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  1. The Weekend Essay
25 November 2023

The dark prophet of our times

In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky dares to ask the question few will: do people truly desire freedom?

By Samuel Earle

In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s dark parable, “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor”, Jesus returns to Earth amid the Spanish Inquisition and performs smalls miracles – curing an old man of blindness, resurrecting a young girl from the dead – as hundreds of heretics are burned alive. While crowds gather at Jesus’s feet, the town’s grand inquisitor, an elderly cardinal overseeing the violence, is unimpressed, and has Jesus locked up in a prison cell where he chastises the holy prisoner for his sins.

According to the grand inquisitor, God is guilty: he has left humans to flail in the unhappiness of their own freedom, when what they really crave is bread and “someone to worship”. The brave and benevolent inquisitor has taken matters into his own hands, “correcting” God’s creation while deceiving the masses that he is merely enacting His divine will. Jesus’s untimely return merely complicates matters, undermining the grand inquisitor’s authority and utopian ambitions, and so the aged man declares that he will have Jesus burned at the stake. “Tomorrow you will see the obedient flock,” he says, “which at the first nod of my head will rush to rake up the hot embers of the bonfire on which I am going to burn you for having come to get in our way.”

The philosophical dilemmas that the “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” dramatises – whether security is more important than liberty, whether illusory happiness is preferable to authentic suffering, what ends can justify what means – are irresolvable, and so eternal. Nothing else in Dostoevsky’s body of work possesses the same aura as this short tale, recounted by Ivan Karamazov in the novelist’s last and longest novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), now published in a new translation by Michael Katz. For Dostoevsky’s biographer Joseph Frank, the “Legend” brings Dostoevsky alongside “Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare, rather than of fellow novelists, who rarely venture into such exalted territory”. Another critic has declared it “the fifth gospel”.

The novel stages the fraught relations between a father and his discordant sons to explore broader social dynamics afflicting 19th-century Russia and the world. For Dostoevsky, the advance of revolutionary and scientific sentiments – which he saw as malign imports from Europe gaining traction among Russia’s younger generation – threatened the foundations of tsarist rule, imperial identity and religious faith. Dostoevsky, who flirted with socialism as a young man but became an increasingly staunch, if idiosyncratic, conservative, was worried.

Ivan, the middle brother in the Karamazov household, is an intellectual with insurrectionary inclinations who embodies these unsettling trends. Alyosha, the youngest and Ivan’s sole audience when he recites the “Legend”, is a much-adored cherub who is training to become a monk at the local monastery. Dmitry, the oldest, is an excitable hedonist, teetering between romance and ruin, trapped in an ignominious battle with their buffoonish father, Fyodor, for the affections of a town beauty.

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There also seems to be a fourth brother: Smerdyakov, the family servant rumored to be Fyodor’s illegitimate child. Smerdyakov resents his lowly standing in the family, but takes a liking to Ivan, enticed by his brother’s irreverent ideas and contempt for traditional authority, who in turn sees Smerdyakov as a recruit for any looming revolution. In the end, Smerdyakov pushes Ivan’s nihilism to its diabolical conclusion: patricide and suicide.

Ivan’s grand inquisitor parable is the offspring of a tormented soul. Ivan cannot reconcile himself to a world beset by arbitrary cruelty and suffering, where even innocent children are tortured and killed without reason. Ivan doesn’t deny God’s existence – like the grand inquisitor, he denies God’s legitimacy: the world is so unfair and inexplicable that its creator concedes all authority. The “Legend” is both an authentic cry of suffering and a warning about a looming future world where, in Ivan’s other notorious contribution to the nihilist canon, God no longer exists, and everything is permitted.

DH Lawrence, writing in 1930, believed that “the whole clue to Dostoevsky” – his religious strife, his apocalyptic imagination, his psychological insight – lay within the “Legend”. Albert Camus, who idolised Dostoevsky and had pictures of him and Tolstoy hanging in his study, went further: the entire clue to the 20th century could be found there. The grand inquisitor’s murderous logic – at once fatherly, fanatical and wounded – and his fervid following seemed to foreshadow, in Camus’ eyes, the world’s totalitarian turn. “For a long time we believed that Marx was the prophet of the 20th century,” Camus wrote in the 1950s. “We now know that his prophecy misfired. And we discover that the true prophet was Dostoevsky. He prophesied the reign of the Grand Inquisitors and the triumph of force over justice.”

