The power of parables, like all poetic forms, is their ability to intensely illuminate an image or meaning previously unconsidered, in a manner more convincing than rational discourse or discussion. Dostoevsky’s most well-known parable is ‘The legend of the Grand Inquisitor’ in The Brothers Karamazov, one where he is misquoted as saying ‘If God is dead, all things are permitted’. It’s a powerful error, a misunderstanding borne out of bad translations and in part stemming, in spirit at least, from Nietzsche’s own pre-existential admiration for Russian fatalism, which infatuated 20thc new spirits trying to understand the implications of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard like Sartre, Camus and others.
Ivan actually says ‘Not only that: then nothing would be immoral, all things would be lawful, including anthropophagy’ (BK, trans. McDuff, London: Penguin, 2003, p94). But already he’s misquoted soon after by Rakitin, who puts these words in his mouth, the source of the misunderstanding ‘I mean, you heard his stupid theory just now: “If the soul’s not immortal, there’s no virtue, either, and that means that all things are lawful.” ‘ (p 110). The line is then repeated throughout the novel as a quote of Ivan or of Dmitri, ‘all things are lawful’, but nowhere in the novel is it stated. The line itself comes from I Corinthians 6:12, which in the King James Bible appears as ‘All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any’.
But the misunderstanding perpetuates, a piece of plagiarism that takes on a more inspired life as an error. For the atheists, it’s an inspiring exclamation – God is dead, now man is free; for the agnostics and believers, it’s a question of value that illustrates best the problem of the Grand Inquisitor. What matters more to us, true belief in God (‘if God is dead’) , or the maintenance of moral values (then all things are lawful’)? The Grand Inquisitor no longer believes in God as Christ – such a God failed to live up to man’s needs for bread, and for miracles, mystery and authority. In order to maintain moral values and social obedience, Christ must die. Alternatively Ivan has lost true belief in God, a doubt of which this parable emanates. Without a moral sense, all things are lawful, a powerful misundertand and misquote, which leads to the central murder of the story and the reasons behind it, and Ivan’s descent into madness. Dostoevsky remains particularly conservative, but goes further than most in plumbing to the depths of untruth, doubt, and the negative of belief.
It’s a warning that, if anything, men must have belief, or rather be made to believe, before true belief in God. An old tale of expediency and ignorance then, as true now in an era where people still meaningfully believe in politics or the validity of their jobs, in an era of intense cynicism and collusion among politicians, private companies, media oligarachs, tax-evading banks and corrupt police. Alyosha remains the charmed innocent, the hero: Prince Myshkin is more accurate, unable to live in this world with his Christ-like ways. Dostoevsky’s ideals are always doomed, but make for great literature. Perhaps this too is what Nietzsche meant by Russian fatalism, a cold submission to punishment. In a remark in The Genealogy of Morality, where he discusses Spinoza’s peculiar phrase ‘morsum conscientiae’, the bite of conscience, as
‘– a sadness accompanied by the notion of a past event which turned out contrary to expectation.’ Eth iii, Propos. xviii Schol. i ii. For millennia, wrongdoers overtaken by punishment have felt no different than Spinoza with regard to their ‘offence’: ‘something has gone unexpectedly wrong here’, not ‘I ought not to have done that’ –, they submitted to punishment as you submit to illness or misfortune or death, with that brave, unrebellious fatalism that still gives the Russians, for example, an advantage over us Westerners in the way they handle life. …punishment tames man in this way but does not make him ‘better’, – we would be more justified in asserting the opposite.‘ (GM, trans. Diethe, Cambridge: CUP, 2007, 56).