The World of Dostoevsky and the Freedom of the Person
February 24, 2011 Length: 50:26William Weber was the Provost of Rose Hill College from 1996-1998 and is currently a teacher of social studies.
“The glory of God is a man fully alive,” so wrote St. Irenaeus of Lyons in the 2nd century AD. And in what context did he write? In defense of the Apostolic faith that was under attack by the Gnostics, those who claimed to have the definitive, intellectual knowledge of how the world really works. Move forward 17 centuries and we find Dostoevsky, a man fully alive in the 19th Century Russia, writing apologies in the form of fiction for the freedom of the person before Christ and in Christ. And like St. Irenaeus, Dostoevsky had many implacable adversaries.
Our consideration of Dostoevsky will start with an examination of his life and writings, in the context of the world in which he lived, in order to relate his life and writings to each other and in order to encourage the reading of his writings. Then, we will examine in more detail the theme of personal freedom by an examination of several characters in his novels. In the course of which, we will include an abridged of reading of The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.
Dostoevsky was born on October 30, 1821 according to the Julian Calendar, then used in Russia. All the dates in this talk will be those of that calendar. His father, Dr. Mikhail Dostoevsky, was a descendent of Uniate priests, it appears. His father started out on the seminary path to the priesthood, but then succeeded in becoming a surgeon in the army and attained to the ranks of the Russian nobility.
He was a stern, hardworking man with exacting standards. He was afflicted with some type of nervous disorder, which led him to emphasize the spiritual significance of his own sufferings. Violent and rumored to be an alcoholic, he was hard on the peasants on his royal estate. His difficult ways exhausted his wife and probably contributed to her early death at the age of 35. Two years later, he was murdered, possibly by his own serfs.
Dostoevsky, himself, had thought of killing his own father and had wished his father dead. The question of whether one is guilty of murder when one only wishes the person dead shows up in the character of the brother Ivan, in The Brothers Karamazov.
Dostoevsky’s mother, Maria, was a woman with a big giving heart. Unlike his father, Maria lavished unconditional love on her son and instilled in him sympathy and love for the Russian peasant. The peasants’ suffering inspired an almost religious feeling in Dostoevsky. He came to idealize the peasant as capable of spiritual understanding, purer than any that might be achieved by the overly intellectual members of his own class.
Maria taught him to read using stories from the Bible. Dostoevsky’s favorite story from the Old Testament was the story of Job, the man who travailed through excruciating trials to be visited by the God who reveals Himself to the suffering. The Gospel of John, which is the most mystical and existential of the Gospels, was his favorite book in the New Testament.
By the age of 17, in 1839, Dostoevsky had lost both of his parents. Thereafter, he continued his training as an engineer and became a lieutenant in the army, but his heart was in literature. His first novel, Poor Folk was published in 1846 and was well received. The circles he ran in inclined toward socialism and/or critiques of Tsarist Russia and what needed to change for Russia to move forward.
Many of his literary comrades were atheists or agnostics. In 1849, Dostoevsky was arrested for his involvement with a Petrashevsky Circle, a group of intellectuals and revolutionaries implicated in subversive action against the existing political order. He denied the charge of participating in a plot to assassinate the Tsar, but nonetheless was sentenced to death by firing squad. As he stood waiting to hear the order to fire, his sentence was commuted to forced labor in a Tsarist prison camp in Siberia.
Dostoevsky’s resurrection from expected death and subsequent time in prison moved him to embrace Christ and the Orthodox Faith as the way to changing Russia, and moved him away from socialism and all forms of foreign – that is Western European – solutions to Russia’s problems. Of his near death experience, Dostoevsky wrote the following to his brother Mikhail:Life is a gift. Life is happiness. Every minute will be an eternity of happiness. My brother, I do not feel despondent and have not lost heart. Life is life everywhere. Life is in ourselves and not outside us. There will be men beside me in prison, and the important thing is to be a man among men and to remain a man always, whatever the misfortunes, not to despair and not to fall—that is the aim of life, that is its purpose. I realize this now. The idea has entered into my flesh and my blood. Yes, that is the truth! I have still got my heart and the same flesh and blood which can love and suffer and pity and remember, and that is also life. Never before have I felt such abundant and healthy reserves of spiritual life in me as now.
After a year in prison, Dostoevsky began experiencing epileptic fits. These would haunt him for the next 30 years. Released from prison in 1834, he married two years later and resumed his writing. After his first wife died, eight years later, he married his second wife, his stenographer, Anna Grigoryevna who was 25 years his junior. With her business savvy and support as wife and mother, Dostoevsky then put forth a steady stream of social commentary, literary criticism, letters, short stories, and novels, until his death on January 28, 1881.
