Reading Dostoyevsky and Contemplating Freedom During the Coronavirus Shutdown

Portrait of Fedor Dostoyevsky

By Jim Tonkowich Published on April 23, 2020

The old man looks at the prisoner, studying his face. “‘Is it you? You?’ Receiving no answer, however, he quickly adds: ‘No, do not reply, keep silent. … Why have you come to get in our way? For you have come to get in our way and you yourself know it.’”

The silent prisoner is Christ who has come back to earth in sixteenth century Spain looking just as he did in the first century. The people recognize him, as does an old man who immediately arrests him. The old man is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. His tale is a story within the story of The Brothers Karamazov.

The Kind of Freedom That the People are Unable to Comprehend

The Grand Inquisitor conflates the Church with the state. Embodying these two authorities, he insists that “we” have finally worked things out for the good of mankind. “We” have corrected Christ’s mistake of offering people the freedom of the Gospel.

“For fifteen centuries,” he says, “we have struggled with that freedom, but now it’s over, over for good.” “We” instituted a totalitarian regime. And yet, “I think you ought to be aware that now, and particularly in the days we are currently living through, those people are even more certain than ever that they are completely free, and indeed they themselves have brought us their freedom and have laid it humbly at our feet.”

Trading freedom for the safety of receiving daily bread, wages, loans, and other necessities from the government is easier and more certain than freedom.

The freedom Christ offered was too great, the Inquisitor argues. “You want to go into the world and are going there with empty hands, with a kind of promise of freedom which they in their simplicity and inborn turpitude are unable even to comprehend, which they go in fear and awe of — for nothing has ever been more unendurable to man and human society than freedom!”

Rather than rejecting Satan’s three “temptations” in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13), Jesus should have embraced these as wise proposals from a friend. A friend whom the Inquisitor calls “the terrible and clever Spirit, the Spirit of self-annihilation and non-existence … that great Spirit.”

“Enslave Us if You Will, but Feed Us”

Jesus preached the Kingdom and freedom. But the Inquisitor and his cohort, following the three wise promptings of “that great Spirit,” will rebuild the Tower of Babel. That tower symbolizes human technology and know-how in opposition to and in competition with God (Genesis 11:1-9). The Inquisitor explains it to Jesus:

And then we shall complete their Tower, for it is he that feeds them who will complete it, and it is only we that shall feed them, in your name, and lie that we will do it in your name. Oh, never, never will they feed themselves without us! No science will give them bread while yet they are free, but the end of it will be that they will bring us their freedom and place it at our feet and say to us: “Enslave us if you will, but feed us.”

Trading freedom for the safety of receiving daily bread, wages, loans, and other necessities from the government is easier and more certain than freedom.

Just Marvel and Obey

Besides not turning stones in to bread, Jesus rejected becoming a mysterious, miraculous spectacle. He would not jump off the pinnacle of the Temple and would not come down from the Cross. “But,” his captor insists, “you did not know that no sooner did man reject the miracle than he would at once reject God also, for man does not seek God so much as miracles. And since man is not strong enough to get by without the miracle, he creates new miracles for himself, his own now, and bows down before the miracle of the quack and the witchcraft of the old peasant woman.”

We could add the modern scientist with his complex computer models and projections. It’s all far too complicated for you. Don’t ask questions. Just marvel … and obey.

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Jesus foolishly rejected the authority Satan offered him. “Had you accepted that third counsel of the mighty Spirit, you would have supplied everything man seeks in the world, that is: someone to bow down before, someone to entrust one’s conscience to, and a way of at last uniting everyone into an undisputed, general and consensual ant-heap, for the need of universal union is the third and final torment of human beings.”

The Grand Inquisitor’s Freedom vs. Jesus’ Freedom

The Grand Inquisitor combines his low view of humans with a professed desire to help. “In our hands, though, everyone will be happy and will neither mutiny nor destroy one another any more, as they do in your freedom, wherever one turns. Oh, we shall persuade them that they will only become free when they renounce their freedom for us and submit to us.” They can even sin, he adds, as long as they submit.

We could add the modern scientist with his complex computer models and projections. It’s all far too complicated for you. Don’t ask questions. Just marvel … and obey.

At the end of the Inquisitor’s soliloquy, Jesus, who has remained silent, kisses the old man. “The old man shudders. Something stirred at the corners of his mouth; he goes to the door, opens it and says to Him, ‘Go and do not come back … do not come back at all … ever … ever!’ And he releases him into ‘the town’s dark streets and squares.’ The Captive departs.”

Anyway, along with reading about free money, government loans, unemployment benefits, and other ways of changing stones into bread; about mysterious ever-changing projections and computer models; and about a people docilely laying down their constitutional rights, I’ve been reading Dostoyevsky.


Dr. James Tonkowich, a senior contributor to The Stream, is a freelance writer, speaker and commentator on spirituality, religion and public life. He is the author of The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today and Pears, Grapes, and Dates: A Good Life After Mid-Life. Jim serves as Director of Distance Learning at Wyoming Catholic College and is host of the college’s weekly podcast, “The After Dinner Scholar.”

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