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    black and white illustration of dungeon doors

    The Eternal Questions Illustrated

    A Dostoyevsky scholar introduces a graphic novel adaptation of “The Grand Inquisitor.”

    By Gary Saul Morson

    March 14, 2024

      I might be misunderstanding Morson, but he seems to be saying that Christian faith is a blind existential leap. Francis Schaeffer argued very persuasively against this view.

    • Lawrence

      that God made human nature, is not true, methinks. We made our human nature by being disobedient.

    When earthquakes, famines, and pandemics strike, people often ask: Why does this happen? If they are religious, they pose the traditional question of theodicy (justification of God): Why does God allow the innocent to suffer? If their perspective is secular, they doubt the goodness of the universe. As believers question Providence, nonbelievers wonder whether there really are laws of progress built into the nature of things. Dostoyevsky was always asking these questions, and he recognized that they are essentially the same whether expressed in religious or secular terms.

    The answers, however, tend to differ. Materialists have looked for technological solutions. If only people would allow experts the power to impose scientific (or social scientific) remedies, evil could be minimized or even eliminated. In this view, moral questions turn out to be fundamentally simple and solvable. In Dostoyevsky’s time, numerous schools of thought, ranging from English utilitarianism to Russian populism and socialism, maintained that they had discovered the indubitable solution to moral and social questions.

    This way of thinking appalled Dostoyevsky. With his profound grasp of psychology, he regarded the materialists’ view of human nature as hopelessly simplistic. Deeply suspicious of what intellectuals would do if they ever gained the power they sought, he described in greater detail than any other nineteenth-century thinker what we have come to call totalitarianism. Even in its less terrifying forms, rule by supposedly benevolent experts was, he thought, more dangerous than people understood.

    For Dostoyevsky, the Christian view of life, which most intellectuals regarded as primitive, offered a far more sophisticated understanding than materialist alternatives. He laughed at the worldview that is today prevalent in mainstream economics, with its picture of people as rational agents seeking their greatest advantage. And he regarded it as a profound mistake to rely only on technological solutions to social problems, a perspective that, if anything, needs to be challenged all the more strongly today. Man does not live by iPhone alone.

    We need to accomplish things where failure is possible, to make decisions that could be mistaken, to take responsibility, and to risk.

    Few people in any age have had a deeper appreciation of the importance of freedom than Dostoyevsky. The core error of the secularists, whether utilitarians or socialists, was to regard people as finished objects with defined needs. Satisfy those needs, the reasoning went, and people will be happy. Dostoyevsky posed a thought experiment: Imagine that some person – or some devil – offered to make you happy forever, so that every desire was immediately satisfied, by taking away all choice. Everything would be decided for you. Today we might say: If someone offered to make you happy by connecting your brain to electrodes and pumping in pleasure for the rest of your life, would you do it? If not, why not?

    The answer is that we need to accomplish things where failure is possible, to make decisions that could be mistaken, to take responsibility, and to risk. If people accepted the devil’s bargain, Dostoyevsky says, they would soon see “that they had no freedom of spirit, no will, no personality, that someone had stolen all this from them; they would see that their human image had disappeared . . . that their lives had been taken away for the sake of bread, for ‘stones turned into bread.’” They would soon realize that they could not accomplish anything, “that it is not possible to love one’s neighbor without sacrificing something to him of one’s own labor.” In short, they would understand too late that “happiness lies not in happiness but only in the attempt to achieve it.”

    We are all always in process, always making ourselves by our choices, or, as the philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin has paraphrased Dostoyevsky’s point, we are all “unfinalizable.” The most immoral thing one can do is treat another person as if he or she were a finished object, fully knowable from the outside and incapable of surprise. And that is precisely what social scientists and engineers tend to do. Here is how Bakhtin famously paraphrased Dostoyevsky’s idea of the human essence: “A person never coincides with himself. . . . In Dostoyevsky’s artistic thinking, the genuine life of the personality takes place at the point . . . of departure of all that he is as a material being, a being that can be spied on, defined, predicted apart from its own will, ‘at second hand.’”

    Christ came to save free people, and would not make them happy at the cost of their freedom, because then they would not be human at all.

    In Dostoyevsky’s view, only Christianity – as he interpreted it, of course – understands human nature and human life in this way. Christ came to save free people, and would not make them happy at the cost of their freedom, because then they would not be human at all. The Brothers Karamazov, often regarded as the greatest novel every written, and certainly as the greatest Christian novel, is devoted to explaining the implications of this Christian understanding of the essential role of freedom in a meaningful life.

    The novel’s core argument appears in a sequence of three chapters, “The Brothers Make Friends,” “Rebellion,” and “The Grand Inquisitor.” Along with Hamlet’s monologue, “Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor,” presented here in graphic form, rank among the most famous passages in Western literature.