The larger historical context of Dostoevsky’s Russia can be framed by four events: 1. The invasion of Russia by Napoleon in 1812, just before his birth; 2. The emancipation of the serfs by Tsar Alexander in 1860; 3. The Tsar’s subsequent assassination in 1861 a month after Dostoevsky’s death; 4. By the February and October Revolutions of 1918 that ended Tsarist Orthodox Russia and saw the triumph of Western rationalism and godless Communism.
Of immense importance to Dostoevsky’s worldview were the revival of the tradition of eldership and renewed use of the Jesus Prayer in 19th century Russia. The Way of a Pilgrim was written during this time. St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, who died in 1783 and was canonized in 1860, and the Optina Elders, whom Dostoevsky visited at their monastery, directly influenced Dostoevsky’s portrayal of the Elders of Schema in The Brothers Karamazov and possibly influenced his depiction of the Elder Bishop Tikhon in The Demons.
Of immense importance to Dostoevsky’s ability to freely express himself as a writer were the ever present government censors, whose carping and snipping could force him to say less than he really wanted to express.
The French Revolution of 1789 became a model for revolutions throughout Europe in the 19th century. There were those in Russia, the Westernizing liberals, who wanted to create a written constitution with a limited monarchy, an assembly with representatives for the people, and a set of inviolable rights; such as freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and trial by jury. Another broad group were the radicals, made up of socialists, communists, atheists, nihilists, and anarchists. In general, they just wanted to blow everything up and start over.
Another option went back to the French Revolution. Both the Westernizing liberals and the radicals, who both referred to themselves as progressives, were united in their agreement to look down on the Orthodox Church as backward, superstitious, and an obstacle to bringing Russia into the light of day. And they considered the peasants as ignorant, irreverent materialists concerned only with their bodily functions.
In opposition of them were the Slavophiles, which included Dostoevsky. They loved their religious and cultural Slavic roots and according to Victor Terras, “refused to judge Russia by Western standards, believing that Russian values were not the same.” Western style parliamentary democracy and competitive individualism were alien to a Russian mentality, which was more inclined to an authoritative monarchy and voluntary communal endeavor. Slavophiles in their social movement rooted in the Russian soil did not reject progress of science but they thought changes should uphold faith, rather than tear it down.
In contrast to the progressives, liberal or radical, who believed it was the Russian people who needed to be enlightened, Dostoevsky felt instead that, to again use the words of Victor Terras, “It was the Westernized elite that had to learn humbly to follow the example of the people.”
The two writers, other than Dostoevsky, who dominated 19th century Russian literature were Turgenev and Tolstoy, both of whom were members of the well-landed gentry, unlike Dostoevsky. Turgenev was a Western liberal. He viewed the political, social, religious positions of Dostoevsky as nonsense and swinishness. He was an atheist and contemptuous of Russian nationalism. Turgenev wrote and spoke disparagingly of Dostoevsky, who returned the favor. The character Karamozinov in The Demons is an obvious and malicious caricature of Turgenev.
Despite their mutual criticism of each other, Dostoevsky could still praise select works by Turgenev, including his novel Fathers and Sons. Father and son relationships are essential to two of Dostoevsky’s novels—A Raw Youth and The Brothers Karamazov. Although it has been shown that Turgenev’s writings did influence those of Dostoevsky, the obverse is not true.
As for Tolstoy, he and Dostoevsky were well aware of each other but never met. From Dostoevsky’s point of view, Tolstoy had talent but was too backward focused on Russia’s past. His novel War and Peace was an epic treatment of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia that did not address contemporary Russian problems. Tolstoy’s movement away from the Orthodox Church occurred largely after Dostoevsky’s death.
While Dostoevsky began his writing career before his exile to Siberia, we will begin our treatment with his writing of The House of the Dead, because it recounts in semi-autobiographical form his prison experience. We will also look at one novella, two short stories, and five of his major novels.
The House of the Dead came out in 1861 and 1862 in serial form, as novels often did in the 19th century. The work purports to be the prison memoirs of one Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov, a convicted wife murderer. In fact, scholarship has shown a high correlation between the people, places, and events in the novel and those of Dostoevsky himself. So the novel was partly autobiographical, but by using a fictional format, Dostoevsky was able to maneuver around the censors and more successfully give his work the appearance of greater objectivity.
