Thursday, 28 June 2018

The philosophy of Dostoevsky








Introduction

I first read Dostoevsky when I was at Cambridge doing my Ph.D.  I can’t remember why I decided to begin the Brothers Karamazov. I must have first heard of Dostoevsky when I was about eighteen. I think I saw someone reading Crime and Punishment and asked about it. I came away with the impression that Dostoevsky was rather hard. I have always liked challenges and so I must have stored away the idea that I should read him.
I was studying Søren Kierkegaard. I came to him by chance too. Perhaps I read somewhere that there were similarities between Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard. Someone might have mentioned that the Brothers Karamazov contains a good deal that is philosophical and theological.
I read the Brothers Karamazov in the translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky. It had only just come out. I read the novel like I would read any other novel. I liked it but found it tough going and certainly didn’t understand all of it. The plot could be condensed down to about two hundred pages. But stretched to over a thousand pages with long stretches of dialogue it is possible to lose sight of what is going on.
People sometimes ask which translation they should read. I usually answer that it doesn’t much matter. Each translation has its merits and each has its faults. There are I think too ways to translate. Either you set out to produce a text that is as close as possible to the original or you try to create a text that is the best possible English even if it is not so close to the original.
I much prefer the King James Version of the Bible because it is the best possible English. It is rather archaic now, but then so is Shakespeare and so especially is Chaucer. What does being archaic have to do with the issue anyway? But although I much prefer the language of the King James Bible, I accept that it is not always terribly accurate. Bible scholarship has moved on and we can produce more accurate translations. They are usually rather ugly however. The difference is between “Lead me not into temptation” “Save us from the time of trial” The one is beautiful and clearly expresses the meaning in general, the latter is more accurate, but ugly. It depends on what you are looking for.
Vladimir Nabokov brilliantly translated Pushkin’s poem Evgeny Onegin. It sets out to reproduce as accurately as possible the Russian text. It is not of course completely literal. Russian is very far indeed from English. I always illustrate this in a couple of ways. In Russian there isn’t really a verb “to be” in the present tense. You can’t say “I am Russian”, you just say “I Russian”. There isn’t really a verb “to have” in the sense that we use it. You don’t usually say “I have a car” rather you say “At me is a car”. Russian tends to use passive constructions more than English. You don’t say “I am twenty”, but rather “To me is twenty years”. You don’t say “I am called John”, but rather “They call me John”. There is no word for “a” and no word for “the”. To attempt therefore to translate Russian completely literally leads to something quite horrible. What this means is that a balance has to be struck. You have no choice but to paraphrase to an extent.
Nabokov’s Onegin is as close as you can possibly get to reproducing Pushkin in English. For a student following Pushkin’s Russian text this translation is invaluable, but it in no way is able to show what is beautiful about Pushkin and why everyone thinks that Pushkin was the greatest Russian writer. The poetry has been lost in the translation. The only way to keep the poetry is to get a writer who is the equal of Pushkin to use Pushkin’s text as a basis for a new poem. This was done with Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer. In that case the translation may not be especially accurate, but it will at least be great writing.
This is our problem. We read a novel by a great writer called Dostoevsky, but when reading a translation we read not one of his words. All of the words we read are by a translator. But is this translator a great writer? Nabokov was a fine writer, but rarely do translators even approach this level. Usually a translator’s skill is in knowing foreign languages. But this does not make you a good writer, let alone a great one.
With regard to Dostoevsky I think that Pevear and Volokhonsky are accurate, but the English frequently is poor. As I understand it Volokhonsky produces a literal translation and her husband then turns it into better English. The result is a text that is very close to Dostoevsky. It is therefore very useful for someone who is following the Russian text and using a translation to help them. The result however I find to be stylistically poor. Perhaps it is that Pevear just isn’t a very good writer. I find his introductions to be full of ugly English too. Perhaps this method of translating will always produce a text that is too literal. I have read that Pevear’s Russian is not especially fluent. Who knows if this true? But it may be that neither of this husband and wife team could produce a reasonable translation on their own. It is perhaps for this reason that while I use it myself precisely because it is literal I would not recommend it to someone who didn’t speak Russian.
What does it matter to you really if the translation is literal, you will never read or compare it with the original. Better by far to pick the translation with the best style. Dostoevsky is difficult enough without making the English difficult and convoluted. His style cannot be reproduced anyway.
There are translators who are far better writers than Pevear. I would recommend David McDuff in penguin and Ignat Avsey in Oxford World Classics. I will continue to use Pevear, but only because I can read Russian.
Ideally of course you should learn Russian. But this is hardly realistic for everyone. There are always going to be novels in languages which we don’t know. We cannot learn every language. At least I can’t. But in the case of Dostoevsky what is most interesting is neither his plots nor his style.
I keep returning to Dostoevsky, though I think Tolstoy and Pushkin are better writers. Dostoevsky’s style takes some getting used to. The dialogue is frequently impossibly unrealistic. His grammar is convoluted and you can get lost in long sentences that go on and on. There are times when I find him to be obscure. There are sentences and whole chapters where I’m not that sure what he means. But sometimes this is my fault. On re-reading a chapter, on returning to a novel after the gap of some years I find my understanding has improved. There are ideas in Dostoevsky that are very deep indeed. These are not lost in translation.
I don’t intend much to comment on plot. I will focus almost entirely on the Brothers Karamazov, but I will include a few pieces from other novels. I think the Brothers Karamazov is by far the most interesting of Dostoevsky’s novels in terms of philosophy and theology. Perhaps this is just because, this is the novel that I have studied the most. There are no doubt other seams that can be mined in the Idiot, Crime and Punishment and Demons. Perhaps I will go on to mine them, but as yet most of the ideas that I find interesting are in the Brothers Karamazov.
These ideas are not everywhere. There are whole chunks of the Dostoevsky that are not about philosophy and not about theology. There are whole chunks that are only to do with character and plot. These are of course interesting, but they are not what I am writing about. I am not doing literary criticism. I find the activity of academics who write poorly criticising writers who write well to be peculiarly self-defeating and presumptuous. Why would I want to read such people rather than the texts themselves?
For this reason also my method of writing is not scholarly. You will not find many footnotes here. This is not how I write. When I was at Cambridge I took a book by Kierkegaard and wrote about it in great detail. I wrote about the text and only about the text. Later because this was the game that we had to play I went to the library and read a whole chunk of secondary sources and put them in footnotes. But I only ever read indexes and only ever used the odd sentence which I could put into the footnote. The purpose was just to play the game. But I find this game to be pointless. You too can search in a library or an online database for books and articles about Dostoevsky. You don’t need my help.
But if you want to read one person’s response to the text then that is what you will get. Of course this method may be self-defeating. If I don’t read secondary sources, why should you. Quite right it is better by far that you should read Dostoevsky than read me. But perhaps you are seeking a guide, someone who may have some interesting ideas about a writer that you like. If that is so, then you may find this book interesting.
I will not explain very much about the novels I discuss, their characters or their plots. I start from the assumption that you have already read the novels. Much of what I write will be perfectly comprehensible even if you haven’t yet read the novels, but some will not.
I write only about those chapters where I think I have something interesting to say. Large chunks of the novels I pass over in silence. Each chapter will be unconnected with the others and can be read separately in any order, but I can find a way of unifying them later I will do so. Dixi.

Chapter 1

Women of Faith

One of the biggest obstacles to understanding the Brothers Karamazov and Dostoevsky in general is that the world he is writing about is quite different from the world in which most of us live today.
Even when I first went to Russia in the latter years of the twentieth century I found it to be at times startling different from the Britain in which I had grown up. Here was a country that for the most part had not gone through the upheaval of the 1960s. It had next to no experience of immigration from places anywhere other than the former Soviet Union. People appeared to have a morality that was similar to Britain in the 1940s. Most startling of all and a huge surprise to me was that Christian faith was alive and well. Ordinary people believed even if they sometimes had little conception of what they were believing. In busses it was common to come across icons. There were newly build churches and people went to them. Moreover when I talked to people I often found that they really did believe and believed quite literally.
How much stranger still is the Russia from the time of the Brothers Karamazov? Faith is at the heart of the novel and unless you can overcome the barriers to reading about this faith you will get little from the novel. If you simple dismiss it, then why read the Brothers Karamazov? It has nothing to say to you. Really. Nothing at all. Read something else.
Nowhere is this distance better shown than in Book two chapter 3 “Women of Faith”. The elder Zozima has gone out to speak to some women who have been waiting to talk to him. One of them approaches on her knees asking for absolution and says “I have sinned, dear father, I am afraid of my sin” (p. 51)
How many of us nowadays talk about having sinned? It is a concept that belongs almost exclusively to a church ritual that for most of us is dead. Yet this woman is not talking ritually. She is talking quite literally. But more startling yet, when did you last hear someone say they were afraid of sin. What is there to be afraid of?
Imagine if I have done some wrong, nothing illegal, but something that I consider to be wrong. No-one knows about it and it seems I’ve got away with it. Why would I be afraid? Of what would I be afraid? I might have told my husband a lie. I might have had an affair with someone else. But given that no-one will ever know, in what sense can I be said to be afraid of this “sin”. It is hard to imagine anyone in contemporary Britain feeling sin in this way, let alone being afraid of it. This is the distance between us and the time of which Dostoevsky is writing.
The woman goes on to describe her sin. She says “My married life was hard, he was old, he beat me badly. Once he was sick in bed. I was looking at him and I thought: What if he recovers, gets up on his feet again, what then? And then the thought came to me …” (p. 51) This doesn’t seem to be much of a sin. Indeed in our modern world we would certainly describe the husband as the sinner rather than the wife. He has committed the unforgivable sin of beating his wife. What did she do? She didn’t actually do anything. She certainly didn’t do anything that anyone else could ever find out. All that happened was that one day she hoped that her husband wouldn’t get well. That I think must be the thought that occurred to her. She didn’t do anything about it. She didn’t put him out of his misery. She just thought it might be easier for me if he didn’t recover. Which of us has not thought something similar to this even when we have never been beaten?
The woman then goes on to describe how she has come about one hundred kilometres to see the elder. She has been feeling this sense of sin for three years and that the grief has made her ill. In today’s world if I talked to a priest and said once three years ago I wished that my husband was dead because we had a terrible argument, but now I’m sorry about it, the priest I imagine would simply say that this is nothing at all. Everyone has idle thoughts. If the worst thing that I ever did was to think such thoughts I wouldn’t be much of a sinner. But the elder takes the woman very seriously. The reason is that the woman is afraid of her sin. But in what does the fear consist?
She says “I am afraid, afraid to die”
Here we begin to overcome the distance between Dostoevsky’s time and today. No matter how much we have renounced religion most of us are still afraid to die.
In wartime there are some people like Siegfried Sassoon who behave recklessly who are in a sense not afraid to die. I imagine this is one way of coping with combat. But most soldiers to not behave in this way. Most are very much afraid to die.
The modern world in which we live is far safer than the world in which Dostoevsky’s characters lived. Many diseases have been defeated by medicine. War is less common than it once was. Yet we share the fear of this woman. Or do we?
What is she afraid of? Is it death? In part it is death. But really she is afraid of dying with a sin that has not been absolved. So the distance between her and us opens up again. Which of us is scared of dying with a sin rather than simply dying?
The elder responds to the woman’s fear in this way “Do not be afraid of anything, never be afraid, and do not grieve. Just let repentance not slacken in you, and God will forgive everything” (p. 52) Why should I not grieve? It is for the same reason that I should not be afraid. If there is nothing to be afraid of about death then there is nothing to grieve. The concept of grief implies that death involves loss. Well naturally I am afraid of losing something precious in myself and with regard to others. But if God preserves everything and everyone then there is nothing to grieve and also nothing to fear.
But does God save everyone? This is an interesting concept. All along most of us have had an idea that Christianity involves a sorting of the sheep from the goats and that only the virtuous will be saved. Is Zosima saying that everyone will be saved? Perhaps he is, but not quite I thing. It is conditional. If you repent continuously you will be saved.
But why should repentance matter so much. Does God need this repentance to save me? Is it some sort of bargain? But Milton is right in this respect “God doth not need either man's work or his own gifts” God needs nothing from me. It is simply presumptuous to suppose that God requires my repentance or indeed my praise. He may want these things. He may love me and want what is best for me. But he has no need.
The elder goes on “There is not and cannot be in the whole world such a sin that the Lord will not forgive one who truly repents of it”. This answers the question that sometimes comes up in theology. But what of Judas? Is Judas damned? Did he commit the unforgivable sin? The problem for Judas is perhaps that he died before he had the chance to fully repent. No sin is unforgivable but it is possible to die without repenting. It is this that we should be afraid of.
But why should repenting be so crucial. I think the elder answers this question. He says “If you are repentant, it means that you love. And if you love, you already belong to God”
The self is a relation that relates itself to itself and in doing so relates to another. This other is God and also other people. But the way that it relates is through love. Sin means that I cannot love myself and cannot love other people. Sin puts forward a barrier to the authenticity and the directness of the relationship. The woman’s sense of sin means that she cannot love herself and cannot love the memory of her husband. It is this that hinders her sense of self. And it is for this reason that she is afraid to die. To die when full of self-hatred and hatred to God is to die without a soul. There is nothing for God to save. But if by loving God and loving yourself then this creates the soul that God can save.
Thus the elder advises “Do not be upset with people, do not take offense at their wrongs. Forgive the dead man in your heart for all the harm he did you, be reconciled with him truly” If I am upset with people if I take offence then I cease to love them. But in doing so I damage myself. My self is my relationship with them. If it loving, then my relation to self and my relation to others is strong. But if there is hate in my self then I fail to be an authentic self at all. Even when her husband did her great wrong, she must forgive both him and forgive herself for the thoughts that she had about him.
This may all seem terribly unlikely. But it is important to realise that the self is such that it beyond our understanding. The elder says “Believe that God loves you so that you cannot conceive of it, even with your sin and in your sin he loves you”. The relationship that we have to God cannot be comprehended and cannot properly be thought. In the past people simply accepted this. Now we are in rebellion. Because we do not understand Christianity we reject it. But we are rejecting ourselves.
What saves the soul and what is the condition for immortality is that we love both ourselves and others. Above all we must love God. But it is not a bargain. God is not choosing between the sheep and the goats. Rather we are choosing by our loving or failing to love to be a soul or not to be a soul. The tragedy of atheism is that it is correct. By failing to love himself and by failing to love God, the atheist condemns himself.
Or perhaps there is hope. The elder concludes “Love is such a priceless treasure that you can buy the whole world with it, and redeem not only your own but other people’s sins. Go and do not be afraid”
Perhaps by loving the person who rejects God it is possible to redeem him. Perhaps by praying for the soul of someone who never believed he had one is enough to keep flickering that flame. These are all speculations. We know nothing of these things and we are all just guessing.
There is a barrier to getting into Dostoevsky’s world. You need to leap over the time between now and then. To many this story of someone being afraid of sin and how they can cease to be afraid will simply be rejected as odd views that we no longer need to consider because we are more enlightened. Fair enough if that is your view I cannot prove it to be false. I can prove nothing. Nothing whatsoever. My speculations are idle.  But if you really think that. If you are sure that faith is all lies and nonsense, you will gain nothing from the Brothers Karamazov. Better by far to find another book to read.

The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, Vintage, 1992.

Chapter 2

A lady of little faith


Katerina Khokhlakova is a fairly minor character in Dostoevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’. She is the mother of Lise, the little girl who begins the novel as an invalid, but who later develops a close loving relationship with Alyosha. Madame Khokhlakova in the end is not an especially sympathetic character. She is vain and foolish, and is used at times as a sort of comic relief. But the chapter in which she first appears in conversation with Father Zosima has a very deep discussion of faith. In this chapter, “A lady of little faith” (p. 53-59), she is not referred to by name. The reader only later finds out who she is. Perhaps, this is intentional. Her surname sounds slightly ridiculous, like a parody of Ukrainian. It goes well with her later ridiculousness, but she does not at all appear ridiculous in this initial conversation. Rather, she puts forward concerns that must touch many readers.