    Ivan and Alyosha, two brothers raised apart, meet at a tavern to get to know each other. Alyosha, a devoted Christian residing in a monastery, is deeply curious about his mysterious older brother. A nonbeliever thirsting to believe, the intellectual Ivan is torn between contradictory philosophies. On the one hand, he accepts the scientific view that the world is nothing but a chain of causes and effects. Good and evil, he concludes, are nothing but constructs. On the other hand, he deeply empathizes with human suffering and is morally outraged at cruelty. One view rejects the concept of evil as mere superstition, while the other treats it as the most important thing in the world. He cannot reconcile the two.

    True Russians, Ivan declares, worry only about such eternal, “accursed questions.” Just let two educated young Russians meet at some stinking tavern and even if they have never seen each other before, they will talk about “the eternal questions, of the existence of God and immortality. And those who do not believe in God talk of socialism or anarchism . . . so that it all comes to the same, they’re the same questions turned inside out.” That is, the same ultimate questions about life’s meaning can take either a religious or a secular form.

    It is an odd sort of duel because if Ivan were to lose, he might also win.

    It soon becomes apparent that the brothers’ conversation is a sort of duel, in which Ivan tries to shake Alyosha’s faith. It is an odd sort of duel because if Ivan were to lose, he might also win. If Alyosha could successfully answer his arguments, as Ivan half hopes, Ivan might achieve faith and resolve the contradiction tearing him apart.

    illustration of a prison

    Image courtesy of Elena Avinova.

    In “Rebellion,” where the graphic version of these chapters begins, Ivan sharpens the argument of the Book of Job. He begins obliquely by stating that people cannot actually care for, much less love, each other. To be sure, we hear about saints such as John the Merciful, who warmed a pestiferous, foul-smelling frozen beggar with his own body, but that was done not from love but from what Ivan calls “self-laceration,” a concept developed throughout Karamazov. People often claim to be harmed, invite others to harm them, even harm (lacerate) themselves in order to feel morally superior. Dostoyevsky had a deep appreciation of what we have come to call victimology. As the boys’ repulsive father has remarked, it can be very pleasant to take offense. Ivan maintains that all apparent acts of love are really selfish in this or some other way.

    People may care for “humanity” in the abstract, Ivan continues, but that is very different from caring for particular people. Lovers of “humanity” are usually capable of intense cruelty, all the more so because they can use humanist ideology to justify their actions. It is said that people are bestially cruel, Ivan observes, but that saying is an insult to the beasts. Beasts tear each other apart, but they do not take sadistic pleasure in inflicting suffering.

    “God and the devil are fighting and the battleground is the heart of man.”

    “The question is,” Ivan asks, “whether that’s due to man’s bad qualities or whether it’s inherent in their nature.” That is, are our evil actions the result of something superficial that better education or a more enlightened social structure might eliminate, or are we depraved to the core? Ivan, literature’s most profound misanthrope, accepts the second alternative. Dostoyevsky agrees that evil goes all the way down, but, he would add, so does our capacity for good. As the third Karamazov brother, Dmitri, has declared, “God and the devil are fighting and the battleground is the heart of man.”

    Ivan reasons that God made human nature, so ultimately the fault is God’s as well as ours. Job insists that evil people prosper while the innocent suffer, but Ivan takes this point about cosmic injustice a step further by focusing on the suffering of young children. After all, with adults it is always possible to say they must have some sins on their conscience – as Ivan says, “they have eaten the apple” – but one cannot say that about young children.

    Ivan outlines in shocking detail several cases of child abuse, all in fact drawn from the Russian press. One little girl was tortured by well-educated, cultivated parents. They beat her until her body was one bruise, shut her up all night in the cold, and smeared excrement in her face. The child kept praying to “dear, kind God” to protect her, and as Ivan repeats this phrase it becomes an ever more searing indictment of the God who failed to protect her.

    After each case of innocent suffering, Ivan paraphrases a traditional theodicy. He varies these with secular justifications of the universe as fundamentally good. For example, some believers argue that man could not have known good if he had not known evil. The secular equivalent is the progressive view that since history is evolving towards utopia, evil is but a temporary, if necessary, step.

    Ivan does not offer counterarguments. Had he done so, there would always be the possibility of a new justification he hadn’t considered. Rather, he demonstrates the horror of the very process of justifying child abuse, so that any conceivable justification is discredited in advance. He asks his audience to compare the abstract chain of reasoning with the particular tortured child, like that little girl beating her fist on her chest and praying to “dear, kind God.” One cannot help asking: What sort of a person could nod and say, yes, the bloodless argument matters more than the bloodied child?