In the first part, he presents a chronological account of the man’s life. In the second, he deals more specifically with prison life. In The House of the Dead, Dostoevsky had four main concerns that will have ongoing relevance for his later writings. First, evil is real. The moral disregard, cruelty, and evil of some of the prisoners Dostoevsky lived with disabused him of the utopian notion that human nature is inherently good. This is horribly depicted in the dozen paged chapter titled, Akulka’s Husband.
Second, freedom is indispensable for the full development of personhood. Prison’s most crushing punishment is the deprivation of freedom. Dostoevsky writes:
What is more precious than money for the convict? Freedom or some sort of freedom, he can play the swaggering bully, pretending if only for a time that he has infinitely more power than he is supposed, a propensity to swagger to boastfulness, to a comic and very naïve, though fantastic glorification of their personality; has its special risk and at least a far-off semblance of freedom. And what will not one give for freedom?
Dostoevsky ‘s third concern is the failure of the justice system in Russia to administer justice. And his fourth concern is the real possibility of redemption. As Goryanchikov concludes, “My God! Yes! Humane treatment may humanize even one in whom the image of God has long been obscured.”
The novella, Notes from Underground came out two years after The House of the Dead. It is not an easy or pleasant piece to read, but it is incisive and pure Dostoevsky. The work is written in the first person from the perspective of someone who lives under the ground in a mouse hole. According to Joseph Frank, the most noted biographer of Dostoevsky:
Most important cultural developments of the present 20th century; Nietzsche, Freud, expressionism, surrealism, Christ-less theology as existentialism, have claimed the Underground Man as their own and have been linked with him by zealous interpreters.
Notes from Underground is the prelude to the great period in which Dostoevsky’s talent finally came to maturity. And there is no question that with it, he attains a new artistic level. For the first time, he motivates an action entirely in terms of a psychology shaped by radical ideology. Every feature of the text serves to bring out the consequences and personal behavior of certain ideas. And the world that Dostoevsky creates is entirely conceived as a function of this purpose.
The Underground Man begins his monologue thus:
I’m a sick man; a spiteful man. There’s nothing attractive about me. I think there’s something wrong with my liver. But actually, I don’t understand a damn thing about my sickness. I’m not even too sure what it is that’s ailing me. I know very well that I’m harming myself and no one else, but still, it’s out of spite that I refuse to ask for the doctor’s help. So my liver hurts – good! It’ll hurt even more!
The Underground Man is not Dostoevsky and he does not necessarily speak for him, but he may. In Notes from Underground, as in many of his works, the reader is called upon to distinguish what any narrator or character is saying from what Dostoevsky may or may not be communicating to his audience. Dostoevsky is very comfortable with creating a polyphony of voices, raising diverse points of view (some of which represent views or shades of views that Dostoevsky wishes to criticize or overcome), while others may agree in part or in their own personal way with the truths he is unveiling to his readers.
This personal aspect of his characters makes them more than just stock characters. It makes them persons – persons who are free to express themselves as themselves in monologue, in dialogue, in action. They are also persons who do not have to conform to some stylized pre-scripted characterization, predetermined by society’s expectations.
Underground Man is a thoroughgoing egoist, who uses reason to promote his own free self-destruction. This ran counter to the credo of rational pragmatism, which was in vogue among the Westernizers that touted the laws of scientific determination and scientific rationalism as the basis for a social utopia. They thought that as people learned what was scientifically best for them, a perfectly rational world would inevitably come forth.
But Underground Man is not cooperative. He sees his freedom as more important than his preservation. For without freedom, what is there worth preserving? In Chapter 10, Underground Man is coming to the purpose of his so-called freedom. “Can I have been made, simply to come to the conclusion, that the whole way I am made is a swindle? Can this be the whole purpose? I don’t believe it!”
We know from Dostoevsky’s notes that what that purpose is, that he is trying to find in the dark underground is the necessity of faith and Christ. We also know that the form of the story leftover by the censors left this out. Without Christ, Underground Man moves on to the second part of his ramblings, which he finds he can get no satisfaction from parting with his companions or from Liza, a prostitute.
Near the end of the story, Liza offers him a way out of his egoism, the way Frank calls, “the ideal of the voluntary self-sacrifice of the personality out of love.” But instead he abandons Liza, preferring to be an individual with his own private body rather than a person who finds himself by losing himself in true selfless love to the other person.
In Crime and Punishment, the prostitute, who brings salvation, returns in the person of Sonia. We will look at her again a little later in the second half of this talk. Crime and Punishment is the first of Dostoevsky’s great novels. As in Notes from Underground, we have a thinker, Raskolnikov, who is engaged in self-dialogue. He espouses the ideology of Nietzsche’s Superman who is above good and evil.
