Do you know, Alyosha — don’t laugh I made a poem about a year ago. If you can waste another ten minutes on me, I’ll tell it to you.”
“You wrote a poem?”
“Oh, no, I didn’t write it,” laughed Ivan, and I’ve never written two lines of poetry in my life. But I made up this poem in prose and I remembered it. I was carried away when I made it up. You will be my first reader — that is listener. Why should an author forego even one listener?” smiled Ivan. “Shall I tell it to you?”
“I am all attention.” said Alyosha.
“My poem is called The Grand Inquisitor; it’s a ridiculous thing, but I want to tell it to you.
The plot of Ivan Karamazov’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor is familiar enough, even if its meaning remains quite unfamiliar. The risen Christ returns to earth in 15th century Seville, where he immediately begins to perform miracles. The people hail him as their liberator from the awful autos da fe which the Spanish Inquisition is carrying out. Jesus is quickly arrested by the church authorities and imprisoned in a dimly lit dungeon. There the ninety-year old Cardinal Grand Inquisitor relentlessly grills the silent Christ.
This ancient church-ogre accuses Jesus of having required men to live by the strength of their strong wills, cruelly ignoring the fact that they are impotent creatures who can live only for the sake of a swinish happiness. The Inquisitor thus upbraids Christ for having rejected the Tempter’s wilderness offerings of bread and power and fame. These, he says, are the satisfying substitutes which human beings crave. They do not want the awful autonomy that Christ commanded:
Instead of taking over men’s freedom, you increased it still more for them! Did you forget that peace and even death are dearer to man than free choice in the knowledge of good and evil? There is nothing more seductive for man than the freedom of his conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting either. And so, instead of a firm foundation for appeasing human conscience once and for all, you chose everything that was unusual, enigmatic, and indefinite, you chose everything that was beyond men’s strength, and thereby acted as if you did not love them at all….
You desired the free love of man, that he should follow you freely, seduced and captivated by you. Instead of the firm and ancient law, man had henceforth to decide for himself, with a free heart, what is good and what is evil, having only your image before him as a guide…. (254-55)
It is astonishing that so many readers have taken the Grand Inquisitor’s conception of freedom as if it were Dostoevsky’s own — and also as if it were true. Camus regarded it as an unprecedented statement of the human cry of freedom against all religious restraints. Camus can make such a claim only because, together with Ivan, he embraces the thoroughly secular conception of freedom that has largely prevailed in the modern West, from Immanuel Kant to John Dewey.
Ivan’s Inquisitor voices this secular conception of freedom ever so clearly. Liberty, he says, entails a brave and lonely autonomy, as each individual determines for himself the difference between good and evil. Jesus serves not as savior who redeems corporate humanity from sin, therefore, but as moral example to guide solitary and heroic individuals. Hence the enormous irony that, while Ivan is deeply Russian in his religious concern for the problem of human suffering, he is a western liberal in his political answer to it.
Michael Sandel has shown that this liberal notion of selfhood understands freedom as consisting entirely of unfettered choices. They are prompted by nothing other than the individual subject and his private conscience acting either on persuasive evidence or the arbitrary assertion of will. Just as this liberal self is not determined by any larger aims or attachments that it has not chosen for itself, neither does it have obligations to any larger communities, except those it autonomously chooses to join. The one moral norm, it follows, is the injunction to respect the dignity of others by not denying them the freedom to exercise their own moral autonomy. Sandel sums up such procedural liberalism by noting that it opposes
… any view that regards us as obligated to fulfill ends that we have not chosen — ends given by nature or God, for example, or by our identities as members of families, peoples, cultures, or traditions. Encumbered identities such as these are at odds with the liberal conception of [persons] as free and independent selves, unbound by prior moral ties, capable of choosing our ends for ourselves. This is the conception that finds expression in the ideal of the state as a neutral framework…. a framework of rights that refuses to choose among competing values and ends. For the liberal self, what matters above all, what is most essential to our personhood, is not the ends we choose but or capacity to choose them.