    Ivan continues: I want to believe that somehow, at the end of the world, it will all be made right; that the lion will lie down with the lamb and the mother forgive her son’s murderer. But I am stopped short by the thought that she has no right to do so. Let her forgive the murderer for the sufferings of her mother’s heart, but she has no right to forgive the child’s sufferings, even if the child forgave them; and the child has no right to forgive the mother’s sufferings. Is there a being with the right to forgive? Ivan asks rhetorically.

    Ivan imagines the Last Judgment, where God says: Ivan, you have blasphemed, but you did so from love, so here is your ticket to heaven. Ivan claims he would decline the ticket because accepting it would entail accepting God’s universe where children suffer. His “rebellion,” in other words, is against the entire universe.

    Alyosha, deeply moved by the horrible stories (in the graphic version he throws up), at last cries out that Ivan has forgotten something. His argument would be right if there were only God the Father, but that, Alyosha suggests, is why we are not Muslims or Jews but Christians, who believe in God the Son. There is someone with the right to forgive, because he gave his innocent blood so that he would have that right.

    It turns out that Alyosha has fallen into Ivan’s trap. In asking whether there is someone who could forgive, Ivan was provoking Alyosha’s reply in order to give his prepared response. That is, as “Rebellion” recounts Ivan’s argument against God the Father, “The Grand Inquisitor” outlines his case against God the Son.

    Ivan’s tale is set in Seville during the Inquisition. Common people long for the Second Coming, and Jesus decides he will briefly show himself. They greet him ecstatically, but the Inquisitor – who is supposedly his vicar – has him arrested! Why?

    The Inquisitor visits Jesus in his cell and outlines his philosophy, which turns out to be the exact opposite of Jesus’. These antagonistic views of life will always contend with each other. Cultures change, empires fall, faith and disbelief assume different forms, but there are always those who think like the Inquisitor and those who think like Jesus. Some offer happiness at the cost of freedom, and others regard freedom as essential to humanness. Dostoyevsky makes clear that the atheistic socialism of his day was the modern form of the Inquisitor’s Catholicism. And Dostoyevsky’s readers ever since have been able to recognize that the same debate still rages.

    Jesus came to make people free. He wanted us to choose goodness freely. He did not crave the base worship of the slave. But free choice can exist only where there is doubt. Where there is certainty, there is nothing to choose; as soon as we understand a proof in Euclidian geometry, for instance, we simply accept it. Faith exists only where there is uncertainty. And so Jesus did not offer proofs. With only his image as our guide, we must choose goodness freely in the face of doubt.

    For the Inquisitor, Jesus’ view condemns everyone but a very few strong souls to misery. Except for that handful, people cannot live in doubt. They will do anything to avoid guilt and regret, the inevitable consequences of choice under uncertainty. They are eager to surrender their freedom to ideologues claiming moral certainty. The twentieth century was to show that happening frequently. People want to escape freedom while still clinging to the honorific word “free,” which is why so many totalitarians have purported to offer “true freedom.”

    The Inquisitor retells the Gospel story of the devil’s three temptations of Christ, which he reinterprets. First, the devil asks Jesus to transform stones into bread so people will follow him, but Jesus answers, “Man does not live by bread alone.” Just so, the Inquisitor replies, but that is why Jesus should have accepted the devil’s temptation. People do indeed crave the meaningful, but they cannot be sure they distinguish the truly meaningful from its counterfeits. But there is one thing that no one can doubt: matter itself. We all have bodies, and when we suffer great pain, that, at least, is indubitable. In other words, the appeal of materialism is spiritual! People accept it not for material rewards but because it is certain.

    The devil next tempts Jesus to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple so God will save him by a miracle, but Jesus refuses. The reason, according to the Inquisitor, is to show that faith must not be based on miracles. Once one witnesses a miracle, one is so overawed that doubt is impossible, and that means faith is impossible. Jesus did perform miracles, but if you believe because of them, then – despite what churches say – you are not a Christian.

    Then the devil offers Jesus the empire of the world, which he rejects, but should have accepted, according to the Inquisitor. The only way to keep people from doubt is by miracle, mystery (just believe us, we know), and authority, which universal empire would ensure. You came for the few capable of freedom, the Inquisitor tells Jesus, but we “who have corrected Thy work” serve the millions who cannot endure freedom. I know that I will go to hell for corrupting your teaching, the Inquisitor concludes, but for love of humanity I am willing to do so. That is, the Inquisitor betrays Christ for Christian reasons! And in a sense he outdoes Christ, who gave his earthly life, because the Inquisitor gives his eternal life!

    Alyosha unexpectedly replies, “Your poem is in praise of Jesus, not in blame of him, as you meant it to be.” How can that be? Well, ask yourself: Having heard the Inquisitor’s arguments, would you choose to surrender all choice in exchange for a guarantee of happiness? Would you have everything decided for you by some wise substitute for your parents, so you were always a contented child? Or is there something higher than mere contentment?