He murders an old woman because his need for money is more important than hers, and he is more important than she. The plot unfolds with a cat and mouse game between Raskolnikov and the police detective, Porfiry Petrovich. In case you don’t know, the names ending in “vich” are patronymics, names based on the father, meaning in this case the son of Peter.
As Crime and Punishment develops, Raskolnikov meets up with the holy prostitute Sonia and they eventually find redemption through suffering. If you start your reading with this novel, be patient with Raskolnikov’s early monologues. Many 19th century novels, including Dostoevsky’s begin with a slow walk, gradually move to a trot, and only later gallop away with a reader barely hanging on.
In his next novel, The Idiot, Dostoevsky seeks to portray a positively beautiful, good man. The hero of the novel is Prince Myshkin, who is a Christ figure. He has recently returned to Russia after treatment for epilepsy in Switzerland. The plot involves numerous relationships as will Dostoevsky’s later novels. Myshkin is attracted to two women – Aglaya and Nastassya – and has to compete with other suitors.
In the beginning the prince is a pauper but when he comes into a sizeable inheritance, a group self-righteous Nihilists go after his money. All these relationships contrast Myshkin’s purity of heart with the corrupting influences of carnal desires, greed, and various individuals at war for their rights. The Idiot is not a romance novel, but a tale about the dissolution of society with no spiritual center and no way to value a truly good and loving person. Although one of Dostoevsky’s best, The Idiot is not the first place to begin reading Dostoevsky.
Dostoevsky wasted no time writing his next novel, which would be The Possessed. That’s the title given by the first English translator, more frequently referred to as The Demons or The Devils. Just who or what are these demons? The revolutionaries led by Stavrogin and Verkhovensky? Or the warping ideas and human destroying ideologies they are wrapped in? Or maybe real demons, who are behind these revolutionaries and ideologies, seeking to destroy them and holy Russia? Probably the latter, though Dostoevsky leaves it to his readers to decide. One cannot read any of his works passively.
The Westernizers rightly saw Dostoevsky’s criticizing and laughing at them, and they sharply reacted to The Demons. They could not see that their actions were leading to Russia’s destruction, instead of Russia’s regeneration after their own image. And so the literati of his day and their followers in our day vilify Dostoevsky as a blind and reactionary conservative, out of touch with what Russia needed. And yet The Demons, which was based on actual conspiracy familiar to all Russians at the time, is the most prescient and prophetic of his novels concerning what was about to come upon Russia under the Bolsheviks.
The short story Bobok, written in 1873, is not political, but it is dark. It takes place in a graveyard where the narrator overhears the wealthy dead talking freely of their wasteful past where they had given themselves up to lying, cheating, stealing and debauchery. According to Lantz, “This short, satirical story is perhaps the most thoroughly negative work Dostoevsky ever produced.”
In 1875, Dostoevsky completed a project he had been planning for years – a novel on the dysfunctional family in Russia. It has been titled variously in English as A Raw Youth, The Adolescent, or The Accidental Family. The novel is the autobiography of an adolescent nineteen year old Arkady Dolgoruky. It is through his immature and not always insightful eyes that we see everyone and everything that happens in the novel. So you can’t take anything on face value that he says.
His accidental family includes his father and mother (who are not married to each other), his sister, himself, and their mother’s former but still legal husband. Both son and father are in a love-hate relationship with the same woman. Life is really mixed up and never what it seems. The critics have not dealt kindly with this novel, most seeing it as the least of his five major novels; some even as a failure. But in any case, it was an important bride for Dostoevsky’s earlier novels to The Brothers Karamazov. Richard Pevear, one of the recent translators, gives it a more favorable response.
Before turning to his last and greatest novel, one more short story should be mentioned – The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, a fantastic story. The story embodies many threads found in other writings of Dostoevsky – dreams, the ridiculous, fantastic episodes, and hope for a better tomorrow. In his final thoughts, the man who had this dream says:
You see, I’ve seen the truth. I’ve seen it, and I know that man can be happy and beautiful without losing the ability on Earth to live. I refuse to believe that wickedness is the normal state of men.
Evil may be real, as Dostoevsky experienced in prison, and goodness is not inherent in mankind in some romantic, unrealistic way. But in God’s scheme of things, evil is not normal to man – only to fallen man, who is not normal at all.
The crowning achievement of Dostoevsky’s life and literary career was his last novel The Brothers Karamazov. It came out in 1879 and 1880, just prior to his death. In this great novel, all the patterns, threads, and concerns of his earlier writings reach their final and mature expression. It is a story about a father, Fyodor; his three legitimate sons: Dmitri, Ivan, and Alexi; and his one illegitimate son, Pavel Smerdyakov.
