The Brothers Karamazov
Book Five, Chapter Five (The Grand Inquisitor)
by Dennis Abrams
Too much to say? I’m almost done…this is from Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, and is a reading that strikes home with me and that I find particularly persuasive:
“Christ returned to earth once, Ivan tells Alyosha, in Seville, at the time of the Inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor had him seized and cast into prison. The same evening he visited him, and explained why he could not allow him to resume his ministry in Seville. This, in summary is what he tells Christ: ‘What message did you preach in Palestine? That all men must strive for more abundant life, that they must Will unceasingly to realize that ‘The Kingdom of God is within them,’ that they should not be content to be men, but should strive to be ‘Sons of God’? You raised the standard of conduct of the Old Testament; you added to the Ten Commandments. Then you left us to build a Church on your precepts. What you didn’t seem to realise is that all men are not prophets and moral geniuses. It is not the Church’s business to save only those few who are strong-willed to save themselves. We are concerned about raising the general standard of all the race, and we can’t do this by telling every man that he had better be his own Church — as you did. That is tantamount to telling every man that he must be an Outsider — which God forbid! The Outsider’s problems are insoluble, and we, the elect know this. You raised the standard too high, and have had to haul it down again. We the elect, are unhappy — because we know just how terribly difficult it is to ‘achieve salvation.’ But we have always kept this a secret from the people — who are not much better than dogs and cats, after all. Now you come back, proposing to give the show away! Do you suppose I can allow that? I am afraid I shall have to have you quietly done away with and it is entirely your own fault. Prophets are all very well when they are dead, but while they are alive there is nothing for it but to burn or crucify them.’
As the Grand Inquisitor ends his indictment, Christ leans forward and kisses him on his pale lips. This is his reply: Your reasoning is powerful but my love is stronger.
But Ivan has stated the case against religion as it has never been stated, before or since. Christ’s love is no answer to that.
Dostoevsky’s avowed intention in writing The Brothers Karamazov was to analyse and refute atheism. There are many critics who believe that in this his artistry overcame his intentions, and that he made Ivan’s case unanswerable. Let us agree at one that ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ is an artistic tour de force, and the statement of the opposite case (in the ‘Russian Monk’ section) cannot compare with it in power and conviction. But let us not confuse the dramatic effectiveness of an argument with its final truth. What Ivan has done is to express the ultimate No that drove Lawrence to mind-suicide, and Van Gogh, Nijinsky and Nietzsche insane. [What does Wilson mean by the ultimate “no?” A couple of ways to looks at the ultimate “yes” vs. the ultimate “no” — being or nothingness? eternal love or eternal indifference? does happiness make misery unimportant, or does misery (in all its forms) make happiness seem a delusion?] He has done this so brilliantly, and so finally, that we must pay a great deal of attention to his argument, and get its full significance quite clear, before we go on to consider the ‘refutation’ of it. It is the most tremendous Outsider indictment ever written. The picture we have built up of the Outsider shows him as a half-way house to a higher-type of man than the ‘once-born’ man; he loses more sleep, eats less, and suffers from all kinds of nervous diseases. Nevertheless, when we have analysed the Outsider’s uneasiness, his state of nervous tension, we have found it to have an objective cause in his sense of the precariousness of human life, as exemplified in this passage from Gloucester’s lines in the Duke’s speech from Beddoe’s Death’s Jest Book:
‘The look of the world’s a lie, a face made up
O’er graves and fiery depths, and nothing’s true
But what is horrible. If man could see
The perils and diseases that he elbows
Each day he walks a mile, which catch at him,
Which fall behind and graze him as he passes,
Then he would know that life’s a single pilgrim
Fighting unarmed among a thousand soldiers.’
Now, the once-born bourgeois might object that the precariousness is there; everybody knows it; it would be folly to live in a state of nervous tension on account of it. (He might instance the ancient Greeks, that nation of healthy, once-born optimists whose art is full of the consciousness of death and its inevitability.) But this is to ignore the biological truth that preservation of life depends on awareness of death. If you inoculate a man with a small quantity of a disease he becomes immune to a large quantity; if you subject a man to extremes of heat and cold, he develops a resistance to both and can survive under conditions that would kill another man. The Outsider can regard his exacerbated sense of life’s precariousness as a biological measure to increase his toughness; in fact, to make him capable of ‘living more abundantly.’ This is the conclusion that Steppanwolf reached.
Dostoevsky has considered the question from the angle of freedom. His beetle-man stated his credo, ‘that man’s whole business is to prove that he is a man, not a cog-wheel.’ Freedom means life; it has no meaning in relation to a chest of drawers or a dead body. It has less meaning for a tree than for a man. In the same way, it has less meaning for an incurable dipsomaniac or drug-addict than for a normally healthy person. The more life, the more possibility of freedom.
