Russian Magi

The Twelve Days of Christmas have passed, and the Epiphany, the day the Magi are said to have come to Bethlehem is today. According to the Gregorian calendar, that is. The Russian Orthodox Church still uses the Julian calendar for liturgical purposes, and to that body, today is December 24th – Christmas Eve. I thought it might be fitting to post this essay, which I have worked on for quite awhile, as somehow appropriate as a Russian Christmas feature.

Almost four years ago Washington Post columnist David Ignatius recommended President Obama prepare for a visit to Russia by reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. As a vehicle for understanding the Russian psyche, Ignatius had a point. Dostoevsky had a lot to say about his country and culture. (There is no longer a link, but it was in the July 1, 2009 paper for anyone interested).   I now suggest that the President coming into his second term, would benefit from reading at least “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter of that novel,  primarily to understand, not Russia, but the United States of America.

It might seem strange to suggest that a writer from 19th Century Tsarist Russia would have anything to say about the meaning of America. Upon reflection, I believe Dostoevsky has a great deal to say about it.

Like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who some consider his 20th Century literary counterpart, Dostoevsky had been a Russian army officer who was stripped of his rank and imprisoned in Siberia for allegedly seditious behavior. While in prison, the only book he was allowed was the Bible, and he became profoundly familiar with it by the time he was released. It was from the perspective of an Orthodox Christian that he wrote his great novels, including his last, The Brothers Karamazov. “The Grand Inquisitor” (Book V, Chapter 5) is a story within a story. While it is integral to the theme of this novel, it can be read by itself. It is a parable that is a profound explication of the three temptations Satan presented Jesus with during his desert sojourn (Matthew 4:1-10; Luke 4:2-12). This passage is a commentary on the human condition that cuts to the heart of the continuing tension between freedom and security. It is at once the boldest justification for authoritarian power and a simple refutation of that justification. “The Grand Inquisitor” is thus no less than a guide for selecting our leaders according to their vision, and a vision of what direction our country should take. “For in those three questions the whole subsequent history of mankind is . . . brought together into one whole, and foretold, and in them are united all the unsolved historical contradictions of human nature.”

The occasion of Dostoevsky’s tale is a meeting between two of the brothers, who are the point and counterpoint of the novel. Alyosha is a committed Orthodox Christian and novice monk. Ivan, an intellectual and journalist, is a declared atheist. Despite their diametrically opposite beliefs the brothers have great affection toward each other. Ivan has written that without God, without immortality, everything is permissible. He composes a parable to explain to Alyosha why in such a state of being, man craves authority and security. Ivan’s story is set in Fifteenth Century Seville in Spain at the time in the Inquisition was at its height. The Grand Inquisitor, an aged cardinal of the Roman Church, probably drawn from the real life Inquisitor General Tomas Torquemada, and his minions are busy rooting out heretics, burning them at the stake in great numbers. After a particularly busy auto de fe in which more than two hundred heretics were burned, Jesus appears in the town among the people, not in the expected glory of His Second Coming, but as He was in His ministry fifteen centuries before – one of them. The Grand Inquisitor has Jesus arrested and imprisoned. Later the old cardinal comes to see Him and explains how Jesus misjudged human nature, and did not help, but confused humanity by giving men freedom, when that is the last thing most human beings really want. “Man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom,” the right with which he is created that only he, willingly, can alienate, and so often does just that.

The Inquisitor then explains the meaning of the temptations and Jesus’ rejection of them. These are, first: the suggestion that Jesus turn the stones in the desert into bread to feed himself – that is, His human nature – after a lengthy fast; the second: the proposition that Jesus awe men by leaping from the top of the temple and have angels rescue him, thus demonstrating his divine powers; and the third: that He assume temporal domination over all the realms of the earth, and create a universal state. Jesus rejects all. Jesus does not want humankind to be fed, entertained, and dominated. He wants men to be free to obtain bread, circuses, and security on their own, if they will. Some will fail and some will not; some will sin and some will not. They are free to chose between the good and the evil; that is the terrifying prospect.