The novel is built on dialogue – personal, psychological, philosophical, and spiritual. One of the most memorable dialogues takes place between Ivan and the Devil. The family didn’t exactly grow up together, and there’s a lot of tension. Eventually, the father is murdered and Dmitri, the oldest, is arrested.
Questions swirl. Was it Dmitri who killed him – the impassioned brother who said he was going to? Or Ivan – the rationalist who left town just before the actual murder? Or Smerdyakov – the outsider who conveniently had an epileptic fit just before the old man was killed? Or Alyosha – the spiritual one, who should have prevented it?
Behind the plot, but ever present, is the question, “What shall we do with God?” Shall we kill Him and so free ourselves from Him? Shall we think Him out of existence? Or shall we bow down before Him and freely follow Christ?
If one would only like to read selections or would prefer to test the water first before diving into the whole novel, there are several options. One could try The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, or begin with the chapter before, The Rebellion. One could follow these up with the chapter on the devil. Then again, you could do something entirely differently. You could take a look at the story of Illyusha Snegeriyov, Kolya Krasotkin, and Alyosha involving bullying and reconciliation.
To decide to read something by Dostoevsky leads to another choice, which translation, unless of course you read Russian. The first major translator was Constance Garnett, but her English is somewhat dated and doesn’t always do justice to Dostoevsky. There are more recent translators – Pevear and Volokhonsky, his wife. Also, there’s an edition by MacAndrew from the ‘60s. If you want to try and compare these, you can go onto Dartmouth’s good site on the web on Dostoevsky, and you can actually see some parallel columns and compare how they are translated and what suits you in terms of reading.
Here are some helpful resources, which I’ll mention briefly. Kenneth Lantz put out an encyclopedia on Dostoevsky. Joseph Frank wrote five volumes, with an abridged version of a biography of Dostoevsky in the back by Frank also. There are a variety of translations as I have said. It’s somewhat dated but there is a 1958 version in film of The Brothers Karamazov, starring Lee J. Cobb as the deliciously revolting father and Yul Brynner as the hotheaded but sincere Dmitri.
I think my time is taking a little longer than I expected so I will shorten it a bit, but I want to get into the freedom of the person in Dostoevsky and we’ll take a look at two novels. One is Crime and Punishment, particularly focusing on Sonia and also on The Brothers Karamazov we’ll take a look at The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor
In considering the freedom of the person in Dostoevsky, one must begin with what a person is. Dostoevsky’s point of reference and understanding of this is his Orthodox Christian faith. A good Orthodox way to define something is to tell you what it is not. To speak of a person and to speak of an individual is not the same thing. Person and individual are not synonyms.
To personalize something is to join the person to another person or to another thing. But the process of individuation is the dividing off of a human being from the rest of humanity. Thus, the individual is juxtaposed to society and the rights of each are pitted against each other. Dostoevsky saw this as the way of the West and the path offered to Russia by the Westernizers.
For Dostoevsky, as for his Church, personhood is connected to community and fulfills itself in love. Even without love, free choice remains. But such a choice, without love, leaves the individual on the threshold of personhood without entering.
In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov is the main male character. The root of his name, raskol means schism, and he suffers from a radical cleavage of mind and heart. This inner cleavage is due to his cleavage from God. Raskolnikov wants to be God, which is the essence of sin – our sin; all sin.
Sofia Marmeladova is the man female character, usually going by her nickname Sonia, which means wisdom. Sonia is a registered prostitute, complete with a government mandated yellow ticket – a public badge of dishonor. But she is not a lady of the night out of lust or greed, but rather in response to her sick stepmother’s frantic complaining about her uselessness and her family’s need for food, because her drunken father drinks up all they have. So she goes out into the night and comes home shamefaced with 30 pieces of silver. She then lives apart and brings her earnings home.
Her father Marmeladov calls her meek and tells Raskolnikov, in a chance meeting, that God will forgive her for her suffering sacrifice. Later on, after the murder of the old pawnbroker and her sister Lizaveta, Raskolnikov sees Marmeladov run over by a carriage. The father dies in his daughter’s arms and Raskolnikov ends up giving money to the family to pay for the funeral.
At the funeral dinner, or rather the night before, Raskolnikov visits Sonia in her room. He is critical of her stepmother, while she is just the opposite. She exudes compassion for Katerina’s difficult life and manifold suffering and thinks nothing of what these have cost her. “We are one. We live like one,” she says. These words show that though Sonia lived apart physically, she does not see herself as a separate individual, but as a person in connection with her stepfamily.
