The Brothers Karamazov is a poly-phonic novel that displays the architectonic grandeur of a Gothic cathedral. Dostoevsky explores the souls of his characters, ranging from the depths of depravity to the heights of exaltation, from meanness to the nobility of which the ambivalent human spirit is capable. Taken together, the three brothers form a composite hero, constituting the body, the mind, and the soul. They represent three dimensions that include physical experience (Dmitri), intellectual reason (Ivan), and intuitive faith (Alyosha). This fragmented collective hero reveals the tragic fission of the fallen soul and illustrates how the division of the family is symptomatic of and largely responsible for the loss of a binding moral idea in contemporary society.
For me, the most artistic and controversial section of The Brothers Karamazov is the chapter concerning the Grand Inquisitor. Here Ivan rejects God, and therefore real love. Ivan says, “I don’t accept this world of God’s, and, although I know it exists, I don’t accept it at all. It’s not that I don’t accept God, you must understand, it’s the world created by him I don’t and cannot accept.” He goes on to say, “I could never understand how one can love one’s neighbors. It’s just one’s neighbors, to my mind, that one can’t love, though one might love those at a distance.” He argues that this idealized love is not realistic or possible. He continues, “One can love one’s neighbors in the abstract, or even at a distance, but at close quarters it is almost impossible.” He adds, “People talk sometimes about bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beast; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically, so artfully cruel.”
Dostoevsky uses Ivan’s observations to address some common complaints by religious skeptics. Ivan attempts to use the existence of evil as evidence for God’s nonexistence because what he sees in human nature is so vile, so contrary to what he believes a loving God would have established. He struggles with this and, at the same time, seeks to reject the idea of original sin because he views children as innocent. Ivan uses the sufferings of children as his primary challenge to the idea of a good and just God. He says, “I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so, I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket.”
Ivan rejects God in part because he cannot reconcile evil with the existence of a good and omnipotent deity. Yet his logic is grievously flawed. His very recognition of evil and suffering suggests knowledge of an objective standard. He observes that beasts are incapable of the cruelty demonstrated by mankind. In both these observations, he attacks his own assertions. If man were merely a beast, he would live without moral conflict or knowledge that the world is an unjust place. If good did not exist in some ideal form, Ivan could have no recognition of a skewed or perverted good. He seeks to deny or blame God for a world of suffering and evil while he would elevate to a divine status the very will that makes evil possible. Through Ivan, Dostoevsky cleverly refutes the standard argument of the skeptic that would both embrace the sovereignty of will yet denounce God for failing to step in and eradicate evil, a step that would require the elimination of free will.
Ivan then discusses a poem he has developed called “The Grand Inquisitor,” an allusion to the Inquisition in Seville in the sixteenth century, some eight centuries after the Church decided to usurp the role of temporal authority. In his poem, Jesus arrives in Seville during the Spanish Inquisition, just after many heretics have been burned at the stake. Jesus begins to heal people but is quickly arrested. He is then brought before the Inquisitor, who recognizes him and asks, “Is it thou? Thou? . . . Don’t answer, be silent. What canst Thou say, indeed? . . . I know not who Thou art and care not to know whether it is Thou or only a semblance of Him, but, tomorrow I shall condemn Thee and burn Thee at the stake as the worst of heretics.”
The Inquisitor explains that people have brought their freedom and laid it humbly at the feet of the Church. He continues, “No science will give them bread so long as they remain free. In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, ‘Make us your slaves, but feed us.’” Here Dostoevsky critiques the Church’s lust for power and its attempts to become the State. His Inquisitor argues, “And all again in the name of freedom! I tell Thee that man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is born.” His assertion is that people cannot handle the gift of freedom:
We have corrected Thy work and have founded it upon miracle, mystery, and authority. And men rejoiced that they were again led like sheep, and that terrible gift that had brought them such suffering was at last lifted from their hearts…. We are not working with Thee, but with him [i.e., Satan]—that is our mystery. It’s long—eight centuries—since we have been on his side and not on Thine. Just eight centuries ago, we took from him what Thou didst reject with scorn, that last gift he offered Thee, showing Thee all the kingdoms of the earth.