When faced with a choice between freedom and security, the Grand Inquisitor avers, the vast majority of mankind will choose the latter every time. Security brings man happiness; freedom brings man angst and unhappiness. Life ends; liberty brings insecurity and uncertainty; the pursuit of happiness is a fool’s errand. Jesus is the most dangerous threat of all to his Church (as it was constituted in 15th Century Europe, when Papal corruption was at its height) because he brought humankind the offer of freedom. But the masses to whom He offered that freedom will join the Grand Inquisitor in burning Him who comes to hinder the Church’s work in providing security and happiness. “For if anyone has ever deserved our fires,” says the Grand Inquisitor, “it is Thou. Tomorrow I shall burn Thee. I have spoken.” Jesus is not to be burnt, however. Not having spoken a word – all Revelation was given to the Church of old and “Thou has no right to add anything,” according to the Inquisitor – Jesus merely approaches the Grand Inquisitor, and as he did to Judas in the Garden, kisses him on his “bloodless aged lips.” Shaken to his core by Jesus’s silent act, the Grand Inquisitor says “‘Go, and come no more . . . come not at all, never, never!’ And he let Him out into the dark alleys of the town.”

What can we make of this parable? How is it relevant to us? Dostoevsky’s perspective was that of a devout Orthodox Christian who viewed the Roman Church of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, not the Church of today, as the paradigm of authoritarianism. In his view, the Church’s Pope and princes were really atheists displaying the facade of Christianity. Substitute the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Enlightenment philosophers – Bacon, Newton, Locke, Jefferson, Franklin, Paine for Jesus, and Communism, National Socialism, or Orwell’s Oligarchical Collectivism, for the Inquisitor, and the story is the same. Most human beings will give up liberty in exchange for security every time, and with inevitably horrendous results.

We today must ask what is the price for bread and circuses, sustenance and security. Those now attempting serious extensions of the role of our national government are not explicitly saying these will be given in exchange for freedom, but that is what they mean. The subtle – and in the long run, more persuasive – inducement is not a promise of safety and security, but that it will save millions of creatures the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making free decisions. That offer’s promise is that it will bestow the economic bounty on everyone equally. The exceptions, those who will have a surfeit of that bounty, of course will be the few who will rule over the masses, Orwell’s Inner Party, if you will. Continuing the 1984 allusion, the elite will have the burden of regimenting the functionaries – the Outer Party – who run the day to day operations with varying degrees of inefficiency. The great mass of the people – Orwell’s proles – do not care, so long as they are fed, entertained, and provided with a modicum of perceived safety and security. They will rather suffer equally so long as they do not have to take a chance on the possibility of prospering or perhaps suffering alone.

Those who preceded the current policymakers have not been much different. The main distinction is that influential elements embraced the Inquisitor’s authoritarian message for Jesus’s more subtle message of freedom. In that respect, their attitude is not too distinct from the pre-reformation Roman Church. This is most characterized by the emphasis on orthodoxy in thought — political correctness if you will — legalistic rationalizations for public policy (rather than sound public policy reasons for laws – the tail wagging the dog), and insistence on coercive enforcement of private behavior standards. Where our society historically had it right, however, has been its emphasis on economic freedom, without which personal freedom is meaningless or impossible.

Dostoevsky’s theology aside, there is a nugget of understanding in his parable relevant to us today. Jesus rejects the temptations with an affirmation of freedom. The Grand Inquisitor is free to believe what he will. “The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man adheres to his idea.” As Dostoevsky saw it, the Grand Inquisitor’s Church is not a religion at all, but an authoritarian society which rejects freedom for the supposed love of, but in reality contempt for mankind. The Enlightenment affirmed freedom and rejected authoritarianism. America is the Nation of the Enlightenment; the only nation in history founded on ideas and ideals, rather than blood kinship or geographical happenstance. The central idea of the Enlightenment was liberty. It would reject the faux Christianity of the Grand Inquisitor, and perhaps embody the message of Jesus better than the established churches ever did. We must not surrender our freedom for bread, circuses, or the illusion of security. When we choose our leaders, it is liberty that must be our lodestar. We must nevertheless remember to reject those who would offer the illusion of certainty and sustenance, not by condemning them, but by leaving them to their aged, bloodless conceits.

 

Note: The Brothers Karamazov is a long read, but the Inquisitor chapter and the ones leading up to it can be read in 30 minutes to an hour. A 1958 movie, which omits the Inquisitor story, features William Shatner as Alyosha in one of his first roles. It is not particularly faithful to Dostoevsky’s work. A 2000 book Political Apocalypse: A Study of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor by Ellis Sandoz has some interesting points and analyses, but is a really tedious read. Speaking of tedious, I hope the foregoing essay was not too much so.

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