Her prostitution was a free choice toward her family, not away from them. The family may have demonstrated a necessity, but she didn’t go out in the nights because she had to, but because she freely chose to. She voluntarily lowered herself to raise up her family. Raskolnikov tells Sonia, it would be better if Katerina goes ahead and dies. She considers all this unthinkable. “How can you? That cannot be. God will not let it be.”
Raskolnikov mocks her faith, but she will not succumb to his reason. He calls her a great sinner whose worse sin is her destroying and betraying herself for nothing. He asks, “Tell me how this shame and degradation can exist in you side-by-side with other holy, opposite feelings?” He encourages suicide. All that she can say is, “What would become of them?” She is acutely aware of her sin, but she will not take the end of it his way out. She has no answers, but she will not shrink from personal love for an identification with her family.
After Raskolnikov says, “So you pray to God a great deal, Sonia?” “What should I be without God?” she meekly replies. As they part, Raskolnikov makes a promise to tell Sonia who killed Lizaveta. When he returns, he is fidgety and standoffish and slow to get to the point. Finally, he tells her. Terror is on her face. “What have you done? What have you done to yourself?” Sonia cries out and throws her arms around him tightly. No incriminations. No mention of her friend. No thought of her individual loss. Only a selfless, personal reaching out to the other to unite with him in his need.
“I’ll follow you to Siberia,” she exclaims. He, somewhat nonchalantly, parries, “Perhaps, I don’t want to go to Siberia yet, Sonia.” She queries him for why. His best answer is that he’s a Napoleon above the law. She accepts none of his replies, while Raskolnikov ultimately agrees and disagrees with her. Finally, he asks what he must do and Sonia, with shining eyes, tells him:
Go at once, this very minute. Stand at the crossroads. Bow down. First, kiss the earth which you have defiled. Then, bow down to all the world and say to all men aloud ‘I am a murderer.’ Then, God will send you life again. Will you go? Will you go?
But, he is not ready. However, Sonia’s reaching out to him does draw him to return to her and agree to confess to the authorities. We see freedom in his choice, but he changes his mind again before going through with it. His thoughts were about being a victim of circumstance, in other words, they’re still about himself. Sentenced to Siberia, Raskolnikov goes under compulsion, but Sonia goes freely. Even there, he struggles with a divided heart, until the power of Sonia’s free and personal love finally penetrates his split mind and releases his heart to love.
What are we to make of a holy prostitute? How can we put these two realities together? Is Sonia believable? Some of Dostoevsky’s critics thought not. They wanted everything rational, everything systematic, everything realistic, according to their conceptions of reality. Dostoevsky, on the other hand, wanted characters whose lives matched ours – messy, inconsistent, in need of grace and redemption. Are not believers and unbelievers split like Sonia and Raskolnikov? Is not the humility of Sonia to be praised and arrogant, irrational Raskolnikov to be left behind? We dare not judge. We all need mercy.
In the end, Sonia is able to leave her prostitution behind, which she always wanted to do. And Raskolnikov is on the path toward unity of heart and mind, by humbling himself and uniting himself to the person whose free love transcended herself and transformed him. That is Sonia.
When we turn to The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, we also have a story with two characters – the Grand Inquisitor, who does all the talking, and Christ, who acts but says nothing. The story comes about one-third of the way through the novel. It is embedded in a long conversation between Ivan and his brother Alyosha. Alyosha asks Ivan why he will not accept God’s world. He says, “Christ’s love for people is kind. It is a miracle on Earth.”
Ivan finds it illogical and insufferable that God can be loving and at the same time, children can be suffering horribly in the world that God created. So Ivan says, he’ll return his admission ticket to God. Ivan asks his brother if he can admit the idea that people, for whom He is building a final happy destiny, would agree to accept their happiness at the cost of unjustified blood of a tortured child.
Alyosha says he cannot admit that and tells Ivan that he has forgotten about Christ and the unjustified sacrifice of His innocent blood. Irreverently, Ivan let’s out, “Ah yes, the only sinless one,” and proceeds to tell his brother that he has made up a poem, The Grand Inquisitor.
In the story, Christ has returned to Earth to His tormented, suffering people, rank with sin, but loving Him like little children. The action is set in Spain, where the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor has burned alive 100 heretics at once. Christ appears.
People are drawn to him by an invisible force. They flock to Him, surround Him, follow Him. The sun of love shines in his heart. Rays of light enlighten Him, and a power streams from His eyes pouring out over the people who respond with His love. He stresses out His hands and blesses them. He raises a young girl, but the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor crosses the square in front of the cathedral.