Dostoevsky was equally moved by his literary creation. He told his editor that, through the legend, he had achieved the “culminating height of his literary activity”. When a friend asked why he felt so strongly about it, he replied that it was something he had carried “in his soul, so to speak, during the whole course of his life”. Almost a century and a half later, when it feels as if the reign of the grand inquisitors is once again upon us, from Russia-Ukraine to Israel-Palestine, Dostoevsky’s soul still seems to hold the clue to something larger than his life alone, a dark truth that refuses to harden into fact. His enduring relevance is maintained not only by a peculiarly enormous online presence – channelled through thousands of TikTok and YouTube videos, pithy viral quotes and lively online discussions, where he stands as the favoured sage for outcasts, misfits and introverts – but also, more unsettlingly, he stands for a world that denies any form of ethical consolation: the unbearable evidence which Dostoevsky and Ivan saw so clearly – of a world where innocent children suffer, through illness, misfortune and unspeakable human cruelty, and where people readily sacrifice the lives of others for the sake of an illusory safety – remains all around us.

Unlike most of the other great Russian writers of the 19th century – Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy – Dostoevsky, born in 1821, did not come from the landed gentry, but only joined Russian high society later, as a precarious outsider.

One reason why Dostoevsky’s novels feel so frenzied – their erratic punctuation and prolixity, their deranged lucidity – is that they were almost invariably written in a similarly frenzied state, with fears of bankruptcy never far away. Not all his stylistic pitfalls – the cheap melodrama, for instance, where too much happens “suddenly” and “unexpectedly”, and women are always wringing their hands and/or on the brink of fainting – can be blamed on his material conditions. But we don’t know how Dostoevsky’s novels would read if he had had more time to edit and polish them.

Dostoevsky’s fiction is also marked by a related sensitivity to social status. His characters are often stirred by suspicions about what their superiors are thinking, and are torn between resenting elites and wanting their approval. Dostoevsky felt the sting of social injustice early on, when he passed an exam for a prestigious school, only to discover that scholarships were reserved for families able to bribe the examiners. “What rottenness!” the 16-year-old Dostoevsky wrote to his father. “We, who struggle for every last rouble, have to pay, while others – the sons of rich fathers – are accepted without fee.” (A family friend ultimately intervened and paid Dostoevsky’s fees.) The same righteous bitterness later infused many of his characters.

His novels also bear the stamp of his middle-class education. In Russia, the children of the aristocracy were more likely to study French than the Bible, whereas Dostoevsky, in his words, “knew the Gospel almost from the cradle”. Both the religious arc of his major novels – transgression, repentance and then forgiveness – and their exalted celebration of suffering suggest the strong impression left by this education. The formative influence of the Book of Job in particular would finally be cast upon one of his characters: the elder Zosima, Alyosha’s teacher and the moral lodestar of The Brothers Karamazov. “I’ve never been able to read that sacred tale without tears,” Zosima says.

Dostoevsky’s faith was not held unquestioningly. “I am a child of this century, a child of doubt and disbelief, I always have been and always will be (I know that), until they close the lid of my coffin,” he said. The hardships he faced also forced him to interrogate God: losing both his parents within two years as a teenager; enduring the cruel theatrics of a mock execution at the behest of the tsar, who had sentenced him to death in 1849 for socialist agitating; experiencing four years in a Siberian penal colony, followed by years of military service; and then, perhaps most devastatingly, watching two of his four children die at a very young age: the first, Sofya, died within three months of her birthday in 1868, while the second, Alyosha, died aged three of an epileptic fit just before he began work on The Brothers Karamazov. The novel’s hero would bear his son’s name, while his fraught relationship to epilepsy – which Dostoevsky also suffered – is captured by the fact that he afflicts Smerdyakov with it as well.