Dostoevsky repeatedly attacked this modern liberal notion of freedom, dismissing it with the scornful name of “socialism.” It is no wonder, therefore, that Alyosha should be astounded by the Inquisitor’s idea of personal liberty as absolute autonomy: “And who will believe you about freedom?” Alyosha asks Ivan. “Is that the way to understand it? It’s a far cry from the Orthodox idea…” (260).
It should be added that it is also a far cry from the Jewish and Catholic and classical Protestant ideas of freedom. In all three traditions, as also in Eastern Orthodoxy, we are not made free by becoming autonomous selves who have been immunized from all obligations that we have not independently chosen, but rather by becoming communal selves who freely embrace our moral and religious obligations. These responsibilities come to us less by our own choosing than through a thickly webbed network of shared friendships and familial ties, through political practices and religious promises. In a very real sense, such “encumbrances” choose us before we choose them. There is no mythical free and autonomous self that exists apart from these ties, but only gladly or miserably bound persons — namely, persons who find their duties and encumbrances to be either gracious or onerous.
The Orthodox idea of freedom is communal because it is first of all religious. Athanasius of Alexandria articulated it most clearly in the 4th century: “God became man so that man may become God.” The central Orthodox doctrine is called theosis or theopoesis — the divinizing or deifying of humanity.
The Eastern Church does not call for believers to imitate Jesus through the exercise of moral choice, as in the familiar western pattern. It summons them rather to participate in the life of Christ through the transformative power of the liturgy and sacraments of the church. To become persons in the true sense is to become what the New Testament calls “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).
The modern secular notion of freedom articulated by the Grand Inquisitor is, for the Orthodox, the very definition of slavery. As Vladimir Lossky observes, the Eastern Church regards choice as the mark not of freedom but of fallenness, as a debasement of true liberty, as a loss of the divine likeness: “Our nature being overclouded with sin no longer knows its true good…; and so the human person is always faced with the necessity of choice; it goes forward gropingly.” To deliberate autonomously in the face of alternatives, it follows, is not liberty but servitude. True freedom, says Lossky, is revealed in the Christ who freely renounces his own will in order to accomplish the will of his Father.
Alyosha is free in precisely this way. Jesus has not abandoned him to his lonely conscience in order to let him solitarily determine good and evil for himself. The self-emptying Christ has freed Alyosha to live and act in joyful obedience to God and thus in unbreakable solidarity with his father and brothers, with his friends and enemies, and (not least of all) with the miserable children of his neighborhood.
Given the Grand Inquisitor’s anti-Orthodox conception of freedom as unencumbered choice, it is not surprising that he should have contempt for the average run of men. He despises their dependence, their animal desire for security and comfort. The Inquisitor thus informs Jesus that the Catholic Church has been forced to correct his impossible summons to autonomy. Rome understands, says the Inquisitor, what Christ did not — that men must first be fed before they can be made virtuous. “Better that you enslave us,” the Inquisitor’s masses cry out, “but feed us” (253).
Thus has the cynical church of the Grand Inquisitor replaced Christ’s purported call for unfettered autonomy with its own sheepish substitutes: “miracle, mystery, and authority.” Yet even these pitiful placebos will not finally suffice, the Inquisitor insists, for the modern world will confront men with such scientific wonders and terrors that the hordes will not be content even with comfort and security. They will finally demand the antheap of personal oblivion, in order that they might be relieved of their freedom, preferring to live in childish self-indulgence:
Freedom, free reason, and science will lead them into such a maze, and confront them with such … insoluble mysteries, that some of them, unruly and ferocious, will exterminate themselves; others, unruly but feeble, will exterminate each other; and the remaining third, feeble and wretched, will crawl to our feet and cry out to us: “Yes, you were right, you alone possess his mystery, and we are coming back to you — save us from ourselves”…. Yes, we will make them work, but in the hours free from labor we will arrange their lives like a children’s game, with children’s songs, choruses, and innocent dancing. (258-59)
The Grand Inquisitor’s final prophecy is perhaps the most frightening augury in the entirety of Dostoevsky’s work. With amazing prescience, he foresaw the rise of the totalitarian state that has dominated much of this century’s political life, killing more people by violent means than in all of the previous centuries combined. This is the century of blood and ours is the culture of death. That Dostoevsky mistakenly linked the late-modem calamity with the Catholic Church, and that he did not foresee its first triumph in his own beloved Russia, hardly invalidates his vision. On the contrary, Dostoevsky was right to prophesy that, if we begin (as Ivan does) with absolute anti-communal freedom, we will end (again as Ivan does) with absolutely anti-communal slavery, whether in its individualist or its totalitarian form.