He is an old man, nearly 90; tall and straight; gaunt face; sunken eyes. At the sight of the crowd, he stops and watches from afar. He has seen everything. He scowls with his thick, gray eyebrows, and his eyes shine with a sinister fire. He stretches forth his finger and orders the guard to take Him. And such is his power, so tame and submissive and tremblingly obedient to his will of the people. The crowd immediately parts before the guard, and amidst the deadly silence that has suddenly fallen, they lay their hands on him and lead him away.
There’s one man who immediately bows to the ground before the ancient Inquisitor, who silently blesses the people and moves on. Then, they lock Christ away. Soon the Grand Inquisitor visits Him, but Christ makes no response. Rhetorically, the Inquisitor asks Him if He knows what will happen tomorrow, and then answers the question himself.
Tomorrow I shall condemn you and burn you at the stake as the most evil of heretics. And the people, who today kissed your feet, tomorrow will, at a nod from me, rush to heap the coals up around you. Do you know that? Yes, perhaps you do know it. Have you come? Have you the right to proclaim to us even one of the mysteries of that world? No, you have not.
So as not to add to what has already been said once; so as not to deprive the people of freedom, for which you stood so firmly for when you were on Earth. Anything you proclaim anew will encroach the freedom of men’s faith, for it will come as a miracle. And the freedom of their faith was the dearest of all things to you – even then 1500 years ago. But now you have seen these free men.
This work has cost you dearly, but we have finished the work in your name. It is finished and well-finished. You do not believe it is finished. You look at me meekly and do not deign to even be indignant with me. Know then that now, precisely now, 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
Alyosha does not understand, so Ivan says bluntly “The Inquisitor and his colleagues have finally overcome freedom and have done so in order to make people happy. I’m going to paraphrase somewhat in this story.
The Grand Inquisitor continues to basically tell Christ that, you had it all wrong. And when the Devil came with the three temptations and offered you the opportunity to turn the stones into bread, you could have worked a miracle that caused everyone to flock around you, because that’s what people want is a miracle. They don’t want God. They want a miracle, but when you refused to do that, then people were not going to follow you. The masses were not going to follow you. I once tried to follow you and be an ascetic in the desert, but I woke up to the reality that the majority of people are being damned to an unhappy life by your refusal to work a miracle. And what they really need is someone to tell them what they need to do. They need someone to work a miracle for them.
Christ, all this time, is saying absolutely nothing. The Grand Inquisitor goes on to say that the people will return thanks to the Grand Inquisitor and those with him, because they’re being set free from the burden of getting food and being set free from the burden of the freedom of their conscience, because a free conscience is a burden – according to the Grand Inqusitor. Because you have to decide what is right and wrong.
You can kind of hear in my paraphrase that the Grand Inquisitor is twisting much of what Christ said and much of what the Gospels said about Him. I’ll close with the end of the Grand Inquisitor’s initial talk to Christ.
The most tormenting secrets of their conscience, all they will bring to us, and we will decide all things. And they will joyfully believe our decision because it will deliver us from their great care and their present terrible torments of personal and free decision. And everyone will be happy.
Peacefully they will die, and peacefully they will expire in your name. And beyond the grave, they will only find death. It is said and prophesied that you will come and once more be victorious. You will come with your chosen ones, with your proud and mighty ones. Well, we will say that they saved only themselves, while we have saved everyone.
And we, who took their sins on ourselves for their happiness, will stand before you and say, “Judge us if you can and dare.” Know that I am not afraid of you. I awoke! I helped correct your deed. I left the proud; returned to the humble for the happiness of the humble. What I am telling you will come true and our kingdom will be established.
Tomorrow, I repeat, you will see this obedient flock, which at my first gesture, will rush to heap hot coals at your stake, at which I shall burn you for having come to interfere with us. For if anyone has ever deserved our stake, it is you. Tomorrow, I shall burn you.
Then Alyosha begins to question his brother.
Your poem praises Jesus. And who will believe about your freedom? It’s a far cry from the Orthodox. It’s Rome, and not even the whole of Rome. It’s the Jesuits. It’s the Inquisitors. Yours is just a fantastic person. Your suffering Inquisitor is only a fantasy. So how does your story end?
Ivan replies, “I was going to end it like this:”
When the Inquisitor fell silent, he waited some time for his prisoner to reply. His silence weighed on him. He had seen how the captive had listened to him all the while, intently and calmly, looking at him straight in the eye and apparently not wishing to contradict anything. The old man would have liked him to say something, even something bitter; terrible. But suddenly, he approaches the old man in silence and gently kisses him on his bloodless 90 year old lips.
