Alyosha in Brothers Karamazov

February 17, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

In “Philebus”, Socrates and Protarchus attempt to understand unity. Socrates states, “The one and many become identified by thought...They run about together, in and out of every word which is uttered...This union of them will never cease, and is not now beginning, but is an...everlasting quality of thought itself, which never grows old.” In other words, the idea of unity is an ancient one – older even than Plato's writings and Socrates himself. So it is not surprising that Dostoevsky also grapples with forms of unity in The Brothers Karamazov. In the Epilogue, Alyosha (also Alexei) and the schoolboys grab hands and vow to never forget their friend Ilyushka. This action strongly resembles Jesus Christ with his disciples. Alyosha says to his friends and disciples, “You are all dear to me, gentlemen, from now on I shall keep you all in my heart, and I ask you to keep me in your hearts, too! Well, and who has united us in this good, kind feeling, which we will remember and intend to remember always, all our lives, who, if not Ilyushechka, that good boy, that kind boy, that boy dear to us unto ages of ages! Let us never forget him, and may his memory be eternal and good in our hearts now and unto ages of ages!”  After this proclamation, all the boys join in and reinforce Alyosha's words. What strikes me with interest is the way in which Dostoevsky wrote this scene. He has all boys join in as if one voice, then occasionally separates out a single voice. It is important that at times the voices are indistinguishable. For example, the boy who yells “Karamazov, we love you!” is possibly Kartashov's, but not definitively.  The others join in again as one mixture. Only Kolya and Alyosha are singled out as individuals. Part of this is due to the fact that the narrator never introduced the other boys to the reader. They have always existed for us as a group. The religious metaphor is obvious, but I am curious about the idea of one among many and how the many become one. Certainly, they have agreed upon a pact, but also, this decision (if we can call it that) was led by Alyosha. Kolya strongly reinforces Alyosha's idea, and therefore, the others all follow along. In my mind, then, Alyosha and Kolya rise slightly above the others in their importance, which makes it difficult for me to label them as a single, unified body.

From the beginning of the novel, the narrator has always claimed that Alyosha was intended to be the hero of this novel. He says this despite the fact that no one will not believe it. He writes, “But suppose they read the novel and do not see, do not agree with the noteworthiness of my Alexei Fyodorovich? I say this because, to my sorrow, I foresee it. To me he is noteworthy, but I decidedly doubt that I shall succeed in proving it to the reader. The thing is that he does, perhaps, make a figure, but a figure of an indefinite, indeterminate sort. Though it would be strange to demand clarity from people in a time like ours. One thing, perhaps, is rather doubtless: he is a strange man, even an odd one. But strangeness and oddity will sooner harm than justify any claim to attention, especially when everyone is striving to unite particulars and find at least some general sense in the general senselessness. Whereas an odd man is most often a particular and isolated case”. After I finished reading the novel, I realized how closely Alyosha aligns with another great Dostoevsky character. The main character in the short story “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” is also odd, unique, different, and therefore, separate. In this story, the narrator desires that everyone laugh at him, and in return he gives only love and forgiveness. Alyosha too gives love and forgiveness. At times Alyosha's family embarrasses him (as in the scene in front of Zosima), but he forgives all of their irrational, eccentric and immoral actions. Alyosha never waivers in his love. He grants acceptance and love to all. For this reason, the narrator names him as the hero of the story.

Just after Ilyushka dies, the narrator notes, “They all [the boys] stopped at the big stone. Alyosha looked and the whole picture of what Snegiryov [Ilyushka's father] had once told him about Ilyushechka, crying and embracing his father, exclaiming: 'Papa, papa, how he humiliated you!' rose at once in his memory. Something shook, as it were, in his soul.”  In other words, something from deep within Alyosha forces him to stop these boys and mark the importance of the moment. It is different from his reaction to his own father's death or even Dmitri's trial, for example. This created community, this unity, marks an important change. It forces him to create a bond from a moment of suffering. Once he proclaims that they must all remember, they have something more important than friendship: unity. Even though it is noted that they will all go their separate ways, and may err or get in trouble, Alyosha demands that they recognize how goodness once filled them. Their unity is not one of similarity. They are unified solely through past experience, which now must be recalled by memory alone. Or, as Socrates states, they are unified in thought only.