Madame Khokhlakova says to Father Zosima that she suffers from lack of faith. She does not quite dare say that she lacks faith in God, but she lacks faith in the idea of life after death. Really, this is just a matter of politeness, for the one issue goes with the other. From a Christian perspective, to cease to believe in life after death is to cease to believe in God. If a person believes in a Christian God, a belief in life after death follows as a matter of course. Although she believed, mechanically as a child, she wonders now if faith came about because of the fear of death, thus that it is a product of man’s fear and unwillingness to accept that after death there is nothing. She wonders if when she dies there will simply be a grave and nothing more. She comes to Father Zosima looking for proof. She wants him to convince her.

Zosima immediately says that there is no question of proof, but that it is possible to be convinced. He says “Try to love your neighbors actively and tirelessly. The more you succeed in loving, the more you’ll be convinced of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. And if you reach complete selflessness in the love of your neighbor, then undoubtedly you will believe, and no doubt will even be able to enter your soul” (p. 56)

How can it be that by loving others a person will be convinced about the existence of God and immortality? One way to understand this is through an appreciation of the work of Søren Kierkegaard and the Epistle of James. In the Epistle of James the emphasis is on actions. The author of James writes, for instance, “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith and have not works? … faith if it hath not works is dead” (James 2: 14-16). Kierkegaard throughout his authorship shows a great deal of respect for the Epistle of James, which in itself is somewhat surprising as he was brought up a Lutheran and Luther notoriously called James an ‘epistle of straw’.

In the first discourse of For Self-Examination (p. 13-51) Kierkegaard looks closely at a text in the first chapter of James which includes the following:

“But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.” (James 1: 22-25)

Kierkegaard asks himself “What is required in order to look at oneself with true blessing in the mirror of the Word?” He answers “The first requirement is that you must not look at the mirror, observe the mirror, but must see yourself in the mirror” (p. 25). How though can a person see himself in a mirror without observing the mirror? If however, we reflect that the mirror is God’s word, there may be an answer? Kierkegaard is saying that a person must not look at God’s word and only see the words; rather he must see himself in the words, or see that the words apply to him. What this means is that the words require something of him, and that thing is action.

There are all sorts of ways of putting off action. One of these is to interpret. He writes “God’s Word is indeed the mirror … but how enormously complicated.” (p. 25). He reflects on the fact that the Bible is frequently difficult, hard to understand and that there are many interpretations. We don’t know which books are authentic and who wrote them. But if a person looks at the mirror in this way, it will always remain confusing.  The task is to see yourself in the mirror, but what prevents this is if the person continues endlessly to interpret. The problem with scholarship is that it is a way to avoid acting. The scholar can always reflect that he will just come up with a slightly better interpretation of this or that passage before acting on it. The crucial thing however, is not to interpret, but to realise that the text applies to me. Kierkegaard writes that “when you are reading God’s Word, it is not the obscure passages that bind you but what you understand, and with that you are to comply at once” (p. 29). The amount of scholarship required to act according to God’s word is so minimal that all that is required has already been done. We have had for hundreds of years a reasonably accurate translation of the Bible and this contains enough clear statements of required actions to last a lifetime.

The task for Kierkegaard is to take the Bible personally. Thus he writes “If you are to read God’s Word in order to see yourself in the mirror, then during the reading you must incessantly say to yourself. It is I to whom it is speaking” (p. 40). The reason why this is crucial is that it is instrumental in creating the Christian self. He writes:

“If God’s Word is for you merely a doctrine something impersonal then it is no mirror - an objective doctrine cannot be called a mirror, it is just as impossible to look at yourself in an objective doctrine as to look at yourself in a wall. And if you want to relate impersonally to God’s Word, there can be no question of looking at yourself in mirror, because it takes a personality, an I, to look at yourself in a mirror; a wall can be seen in a mirror, but a wall cannot see itself or look at itself in a mirror” (p. 43-44)

If a person reads objectively, he cannot see himself in God’s word for there is no self to see. Reading personally creates the “I” and thus creates the Christian self. Recognising that the Bible applies to the self is instrumental in creating the self which recognises that the Bible applies to it. When the self is objective, like a wall, it can be seen, but it is not self-conscious because it is not conscious of itself as a spirit or a soul and thus it cannot see itself. The self is created when it relates itself to God through relating itself to God’s word. To do this however the self must be personal and it achieves this through relating itself to itself. The self-relation is achieved through the recognition that God’s word applies to it. The self relates to the self that it sees in the mirror of God’s word and thus at the same time relates to itself and to God. The whole passage about correct reading as opposed to scholarship is about how the Kierkegaardian self is created. It is by following God’s word by loving one’s neighbours that the sense of self, the sense of spirit is created. By relating myself to God’s word, I relate myself to God. I see myself in the mirror, relate myself to myself, but also relate myself to another.

Kierkegaard writes that the “The demonstration of Christianity really lies in imitation” (p. 68). From a perspective that sees belief as a matter of reason this is absurd. Kierkegaard is saying that through imitation a doubter will lose his doubts. But if a person doubted due to lack of reasons, why would he imitate? Kierkegaard though is looking at the matter in a different way. By imitating Christ a person demonstrates that he is a Christian. Moreover, if Christian belief (faith) is action, which is what has been learned from James, then if a person does not act, he does not really believe it. If he does not believe, then he doubts. The only solution to doubt is action. To act is to cease to doubt, and to cease doubting is to cease looking for reasons.

We can now see an interpretation of how Father Zosima’s advice to Madame Khokhlakova can help her to have faith. If we see faith as a matter of action, then by acting, by loving others, the person automatically has faith. Faith that just contemplates, that fails to act, is a lifeless thing. No wonder then that she does not feel it.

Moreover, if Kierkegaard is right, it is through action, through loving others, that the spiritual self, (the self that relates itself to itself and relates itself to others and indeed God) is created. If a person fails to act, if he fails to follow God’s word, he will lack any sense of the spiritual. Only when a person relates to God’s word does he relate to God and in doing so create the soul.

In this sense it may even be that the atheist is right. He does not believe in the soul, he does not believe in immortality. He is right as for him these things are not. Only by acting in a loving manner does a person develop faith and with it the sense of himself as a soul, as a spiritual being. Perhaps, only in this way does he enable God to create this immortal soul. If this is so, then how we live our lives really is decisive. Not because God will punish us, but because if we have not related to him at all, there is nothing for him to save.

We see as the conversation between Madame Khokhlakova and Father Zosima continues that she is attempting to avoid action. She dreams of great, kind deeds. She dreams of being a nun of giving up everything, of not being frightened by sores and dirt. Father Zosima brings her back down to earth by saying maybe one day you will actually do a fine deed. She realises that her dreams of acting kindly would fail as soon as someone showed ingratitude. Father Zosima comes up with a similar anecdote of a doctor who hates people individually but loves humanity. Again we see someone who loves in theory but not in practice. What is to do be done? Zosima is very kind and gentle. He thinks that it is a lot if the person is already aware of his fault, aware of his lack of action. The key is to begin acting. He says “Do what you can and it will be reckoned unto you. You have already done much if you can understand yourself so deeply and so sincerely” (p. 57). This however only works if the person is sincere and genuinely repentant about his lack of action.

Zosima compares active love with acting in dreams. This is similar to the idea in Kierkegaard which compares someone who follows Christianity in theory with someone who follows it in practice. But whereas Kierkegaard can be strict, Zosima is very gentle. He accepts that we are weak. Active love is difficult. It is a matter of action, and day to day action, not just one glorious act. It needs perseverance and endurance and patience. But even if someone is as weak as Madame Khokhlakova, there is hope for her. Even if she finds in the end that all her efforts at active love have failed, that she is as far as ever from her goal, then she will find that the miraculous and mysterious power of God is enough to save her and that He always has been guiding her.

In Zosima’s view it is enough to strive to love actively. He expects so very little of us. No more than the mere act of striving. This striving is like Grushenka’s story (later in the novel) of the gift of an onion. The solitary good act in a life of wickedness can be enough to pull us out of the pit. God, perhaps, then does not need more than our striving to be doers of the word. Perhaps, this is enough to create the self for him to save. Perhaps, in the striving alone there is enough self-relation and enough relation to another for the Christian self to come into existence.

Zosima’s account is very gentle as compared to Kierkegaard’s strictness. But that is not to say that Kierkegaard would not have sympathised with Zosima’s view. After all, Kierkegaard continually recognised our inability in the face of Christianity’s demands, our powerlessness in the face of Christ’s example. Madame Khokhlakova is powerless. She thinks that she can do nothing. But so long as she tries just a little and so long as she does not use this sense of powerlessness as an excuse, she, like all of us, can gain faith. Dostoevsky’s account of faith is very gentle. In the end, we only need to give the tiniest thing. One good dead is enough to save us. But this gentleness only works if we do not deceive ourselves. It is for this reason that Zosima warns above all against lies. How can a self look in Kierkegaard’s mirror if it is not honest with itself? A lie destroys the self’s relation to itself and if a person cannot even find himself in the mirror, how can he expect to find God?

The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, Vintage, 1992.

For Self-Examination, translated by Hong and Hong, Princeton University Press, 1990.



Chapter 3

The great leap forward

It is only through writing that I can really know what I think. My views develop and change. The fundamentals don’t normally change a great deal, but the details do. My method is not scholarly. I find most academic writing to be desperately dull and pointless. I rarely now write footnotes. What are they for? I hardly ever read the books or articles that are cited, so all these little footnotes do is show that someone is a scholar and that they play this academic game with success. They are published in journals which no-one reads and write books that are unreadable.

Some good work is no doubt being done in science and medicine, but I rarely come across something that I find interesting in the subjects that concern me such as history, literature, philosophy and theology. The discussion is frequently very narrow and about something that doesn’t matter, an author who ought to have been forgotten, an obscure verse in the Bible or an academic dispute that concerns no-one else. I don’t do this. It is pointless. It is only about being employed and receiving money. I sometimes think that modern day universities have one purpose only and that is to employ academics. The quality of the teaching and the quality of what is written is a disgrace compared to how things were one hundred years and more ago. The reason is that everyone is constrained and dare not say what they think.

Gradually a creeping conformity has taken over nearly every subject that is not grounded in experiment. I refuse to read anything written by Americans. It is simply too dull and depressing. The most original thinkers are tamed and made to conform to the latest political view. The most important issue is not to give offence to anyone. The words and the issues that might cause offense keep growing.  Who knows what will be offensive next.

A person from 1960 would be in trouble if they arrived in the modern world. Much of what they assumed to be unquestionably true would have turned out to be false. Ordinary words that they would use and their beliefs about religion and morality would be considered to be grossly offensive today. An article that I might have published in a philosophy or theology journal in 1960 might get me sacked today. No wonder so much writing is dull and conformist when we are all scared that the western equivalent of the Komsomol will denounce us. They will arrive with their little red books demanding safe spaces and trigger warnings and if we are not careful we will end up in the paddy fields grateful still to be alive. There is a cultural revolution taking place on campus.  No doubt one day it will be considered to be a great leap forward.

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At the heart of this revolution is falsity. As ever I return to Dostoevsky in or to explain this. (All quotes from Pevear translation p.44)

At the start of the Brothers Karamazov there is a meeting between the father of the brothers Fedor who is a buffoon and Zosima a wise monk. Fedor continually plays the fool and tells lies. Zosima tells him “A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others” Because of this such a person ceases to love both himself and others and falls into a degenerate state giving himself up to coarse pleasures and eventually reaches such an extremity of vice that it amounts to bestiality.

Why should this be so? I think it can be explained in Christian existentialist terms. Kierkegaard puts forward the idea that the self is relational. A self is a relation that relates itself to itself and in doing so relates to another. This other is God, but also other people. But if a person lies to himself, his relationship to himself is distorted and founded on falsity. This also prevents the person from relating correctly both to God and other people. Because God is the foundation of an objective morality, the person who lies to himself is left with being able to relate to others only in terms of law or in terms of inclination. Whatever feels good to me I will do so long as I can get away with it. The morality that everyone in 1960 took for granted has been undermined by our great leap forward to such an extent that I cannot even describe vice as immoral. If you have a different partner every night it is me that is wrong for being critical of you. I am a “slut shamer”, you are virtuous. People thus can interact in the way that animals do without respect and solely for the purpose of pleasuring each other. The truth that once was universally acknowledged that certain actions were immoral has been discarded. Even to suggest that certain behaviour is immoral is now condemned. The immorality is to suggest that something is immoral.

In what does the lie consist? In my view it consists in denying that the person has a relationship to God and that he has a soul. Each of us feels free and unconstrained when we act in our daily lives. But the foundation of modern science is to suggest that we are all in essence animals. The great leap forward is the attempt to explain and reduce human nature to biology and the universe to atoms. This is not how I experience the world. The basic feeling I have is that I am free. But science would tell me that this feeling of freedom is an illusion. All is determined. But my ordinary consciousness tells me that I am not matter and atoms causing each other to do things. It tells me that I am something qualitatively different. Science’s attempt to deny my most basic experience means that if I accept this reductionism, I am forced to deny the foundation of my existence. If science is correct, then everything I know about myself is untrue. But this requires that I deceive myself and lie about my everyday experience of freedom. The conflict between the scientific world view about my existence and my own everyday experience means I must either be authentic as a free spiritual being or else lie to myself and deny that I am what I am. It is a desperate situation if a person’s whole existence is founded on a lie. The reason for this is that I lose the authentic relationship I have with myself. I lose the grounding for any sort of objective morality which depends on God (if God does not exist everything is permitted) and I treat everyone else in terms either of what I am legally obliged to do or in terms of my own self-interest. No wonder this ends in bestiality because science tells us we are indeed beasts.

There is something else on which this whole lie depends. Let us return to Zosima. He says “A man who lies to himself is often the first to take offense. It sometimes feels very good to take offense. Doesn’t it?” The whole essence of our great leap forward is that we take offence. When I was a student in Cambridge no-one even noticed the old statues. I didn’t know who they were and I didn’t care. I had more important things to concern me. But now someone somewhere takes great pleasure in being offended. First they object to a statue of Cecil Rhodes. If this succeeds they take pleasure in objecting to someone else. Likewise someone finds that a novel from the past has ideas or words that are not current today. Someone must be offended. There are whole industries devoted to people being offended or alternatively to those who want to show that they are so liberal that they always use the currently fashionable term.

I write in a provocative fashion, because it is how I develop my thought. I want to write original articles that contain challenging thoughts. I will no doubt sometimes offend. But the Christian message itself is “offence to the Jews and folly to the Greeks.” This is the nature of truth. The deepest truths cannot be thought. They involve going beyond the bounds of reason. You climb up the ladder and then you throw it away. Truth therefore is folly. Moreover, telling someone he is wrong will always lead to him finding it offensive, especially if he wishes to remain in the wrong. In order to challenge the established way of thinking I therefore have to write things that will sometimes appear strange, (folly), and may also appear to be offensive. This is especially the case if I argue well.

But what we have above all is manufactured offence. Again Zosima describes the person who lies to himself “And surely he knows that no one has offended him, and that he himself has invented the offense and told lies just for the beauty of it, that he has exaggerated for the sake of effect, that he has picked on a word and made a mountain out of a pea”. I come across this so frequently that it has become the essence of our great leap forward. Someone picks out a word in one of my blogs and shares it on social media. Suddenly hundreds or indeed thousands of people tell me how offended they are by this word. They describe me in the worst possible terms. They find ever more innovative ways to show how much they hate me. But not one of them is really offended. It’s all completely inauthentic and false. They want to score points. They dislike my politics. They want to find a way to stop me writing. But not one of these people is really, genuinely offended. They are all the equivalent of the five year old who tells teacher that little Johnny was doing something wrong. The five year old is not offended by Johnny she just wants to suck up to the teacher and get Johnny into trouble. This is the essence of lying to yourself. It is self-deception. It damages you. It doesn’t touch me.

How many words have I written in my 300 plus blogs? Perhaps half a million. Yet still someone may point to a single word that I wrote two years ago and try to use it to condemn me. He only condemns himself.

We have reached the stage where the slightest slip on social media can lead to a storm of protest. But this inhibits all of us. We each have to watch what we say in case we say the wrong word. Suddenly a word that all of us have used without a problem becomes problematic. Who knows what it will be next week. I never once thought the word “Jock” was offensive. But now it may be added to the long list of words that cannot be said. But this is all founded on a lie. The person who objects to the word “Jock” doesn’t really do so. He just wants to be offended.