That’s the whole answer.
The old man shudders. Something stirs at the corners of his mouth. He walks to the door, opens it, and says to Him, “Go and do not come again! Do not come at all! Never! Never!” He lets him out into the dark squares of the city. The prisoner goes away.
“And the old man?” asks Alyosha.
“The kiss burns at his heart, but the old man holds to his former idea.”
“And you with him!” Alyosha exclaims.
Thus ends The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor. There are a great many things that Dostoevsky is trying to say, and he is very critical of his critics. I do want to point out a couple of things here in closing.
Dostoevsky describes his intention in the story as the portrayal of the uttermost blasphemy and the seed of the idea of destruction in our time in Russia, among the young people uprooted from reality. And along with the blasphemy and anarchy, the refutation of them, which is now being prepared for me in the last words of the dying Elder Zosima, one of the characters in the novel.
Although Ivan is a synthesis, he is still a person as Dostoevsky affirms in a letter written during the writing of the novel. “In the novel, it is not I who am speaking in distressing colors, exaggerations, and hyperboles – though the exaggerations are real – but a character of my novel, Ivan Karamazov.”
Ivan may rail against freedom, but Dostoevsky respects his freedom to do so. In fact, Dostoevsky spoke well of Ivan, in contrast to his opponents. He says of Ivan:
A contemporary negater (one of the most ardent) comes right out and declares himself in favor of what the Devil advocates and asserts this is truer for people’s happiness, than is Christ. To our Russian socialists, in which is so stupid but also so dangerous, because a young generation is with is, the lesson it would seem is very forceful.
One’s daily bread, the Tower of Babel (the future reign of socialism), and the complete enslavement of freedom of conscience, that is the ultimate and real goal of this denier and atheist. The difference is that our socialists – and they are not just underground Nihilist scum – our conscious liars who do not admit that their idol consists of violence to man’s conscience and the leveling of mankind to a herd of cattle. Ivan, on the other hand, is sincere.
From these comments of Dostoevsky, it is clear how he aligns himself with the two sides. On one side is Ivan, the Grand Inquisitor, intellectualizing Westernizers including socialists and Jesuits, along with the Devil and of course enslavement by him and his minions. And on the other side is Alyosha, Fr. Zosima, the Orthodox Church, the Russian masses, and Dostoevsky along with Christ and of course true freedom.
The Grand Inquisitor is not a happy person. His face is gaunt, eyes sunken; he wears a scowl. He has no love, only burning hatred. Life did not turn out as he had planned. He disdains the gift of freedom, and yet he does not give up his own freedom while taking away the freedom of the masses. He reasons that God’s world does not work and he must fix it for them, but his fix is their delusion, enslavement, and eternal destruction.
He thinks everyone else is like him – rebellious, unloving, and impersonal. Christ is his enemy and the enemy of mankind. For the Grand Inquisitor, you see, is really a projection of Ivan. And Ivan has not yet finally rejected Christ. And Christ has not rejected Ivan or locked his ticket away or seized his freedom.
Dostoevsky depicts Christ in rapturous terms as he enters the Square of Seville. Christ is depicted as light, as enlightenment, as power, and in contrast to the depiction of the Grand Inquisitor. He does not open His mouth. He has nothing to prove; only love to give. When reviled by the Grand Inquisitor, He makes no reply.
To all the insulting rhetorical questions, He gives no answer. But suddenly He approaches the old man in silence, and gently kisses him on his bloodless, 90 year old lips. That is His answer. By that kiss, He tells the Grand Inquisitor, you have betrayed me, but I still love you. And I will not take away your freedom. I bid you farewell and leave you in your prison. The beginning of freedom is yours, but not the fullness.
Let me close. The man who endured prison and found Christ there is Dostoevsky. He knew the reality that could await the Grand Inquisitor; that could await Raskolnikov. He knew the choice was a choice to love, a choice to share, a choice for real freedom and a redemptive suffering. He knew that the only love of a Sonia, only the love of Christ Himself, could draw out the necessary free and personal response that could elevate humanity to a genuine fraternity of love.
As Dostoevsky writes in his Winter Notes on Summer Impressions:
Not only should one not lose his individual personality, one must precisely become a personality to a higher degree than that which is now defined in the West. Understand me well. Voluntary, absolutely conscious, and unforced sacrifice of the self for the benefit of all is in my opinion a sign of the highest development of the personality – of its supreme power; its supreme self-mastery; the supreme freedom of the individual will. Love one another and the rest will be added unto you.
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