Yet this unity is not an ideological one, not one of reason, but more closely resembles passion. Dostoevsky masterfully crafts each character, and Alyosha is a good example. He is reminiscent of Christ, but not the same as Christ. Alyosha does no teaching in this novel, rather he forgives everything of everyone. In a similar way, the group of disciples functions both as a unity and as individuals. The many strings converge into one large knot, which also allows Dostoevsky to conceive of many issues in one plot. At the heart of Alyosha's complexity is his ability to love without judgment. Dostoevsky's point may have been in the direction of proving that universal love and forgiveness is possible. Furthermore, Alyosha's brand of forgiveness steps slightly away religious realms, and also divorces it from the realm of logic. The world is far from ideal, but is a very human mix of passion and love.

It seems to me that The Brothers Karamazov clearly calls for love, kindness and forgiveness to an extent not currently seen in society. For this reason Alyosha is the chosen hero. Everyone loves him, but he is also considered an oddity in the community. It is unclear to me, however, if Dostoevsky believes that Alyosha's brand of forgiveness is able to be repeated, or if it should remain rare. Setting Alyosha as the hero, though, suggests that the reader must learn something from him. In a way, we even enter Alyosha's path of learning.

One of Alyosha's greatest struggles comes after the death of Zosima, Alyosha's religious mentor. As Zosima's body decays, the smell allows others to gossip about his failings. The idea that Zosima was flawed greatly disturbs Alyosha. The narrator writes, “Alyosha considered this rueful day one of the most painful and fatal days of his life. If I were asked directly: 'Could all this anguish and such great perturbation have arisen in him only because, instead of beginning at once to produce healings, the body of his elder, on the contrary, showed signs of early corruptions?' I would answer without hesitation: 'Yes, indeed it was so.' I would only ask the reader not to be in too great a hurry to laugh at my young man's pure heart. Not only have I no intention of apologizing for him, of excusing and justifying his simple faith on account of his youth, for instance or the little progress he had formerly in the study of science, and so on and so forth, but I will do the opposite and declare firmly that I sincerely respect the nature of his heart. No doubt some other young man, who takes his heart's impressions more prudently, who has already learned how to love not ardently but just lukewarmly, whose thoughts, though correct, are too reasonable (and therefore cheap) for his age, such a young man, I say, would avoid what happened to my young man, but in certain cases, really, it is more honorable to yield to some passion, however unwise, if it springs from great love, than not to yield to it at all.” Simple faith and great love – are these desirable qualities in humanity? Alyosha's teachings become important to the reader also.

I keep returning to the idea of witness. Alyosha hears and sees terrible acts, but never participates. A boy bites his finger to the point of bleeding, and his response is to wonder at what wrong has been committed against the boy. Also, Alyosha is the only one who never suspects Dmitri as the murderer, despite the facts. Alyosha sets an example of a different type of reason, something empathetic, something unreasonable in contemporary society. Grushenka says that one “should love for no reason, like Alyosha”.  We often speak of heartbreaks, but I wonder if in this novel, it is as if the mind must break and the heart heal.

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February 10, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Recently, I was having a discussion about Plutarch and I found myself really interested in the history behind place names. I give Plutarch much credit for preserving the stories and details behind stories that certainly would have been lost otherwise. We often take for granted the places where live and the streets we drive upon, not realizing that, often, a great deal of effort and thought went into the naming of the place. Or that great, important and interesting events happened on the land before we arrived upon it.

In my discussion, I attempted to express how the names of a specific place created a palimpsest of recorded history. In other words, places are often named and then renamed. More often than not, names are given by a victorious group, military or government. In this way, the local place becomes not just a name, but a physical conglomeration of people, event, location and language. I believe that renaming a place does not really change its original significance, but merely adds to it. For example, there are many sites of sacred importance to Native American cultures that have been renamed. These sites, however, are still revered in the ancient culture as much as they are used by more modern day, non-Natives. This melding is really interesting to me, though I am unable to eloquently express the importance that I see of such a developing palimpsest.