Whole areas of academic life are now controlled by this false sense of offence and it makes it almost impossible to write freely. It is such good fun for an 18 year old student to scare an elderly professor half to death because he fails to use the latest term for something. Fifty years ago nice people described black people as “coloured”. But that term is no longer fashionable. Fair enough. I too can see the problem with it. We all have a colour after all. But if someone who has not kept up with the fashion inadvertently uses this obsolete term is there any reason to take such an offence? Of course not, but it gives people such a warm feeling inside to condemn others. Look at how they apologise and abase themselves because they made a mistake. There is no greater joy than seeing a sinner repent.

The person who feels continual offense “likes feeling offended, it gives him great pleasure, and thus he reaches the point of real hostility”. The hostility is this. There are lots and lots of people who go about trying to ruin other’s lives because they happen to say something that they pretend offends them. An academic may be sacked for the slip of a tongue. An off-colour joke may lead to a criminal conviction. An argument that contradicts the established orthodoxy may lead to a visit from the police. Someone may be banned from speaking publically at a university because he holds a view that was common place in 1960. No wonder so much writing is dull when the consequences of writing in an interesting way can be so devastating.

This is all founded on a lie. First we lie to ourselves. We lie about what we are. We deny our experiences and we reject what is evident to our senses. We reject 2000 years of religion and 2000 years of moral tradition and in the space of 60 years we construct a worldview that would baffle our grandparents. This too is a lie. Then we say that anyone who does not accept our modern world view must be condemned. They are not even allowed to think that this world view may have flaws. Anyone who does so will find themselves out of a job or in jail. We then call this state of self-censorship “freedom of speech”.

But there may be hope. Ordinary people in Britain rejected this whole modern worldview when they voted for Brexit. No wonder the Stepford Students were so angry. It was a step. A first step. We must cease lying and start telling the truth. God help us if we don’t.

The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, Vintage, 1992.


Chapter 4

If God does not exist everything, is permitted: a Kierkegaardian perspective

In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov’s philosophical and theological ideas are complex and develop in the course of the novel. However, near the beginning of the novel, in Book 2 Chapter 6, an idea is attributed to him by a character named Miusov who reports that at a recent meeting Ivan began by saying that if love has existed between people, it is only because they have believed in immortality. Moreover, without the belief in immortality, there would be no morality and everything would be permitted. If someone ceases to believe in God, then logically he should be an egoist and even become an evil doer. Ivan is asked by the Elder Zosima if this is his view and he says: “Yes, it was my contention. There is no virtue if there is no immortality.” (p. 70) The Elder seems to commiserate with Ivan, accepting that, indeed, he neither believes in God, nor in immortality.

There is no need to go into the ins and outs of Ivan’s theology, nor be overly concerned about who said what and when in the novel. The idea that is being put forward is that morality and love of other human beings in some way depend on immortality with the implication that immortality depends on God. The inference is that God and immortality are really one and the same belief or at least interconnected. To cease to believe in the one is to cease to believe in the other. But why should this be so? It is worth investigating in what way morality is dependent on belief in God or, perhaps, more accurately in the existence of God. 

Let’s look at the situation from the point of view of someone contemplating doing wrong. If by wrong we mean something like theft or murder, why do I not do these things? One reason is that there are laws and the police, and I realise that if I commit a crime, there is a reasonable chance that I will be caught and punished. I therefore decide out of self-interest not to steal from a shop or to commit murder, because I don’t want to end up in prison or have some other punishment given to me.

The problem with this is that if everyone thought in this way, law would rapidly collapse. The population of a country massively outnumbers the police. If everyone sat waiting for their chance to break the law, when they thought there was a chance of getting away with it, how could the police catch all of them? The law works only insofar as a minority of people are criminally minded. The majority do not break the law because they are scared of the police or punishment, but because they think breaking the law is wrong. But from where do we get this sense of wrong? From where do we get the concept of something being morally wrong?

Furthermore, what of things which most of us consider to be wrong, which are not illegal? Why should couples remain faithful to each other, why should we not tell lies? Is it that we fear that if we are unfaithful, perhaps, our marriage will break up, or if we tell lies, then no one will trust us further? But what if we know at this moment that we can tell a lie and get away with it? What if we are in another country when we have the chance to be unfaithful? And yet we might choose to remain moral. Why do people act sometimes in a way that entails self-sacrifice, why, indeed, are people kind and altruistic?

It’s worth focussing on how we actually learn morality. We learn morality normally from a mother who watches. From an early age, she sees me do something and says don’t do that. If I continue to do the thing which is wrong, she may punish me. Let’s say I steal sweets from the sweet jar. The first time, she says ‘don’t steal sweets, it’s wrong.’ And so I learn not to steal sweets while she is looking. I may think that I can steal sweets when she is not looking and so when she is in another room I creep up to the jar and steal a sweet. But mother is cleverer than me, she has counted the sweets. I’m asked did you steal a sweet? I say ‘no’. She knows better. She counts out the sweets, one is missing. I’m punished, moreover, she shows disapproval and I want that approval. I feel shame. In time I don’t steal from the sweet jar even when I know that I could get away with it. This feeling of guilt is developed in a myriad of ways such that eventually about a whole mass of matters I have an internalised sense of guilt when I contemplate doing wrong. This is what we call conscience. It is based on the idea of mother somehow overseeing what I do, even when she is not there.

But when I grow up and can reason about these things, why do I not realise that I can throw off this conscience? Mother is now far away. I know that she will not discover if I take from the sweet jar. Who else can be overseeing me? The police observe. And so I should be careful not to be caught. But this is simply a matter of self-interest and we are back to the idea of morality being simply a matter of law.  What about God? Can He take the role of the mother watching to see if I steal from the sweet jar? Perhaps. But if I begin to study philosophy, I quickly realise that this whole matter of God’s existence is rather uncertain. Descartes is not even certain of the existence of the outside world. Perhaps, all my perceptions are deceptions.  Any course of philosophy seems to see scepticism win out. First year philosophy classes are dominated by questions like “How do I know the sun will rise tomorrow?” But if I don’t even know this, how can the fact that a God who might exist and might be observing me steal from the sweet jar motivate my behaviour? Is God, indeed, not just an extension of the observing mother, who created my conscience in the first place?

Moreover, I quickly realise when studying philosophy that there are lots of systems of morality that do not depend on God. Each major philosopher seems to have such a system. One says that I should do that which leads to the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Another thinks that I should imagine what would happen if everyone followed a course of action and act accordingly. There are any number of such systems and they don’t all mention God. But why should I follow such a system? Who is to make me? Perhaps, it’s in my self-interest to do so. But that is not morality. That is just another form of egoism. Perhaps, I realise that it’s my duty to follow a particular philosopher’s system of morality. But why should I follow my duty? Perhaps, I realise that rationality calls for me to follow a particular morality. But then why be rational? Let me be irrational just so long as I get what I want.

This is our problem. Either I follow the system of morality out of self-interest in which case it is really the same as law (just a matter of pragmatism and self-interest), or I follow the system out of duty. But then I’m already moral. But whence this morality as it cannot be coming from the system? There is obviously circularity here.

The problem of morality goes far back. It is stated as well as anywhere in Plato’s Republic with the story of the ring of Gyges. If I had the ring of Gyges which makes me invisible, such that I could get away with any crime, would I refrain from doing so? Only if I would refrain from doing wrong, even if I could get away with it, can I be said to be truly moral. 

The idea of the watcher is present here also. If no one can watch, because I am invisible, would I steal from the sweet jar? I don’t steal from the sweet jar, even when mother is not around, because she has shown that sometimes she knows better than me. Eventually, I internalise this into conscience and I don’t steal even when I know I would get away with it, because I have this thing called conscience taught by my mother. But what if I realise that I’m being a mug, that this conscience thing is just a fraud? Why then not put on the ring of Gyges and do what I wish so long as I can get away with it?

Of course, here God can play a role. Even if someone wears the ring of Gyges and can do what he likes on Earth, God observes him. The idea of God and with it the idea of immortality is the idea that even if you get away with immorality on Earth, even if you are a criminal who is never caught by the law, still God watches. God is the ultimate mother and the fundament which underpins conscience. God’s justice, the fact that He can reward or punish can be seen as a reason to be moral, for it may seem to solve the problem of the ring of Gyges. Even if I am to get away with evil here and now, it may not be rational to do so if I am to be punished later in eternity. God is like a universal police force. The lawbreaker may not be sent to prison on Earth, but there is the equivalent of prison after death. Is this the reason that Ivan thinks that if there is no immortality, then everything is permitted?

The observant mother is now in the transcendent sphere and able to judge according to how I lived my life. There is no chance that I can escape detection. All my sins will be found out. But this is our problem. If I do good in order to gain salvation or to avoid hell, then this is really no different from law. It is in my self interest in the long run to do good. Out of egoism and selfishness, it would be rational for me to choose to do good in order to obtain a reward and to avoid punishment. But this is no more morality than the person who is law abiding solely because he fears the police. The police have simply been transferred to a transcendent realm with powers to detect every crime, even those committed with the ring of Gyges.

Perhaps, the solution is in this way. The idea that I can treat God as a policeman who rewards and punishes like the police and the courts is to misunderstand the nature of God. Salvation both does and does not depend on what I do, how I live my life. My actions are both necessary and unnecessary. Salvation is by faith alone and by good works. In Kierkegaardian terms, salvation is a matter of both of what he calls “Religiousness A” and “Religiousness B”, inwardness and externality, relation to self and relation to other, how I act and how I believe. In the Reformation debate between Protestantism and Catholicism we must hold together both sides of the argument even though they contradict each other, we must have both Luther and the Pope, ‘works righteousness’ and ‘faith alone.’ 

What this means can be explained in the following way. I must believe that how I live is decisive for my salvation. This is Kierkegaard’s religiousness B and decisive Christianity. Therefore, I must want to witness to the truth and imitate the life of Christ as far as is possible. The lesson that Kierkegaard has to teach us, indeed, is that my faith is my action. This is the importance of the Epistle of James in his work. What is it to suppose that someone has faith? It is to see that he acts in certain ways. This was the lesson from Wittgenstein. How can I know if I can whistle a tune? I must whistle it. How can I know if I have faith? I must act according to it. There is no faith without action. Once I understand that faith is action, then there can be no question of faith without it. But and here is the crucial point. Although I believe that how I live is decisive for my salvation, I cannot bargain. God’s choice is free and from the point of view of eternity already made.

Thus I cannot act in order to obtain a reward and to avoid a punishment. I recognise from my faith the need to act as a Christian or try to act as a Christian. I also recognise that these actions are crucial. Following Kierkegaard again, only through relating to other people, through living the Christian life, do I create the self that God can save. But I must trust in God. I realise, when faced with God, that nothing I could do would be enough. Therefore, I am absolutely dependent on his love and grace for my salvation.

This is not something that can be understood, for it depends on a Kierkegaardian paradox. Christian morality is the paradoxical unity of salvation by faith alone and salvation by means of good works. This is a genuine contradiction, and something that we cannot understand. A similar contradiction exists in the two ideas that salvation is a matter of predestination and that how I live is decisive for whether or not I obtain salvation. This is to look at the matters from the point of view of eternity and from the point of view of temporality. The combination of the positions is the truth. Just as Christ was the Eternal in time. So my salvation is the eternal in time. It is an absolute paradox and a matter for faith, not for reason. It is for this reason that the Bible at times seems contradictory on this matter. The thief on the cross will be with Jesus today in paradise, but salvation is a matter of waiting until the Day of Judgement. But this, too, is just the paradoxical combination of the eternal point of view with the temporal point of view. We cannot expect to fully understand these matters. Here indeed is something that cannot be fully expressed, something that defeats language and thought.  

Thus I believe both that my good works are decisive for my salvation, that how I live my life is crucial and that nothing I do could ever be good enough. I am saved from egoism by my realisation that God’s choice is free and that I am absolutely dependent on his love and grace. Thus I am not acting in order to gain salvation, for there can be no bargaining with God. Faith is action. It can even be said that I am saved by faith alone. For when I understand that faith is not, or not merely a matter of inwardness, I realise that faith is simply what I do.

If faith is only inwardness, it is only the relationship to the eternal. In Kierkegaardian terms this is paganism, the relationship merely to God. The incarnation brings the eternal into time and enables us to relate externally. The only way to relate to Christ as a Christian is to love Christ and to try to live as He did. This means action. Once I understand this, then action inevitably follows.

It is the free choice of God that makes Christian morality and means that it is neither a matter of law, nor a matter of egoism. God’s free choice means that Christianity can never be a matter of self-interest. I have no guarantee, no matter how saintly I live my life. Thus we have the Bible story of the workers who turn up late getting just the same as those who came early (Matthew 20: 1-16). I cannot gain God’s perspective. But I know that God is love and therefore I have hope.

But what I realise also is that finally my only way of relating to God is through Christ. When I try to relate to the eternal, the infinite, the omniscient and omnipotent, then I deal with what is forever distant and remote from my life. I have no way really of relating. I can try to relate inwardly and I can have a sense of this faith, but it is not concrete. It's like the idea that I can whistle the tune. Until I actually do whistle it, there is no whistling. Likewise with faith, it comes into existence through my actions. But when I begin relating to Christ, through imitation, witnessing. I relate to something, someone concrete. I can follow his lead. And through the fact that Christ is paradoxically both God and man, I in this way relate to God.

In Kierkegaardian terms it is the paradoxical combination of religiousness A (relating to God, through inwardness), (the eternal), (relation to self), (Protestantism, salvation by faith alone, for it has already from the point of view of eternity been determined), and religiousness B (Relation to Christ), (the temporal), (relation to another), (Catholicism, the idea that my salvation is not yet determined and depends on how I live my life). It is this combination that creates morality.

It is this combination also that creates the self that can be saved. This shows, indeed, that God is the fundament of morality. If God does not exist, then ultimately everything is permitted. It is for this reason that Ivan is to be pitied. Through his lack of faith he puts himself in a position, which makes it impossible for God to save him, for he has no self to save. Following Grushenka’s story in the Brothers Karamazov (Book 7 Ch. 3), God needs at least one onion in order to grab the self.

For Ivan, God is dead and everything is permitted. The unbeliever’s unbelief is for him the truth, for he has put himself in a position where God cannot help him. This is his eternal punishment. His eternal punishment is not that God judges him and condemns him, but that God cannot even judge him, cannot even notice him. His hell is that his atheism turns out, for him to be quite accurate. 


Brothers Karamazov, Translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, Vintage, 1992


Chapter 5

Throwing away the ladder

There’s an important little passage in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov which has in it the seed of an important argument. The great thing about this book, however, is that it is possible to pick any number of little passages that say something profound and important.

Alyosha, who has been living in a monastery, has the following conversation with his brother Ivan who tends towards atheism:

“I understand it all too well, Ivan: to want to love with your insides, your guts—you said it beautifully, and I’m terribly glad that you want so much to live,” Alyosha exclaimed, “I think everyone should love life before everything else in the world.”
“Love life more than its meaning?”
“Certainly, love it before logic, as you say, certainly before logic, and only then will I also understand its meaning. That is how I’ve long imagined it. Half of your work is done and acquired, Ivan: you love life. Now you only need to apply yourself to the second half, and you are saved.” (pp. 230-231, Pevear translation)

Alyosha is above all trying to save his brother. Ivan through the course of the novel makes a subtle, but penetrating attack on Christianity. For Ivan there is no God and no immortality. Dostoevsky puts forward one of the most powerful attacks on Christianity, but he also puts forward a very profound defence. In this little passage and others there is put forward the essence of Christian existentialism. It is from life and individual experience that it is possible to become convinced of the truth and to obtain faith.

I watched a film recently about the great scientist Stephen Hawking. It was called the Theory of Everything. At one point Hawking at a press conference says something along the lines of that he has explained everything in the universe. There was no need for God, there was no room for God. By explaining everything he had as it were left no room for God and, indeed, explained Him away. Everything that modern physics puts forward is, no doubt, true or as true as anything can be considering the present state of our knowledge. It is folly to question what great minds have discovered about the universe. But if physics describes everything and there is no room for God, it would appear that faith can no longer be possible. Where is God if Mr Hawking can explain everything?

