The following is based on the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of this novel.
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky is, in part, an analysis and exploration of the author’s belief in the necessity of human suffering and doubt. Dostoevsky is practicing theology here. He is postulating what is required of a good Christian and a good person. In his worldview, one cannot just be born into happy circumstances, live a virtuous life and find God along the way. Instead, one must experience significant suffering and uncertainty on the path to salvation. Many permutations on this belief are expounded in the lives of various characters as well as through conversations and stories intertwined with the narrative.
Though it is a devil who says,
“suffering is life. Without suffering, what pleasure would there be in it— everything would turn into an endless prayer service: holy, but a bit dull.”,
the theme of pain and doubt being a necessary part of the universe permeates throughout the book.
Included in the narrative is a nuts and bolts philosophical explanation as to why these ills exist and why they are mandatory prerequisites to a truly pious life. There is a segment of the novel that is sometimes known as the Story of The Grand Inquisitor. This is an extraordinary piece of theological musing. Presented as an outline for a prospective poem by skeptic Ivan Karamazov, one of the brothers, it is “written” by Ivan as a critique of Christianity. However, it clearly encapsulates many of Dostoyevsky’s own views, as the attack upon Christianity is unmistakably hollow and ultimately fails.
I must note that the piece does serve as scathing criticism of what Dostoyevsky sees as a terrible perversion of the Christian thought system, which in the author’s eyes is perpetuated by the Catholic Church and other human institutions.
An official of the Spanish Inquisition, the Grand Inquisitor makes his living by having the innocent burned alive. One day Christ returns to Earth. Though he does recognize Christ for who he is, the Grand Inquisitor has him arrested anyway. What follows is the Grand Inquisitor’s explanation to Christ of both his actions and the actions of the Catholic Church actions, which Dostoevsky identifies with the abdication of free will and of Satan himself.
The Grand Inquisitor focuses on the three temptations that the Devil offered Jesus. He sees these temptations as not only personal; they are actually Satan’s attempt at wrecking God’s plan for the universe. If Jesus had succumbed, free will would have perished. The Grand Inquisitor ironically believes that the rejection of these temptations was a mistake as he views free will undesirable. He advocates an all- powerful earthly church, which provides evidence of abundant miracles, provides material aplenty and is the source earthly power and authority.
First, Christ refused the temptation of making bread from stones. The Grand Inquisitor, and clearly Dostoyevsky, sees this as God’s unwillingness to provide infinite material necessities to humankind. If God provided so easily for these needs, then inevitably everyone would become a Christian and follow God in exchange for such security. Thus free will would not really exist.
Paradoxically, the Grand Inquisitor argues that God should provide material security and comfort to all in order to cement worship and religious piety. He says to Jesus,
“and you rejected it in the name of freedom and heavenly bread. Now see what you did next. And all again in the name of freedom! I tell you that man has no more tormenting care than to find someone to whom he can hand over as quickly as possible that gift of freedom with which the miserable creature is born. But he alone can take over the freedom of men who appeases their conscience. With bread you were given an indisputable banner: give man bread and he will bow down to you”
At the Pinnacle of the temple, Christ refuses to hurl himself down and prove that the Angels will rescue him. The Grand inquisitor explains that a God that provides continual miracles is a God that everyone would follow as a matter of course. Though, once again, the Grand Inquisitor argues in favor of a world where miracles abound in order to convince the masses of God’s existence. Clearly, it is Dostoyevsky’s view that in such a universe, faith and, consequentially, free will would once again be subverted.
Jesus’s final temptation involves him refusing control over the kingdoms of the world. Here, the Grand Inquisitor explains that this is God’s rejection of temporal authority and, not surprisingly, sees this rejection as a blunder. Of course, in the philosophy espoused by the author, a government tied too closely to religion would force its subjects to be Christians, once again negating the concept of free will.
But the Grand Inquisitor argues to Jesus,
“Had you accepted that third counsel of the mighty spirit, you would have furnished all that man seeks on earth, that is: someone to bow down to, someone to take over his conscience, and a means for uniting everyone at last into a common, concordant, and incontestable anthill”
The Grand Inquisitor sees these rejections as flaws in God’s plan. If the Grand Inquisitor had his way, suffering would not exist, miracles would abound, obliterating skepticism, and the governments would enforce religious devotion. Free will and salvation would be unnecessary.
Obviously, Dostoyevsky views the world’s ills (of which he includes religious skepticism) as necessary components in the concept of free will and the salvation of humanity. It ties in to the author’s message that suffering is also very crucial component in the individual’s successful search for God.
Though not a believer, I have two observations concerning Dostoyevsky’s theology. First it seems logically elegant. It presents a coherent explanation for human suffering and the lack of strong everyday evidence of an omnipotent God. Furthermore, this explanation is supported by at least some parts of the Gospels.
Second, though I would guess that Dostoyevsky would disagree with this conclusion, it seems more agenda centered as opposed to compassion centered. Though Dostoyevsky champions compassion and mentions God’s love at various points in the text of The Brothers Karamazov, this prerequisite of suffering built into the Universe defiantly puts God’s plan ahead of God’s desire to obviate human pain. In a world of torture, slavery, children murdered before their parents, etc., it becomes, at least for me, a much harder sell to say that God is all loving when the “plan” is more important than preventing these horrors.
I am very aware that Dostoevsky’s interpretation of Christian theology is not universally shared by Christians and is not even embraced by the majority. It is not remotely compatible with my own view of the universe. With that said, not only is it an ingeniously laid out theology, but it is a belief system that Dostoevsky has presented in a way that conveys sublime aesthetic value.
More to come on this work.
Some general commentary on this novel is here.
Some general commentary on this novel is here.