Then, I happened to be listening to the Piano Puzzler and I felt drawn to the way that Bruce Adolphe combined Mussorgsky with Amazing Grace (click on the Puzzler for 2/8/17). After listening to it, it became clear that we develop language and music in the same way that we create significance in place too. In order to understand my thinking, we have to go back to the original Mussorgsky piece (played here by Vladimir Horowitz). The introduction - or Promenade – becomes a standout piece that repeats throughout. It also folds into the next version by Maurice Revel, but in a very different way and with very different emotional language, I believe. Mussorgsky's piece was originally written for piano alone, yet Revel adds orchestral music and the effect is astonishingly different. Yet, the Promenade lingers evocatively as if calling us back to the original, solo piano piece. Having the horns play the introductory Promenade changes many things about the the audience's entrance, but yet it is still clearly attached to the original in a way that makes this piece a mixture of both Mussorgsky and Ravel. Next, Adolphe wrote a short, whimsical piece that simply inserts Amazing Grace into the Promenade. Again, we have the original instrument alone, but this time, a well-known tune is tucked neatly inside. Listening to the new piece is meant to be a puzzle, but the puzzle works best when recalling all iterations of the piece. The music signifies cultural meaning in a very tangible way. It also, can be completely new to a first-time listener, just as a piece of land can appear untouched to a first time traveler. This strikes me as very similar to the way that Plutarch describes place. I suppose that whichever piece you hear first will be your baseline, but that places carry so much emotional and historical weight is what interests me. Even a first-time listener ties emotion to the music. Likewise, a first-time traveler often attaches meaning to a place.

When listening to Adolphe's piece, I hear the notes of Amazing Grace with such clarity and yet, they are also hiding, in a way, within the music of Mussorgsky. This amazing blend transforms both pieces for me in a way that I could not express with words. Plutarch also felt something similar in his descriptions of place. Place names are created and immortalized by individuals and cultures. Therefore, these names exist only within the mind. That we have created maps and charts in no way changes the way that places exist in theory. They may be named due to an event or a geographical feature. They may be immortalized in the name of some great person. They may be the local hangout or the best way of giving directions. Whatever the reason for creating a name, the significance of a place becomes more embedded through years and iterations. Therefore, places are a literal palimpsest that we weave into our being, creating some rich fabric of self and location.

One story which demonstrates this idea comes from Plutarch's “Pelopidas”. After agreeing upon a battle, Pelopidas arrives on a piece of land rich with local folklore. He must have felt or sensed the importance of this place because he did not know the local history and yet he felt compelled to offer a sacrifice. Plutarch writes:

“And so when a battle was agreed on, and they encamped in front of the Spartans at Leuctra, Pelopidas saw a vision, which much discomposed him. In that plain lie the bodies of the daughters of one Scedasus, called from the place Leuctridae, having been buried there after having been ravished by some Spartan strangers. When this base and lawless deed was done, and their father could get no satisfaction at Lacedaemon, with bitter imprecations on the Spartans, he killed himself at his daughter's tombs; and from that time the prophecies and oracles still warned them to have a great care of the divine vengeance at Leuctra. Many, however, did not understand the meaning, being uncertain about the place, because there was a little maritime town of Laconia called Leuctron, and near Megalopolis in Arcadia a place of the same name; and the villainy was committed long before this battle.

Now Pelopidas, being asleep in the camp, thought he saw the maidens weeping about their tombs, and cursing the Spartans, and Scedasus commanding, if they desired victory, to sacrifice a virgin with chestnut hair to his daughters. Pelopidas looked on this as a harsh and impious injunction, but rose and told it to the prophets and commanders of the army....”

After much debate over the harsh realities of this dream, they finally decide to sacrifice a young chestnut mare and in this, all were satisfied. And of course, Pelopidas was victorious in battle. Plutarch writes, “Pelopidas coming up with such incredible speed and fury, so broke their courage and baffled their art that there began such a flight and slaughter amongst the Spartans as was never known before. And so Pelopidas, though in no high office, but only captain of a small band, got as much reputation by the victory as Epaminondas, who was general and chief captain of Boeotia.” It interests me that Plutarch gives us the place name of this battle along with the local lore of the place, which creates a textual richness that the story of Pelopidas' victory alone would lack. In this case, the battle did not rename the site of the offering, but reinforced the original story while also introducing it to a new audience. At the end of Pelopidas' siege, two cultures have memorialized this complicated piece of land.