Mr Hawking journeys outwards and his great mind travels outwards into the universe and backwards in time to the beginning of time. But his journey is in the wrong direction if he wants to find God. God is not in the journey outward. Rather God is found within. This does not, of course, mean that God is in me, or that I am God. That is nonsense and blasphemy, but the way to become acquainted with God is through a different way of reflecting than that which journeys outwards to the beginning of time.
What is it to love life? It is to love each second of life. But what is the experience of life? It is what I do on a day to day basis.  This morning I lay in bed and at some point I chose to get up. I could have lain there a little longer. I chose to make some coffee, I could have chosen to make tea. My basic fundamental experience of life and what I love about it is my ability to choose. My basic experience just like my experience that grass is green is that I have absolute freedom of will. Of course, I may be deceived in my experience. But then again since Descartes we know that I may be deceived in my experience of the external world. The route of scepticism ends in a cul-de-sac. But my sense of freedom is as real to me as anything else in the world if not more so. I would less readily doubt my freedom than anything else apart from my existence. I am free, therefore I am.

But my freedom is such that I am an uncaused cause. Every choice I make is uncaused apart from the fact that I choose. There is nothing or there need be nothing that compels me to choose to drink tea or coffee. I can do either. But Mr Hawking’s universe has no uncaused cause, at least not after the Big Bang. Physics amounts to billiard balls hitting against each other. Perhaps, they are complicated little billiard balls that behave in complicated ways, but still this is all materialism, for all there is, is matter.  Every action has a cause. A neuron hits against an electron, a quark flutters and I choose to drink coffee.

Science would like to explain my uncaused cause as biology. The brain is just a collection of atoms and through a complex series of reactions I choose to drink coffee. But why should I doubt the basic experience of choice for the sake of a theory about atoms and sub atomic particles that I cannot see? Why should not my fundamental feeling of freedom trump whatever science tries to do in order to explain that my feeling of freedom is illusory? If science could prove to me that the world I see was in fact an illusion, I would still believe in the world. Well, by the same token I still believe in my freedom despite whatever science can attempt to do that proves that I am really a complex automaton. I do not feel myself to be an automaton. Nor do you.
The rest follows of itself. My sense of freedom is my sense of something that is not controlled by the laws of physics. Every step I make is its own little miracle. It is an uncaused cause. It is this that makes me love life. If everything I did was caused by instinct, by need, by atoms, I would hate life and would consider it not worth living.

Alyosha is saying to Ivan ‘reflect on your own individual experience, the fact that you love life.’ “Love it before logic.” There is a mystery at the heart of life and that mystery is that we are free in a way that cannot be properly explained.

Here again is the key to Christian existentialism. We must go beyond logic. When Wittgenstein wrote his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, he set out the logic in pages of brilliance that staggered his examiners in Cambridge. They said they didn’t understand it, but it was clearly a work of genius, so despite there being no footnotes, he got his Ph.d. After the most brilliant logical demonstrations, however, Wittgenstein concluded his work in the following way:

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognises them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them (He must so to speak throw away the ladder after he has climbed up on it.)
He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.
Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent. (6.54-7)

The ultimate truth of the universe is beyond logic and beyond the ability of man to understand. It can therefore only be expressed in literature in art and in music. It can, however, be experienced and, indeed, is experienced by us every day in the miracle of our freedom.

From my freedom I know that I am not dependent on atoms and from this I know that I am something other in my essence from rocks and trees. What I am is not something I am ever going to understand for it is beyond the wit of man to explain. Mr Hawking is trying to storm the gates of heaven with his reason and finding nothing there, declares there is no heaven and no God. But his efforts are as vain as medieval monks who tried to come up with ingenious logical proofs of the existence of God. You cannot get there with logic, so don’t try.

If what I am is not dependent on physics, then why should my existence not survive the death of what I am physically. If truth ultimately is beyond logic, then why should not a virgin give birth, why should not God be both God and man or God and not God? Why indeed should not there be resurrection, death and not death.

We are not there yet. Alyosha tells us that Ivan’s love of life is such that he is halfway there. He still has to recognise that he has reached the top of the ladder and must then throw it away. He has to leap. As Kierkegaard taught us, he has to embrace contradiction.

Of course, once you have done that, theology and philosophy are finished, for which reason Wittgenstein recommended working on a farm. But what is left is the ability to experience God from within, from the miracle of freedom and existence, and to express this feeling in art. The greatest composer of all, I think, is Olivier Messiaen because he spent his life trying to express what was beyond the ladder and for brief moments as with, for example, his Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps he succeeds. We glimpse it. Or at least we can if we choose to do so.


Chapter 5

Dazzling with an excess of truth (a musical interlude)

Schopenhauer writes somewhere in The World as Will and Representation that music ought not to represent. It is many years ago that I read this and I do not intend looking it up even if I had the text readily to hand. Schopenhauer is on the wrong side of the great dilemma that faces philosophy, which in the end can be understood as a simple choice, either Kierkegaard or Hegel. You can choose the Hegelian path, which ultimately resolves itself into the idea that everything is one thing, or you can choose the Kierkegaardian path that everything is indeed individual. There isn’t a third option. For Kierkegaard the individual is the base unit, which is not to say that there are not relations with others. There are. But it is as an individual that I relate to the other. With Hegel, on the other hand, in the end, I will be subsumed in the other, and in that way all contradictions will be resolved.

The choice can be explained in another way. Either you think the path is to lose the sense of self through chanting a mantra and through meditation (this, too, will take you on the Hegelian path to Nirvana), or you think that the self is retained, in which case you will avoid meditation as tending towards losing what is most precious.

Schopenhauer likewise thought in the end there is only one thing. He called it Will. He could just as well have called it Nirvana, or some other such word. But even if I disagreed with him on this, for a long time I agreed with him on the idea that music ought not to represent.

Many years ago in school there was a music teacher who I liked to plague. I worked hard in other subjects, so thought it reasonable to play the fool in subjects that were not examined, like music and RE. This music teacher played a piece of music and asked the class what it represented. Even then I thought this was absurd, and so said I thought the music represented a rabbit with Myxomatosis in a field of prunes. For this I was belted. But I was right. Or at least that is how I understood matters for many years. Music ought not to represent and when it does so, it is bad music. I hated when in Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony there is a thunderstorm. It always struck me as ludicrous to try to emulate natural phenomena with music. Music ought to be completely abstract and express nothing, or at least nothing that can be spoken about.

But I have been on a musical journey these past few years and I have come to refine my view.

Two of the greatest thinkers of the 20th Century, produced some of their most important works in similarly difficult conditions. Olivier Messiaen wrote his Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps while a prisoner of war. He wrote it for the only four instruments to hand in the camp. Likewise, Ludwig Wittgenstein while a prisoner of war wrote his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Both end up with the attempt to express the inexpressible. But Messiaen didn’t finish there. He went further, much further.

In the 1940s Messiaen produced a number of works with religious titles such as Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus and Visions de l'Amen. But if you played someone a CD of either of these pieces without giving them the cover, I doubt anyone could guess what they represent. In that sense they remain completely abstract, though they express something about theology which cannot be thought.

But Messiaen in the 1950s goes beyond this completely. He goes all around France and eventually all around the world collecting birdsong. He notates it and then transforms this into music. Is he then representing birds in his music? In one sense he is, but once more if you played someone Messiaen’s Catalogue d'Oiseaux, I’m not at all sure that he would guess that it is about birds. Perhaps, he might guess, but really it has been transformed so, that it doesn’t sound much like birds at all, or rather it goes beyond birdsong.

He continues in this way in the 1970s with his Des Canyons aux Étoiles which purports to represent a canyon in Utah and perhaps, it does, but no-one could guess where the canyon was and really the music goes so far beyond canyons that it even goes beyond the stars. And this is the point. This is what Messiaen is doing with his representing. He is transforming what he represents in such a way that he gives us a glimpse of what cannot be expressed.

Finally, with his greatest work Saint François d'Assise Messiaen does something quite extraordinary. This I believe is the greatest opera of the 20th century, perhaps, the greatest piece of music. This incredible composer does something that ought quite literally to be impossible. He shows us Heaven.

Saint Francis meets an angel who plays music that gives a foretaste of the beyond. The music is so beautiful that Francis reflects that if he had heard just one more note, he would have died. The angel before playing the music sings to Francis the following:

God dazzles us with an excess of truth. The music brings us to God when the truth overwhelms us. If you speak to God through music, He will answer through music. Learn the joy of the blessed through the sweetness of sound and colour. And may the secrets of bliss be revealed to you. Hear this music that hangs life to the scales of heaven. Hear the music of the invisible (Act 2 tableau 5).

What does this mean? What is an excess of truth? It is the truth that is beyond our understanding. It is the truth that Christ is God and Man. These are two truths that are incompatible with each other, God and not God, Man and not Man. Likewise, the resurrected Christ is dead and not dead. It is the combination of truth that expresses opposites that is the excess of truth that dazzles us. It is contradiction. When we are sitting perplexed having failed to understand the deepest truths of theology, then we can by all means reject it as all lies and nonsense. That is the rational thing to do. That in one sense is the correct thing to do. Alternatively, we can allow the music to bring us to God. If you are open to the music that Messiaen is playing, you may just get an answer. It is only when the intellect is crushed, when doubt overwhelms us, that if we are open to it, there is the chance of glimpsing what is beyond when we climb above the ladder and throw it away. Messiaen represents birds but uses them to represent heaven. They are the rungs on the ladder that carry him higher, so that finally he reaches where they cannot even fly. So Schopenhauer is wrong, but he is also right. Music represents and does not represent.

Messiaen’s opera Saint François d'Assise has more truth in it than whole libraries of theological speculation that amount to so much very dull argument about nothing at all. It is an opera that is rarely performed, but you can see it on DVD. The experience if you are open to it is the nearest thing to heaven that can be found here on earth. Even if you are not religious, you will find expressed the inexpressible. The deepest things cannot be expressed through reason. The attempt to do so simply brings them down to a level that is human all too human. As Francis says near the end:

Music and poetry have brought me to You, in images in symbols because the truth escaped us. Lord, light me with Your presence, free me, stupefy me, blind me forever with Your excess of truth.

Music and poetry can express what is beyond the ability of reason to depict. It is in this sense that music both represents and does not represent. It represents what is beyond our words, that about which we must remain silent. Messiaen created a new language of music in order to go beyond what had hitherto been possible. This new language is difficult. Like every language it requires time and effort to learn. But to dismiss it without having taken the time to learn is like someone who has not learned Russian going up to a Russian and saying you are talking gibberish.

If it were up to me, if only I had the courage and the ability to sacrifice self-interest, I would take my students and give them a course in Messiaen. I would tell them to learn Russian, so they could read Dostoevsky, German so that they could read Wittgenstein, and Danish so they could read Kierkegaard. When they had made some progress in this, I would play them Saint François d'Assise and tell them to go home and do something useful with their lives, above all, be kind and try as far as they are able to follow the example of people like Francis. I would then say I have nothing more to teach, for there is nothing more to be taught.


