Dostoevsky & the Burden of Freedom

Fyodor DostoevskyThe Grand Inquisitor is a chapter from Dostoevsky’s novel ‘The Brothers Karamazov.’ It is an important section of the book and has become one of the most praised passages within modern literature. The Grand Inquisitor is a parable told by Ivan to his brother Alyosha, where Christ returns to earth during the time of the Inquisition. The earthly miracles of Jesus eventually get him noticed and he is arrested. The main part of the story involves the Grand Inquisitor visiting the imprisoned Jesus and explaining to him that he is no longer needed by humankind, and that his return to earth would only interfere with the crucial role undertaken by the Church

Early in the conversation, the Inquisitor denounces Jesus for his fabled rejection of the three temptations posed to him in the desert by Satan: the temptation to turn stones into bread, the temptation to cast Himself from the Temple and be saved by the angels, and the temptation to rule over all the kingdoms of the world. The Inquisitor reasons that things would have worked out much better for humanity if he would have instead given into such temptation:

“Do you see these stones in this bare, scorching desert? Turn them into bread and mankind will run after you like sheep, grateful and obedient, though eternally trembling lest you withdraw your hand and your loaves cease for them. But you did not want to deprive man of freedom and rejected the offer, for what sort of freedom is it, you reasoned, if obedience is bought with loaves of bread?” (p. 252)

If only he had performed such miracles, the Inquisitor exclaims, ‘there would have been no doubt’; all of mankind would be ‘united under one banner’; ‘salvation would be made possible for all,’ and not just the select few strong enough to use their ‘freedom’ to follow Christ based on faith. The Inquisitor claims that if Jesus truly loved humankind, he would not have asked so much of them – he would not have expected them to carry such a burden: “nothing has ever been more insufferable for man and for human society than freedom! (p. 252).” True freedom means claiming responsibility for our choices; it leaves humanity without a moral compass: “Did you forget that peace and even death are dearer to man than free choice in the knowledge of good and evil? (p. 254).” The Inquisitor proclaims that the people in the end rejected the freedom that Jesus wanted for them:

“… these people are more certain than ever before that they are completely free, and at the same time they themselves have brought us their freedom and obediently laid it at our feet. It is our doing, but is it what you wanted? This sort of freedom?” (p. 251)

The Inquisitor insists that the Church has since accomplished what Jesus ought to have done: it provided humanity with what it craves most – appeal to ‘miracle, mystery, and authority.’ It relieved them of the burden of freedom by telling them what is ‘Good’ versus ‘Evil’ and by providing them with authoritative prescriptions for living so they need not burden themselves with the creation of meaning, for where else would they find it – unless they create it for themselves and be burdened with the knowledge of its artificiality? The Church likewise provides protection, safety, and understanding, in an otherwise chaotic and incomprehensible world. Earlier in the book, for example, Ivan talks with Alexei about how an all-powerful God could conceivably allow for the suffering of children. The answer must be, as it is frequently claimed – that God’s plan is mysterious and incomprehensible to we mortals – we must have faith in His knowledge (an appeal to mystery). The Church likewise teaches that Good will be rewarded in Heaven, while Evil will be punished in Hell. Everything follows ‘God’s plan’ – we only need be obedient and not question it.

“With us everyone will be happy, and they will no longer rebel or destroy each other, as in your freedom, everywhere. Oh, we shall convince them that they will only become free when they resign their freedom to us, and submit to us (p. 258)”

The Inquisitor, representing the voice of the Church, claims to have given humankind everything for which it longed – peace of mind and happiness – for the price of their freedom. The story ends somewhat ambiguously, where “suddenly [Christ] approaches the old man in silence and gently kisses him on his bloodless, ninety-year-old lips (p. 262).” The Inquisitor appears unmoved, but releases Jesus, telling him to “go and do not come again.” After telling his parable, Ivan asks Alyosha (a man of God) if he “renounces” him for the views. Alyosha stands up and silently kisses him on the lips. To which Ivan exclaims: “Literary theft! … You stole my poem! Thank you, however.” (p. 263)

One of the main issues Dostoevsky explores through the Grand Inquisitor is the notion that institutionalized religion buys us security and equanimity by relieving us of the burden of freedom and responsibility. Atheism, on the other hand, may necessitate finding some other way to carry it – taking sole responsibility for our own creation, the meaning we give our lives, determining standards for ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and the choices that precede our actions. But not always – some atheistic trends simply entail finding a secular equivalent that equally limits our freedom and responsibility. And here Dostoevsky may be viewed as having anticipated the eventual replacement of religion with pseudo-religion and scientistic ideology:

“… you did not know that as soon as man rejects miracles, he will at once reject God as well, for man seeks not so much God as miracles. And since man cannot bear to be left without miracles, he will go and create new miracles for himself, his own miracles this time, and will bow down to the miracles of quacks, or women’s magic, though he be rebellious, heretical, and godless a hundred times over.” (p. 256)

In common discourse we talk about freedom as a good thing. But true freedom comes with the burden of responsibility – for our choices and actions, for the creation of meaning, for our defining ‘right and wrong’ and for our being our own moral compass. True freedom also involves seeing ourselves and the world for what it is – a world without the distracting illusions that shield our eyes from our uniquely human existential discomforts. Too much freedom comes at a heavy price. In practice it would seem that we would prefer to live as slaves – either to religious ideology or some illusionary system of ideas. In the words of Rousseau: “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.”

