Between the material happiness and spiritual bliss

Bogomir Novak

The legend of the Grand Inquisitor as a chapter in the novel the Brothers Karamazov is still topical today. There is Ivan telling to Alyosha a legend as a sacred and historically unconfirmed, invented story. The legend of the Grand Inquisitor is set in the time of inquisition, the time coinciding with the Second Coming of Christ to the earth. He would be disappointed as he would see that the kingdom of earth has prevailed. The teaching of Christ has been distorted by the authorities and he can do nothing against it. However, he is not crucified for the second time because the inquisitor does not impose any sanctions on him. The inquisitor has taken freedom away from people because it is too much of a burden to them. Krilov in the Devils at the individual level is what the Grand Inquisitor is at the social level. The pro et contra discussion focuses on the question whether the suffering has any sense or if it is meaningless and the ticket should therefore be returned to God for the suffering of the children, as Ivan roughly put it. He resembles the Biblical rebels such as Lucifer – the fallen angel – and Kayn – the murderer of his brother Abel. The inquisitor uses it to defend his atheism – which he does not regard as a mistake and does not repent it. Christ as a brother of Alyosha is just an eyewitness of the situation and not someone who could judge. Ivan and the inquisitor – his invention – judge the world as an experiment – experimentum mundi (Bloch’s term) – in the light of the dilemma: reason or faith. As we know, Alyosha advocates faith. Ivan advocates reason. There are many sources for Dostoyevsky’s premise of the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor. Perhaps we could trace it back to the relation between the utopian socialism and Christianity as it is clear from Cabet’s book The Real Christianity or from a letter of Belinski to Botkin.

We are not aware enough that freedom has its hidden traps and that it can soon turn into bondage. It seems that Dostoyevsky highlights two extremes: to renounce freedom and to advocate absolute freedom. According to the interpretation of Berdjajev (1998), freedom is for Dostoyevsky something terrible, incomprehensible and mysterious since it is unlimited as it comes from nothing and is for nothing. It cannot be used for acquiring economic goods as it is regarded in the utilitarian ethics of the West. Due to the tendency of rational clarity and transparency of the events, a human being thinks the Grand Inquisitor is good enough since he is supposedly the only one to know anything about the afterworld. Nevertheless, he does not believe in the immortality of the soul. Berdjajev interprets Dostoyevsky’s non-final concept in line with the new Russian middle ages and with the renunciation to the Western enlightened rationalism and science. A human being is for him first and foremost a spiritual being. Experience is for him everything, rational thought is nothing. There is no synthesis between east and west – the fact important to the Slovenes who are at the crossroads.

Dostoyevsky in the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor paints a utopian social system founded on forced labour and collective spending of leisure time. The Grand Inquisitor is at the helm of the subdued mass of people programmed in the following way: The most painful secrets of our consciousness – all, all shall be brought to us and we shall decide about everything and they shall believe in our decision with joy as it shall deliver them from a great concern and torment, currently caused by personal and free choice. While Nietzsche’s Antichrist is spontaneously Dyonisian, Dostoyevsky’s or rather Ivan’s is primarily a rational organiser of social order and masses are grateful to him for it. The Legend displays many motives of a totalitarian state because the liberation of masses comes before the liberation of an individual personality, manicheistic fight between the good and the evil, Machiavelistic cunning and power, sadism of revenge on the innocent victims, Caesarist-papism of the secular rectification of the Christ’s teaching. Decision-taking of the authorities regarding the happiness of individuals leads to the voluntary slavery and personal running away from freedom understood as responsibility and thus subduing it to the globalizational universalism. Berdjajev (1998) enumerates temptations, of which the temptation of the right or left state autotarianism is especially important for the Legend; Fausti (2000), as a reaction to them, indicates some exercises to distinguish between the voice of the good spirit and of the evil.

The dilemma of slavery or freedom is the key for the end of history. With the development of the industrial society, a human being has become aware of the new forms of enslavement, namely exploitation. A question was posed whether a state and a society can, by changing a social system, free an individual. Dostoyevsky radicalised the question of free will in his mystical belief that freedom is a gift of God or else it does not exist at all. Even the revolutionists that Dostoyevsky met in the second half of the 19th century seemed to him more like lunatics and not like liberators. The unhappy premonition that a lonely individual in a mass is not free but a tool of will to (political) power was confirmed in the 20th century by the horrific number of victims. The transfer of power to (un)thoughtful machines might be comical according to Aristotel’s judging that the tools could go to meetings by themselves, but today it is dangerous for the very existence of the human kind. The human kind is illustrated, in the Legend, by the mass longing to achieve something higher than itself; be it a miracle, secrete and authority or authoritarianism and even if it is a switch quid pro quo of the craving for true love for the hunger for consumable goods. Hence, the importance of the directionality of the longing policy (Zupančič, 1989). The policy suppressing the longing (German Sehnsucht) in everyday pragmatism deprives a human being – citizen of his/her historical role of participation in democratic processes. Deprived and decentred, an individual is faced with the dilemma: to madly spend energy for nugatory goals or to gain blessing after repentance without synthesis of reason and faith, as foreseen by the pope John Paul II to happen in the post-modern time (German: Zeitgeist). The Legend remains to be not only without the Old Greek criterion of the happy medium but also without converting (Greek metanoia) Saul to Paul.