Chapter 6

Martyrdom

When I first read the Brothers Karamazov there were chapters that I read quickly and without much thought. Either they were to do with description and plot or if they were to do with psychological, philosophical or theological issues I was unable to see the interest. Some topics that clearly interest Dostoevsky or his characters didn’t interest me. They appeared to me to be dead issues, things that were discussed in the 19th century between educated Russians that were so tied to this place and time that they could not involve me. It is interesting however is that sometimes a chapter that seemed of no particular interest some years ago can suddenly become of vital interest. The fault therefore may lie in me if even now I read and reread a chapter and fail to grasp why it actually does concern me. There are still many such chapters. There are whole areas of the novel that I leave unmined. But each time I read they get fewer.
When I first read Book 3, Chapter 7 “Disputation” I don’t imagine that I paid it much attention. There is an argument about martyrdom that no doubt struck me at the time as remote. I imagine that I read this chapter at about the same time that I read a work by Kierkegaard’s pseudonym H.H. “Does a human being have the right to let himself be put to death for the truth?” Likewise I imagine that I read through this article without paying a great deal of attention. I would have been looking for things that I could use in my dissertation. Perhaps I found a quote or two which would at the very least show my examiners that I had read this book. But it would all have seemed so remote, so very long ago. When I thought of Christian martyrs I thought of films like The Robe or Quo Vadis. I would have thought perhaps of Saint Stephen the first martyr. I might even have remembered the first line of Good King Wenceslas. Christian martyrs were people from long ago.
This is no longer the case however. On July 26th 2016 a French priest Jacques Hamel was martyred. Suddenly both Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard seem very vital to me indeed.
The discussion in the chapter involves the story of a Russian soldier who was captured by Muslims and who told by them to renounce Christianity and accept Islam or suffer torture and death. He refused and was flayed alive praising Christ. Fyodor Pavlovich, although with cynicism, thinks the soldier should become a saint. But his servant and probably his illegitimate son Smerdyakov puts forward a counter argument.  He says “there would also have been no sin, in my opinion, if on such an occasion he had even renounced Christ’s name and his own baptism in order thereby to save his life for good deeds with which to atone in the course of the years for his faintheartedness” (p. 128)
This in essence is a utilitarian argument. Smerdyakov is weighing up the good and the bad. If there were a sin in renouncing Christ this could be made up for by the good deed that the soldier might be able to do afterward. The sum of human happiness might in this way be greater if he renounces Christ and lives than if he refuses to do so and dies.
Fyodor Pavlovich immediately disagrees “How could there be no sin in it? What nonsense! For that you’ll go straight to hell and be roasted like mutton” This is in essence a deontological argument. If something is wrong it is wrong even if it leads to an increase in happiness. It is wrong to kill someone for instance even if by doing so I would make hundreds happier than they otherwise would be. Right and wrong is not about weighing up the balance of happiness or unhappiness for that is not to take seriously the duty I have to do the right thing.
Smerdyakov switches his ground. His first argument is that to renounce Christ would be a sin, but it would be outweighed by good deeds. He next argues that renouncing Christ would not be a sin at all. It is by such gradual shifts that he is shown to be a casuist.
The essence of Smerdyakov’s argument is that “as soon as I say to my tormentors ‘No, I’m not a Christian and I curse my true God,’ then at once, by the highest divine judgement, I immediately and specifically become anathema”. The argument is that by renouncing Christ the person immediately is excommunicated. Smerdyakov continues his argument in the following way “at the very time when I immediately become cursed by God, at that moment … I become a heathener … and my baptism is taken off me and counts for nothing” (p. 129). But why should this make such a difference? Smerdyakov explains “since I am no longer a Christian, it follows that I’m not lying to my tormentors when they ask am I a Christian or not, since God himself has already deprived me of Christianity, for the sole reason of my intention and before I even had time to say a word to my tormentors”
This is quite clever. If I am excommunicated for renouncing Christ, then the mere intention to do so will be enough. If I make up my mind to renounce Christ then I am already not a Christian by the time I say I renounce him. Smerdyakov goes on “If I’m not a Christian, then I can’t renounce Christ, because I’ll have nothing to renounce”. This however is casuistry and playing with words. It may be that if a Christian renounces Christianity in his heart or by intention then he ceases to be a Christian. But even this is in fact debatable. Can I be said to solve an arithmetical problem if I can solve it in my head, but when I try to solve it on paper I can’t. But Smerdyakov is disguising the fact that the person who renounces Christianity whether internally or externally was a Christiana and has ceased to be a Christian. It may be that having ceased to be a Christian internally he can no longer renounce Christianity to his captors because he has already ceased to be one. But nevertheless he was a Christian before capture and however he arrives at ceasing to be a Christian, he has done so by renouncing Christ. He cannot escape this by playing with words. He may not be able to renounce Christ to his captors, but he nevertheless did renounce Christ in his heart.
But how does Smerdyakov think this helps the soldier.  He argues “Who even in heaven … will ask an unclean Tartar to answer for not being born a Christian, and who is going to punish him for that” God will not punish the Tartar  because it is “not his fault that he came into the world unclean, and for unclean parents” Smerdyakov wants to conflate the situation of the soldier who renounces Christ with someone who never was told about Christ. His argument is that by renouncing Christ the soldier really becomes a Muslim and therefore is in the same position as a Tartar who was brought up with no knowledge of Christianity. But this conflation is clearly false. For the soldier was born a Christian, was baptised and did know about Christ. However he arrives at becoming a Muslim his situation is different from someone who was born and brought up a Muslim.
Smerdyakov’s argument leaves his fellow servant Grigory dumfounded. It is indeed superficially a clever argument. But it only works by gradually shifting the ground and the terms. The soldier’s history of being a Christian is not changed by his conversion to Islam. His sin of renouncing Christianity is not annulled by him becoming a Muslim, because even if he is now a Muslim he was a Christian. By subtly shifting the terms of the argument Smerdyakov is able to confuse those with whom he argues. Once more this is the tactic of the casuist.
Dostoevsky is really writing something of a parody of what he considered to be the Jesuit style of argument. Fyodor Pavlovich says to Smerdyakov “Ah, you stinking Jesuit, who taught you all that? But it’s lies, casuist, lies, lies, lies” (p. 130)
The language of the discussion is frequently coarse and vulgar, but it is also direct. We could hardly have this discussion today because it would be offensive to Muslims, Catholics and Jesuits. We are not allowed to call Muslims heathens. We must all agree with each other, even when in fact we disagree. In this way we try to hide the true difference that is between us. I am not suggesting that we should insult other faiths or other belief systems. But it would be well if we could recover some of the directness. We should be able to say to a Muslim I think your belief is incorrect. I disagree with you. Much of what you believe contradicts what I believe. Of course you should be free to believe what you please. I respect that. I cannot in any way prove that I am right and you are wrong. But let us at least admit that we differ. I believe Jesus was the son of God and was divine as well as human. I believe he rose from the dead. You don’t. You think he was merely a prophet. At the same time you think Mohamed was a prophet. I don’t. You think the Koran is divinely inspired. I don’t. Let us be clear about where we differ. It doesn’t mean that we have to hate each other. Perhaps if we recognise our difference it will be easier for us to be friends. After all I can be friends with an atheist. We differ about our beliefs. That which I think is true, he thinks is false and vice versa. But we can respect each other’s right to disagree. There is no ecumenism between Christianity and atheism. But for the same reason in the end there is no ecumenism between denominations that believe different things.
Fyodor Pavlovich makes the point that before his tormentors the soldier may be in the right, but he has still renounced his faith within himself and that this makes him cursed and anathema. Smerdyakov agrees “There’s no doubt, sir, that I renounced it within myself, but still there wasn’t any sin especially, and if there was a little sin, it was a rather ordinary one” (p. 130).
Again Smerdyakov just keeps shifting the goal posts. When faced with a counterargument he just comes up with a new argument. This is essentially a parlour game. Smerdyakov just wants to get one over on his master. He wants to display his ability to argue. We are not getting any closer to what he actually believes himself. Indeed everything he says about Christianity and other faiths is simply reflecting the conventions of his time. But what does he himself believe. This we won’t know for some time yet in the novel. Perhaps we will never know. Smerdyakov is the dark heart of the novel. He is the illegitimate son of a holy fool whose father was a rapist. His very name smells and stinks of his origin in Stinking Lizaveta. He is a brother and yet not a brother. Is he part of the title of the novel or is he not.  Ivan, Dmitry and Alyosha do not treat Smerdyakov as a brother nor do they even admit that he is a brother.  But they must have been aware of the gossip that told them that Fyodor Pavlovich was his father. The limit of Alyosha’s kindness is Smerdyakov, just as the limit of God’s kindness is Judas. Smerdyakov is anathema from his birth. He doesn’t need to renounce anything to achieve this status. He was born with it. Such a person always wants to take revenge for the simple fact that he was born at all.
But how does Smerdyakov argue that the sin of renouncing Christ is only a little one? Smerdyakov uses the Biblical text about faith being able to move mountains as his starting point. Jesus says for example “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.” Matthew (17:20) But Smerdyakov makes the following point. If he is an unbeliever he is no worse than a believer, for neither of them can in fact move the mountain. The issue then of a believer being tormented by Muslims would not even then arise for “then it wouldn’t even come to torments, sir, for if at that moment I were to say unto that mountain: ‘Move and crush my tormentor,’ it would move and in that same moment crush him like a cockroach, and I would go off as if nothing had happened, praising and glorifying God” (p. 131)
Again this is quite a clever argument. Smerdyakov is saying that by failing to move the mountain I demonstrate that I lack faith, because if I had just the least little bit I would be able to move the mountain. But if I lack faith then I am anathema. The argument is that the position of someone who has faith and the position of someone who renounces it is essentially the same, for neither really has faith, not even a grain of it, because neither can move the mountain. Smerdyakov concludes that the soldier might just as well save his skin.
What is Jesus saying when he says that if I have the least faith then I can move a mountain? Did he expect people in the world to be able to move mountains? Imagine if there were even two such people in the world as the novel supposes. Two at most in the Egyptian desert can move a mountain. What consequences would this have? It would have a similar consequence as if there were people who could stop the world from spinning or the sun from setting. Jesus is setting an impossible standard for faith. The reason for this is that God is radically transcendent. He is in a dimension of which we know nothing whatsoever apart from through revelation. God is quite literally beyond our reason. So too we can have no rational understanding of Jesus Christ. His existence involves a contradiction. His death and resurrection involve something equally impossible as moving a mountain or the world stopping spinning. Jesus is saying that none of us will have faith in the fullest sense so long as we are on earth. The believer and the unbeliever are in the same position. The one leaps in order to embrace faith, the other fails to leap and relies on science and reason. But neither can ever have knowledge of God nor understand the contradiction at the heart of Christianity.
Smerdyakov’s argument is casuistry. Jesus spoke about faith in many different ways. He used the metaphor about mountains to show that faith is an impossibility. But he also at other times said that faith is the simplest thing, something that little children can have. To pick on quote at random and use it against Christianity is not a sincere way of arguing. But in the end I think Smerdyakov’s point is valid.
God would not punish the soldier for renouncing his faith. It would be human all too human for someone to renounce his faith in these circumstances. The atheist cannot move the mountain, nor can the believer, nor can the Catholic, nor can the Muslim. God in his mercy will treat us all the same, including Smerdyakov and including Judas.
But where Smerdyakov is wrong is to suppose that there is no distinction between renouncing my faith and not renouncing it. Jesus is saying that I will always have doubt. It is this doubt that prevents the mountain moving. The reason is that it is a condition of my existence that I doubt. If I ceased to doubt I would already be sitting with the Father. But even with doubt I can still believe. If I ceased to doubt then I would have knowledge. But I can never have knowledge of God, nor indeed of the contradiction involved in Christianity. But even though I lack knowledge, I can still believe in Christianity. Therefore there is a distinction between the atheist, the Muslim and the Christian. We all are full of doubt. None of us can move mountains. But we do believe in different things.
But there is something rather odd about this whole discussion about martyrdom. What is it to be a martyr in Christianity? Are there any martyrs who became such by killing someone else? I know of none. This is the main distinction between martyrdom in Christianity and martyrdom in Islam. There may in history have been soldiers who fought for Christianity, but they did not become martyrs because they killed someone else, but rather because they were themselves killed by others.
But what is interesting is that the discussion about martyrdom involves a rather unusual situation. What is unusual is that it involves a choice. The soldier in the story is presented as being asked by his captors to renounce Christianity. But what would stop the soldier saying the words his captors wanted to hear while keeping his faith intact inwardly. Would this be possible, or is faith a matter of action? But I can surely pretend. Schindler pretended to be a Nazi while saving Jews. A spy in the Cold War may have pretended to be a loyal communist while working for the CIA. Where is the sin in pretending? And yet there are examples of Christian saints who were executed because they refused to renounce their faith.
But this is an unusual case. No one gave Jacques Hamel a choice.  There is something missing in the discussion between Smerdyakov and Fyodor Pavlovich. The thing that is missing is described by Kierkegaard in Has a Man the Right to Let Himself Be Put to Death for the Truth. 

The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, Vintage, 1992.


Chapter 7

The teleological suspension of the ethical and the great man theory of murder: Raskolnikov and Abraham as knights of faith or murderers

In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov gets into a discussion with Porfiry, the police investigator, about an article Raskolnikov wrote for a periodical. Porfiry notices an interesting point in the article whereby “the extraordinary have the right to commit all sorts of crimes and in various ways to transgress the law, because in point of fact they are extraordinary” (p. 259) Raskolnikov qualifies this statement. He does not think, for instance, that the extraordinary have a duty to transgress, but that they do have the right to.  One way, for instance, that this transgression might be allowed is “in the event that the fulfilment of his idea - sometimes perhaps salutary for the whole of mankind - calls for it” (p. 259) He says, for instance, that if the discoveries of Newton could only come about because of the deaths of one or even one hundred people, it would be justified and Newton would have the right to remove those people. It does not follow that Newton has the right to kill whomsoever he pleases or to steal. Only if these deaths are for the sake of something great, is it justified. He goes on to list certain great men like Napoleon who shed innocent blood along the way and, moreover, in creating new laws transgressed the old ones. From this he develops the idea that “not only great , but even those who are a tiny bit off the beaten track - that is, who are a tiny bit capable of saying something new  - by their very nature cannot  fail to be criminals - more or less to be sure” (p. 260).

Before looking at this in greater detail it might be worth pointing out how this is similar to another story concerning murder. In Fear and Trembling, written by Kierkegaard's pseudonym Johannes de Silentio, there is a long discussion of Abraham setting out to murder Isaac. The section, however, that most directly corresponds with Crime and Punishment is the one with the heading “Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical?” (p. 54). Kierkegaard describes the ethical as the universal which applies to everyone at all times. The single individual has his telos or goal in the universal and has the task to annul his singularity in order to become the universal. To assert his individuality is to sin and he must surrender this individuality in order to rest once more in the universal. Kierkegaard admits the consistency of this view, but recognises that if it is maintained, then Hegel is right and, moreover, Abraham by being willing to kill his son Isaac is a murderer. On the other hand, “Faith is namely the paradox that the single individual is higher than the universal” (p. 55). This means he can go against the universal morality and Abraham on the basis of being higher than the universal morality can kill his son. This alternative is literally against logic. He writes therefore:  “This position cannot be mediated, for all mediation takes place only by virtue of the universal; it is and remains for all eternity a paradox, impervious to thought” (p. 56). It is for this reason that he asserts that “The story of Abraham contains just such a teleological suspension of the ethical” (p.56). The telos for Abraham, the reason he sets out to murder is “because God demands proof of his faith; he does it for his own sake so that he can prove it” (p. 59-60). Abraham because of this telos or goal can teleologically suspend the commands of universal morality, e.g. the Ten Commandments, and commit murder with impunity.

Let’s look a little more closely at the comparison between these texts. For Raskolnikov there does not seem to be anything particularly paradoxical about Newton committing murder in order to develop his theories. He would appear to be using some sort of utilitarian idea that if a greater good emerges from an evil action, then it is justified. Thus a discovery that will benefit millions is justified by the deaths of a few. We think this way quite commonly with regard to war. Killing these innocent Germans is justified by the need to defeat Hitler. However, the idea of the universal ethical applying to everyone, but that under certain circumstances an individual may transgress it is clearly similar to the idea presented in Fear and Trembling. Raskolnikov is suggesting that anyone with individuality, with the ability to say something new, is something of a criminal. Kierkegaard is saying something similar with the suggestion that anyone who wants to be a single individual, who wants to have faith likewise transgresses against the universal.

Let’s look at these individuals practically. Raskolnikov is a murderer of a pawnbroker. Is the justification for this murder the theory that he developed in his article? It’s not clear that it is, though perhaps the theory contributed to the state of mind, which led him to murder. He is poor, but thinks that he has the potential to do great things, if only he had some money to get started. Let’s imagine that he gets away with the murder and goes on in life to create these great things, a cure for cancer, a solution to poverty etc., etc. Would the murder that got him started be justified? Obviously, this depends on whether we are willing to follow the utilitarian theory of ethics, by which the murder could under certain circumstances be justified, given that it led to a greater happiness. But what of the poor pawnbroker? It did not help her happiness. The more deontological side of ethics cries out that this murder was wrong, that we cannot use people, that they are not a means to an end. However, and this is the crucial point, all of this depends on Raskolnikov getting away with it. But this getting away with it likewise applies to all of the other great men. If Newton needs to kill a hundred people to develop his theories, but gets caught immediately, upon killing the first of them, he will straight away be tried, convicted and imprisoned or executed. The same goes for Napoleon. If he starts a coup and kills hundreds, all will be well if he wins and becomes the Emperor. But if he loses, he will be tried as a traitor. It may well be possible for these people to justify themselves with hindsight. History may judge them kindly. But the risk for the individual who acts outside the bounds of the law and the ethical is that history will not be there to judge. These people are not great yet. And so the law will see no mitigation.

Let’s take Abraham. He acts because God commands him and to show his faith. He acts for the sake of this telos or goal, which he takes as being higher than his duty to the ethical, his duty to Isaac. But just as when Raskolnikov murders for the sake of a higher goal, we still have to take into account the interests of the pawnbroker, so there is a danger that in Kierkegaard’s account he forgets to take into account the interests of Isaac. Abraham wants to fulfil God’s command. He wants to show his faith. But what of what Isaac wants? Perhaps, Isaac, too, wants to fulfil God’s command and show his faith.

But again let’s look at Abraham’s situation practically. What would have happened to Abraham if he had actually killed Isaac? Let’s imagine that a person today felt that he was commanded by God to kill his son. What would happen if I took my son to a mountain and killed him with a knife? When caught by the police, what would happen if I said God commanded me to do it as a test of faith? I would immediately be tried for murder and would most certainly be detained in a prison or in a mental hospital. Abraham, too, would have faced whatever laws existed when he lived. No doubt, these would have been rather harsh, an eye for an eye, etc. Abraham is only really justified in two circumstances. Either he gets away with the murder, no one finds out, or he doesn’t have to commit the murder, the sheep is provided.

But how does this affect individuality? Of course, there are genuine moral dilemmas, where individuals must make up their minds in difficult circumstances. As Sartre asks somewhere, should I look after my aging grandmother or join the resistance? There are instances like Napoleon where someone must dare in order to succeed, where the risk is great and failure may mean death. But these situations are relatively rare.
What strikes me as odd in both Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky is the idea that it is not possible to express individuality, to be a single individual with something new to say, without being a criminal in some way. There are laws that apply to everyone. But these laws only apply to certain things and to aspects of life that affect everyone else. There are massive areas of private life which are unconstrained by law, especially if laws are written such that I have the liberty of a liberal morality that says so long as I harm no one else I may do as I please. In such circumstances I can think what I please, write what I please. What need have I for criminality?

Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling is deliberately putting forward an extreme example of faith. Abraham’s example does transgress the universal. But most faith even if it is likewise a belief in a paradox and an acceptance of the absurd, need not transgress universal morality. As a Christian I must believe the paradox, and logical contradiction of God made man (God and not God) who died but rose again (dead and not dead), but who left me with an example to imitate and the task to follow him and live how he lived. Here my faith does not require me to transgress the universal. Quite the reverse.
There may be a teleological suspension of the ethical, but as Kierkegaard will develop in works such as “For Self -Examination” our task is to be doers of the Word, followers of the Book of James, and that requires no such heroics. And yet the task is far more difficult than that faced by either Abraham or Raskolnikov. So difficult indeed that almost no one, except perhaps a saint, is able to do what is required.


Fyodor Dostoevsky Crime and Punishment translated by by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, London, Vintage, c1992


Søren Kierkegaard Fear and Trembling ; Repetition edited and translated by Howard Hong and Edna Hong, Princeton, Princeton University Press, c1983.


Chapter 8

Despair is the Sickness unto death

I first read Dostoevsky’s ‘Demons’ (AKA ‘The Possessed’) in English and didn’t much like it. If I had not later learned Russian, I probably would never have read it again. It would have remained one of those books I vaguely remembered as having been a tough read, hard to finish, but which ultimately had not been worth it. I later read it in Russian and found it the equal of anything else that Dostoevsky wrote and very deep, indeed. Was it simply the re-reading of a book that I had earlier not fully understood that led to the change in experience? Was there something that couldn’t be translated? I don’t think so. The change must have been in me. I had become older. As someone once said “You don’t learn, you just get older, and you know.”

When I first read the novel, I focussed on the plot. It’s a story of a group of revolutionaries in tsarist Russia. Perhaps, this was my problem. I just wasn’t that interested in these precursors to the revolutionaries of 1917. But when I read a second time and focussed not so much on plot as on character, I found the story to be quite different. Most importantly, I found one character who has an extraordinary perspective on existence. He is called Kirillov.

Kirillov’s role in the novel is not important for the purposes here. He has been involved with the revolutionaries and has a role in their plans. But what is most interesting is his attitude to life.