Ivan and the grand inquisitor are literary testaments to Dostoevsky’s battles with God. The concerns animating their anger – the world’s arbitrary cruelty, especially towards innocent children, and God’s seeming indifference to it – haunted Dostoevsky’s conscience. Religion was no opiate, but rather the path to a more profound suffering. “It isn’t as a child that I believe in Christ and profess Him,” Dostoevsky explained. “My ‘hosannah’ has passed through a great crucible of doubt.”

The emotional depth of Ivan and the grand inquisitor also speaks to Dostoevsky’s ability to animate ideas and give them a life and character of their own, even – or especially – when he disagreed with them. As the literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin suggested in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929), Dostoevsky forged this feeling for thought into a new literary genre, the polyphonic novel, in which characters ceased to be mere puppets and instead became “free people who are capable of standing beside their creator, or disagreeing with him, and even of rebelling against him”. Central to this talent was experience and empathy: Dostoevsky encountered a range of tragedies and subjectivities over the course of life, not least within himself, and these encounters, Bakhtin believed, “only helped him to understand more deeply the extensive and well-developed contradictions which coexisted among people”. Even at 17, in a letter to his brother which touched upon their father’s recent death, Dostoevsky wrote: “Man is an enigma… This enigma must be solved, and if you spend all your life at it, don’t say you have wasted your time; I occupy myself with this enigma because I wish to be a man.”

The Brothers Karamazov is Dostoevsky’s greatest achievement in this vein – offering a cacophony of conflicting voices and ideas in which the most compelling character is the one to which Dostoevsky was most ideologically opposed: Ivan. Ivan recounts “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” to Alyosha about halfway through the novel. His intentions are opaque: does he share the story with Alyosha to persuade and corrupt his younger brother – or to dissuade and uncorrupt himself? He says at the outset that “it may be that I want to heal myself through you,” and there is no doubting the authenticity of his anguish. But ahead of his recital, as he catalogues gruesome examples of adults being cruel to innocent children – all of which Dostoevsky drew from newspaper reports – Ivan also gleefully relishes moments when Alyosha surrenders to his logic, suggesting a more menacing agenda. “So there is a little devil sitting in your heart, Alyosha Karamazov!” Ivan says, after Alyosha instinctively declares that a man who let his hounds loose on a little boy should be “shot”.

Ambivalence and self-uncertainty define Ivan’s being, including his feelings towards “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor”. He seems both proud and reluctant to take ownership of it. Dostoevsky felt a similar mix of pride and fear towards the “Legend”. “You might search Europe in vain for so powerful an expression of atheism,” he wrote in his diary. He intended the subsequent chapters on Zosima’s teaching to be a refutation of the grand inquisitor’s demonic logic: “My hero’s blasphemy will be triumphantly refuted in the next number, on which I am working now with fear, trembling and awe, as I consider my task (the refutation of anarchism) a patriotic exploit,” he explained to his editor. By the time he’d finished writing these passages, however, he was less convinced. “I’m worried whether it will be a sufficient answer,” he confessed.

In this sense, the “Legend” was written to be refuted. No wonder it has experienced such an independent afterlife: its most remarkable quality is neither its message nor emotional force, but the fact these formidable traits are directed against the mind that made them.

Political philosophers have often invoked the grand inquisitor in their work, but one of the most influential is Max Weber. The German sociologist shared Dostoevsky’s commitment to reckoning with the “ethical irrationality of the world” – a world filled with “undeserved suffering, unpunished injustice, and hopeless stupidity”, as Weber put it – and felt the same need to clear an ethical path “in spite of it all”. Weber’s contemporary and biographer Paul Honigsheim recalled how “preoccupied with Dostoevsky” Weber was. “I don’t remember a single Sunday conversation in which the name of Dostoevsky did not occur,” he wrote. 