    In our time, people point to the horrors of socialism in practice, in Russia, China, and Cambodia, but Dostoyevsky depicts not some sadistic tyrant like Stalin but the best possible socialist, because he wants us to see what is wrong with the very idea of socialism or any scheme that would trade essential freedom for happiness.

    illustration of two men talking

    Image courtesy of Elena Avinova.

    The attentive reader may ask: If “Rebellion” is meant to discredit God the Father, and “The Grand Inquisitor” to discredit God the Son, where is the third person of the Trinity? That, indeed, is the very question Dostoyevsky wants us to pose. Karamazov as a whole justifies Christianity through the Holy Spirit. In this novel the third person of the Trinity is mentioned frequently and, explicitly or implicitly, takes a variety of forms.

    In “The Brothers Make Friends,” it takes the form of the force of life itself. The Holy Spirit manifests itself in a love of God’s world in spite of all logic and in the face of all philosophical objections. Ivan in fact experiences this love, but he does not recognize it for what it is. Perhaps, he speculates, it is just biological, the way youth manifests itself in the organism; or maybe it is some other law of nature, like gravity.

    “Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky little leaves as they open in the spring.”

    As their discussion begins, Ivan tells Alyosha: “If I didn’t believe in life, if I lost faith . . .  in the order of things, were convinced in fact that everything is a disorderly, damnable, and perhaps devil-ridden chaos, if I were struck with every horror of man’s disillusionment – still I should want to live and, having once tasted of the cup, I would not turn away from it till I had drained it!” This “frantic and perhaps unseemly thirst for life,” as Ivan calls it, is stronger in him than all moral disgust with the world, and so “I go on living in spite of logic. Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky little leaves as they open in the spring. . . . I love the sticky leaves in spring, the blue sky – that’s all it is. It’s not a matter of intellect or logic, it’s loving with one’s stomach.” Laughing at his own “tirade,” Ivan wonders if Alyosha has understood it.

    Indeed, he has, and more deeply than Ivan does himself. Alyosha’s mentor, the wise Father Zossima, has taught him to look for faith not in reason or proofs but precisely in a deep love for the world God created and for each individual person in it. “I understand only too well,” Alyosha replies. “One longs to love with one’s inside, with one’s stomach. . . . I think one should love life above everything in the world.”

    “Love life more than the meaning of it?” Ivan asks.

    “Certainly, love it, regardless of logic as you say, it must be regardless of logic, and it’s only then one will understand the meaning of it. . . . Half your work is done, Ivan, you love life, now you’ve only to try to do the second half and you are saved.”

    You cannot reason your way to faith. If you could, it would not be faith at all. Atheists usually suppose that belief is nothing but acceptance of some purported fact without sufficient evidence, but belief – the belief Dostoyevsky identified with the Holy Spirit – pertains to a sense of the world as a whole.

    “God has just such gladness every time he sees from heaven that a sinner is praying to Him with all his heart, as a mother has when she sees the first smile on her baby’s face.”

    The hero of Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot, Prince Myshkin, describes how he once entered into a discussion with a learned atheist whose arguments were somehow beside the point. Shortly after this conversation, Myshkin says, he encountered a peasant woman with a smiling baby crossing herself with great devotion. She explained: “God has just such gladness every time he sees from heaven that a sinner is praying to Him with all his heart, as a mother has when she sees the first smile on her baby’s face.” In this “deep, subtle, and truly religious thought,” Myshkin observes, “all the essence of Christianity finds expression.” The woman understood the world as blessed, as a realm not of dead matter but of divine meaning and love.

    This is what the atheists miss. They will try by reason to derive life’s meaning from abstract propositions or scientific laws, but that effort can never succeed. One must first love life and God’s world and only then will meaning be apparent. In this sense, meaningfulness and faith are gifts of the Spirit. Or as Father Zossima says, the existence of God cannot be proven “but you can be convinced of it . . . by the experience of active love.”

    The graphic version of this story follows the original quite closely. Its drawings subtly offer two splendid additions. In the corner of the tavern where Ivan and Alyosha meet, we see a man writing – evidently Dostoyevsky – as if all that he overhears is a drama taking place in his own soul, and ours. Even more interesting, during “Rebellion” we see an unidentified person in the tavern listening in. He turns out to exactly resemble Jesus as drawn in “The Grand Inquisitor.” It is as if Jesus is always with us in moments of deep spiritual dialogue, as people of Christian faith know he is.

    Download the graphic novel, or get it in print.

    Contributed By GarySaulMorson Gary Saul Morson

    Gary Saul Morson is an American literary critic and scholar best known for his work on the great Russian novelists Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

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