History is full of examples where systems of dogmatic belief provide structure where there was none, and where we are partially relieved of our burdensome freedom that otherwise forces us to choose, to self-create, to invent meaning, or to see reality for what it is. My own mind goes to the ways that our modern culture has more recently utilized science to create a picture of man whose freedom is greatly reduced. Where we find comfort in seeing ourselves as more similar to beasts than humans, where we are passive slaves to primitive reflexes or pre-specified genetic processes and their environmental contingencies. We see the rise of scientistic ideologies that reduce the human being to little more than a mechanistic cog within a causally-closed and deterministic universe – where we need not fret about our sense of agency or free will – since both are shown by ‘science’ to be illusions. In short, you have no real choice and you could not have done otherwise – you do not need to carry this burden of freedom. You can instead maintain your equanimity as a comfortable slave within a deterministic system of cause and effect. Do not think too hard and all will be well.

Camus claimed that the human condition is absurd, and that this absurdity arises from the fact that we are meaning hungry creatures thrown into a world devoid of meaning; the universe, as it stands, is thus ‘unintelligible’ in any way that could matter to humans. In The Myth of Sisyphus he outlined ways we attempt to escape this absurd condition through either regressive despair (e.g. suicide) or a metaphysical leap into unreasonable hope (e.g. philosophical suicide through false ideology). While most of us may easily identify religion as a prime example of the latter, Camus also suggested that ‘unreasonable hope’ would involve any meaning-sustaining illusion or ideology invented by human beings.

In this way Camus is consistent with Ernest Becker, who decades later proposed that one of the primary roles of ‘culture’ is to offer us illusionary, yet life-sustaining meaning systems that provide structure, direction, routine, and meaning where there was none – thereby reducing the existential terrors that might otherwise stir if we were to recognize ourselves as nothing more than decaying creatures living a groundless existence devoid of ‘absolute’ sources of meaning. Terror Management Theory (TMT) has since shown, through social psychology experiments, how different aspects of culture can serve as a kind of societal defense mechanism to avoid the terror of fully realizing our own finitude, the meaninglessness of life, and the burden of freedom in realizing ourselves to be the sole creators of the symbolic systems we live by.

I believe that Becker and Camus were both advocating for human beings to learn how to walk this existential tightrope without illusions that cause us to fall into either despair or unreasonable hope. But I think they were also somewhat skeptical about the idea that many of us could actually do this in practice. Camus, for example, was critical of Sartre – no intellectual slouch by any means – for buying into communism and critiqued his illusionary faith in finding absolute meaning in ‘history.’ Again, it is my own view that secular or scientistic belief systems can be just as dangerous to rational thinking, and may likewise serve to create artificial meaning where there was none, or to reduce our freedom and forfeit our rationality for peace of mind.

According to Camus and Becker, it seems that we are, as human beings, extremely susceptible to subscribing to an ‘absolute’ meaning system of one kind or another. It seems too uncomfortable for us to live in the ‘waterless deserts’ that Camus had advocated. I wonder how realistic it might be for us to think that we will ever achieve a rational society devoid of illusion. If we expel religion, I am convinced that it will only be replaced with a secular equivalent.

Dostoyevsky seemed to be thinking much the same when the Inquisitor suggests that man cannot bear his freedom, and will instead give it up, to slavishly follow those who give him miracle, mystery, and rule over him with authority. In such a world: “… everyone will be happy, except for the hundred thousand of those who govern them. For only we, we who keep the mystery, only we shall be unhappy (p. 259).”

Is it too much to ask for us all to live without illusion? Can we take responsibility for our lives, or will humanity depend on the ‘unhappy few,’ who might take on the burdensome task of creating illusions for the masses – illusions that might be more conducive to both our existential equanimity and our long term survival. If I am to be honest, I must say that I am not overly optimistic about our ever becoming a lucid society – where the majority of its members are capable of embracing their freedom, carrying the burden of self-creation, and finding contentment with ‘relative’ sources of meaning. But while this future seems unlikely, this does not mean that we should not try… on the contrary, I think part of life – indeed perhaps the whole of life, could involve learning how to walk our existential tightrope, without forfeiting our freedom by subscribing to illusionary ideological systems of meaning. Impossible odds never stopped the mythical Sisyphus. So in the meantime maybe the best we can do is to recognize that we are all in the same existential boat – and to ask one another to tolerate as much reality as our fragile human minds can bear.


3 Responses to “Dostoevsky & the Burden of Freedom”

  1. Alicia Says:

    I really like this post.

    I think it fits in nicely with the post that came prior; the one about Free Will. I find that in a lot of Christian groups, they don’t really take any human responsibility. They just pray and hope for the best. I know that first hand from being part of a Pentecostal church. But I am not like most of them; I hunger for philosophy and want to establish critical thinking. This is something that my denomination is not known for.

    Indeed, it is hard to live free of illusion of any kind. We have the materialistic illusion just as much as there are illusions through religion. We buy, buy, buy in hopes of becoming successful, but it is still an illusion.

    It is true, we are all in the same existential boat. No person is free from it. We all must die sometime. Therefore, we must try to get along while we are alive or else everything is taken for granted. We must try to make the most of the days we have. We cannot be blind; we must see our reality as it stands.

  2. Hazy Says:

    A really nicely worded, thought provoking, and accessible argument. I will not attempt an intellectual critique of it for fear of showing up my shortcomings, but I thoroughly enjoyed this. Thanks….

    Brad Reply:

    Thank you for taking the time to comment – and for the kind words.