The Grand Inquisitor and Rebellion

Ivan Karamazov issues the following challenge to his devout brother Alyosha, before sharing with him the now-famous parable about the Grand Inquisitor, in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”:

Tell me straight out, I call on you—answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? Tell me the truth.”

Alyosha replies softly: “No, I would not agree.”

Let’s quote Ivan at length:

what have children got to do with it? It’s quite incomprehensible why they should have to suffer, and why they should buy harmony with their suffering. Why do they get thrown on the pile, to manure someone’s future harmony with themselves? I understand solidarity in sin among men; solidarity in retribution I also understand; but what solidarity in sin do little children have? And if it is really true that they, too, are in solidarity with their fathers in all the fathers’ evildoings, that truth certainly is not of this world and is incomprehensible to me.

Ivan rejects commonplace sayings about the necessity of suffering:

Without [suffering], they say, man could not even have lived on earth, for he would not have known good and evil. Who wants to know this damned good and evil at such a price? The whole world of knowledge is not worth the tears of that little child to ‘dear God.’ I’m not talking about the suffering of grown-ups, they ate the apple and to hell with them, let the devil take them all, but these little ones!

…. And if the suffering of children goes to make up the sum of suffering needed to buy truth, then I assert beforehand that the whole of truth is not worth such a price.

Though he’s an atheist, Ivan says to Alyosha that it’s not God he rejects but rather His world. He says that even if we could have assurance that the world would come to perfect peace and goodness, and even if it did so according to the assurances, he would still not accept the world, and would kindly return God “his ticket”.

Alyosha calls this “rebellion,” but Ivan is adamant.

I absolutely renounce all higher harmony. It is not worth one little tear of even that one tormented child who beat her chest with her little fist and prayed to ‘dear God’ in a stinking outhouse with her unredeemed tears! Not worth it, because her tears remained unredeemed. They must be redeemed, otherwise there can be no harmony. But how, how will you redeem them? Is it possible? Can they be redeemed by being avenged?

Ivan may not intend it, but here he’s rejecting original sin, a doctrine that would condemn even babies as somehow being already guilty at birth. David Bentley Hart has plumbed this issue from the perspective of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, i.e., the religion of Dostoevsky’s Russia, in books such as “That All Shall Be Saved.”

There is no satisfactory logical answer to the problem of evil and I won’t attempt to meet Ivan’s many examples of human suffering with mere words. They deserve and require more.

But Dostoevsky himself, without attempting full solutions to the problems raised by Ivan, has heard Ivan’s questions and has replied to them, in a novelist’s manner.

(Spoilers ahead).

Mitya’s defense attorney said to the jury at the end of his trial:

in the absence of any evidence even slightly resembling the truth, it will be too difficult for you to say: ‘Yes, guilty.’ It is better to let ten who are guilty go, than to punish one who is innocent—do you hear, do you hear this majestic voice from the last century of our glorious history?

The words are Peter the Great’s, taken from his “Military Code” of 1716. In a way they speak to the whole problem of unjust suffering that has been a central theme of the book; they echo the primacy that Ivan gives to the innocent individual.

The most famous legal formulation along these lines appeared in the 1760s, and is known as Blackstone’s Ratio:

It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.

The Wikipedia article linked to above lists many other similar formulations, some of them very ancient.

Maimonides (d. 1204) —

it is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death

Exodus 23:7 —

“do not bring death on those who are innocent and in the right” 

Al-Tirmidhi (d. 892) quotes the Prophet Muhammad as saying:

Avoid legal punishments as far as possible, and if there are any doubts in the case then use them, for it is better for a judge to err towards leniency than towards punishment

Genesis 18:23-32

Abraham drew near, and said, “Will you consume the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous within the city? Will you consume and not spare the place for the fifty righteous who are in it? … What if ten are found there?” He [The Lord] said, “I will not destroy it for the ten’s sake.”

Let me add also Jesus’ parable about the weeds/tares (Matthew 13:24-30) —

24 Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field:

25 But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.

26 But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also.

27 So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares?

28 He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?

29 But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.

30 Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.

