The Burden of Freedom

In book five of The Brothers Karamazov, in the section “The Grand Inquisitor,” the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) has Jesus return to earth in the sixteenth century, at the height of the Spanish Inquisition. That day “almost a hundred heretics had, for the greater glory of God, been burnt by the cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor.” People recognize Jesus and mob Him, but the Grand Inquisitor has Him arrested and locked in a dungeon. He visits the dungeon and harangues Jesus for His gift of freedom of choice. Humans don’t appreciate it, he says. To be sure, they are tormented by it. It’s a great burden for them to bear. It is not freedom, asserts the Grand Inquisitor, but bread and security, that people truly desire.

Again, continued the Grand Inquisitor, people yearn for authority. That’s why they readily surrender the gift of freedom and eagerly submit to superior power and worship it. Unable to shoulder the burden of freedom, they seek refuge in mass worship and unanimously hold dogmas. “This craving for community of worship is the chief misery of every man individually and of all humanity from the beginning of time. For the sake of common worship they’ve slain each other with the sword.” The Grand Inquisitor then tells Jesus that only three powers can satisfy the servile humankind—“bread,” “mystery,” and “authority.” But Jesus had rejected all three in the wilderness. What He had rejected, however, the church had accepted and used to prodigious advantage.1 “Always in the name of Christ,” as René Girard ironically put it, “but in a spirit contrary to his—for the advent of an earthly kingdom more in keeping with the limitations of human nature.”2

“For me, the moral model and ideal is given: Christ. I ask, Would He have burned heretics? No. So that means burning heretics is an immoral act.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky
© Karl Mondon/Contra Costa Times/TNS/

Or, in the Grand Inquisitor’s own words: “We have corrected Your work. . . . And men rejoiced that they were again led like a flock, and that the terrible gift that had brought them such suffering, was, at last lifted from their hearts. . . . Why have You come now to hinder us?” demanded the Grand Inquisitor.3 In a clear allusion to Jesus’ trial, Dostoyevsky has Him silent throughout, thereby tacitly directing the reader to the gospel, to Jesus’ nonviolence and self-sacrificing love. “For me,” as he put it in A Writer’s Diary, “the moral model and ideal is given: Christ. I ask, Would He have burned heretics? No. So that means burning heretics is an immoral act.”4 Not only did Dostoyevsky hold Christ as the ideal model—the crux of his masterpieces was that imitating Christ’s self-sacrificing love was the only solution to the existential human problems in modern society.

Of these, the problem of freedom or of individual liberty was fundamental. Starting with the Protestant Reformation, modernization shattered traditional pillars and structures. By the nineteenth century the center of gravity had shifted from society to the individual. All modern freedoms: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom from arbitrary arrest, were entrenched in the nineteenth century, urgently raising the specter of social anarchy and moral corruption. The idea of the decline or crisis of Western civilization first registered in the nineteenth century. Too much freedom, it was feared, led to anarchy and licentiousness. And liberalism, the movement that sought more liberty, or freedom from restraint and tradition, came to be viewed as a menace to morality and social order, a view seemingly validated by the European revolutions of 1848-1849.

These revolutions (which forced the pope to flee Rome and led to the creation of the Italian Republic) presaged the Syllabus of Errors (1864), the encyclical that condemned the 80 “errors” afflicting the modern world. And the last error of thought, epitomizing all 80, was that “the Roman pontiff can and should reconcile with progress, liberalism, and modern civilisation.”5 With this encyclical the pope cemented the Catholic Church’s alliance with the reactionary parties wishing to restore the despotism of the ancient regime. Sharply opposing them were radical liberals and socialists seeking to complete the ideals of the French Revolution.

The arguments for and against freedom, mainly by French and German intellectuals, which flowed from the clash between the forces of reaction and revolution, supplied the materials for Dostoyevsky’s literary masterpieces. Like his fellow radical Russian intellectuals, Dostoyevsky grew up in a world dominated by Western philosophy. But he broke away after his imprisonment in Siberia. Attacking the Westernized Russian intelligentsia, especially the radical nihilists who denied free will and reduced human motivation to rational self-interest, he formulated a Christian moral vision that put a high premium on freedom and Christ’s selfless love.

In Notes From the Underground (1864) Dostoyevsky has a nameless narrator, the Underground Man, who met all the conditions that, according to the Russian intelligentsia, made him the epitome of “a rational egoist”: revolt against rationalism, utilitarianism, socialism, and liberalism. He brilliantly showed him as torn apart by pungent passions and an obstinate will that made him knowingly deceive himself and self-destructively use reason in the service of unreason.

