The Burden of Free Will

One of my favorite topics when I was taking Russian classes was the two giants in their literature: Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky.

After some research, I found out that the two have extremely opposite lives, economically speaking, yet both ended up being great authors. Another thing I’ve discovered is that the Russians seem to look up to Tolstoy more than Dostoevsky.

Now, I’ll be honest: I haven’t read any of their works yet — I just did some research on their lives, although at present, I’m reading Childhood by Tolstoy (and am planning to finish the trilogy). Luckily, our professor asked us to read The Grand Inquisitor, a novella taken from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s thousand-page novel, The Brothers Karamazov.

Today, we’ll explore the ideas presented in the said novella, The Grand Inquisitor.


Jesus returned to Seville, Spain during the Inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor, who is feared by all, finally had the chance to speak his mind after 90 years of existence. In the novella, he told Jesus about all the burden and suffering that the Roman Catholic church took under His name. Specifically, the Grand Inquisitor expressed how flawed Jesus’ answers were when the devil tempted him three times (Gospel of Luke 4:1-13).


For a thorough reading and presentation of ideas in the said novella, I’ve decided to part my write-up into three overarching themes. The first of these three is the burden of free will. That’s what we are going to explore in this article.

In this scene, the Grand Inquisitor was blaming Jesus for giving men free will and thus, giving them the liberty to choose between doing good or evil. Instead of owning that knowledge and then simply taking authority so that men will always choose to do good, Jesus gave them the freedom of choice which, according to the Grand Inquisitor, is not something that a mere man can handle. 

In this regard, perhaps the Grand Inquisitor thought that Jesus has set an example that is rather impossible for men to achieve. And He knew that, yet He still pushed with the idea of giving them that liberty. To further the discussion, I would like to quote the Grand Inquisitor:

You desired that man’s love should be free, that he should follow you freely, enticed and captivated by you. Henceforth, in place of the old, firm law, man was himself to decide with a free heart what is good and what is evil, with only your image before him to guide him—but surely you never dreamed that he would at last reject and call into question even your image and your truth were he to be oppressed by so terrible a burden as freedom of choice? They will exclaim at last that the truth is not in you, for it would have been impossible to leave them in more confusion and torment than you did when you left them so many worries and unsolvable problems.

Going back to the statement we were discussing, in the last line, we may notice that the Grand Inquisitor claimed that the right to choose his own belief is very attractive to people, even though at the sime time, it is very painful for them.

Indeed, having the liberty to choose the things we believe gives us power — it somehow makes us feel that there’s something we can control. However, perhaps what’s painful is that it’s hard to choose from thousands to millions of ideas we could believe in. After all, isn’t it nerve-wracking to think that in the end, what we chose to believe in is a lie? Perhaps, that’s when the real pain kicks in.

This is a very interesting point — are we really in a state of unrest, confusion, and misery at present? Because if you ask me, the world is, generally speaking. 

The question is, what caused it?

Over a century ago, Dostoevsky gave us that point to ponder. Now, I’d like us to first discard “who” gave it to us because I bet, that would be an endless discussion. What I’d like us to focus is the fact that we have free will. Also, let’s take into account that over the years, there have been numerous religions, teachings and philosophies that we may follow. Wether it captured our attention or it was simply passed down to us as a tradition, only we ourselves may know.

Now, let’s go back to the question. Did our own free will caused this unrest, confusion, and misery? Well, all I can say regarding this matter is that too much freedom can take away our sanity.
In that case, let us take care of our freedom by not giving it the power to destroy us. Our lives are governed by the major decisions we make and as much as we (most of us, rather) are free to decide which path to take, I hope we choose the one that’s both rational and empathic.

Simply put, the Grand Inquisitor emphasized the fact that we need something or someone to believe in. After all, we keep on doing things based on our beliefs, right? 

We enroll ourselves in universities or colleges because we believe that’s our hope to get “a better life”. We work on a project because we believe that it will yield something that we want, or we go to work no matter how we hate it because we believe it’s the only way we can have bread on the table. We delve into relationships, sometimes no matter how messy, because we believe it’s frightening to travel this life on our own.

In the same light, the Grand Inquisitor said:

Oh, we shall persuade them that they will only become free when they renounce their freedom for us and submit to us.

Here, he explains that the Roman Catholic church offers “true freedom” if people follow what they say. There are many groups and organizations who persuade us into putting our faith in whatever they believe in. Thing is, we are bound to believe in something lest we would fall in despair — because the moment we stopped believing in someone or something, we might loose our will to live. 

So then, we must be careful where we surrender our freedom of conscience.

The next two parts will be posted in the succeeding days. In the meantime, what do you think — is free will a burden or a gift?

These are the book versions I’ve used:

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Translated by David McDuff. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Grand Inquisitor. USA: SMK Books, 2013.

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