The Brothers Karamazov: I. The Nature of Morality

The Natural Law

The word morality comes from the Latin root mos (meaning “custom or law”), which in turn is a translation of the Greek word ἠθικός (“character or moral nature”).

The idea of natural law originated with Plato and the Stoics, and found its full expression in Cicero: The universe is governed by God, who has implanted the immortal soul in man from His own divine nature. The Mind of God is the unchanging and universal Law governing the whole universe, both the natural world and human society. “Law is the highest reason, inherent in nature, which enjoins what ought to be done and forbids the opposite. When that reason is fully formed and completed in the human mind, it too is law.”

Morality is innate in man and coheres with his freedom, just as his rational nature coheres with his freedom.

When Cicero translated the word morality from Greek to Latin, he unintentionally introduced a subtle shift in its meaning, from “character”, which is innate, to “custom”, which is arbitrary. Gradually over time, morality became “conformity to generally accepted customs and rules of conduct”, in other words, something that is opposed to the nature of man and limits his freedom.

Criminal Law and Morality

In the 19th century, the laws of the state have come under severe attack. Critics argue that the criminal justice system punishes people for their crimes but does not redeem them nor restore their moral nature. The criminals are mechanically cut off from society and become worse than before.

Victor Hugo decried the criminal justice system in his novel Les Misérables, in which the protagonist spent 19 years in prison for stealing bread to feed his sister’s children. Hugo influenced both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, the latter two painted unflattering portraits of the legal system in their respective last novels, The Brothers Karamazov and Resurrection. All three of them found hope in the redeeming power of religion, which restores the inner moral nature of man and sets him free from the bondage of immorality. They also point to conscience in man as reason to hope that every individual is valuable and redeemable.

The Foundation of Moral Nature

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky also made this famous argument through one of the characters:

There is no law of nature that man should love mankind, and if there has been any love on earth hitherto, it is not because of natural law, but solely because of men’s belief in their immortality. The whole natural law lies in that faith, and if mankind’s belief in its immortality were destroyed, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up. Moreover, nothing then would be immoral, everything would be lawful, even cannibalism.

For every individual, who does not believe in God or his own immortality, the moral law of nature must immediately be changed into the exact opposite of the former religious law, and that egoism, even to crime, must become not only lawful but even recognized as the inevitable, the most rational, even honorable outcome of his position.

If religion is a necessary foundation for morality, it doesn’t mean that a person must be religious to be moral. An individual can choose to follow moral principles derived from religion without subscribing to the underlying religious beliefs. To use an analogy, the Sun is necessary for life on Earth, it doesn’t mean that a person must feel the Sun shining on him directly, in order for him to become and stay alive in this world.

Man is created in the image of God, that is, man’s rational, moral and free nature is from God, who alone is Wisdom, Goodness and Freedom. Unless man believes in God, and becomes grounded in a living fellowship with God through Christ, the Source of his being, he would be withered like a branch cut off from a vine. Deprived of his being, he must inevitably become the opposite of what he is in Christ, that is, he must become foolish, depraved and enslaved by his own desires, which can never be fulfilled because of his separation from the One who alone can fulfil them.

Related Posts:


  • Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
  • Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Constance Garnett. New York: The Lowell Press, 1912. Project Gutenberg.

3 thoughts on “The Brothers Karamazov: I. The Nature of Morality

  1. Great post, Nemo! I always find Dostoyevsky quite difficult; I feel that I have to tweeze out his ideas, line them up and look for commonalities to even start to understand what he’s communicating. I never seem to naturally just follow him. I have a feeling that he and I wouldn’t get along. 😉

    Did you by any chance compare the Garnett and Peavar/Volonhonsky translations. If so, what did you think?

    1. I’m not sure I would invite Dostoevsky to dinner either. 😉

      When I first read Garnett’s translation, her Dostoevsky sounded so much like Tolstoy that at times I got confused whose work I was reading. So I decided to go with PV instead, also because it is said to be “definitive” and have captured the unique style of Dostoevsky, and I found it a delightful read.

      I compared Garnett and PV’s translations of the passage quoted in my post, and noticed that Garnett’s English is smoother than PV’s, though both express the same idea effectively. I adopted Garnett’s translation (for the most part) for its clarity.

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