For Dostoyevsky, this irrationalism is a universal human problem. “What are we to do,” he wrote, “with the millions of facts showing that people knowingly, that is fully aware of their real advantage, have put it aside and rushed off unto another road.” That people acted “against the laws of reason [rassudok], against their own advantage;” refuted the “law of rational self-interest.”6 As such, it is “descriptively false as a theory of behavior.”7 It’s false, as Dostoyevsky hauntingly showed through his psychologically tormented characters, because it overlooks the spiritual dimension of humanity, the evil deeply rooted in human nature.

Ironically, many Western critics of Dostoyevsky, blinded by the same rationalistic presuppositions that he inveighed against, have overlooked or minimized the spiritual dimension of his work. This is unfortunate. His Christian moral vision, like that of Kierkegaard, whom he never knew, was polemically formulated in response to the atheistic, rationalistic, and nihilistic ideological visions that make up our modern present. And his genius was to expose the inner existential conflict, the war between good and evil, within which these ideological visions were concocted.8 For Dostoyevsky, as said in The Brothers Karamazov, “God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”9 Indeed, in The Possessed (or The Devils), a chilling vision of hubris, self-contradiction, treachery, mayhem, murder, and suicide, he attributed the ideological choices made by the radicals to the devil’s deception or demonic possession. As we know, The Possessed was an uncannily accurate prophecy of the grotesque violence, despotism and spiritual deformations of the Russian Revolution.

This makes Dostoyevsky’s masterpieces especially relevant for us. For the “identity crisis” of his conflicted nihilistic characters is identical to the one afflicting many in the West today. And like nineteenth-century Russia, it’s a grave threat to freedom. It has all the totalitarian impulses that produced the Bolshevik Revolution. Indeed, in “The Grand Inquisitor” Dostoyevsky predicted the collapse of Western liberalism and the return of Western nations to Catholicism, to reestablish a universal medieval-like societas perfecta. As put by the Grand Inquisitor: “Mankind as a whole has always striven to organize a universal state.” Accordingly, a time will come when “freedom, free thought, and science will lead them [Western nations] into such straits . . ., [they] will crawl fawning to our feet and whine to us: ‘Yes, you were right, . . . and we come back to you, save us from ourselves.’”10

This prediction was not mere artistic imaginativeness on Dostoyevsky’s part. It was based on the biblical book of Revelation. Again from the Grand Inquisitor: “Ages are yet to come of the confusion of free thought, of their science and cannibalism. For having begun to build their tower of Babel without us, they will end, of course, with cannibalism. But then the beast will crawl to us and lick our feet and spatter them with tears of blood. And we shall sit upon the beast and raise the cup, and on it will be written, ‘Mystery.’” (This is a direct allusion to Revelation 13 and 17.) Regarding Protestants, “the flock will come together again and will submit once more.” 11 Interestingly, Ellen G. White, also a nineteenth-century writer, predicted the reunion, or common cause, of Protestantism and Catholicism, and that it will be enabled by mystery and magic, or “spiritualism.”12

That is why, according to the Grand Inquisitor, “they [Western nations] will marvel at us and will be awe-stricken before us” (an allusion to Revelation 13:3). “We shall tell them that every sin will be expiated, if it is done with our permission.” In a sign of willful demonic self-delusion, the Grand Inquisitor knows that his rebellion was prophesied in Revelation 17:16. “We are told that the harlot who sits upon the beast, and holds in her hands the mystery, shall be put to shame, that the weak will rise up again and will rend her royal purple and will strip naked her loathsome body. But then l [Grand Inquisitor]” “will stand up before Thee [God] . . . and say: ‘Judge us if Thou canst and darest.’”13

For Dostoyevsky the Grand Inquisitor’s God-defying arrogance was identical to the blatant atheism of radical socialists. Both arrogated to themselves divine prerogatives: they deified themselves. They had “succumbed to the Devil’s third temptation” of an earthly kingdom based on human material interests,14 and so had liberalism. That’s why it was doomed. As Shatov put it in The Possessed: “Not one single nation . . . has, yet, based its life on reason and science” “because ‘the search for God’ is unquenchable. . . . It is the force of an incessant and unwavering affirmation of life and denial of death.” And he concluded, “There has never yet existed a people without religion—that is, without a concept of good and evil.”15

Tocqueville made the same point. “In times of fervor it sometimes happens that men abandon their religion, but they only escape from its yoke in order to submit to that of another. Faith changes its allegiance but does not die.”16 To be sure, this can be seen in the reappearance in secular ideologies, albeit in abstract debased form, of moral antimonies and specters of God and the devil. It is curiously ironic, as Dostoyevsky showed, that we deny God’s existence but readily worship man-gods (the Stalins and Hitlers), just as we deny the devil’s existence but blithely demonize the Other. If this involuntarily attests to the inescapable reality of God and the devil, then the lesson of Dostoyevsky’s masterpieces is that it is impossible for us to get rid of God and the devil and go “beyond good and evil,” as Nietzsche advocated.

