Living with “The Grand Inquisitor” or Why I Never Stop Talking to Dostoevsky

Is free will a burden or a blessing? This is, of course, the obvious question, and it’s a question big enough to carry the conversation through any number of possible distractions, including text messages, memes, Brexit, and the latest constitutional violation out of Washington. And I say to the Inquisitor, though “Grand” I refuse to call him, “If an unexamined life is not worth living, then free will is most certainly a blessing — what, after all, would we reflect upon if we did not in almost every course of action have the ability or, dare I say, the right to choose?” But in this moment, the Inquisitor is uncharacteristically silent. It’s Dostoevsky who says, without looking up from the book he seems to be reading, “Do you not forfeit your free will in the interest of securing your daily bread?” I ignore the fresh loaf of sourdough on my kitchen counter. “A person has to eat,” I say. “Compromise is a choice like any other.” The Inquisitor rolls his eyes. Dostoevsky finally looks up from his book and says, “Man was created a rebel; and how can rebels be happy?”

A man who quotes himself is always dangerous, I remind myself, but I decide to stay in the conversation despite the fact that I haven’t had breakfast and my stomach is turning cartwheels. “We just have to be careful about what form of authority we’re willing to submit to,” I say, and then I play my trump card: “Even Dylan says we have to serve somebody.” This time, the Inquisitor lights up. “Yes, my son, you are not responsible for a world you did not create.” Dostoevsky seems pleased that the Inquisitor is staying in character, and now he puts down the book he’s been reading and says, “Have you not accused your elected leaders of ineptitude while busying yourself with superfluous entertainments? Have you not ignored your own responsibility while pointing at others? Have you not whitewashed your hypocrisy with self-righteous indignation divorced from action?” I feel a familiar nausea that creeps up when I haven’t eaten. I stand bewildered, surrounded by the sudden suburban quality of my mind. The Inquisitor, sensing my moment of confusion, slips me season tickets for a big team that plays at a local stadium where, he recommends, I should arrive late so as not to be conflicted by actions that may or may not occur during the ritual of the national anthem.

Dostoevsky, as you see, wrote for all times and all places, so he is always with me, providing guidance or creating cognitive dissonance. I say to him now, tucking the season tickets into my pocket, “Isn’t absolute freedom an illusion? Isn’t it true that we have to trade some of our freedom for security, for the greater good?” His eyes soften. “It is a matter of conscience,” he says. “Are you a person of conscience?” The Inquisitor, always ready with a retort, whispers something about the masses of men: “One who can appease their conscience,” he says, “can take over their freedom.” I realize that I’m in need of help. I need some good souls to help me sort all this out. I imagine a room with, ideally, a round table and fifteen or twenty people who’ve been talking to Dostoevsky. Many will arrive having gone without their daily bread. Yes, I look forward to seeing you in Chicago to continue this vital conversation.

By Joseph Coulson, President, Harrison Middleton University