Is freedom too
much of a burden to bear? Critically evaluate with reference to The Grand Inquisitor.
What is freedom?
In its most basic sense, freedom is the ability to make a choice,
when confronted with numerous options, independent of outside influences. Some
may argue that it is a right bestowed on to us by God as he gave us the ability
to choose and have free will.
The concept of
“Freedom” is one of the central themes of existentialism. “Freedom” is closely
linked to the concept of anguish, because our freedom is to a degree, defined
by the divergence of our choices and decisions from the guidance given by
religious structure, or by accepted values or knowledge.
Many of the
existentialist views on freedom stem from the Kantian notion of freedom. 1
With freedom of
will comes responsibility, for our own choices and actions, and with
responsibility, comes anguish or “burden”.
This “burden” of
freedom arguably came to greater philosophical attention, in the 19th
and 20th centuries, perhaps due to an increasingly secular society,
or the rise of alternative doctrines of philosophy and society which questioned
traditional values, for example Darwinism and Marxism, leading us to
increasingly question our surroundings.
This “burden of freedom” is a
concept which is explored in depth by Dostoyevsky in his writings. Dostoyevsky
examined the notion that traditional religious structure and doctrine gives us
stability and equanimity by removing this potential burden of freedom and the
Who was Dostoyevsky?
Fyodor Dostoyevsky was a Russian novelist, essay writer and
philosopher, who specialised in short story writing. He lived from the years 1821
to 1881. The Grand Inquisitor is a
short story from part of Dostoyevsky’s book The
Brothers Karamazov. The Brothers Karamazov is often referred to as
Dostoyevsky’s ‘magnum opus’ or ‘masterpiece’. This 800-page book, comprised of
12 short stories, recounts the story of three brothers, Ivan, Alyosha and
Dmitri, and tells the tale of the death of their father, Fyodor. It is in The Grand Inquisitor that Ivan is
telling the tale of Christ’s second coming in Seville to his brother Alyosha.
The miracles that Jesus performs around Seville lead to him getting arrested.
The bulk of the story involves The 90-year-old Grand Inquisitor visiting the
imprisoned Jesus and explaining to him that he is no longer needed by
humankind, and that his return to earth would only interfere with the crucial
role undertaken by the Church. The Grand Inquisitor is trying
to put forth an argument to Jesus which suggests that freedom is too much for
people to bear, and Christ’s appearance is having a negative impact on ordinary
people due to the fact that Christ is granting them this freedom.
The Grand Inquisitor criticises Jesus for his choice to reject the three
temptations posed to him by the Devil: the temptation to turn stones into
bread, the temptation to throw himself from the Temple and be saved by angels,
and the temptation to rule over all the kingdoms of the world. The Grand Inquisitor’s
point of view being that things would have been better for humanity if he had
instead given into the temptations set before him. He asks Jesus whether or not
he “forgot that peace and even death are dearer to man than free choice in the
knowledge of good and evil? (p. 254).” The Grand Inquisitor is emphasising his
point of view that the people did not want the freedom that Jesus had offered
them, because it is too much for them to make a choice between good and evil. It
is because of this that The Grand Inquisitor tells Jesus that he took the burden
of freedom away from them by telling them what it is to be ‘Good’ and what it
is to be ‘Evil’ and by providing them with firm instructions for living so they
did not have to tire themselves with inventing meaning for themselves,
because if they do create
it for themselves, they would then be further burdened with the knowledge of
its inauthenticity. Moreover,
The Grand Inquisitor, speaking as a representative for the church, claims to
have given mankind peace of mind and happiness, which in his view is everything
that mankind has sought after, and it is for this reason that he took away
their freedom. The Grand inquisitor furthers his argument by saying that as a
result of longstanding religion, security, and therefore a certain level of
relaxation, are provided to the people by relieving them of the burden of
freedom and the responsibility of one’s own choices and actions.
Grand Inquisitor’s main point throughout this passage is that people do not
want freedom, what they want is security and food, things which Jesus was
unable to offer, which is the reason that he failed, and the church has not.
The Grand Inquisitor believes he can provide this by providing people with the
security of the church so that they can be guided in their faith and not have
to worry about thinking for themselves, because he says that people who are
hungry are so consumed by the fight to survive that they are unable to think
about their faith, something that the Grand Inquisitor says he can help with,
which he believes is too much of a burden to bear. He furthers his argument by
telling Jesus that church has managed to provide something that Jesus could
not, someone to follow. He states that the
“people are more certain than ever before that they are completely free, and at
the same time they themselves have brought us their freedom and obediently laid
it at our feet.” (The Brothers Karamazov page
251). Through this he means to say that people crave instruction and so willingly
sought that order from the church, for when the church provides the answers, it
feels more real and is more satisfying then having the burden of making that
decision yourself. The
Grand Inquisitor explores the two faces of freedom. It is both a gift and a
burden. The destinies of the free willed are both finely balanced and
exhilarating. The choices made can ultimately lead to either Heaven or Hell.
For this reason the Grand Inquisitor can see nothing better, with regard to
freedom of choice, than the freedom to relinquish it immediately, for fear of
making an irretrievable mistake.
In The Grand
Inquisitor, Dostoevsky attributes God to be the foundation for human freedom,
not a barrier to freedom. God’s love, is what allows us to be ourselves,
comparing this to the that of a parent enabling us to flourish, as
self-sufficient and free willed beings. Dostoevsky message is that, perhaps
that, paradoxically, it is our reliance on God which liberates us.
One of the most famous parts in the story is called Silence and the Kiss. It is at the end
of the interaction between The Grand inquisitor and Jesus, after which Jesus
has not uttered a word, when he gives the Grand Inquisitor a kiss after he has
made his piece. After which The Grand Inquisitor takes Jesus out to an alley
way and sets him free, asking him to never return. Jesus’s silence throughout
the story, to me, is his answer to The Grand Inquisitor’s interrogation, all
the while he has been arguing against freedom due to the fact that it is, in
Jesus’ eyes, the Grand Inquisitor’s freedom of choice that has allowed him to
feel this way.
I believe Kierkegaard’s theory of anxiety to be relevant to
the question of whether or not freedom is too much of a burden to bare.
Kierkegaard, in his text Fear and
Trembling, describes anxiety as not the medical definition we know today,
but rather the feeling one gets when faced with making a choice. Not of the
options that lay before you, only the fear of having to choose, it can be
described as a man standing on a cliff, who is not afraid of the height, but he
is afraid of the choice that he could make to jump off the cliff. I believe
this to be relevant because the feelings of angst and dread that one would
experience when making a choice could be considered a burden as a result of the
freedom we have to make that choice. The choice is yours alone and will have an
undetermined outcome which is a frightening prospect to some.
However, it would be prudent to take into account the idea
that these feelings are necessary, and make us feel more human. It is important
to consider that you cannot have happiness without sadness, and many other
emotions for that matter. Also, the fact that these emotions that you are faced
with are only a temporary side effect of the moment, and the rewards of making
certain decisions could greatly outweigh the negative emotions that are
experienced when faced with a choice. If life were to be laid out for you, with
no obstacles to overcome and, with reference to the essay title, no burden what
so ever, then it would be meaningless.
Jean-Paul Sartre has
also had something to say on the topic. He said that “Man is condemned to be free; because once
thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”
| Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’.