Alyosha could have quoted this parable to Ivan as a direct answer. This parable says that in this world, if you wish not only that some innocents be protected but that something global be done to take out all the weeds, to shield all innocence from evil, the result will inevitably be the destruction of even more innocents.

I think that this lesson is implied in one way or another by all of the texts quoted above. But Ivan himself, without any of these authorities quoted to him, could have known, and probably did know, that the perfectly just world he was demanding was logically and forever impossible, if God does not exist.

Let’s take it from his position, from his premises as an atheist: God does not exist, and there is cruel undeserved suffering in this world; there is no heaven, so our current material world is all that we know and all we could hope to know. But under those premises, I don’t understand how we could logically reject the world or refuse to live in it. I’m not questioning how someone could emotionally reject life, that’s another matter entirely. I’m only taking Ivan’s protest on its own terms for the sake of logical argument: God does not exist, for all the reasons given, end of story; but if that’s the case, then Ivan can have no rational hope for a world without unjust suffering. In a material world, things move, change, decay and die.

If we are saying that in any world worth living in, only the immoral should suffer, then we’re wishing for a world in which the physical laws of nature are violated by moral laws and human freedom is curtailed at all times by these same moral laws.

Whether or not God created this temporal world, we know that it runs according to certain physical laws, which means that those living in it will inevitably experience decay or destruction, either by other organisms or disease or old age. Moral innocence cannot erect a canopy over the innocent that protects them from the effects of the world, as if they were exempt from its operations; it would be like making them no longer part of the material world at all.

If you’re in this world, you will experience certain things, according to physical laws. Those physical events will not be calibrated by morality, in any way or to any degree, according to the atheist perspective, which again is the one we’re working within for the sake of argument. To imagine a world in which the innocent are unfailingly protected is to imagine the world of Job’s Friends, who have a simplistic faith that the righteous are always protected and the unrighteous always punished. There’s an irony here in an atheist rejecting the existing world because it doesn’t match up with, not just a generally moral world, but the hyper-moral world imagined by the most doctrinaire theists.

Satan invited Jesus to throw himself off the heights of the Jerusalem Temple, so that God’s angels would catch him in midflight. That’s the kind of world that would be ruled by moral laws and not by physical laws. Such a world would result in absurdities in daily life. If I followed all the moral laws, I could gladly take any physical risk, like jumping off a cliff, or driving my car at 100 mph in order to make a late appointment, knowing that God has it all in hand and that all innocents will remain unharmed, that only the guilty will die in any car crashes I cause. That type of thing. In fact in such a world, what would stop someone who genuinely cared about injustice from deliberating causing such accidents in the confidence that this would help the world rid itself of the unjust?

Such a world feels instinctively repugnant and senseless. But what about a world which was allowed perfect freedom in its physical laws, but in which human freedom is fully curtailed, so that in essence no one ever does anything wrong? It would have to be a full curtailment, if we wanted to avoid all unjust suffering at human hands (though undeserved illnesses and the like would still occur), because if anyone is left with any moral freedom, then at some point someone is going to do something unjust to someone innocent, and there will be no way to avoid this, if nature’s laws are operating without interference.

A world in which there is no suffering at human hands and no physical destruction is what we all long for, but isn’t such a world, by definition, the Christian conception of heaven? A material world in which there is never any undeserved pain is impossible, because a material world is by definition one in which material moves, grows and decays.

There is one way, theists and atheists can agree, in which events in this material world can logically be altered by morality: when we who are creatures in the world make the conscious effort to not kill or steal, when we share and love even when we don’t feel it, etc. Mere blank innocence itself, such as in a newborn, carries no magical properties that can suspend the laws of nature, or stop an adult who will harm the child; but we can do all we can within our power to protect that child: and to not be that adult. Finding a child suffering in the created world, we can say either that this is evidence that God does not care or does not exist, or we can minister to the child.

I do not pretend that this would constitute an answer to why the child suffers. Brother Ivan’s question remains.