Given Ivan’s horrifying vision of this grim and Christless future, it is not surprising that Alyosha regards Ivan’s “poem” as praising Jesus rather than reviling him. Indeed, he kisses Ivan in honor of his brother’s terrible truthfulness. Yet Alyosha also makes a clear and devastating judgment about the moral and religious consequence of Ivan’s atheism. If God is dead, Alyosha declares, “everything is permitted” (263).
We must not misread Alyosha here. He does not deny that men can be moral without believing in God. He insists, instead, that such morality has no ultimate basis, that unfettered freedom is self-destructive, that it hovers over an abyss, and thus that godless people and cultures await their inevitable plunge into the void. Unbelief and barbarism are indissolubly joined. 1 John 3:4 defines sin precisely as lawlessness: he hamartia estin he anomia. Ellis Sandoz observes that John of Damascus, the 8th century Greek theologian, linked this definition of sin to the larger claim that barbarism is the primal heresy: “every man as independent and a law unto himself after the dictates of his own will.”
Dostoevsky regards individualist autarky not only as barbaric but also as satanic. Perhaps the chief of Ivan’s demonic deceptions is that the Inquisitor is right to regard “miracle, mystery, and authority” as pathetic requirements for weak-willed men. Yet just as Ivan misreads freedom to mean unencumbered choice, so does the Inquisitor pervert the meaning of miracle. Nowhere in the novel does God jump in and out of his creation like a divine factotum who accedes to human petition if it is sufficiently pious.
It is exactly such a sentimental and superstitious understanding of miracles — namely, as God’s arbitrary violation of the natural order for the sake of clamant human need — which Alyosha is required to surrender. Hoping that Zosima’s corpse would be wondrously preserved, giving off the sweet odor of sanctity, Alyosha is horrified when it putrefies prematurely. The saint’s rapidly rotting body demonstrates to Alyosha that God is not a sacred Santa Claus who brings him whatever he wants.
In the “Cana in Galilee” chapter, Alyosha learns that miracles do not precede and thus produce faith; rather do they follow faith as the by-product of the transformed life. That Alyosha can kiss the earth and bless the creation despite its rampant suffering, that he can live as a monk in an sensual world, that he can increase men’s joy amidst suffering as Christ increased it by turning water into wedding wine — this, he learns, is the true miracle: the divine possibility that overcomes human impossibility.
Like a brittle Enlightenment philosophe, perhaps a Diderot or a Comte, the Inquisitor also slanders mystery. He reduces it to a cynical mystification, to a new secular priestcraft, a political anesthetizing of the masses with the morphine of entertainment. “For only we, we … keep the mystery,” he boasts. For him, mystery can be hoarded as a weapon in his arsenal of deceit, as a spiritual poison-gas meant to blind human vision and stifle true thought.
For Alyosha and all other Orthodox believers, by contrast, the mysterion enlivens such vision and thought. It is a word that can also be translated sacrament. The mystery of God not therefore a riddle or a conundrum, not a vague and gaseous something; it is the one reality which prompts an endless delectation of mind no less than heart and soul. “In the proper religious sense of the term,” writes the contemporary Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware, “mystery’ signifies not only hiddenness but disclosure…. A mystery is … something revealed for our understanding, but which we never understand exhaustively because it leads into the depth or the darkness of God.”
