The dilemma raised in the Grand Inquisitor passage of Brothers Karamazov can be summed up as such: Can people come to ‘love thy neighbor as yourself’ on their own, without being prodded either by whip or by carrot, or, in Dostoyevsky’s words, by authority or by bread? Can they be good without witnessing miracles or submitting to an authority?
This is a monumental ask. An average working man can barely take care of himself. We see weak, scared people around us everywhere. How can we ask of them to reject their simple, undemanding comforts to take care of a stranger or mind some higher ideals? Such a demand, Grand Inquisitor argues, should be made only of a strong person, the one who understands and can handle that understanding both physically and mentally. It’s not easy to do, even for the strong. Grand Inquisitor is a strong person but not in a sense that he can bend the weaker people to his will (although he can certainly do it through the authority vested in him). His strength rests in recognition that such weakness exists in most people (rather than pretending, like libertarians, that it doesn’t), reconciling with it and availing himself to do the dirty, ungrateful job himself: being a guide to the weak, depraved and scared of freedom masses, to provide them security and happiness in exchange for freedom.
Happiness in this context is different from the way we view happiness. In Grand Inquisitor’s world human happiness is an abdication of responsibility, of having to make tough decisions. It is a faculty that is better relegated to the figure of authority. And really, we know many people who have handed over that capacity (to be happy) to others.
In his own way, Grand Inquisitor is right: he views his job as a burden that he has to carry in order to relieve the unwashed masses from having to think and take responsibilities – attributes (or side effects) that come with freedom. He saves the weak from having to live in freedom, which they, as he demonstrated to Jesus, can’t handle on their own. But Jesus is also right: What good is ‘goodness’ if it is mandated or ordered by an authority? What if people only love their brother out of fear of a vengeful deity in the afterlife or a state/church authority in this life? Can people be good on their own free will? Jesus, by refusing to show miracles or wield authority, deliberately erred on the side of a free choice or free will of anyone to come to the conclusion that we’re all brothers and we have to love each other.
Is Jesus then the voice of the strong few and Grand Inquisitor – the voice of the weak many? This conclusion would flatter those who think of themselves as strong. Not only do they find themselves on top of the worldly hierarchy, they are also invited to think of themselves as doing God’s work.
But if you’re also a thinking person, the implications of the Grand Inquisitor/Jesus metaphor are so horrendous, so bone-chilling and so threatening to your daily way of life that, upon understanding the core of this argument (that if you choose to be free you essentially become an outcast), the only sensible course of action is to forget you ever read this and retreat back into the world of busyiness and daily errands. And that’s what billions of us do. Career, family, sports, TV shows, travel, weekend BBQ. Proving Dostoyevsky right yet again: that we’re the feeble-minded creatures of routine, that we’re indeed the weak who, when given a choice, prefer Grand Inquisitor’s world order to Jesus’s.
This sticky psychological residue, this constant cosmic and public directive to be ‘doing something’ haunts me from time to time to this day. It’s impossible to shed it completely, as I’m a product of my time and our contemporary values, which I’ve diligently internalized and excelled at for decades.
I remember how disdainful I was towards the what I considered ‘rabble’ during my subway commute to and from work. I understand now that my short tolerance for the riff-raff was borne out of my own misery, although I would deride anyone who would’ve pointed that out to me at the time. Of course, I considered myself strong, because of the shit I had to deal with on the trading desk, the kind of shit the unwashed couldn’t even come close to comprehending. My definition of ‘strength’ was itself faulty. I equated it with my social position and the efforts I undertook to get there.
But, in Jesus’s terms, strength is a mental preparedness for a life of obscurity and nothingness. This preparedness is what frees you from the toxic treadmill. It’s the ability to say ‘fuck it’ and disappear into the woods or into the desert. It’s very hard to do. Smart, driven but weak people, like for example hedge funders and tech bros, understand it, if only subconsciously, when they accumulate real estate in Vermont or in New Zealand, hoping to, one day, enjoy the serene beauty and solitude after years on the battlefield. Of course that day never comes because, according to our modern day ethos, abandonment of the game is an admission of defeat, an anathema. Fear to appear weak is a driving force behind ambition and is a definition of weakness. The entire Trump administration reeks of that fear.
The strong among us are those who are not afraid to be labeled losers. It’s those few who either abandoned the conventional rat race or were never part of it to begin with. It takes either balls or total insanity to do it. Jon Stewart, who left his successful and beloved show to tend a rescue animals farm. Crazy cat ladies. Priests – genuine kind, not the pedophiles and the pseudo pious (Pharisees). The social workers. The hermits. Artists who create art for art’s sake. Everyone who’s involved in an activity that would get a condescending giggle from a run-of-the-mill New York cocktail party crowd.
Is it possible to be strong and stay in the game? Yes, if you do it for others. This way you become a Grand Inquisitor.