He is asked (D p. 236) if he loves life, and replies that he does. But there is something apparently contradictory in this for Kirillov intends to shoot himself. His reasoning is as follows. He sees life as separate from death “Life is, and death is not at all” (D p. 236). On being asked whether he believes in a future eternal life, he replies “No, not future eternal, but here eternal. There are moments, you reach moments, and time suddenly stops, and will be eternal” (D p. 236). He hopes to reach such a moment. He is very happy and loves life but intends to shoot himself in order to touch eternity.

Much later we discover some more about how Kirillov touches eternity. He says “There are seconds, they come only five or six at a time, and you suddenly feel the presence of eternal harmony, fully achieved …If it were longer than five seconds—the soul couldn’t endure it and would vanish. In those five seconds I live my life through, and for them I would give my whole life, because it’s worth it. To endure ten seconds one would have to change physically.” (D p. 590).

What’s remarkable about these passages is that Kirillov’s experience can be compared to that of Saint Paul with his thorn in the flesh, with Saint Francis hearing the music of eternity played by an angel and feeling that if it lasted a few seconds further, he would die; or Saint Teresa of Ávila’s agony and ecstasy when an angel drives a lance through her heart. How then should we react to someone like Kirillov who is happy and loves life, but for the sake of such brief moments of ecstatic union with the eternal is willing to kill himself with a revolver?

The difference between Kirillov and the saints is ably described by Søren Kierkegaard in his book ‘The Sickness unto Death’. Kierkegaard writes of “defiance, which is really despair through the aid of the eternal, the despairing misuse of the eternal within the self to will in despair to be oneself” (SUD p. 67).

How can we describe someone like Kirillov who is happy and loves life as also being in despair? The reason for this is that Kierkegaard recognises that despair is an objective quality, not a subjective one. There is a “Despair that is ignorant of being despair, or the despairing ignorance of having a self and an eternal self” (SUD p. 42).
Despair for Kierkegaard is a function of the self’s relationship to itself and to God. To get these relationships wrong is to be in despair, whether the person is happy or not. He explains this in the following way:

“Every human being is a psychical-physical synthesis intended to be spirit; this is the building, but he prefers to live in the basement, that is, in sensate categories. Moreover, he not only prefers to live in the basement—no, he loves it so much that he is indignant if anyone suggests that he move to the superb upper floor that stands vacant and at his disposal, for he is, after all, living in his own house” (SUD p. 43)

Despair is to live in this basement without being aware that there is a spiritual life. Despair is not a subjective quality of happiness or unhappiness. It is the relationship to God. To deny God is still to be in despair, for God is, whether the self is aware of this fact or not. On this basis then, the atheist is in despair, even if he thinks of himself as perfectly happy. For Kierkegaard truth is objective. “Veritas est index suit et falsi” [Truth is the criterion of itself and of the false” (SUD p. 42). It is the falsity of the despairing self that means it is in despair. The denial of God does not make God cease to exist, but rather makes the self cease to exist.

So the fact that Kirillov is happy is beside the point. His intention to commit suicide is defiance. He is misusing the eternal and attempting to touch eternity by means of his own actions rather than God’s. In this sense he is attempting to become God. He admits as much “Yes, I will become God” (D p. 615). It is, indeed, in order that he should become God that he wishes to kill himself. But his attempt, of course, is doomed to fail. He is not God. He admits as much himself in the end, “If there is no God, then I am God” (D p. 617). It is only because he thinks that there is no God that Kirillov can become God if only for a moment. But this God that he wishes to create in the moment of death is only momentary and therefore lacks the quality of eternity even if it touches it. What Kirillov really wants to do is to express his ultimate ability to choose. He says “If there is God, then the will is all his, and I cannot get out of his will. If not, the will is all mine, and it is my duty to proclaim self-will” (D p. 617). He thinks that if God exists, then everything is necessary, but if God does not exist, then there is radical freedom of choice. The most decisive way in which this can be expressed is for a happy man to choose to kill himself without reason. He will kill himself  “For reasons. But without any reason, simply for self-will—only I” (D p. 617). He would thus, of course, become an uncaused cause, which looks rather Godlike. But Kirillov must know that his Godlike status will not last beyond the moment of the bullet travelling through his brain. His becoming “God” depends on there being no God. But then clearly in Kierkegaardian terms if there indeed is an objective God, Kirillov is in despair. His happiness is irrelevant even if it is not self-deception.

Kierkegaard writes further “Just because it is despair through the aid of the eternal, in a certain sense it is very close to the truth; and just because it lies very close to the truth, it is infinitely far away” (SUD p. 67). Kirillov touches the eternal in a way that is similar to that of a saint. His experience is almost identical to theirs, but he is misusing the eternal that can be found in the self, he is not touching the eternal by means of his relationship to God. He has no relationship to God. It is for this reason that he is infinitely far away.

The problem is that Kirillov’s self that touches the eternal is created by Kirillov himself. He is “severing the self from any relation to the power that has established it, or severing it from the idea that there is such a power” (SUD p. 68). The act of shooting himself is an act of rebellion, far greater than that against any earthly authorities. Thus “The self in despair wants to be master of itself or to create itself, to make his self into the self he wants to be, to determine what he will have or will not have in his concrete self” (SUD p. 68). Kirillov thinks that by his act of shooting himself he will touch eternity. But the problem is that he is doing it through his act alone. But this is to forget that we are not the masters of ourselves and that it is not possible to create the self by ourselves. Kirillov may indeed have his moment of ecstasy. He may indeed touch eternity. But he will not touch eternity eternally. His moment of eternity will pass in that moment. If Kierkegaard is right, the self is both the self’s relationship to itself and its relationship to God, and therefore Kirillov is in despair because he has lost his relationship to God. He has also, of course, lost his self and lost it eternally. To only have a relationship with oneself is to have failed to arrive at the condition for true selfhood. Only in an eternity that lasts beyond the moment can a self find itself.

Suicide only makes sense morally in a world where there is no God. In a world where there is a creator and a prohibition against murder, self-murder is self-defeating for it is liable to make any problem here on earth a problem in eternity. If God, the Creator, can see inside men’s hearts and can judge their intentions, then the sense in which suicide is a flight away from a person’s problems is immediately annulled. There is no escape. Rebellion against God is far more futile than rebellion against the tsar, because there is no possibility of rebellion against God succeeding.

But even in a world where we have lost all sense of there being a God and eternity, what would be our present day reaction to someone like Kirillov, who claims to love children, love life, but who although completely happy, wants to shoot himself in the head? How would we react to such a case?

Until relatively recently suicide was a taboo. People who committed suicide were liable to be buried outside the churchyard. People who attempted suicide were liable to be punished by the law. Nearly everyone one hundred years ago if asked, would have said that suicide was wrong. The reason for this is that there was widespread belief in God and traditional Christian teaching has always been that it is a sin to take your life. It is this that led to the prohibition on suicide. The taboo was so strong, that many suicides were not classified as such. Many priests or coroners would go to great lengths to find an explanation other than suicide.

But look how times have changed. With belief in God on the decline, suicide has become something many people want reclassified. The ability to decide when to end your life is now being campaigned for as a right. In the space of less than one hundred years one of the worst sins has become something we campaign for.

How do we react to the news of suicide today? If we hear the news that someone has killed themselves, is that person ever criticised as doing something sinful? I cannot think of an occasion in recent times when that has happened. There is sometimes great sadness when someone commits suicide. There is a sense of loss and a sense of pity, but there is never the sense that the person did something wrong. In instances when the person was suffering from a painful illness, far from there being a sense that the suicide did something wrong, there is the sense that he was exercising a human right. There is even a certain joy that this person was able to choose when to die.

The difficulty though is this. How from this perspective am I to persuade Kirillov not to commit suicide for the sake of his glimpse of eternity? Kierkegaard’s argument is that Kirillov is rebelling against God, and therefore what Kirillov is doing is morally the equivalent of murder. But the idea of self-murder depends crucially on the idea of a self that survives that could be punished. Why talk of murder of the self at all if both the perpetrator and the victim of the crime cease to exist? Why indeed talk of crime at all? But this is our problem. Without the idea of the self continuing to exist after death the idea of suicide in any sense being wrong becomes difficult. Why even discourage it? Whose business is it other than my own if I take my life?

This I think is where we are now. No-one thinks that suicide is wrong. Anyway, whose business is it other than the person concerned? We can pity or be sad about the person who commits suicide or alternatively we can feel joy and admiration depending on the circumstances. But if it is right to avoid the pain of terminal illness, it could equally well be right to avoid any other pain or discomfort. It may not be pragmatic to kill yourself because your boyfriend leaves you, after all, the pain may well cease, but who can say it is wrong? No-one will condemn, though we all may feel pity. Does it anyway matter in the great scheme of things if a girl of seventeen dies by her own hand or if she dies sixty years later? What really has she lost other than some transient moments that may or may not have been happy? What has she lost that would have lasted, or at least lasted into eternity? So should we even regret?

But once we have arrived at the position that suicide is a human right and something that can in no way be condemned, we are liable to reach a stage where many of the barriers to this action have been removed. Previously a person struggling with life might reflect that they might be condemned by God, or be buried outside the church yard or condemned by all their friends and family. In this way they might be discouraged from taking such a step. But now even when a young celebrity commits suicide, we are usually told on the news about how wonderful they were, how their friends loved them and how tragic the whole thing is. There is not one word of condemnation, so today when someone reflects on suicide, there is far less to discourage them. There may be practical advice about life getting better, but there is no moral advice, for this really is a human right and in that sense it is a free choice. In Kirillov’s terms it is a matter of “self-will” and in today’s world the criterion is always what I want to do. In this sense by getting rid of God we have all become little gods and goddesses.

What advice could I give to Kirillov given that I don’t believe in God? I could try to persuade him about what he is throwing away, but if he maintains his position that the second of touching eternity would be worth giving up his whole life, what can I say to counter this? Likewise, if the person in despair says they cannot endure another day of despair and cannot bear to wait for the good times to come again, do I actually have an answer? No. I have already accepted that it is justified to take one’s own life in order to avoid the pain of a terminal illness. Why then should it not be justified to avoid any other psychical pain, even one that may be transient?  This is the difficulty of giving up traditional morality. The taboo on suicide was useful in keeping down the rate. Now that it is a right and certainly not a wrong, isn’t it likely that there will be more suicides?

The only objection that can be made to Kirillov is that he is objectively in despair. That he is trying to storm the gates of heaven and touch eternity by himself. It is the fact that he acts by himself without reference to an objective, transcendent God that makes his case different from those of the saints.  The only objection is that God actually does exist and His existence is such that it does not depend on your doubt. God exists whatever the doubter may think. 

Kirillov thinks he is happy, but in fact is in despair. If I can point out this objective position to him, he may change his course of action. Of course, he can simply reject the existence of God, as he indeed does, but given his ability to touch eternity, he is actually quite close to faith, though, of course, infinitely far away. With a leap he could move from despair to faith. It may be that I am unable to persuade him but my only chance of doing so is theological.

The collapse of faith in the modern world has meant that we have thrown out the old taboos and the old morality. Our new faith is that whatever I want to do, even if it should be suicide, I should be allowed to do if I feel like it. If it is my right to do it, I need not even take into account others. But what other sins, which once were forbidden, will soon be permitted if we continue down this route? If I can kill myself with impunity, what else will I soon be allowed to do?

If God is dead, everything is permitted is one of Dostoevsky’s aphorisms. It’s a little more complex, but more or less true. But what if we follow the logic of everything being permitted, but God, in fact, is alive and well? The trouble with maintaining that man is the measure of all things is if it turns out, he is not. If there is a standard of morality outside what I want to do, it would make my doing everything only with reference to myself look rather reckless. It would make it look rather like despair.


Demons / Dostoevsky, Vintage, 2006.

The Sickness unto Death / Kierkegaard, Princeton University Press, c1980.