Now we can begin to see the full meaning of Ivan’s arguments. His argument build up carefully to the conclusion of [William] James’ vastation: ‘There is no freedom.’ He agrees, there is life; he loves life, ‘the sticky buds in spring,’ but he cannot accept any meaning of life. It just ‘is’ — a senseless, devil-ridden chaos. In the section on cruelty to children, Ivan paints his Nietzschean picture of human nature: human, all to human, futile,. deluded; the intelligence that makes him man only making him (as Mephistopheles says) more brutal than any beast. Now Ivan passes on to Christ; and here we are reminded of a speech by Kirilov [from Demons], when he tells Netchaev:
‘Listen to a great idea: there was a day on earth and in the middle of earth were three crosses. A man on one cross had such faith that he said to another: ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’ The day ended, both died, and neither found paradise nor resurrection…Listen, that man was the greatest of all on earth…The whole planet…is sheer madness without that man. And so if the lives of Nature didn’t spare even him…if they made even him live among lies and die for a lie, then the whole planet is a lie, and is based on a lie and a stupid mockery.’
Ivan also believes that ‘that man was the greatest of all on earth,’ and his ‘Grand Inquisitor’ legend is an expansion of Kirilov’s speech. The Inquisitor is a man of spiritual insight; he has starved in the desert to achieve freedom; but, as Ivan says, ‘he saw that it was no moral blessedness to achieve perfection if at the same time one gains the conviction that millions of God’s creatures have been created as a mockery: that these poor rebels can never turn into giants!’ The Inquisitor’s feeling about mankind is one of deep pity. Perhaps the Outsider can be aware of depths of human misery, but these poor insects, leading their blinded lives, who would open their eyes to their own bondage and wretchedness? What good would it do, anyway? Give them bread and amusements; give them shallow little creeds to fight over and silly little superstitions to sing hymns about, but don’t ask wisdom of them. Christ asked: Which of you can drink of the cup that I drink of? Yet he behaved as if everyone could. He said: ‘My Yoke is easy and my burden light,’ but this is a liek for freedom is the greatest burden of all: to tell every man to think for himself, to solve the problem of good and evil and then act according to his solution: to live for truth and not for his country, or society, or his family. It is kinder to men to think of them as insects; eternal life for such creatures must be a monstrous superstition. There will always be those few who strive to realize the ideal of freedom by being their own judge; these will know the agony of standing alone. ‘For only we, who guard the mystery, shall be unhappy,’ the Inquisitor tells Christ. This is the conclusion of the ‘Treatise on the Steppanwolf.’ The Outsider is always unhappy, but he is the agent that ensures happiness for millions of “Insiders.’ Haller’s reaction to this truth [in Herman Hesse’s Steppanwolf], we remember, was the decision to cut his own throat. Alyosha asks Ivan: ‘How can you live, with such a hell in your heart and head?’ And Ivan answers: ‘There is a strength to endure everything.’ This is Ivan’s case, case for Ultimate No.”
[In Book Six, we sill read ‘The Recollections of Father Zosima,’ Dostoevsky’s answer to “The Grand Inquisitor” As you can imagine, it provides a different set of answers and solution.]
“Man can live on Ivan’s level or Zosima’s. Or he can do infinitely worse and live on the level of the common bourgeois. What is important is that he leave the world of common day-light; when he enters the no–man’s land between hell and heaven, he is an Outsider. Now the difficulties begin. Unless he is very lucky he will find his face turned towards hell; human delusion, corruption, pain, stupidity, ultimate defeat, these are the realities that suddenly occupy his whole field of vision. And behind them, the canvas on which these are merely shadows, the terror of complete emptiness, unbeing, the abyss.
It is not easy to escape; it is not easy because there seems to be no reason for escaping; this negates even the concept of freedom. the release, if it comes, involves a complete retracing of the steps through the human ground; back to the essential Will to live that underlies all existence. And this recognition of the world’s unreality, this insight that comes between death and morning, brings a certainty in its wake. It is naked insight into the purpose of the force that demands life at all costs. This insight is called mysticism.
Ivan is half a mystic; as Alyosha says: he has only half solved the problem. Zosima is less aware of the world’s misery and man’s weakness than Ivan. He does not even hope that all men will become ‘guardians of the mystery.’ He does not preach life after death, heaven for the good,k hell for the wicked. ‘What is Hell? I maintain it is the suffering of not being able to love — and for that, you do not need Eternity; a day will do, or even a moment.'”
Book Five, Chapter Six