Going beyond “good and evil” is not only what Communism and Fascism did, but also Anglo-American liberalism when, in the 1960s, under the spell of French Nietzscheanism or postmodernism, it made the individual the arbiter of good and evil, or a god, to put it bluntly. This point requires emphasis. Unlike European liberalism that grew out of the French Revolution and was based on reason and decidedly anti-Christian, Anglo-American liberalism grew out of the Puritan Revolution, and was based on the individual’s direct relationship with God. Locke, John Milton, Richard Price, and other prominent thinkers used the Bible to elucidate “the meaning of English liberty in contradiction to Catholic practices and principles [viewed as] paradigmatic of unfreedom itself.”17 In other words, they stood fully within the Protestant tradition, which sought to purify rather than destroy Christianity—just like the French philosophes.

As Tocqueville noted, the crucial political consequence of staying within the Christian vision is “among the Anglo-Americans,” that “the human spirit never sees an unlimited field before itself; however bold it is, from time to time it feels that it must halt before insurmountable barriers.”18 If the ultimate barrier is God, then without Him “everything is permitted,” as Dostoyevsky famously noted. Indeed, the Anglo-American credo of limited government is inseparably linked to belief in God and the experience of both religious and political absolutism. Hear John Cotton (1584-1652): “Let all the world learn to give mortal man no greater power than they are content they shall use, for use it they will. . . . It is necessary that all power that is on earth be limited, church power or other.”19 To be sure, for the limits it set on human pretensions or ambitions Tocqueville called “religion [Protestantism], which never intervenes directly in the government of American society, . . . the first of [their] political institutions.”20

That is why, writing in 1835, he noted that “up till now no one in the United States has dared to profess the maxim that everything is allowed in the interests of society, an impious maxim apparently invented . . . to legitimatize every future tyrant.”21 For the United States the future has arrived. To put it bluntly, we are now witnessing the decadence, the broad moral breakdown of American society visible in its political life.

While postmodernism has corrupted and blinded liberals, the sanctimonious politics of cultural despair, and the nostalgia of a past that never was, has done the same to conservatives. But above all, the moral breakdown issues from the advanced decomposition of American Christianity, its deformation of the gospel into a form of psychotherapy and the church into an appendage of American culture and politics. I am recalling here Fritz Stern’s perceptive diagnosis of the “silent secularization of Protestant Germany that left an unacknowledged spiritual vacuum in which pseudo-religions [with false prophets and false messiahs] could flourish.”22

America—indeed, Western democracy—needs a religious revival, another Reformation. The underground pathologies, the existential anxieties and pungent passions laid bare in 2016, cannot be solved by reason or politically. Indeed, they strikingly parallel those Dostoyevsky diagnosed. As he argued, the only remedy is moral regeneration based on Christ’s self-sacrificing love. Ominously, his prophecy of the collapse of liberalism is being fulfilled before our very eyes.

Liberalism is etymologically related to liberty. For the first liberty from which all modern liberties emanated is religious liberty, the freedom to worship God according to one’s conscience. True, modern liberties have degenerated into license, but it is because they were severed from the divine root. Reconnect them, and liberalism will be saved from collapse. Of course, the alternative is to surrender liberty to the Grand Inquisitor. But this is a choice that each one of us has to make.

1Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004), pp. 229-241.

2 René Girard, Resurrection From the Underground: Feodor Dostoyevsky, ed. and trans. James G. Williams (East Lansing, Mich.: Michigan State University Press, 2012), p. 62.

3 Dostoyevsky, p. 238.

4 Dostoyevsky, cited in James P. Scanlan, Dostoevsky the Thinker (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002), p. 98.

5 Frederick Brown, For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus (New York: Anchor Books, 2010), p. 19.

6 Scanlan, p. 68.

7 Ibid., p. 72.

8 George A. Panichas, “Dostoevski and Satanism,” Journal of Religion, 45, no. 1 (January 1965): 12-29.

9 Dostoyevsky, p. 107.

10 Ibid., p. 239.

11 Ibid.

12 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 588.

13 Dostoyevsky, p. 240.

 14 Dostoyevsky, The Possessed, trans. Andrew R. MacAndrew (New York: New American Library, 1962), p. 236.

15 Ibid., p. 237.

 16 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence (New York: Perennial Classics, 2000), p. 299.

 17 Clement Fatovic, “The Anti-Catholic Roots of Liberal and Republican Conceptions of Freedom in English Political Thought,” Journal of History of Ideas, 66, no.1 (January 2005): 40.

18 Tocqueville, p. 292.

 19 John Cotton, cited in American Protestantism, Winthrop S. Hudson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), p. 15.

20 Tocqueville, p. 292.


 22 Fritz Stern, Dreams and Delusions: The Drama of German History (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987), p. 11. 

Article Author: Elijah Mvundura

Elijah Mvundura writes from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has graduate degrees in economic history, European history, and education.