This op-ed of mine appeared in the Sunday Gazette-Mail.
Sometimes I get in the mood for a big fat Russian novel. It’s kind of like having a craving for a corn dog.
One hot mess of a novel that’s been on my mind lately is Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. It’s about the relationships between three brothers, the passionate and impulsive Dmitri, the saintly Alyosha and the tortured intellectual Ivan.
(If you think your family is weird, this book just might make you feel better.)
The most memorable part for me is the discussion about freedom and authority. It’s a riff on the New Testament story of the temptation of Jesus by Satan in the wilderness at the start of his ministry. In the novel, it takes the form of a “poem” or story told by Ivan about an imaginary encounter between Jesus and the Grand Inquisitor at the height of the Spanish Inquisition.
In it, Jesus appears as he did on earth even while heretics are being burned at the stake. He doesn’t make a scene but the people recognize him instantly and, drawn by his love and compassion, surround him asking for healing and his blessing.
The Grand Inquisitor is having none of it. He orders Jesus to be arrested immediately. The people are so used to being obedient to authority that they don’t object. That night he visits his prisoner in the dungeon and harangues him, asking “Why have you come to hinder us?”
In his view, Jesus’ fatal flaw was wanting people to be free to choose to follow him without coercion. The Inquisitor argues that freedom is the last thing people want and need, saying “nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom … I tell Thee that man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is born.”
In other words, what people really crave is a strong authoritarian leader who will tell them what they want to hear and overawe them with spectacle. The “wise and dread spirit” who tempted Jesus in the desert called it: Give the people “miracle, mystery and authority” (or at least the lying promise of it) and they will throw themselves at the feet of the charismatic leader.
Jesus listens in silence, gazing gently at his jailer. In the end, “he suddenly approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips.” The old man shuddered, opened the cell door and told him to go away and never come again.
Jesus disappears into the night.
As for the Grand Inquisitor, “The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man adheres to his idea.”
This story within a story isn’t really about an unfortunate period in European history. It’s about an unfortunate but periodically recurring tendency in humanity to willingly submit to authoritarian leaders, systems and regimes.
This was also the theme of Erich Fromm’s classic study “Escape From Freedom,” which was first published 1941. Fromm had fled Germany shortly after the Nazi takeover, which also prompted him to write the book.
His basic argument was that modern capitalist societies affect people in two contradictory ways: people become “more independent, self-reliant, and critical” while also becoming “more isolated, alone, and afraid.”
This leaves us with two alternatives: We can either move toward “positive freedom,” the often difficult step of creatively relating to others in work and love; or we can surrender to authoritarianism or conformity, both of which come at the cost of an authentic life. Of these, the former is more dangerous, particularly in hard times, while the latter is more common.
Those who give way to authoritarianism are aroused by and ready to submit to powerful leaders, whether they are individuals or institutions. They are also contemptuous of the weak and frequently target marginalized groups. For them, “the world is composed of people with power and those without it, of superior ones and inferior ones” and the lack of power of the “losers” is seen as a sign of guilt and inferiority.
Leaders of authoritarian political movements play on these feelings and on the resentments and frustrations of people in uncertain times. In “Mein Kampf,” for example, the worst of the lot wrote that the German masses really wanted after years of defeat and depression was “the victory of the stronger and the annihilation or the unconditional surrender of the weaker.” They “are far more satisfied by a doctrine which tolerates no rival than by the grant of liberal freedom …”
He described in detail how authoritarian movements help people overcome their sense of isolation:
“The mass meeting is necessary if only for the reason that in it the individual, who in becoming an adherent of a new movement feels lonely and is easily seized with the fear of being alone, receives for the first time the pictures of a greater community, something that has a strengthening and encouraging effect on most people. … If he steps for the first time out of his small workshop or out of the big enterprise, in which he feels very small, into the mass meeting and is now surrounded by thousands and thousands of people with the same conviction … he himself succumbs to the magic influence of what we call mass suggestion.”
That sounds like a contemporary political rally. It’s not a coincidence that both the Washington Post and the New York Times have recently published columns and news stories about the renewed debate on fascism in the United States and around the world.
Authoritarian movements and leaders can be tempting. At different times, many admirable peoples and cultures have fallen for them. The results generally aren’t good, either for their victims or supporters. The temptations of “the wise and dread spirit” and the Grand Inquisitor will always be there and at times they can seem very alluring.
It comes down to a choice.
(Note: Over 20 years ago I listened to a recorded lecture on this topic by now retired Barnard College professor Dennis Dalton. I found it fascinating but remote at the time. Recent events prompted me to revisit the sources.)