Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | August 26, 2008

Elder Zosima’s Insight

“The world has proclaimed freedom, especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs: only slavery and suicide! For the world says: “You have needs, therefore satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the noblest and richest men. Do not be afraid to satisfy them, but even increase them” – this is the current teaching of the world. And in this they see freedom. But what comes of this right to increase one’s needs? For the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; for the poor, envy and murder, for they have been given rights, but have not yet been shown any way of satisfying their needs. We are assured that the world is becoming more and more united, is being formed into brotherly communion, by the shortening of distances, by the transmitting of thoughts through the air. Alas, do not believe in such a union of people. Taking freedom to mean the increase and prompt satisfaction of needs, they distort their own nature, for they generate many meaningless and foolish desires, habits, and the most absurd fancies in themselves. They live only for mutual envy, for pleasure-seeking and self-display. To have dinners, horses, carriages, rank, and slaves to serve them is now considered such a necessity that for the sake of it, to satisfy it, they will sacrifice life, honor, the love of mankind, and will even kill themselves if they are unable to satisfy it. We see the same thing in those who are not rich, while the poor, so far, simply drown their unsatisfied needs and envy in drink. But soon they will get drunk on blood instead of wine, they are being led to that. I ask you: is such a man free?”

Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Dos sounds a contemporary complaint in this note. Substitute a few more current luxuries (BMW’s, nannies and immigrant labor, private jets, etc.) and vices (cocaine, meth, etc), and you have a fairly cogent description of the present milieu rather than late 19th century Russia. Clearly there was a pivotal moment in Russia where a different future might have played itself out. The moment passed, and the bloody course of the 20th century took its place. One wonders whether the mix of “celebrating diversity”, celebrity culture and our own revival of the Gilded Age will turn out better, or devolve into a similar toxic result.

More than that, turning the thought in a different direction, I wonder that the whole of the efforts to dis-establish and in some cases undermine the role of faith in public life – the real result is not precisely opposite of that which many supporting this movement suggest. For surely as religion is unseated and decoupled from its role in state oppression – whatever that role may be perceived to be (good or ill), surely in this process the state becomes the clear sole agency of power aided by the brutal indifference of the marketplace, and the preference of elites for unchallenged to rule. And in this, the Church is finally freed to be herself.

An American Church freed from the tethers of our Revolutionary Deism, freed from ties to a decadent Protestantism lit more by memory of faded glories and powers than the authentic faith that once fired the zealous Reformers, freed from the confines of consignment to the back pages of the Metro Section and nearby Obituaries of many newspapers, True Faith might emerge. And in this, the Church might fire the imagination and threaten change at a such a fundamental level the current election year dialog would be revealed as the drivel of political legerdemain that it is. And contemplating this prospect, were I an agitated atheist rather than an Orthodox Christian, I would tremble and reconsider. And I would tremble and reconsider – not because the Church has political ambitions or agendas, but because it would challenge me in the core of my being… as it does.

For a Christianity untethered by a “supportive” and “loving” state comfortably directing and controlling its domain – well there’s no telling what might happen. “He hath put down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble and the meek.” As The Dos’s Elder Zosima and many real life monks and priests have attested in so many writings over the centuries, it is a fearsome thing to find oneself in the presence of The Living God, for “Aslan is not a tame Lion.”


  1. I can’t comment much on what Elder Zosima actually said–I fear that I haven’t even raised one foot onto the first rung of the Divine Ladder. Just the thought of me not have high speed internet access, for example, reveals the extent of my slavery.

    However…I do want to comment on the Elder in general. Although a fictional character…he is absolutely brilliant. Have you looked into where Dostoyevsky got his inspiration for this holy man? When I was reading Brothers K, everytime Elder Zosima spoke I was riveted to the text and felt as if I was reading something from a genuine monk. Such GREAT stuff. Where are our 21st Century equivalents?

  2. Dixie:

    Thanks for visiting. I’m still visiting The Brothers K… this my first time… and the Elder kept me going through the first slog of the book. Kept worrying Alyosha wouldn’t get back to the monastery cell in time!! So he seems a key part for me as a reader.. though until I get to the end, I’m not sure if that’s right. I’m probably missing something critical.

    You pose a good question. I’m not sure whether you mean real live 20th century or literary equivalents. Perhaps both. I am clueless on the latter. As to the former, I think like others, I’m following the line from Archimandrite Zacharias and his Elder Sophrony of Essex back through St. Sihouan the Athnonite… but there’s only so much time.. and my progress is slow. Also been reading some of Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain from time to time. I thought these guys were altogether somehow… but I’m not finding where I got that idea. I listen for other names, too. Lemme know if you hear of any others! These guys are all good additions for those of us struggling to understand the meaning and manner of a Holy Life in today’s world… especially as it is lived IN the world.

    For my part, despite efforts to the contrary, I can probably tell folks better about how it’s not!

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