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January Discussion of Heisenberg

February 3, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

I am always amazed at the amount of information and understanding that I gain from the Natural Science discussions at Harrison Middleton University. Since my childhood, I have immersed myself in nature, but rarely attempted to study the natural sciences until more recently. At HMU, many students are interested in the difficult and amazing philosophical questions incorporated in the natural world. Therefore, our most recent discussion of Newton, Heisenberg and Hawking was no letdown. In fact, I have been thinking about this discussion all week. Each participant brought a diverse background to the discussion which always helps widen the scope of our understanding and imagination, I believe. We discussed a few of Isaac Newton's first definitions from The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Then we read Werner Heisenberg's Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Theory. Last, we read one chapter from Stephen Hawking's book A Brief History of Time.

In setting up the discussion, I gravitated towards these pieces mainly due to Heisenberg's Interpretation. I wanted to better understand if Heisenberg argues that chaos founds quantum mechanics, or if, instead, he leaves the possibility open to the possibility that humans simply cannot adequately study the small bits that make up quantum theory. Either way, Heisenberg insists that scientists continue using the same language as before. He says, “[w]e must keep in mind this limited range of applicability of the classical concepts while using them, but we cannot and should not try to improve them”. As one who studies literature and language daily, I found this paradox particularly instructive. The repercussions of changing scientific language makes science bulkier, denser and perhaps more difficult to grasp. It could also potentially make it inaccurate. Or, in sticking with the same terminology that describes large-scale physical events, we run into the potential for absurd or meaningless statements, or even overpopulating a word with definitions. Any of these dilemmas presents problems. Yet, Heisenberg was insistent. He demands that we stick with our known definitions, those first mapped out by Newton (and others) and apply them as best as possible to quantum mechanics.

I did get the impression, from Heisenberg, that language was of vital importance. I did not, however, understand that he claims quantum mechanics to be unpredictable. To me, he seemed to say that humans lack adequate measuring sticks. Stephen Hawking notes Einstein's reaction to Heisenberg's theory. He writes: “Quantum mechanics therefore introduces an unavoidable element of unpredictability or randomness into science. Einstein objected to this very strongly, despite the important role he had played in the development of these ideas. Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize for his contribution to quantum theory. Nevertheless, Einstein never accepted that the universe was governed by chance; his feelings were summed up in his famous statement 'God does not play dice.'” Upon first reading, I assumed that Einstein understood Heisenberg to say that uncertainty will always underlie our scientific understanding and Einstein could not accept that conclusion. This may in part be true, but upon review and discussion, I am thinking that Einstein believes that God gave humans the ability to think through these problems. Einstein knows that current rhetoric and abilities do not meet the needs of quantum physics, but he allows for the human brain (endowed by God) to figure out a plan to make it possible.

Neither Heisenberg nor Einstein definitively claim that quantum behaviors are without pattern. Instead, they claim that it is difficult to study quantum behavior, even using modern technologies. Einstein then adds that humans are endowed with a pretty sophisticated system of navigation. We judge and measure the world in terms of our physical reality, which only offers bits and pieces of information at a time, but it does not preclude progress or deny a better understanding of quantum mechanics. Precisely at the spot where our awareness of the world breaks down, our senses (and therefore our language) inevitably fail. And yet, we have mental capabilities which allow us to design ways to overcome this. We have designed means of which to see farther into the universe, to travel into space, to go beyond atomic behaviors into quantum behaviors. In his Interpretation, Heisenberg asks scientists to continually rely, however, on the analogy that makes the most sense to the audience. He asks that we use the language of physics. And yes, it is paradoxical.

And so, the Merriam-Webster dictionary lists quantum as:

- any of the very small increments or parcels into which many forms of energy are subdivided

- any of the small subdivisions of a quantized physical magnitude (such as magnetic moment)

We continue to apply existing language (even if it is in metaphor only) to such a complex topic.

