In this excerpt from Dostoyevsky's novel, The Adolescent, Makar Evanovich Dolgoruky, an old and wise peasant shares his worldview with Arkady, a learned and inquisitive young man. Listen in to their conversation.
Ah, it’s bad to be old and sick,” he sighed. “One wonders why the soul should hang on like that in the body and still enjoy being alive. It seems that, if I were given a chance to start my life all over again, my soul wouldn’t mind at all, although I guess that’s a sinful thought.”
“Because it’s a wish, a dream, while an old man should leave life gracefully. Murmuring and protesting when one meets death is a great sin. But I guess God would forgive even an old man if he got to love life out of the gaiety of his soul. It’s hard for a man to know what’s sinful and what’s not, for there’s a mystery in it that’s beyond human ken. So a pious old man must be content at all times and must die in the full light of understanding, blissfully and gracefully, satisfied with the days that have been given him to live, yearning for his last hour, and rejoicing when he is gathered like a stalk of wheat unto the sheaf when he has fulfilled his mysterious destiny.’’
“What’s mystery? Everything’s mystery, my friend, everything is God’s mystery.”
“You keep talking about ‘mystery’? What does it mean ‘fulfilling one’s mysterious destiny’?” I asked, looking around toward the door.
I was glad we were alone and surrounded by complete stillness. The sun that had not set yet shone brightly in the window. He spoke somewhat grandiloquently and none too coherently, but with great sincerity and a strange excitement that suggested he was truly glad I was there with him. But I also noticed certain unmistakable signs that he was feverish, very feverish as a matter of fact. But I too was ill and had been feverish myself when I’d come to his room.
“What’s mystery? Everything’s mystery, my friend, everything is God’s mystery. There’s mystery in every tree, in every blade of grass. When a little bird sings or all those many, many stars shine in the sky at night—it’s all mystery, the same one. But the greatest mystery is what awaits man’s soul in the world beyond, and that’s the truth, my boy.”
“I don’t quite see what you mean…Believe me, I’m not trying to tease you and, I assure you, I do believe in God. But all these mysteries you’re talking about have been solved by human intelligence long ago, and whatever hasn’t yet been completely solved will be, and perhaps very soon. The botanist today knows perfectly well how a tree grows, and the physiologist and the anatomist know perfectly well what makes a bird sing; or at least they’ll know it very soon…As to the stars, not only have they all been counted, but all their movements have been calculated with an accuracy down to the last second, so that it’s possible to predict, say a thousand years ahead, the exact day and time of the appearance of a comet. And now even the chemical composition of the most remote stars has become known to us…Also, take for instance a microscope, which is a sort of glass that can magnify things a million times, and look at a drop of water through it. You’ll see a whole new world full of unseen living creatures. Well, that too was a mystery once, but science has now explained it.”
“I’ve heard about all that, my boy; people have told me many times about these things. And this is certainly great and glorious knowledge. Whatever man has, has been given him by God, and with good reason it was said that the Lord did breathe into man the breath of life to live and learn.”
“Of course, of course, but those are just commonplaces. You’re not really an enemy of science, are you? You wouldn’t be some sort of partisan of a state under church control or…But I don’t suppose you’d understand…”
“No, my friend, you’ve got me wrong; I’ve always respected science since I was a boy and, although I can’t understand it myself, that’s all right: science may be beyond my ken, but it is within the ken of other men. And it’s best that way because then everyone has what comes to him, and not everyone is made to understand science. Otherwise every man thinks he can do everything and wants to astonish the whole world, and I’d be the worst of them all perhaps if I had the skill to do it. But since I don’t have those skills, how can I hold forth before others, ignorant as I am? But you’re young and clever and, since you’ve been given these advantages, go ahead and study. Get to know everything so that if you meet a godless man or a man with evil intentions, you can answer him properly, and his wicked and impious words will not befog your young mind…”
Death doesn’t make any difference, for there’s love after death too.
“You know, my boy,” he said, as if pursuing a thought that had been interrupted, “there’s a limit to how long a man is remembered on this earth. It’s about a hundred years, that limit. Less than a hundred years after a man’s death he may still be remembered by his children or perhaps his grandchildren who have seen his face, but after that time, even if his name is still remembered, it’s only indirectly, from other people’s words, and it’s just an idea about him, because all those who have seen him alive will by then be dead too. And grass will grow over his grave in the cemetery, the white stone over him will crumble, and everyone will forget him, including his own descendants, because only very few names remain in people’s memory. So that’s all right—let them forget! yes, go on, forget me, dear ones, but me, I’ll go on loving you even from my grave. I can hear, dear children, your cheerful voices and I can hear your steps on the graves of your fathers; live for some time yet in the sunlight and enjoy yourselves while I pray for you and I’ll come to you in your dreams…Death doesn’t make any difference, for there’s love after death too!”