Chapter 9

Grand Inquisitor

Each of Dostoevsky’s final five novels is long. They are long in terms of the number of pages, but not only long in this way. There are long novels I have read that it is possible to read so continuously that the pages fly past in a swirl of plot. I have read novels with over a thousand pages that seem short. Even Dostoevsky’s short novels like Notes from Underground seem long.
The Brothers Karamazov in terms of plot could be turned into a fairly short novel. If an editor reduced the novel to only those parts that were necessary to understand the story what would remain? I think the whole thing could be told in 150 pages.
So much is completely unrealistic. Alyosha meets Ivan in a bar. The course of their meeting is three chapters, over thirty pages. Much of it involves dialogue which goes on for pages without paragraph breaks. Have you ever had a conversation with someone in a bar that involves you or him speaking a monologue that might take an hour for you to speak aloud?
The Grand Inquisitor is supposed to be a poem that Ivan made up though he didn’t write it down. He learned it by heart and now for the first time he is going to speak it to his first listener. Is this likely?
As so often in Dostoevsky’s novels we are forced to go along with conversations and conventions that are inherently impossible. Frequently they don’t even fit the time frame. In terms of plot there may be a conversation that can take no more than an hour, yet one hundred pages later we are still involved in these lengthy monologues that often do not advance the plot one little bit, but just explore some topic or other.
Is this a complaint? No. This is what makes Dostoevsky great. His plots are sometimes fascinating. Often I return to the complexity of the plot, but it is not fundamentally plot that interests me. The plot is the frame on which Dostoevsky hangs his depictions of character and his ideas about philosophy, psychology, theology, life and love. It is these things that matter. It is for this reason that I don’t really describe plot. Read the books for yourself. The plots are frequently clever. As works of literature Dostoevsky’s novels are as good as anything ever written. But this is not why I write about Dostoevsky. I don’t write about Tolstoy. I don’t write about Jane Austen. They too wrote great novels. But I don’t keep returning to their books, drawn in by long passages that might have been edited out, because they contribute nothing to plot. I read and re-read Dostoevsky only because of these passages.
It has taken me a long time to come to any sort of understanding of the chapter called the Grand Inquisitor. It is a thought experiment. What would happen if Jesus returned to Earth during the Spanish Inquisition? There has just been an auto da-fe in Seville where over one hundred heretics have been burned. But Jesus appears and performs miracles. A blind man is made to see. A girl is resurrected from the dead. The Grand Inquisitor, a very old man, witnesses this and has Jesus arrested. This man visits Jesus in a prison cell. He promises that the next day Jesus will be burned as a heretic.
What is the nature of Jesus’ crime? The inquisitor says “you have no right to add anything to what you already said once” (p. 250). This is quite an interesting point. There is a tendency to treat revelation as something that has finished. When was the last canonical book of the Bible written? When did we decide what was in the Bible and what was not? This all happened in the early days of the Church. Since then have we added any new books? Why should the letters of Saint Paul be in the Bible, but the letters of another saint excluded. Why could not Saint Augustine’s letters be the result of revelation? Or those of Saint Thomas Aquinas. We have rejected all subsequent revelation. The Church does not accept the revelation of Mohamed. Christians do not think that the Koran is divinely inspired. We do not add it to the New Testament, though it clearly is influenced both by the Old and the New Testaments. We do not think that the Book of Mormon is divinely inspired. We think that Joseph Smith was a false prophet. If we did not think in the way we would be Latter Day Saints.
But then this is a problem. Is it possible to add to the revelation that we already have in the Bible? What would count as adding to that revelation? If nothing would could, then how can Jesus return and be recognised by Christians. This return would add a new book to the Bible. But we think the Bible is finished and has been finished since the days of the early church.
Ivan points out in an aside “the most basic feature of Roman Catholicism … ‘Everything’ they say, ‘has been  handed over by you to the pope, therefore everything belongs to the pope, and you may as well not come at all now’” (p. 251) The you here is clearly Jesus, but really it is any second revelation. Only the Pope is allowed to have a second revelation. Papal infallibility means that it would be for the Pope to judge if Jesus appeared. I don’t mean the Pope literally. The Pope is guided by his cardinals and by the Church in general. His infallibility consists in the theology of the Church. But there is then an issue here of how the Church would respond to a later revelation.
Yet it has to be admitted that the Church from time to time allows the idea that some ordinary person is contacted directly by the divine. Saints can perform miracles. People can have visions of the Virgin Mary. When Bernadette of Lourdes saw the Virgin, she was not given any permission. This revelation was given to her and her alone. But if later day revelation is possible why is it not possible to add to the revelation of the Bible. What if Bernadette was inspired to write a letter and she told everyone that the letter was dictated to her by the Virgin. Would such a letter end up in the Bible?
It is for the Church to determine whether Bernadette’s visions were authentic. They could have ruled that she was a fraud or insane. After careful investigation the Church believed her. But they might not have. So if Jesus visited Seville during the time of the Inquisition, who would determine if he was genuine or a fraud? The Church would determine. At that point in Seville the person appointed to judge over these matters was the Grand Inquisitor. Could he decide that the returned Christ was a fraud? Why not? But what is interesting about the present case is that that Grand Inquisitor doesn’t think that Christ is a fraud. He thinks that Christ is genuine. That he really has returned, but still he wants to burn him. Why should this be so? Why should this man be the judge of whether Christ has returned? Who is he to determine this? After all when Christ appeared on Earth two thousand years ago it was ordinary people who first became aware of the revelation. It wasn’t the “Church” that existed then that determined whether Jesus was the Messiah. That “Church” with all its learned rabbis and Pharisees rejected Jesus as being the Messiah. Why should the Church that exists at the time of the Inquisition be allowed to determine the truth? If we admit that the Church could be in error in Seville during the Inquisition, must we admit that it could be in error today. Perhaps we would not be inclined to burn the returning Christ today, but can we be so smug about how he might be treated. Might we for instance confine him to a mental hospital as someone who suffers delusions? If I claim to be able to turn water into wine to my doctor what do you think he would do? So this story is about us. It isn’t only about the Inquisition in Seville.
But the situation in the time of the Inquisition is different from the time when Christ walked upon the Earth. The disciples chose to follow Jesus, but during the Inquisition there is no choice. Failure to believe in the Seville of those days leads to the stake. The reason for this, the Inquisitor explains, is that the “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” (p. 251) This sort of freedom is illusory. It is no longer the people who are free to choose and believe. The church commands. The inquisitor thinks that he and his colleagues “have finally overcome freedom, and have done so in order to make people happy” (p. 251).
This is the essence of the debate. Does freedom make people happy or is being commanded the key to happiness. This is the essence of the debate between existentialism and collectivism, the debate between Hegel and Kierkegaard. The Grand Inquisitor thinks that Christ “rejected the only way of arranging for human happiness, but fortunately, on your departure, you handed the work over to us” (p. 251). It is for this reason that although he believes Christ has returned he wants to reject him saying “surely you cannot even think of taking this right away from us now” (p. 251).
The Grand Inquisitor thinks that what matters is earthly happiness, but that Christ’s message does not bring happiness to this world. This is the debate between believing in heaven or believing in heaven on earth. Socialism is the attempt to create heaven on earth. It is the attempt to apply the Christian message to politics, but to do so in an unchristian way. Whereas Jesus says that we ought to share and love our neighbour, socialism says we must. It turns morality into a matter of law. If I reject the methods by which socialism will enforce equality, then I will not be burned at the stake, but I will soon find the forces of law ranged up against me. Human happiness in this way depends on man losing his freedom. This I think is the parallel that Dostoevsky wants to make. But let’s look further.
The Grand Inquisitor looks at Jesus being tempted in the Wilderness (Matthew 4 1-11). The temptations given to Jesus by the Devil are to turn stones into bread, throw himself off a cliff relying on angels to rescue him and to rule over the whole world on condition that he worships the Devil. Jesus rejects all three temptations.
The inquisitor thinks that he was wrong to do so for “Turn them into bread and mankind will run after you like sheep, grateful and obedient, though eternally trembling lest you withdraw your hand and your loaves cease for them” (p. 251).
Will man be willing to give up freedom for bread? Well look at our own society. Our Government has the power to provide bread to those who lack the means to find their own bread. What are benefits but the bread that the government gives? Those who receive this bread do indeed eternally tremble that it might be withdrawn. Are they willing to exchange their freedom for this bread?
Jesus objects to the Devil that man does not live by bread alone. The inquisitor takes the Devil’s side “do you know that in the name of this very earthly bread, the spirit of the earth will rise against you and fight with you and defeat you … do you know that centuries will pass and mankind will proclaim with the mouth of its wisdom and science that there is no crime, and therefore no sin, but only hungry men?” (p. 252-253)
But this is where we are now. Christianity has been all but defeated by secularism. Communism defeated Christianity in Russia and promised a new religion of heaven on earth with a new Messiah called Lenin. Stalin was indeed the Devil incarnate and his ideology was the opposite of Christianity. But Christianity was less under threat from communism than it is under threat from indifference and the wisdom of science. What matters to us today is indeed earthly bread. What matters to us is heaven on earth, pleasure and putting off the evil day of death for as long as possible. We no longer believe in sin. Everything is permissible. If you think that the Grand Inquisitor is a figure from long ago, think again. He is now. He is with us.
The Grand Inquisitor points out that the people will eventually tire of the promise of heavenly bread. They will then go to the Church and say “Feed us, for those who promised us fire from heaven did not give it” (p. 253). The Church will give the bread on the condition that man loses his freedom for “No science will give them bread as long as they remain free, but in the end they will lay their freedom at our feet” (p. 253).
The Grand Inquisitor is the equivalent of Lenin. You are poor and hungry, you need food banks to survive. We will give you bread. This is the promise of heaven on earth that socialism gives us, but we must all be aware of the price that we need to pay. It is a bargain with the devil and leads to the loss of freedom. It leads to the loss of freedom because I do not accept that I am responsible for my bread. I give the responsibility to the Church or the Government to provide me with what I need to live. But I do not need to give this responsibility. People have lived in the wilderness. The pioneers in the United States made their own bread without the help of the Government. But then they really were free. The Grand Inquisitor is a socialist. The auto da fe was not so long ago. It happened throughout the 1930s. It happened after 1789. It happens today when people vegetate and lose their souls because they depend completely on the Government and this eventually leads them to live a life which only seeks transient pleasure. Sex, alcohol, shopping. Whatever I want to do I will do. This is to lose your soul. This too is an auto da fe.
The Grand Inquisitor thinks that people face a choice “They will finally understand that freedom and earthly bread in plenty for everyone are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share among themselves” (p. 253). We are not then really looking back to Seville in the 15th century but looking forward to Russia in the 20th century. The Christian ideal of loving our neighbour, plus altruism to a great extent contradicts human nature. Which of us really would give up our cloak to a robber? Which of us really would respond to a slap by turning the other cheek? This has always been the challenge of Christianity. None of us, apart from saints, can even begin to imitate Christ. We fail every day in living as Christ asks us. Are you really ready to leave your mother and your father, your husband or your wife? Are you ready today to give all you have to the poor and follow Jesus? Our freedom of choice is what makes the Christian ideal inconceivable. The Grand Inquisitor would take away that choice and impose equality by law and by threat. But this is exactly what Russia faced some decades later. People will not share unless they are forced to. Socialism is only possible if freedom is taken away from the masses. Above all else this chapter is prophetic. The greatest inquisition of all was undertaken in the 1930s by the NKVD. Only with terror could collective farming be introduced to the Soviet Union. There was equality of course, but it was an equality of starvation.
The Grand Inquisitor goes still further. The people “will also be convinced that they are forever incapable of being free, because they are feeble, depraved, nonentities and rebels. You promised them heavenly bread but … can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, eternally depraved, and eternally ignoble human race” (p. 253).
But when did the Catholic Church provide anyone with equality, when indeed did it set out to provide bread? People living in Seville in the 15th century were not given equality by the Church. There then were nobles and the poor. The poor frequently did not have enough to eat. The conflict during the Reformation was not about creating heaven on earth, rather it was about salvation and how to obtain it. Was it not all about whether I can obtain salvation by works or by faith alone? So again it is not really that we are looking backwards but rather forwards. The Grand Inquisitor is saying that people will prefer heaven on earth to the promise of an eternal reward and they will be willing to give up their freedom for this earthly heaven. Moreover they will have to give up their freedom as heaven on earth is incompatible with choice. The people must be forced to be free. The task of socialism then is to convince the people that they are incapable of being free. This is what the Welfare State does. If you are dependent on the Government for your existence, if you live this way for a few years, you will lose all sense of self, all sense of being capable of earning a living. At this point you will have no sense of being properly free. So too in Communism. Everything depends on the party. There is little or no room for initiative. Bringing Christianity down to earth, making an earthly heaven requires that we lose our freedom. It is for this reason that earthly Christianity or socialism is not Christianity at all. For Christianity above all depends on a choice. A leap of faith. It is for this reason that socialism is incompatible with Christianity. Socialism is the attempt to force others to live a Christian life. But the force means that it ceases to be Christianity at all. Rather it is the temptation that the Devil gave to Jesus. It is for this reason that socialism always ends in terror and monstrosity. It is quite literally the work of the Devil.
The Grand Inquisitor points out that only a few tens of thousands are really strong enough to follow Christ. The rest, the millions are too weak, but because of this weakness they will be obedient. The rulers however will have freedom. He continues “They will marvel at us, and look upon us as gods, because we, standing at their head, heave agreed to suffer freedom and to rule over them” (p. 253).
The party always maintained this sort of distance between it and the proletariat. The party had freedoms that everyone else lacked. The party were the new gentry and the rules did not always apply to them. This is the essence of socialism. It is why the leaders of socialist parties always get rich. Tony Blair could never have become as rich as he did if he had been honestly in favour of capitalism, but by pretending to want equality he became as unequal as it is possible to be.
The Grand Inquisitor admits to Jesus that there is a deceit. He says that the Church will pretend to rule in Jesus’ name. But it is a lie and it is for this reason that the Church will not allow Jesus to reappear. It is because the Church has taken the Devil’s side in the first of the temptations. They have rejected freedom.
Jesus puts freedom at the heart of his message. It is a free choice whether someone will follow him or not. It is a free choice whether someone will act as Jesus does. It is also a free choice whether someone believes in Jesus at all. But do I have a choice when I believe that grass is green or that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. No I have no choice about these things because there is no question of doubt. But it is this question that the Grand Inquisitor thinks is the flaw
“Man seeks to bow down before that which is indisputable, so indisputable that all men at once would agree to the universal worship of it.” (p. 254).
But what could such a thing be? What is indisputable? It certainly isn’t Christianity, unless Christianity becomes a tyranny. When people are forced to believe perhaps because they fear the consequences of expressing their doubt then there is something indisputable.
But here too I think the Inquisitor may be mistaken. He argues that if Christ had accepted the loaves, accepted that is that stones would be turned into bread then he would have become indisputable. But Jesus of course did perform miracles. He did multiply loaves when he fed the five thousand. He did change water into wine. Did these things make him indisputable? Far from it. All of these things depended on a miracle. But it is because the story of Jesus involves a miracle that so many doubt it. Why? Because miracles are contrary to nature and science.
The Christian message is always going to be disputable unless it is enforced by the auto da fe. Everything that is important about Christianity involves a contradiction. It is for this reason that it involves a choice. It is not like watching the sun come up in the morning. Here there is not evidence.
Where are there people who believe without question? Some people in the Soviet Union believed what the party told them. They believed that Lenin was almost the equivalent of a god. They believed contrary to reason, because they had no choice. So too where apostasy is punished by death there is no question of freedom of choice in believing. You will believe or you will be killed. But this is not faith at all, but rather compulsion. You can make me believe that the moon is made of green cheese if you put a gun to my head. I will tell you that I believe. Winston Smith finally could believe even that 2 plus 2 was five.
But what also is indisputable? We can feel smug about those who are forced to believe things. But we should not feel smug, for many of us too think that there are things in the world that are indisputable. Science for instance. If I even express doubts about climate change then I am a heretic.  If I doubt the wisdom of doctors or the wonders of the NHS I am beyond the pale. If I doubt that a man can turn into a woman or that two men can marry I sin against the most modern of faiths. I may not be killed if I express these doubts, but I might lose my job or be arrested for hate speech. Are we so very far away from the inquisition?
The Grand inquisitor argues that man seeks something indisputable to believe because it is not enough to find something that each individual can bow down to. Rather it is necessary to find “something before which everyone else will also believe in and bow down to, for it must needs be all together” (p. 254).
Christianity is about individual choice, but it is distorted by the demand that everyone must follow. But this can only be done in two ways. Either faith becomes a matter of force and threat or it is about something that does not admit of doubt. Communism and some religions including Christianity have at times depended on threat, even if the threat is mild such as social ostracism. Why are there religious wars? Because we have historically been unwilling to allow people to choose their own faith. A king wanted all of his subjects to believe as he did and so he forced them. This is one form of tyranny. But there is another.
Today in the West there is a tyranny of ideas. Nice people only believe certain things. These things may be quite unlikely. They may be things that almost no-one believed one hundred years ago. They are also things that can be disputed. But the purpose of saying that something is politically correct is to say that the alternative is politically false. It is indisputable that something that is correct ought to be believed and that something that is false ought to be disbelieved. But what are these things that ought to be believed? Are they really indisputable? Not at all. Many people do dispute them. But to try to force people to believe things that are disputable is exactly what the Grand Inquisitor was trying to do. Forcing people to believe the politically correct for fear of social ostracism is no different from forcing people to go to church for fear that the neighbours would twitch their curtains. But eventually people cease to care if you are twitching your curtains. This is happening today. Political correctness is a modern church, but its threat is empty. People no longer care about its threats.
The Grand Inquisitor thinks that Jesus in rejecting the temptation of the Devil rejected the only way to make man bow down to him indisputably. This is the earthly bread. This is making his kingdom of this world. But what of the other temptations?
The Inquisitor argues that there are only three powers capable of holding captive man’s conscience “these powers are miracle, mystery and authority” (p. 255). He argues that Jesus hoped that man “would remain with God, having no need of miracles. But you did not know that as soon as man rejects miracles, he will at once reject God as well” (p. 255).
It is true that Jesus hoped that belief would not depend on miracles. There are those who need to see the marks of the nails. There are those who need to see that the blind can see or the lame can walk. But if faith depended on witnessing miracles there would be precious little faith. It is as if the Inquisitor thinks that Jesus needs continually to perform miracles in order to get people to believe. But the Inquisitor is right I think that to reject miracles is to reject God.