While science and technology change rapidly, it is refreshing to have conversations that span such a chronological spectrum. Moreover, it is vital to understand, honor and respect these concepts which came to us even from Newton. Our current infrastructure is founded upon principles that few stop to think about. Newton's elements are as fun to study today as they were in his day (also because they are so easily reproducible). Not surprising, then, is Hawking's assertion that, “The only areas of physical science into which quantum mechanics has not yet been properly incorporated are gravity and the large-scale structure of the universe.” I take that as an invitation to apply the language of physics, combined with the elements of reason and imagination. I take that as a challenge!

Thanks to all of our January Quarterly Discussion participants. If you are interested in the next discussion, email

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What Constitutes Conversation

January 27, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's blog.

“What is the ultimate goal of conversation? It is to produce a meeting of minds.” - Mortimer J. Adler

Not all conversation is legitimate, in the terms of Mortimer Adler, founder of the Great Books Foundation. In this 45 minute presentation, he discusses different types of conversation and focuses on the types of conversation that help us become better people. He gently admonishes people who have no skills in listening, though he claims it is more a fault of our educational style, than of any individual fault. In claiming that an open mind and the ability to listen is an essential piece of every conversation, he also shows how every human already has the potential to engage in meaningful conversation. Adler defines conversation as mind to mind discussion. This is especially profound to me: two minds actually meeting excites me. In fact, without two open minds, there is no discussion at all, but rather two sides of a story passing along parallel lines, without intersect.

There is much proof to back up Adler's comment that listening is a most difficult skill for humans. We study in lectures, learn to speak, write and read, but are rarely taught how to listen in a way that requires thoughtful response. Schools devote a lot of time to writing skills. Yet, as compared to speaking or reading, we use writing the least on average. And unlike reading and writing, Adler notes that listening flows only in one direction. We cannot turn a page back while listening to a discussion. Again, this strikes me as important, particularly in an age of Google and Siri in which we think information always exists at our fingertips. To listen, one must be present and actively engaged. Arguments are often subtle, especially philosophical arguments, which require much depth and concentration. It makes sense that we begin to understand philosophical arguments from texts. I also believe that it is not so terrible to devote much of our time to reading and writing. In fact, these skills are necessary precursors to Adler's ideal conversation. Before engaging in a lively debate, it is best to know a little bit about your subject. Therefore, one will be able to understand difficult terminology – or at least ask for critical clarification – and also address the main issue of the conversation. The skills learned in reading and note-taking enable us to listen in a sense. Yet, still, reading enables the turning of pages, which is not possible in conversation.

Many people believe that reading is passive, that one can sit down and relax with a book. Certainly, there are books that offer relaxation, but today's post is intended more towards ideas that challenge us. This type of reading is not at all passive. Instead, it activates the mind by connecting personal experience to the book's experience. Better yet, reading melds into communal action. We begin with author to student discussion, in which the student writes questions and comments in the margins of a text. Then, expanding these comments into a group discussion is not such a big leap. Fully understanding a difficult book may require a meeting of minds to discuss the content. Otherwise, the action of reading takes place within the same self that judges the material using the same voice and the same metrics as the only gauge of a book's quality. It is only when we step outside of our own boundaries that we actually come to find new information. It is true that one can learn much from simply reading. But one can learn much more, in a shorter time, if one applies dialogue to the difficult reading.

Mind to mind discussions – either instructive or persuasive – can only exist between two open minds. In other words, we must attempt to, even if only for a moment, silence our own argument. The creation of an argument comes only through dedicated learning and an open mind. If we are to advance our understanding of an issue, it must be through an open mind. We often approach literature this way, so why not live conversation? Once a thought is spoken, it passes. If no one challenges that thought, then it stands. Likewise, if no one agrees with the thought, then it stands alone.

I encourage you to listen to Adler's lecture on how to begin a discussion. Next, put your thoughts into action and try out a discussion. Harrison Middleton University follows this Socratic method in the one-to-one discussions with students, in which the student engages with a text, but also shares their questions. These fruitful discussions offer the best educational model that I have ever experienced. From there, jump into a small group discussion, which expands the conversation to a variety of opinions. A meeting of minds creates a kind of verbal map of how the mind works and how a piece of literature affects us all.

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