“Perhaps even now, though,” Makar went on with concentration, “I’d be frightened to meet a truly godless man, but let me tell you, Doctor, my friend, I’ve never really met a man like that. What I have met were restless men, for that’s what they should really be called. There are all sorts of people like that and you can’t tell what makes them the way they are: some are important, others are little men; some are ignorant, others are learned; and they come from all classes, even the lowest…but it’s all restlessness. For they keep on reading all their lives, and having filled themselves with bookish wisdom, they talk and talk, although they never find answers to what’s bothering them and remain in the darkness. Some of them throw themselves in so many different directions that they end by losing themselves; the hearts of others turn into stones, although there may still be dreams in them; still others become drained of thoughts and feelings but still go around sneering at everything. Some people pick out from books nothing but the little flowers, and even then only those that suit them, but they still remain restless because they could never make up their minds in the first place. And I can see that there’s too much boredom in them. A poor man may be short of bread, may not have enough to keep his children alive, may sleep on rough straw, may be brutal and sinful, but still his heart may be gay and merry; while a rich man may eat and drink too much and sit on a pile of gold with nothing but gloom in his heart. A man may study all the sciences and never get rid of emptiness and gloom; indeed, I think that the more intelligence he gains, the more his gloom will thicken.
Man cannot live without worshiping something.
“Or let’s look at it this way: people have been taught and taught ever since the creation of the world, but what have they learned in all that time to help them make the world a gayer and happier place where man can find all the joys he’s longing for? What they lack, I tell you, is beauty. Indeed, they don’t even want it. They’re all lost and every one of them glories in what has brought him to his ruin. But they never think to face the only truth, although life without God is nothing but torture. What it all comes down to is that, without realizing it, they curse the only source that can brighten our life. But that won’t get them anywhere because a man cannot live without worshiping something; without worshiping he cannot bear the burden of himself. And that goes for every man. So that if a man rejects God, he will have to worship an idol that may be made of wood, gold, or ideas. So those who think they don’t need God are really just idol worshipers, and that’s what we should call them. But there must be true atheists too; only they’re much more dangerous because they come to us with the name of God on their lips. I’ve often heard about them, but I’ve never come across one yet. There are some people like that, my friends, and there should be.”
“There are many—oh, so many!—people without faith who just confuse the ignorant. Don’t listen to them because they themselves don’t know where they’re going. A prayer for a condemned man from a man still alive will reach God, and that’s the truth. Just think of the plight of a man who has no one to pray for him. And so, when you pray in the evening before going to sleep, add at the end, ‘Lord Jesus, have mercy on all those who have no one to pray for them.’ This prayer will be heard and it will please the Lord. Also pray for all the sinners who are still alive: ‘O Lord, who holdest all destinies in Thy hand, save all the unrepentant sinners.’ That’s also a good prayer.”
Today we amass material things without ever satisfying our greed. But a day will come when there will be no orphans, no beggars; everyone will be like one of my own family, and that is when I will have gained everything and everyone!
I promised him I’d pray, feeling this would please him. And indeed, he beamed with pleasure. But I hasten to note that he never spoke in a lecturing tone, never sounded like a sage talking to an immature youth. Not in the least. In fact, he was interested in what I had to say and at times listened eagerly as I held forth on all sorts of subjects; for, although I was just a “young ’un” (as he said even though he was perfectly aware that the proper word was “youth”), he always remembered that this particular “young ’un” was incomparably better educated than himself.
One thing he was very fond of talking about was “life in the wilderness,” for to him living all alone in the wild was far superior to wandering around the country. I hotly disagreed, arguing that hermits were really egoists who had fled their worldly responsibilities and, instead of trying to be useful to their fellowmen, selfishly sought only their own salvation. At first he couldn’t see what I meant; indeed, I suspect he didn’t understand what I was talking about, and he just went on defending the advantages of being a hermit.
“Of course,” he said, “at first you feel sorry for yourself in being all alone—I mean in the beginning. But with every day that goes by, you’re more and more pleased you’re alone, and in the end you feel you’re in the presence of God.”
Then I drew for him as complete a picture as I could of all the useful things a learned man, a doctor, or anyone devoting his life to the service of mankind could accomplish. I spoke with such eloquence that he became quite enthusiastic and repeatedly expressed his approval: “That’s right, my boy, God bless you, it’s great the way you can understand these things!” When I finished, though, he still didn’t seem quite convinced. “That’s all very well,” he said, dragging out his words and sighing deeply, “but how many people are there who’d stick to their duties without going astray? A man may not look upon money as his god, but money can easily become a kind of half-god and is so often a mighty temptation. And then there are other temptations: women and vanity and envy. So a man may forget the great cause and try to satisfy all these little cravings. But when he’s alone in the wild, it’s different, for there he can harden himself and be ready for any sacrifice. Besides, my dear boy, what is there in man’s world?” he said with intense feeling. “Isn’t it just a dream? It’s as if men were trying to sow by spreading sand on rocky ground; only when the yellow sand sprouts will that dream of theirs come true. We have a saying like that in our part of the country. What Christ said was, ‘Go and give all you have to the poor and become the servant of all men,’ for if you do you’ll become a thousand times richer because your happiness won’t be made just of good food, rich clothes, satisfied vanity, and appeased envy; instead, it will be built on love, love multiplied by love without end. And then you will gain not just riches, not just hundreds of thousands or a million, but it will be the whole world that you will gain! Today we amass material things without ever satisfying our greed, and then we madly squander all we have amassed. But a day will come when there will be no orphans, no beggars; everyone will be like one of my own family, everyone will be my brother, and that is when I will have gained everything and everyone! Today even some of the richest and mightiest of men care nothing about how long they have been given to live because they too can no longer think up ways to spend their hours; but one day man’s hours will be multiplied a thousandfold, for he will not want to lose one single moment of his life as he will live every one of them in the gaiety of his heart. And then his wisdom will come not out of books but from living in the presence of God, and our Earth will glow brighter than the sun and there will be no sadness, no sighs will be heard, and the whole world will be paradise.”