Bryan Caplan  

Dostoyevsky on Gratitude

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Only two days after Thanksgiving did I remember this wonderful passage on gratitude from The Brothers Karamozov:
This legend is about Paradise. There was, they say, here on earth a thinker and philosopher. He rejected everything, 'laws, conscience, faith,' and, above all, the future life. He died; he expected to go straight to darkness and death and he found a future life before him. He was astounded and indignant. 'This is against my principles!' he said. And he was punished for that... he was sentenced to walk a quadrillion kilometers in the dark... and when he has finished that quadrillion, the gates of heaven would be opened to him and he'll be forgiven--"

... Well, this man, who was condemned to the quadrillion kilometers, stood still, looked round and lay down across the road. 'I won't go, I refuse on principle!' Take the soul of an enlightened Russian atheist and mix it with the soul of the prophet Jonah, who sulked for  three days and nights in the belly of the whale, and you get the character of that thinker who lay across the road."...

"Bravo!" cried Ivan, still with the same strange eagerness. Now he was listening with an unexpected curiosity. "Well, is he lying there now?"

"That's the point, that he isn't. He lay there almost a thousand years and then he got up and went on."...

"Well, well, what happened when he arrived?"

"Why, the moment the gates of Paradise were open and he walked in, before he had been there two seconds, by his watch (though to my thinking his watch must have long dissolved into its elements on the way), he cried out that those two seconds were worth walking not a quadrillion kilometers but a quadrillion of quadrillions, raised to the quadrillionth power! In fact, he sang 'hosannah' and overdid it so, that some persons there of lofty ideas wouldn't shake hands with him at first--he'd become too rapidly reactionary, they said. The Russian temperament. I repeat, it's a legend. I give it for what it's worth."
You can read this passage in many ways.  But my favorite is this: One of the best paths to both truth and happiness is to learn to be grateful to be proven wrong.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (4 to date)
ajb writes:

[Comment removed for policy violation.--Econlib Ed.]

fundamentalist writes:

Right! But how will you know you have been proven right or wrong? It's too easy to chose an epistemology that is immune from proof of either and fool oneself into thinking they have the truth.

The hardest thing is to keep from fooling oneself. We spend much more energy fooling ourselves than in fooling others.

RPLong writes:

I read that passage more in the context of the anti-Nihilist themes that are recurrent in Dostoyevsky's works.

But I do like what you're getting at here.

PrometheeFeu writes:

I must admit that as someone who leans atheist, I would be delighted to have it proven to me that death is followed by an eternity of joy. (Though quite honestly, I doubt heaven could be as G-rated as it is usually depicted and still be an eternity of joy) That said, as a libertarian, I would be very unhappy with existence of an all-powerful and meddlesome being.

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