In his 1919 lecture on political leadership, “Politics as a Vocation”, Weber references the grand inquisitor as an example of the diabolical equations that leaders can draw. Weber is concerned with not only how a political leader should act, but why people conform to a ruling power’s authority. The two questions are interrelated: a leader is ineffective, by definition, if people don’t want to follow them. So why do people follow a leader? What do they want? Their major “demand”, according to Weber, is “that the world order in its totality is, could and should somehow be a meaningful ‘cosmos’”. Only the ability to offer a convincing image of the world – an “ethical foundation and justification” for its arbitrary privileges and “senseless” misfortunes – establishes “the basis of legitimacy, which the ruling power claims”.

The grand inquisitor understands this, too. There can be no assumption that liberty – any more than equality, or democracy, for that matter – is an unimpeachable priority for people. “The secret of human existence does not consist in living, merely, but in what one lives for,” he tells Jesus. “Without a firm idea of what he is to live for, man will not consent to live and will sooner destroy himself than remain on the Earth, even though all around there be loaves.” Only the leader who can put consciences at ease – who can not only promise to put bread on the table but also offer answers to the questions that keep people up at night and give them reason to get up in the morning – will summon support.

According to the grand inquisitor, Jesus has failed this test as a leader. Either by vainly “thirsting for a faith that is free”, or through a misplaced belief that humans need freedom to feel spiritually fulfilled, or both, Jesus has ordained a world where life is unliveable: the existential weight is too great. “It would not be possible to leave [people] in a greater state of confusion and suffering than You did, burdening them with innumerable anxieties and unanswerable questions,” the inquisitor scolds Jesus. He has fixed His error through fire and force. By providing for people’s basic subsistence and “freeing them from freedom”, killing those who don’t conform, he ensures that the vast majority are happy, their consciences calmed, the world in order.

Weber was especially interested in forms of “charismatic” leadership, where legitimacy “rests upon the belief in magical powers, revelations and hero worship”. Charismatic rule is grounded in extraordinary achievements – the provision of authority, mystery and miracles, as the grand inquisitor says – and lasts until these achievements wear thin. The grand inquisitor is a mutant case of such leadership: an elderly leader who claims the grace of God – the original meaning of charisma – and subverts it for hellish ends. His secret is Satan: the Church has switched allegiances – and enticed by an easy life and exhilarating fear, the “obedient flock” follows.

Like a benevolent father burdening himself with a child’s unhappiness, the grand inquisitor understands both the material and mystical needs of humans, but he refuses to place any value on their agency: freedom is a curse that he has taken it upon himself to relieve – not out of selfishness but generosity. We are told of his anguish, the burden of guilt he bears for all the dead bodies, his earnest commitment to that most haunting concept, “the greater good”. The grand inquisitor has taken one of Dostoevsky’s most treasured psychological insights – that the spiritual needs of mankind are as important as their material ones, a fact that Dostoevsky believed the Western tradition, whether embodied in liberalism or socialism, too often neglected – and, unanchored from God, twisted it out of shape.

The grand inquisitor is in many ways the antithesis of Dostoevsky’s beliefs: whereas the cardinal argues that faith should be imposed through fear and consciences should be cosseted with comforting lies, Dostoevsky maintained that faith must be free and consciences should remain unconsoled. “Suffering and pain are always mandatory for broad minds and deep hearts,” Dostoevsky wrote.

Here, “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” is a stirring hymn to freedom, with all its unsettling demands. But look deeper in The Brothers Karamazov and Dostoevsky’s politics become more convoluted, even grand inquisitor-esque: he, too, believes that people should submit to a higher authority in which innocent lives are lost – the only difference is that Dostoevsky believes people should hold their belief freely rather than through force.

In the section that Dostoevsky intended to rebut the grand inquisitor, the elder Zosima defines freedom in a way that makes it synonymous with submission. Parroting Dostoevsky’s conservative politics, Zosima effectively calls on people to surrender not only to God but to all traditional authority, whether one’s father or tsar. The duty of these authority figures, meanwhile, is to feel guilt and shame for their good fortune. Zosima hopes that “a day will come to pass when even the most corrupt of our rich will end by being ashamed of his riches before the poor, and the poor, seeing his humility, will understand and give way before him, and will respond joyfully and kindly to his honourable shame”.