The socialistic ideology reduced a human being to a materialistic being of needs. Catholicism nevertheless recognises freedom of consciousness. It intensifies the question of freedom without happiness and of happiness without freedom. The topic of the Legend is the idea of a rebellion beside the point to God – rebellion leading to denial of freedom. People are left with the nihilistic religion only. Dostoyevsky judges that suffering is necessary for human beings because without it, they could not tell the good and evil apart as it was demonstrated by the historic events in the previous century. We fight for freedom by suffering, making effort and even by facing danger of death. There is no headway without heroism and sacrifices. Freedom is aristocratic, i.e. suitable just for some. History has it that we are only heirs and that the legacy does not make us richer but it is a burden to us.

Dostoyevsky advocates life from the depth of the soul and of its intimacy; therefore, he indirectly criticises Bentham’s principle of happiness for the greatest number of people. Conceding to the style of ecstasy, he resists to the Western rationality. The Russian Orthodox Church did not fall under the sin of the inquisition, regardless of heretic or other reasons conditioning it in the Roman-Catholic Church. Therefore, the Grand Inquisitor is a technical carrier of the Western illusion of the immortality of soul. The immortality as an ideal was ridiculed by Dostoyevsky in the Dream of a Ridiculous Man. He found out that this would lead to idleness and stagnation; it was also characterised by Kierkegaard as something more horrible than death.

The Inquisitor is a tragic figure as he is aware that he makes people’s lives – normally hard and miserable – easier only by offering material gains. As this can be changed into an unbearable lightness, the inquisitor is himself just a tool of self-deception together with the promise of happiness. At the same time it is obvious that Christ cannot fulfil the promise of salvation for those who do not believe thanks to the inquisitor or other false prophets. What makes the inquisitor deceive people cannot be made true by Christ.

The relation between the inquisitor and Christ equals the relation between the material happiness and spiritual bliss, slavery and freedom, mortality and immortality. People cannot find out that running away from freedom means running away from one-self, indicating that a person wearing masks just seconds by playing the roles within the dual morale or morale of a flock. Running away from self-responsibility means worshipping a false master. Rebellion to God leads to denying freedom even though it seems, at first sight, to be the other way around.

Following the way of the apostle Paul, the pope John Paul II apologised for the past sins of his brothers and sisters, meaning that the Western Catholic Church has started a new life after the saint year 2000. The comparison between the catholic policy of the current pope and Dostoyevsky’s criticism of Caesarist-papism is negative. It is questionable whether the pope’s efforts lead to fusion or at least to reconciliation of all religions and Churches representing them or just to the extremes of Catholicism. Thus Dostoyevsky’s outcome of the Legend would be made positive by repentance of the false protagonists. Instead, it ends unresolved just as Kant’s antinomy of freedom or nature of necessity. Because it does make a difference to which master masses adhere! If masses follow leaders, this means that a majority takes the Gospels for self-illuding and just a minority as a revelation as Šestov (2001) pointed out through Pascal. We shall not deal with history of the changing relation between the secular and the saint – pertaining to God – nor with the history of models of relations between the Church and the state. However, these models indicate turning points to the original Christianity and against it.

Saint years come every quarter of a century and are a sign of Christian reform (Benedik, 2000), a response to the challenges of time. The key difference is in the way the reform is carried out. The Church can be reformed from the outside or from the inside. Even the Church – just as its believers – faces temptations that are either described in the Bible as three temptations of Christ by the evil spirit or they pertain to the Constantinian, i.e. established Church and are analysed by Dostoyevsky in the aforementioned Legend and by Berdjajev in his Dostojno krščanstvo (2001).

Today’s nihilism entails also the religious nihilism maintained by the spiritual misery or apathy of the spirit. This is of course not the openness to the acts of the St Spirit. On the contrary: in this dechristianised world, we are religiously alienated as well as economically but we still feel quite ourselves and we do not sense any need for radical change. It is well known that a certain form of religiousness can be met by a certain form of atheism as well as that all attempts to annul the afterworld in this world or vice versa have turned out to be violent. Those who know that they cannot serve two masters, serve none. Albert Camus in the Rebel analyses Dostoyevsky’s heroes who commit suicide because of the rebellion to the living God. Today’s narcissists do not feel their will imprisoned and therefore, not only that they do not admit the deadlock of their spirit but they cannot even experience a cultural catharsis. New heaven and new earth are symbols that can be accepted by Alyosha with active love but cannot be understood by Ivan with Euclidian mind.

Today’s human being indulging to sensate pleasures, rationally calculates the advantages and believes in the horror of the nothingness at the end of his/her life, has no anathema for accepting higher energies in order to understand the message of the symbols. Consequently, the historic events are more often perceived in the light of rational purposes and of the relation between metaphoric sheep and wolves than of the relation between the human and the saint.


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