Book Five: Euclidean Geometry

euclid2First, and foremost, the key event in Book Five is also the most commented-on facet of the entire book, and that is “The Grand Inquisitor” section.  Barb and I have agreed to look at that in a separate post.  As the cool kids say today, “it will take a while for us to unpack that.”

So let’s look at the other highlights of Book Five, which is like watching the consolation game at a basketball tournament….but there you go.

For me, the consolation highlight of Book Five was the David-Foster-Wallace style footnote on Euclidean Geometry.  It was more than two pages and thanks to good therapy did not bring on the howling fantods.

So, Euclidean geometry was created by Euclid in the 4th Century BC.  The last theory of Euclid’s was that two parallel lines would never intersect, something which seems logical but which centuries of geometarins have been unable to prove, (I recall that proofs are important from 10th grade geometry and also I got a D).

So, contemporary with Dostoevsky, they were debating non-Euclidean geometry, which differs from Euclidean geometry only in the sense that they think two parallel lines do intersect due to the curvature of the earth, or something like that.

cliff-clavinIn terms of relevance to the story, this stuff comes (and could only come) from the mouth of Ivan, the Cliff Clavin of 19th Century Russia.  His point is that if you can’t understand non-Euclidean geometry, how can you pretend to understand God?

That’s a novel argument, one I would be able to apply.  Of course, the broader theme is a question that keeps recurring in the book:  whether a pure and simple belief in God can survive meeting a “terrestrial” world built on reason and intellect.

Or, there’s this part from later in the same speech.  I actually know someone who has been told that God must exist because animals don’t know murder is wrong.  Of course, animals don’t murder.  As Lou Solverson said on Fargo, “animals only kill for food.”

Ivan has a similar sentiment.

We often talk of man’s “bestial” cruelty, but this is terribly unjust and insulting to beasts: a wild animal can never be as cruel as man, as artistic, as refined in his cruelty.

Indeed, I think that’s probably the right argument on points, but then again we used to have a cat that literally tortured a mouse for hours and showed no interest in turning it into a meal.  Maybe not with artistic refinement, though.

Here’s a last philosophical nugget.

Clarity in absurdity. Absurdity is direct and guileless, whereas the intellect is evasive and illusive. The intellect is a blackguard, but absurdity is undeviating and honourable.

Which is another brain twister.  Obviously, absurdity and intellect would be polar opposites based on common meaning…and with intellect the preferred choice.  But, taken back to our Euclidean metaphor….what’s more absurd than the beliefs at the foundation of any faith.  Immaculate conception?  Rebirth?  The Book of Mormon?  And what is more evasive and illusive than whether two parallel lines lines that intersect or don’t.

This gives us the chance to view the idea of absurdity in a new light.  The belief in these ideas is–has to be–a matter of pure faith, “direct and guileless,” and on a higher plane that human reason.

Next:  The Grand Inquisitor.

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