Articles Fyodor Dostoevsky 6


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5. Idealism has its limits
In Dostoyevsky’s final great work – Brothers Karamazov, which came out when he was nearly sixty – one of the central characters tells a long story-within-a-story. It’s called The Grand Inquisitor and imagines that the greatest event looked forward to by Christian theology – the second coming of Christ – has in fact already happened. Jesus did come back, several hundred years ago and turned up in Spain, during the highest period of power of the Catholic Church – the organisation established, in theory at least, entirely in devotion to him. Christ is back to fulfil his teachings of forgiveness and universal love. But something odd happens. The most powerful religious leader – the Grand Inquisitor – has him arrested and imprisoned.
In the middle of the night, the Grand Inquisitor visits Christ in his cell and explains that he cannot allow him to do his work on Earth, because he is a threat to the stability of society.

Christ, he says, is too ambitious – too pure, too perfect. Humanity can’t live up to the impossible goals he sets us. The fact is, people haven’t been able to live according to his teachings and Jesus should admit he failed and that his ideas of redemption were essentially misguided.
The Grand Inquisitor is not really a monster. In fact, Dostoevsky portrays him as quite an admirable figure in the story. He is a guide to a crucial idea for Dostoevsky, that human beings cannot live in purity, cannot ever be truly good, cannot live up to Christ’s message – and that this is something we should reconcile ourselves to with grace rather than fury or self-hatred.
We have to accept a great deal of unreasonableness, folly, greed, selfishness and shortsightedness as ineradicable parts of the human condition and plan accordingly. And it’s not just a pessimistic thesis about politics or religion that we’re being introduced to. The primary relevance of this thesis is as a commentary on our own lives: we won’t sort them out, we won’t stop being being a bit mad and wayward. And we shouldn’t torment ourselves with the dream that we could – if only we tried hard enough – become the ideal beings that idealistic philosophies like Christianity like to sketch all too readily.
Dostoyevsky died in 1881. He had a very hard life, but he succeeded in conveying an idea which perhaps he understood more clearly than anyone: in a world that’s very keen on upbeat stories, we will always run up against our limitations as deeply flawed and profoundly muddled creatures. Dostoyevsky’s attitude – bleak but compassionate, tragic but kind – is needed more than ever in our naive and sentimental age that so fervently clings to the idea – which this great Russian loathed – that science can save us all and that we may yet be made perfect through technology. Dostoyevsky guides us to a more humane truth: that – as the great sages have always known – life is and ever will be suffering, and yet that there is great redemption available in articulating this message in great and complex works of art.