevsky 319). This belief has the ability to lead an individual to a meaningful life because it is rooted in active love by virtue of giving oneself to God and the world he created. Through Zosima, the world is portrayed as, “deeply and mysteriously alive, a world in which matter and spirit, time and eternity, coalesce” (De Jong 7). Thus, Zosima believes the Earth to be sacred and, “harboring paradise within itself” (De Jong 7). The description of the cosmos represents a spiritual otherworld-reality coined “overlay landscape” in the Christian “Hidden God” ecopoetic tradition, for nature is painted as a mirror image of God. This ethereal depiction is symbolic of the delicate nature of the world where an unkind word or lack of action is a drop in the ocean that affects everyone in the body of water to some extent. Therefore, if one truly loves animals, plants, and each living thing, one will become “tormented by universal love… and start praying to the birds, as if in a sort of ecstasy, and entreat them [for forgiveness]” (Dostoevsky, 321). It is then through God that one learns to love all things and come to walk through life believing human beings are “fused together in one integral life” comparable to leaves on a tree which grows and, “turn[s] green only by virtue of the juices that flow through them from one common trunk and root, and are nourished by the moisture of a common soil” (Frank, 129). 

            Zosima instructs his followers to fall before unkind and unfeeling individuals who fail to listen and ask for forgiveness, for their guilt falls on everyone equally (Dostoevsky 321). Loving one’s neighbors and feeling guilty for everything and everybody is expressed by Zosima’s Talks and Homilies, therefore portraying that a meaningful life is created through a collectivistic sense of self-emptying. Zosima develops this theme of all-encompassing guilt by claiming, “only with this realization of guilt can man become capable of an unending universal love that knows no satiation” (Van Den Bercken, 70). Thus, active love is intertwined with the feeling of responsibility for humanity and as a result, a sense of community and purpose in life. [i]From Talks and Homilies of the Elder Zosima includes Zosima encouraging others to take on the suffering of wicked people so that one’s, “heart will be eased, and [one] will understand that [one], too, [is] guilty for [one] might have shone to the wicked, even like the only sinless One” (Dostoevsky, 321). Thus, to truly engage in active love similar to Christ, one must employ self-emptying which is a part of the relational identity ecopoetic tradition. This Christian tradition is rooted in the paradoxical idea where one finds him or herself by losing him or herself. The idea of purposeful self-emptying is stressed when Zosima says, “your work is for the whole, your deed is for the future” (Dostoevsky, 322). Likewise, S.L Frank explains relational identity by claiming, “We genuinely find ourselves and our life for the first time when we sacrifice ourselves and our empirical isolation and self-enclosedness and establish our entire being in another-in God, as the original source of all life” (Frank, 89). 

            The Russian monk prefers to not speak of the flames of hell but asserts that if they in fact exist, those in hell will cherish the fire for granting momentary relief from their spiritual torment (Dostoevsky, 323). Elder Zosima asserts that hell is the inability to love, therefore suggesting active, universal love found in losing oneself is the correct path. Zosima portrays a deceased individual estranged from active love thinking, “Now I have knowledge, and though I thirst to love, there will be no great deed in my love, no sacrifice, for my earthly life is over…and now there is an abyss between that life and this existence” (Dostoevsky, 322). Thus, hell is both the “suffering of no longer being able to love” on Earth and an afterlife of spiritual torment (Dostoevsky, 322). This idea of hell is an original idea, for Zosima sets it up as, “man’s own [existential] choice against love” (Van Den Bercken, 78). This inner torment is further worsened if God chooses to forgive those which were strangers to love, for it “would only multiply the torment of being unable to answer with love” (Van Den Bercken, 78). The grave tone serves to show the importance of possessing active love while on Earth and parallels the Christian ecopoetic tradition of identity as relational to others and ultimately to God as Christ in the Christian Trinity. In order to escape spiritual torment both on earth and in the afterlife, one must empty oneself of pride and become united with God and become well acquainted with his love, “for love, true love, is nothing else but the joy of life… [and the] unity of life’s fullness and intensity, or satisfaction” (Frank, 73). 