Perversely if also consistently, Ivan has the Inquisitor voice a skewed understanding of authority. He regards it as the tyrannical power of the state or the church to suppresses individual autonomy. For him, authority can have only the negative meaning of raw coercive force. For Alyosha, again in notable contrast to the Inquisitor, rightful authority (both human and divine) invites free submission of the will for the sake of the good — submission to his elder Zosima, to the incarnate Christ, to the merciful God.
Such free subjection of the will begins in penitence, as Zosima confesses that all men are sinners and that he is the worst. It ends in the acceptance, even the embrace, of suffering. Yet Dostoevsky does not sentimentalize suffering into pain that one masochistically seeks to embrace. He shows, on the contrary, that even this noblest of virtues — suffering love — can be put to demonic purposes. When Dmitri gives a long bow to Katerina Ivanovna after she had come to borrow 3000 rubles, his seeming gesture of humility is in fact a humiliating reminder that he could have demanded her sexual favors in return. She is appropriately crushed and envenomed by it.
Perhaps the novel’s chief irony is that Ivan himself has made a similar misuse of suffering. He turns a rightful religious concern with the injured innocent into a wrongful justification of his own hatred and scorn. Claiming to care about newspaper cases of suffering, Ivan cannot care for the creature who is his own closest kin, his father. In a nightmare interview with the Devil, Ivan is made to recognize his own moral culpability for his father’s death. He has poisoned Smerdyakov’s mind with the demonic gospel that God is dead and all things are lawful. Acting out what Ivan had philosophically advocated, Smerdyakov has killed old Fyodor in a dreadful demonstration that all things are indeed permitted.
Since Satan is the primal Deceiver, it is no wonder that Ivan becomes his earthly embodiment. Far from being harmless intellectual exercises, Dostoevsky maintains that demonic perversions of mind issue in demonic perversions of will. Deicide results in parricide. The mental killing of God breaks the deepest of human bonds. It is thus fitting that Ivan the perverted intellectual should end in madness.
Yet Ivan’s final insanity is not to be explained as psychosis alone. In the Orthodox tradition, to deny the presence and reality of God is a psychopathic condition. Not sharing the western doctrine of total depravity, the Orthodox hold that every person retains the knowledge of God, even after the Fall. “Just because it is light,” writes Vladimir Lossky, “grace, the source of revelation, cannot remain within us unperceived. We are incapable of not being aware of God, if our nature is in proper spiritual health.
Insensibility [to God] in the inner life is an abnormal condition.” Lossky adds, far more darkly, that total unawareness of God “would be nothing other than hell, the final destruction of the person.” It follows that Zosima is not a golden-hearted humanist when he defines Hell as “the suffering of being unable to love.” He is describing Ivan’s spiritual condition exactly. Ivan suffers the hellish laceration of the soul that occurs when freedom is exercised negatively — not to engender life but to bring death. “Death for a person,” declares the Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas, “means ceasing to love and to be loved, ceasing to be unique and unrepeatable, whereas life for the person means the survival of the uniqueness of its hypostasis [personification], which is affirmed and maintained by love.”
To love, in Dostoevsky’s view, is to suffer rightly. It is to accept responsibility, not only for one’s own sin, but also for the sins of others. All theodicies fail if they do not recognize that only suffering can answer suffering. One who is willing to suffer must be willing, moreover, to suffer fools.
Father Zosima exhibits such foolish suffering when, early in the novel, he makes a low bow before the cruel buffoon who is old Fyodor Karamazov. It is an act utterly unlike the abstentions practiced by Nietzsche’s Übermensch. The übermensch is akin to a lion that has claws but refrains from using them. He doesn’t show mercy, therefore, so much as he seeks to humiliate the weaklings of the world with his contemptuous self-restraint.
So does Father Zosima have the authority to condemn the despicable old lecher. Yet unlike Nietzsche’s übermensch, Zosima restrains his power for the sake of redemption rather than humiliation. He embraces the despicable Fyodor as one who also bears the divine image and likeness, and thus as one who remains worth redeeming. For Dostoevsky, such a gospel of suffering love is the only lasting answer to the perennial problem of evil. It is a gospel peculiar neither to east nor west because it centered in the common ground of the Incarnation and Cross and Resurrection.