The Brothers Karamazov also contains flashes of Dostoevsky’s messianic nationalism and virulent anti-Semitism, both of which hardened towards the end of his life. In one egregious passage, Liza, who is 14 years old, asks Alyosha whether it is true “that at Passover the Yids steal and slaughter children?” Alyosha, beacon of life and empathy, can only reply: “I don’t know.” The young girl then reveals that she has been reading about “some trial” concerning “a Yid who took a four-year-old child and cut off the fingers from both his little hands, and then crucified him”. Here the book’s moral refrain – why do innocent children suffer? – is effectively pinned on the Jewish people. It is only the most glaring of several passing swipes. Zosima’s message of compassion and empathy only stretches so far.

The grand inquisitor is often read as a warning against fascism and the dangerous appeal of demagogic leaders. Given what came later, and the grim evidence we still see around us today, the cardinal’s calculations that a brave leader could build a better, fairer world even if it entailed mass murder, and that submission to authority was more important to humans than liberty, are filled with foreboding. But Dostoevsky’s politics often drifted in precisely that direction, and one can’t help but wonder whether, had been alive, he’d have been cheering on fascism’s rise.

Dostoevsky, after all, scorned democracy and all notions of political equality. He saw the Jewish people as agents of a destructive capitalist modernity, and believed the nation to which he belonged had a sacred mandate to rule the world. In his famous speech commemorating Pushkin, delivered months before the final instalment of The Brothers Karamazov and a year before his death in 1881, he explained his vision of the “Russian idea” before a rapturous audience. In his telling, as the authentic embodiment of true Christianity, Russia would finally unite East and West. Dressed up in the language of universal brotherhood, the speech provided, in the words of his biographer Joseph Frank, “a morally attractive facade for Russian imperialism”. A few years earlier he had also penned a short piece titled “Not Always Is War a Scourge. Sometimes It Is Salvation”, in which he wrote: “It is not in peace alone… that salvation is to be found; sometimes it is also in war.”

More than 30,000 people attended Dostoevsky’s funeral procession on 31 January 1881. One explanation for the huge turnout is that there were many different Dostoevsky’s to mourn. He had inside him arguments and their opposite, theses and antitheses, socialism and conservatism, faith and doubt, delirium and wisdom. He was, as one French critic put it, “the Shakespeare of the lunatic asylum” – and his universality may simply lie in the fact that we all have lunacy inside us, a voice that raves and rages against the world, despite our efforts at denial and repression. Dostoevsky gave this repressed voice a full hearing and, through the shocking yet relatable derangement of his characters, let readers feel sane. Friedrich Nietzsche, who achieved something similar through his philosophy, referred to Dostoevsky as “the only psychologist… from whom I had something to learn”. Sigmund Freud, who later subjected those same inner demons to scientific scrutiny, described The Brothers Karamazov as “the most magnificent novel ever written” and “the episode of the Grand Inquisitor, one of the peaks in the literature of the world”.

Dostoevsky bequeathed many conflicting legacies. A devout Christian, he armed a generation of existentialists. A critic of capitalism, he is beloved by conservatives fanatical about capitalism. And despite his strong words against socialists, the left is no less drawn to him and often seems to think, not entirely without reason, that deep down his social conscience makes him one of their own. “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” also inspired an entire library of dystopian fiction – variations on the same story where freedom is surrendered for an illusory safety or happiness, which almost always include a “grand inquisitor scene”, where the villainous leader explains to a captive subject the evil genius of their plan. These stories, which include Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, are often deployed to advocate for precisely the triumphant individualism that Dostoevsky detested.

More than anything else he left behind, “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” captures Dostoevsky’s self-contradictory genius. A gloomy prophecy and paean to liberty, a denunciation of despotism and of liberal democracy, an ode to the conflicting desires of the human mind and their capacity for vicious cruelty – nothing affirms more powerfully Dostoevsky’s readiness to express the very ideas and attitudes he sought to discourage, his determination to do so in their most persuasive form, and his creations’ ability to work against him. In this context, surely the character who Dostoevsky resembles is Ivan: a fierce intellect who could not look away, who had “The Legend of Grand Inquisitor” inside them, whose legacy was ultimately sealed by their inability to control the course of their genius.

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