Zosima maintains, “Christ will not be angered by love” and confesses that he prays for souls rejected by the Church despite it being considered a sin (Dostoevsky, 323). Loving those who have sinned provides life with meaning because one is still engaging in self emptying as opposed to self-enclosedness. Therefore, one can love even those who make themselves strangers to love. In a historical context, Zosima’s beliefs are similar to St. Tikhon Zadonsky who Dostoevsky, “had taken to his heart with enthusiasm” (Mochulsky, 633). St. Tikhon was a holy man who wrote about Christian love and also believed in restoring those who turned away from God. Nevertheless, “Zosima is not a representative of historical Russian monasticism; he is directed toward the future as a herald of the new spiritual consciousness of the Russian people” (Mochulsky, 635). Dostoevsky also drew on the traditions of which writers like Medieval Philosopher Maximus the Confessor were upheld as an ancient source. Centuries on Charity by Maximus asserts love is found in kindness and patience and, “the one who acts contentiously or wickedly clearly makes himself a stranger to love, and the one who is a stranger to love is a stranger to God, since ‘God is love”” (I Jn. 4:8; Foltz, 181). This estranged relationship to God and love leads to a life of questioning one’s purpose in the world.

Ivan Karamazov tells his brother Alyosha that he is dumbfounded in a person’s ability to love one’s neighbors and asserts one cannot possibly love his or her neighbors (Dostoevsky, 236). Ivan believes active love is acted on in a forced manner, therefore it alludes that Ivan’s self-assertion results in psychic agony (Sheehan). Ivan lives in, “spiritual autonomy, one wherein he asserts his own will as more perfective than God’s will in creating the world” resulting in aforementioned self-imposed suffering (Sheehan). As opposed to embracing human beings with active love, Ivan believes that love is only viable by turning away from humanity, for “as soon as [one] shows [one’s] face-love vanishes” (Dostoevsky, 237). Thus, Ivan’s portrayal of love is rooted in self and not a relational identity found by self-emptying. He claims, “Christ’s love for people is in its kind impossible on earth” and adults are, “disgusting and do not deserve love” (Dostoevsky, 237). Instead, only children deserve to be loved because of their innocence and yet children suffer. Nevertheless, in the midst of his self-assertive speech, Ivan admits that this topic of conservation has given him a headache and a great sense of sadness (Dostoevsky, 238). Alyosha describes his brother appearing to be, “in some kind of madness” (Dostoevsky, 238). Therefore, it is this madness of questioning love and by proxy, God that fuels Ivan’s uneasiness. Ivan’s characterization becomes symbolic of the psychic agony a nonbeliever faces, for instead of losing himself in service of others, Ivan denies the power of active love and focuses on the suffering of children who have no faults. A conclusion can be made stating, “[one is] precious not in [their] self-assertion but only in self-emptying”(Sheehan). Thus, it is through self-assertion that one lives under the assumptions including, “the land and the sea are both full of woes for man” (Hesiod) and “sorrow follows sorrow” (Simonides) during a brief and meaningless life on earth (Frank, 41).

Ivan dives deeper into his self-assertive tendencies by speaking of the evil of human beings who themselves have created the devil (Dostoevsky, 239). Ivan rebels against the idea of active love because he questions how love can be bestowed upon cruel beings and strays away from the solace self-emptying provides to one’s life. Ancient Greek Author Homer shared this negative view of humanity, for he claimed, “In truth, of all creatures that breathe and crawl in the dust, none on the earth is more wretched than man” (Odyssey Book XVIII; Frank, 41). Ivan believes there is, “a beast hidden in every man, a beast of rage, a beast of sensual inflammability at the cries of the tormented victim, an unrestrained beast let off the chain (Dostoevsky, 242). Thus, he maintains that he cannot participate in active love as Christ does because he is only a human being and cannot love another cruel human being. He diverges from relational identity and instead, forges a path of an individual, as he believes man, “is intrinsically egoistic; the idea of selfless love, as he sees it, is naught but a reified social construct” (De Jong, 35). Ivan separates himself from parents who physically abuse their children, and thus does not feel guilt for their actions (Dostoevsky, 242). Thus, the theme of universal guilt rooted in universal love is unattainable according to Ivan. In this sense, the constant questioning of the nonsensical events that occur torment Ivan who is deeply disheartened by the suffering of children. He tells Alyosha, “the whole world of knowledge is not worth the tears of that little child to ‘dear God’” (Dostoevsky, 242). Ivan is therefore left with his self-assertion but lost on Earth due to a lacking sense of purpose, for a nonbeliever cannot know the feeling of being content because no nonbeliever feels content without forfeiting a nonbeliever’s character. [ii]