What is it to reject miracles? It is to believe that the world is governed by the laws of nature and that science can and eventually will reveal everything that there is to be known about the universe. The belief in God is the belief that there are important things that science cannot reach and know. It is a completely different world view. It is contrary to reason. In the story of the creation of the world science can find no room for God. In the story of the creation of each individual and in his destruction science can find no room for God. It explains birth in terms of biology and death in terms of destruction. This is a matter of nature. But Christianity involves the belief that God is involved in the creation of the world, that he is involved in the beginning of life and he is involved in death. This is to believe in something that contradicts the laws of nature. It is to believe in miracles.
The Inquisitor says to Jesus “you did not want to enslave man by miracle and thirsted for faith that is free, not miraculous” (p. 256) This is true. Faith is not knowledge. It is for this reason that it is free. I have no choice to believe that the sun is rising in the East. To doubt this is to doubt that I understand the words sun and East. But although faith is not knowledge and therefore is a free choice, the object of faith is miraculous. Belief in Jesus requires me to believe that God became man. This is contrary to nature. Science has no explanation of how a God could become man. But even if I witnessed water turned into wine, or Lazarus raised from the dead, would this have given me indisputable evidence that Jesus was the son of God? If it is indisputable evidence why is it that not everyone in the world believes? Later if I had witnessed the water being turned into wine I might conclude that magic was involved or that I was drunk. I might have thought that Lazarus was not really dead at all. I might believe when the blind see and the lame walk that the person who cures them is a charlatan and that these people have been planted in the audience. Even viewing Christ after the resurrection might be taken to be just another ghost story. There are any number of such stories throughout the world. Do they prove the existence of ghosts?
The Inquisitor overestimates the power of miracles. There are miracles every day in the world. The Church has testified to thousands of miracles. The Virgin Mary has appeared to more than one person. People with incurable diseases have been cured. Why then does not the whole world believe in what the Church teaches? Because there is always the possibility to dispute whether the miracle actually occurred. Even eye witnesses will doubt. It is not even really possible to witness a miracle. If I testified in court that I saw a miracle, the court would doubt my testimony. It would always be reasonable to do so.
What about the second way of controlling people. The Grand Inquisitor continues we “had the right to preach mystery and to teach them that it is not the free choice of the heart that matters, and not love, but the mystery, which they must blindly obey, even setting aside their own conscience” (p. 257).
Faith is indeed a mystery. There is no understanding it on earth. There is a limit beyond which I cannot go in my study of theology. I cannot batter down the gates of heaven with my reason. But how can this make me choose to believe in the mystery. The mystery in itself can make no one believe. It was of course possible in the time of the Inquisition to say to people you do not understand this, but must blindly accept it, but it is not the mystery that is making them believe it is the authority of the Inquisition and the power that it has over men’s lives.
The Inquisitor thinks that freedom of choice is a burden and that man prefers to be told what to do. He thinks that only a small sub section of mankind is capable of exercising freedom. The rest want to be controlled. There is an element of truth in this. Why is it that throughout the world there is tyranny and has been throughout history? It is in part because we prefer it that way. If you give many men freedom they will not choose to keep it. We liberated Iraq from the tyranny of Sadam Husein. They had the ability to choose democracy and freedom, but they preferred barbarism. The Arab Spring was a prime example of people being granted freedom but choosing to use it only once so as their side should win and then no other side would get the chance to win.  Democracy is fragile because we care more about winning that democracy. This can be witnessed in people being unwilling to accept the result of an election or a referendum.
The Inquisitor has a negative view of the majority of mankind. Only people like him are capable of being free. The masses are incapable. He is too pessimistic. There is more freedom in the world that either during the time of the Inquisition or Dostoevsky’s own time. But even if I live in a tyranny I still always feel my freedom. Even if I lived in Stalin’s Russia I felt free when I crossed the road. I made thousands of free choices every day. Even in the Gulag I had freedom of choice even if it was only in choosing to walk to the left rather than the right. This freedom is the seed of the destruction of all tyranny. It is also the reason why people have faith. My freedom is contrary to nature and involves a continuous miracle.
The Grand Inquisitor thinks that by taking away man’s freedom the Church has been kind “Have we not indeed, loved mankind, in so humbly recognizing their impotence, in so lovingly  alleviating their burden and allowing their feeble nature even to sin, with our permission” (p. 257).
Sin is mediated through the Church. So long as the sinner tells the Church of his sin then it can be forgiven on the performance of some penance that most often is trivial. The Inquisitor puts a cynical gloss on confession, but it is not far from the truth. It is as if the individual person gives up his own responsibility before God to repent of his sins. He is told what is right and what is wrong by the confessor.
But apart from the cynicism perhaps the confessor has a point. Man is weak, we are tempted to sin and frequently we cannot help it. Zosima recognised this point. But do we need permission from this cynical Inquisitor. Jesus himself is forgiving. God will be kind about my sins. I don’t need the permission of the Inquisitor I just need to believe in a God that will love me.
The Inquisitor confesses that he doesn’t love Jesus. He says “we are not with you, but with him, that is our secret” (p. 257). This is Ivan’s attack on Jesuits and the Catholic Church that also no doubt reflects Dostoevsky attitude that the Catholic Church is Satanic. The reason is that “we took from him what you so indignantly rejected, that last gift he offered you when he showed you all the kingdoms of the earth: we took Rome and the sword of Caesar from him, and proclaimed ourselves sole rulers of the earth, the only rulers, though we have not yet succeeded in bringing our cause to its full conclusion” (p. 257) It is because the Catholic Church became a worldly power that Dostoevsky thinks it is the work of the Devil.
But we might argue that the Orthodox Church of Dostoevsky’s time was just as much a part of the Russian Empire. It told the Tsar that he had a divine right to rule and told everyone to submit to this autocracy. The Orthodox Church likewise through its priests controlled man’s sin and through the sacrament of confession regulated this sin. In what real way is there a difference? The Roman Empire split and the two halves went their separate ways. They manufactured an argument over a sentence that no-one will ever understand. The Church in the East just as much as in the West has been for centuries involved in secular power. Schismatics in Russia were persecuted by the state because they disagreed over how many fingers to cross themselves with.
But once more it is more interesting to look forward than to look back. It is with communism in Russia that we see the vision of the Grand Inquisitor come to life. He is talking about world revolution.  We have not yet brought about communism we are still working towards our goal. But in time after we have broken a few eggs we will arrive at our goal. No wonder the communists in Russia so disliked Dostoevsky. He talks about them even when he talks about something else. The goal of the Church, what they are striving towards is “the universal happiness of mankind” The Inquisitor is with the Devil because he wants to create heaven on Earth. But this is communism. It might take a few auto da fe, it might take the reign of terror in France or the horrors of 1930s Soviet Union, but it will be worth it because of the telos. This is the temptation that is offered to us all. Shall we try to create heaven on Earth and pay the price which usually is rather high? People set out with high ideals to create their heaven on earth. Not every communist nor every socialist, it amounts to the same thing, is wicked to begin with. They may have high ideals. But soon they find in order to reach their goal they have to do something dreadful. It may be burning people at the stake. It may be stealing their property or putting them in the Gulag, it may merely be making morality a matter of law. Yes this is the opposite of Christianity for Christianity cares little in the end about what happens on earth.
The Inquisitor explains that by rejecting the ability to rule the world Jesus rejected all that man requires “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—for the need for universal union is the third and last torment of man” (p. 257).
In this he is describing the ideal of abolishing countries. He is describing John Lennon’s Imagine. The ideal of some people is indeed to abolish all borders for all people in the world simply to be treated as simply people. This too was the aim of world revolution.
This likewise is the distinction between Kierkegaard and Hegel. The Inquisitor writes “Mankind in its entirety has always yearned to arrange things so that they must be universal” (p. 257). This is the Hegelian Marxian idea that individuality is not real, that ultimate truth is one thing, one universal. The Kierkegaardian alternative is that individuality is the basic and that mediation is not possible because of paradox. It is only contradiction that prevents the universal.
The Inquisitor makes the point more explicit by saying “There have been many great nations with great histories, but the higher these nations stood, the unhappier they were, for they were more strongly aware than others of the need for a universal union of mankind” (p. 257). This is the choice then between the individual, whether it is family or nation or person and the universal, bringing down borders, establishing one universal world Government. Again Dostoevsky’s Inquisitor is pointing forward rather than backwards. The Catholic Church did not seek to abolish countries, but communism did and so do those today who seek to abolish borders and the distinctions between countries.
The Inquisitor’s criticism of Jesus is that he was not political. He should have made his kingdom of this world. He should have been the Jewish Messiah seeking to overthrow the Roman Empire. But he could only have been this by giving in to the temptation of the Devil. The Inquisitor says “who shall possess mankind if not those who possess their conscience and give them their bread” (p. 258). This is the mission of the left. The party took over the conscience of each citizen and provided a cradle to grave system of giving bread. This too is the aim of all of the Left. Dissent is not tolerated. Political correctness forbids what ordinary people want to think. The bargain is that by accepting that conscience is taken over you get welfare you are looked after. This is all done moreover in order to break down the nation state. If only we could have no borders and allow anyone from anywhere to move where they wanted, we would have no countries and no distinctions between peoples. There would be no peoples, only humanity.
The Inquisitor realises that the Church has not reached its goal. The people are building a Tower of Babel, but this will end in cannibalism. The Tower of Babel is the thing that created division between people, because it created the distinction of language. The aim of the Church is the opposite. It is to bring about a world without this distinction. Let us all speak Russian and then we can build socialism.
Dostoevsky is saying that these attempts to destroy individualism, the family, the nation, are the work of the Devil, or the work of his, or Ivan’s Inquisitor. But really this has less to do with Catholicism than with socialism.
The Grand Inquisitor is fundamentally arguing that what matters is pacifying humanity and taking away its freedom so that it should be content on earth. It is an anti-religious message, even though Inquisitor himself believes in Jesus. But once more this is in essence communism. It’s not religion that is the opiate of the masses but Marxism, for Marxism by attempting to bring heaven down to earth is trying to pacify humanity so that it is fully content with its lot even if it has no freedom. He argues “We shall convince them that they will only become free when they resign their freedom to us, and submit to us” (p. 258). We will force them to be free. This is how the left always distorts language. This is the Orwellian message of the Left. If you give up your freedom you will be truly free.
The Inquisitor thinks that freedom leads to chaos. Given the ability to think for himself man will revolt and exterminate each other. Finally faced with enough such horrors man will come to the Church and say “you alone possess his mystery, and we are coming back to you—save us from ourselves” (p. 258). Again Dostoevsky is pointing forward to the horrors of the twentieth century. But although he is prescient in this he is mistaken. It was totalitarianism and the loss of freedom that was responsible for the horrors of Communism, Nazism and Islamic fundamentalism. Each of these tries to limit man’s freedom. No truly free society, which valued individualism, was responsible for these horrors.
The Inquisitor thinks that happiness consists in submitting to authority. But again twentieth century history suggests the reverse. How much long term happiness did the authority of communism and Nazism give to the people living under these regimes? Would you have preferred to live in Germany, the Soviet Union or the USA in 1939?
The Inquisitor wants people to be like children, not proud but pitiful. He thinks this will make them happy. But it is really the old dilemma would you rather be a pig happy or Socrates unhappy? Once more it is the idea of taking away responsibility, cradle to grave welfare. But this is to be a pig happy. But it doesn’t even work for all the pigs. Eventually a pig will decide that it is Socrates and that it wants to choose for itself.
The Inquisitor describes the essence of Communism when he says that the people “will tremble limply before our wrath, their minds will grow timid … but just as readily at a gesture from us they will pass over to gaiety and laughter” (p.259). Think of the crowds in North Korea. Think of May Day celebrations in the Soviet Union. We have all seen the crowds of happy people who have been commanded to be happy. No-one was commanding the people in Seville in this way when the Inquisitor lived.
The Inquisitor will arrange leisure time like a children’s game, with songs and innocent dancing. This sounds just like the House of Culture in every Russian town. Moreover he “will allow them to sin, too; they are weak and powerless, and they will love us like children for allowing them to sin” (p. 259).This too looks forward to some Soviet ideas of free love where experiments were made with breaking down the ideas of family and marriage. But it also looks forward to the free love of the sixties and beyond where in the West the idea that there is such a sin has been undermined.
Again the Inquisitor thinks that if only he can take away man’s freedom he will be content. He says that “they will have no secrets from us” (p. 259). This indeed was the experience of communism in the Soviet Union. A network of spies reaching even into the family meant that there were no secrets. A chance remark whispered to a stranger might come back to you.
The Inquisitor describes a society where the elite, people like him have freedom and knowledge “There will be thousands of millions of happy babes, and a hundred thousand sufferers who have taken upon themselves the curse of the knowledge of good and evil” (p 259). Only the elite rulers will be fully human then, the rest will be as it were living in the Garden of Eden. The elite will promise these people a heaven on earth and heaven in heaven, but they will lie about the latter. The Inquisitor does not think there will be an afterlife for them “Peacefully they will die, peacefully the will expire in your name, and beyond the grave they will find only death” (p. 259).
But why should this be so, for the masses have no sin. If they are in the situation before the Fall of man, before there is any knowledge of good and evil, then these masses are in the situation of infants. Their situation is even better than that of infants because they have no original sin. Why should they not then be saved?
What does the Inquisitor himself believe about death? Is there only death for him too? But he cannot save himself of course. If there is immortality and a God or a Jesus who judges, why would they choose the Inquisitor and his friends over the innocent?
But it is important to remember who has written this poem. It is Ivan. The idea of there being no sin, for there is no knowledge of good and evil, is simply his idea that everything is permitted. But this is the idea that there is no God. The Inquisitor is an atheist for he is Ivan.
The Inquisitor is not a Christian for he is not teaching the Christian message. Freedom of choice is the essence of that message. Jesus does not want to force anyone to follow him. It is always a choice. More and more it becomes clear that the point of Ivan’s poem is to condemn Christianity and the Church. The Inquisitor plans to burn Jesus. But how could a Christian do this? Even if he really was an Inquisitor in Seville, if he saw the risen Christ would he really condemn him to death, knowing that he was the risen Christ. Would he not at the very least be scared to do so, knowing that in time he would be judged. The story only makes sense from the point of view of atheism. Otherwise the Inquisitor would never act in this way.
How are we to suppose that the Inquisitor prevented the masses finding out the real Christian message? Someone would have been able to read the Bible even if it was untranslated. Someone could explain the teaching to others. The Church can of course for a time act in an authoritarian way, but the seeds of the destruction of this point of view are already there. The Christian message itself undermines the auto da fe.
If the Inquisitor believed in life after death only for the elite he would not act in the way that he is acting. Moreover it is not his choice as to who is saved, therefore to say that there is only death for the masses is to say that there is only death for everyone for what really is the distinction? They are all human. It is not for the elite to save themselves.
The story then is not about heaven in heaven, but only about attempts to create heaven on earth by means of taking away freedom, knowledge and by enforcing this heaven on earth by fear and punishment. This is to describe communism. This is because the distinction between Christianity and socialism is the idea that what matters is heaven on earth rather than heaven in heaven. Socialism wants to make my kingdom on this earth, because there is no other world.
Does the Inquisitor believe in Jesus? How can he not when he is sitting there in the same prison cell and talking to him? But then must he not realise that he will be punished for the way that he is treating Jesus? The Inquisitor’s story depends on the idea that Christianity is a way of pacifying the masses (the opium of the masses), but it also depends on the idea that Christianity is not true (when someone dies, there is only death). But the presence of Jesus in the cell contradicts this.
This may be pushing the logic of Ivan’s poem too far. Taken literally it finally does not make sense. The Inquisitor might have used the Church cynically to control the people while himself not believing a word of the Church’s message. This is familiar enough from history. People have used all sorts of ideas they didn’t believe in order to maintain power and privilege. But now he must believe. He is confronted with Christ. He has no doubt that He is the genuine article. The Inquisitor is a witness to the truth. Given that he witnesses to the truth and knows that the Christian message is true, how could the Inquisitor dare continue to behave as he does? Jesus after all is the son of God. He is the truth. It is not for the Inquisitor to say there is only death, but for Jesus and Jesus’ message is “he who believes in me shall never die.” This is without limitation. There is no elite. We come back then to the idea of what the Inquisitor. Does he believe in traditional Christianity? But then he must realise that he is going to be judged for condemning Jesus.
The behaviour of the Inquisitor implies that he does not really believe that he is talking to the risen Christ. I think the story is not to be taken literally. The Inquisitor really is an atheist. He is Ivan. The story is of Ivan talking to himself. We will meet this again later in the novel when he talks to the devil. The clue is in the way the Inquisitor uses a really unusual word. He writes “having begun to build their Tower of Babel without us, they will end in anthropophagy” (p. 258). This rather unusual word both in English and in Russian is repeated later in the novel. The Devil is talking to Ivan and he says “they propose to destroy everything and begin with anthropophagy” (p. 648). This is Ivan talking to himself. So then we can deduce that the whole of the Grand Inquisitor dialogue is Ivan talking to himself and that the Inquisitor is the Devil. He is what results from giving into the temptation of the Devil.
Ivan is an atheist and so is the Grand Inquisitor, what’s more he is the devil himself. But what is a Christianity plus atheism? It is socialism. It is the idea of creating heaven on earth, because there is no heaven in heaven. What is socialism plus the devil? It is communism and the red terror of the thirties. The Grand Inquisitor is not living in the past in Seville, he is living in the future in Moscow. He is in the Lubyanka developing ingenious methods of extracting a confession. Dostoevsky may think that he is criticising Catholicism, but really he is not. His is the most prophetic of dialogues. The Grand Inquisitor is that most awful of inquisitors, the worst one that ever lived. He is Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s fellow Georgian and the one who did his dirty work. The horror of the story is not that it might have happened in Seville hundreds of years ago, but it quite literally did happen in Moscow and happened repeatedly.
The chapter continues for a few pages, but it is mainly about plot. The set piece Grand Inquisitor finishes with the word “dixi”. Ivan adds a postscript about Jesus kissing the Inquisitor and the Inquisitor letting him go on the condition that he never comes back. Alyosha makes some objections. Ivan confirms that the Grand Inquisitor is an atheist. This is the nature of all Ivan’s arguments. Even when he uses a theological argument it is to undermine the Church. But even Ivan is not quite aware of how his poem points forwards rather than backwards. For him to realise this he would of course have to be able to see into the future and which of us can do this apart from God for whom there is neither future nor past.

The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, Vintage, 1992.

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