IVAN KARAMAZOV'S MISTAKE
by Ralph C. Wood
It is has become commonplace to regard Ivan Karamazov’s “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” as a prescient parable glorifying human freedom and defending it against the kind of totalitarian threats it would face in the twentieth century. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s angry atheist delivers an uncanny prophecy of the omnicompetent, freedom-denying state that would arise in his own native Russia. But concerning the liberty that is the only cure for state-sponsored oppression, Ivan is terribly wrong. The Christ of the Grand Inquisitor advocates an idea of freedom that Dostoevsky considered an abomination. It is linked to Ivan’s critique of God for allowing innocent suffering. For Dostoevsky, the problem of evil and the question of human liberty are profoundly joined: our answer to one quandary determines our answer to the other. Freedom and suffering are interstitial realities, as the Grand Inquisitor understands, even if he understands them wrongly.
Western readers of The Brothers Karamazov have remained virtually blind to Dostoevsky’s critique of the Grand Inquisitor. The reason, I believe, is that Ivan’s vision of human freedom is so very near to our own secular notion of liberty, and thus to our increasing relegation of the Christian gospel to the private sphere of mere preference. Though he was a student of Western Christianity and culture, Dostoevsky remained fundamentally Russian in his conception of God and the world, of good and evil, of the sacred and the secular. We cannot properly understand his treatment of these matters, therefore, until we grasp his Orthodox reading of them. Thus must we examine his parable of the Grand Inquisitor vis-à-vis the Orthodox doctrine of human freedom as being founded not on autonomous choice but on communal dependence on God.
Ivan Karamazov is no straw atheist. He gives voice to the philosophical problem of evil perhaps more clearly and cogently than any other speaker or actor, any other philosopher or theologian, in the whole of world literature. Yet he is also a very Russian atheist. He thinks with his solar plexus, as D. H. Lawrence might have said. He is passionately intellectual. Ivan does not pose the question of theodicy as a philosophical conundrum, as it is often posed in the West. From Leibniz through Hume, from Alvin Plantinga to J. L. Mackie, the problem of evil has often been cast in bare intellectual terms: how to think throughthe contradiction that stands between the goodness, omniscience, and omnipotence of God, on the one hand, and the massive misery and undeserved suffering that characterize God’s world, on the other. In J.B. , his dramatic contemporizing of the Job story, Archibald MacLeish puts the intellectual problem of evil tersely but accurately: “If God is good He is not God. If God is God He is not good.” If God is imbued with the charity which He Himself enjoins His creatures to live by, then He must lack the divine power to create and sustain a world in which such charity obtains: He is not God. If, by contrast, God possesses the sovereignty and strength to perform what He wills, then this misery—riddled world must be proof that He is deficient in love itself: He is not good. Ivan doesnot make his case against God’s goodness in this intellectualized fashion. He is not a philosophical thinker who abstracts ideas from experience in order to test their logical clarity and coherence. As Albert Camus observed, “Ivan really lives his problems.” They are matters, quite literally, of life and death, of eternal life and eternal death, of ultimate bliss or final misery. Ivan is willing to face the anguish and terror inherent not only in thinking but also in living without God.
As one who knows the truths of the heart, Ivan also knows that reason alone cannot fathom the deepest things. On the contrary, reason can be put to nefarious uses: “Reason is a scoundrel,” he confesses. Ivan is willing, therefore, to live “even . . . against logic.” Yet he is unwilling to live as a mindless vitalist, embracing life without much regard for its meaning and, even less, with a blithe disregard for its injustice. So huge are the world’s moral horrors, Ivan argues, that they undermine any notion of divine order and purpose. Hence Ivan’s truly wrenching quandary: Can he love life without believing that it has ultimate meaning—believing, instead, that it is godless and absurd? Ivan is young and strong. He brims with intellectual curiosity no less than bodily energy. He wants to travel to Europe and to learn its science and its history. As a good romantic, Ivan cites Schiller’s celebrated line about the “sticky little leaves” whose gummy unfolding in spring seems to signal the whole world’s rebirth. They remind Ivan of all that is precious in life, the glories of human love and natural splendor, the inward movement of all things toward life’s energizing center.
There is still an awful lot of centripetal force on our planet, Alyosha. I want to live, and I do live, even if it be against logic. Though I do not believe in the order of things, still the sticky little leaves that come out in the spring are dear to me, the blue sky is dear to me, some people are dear to me, whom one loves sometimes, would you believe it, without even knowing why; some human deeds are dear to me, which one has perhaps long ceased believing in, but still honors with one’s heart, out of old habit.
It is noteworthy that Ivan makes this confession to his young brother Alyosha just after he has broken off relations with Katerina Ivanovna. Ivan feels as free and light as the air. Living in this detached and uncommitted—indeed, this almost angelic—state, Ivan makes qualifications that are altogether as important as his affirmations. Though he wants to drink life to the lees, he confesses that only “some people” and only “some human deeds” are dear to him, and that he loves them only “sometimes.” Ivan deliberately denies the teaching of Father Zosima, the head of an Orthodox monastery who also stands at the religious center of the novel. Father Zosima insists that love cannot be selective, that it must be at once universal and concrete, that we must not love those who are conveniently remote so much as those who are inconveniently near. Already, it is evident, the philosophical and the religious arguments are linked. Ivan not only thinks but also lives in autonomous and anti-communal terms. It is precisely the neighbor whom we cannot love, he insists. The neighbor’s objective and objectionable otherness—his bad breath, his foolish face, his ill manners—threaten Ivan’s sovereign selfhood. Of such a neighbor, Ivan complains like an early Jean-Paul Sartre that “he is another and not me.” Despite his eager embrace of the world, therefore, Ivan wants to remain a solitary and transcendent judge over it, a godlike withholder no less than a gracious giver of praise. Others must satisfy his own criteria before he will embrace them. And because God does not satisfy the requirements of Ivan’s logic, he will not believe in God.