“There is nothing more alluring to man than this freedom of conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting, either.”
–The Brothers Karamazov, The Grand Inquisitor
Through the well known chapter in The Brothers Karamazov, “The Grand Inquisitor” along with the teachings of the Elder Zossima given through Alyosha himself, Dostoevsky paints a picture of the tension that exists between free will and conscience. For many, the conscience is regarded as a problem that impeded upon free will; the conscience is ‘a stamp’ on the person of a manmade system of justice, of right and wrong, and “true” freedom comes from silencing this conscience. While it’d be easy to yawn right here and think ‘that’s for philosophers and politicians…and those crazy authors who choose to write about it..” or even easier to roll your eyes and think ‘to each his own–what’s right for you might not be right for me and it’s truly progressive to exercise freedom of choice in these matters.’
Au contraire, my fine fellows, this question of freedom and the conscience, of moral choice, is both at the heart of Dostoevsky’s novel and our very lives as well, whether we realize it or not. Consider the following passage which precedes the quote above:
Man, so long as he remains free, has no more constant and agonizing anxiety than to find as quickly as possible someone to worship. But man seeks to worship only what is incontestable, so incontestable, indeed, that all men at once agree to worship it all together. For the chief concern of those miserable creatures is not only to find something that I or something else can worship, but to find something that all believe in and worship, and the absolutely essential thing is that they should do so all together. It is this need for universal worship that is the chief torment of every man individually and of mankind as a whole from the beginning of time. For the sake of that universal worship they have put each other to the sword… And look what you have done further–and all in the name of freedom! I tell you man has no more agonizing anxiety than to find someone to whom he can hand over with all speed the gift of freedom with which the unhappy creature is born. But only he can gain possession of men’s freedom who is able to set their conscience at easy….the mystery of human life is not only in living, but also in knowing why one lives. Without a clear idea of what to live for man will not consent to live and will rather destroy himself than remain on the earth…you [the Grand Inquisitor is speaking to Christ in the poem] gave them greater freedom than ever! Or did you forget that a tranquil mind and even death is dearer to man than the free choice in the knowledge of good and evil. There is nothing more alluring to man than this freedom of conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting, either.”
Here we have a basic secular approach to the tension that exists between the free will and conscience. The Grand Inquisitor acknowledges that man desires happiness above all–and he posits man’s lack of happiness in the guilt and ongoing ‘problem’ of the conscience which restricts freedom while the Christian’s Christ proclaims that the knowledge and capacity to choose good over evil is true freedom and peace of conscience. To remove the argument one step, to a ‘basic’ human approach: there is something in us that says “that’s not fair” to certain situations and “that’s the right thing to do” in other situations, and peace of conscience comes from choosing what is right. The next question, in the context of the argument and in the context of this spot in the novel, is whether or not this right/wrong objective reality is of man’s making or of God’s making.
The Grand Inquisitor plays the role of antagonist as his conclusion to the question is that man would surrender all, even knowledge of good and evil and free will, for the sake of peace of conscience [note that the inverse of this is that conscience must be a manmade thing and then peace comes from freely exercising one’s will, regardless of ‘good’ or ‘evil’]. This leads to Ivan’s philosophical world view that “All things are permissible.”
The protagonist is Alyosha in the novel, who seems to be a manifestation of the Elder Zossima’s teaching. This passage is from the Elder Zossima’s discourses and sermons:
The spiritual world, however, the higher half of man’s being, is utterly rejected, dismissed with a sort of triumph, even with hatred. The world has proclaimed freedom, especially in recent times, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs? Nothing but slavery and self-destruction! For the world says: ‘You have needs, and therefore satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the rich and most noble. Do not be afraid of satisfying them, but multiply them even.’ That is the modern doctrine of the world. In this they see freedom. …I ask you: is such a man free?… People laugh at obedience, fasting and prayer, and yet it is through them that the way lies to real, true freedom….For those hell is voluntary and they cannot have enough of it; they are martyrs of their own free will.”
Zossima’s worldview, which strongly influences Alyosha’s character, leads to the philosophical world view that “every man is responsible for everyone’s sins.” This is shown in Alyosha through his response to the world after his Elder sends him out of the monastery and back into the world, into his family, face to face with opposing world views. Alyosha is shown always accepting of his brothers, not critical or judgmental whatsoever, but truly desiring their good through conversation, action and thought. I’ve read reviews that have said Alyosha is the most enslaved of the Brothers K because he does not exercise his free will but is a seemingly very passive character. However I would argue that Alyosha’s freedom is most greatly exercised, in the restraint of his natural Karamazov trait, which he shown repeatedly as being able to relate to and understand in his brothers, and his self-possession in the face of deep adversity, in his clarity of conscience which remains amidst his many back and forth travels from Grushenka to Katerina to Ivan to Dmitry to Smerdyakov and back again.
These two conversations/dialogues (the Grand Inquisitor and the expounding on Elder Zossima’s sermons/discourses) set up the stage for the rest of the novel, which is not philosophical world view conversation, but the practical outcomes and effects of different world views on individual, eternal souls.
These next questions are my questions after reading this novel and thinking and pondering ‘What is Fyodor Dostoevsky telling the world?” Feel free to comment as desired :)
What role does conscience play in justice?
What point is FD making through the role of conscience parallel to the criminal justice system? Even if one cannot reason to an existence of God without allowing certain questions (as Ivan does, i.e.: why must the innocent suffer?), one can reasonably be convicted of the existence of God, whose image exists in each person’s free will, capacity to love, and voice of conscience. Dmitry, who remains thoroughly thoughtless, passionately impatient and altogether careless through most of the novel, where he ‘desires’ to kill his father and get his ‘right due’ inheritance is utterly convicted and converted by being arrested and convicted of a crime he did not commit. His conscience alone, which gives him a place within his heart to meet his Judge and the supreme Lawmaker, is what convicts him—not any manmade justice or political lawfulness. He knows he is innocent. By being forced to deal with himself, Dmitry is forced to face reality: Truth exists. God exists. Reality is a moral realm. And Dmitry freely then takes up suffering as his due, not because he committed his father’s murder, but because his conscience convicts him of his amoral lifestyle preceding his father’s death.
The question is can conscience permit all? If one’s conscience does not bother them, does that mean all is permitted for one?
Dmitry is convicted, without having committed the crime of murder, and his conscience is what frees him…Ivan permitted his father’s death more than he realized, or claims to realize, and his conscience drives him to insanity while he remains free of conviction…the question of conscience was pertinent then and is now as well: thinking about it, how often is conscience brought up in healthcare…where even now doctors are not allowed to follow their conscience, in regards to certain medical procedures, but rather must conform to some juridical system…Dostoevsky’s novel screams that our conscience bears witness to a moral reality, and that any man-made justice system will fall short.
We see where Smerdyakov’s thought leads him.
And finally there is Alyosha, who seems aloof to any ‘proper’ juridical system and who acts entirely on his conscience, also apparently free. Alyosha never claims in the novel to have the answers to all the questions posed by the lives of his father, Dmitry, Ivan, Grushenka, etc., however, he is never shown doubting (being tempted to doubt, yes, but doubting, no). It is said that the conscience is the voice of God written into the very heart of man. It seems that, “if God exists” (placing self in context of novel here), He knew what He was doing, giving us proofs of his existence that we can not turn away from for wherever a man goes, his heart goes with him.
Dostoevsky’s novel brings forward questions that we all must wrestle with in order to
find true peace of conscience and exercise real, human, free will in choosing goodness.