In addition, Ivan speaks of a general who releases a pack of wolfhounds that tear a little boy who injured his favorite dog into pieces while his mother watches (Dostoevsky, 243). Active love requires forgiveness and because Ivan rejects forgiveness, he lacks true purpose.[iii] He questions the notion of forgiveness in this absurd world that creates harmony and determines the mother should not forgive the general even if the boy himself were to forgive the general (Dostoevsky, 245). Therefore, Ivan asserts that he does not long for harmony instead, he wishes to, “remain with [his] unrequited suffering and [his] unquenched indignation, even if [he] is wrong” (Dostoevsky, 245). Accordingly, Ivan asserts, “empirical life can have as little meaning as the fragment of a page torn out of a book” and he admits to the suffering that is attached to his conviction in a state of delirium as described by his brother Alyosha (Frank, 42; Dostoevsky, 243).  Dostoevsky characteries Ivan, “‘as a synthesis of contemporary Russian anarchism. The rejection not of God, but of the meaning of His creation’” (PSS, 30/Bk; Petrusewicz, 788). Dostoevsky also describes the words spoken against God as, “the portrayal of the uttermost blasphemy and the seed of the idea of destruction in our time in Russia among the young people uprooted from reality” refuted by Elder Zosima and his homilies centered around self-emptying by practicing active love (Petrusewicz, 788).

The critical Ivan further renounces harmony found in love and forgiveness by saying the price is too high and as a result, claims he will simply return his ticket to God (Dostoevsky, 245). Ivan is not an atheist, but he holds self-assertive tendencies, therefore he pays the price through his uneasiness and suffering. Ivan rejects a God who charges too high of a price for harmony, and thus he expedites the returning of his ticket on account of his honesty (Dostoevsky, 245). Thus, Ivan accepts the existence of God but chooses to turn away from him in an act of rebellion on account of meaningless suffering. Ivan who opposes relational identity, “goes through what can be identified as various phases and types of so-called atheism, his theologoumena being characterized by rebellion against God more than logical atheism” (Brazier, 130). Nevertheless, Dostoevsky found atheism beneficial, for a “period of atheism may lead to a clarification, a clearing out of false religious ideas leaving the individual open to God’s grace (Brazier, 131). Thus, Ivan’s heart holds faith, and suffering, and stubbornness, and anger, and these traits are commonly held by one who lacks a sense of collectivism and instead is self-assertive.[iv] This uneasiness is accounted for by an individualistic identity which, “lack[s] in any case the self-grounded peace, the luminous clarity, the fullness of being, that [one] needs to make [one’s] life meaningful” (Frank, 67). 

Hence, it seems that the illusion of a meaningless world leads to a wandering mind, and a wandering mind leads to psychic agony as seen in Ivan Karamazov.[v] The Brothers Karamazov. written by Fyodor Dostoevsky, views self-emptying in high regard due to its ability to provide one with purpose. The Christian ecopoetic tradition of relational identity by definition also advocates for losing oneself in active love and as a result, truly finding oneself. Therefore, purpose in a world with no clear reason or rhyme can be uncovered by engaging in active love, therefore suggesting that one truly finds him or herself through self-emptying as opposed to self-assertion that results in anguish. Currently, this mental and physical suffering is apparent in America’s youth who are increasingly turning away from religion and as a result, the benefits of believing in a greater power. Instead, the younger generation favors an individualistic lifestyle with self-assertive tendencies that is mutually exclusive from universal love, universal guilt, and universal forgiveness. This lack of active love and therefore purpose leads to an increased sense of isolation and what can be coined a loneliness epidemic.[vi]  

Works Cited

Brazier, P.H., Rae, Murray. “Dostoevsky: Religion and Atheism.” Dostoevsky: A Theological 1st ed., The Lutterworth Press, Cambridge, 2016, pp. 109–144. JSTOR,

De Jong, Caleb. For the Sake of the Whole: A Theological Explanation of Dostoevsky’s    ElderZosima via Sergius Bulgakov. 2015. McMaster University, Masters    thesis. ONG%20-%20FINAL%20VERSION.pdf

Foltz, Bruce. Medieval Philosophy: A Multicultural Reader. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.

Frank, S.L. The Meaning of Life. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010

Mochulsky, Konstantin. Dostoevsky; His Life and Work: Translated and Introduction by                          Michael A. Minihan. Princeton University Press, 1967.     

Petrusewicz, Mary, editor. “Rebellion and the Grand Inquisitor.” Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time,    by JOSEPH FRANK, Princeton University Press, Princeton; Oxford, 2010, pp. 788–        803.

Sheehan, Don. “DOSTOEVSKY AND MEMORY ETERNAL.” The Brothers Karamazov, 29     Nov. 2011, 

Van den Bercken, W. (2011). The Spirituality of the Monk Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov.              In Christian Fiction and Religious Realism in the Novels of Dostoevsky (pp. 63-82).                Anthem Press. doi:10.7135/UPO9780857289452.007

[i] Narration or Statement of the facts: imparting a spin to a story, plausibility 

[ii] Conduplicatio

[iii] Logos: Deduction 

[iv] Polysyndeton 

[v] Anadiplosis 

[vi] Arrangement: Conclusion/Epilogue