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.
In The Grand Inquisitor Ivan relates a tale of Christ’s “second coming”,
to his brother Alyosha. The tale is set
in Seville, during the period of the Spanish Inquisition.
performs several miracles, including resurrecting a young girl who has died.
This brings him to the attention of a “Grand Inquisitor”, who, irritated by
Jesus’s actions has him arrested. The rest of the tale recounts the
conversation the 90-year-old Grand Inquisitor has with Jesus the imprisoned
Jesus, whilst visiting him. The Inquisitor explains to Jesus that he is no
longer needed to help and guide humankind, and that his return to earth will
only impede the now crucial role, which is undertaken by the Church. The Grand Inquisitor argues the point to
Jesus, that in his view, freedom is too much a responsibility for people to
bear, and Christ’s reappearance will have a detrimental impact on the citizens because
effectively Christ is granting them this freedom.
Grand Inquisitor criticises Jesus for his decision to reject the three
temptations which were 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 thirdly, the temptation to rule over all the kingdoms of the world.
The Grand Inquisitor’s expresses his view that humanity may have been better
off if Jesus had not declined the temptations, but had given in instead, to the
temptations put before him. He also 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).” In saying this, The Grand Inquisitor is highlighting
his own viewpoint, that the people had never wanted the freedom that Jesus had
offered them, because it is too much of a decision and a responsibility, for
them to make a choice between good and evil. It is for this very reason, that The
Grand Inquisitor tells Jesus that this burden of freedom has been taken away
from them through giving them the structure of religion and the church and defining
for them what it is to be ‘Good’ and what it is to be ‘Evil’. By providing them
with firm instructions for living, this relieves the responsibility and stress of
having to invent meaning for themselves, because if they do create it for
themselves, they would, in turn be further troubled with the knowledge of its
inauthenticity. Moreover, The Grand Inquisitor, speaking as a representative
for the church, argues that the church has bestowed on humankind, peace of mind
and happiness. This in his view is everything that mankind has ever sought, and
it is for this reason that he has taken 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.
The 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. “In the end they will lay their freedom at our
feet and say to us, Make us your slaves, but feed us.”
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 examines the two different facets of freedom. Being that it is both
a gift and, at the same time, a burden. The destinies of those whom are free
willed are at the same time finely balanced and perhaps exhilarating. The
choices they make may 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. “Man
is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can
hand over that great gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is
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’.