Lecture Notes, Philosophy 151

Dostoyevski on Freedom

November 30, 1995

The previous lecture asked this fundamental question: if it were possible to secure the happiness of humanity through its enslavement, should it be done? The underground man refused to accept any scheme in which he is reduced to an organ-stop; he asserted that it is more valuable to will arbitrarily and even against one's own "interests" than to give up his will altogether. This brings to mind Nietzsche's comment that humans would rather will the void than be devoid of will.

We can distinguish two types of schemes for securing human happiness. The first is well-known, and we may call it "utilitarian." What is best is that which produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. What happiness is remains controversial, but given an account of happiness, there will be a rational scheme according to which it is optimally distributed. A well-known objection to utilitarianism is that the production of overall happiness may require immense unhappiness on the part of some unfortunate few.

This theme can be developed in the context of Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov. In a significant passage, the skeptical brother Ivan asserts that he cannot accept the notion that suffering in the world is justified because it promotes an ultimate state of happiness. Some forms of injustice cannot be justified under any assumption. Specifically, the undeserved suffering of an innocent child can never be forgiven by the child's mother, even if the child were moved to forgive. Thus Ivan could not accept the world as the work of God. Ivan's brother, the saintly Alyosha, had no reply to this argument. Some actions cannot be permitted even if they serve to promote the greatest overall happiness.

But suppose that the overall happiness could be served by acts of self-sacrifice by a few stout-hearted souls? Would it then become desirable to pursue it at any other cost? Dostoyevsky considered the possibility of a theocracy, a government by the church. Specifically, he singled out the Roman Catholic Church, which though much of its existence wielded a great deal of temporal power. During the Spanish Inquisition of the 16th century, Church officials put to death numerous persons they branded as heretics. Perhaps this could be justified as necessary for the greater happiness. In one of his most arresting images, Dostoyevsky recounted Ivan Karamazov's "poem" about the Grand Inquisitor who would have excuted Jesus himself for the greater good of humanity.

The second coming of Jesus occurs in Seville, Spain, at a time when hundreds were being burnt at the stake on a single day. Walking through the town like an ordinary person, Jesus attracted a throng of followers who knew exactly who he was. So did the Inquisitor, who had him arrested and imprisoned. He told Jesus that he would have to be put to death because he was interferring with the work of the Church, which after Jesus's death on the cross had become the only legitimate vehicle of human salvation.

The Inquisitor told Jesus that there was a fundamental error in the Gospel message. Jesus had preached that humans should freely give up the flesh and follow him. The freedom of the act of faith is dramatized byt the three temptations by Satan. Jesus could have secured the loyalty of his followers by giving them bread, by leaping from a precipice only to be saved by angels, by becoming the ruler of Jeruselem. Instead, he forced forced his followers to take him or leave him just as he was. And this was, in the eyes of the Inquisitor, his error.

In fact, only a few have the strength to follow this word. In a passage strikingly reminiscent of Nietzsche, the Inquisitor desribes the error to Jesus. "Thou didst crave for free love and not the base raptures of the slave before th emight that has overawed him forever. But Thou didst think too highly of men therein, for they are slaves, of course, though rebellious by nature." What is to become of them? They cannot make their way on their own and can find happiness only by foresaking their freedom and turning their affairs over to the Church. "But with us all will be happy and will no more rebel nor destroy one another as ubnder Thy freedom. Oh, we shall persuade them that they will only become free when they renounce their freedom to us and submit to us."

The Inquisitor's claim to have "corrected" the teaching of Jesus might be interpreted as a cynical expression of his lust for power. While Dostoyevsky in general condemned the Catholic Church for its pursuit of temporal ends, Ivan creates a picture of an ascetic priest, one who has suffered in the wilderness and who is taking on the sufferings of all as his own, just as did Jesus himself. "Suppose that there was one such man among all those who desire nothing but filthy material gain -- if there's only one like my old Inquisitor, who had himself eaten roots in the desert and made frenzied efforts to subdue his flesh to make himself free in perfect. But yet all his life he loved humanity, and suddenly his eyes were opened, and he saw that it is no great moral blessedness to attain perfection and freedom, if at the same time one gains the conviction that millions of God's creatures have been created as a mockery, that they will never be capable of using their freedom, that these poor rebels can never turn into giants. . . . Surely that could have happened?"

Let us now return to the original question as to whether the renunciation of freedom is desirable if it would bring general happiness. Was Dostoyevsky in the end committed to a theocracy? Certainly the underground man did not turn his freedom over to the clergy, but perhaps he was merely one of the rebellious weak ones, too stubborn to let go of the source of his torment. This outcome is suggested by the ending of Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov commits a willful act of murder, but he cannot face is deed and slowly, painfully, eats away at himself. In the end, he is converted to Christianity through the love of a prostitute, the very love rejected by the underground man.

Perhaps the key to understanding Raskolnikov is through the idea that suffering is a means of enlightenment. He did not freely live in the desert eating roots and locusts to purify himself. Circumstances forced his suffering upon him, as they force suffering upon most of humanity. What his suffering broke down was his egoism and its attendant rationalism. This recaptulates Dostoyevsky's own horrible experiences in prison: he entered as a rational socialist and returned as apologist for the Russian Orthodox Church.

There are many symbols of suffering in Dostoyevsky's works, but for our purposes three stand out. The rationalist is tortured by the recognition that his high ideas are meaningless in the real world. The prostitute is a victim of circumstances, hardly understanding the degradation to which she is subject. Finally, the monk intentionally brings suffering upon himself. The type of the prostitute seems to stand for the masses, numb from abuse and dazed with alcohol. They are the fertile field (or so Dostoyevsky believed) for the monks, who might deliver to them the message of Father Zossima in the Brothers Karamazov: "There is only one means of salvation. Make yourself responsible for all man's sins. As soon as you sincerely make yourself responsible for everything and for all men, you will see at once that you have fond salvation. On the other hand by throwing your indolence and impotence on others you will end by sharing the pride of Satan and murmuring against God."

Zossima's message does not imply the surrender of freedom; on the contrary, it can be followed only through a courageous choice, its way prepared by suffering. Here there is a strong similarity between Dostoyevesky's and Kierkegaard's accounts of salvation. But Nietzsche must be heard as well. Who is strong enough to make such a choice? Can the mother, whose child has been torn apart by a pack of dogs, take the sin of the tormenter upon herself? Reason finds it inconceivable; it could only be a miracle.

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