I only wish to say to Ivan that there is no rational hope for a nonsuffering world, not right now, and for an atheist, not ever. So what alternative do we have but to live constructively in this one?

Alyosha urges Ivan to embrace life constructively even if he can find no logical meaning to human existence, and Ivan asks for clarification:

“Love life more than its meaning?”

“Certainly, love it before logic, as you say, certainly before logic, and only then will [you] also understand its meaning. That is how I’ve long imagined it. Half your work is done and acquired, Ivan: you love life. Now you need only apply yourself to the second half, and you are saved.”

Alyosha is echoing something taught to him by his spiritual mentor, Father Zosima, who had made the following reply to a woman who desired to have proof for her faith:

“One cannot prove anything here, but it is possible to be convinced.”

“How? By what?”

“By the experience of active love. Try to love your neighbors actively and tirelessly. The more you succeed in loving, the more you’ll be convinced of the existence of God and the immortality of your soul. And if you reach complete selflessness in the love of your neighbor, then undoubtedly you will believe, and no doubt will even be able to enter your soul. This has been tested. It is certain.”

This answer to the demand for proof should not be unfamiliar, especially if you’ve engaged in or witnessed debates about science and faith. But Father Zosima’s word, “tested,” means a great deal in that context, particularly as an answer to Ivan. Both Ivan and Alyosha are compelled by innocent suffering in the world. It draws Alyosha’s compassion and moves him to communion with sufferers, to some engagement in the world, a never-perfect engagement, to be sure, and possibly even richly flawed, but at least he has active compassion and knows what his role in the suffering of others will be: not to make sense of it but to alleviate it, or prevent it, or simply to accompany it in friendship. To serve.

I don’t know how it is in Russian, but in English the word ‘understanding’ spans the full range here, from rational understanding of an intellectual puzzle to the love and care that can make someone say that they feel truly understood.

Are these understandings exclusive?

Zosima and Alyosha both propose that the answer to the intellectual riddle, if we can have any answer, will be found by loving. Zosima says that this proposition has been “tested.” So what does this mean if you’re an intellectual seeker like Ivan (and I resemble Ivan more than I do Alyosha, even if I admire the latter more), or if you’ve concluded that you’re going to keep the whole question of the universe strictly rational, like a scientific experiment? It follows that the path of love is one of the experimental paths that must be tried. It cannot be left entirely to those things that are conventionally regarded as experiments: the lab and the equations.

I don’t mean that the path of love must be tried merely because people have said that the answer lies in that direction (though their witness of this should be taken seriously). I mean it in the most scientific sense. If you want to know everything there is to know about a certain thing that perplexes you — let’s say, something you see on a distant hill that for your life you cannot understand why it is there, and why the environment allows such a thing to be there — then of course you will want to understand better by getting closer, by eliminating the distance which is doing so much to limit your understanding. If the problem we see, then, is undeserved suffering, then who is more likely to make some sense of it, and to get as close as human beings can to any answers that might be? Those of us who debate at length while those sufferers are in pain? Or those of us who go to them?

2 thoughts on “The Grand Inquisitor and Rebellion

  1. You raised some really interesting points here! I enjoyed reading this and reflecting.

    I agree, the scientific approach would seem to suggest one would have to try that active and compassionate love path if they sought an understanding of undeserved suffering.

    I feel there may be some hints to the mystery in another idea from Zosima in Brothers K

    “My brother asked the birds to forgive him: that sounds senseless, but it is right; for all is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth. It may be senseless to beg forgiveness of the birds, but birds would be happier at your side –a little happier, anyway– and children and all animals, if you yourself were nobler than you are now. It’s all like an ocean, I tell you. Then you would pray to the birds too, consumed by an all-embracing love in a sort of transport, and pray that they too will forgive you your sin.”

    Feels tied into the idea of being your brothers keeper too ( also mentioned in the book).

    1. Thank you, and I really like that passage you’ve picked out. This all-embracing unity is a mystery on one level and Zosima concedes that it can look senseless. But he says it’s true. And if we are like an ocean then, yes, those who suffer can’t be set apart. Somehow they are us.

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