Books that Matter: The Grand Inquisitor — Happiness & Freedom

Many moons ago, my Ben Casnocha challenged me to write about the books that have had the greatest affect on me. Maybe it wasn’t so much of a challenge as a prod to blog. One that took some time to work.

The Grand Inquisitor, by Fyodor Dostoevsky was one of the first to spring to mind.  It isn’t a actually book, but rather a longish story that one character tells another in The Brother’s Karamazov, published in 1880. You can read the whole thing online in twenty minutes.

Why did it have such an impact me, reading it there in that messy dorm room at the start of my sophomore year?

The Grand Inquisitor is basically telling Jesus off. That’s pretty bold for a character written in the nineteenth century, in a story set in the sixteenth, in a book written by a Christian. He says that Jesus messed everything up, and now he and the Church have fixed it.

As if that audacity wasn’t enough, the the Inquisitor’s logic is surprising hard to argue with.

His beef is that Jesus promised to make people both free and happy, and that’s just impossible. Freedom is a burden, it makes them unhappy. People want to believe that they are free, but to actually to have as little freedom as possible. Jesus came and actually increased freedom, which only served to increase the world’s misery.

The “solution” that the Inquisitor and his church have come up with, is for a few people to take on the burden of freedom, thus sparing the rest. In a bizarre twist, the Inquisitor and others in the church are cast as the selfless caring saints precisely because they lie to the masses. The truth, and true freedom, are burden which they carry sacrificially so that others don’t have to. So that the masses can be happy.

“And all will be happy, all the millions of creatures except the hundred thousand who rule over them. For only we, we who guard the mystery, shall be unhappy. There will be thousands of millions of happy babes, and a hundred thousand sufferers who have taken upon themselves the curse of the knowledge of good and evil.”

This was a different angle than what I’d been hearing in Sunday school.

There is much more to say about the story itself. But the reason it has endured in my thinking is how often its themes show up in life.

Consider this scene from The Matrix, where the top request of the traitor is to re-enter the matrix, forget reality, not to remember, and to live a lie.

(I also think of the Grand Inquistor in more mundane matters. For example, interface design. User’s think that they want tons of features with freedom over every little aspect. But what actually makes them happy is an interface that hides most “freedoms”, leaving them the few choices that make the most sense.)

Given the choice between freedom and happiness, or the truth and happines, which would you choose? This drives to the recents trends in “happiness research.” The Inquistor’s agrument rests on the idea that happiness is the greater good. Is that so?