Academic journal article Humanitas

'The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor': The Utopian as Sadist

Academic journal article Humanitas

'The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor': The Utopian as Sadist

Article excerpt

Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.

--George Orwell, "Reflections on Gandhi"

The argument of Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor is simple: man is a weak, pitiful creature unable to achieve peace or happiness unless he submits to the rule of the few superior beings capable of determining his social destiny for him. This argument has been seen--correctly, I think--as an adumbration of the totalitarian regimes that emerged in the twentieth century; but it also continues a tradition of utopian thinking that began with Plato. The Republic is generally accepted as the first utopia--a depiction, that is, of the ideal state. But the exact nature of that state--the premises on which it rests and the contempt that it displays for the abilities of ordinary men--is, because of Plato's great prestige, too seldom recognized. His utopia is predicated not on the great mass of mankind's becoming wise or good, only obedient. In this regard, the Grand Inquisitor stands as Plato's direct ideological heir.

The Republic, we recall, begins as an investigation of justice in the individual, of the nature of the just man; only subsequently does it address the matter of the just state. Plato's just state proves to be one in which the three strata of society--rulers, soldiers, and workers (banuistics)--each performs the specific social function that "nature" suited it for and only that function: rulers must rule, soldiers guard, workers work. The harmony that results from this natural division of social labor Plato calls justice. Analogously, the just individual is the one in whom the three faculties equivalent to the three social strata--reason, will, and appetite--are properly ordered. That person, the one ruled by his reason, nature meant to be a philosopher-king; those dominated by one of the other faculties belong in one of the other classes, which include, of course, the vast majority of the citizens of the Republic. Indeed, this distinction provides the rationale for the whole hierarchical arrangement of Plato's utopia, and the implication is unmistakable: only the philosopher-kings are truly just men, everyone else falling short, in varying degrees, of the ideal psychic structure. Only these figures, their inner lives properly regulated, are meant by nature to rule the rest, just as the head rules the body. "A multitude," Plato asserts, "cannot be philosophical," a capacity reserved for a select few. (1)

Plato's logic in The Republic thus leads him to posit a utopia composed of a great many unjust (or at least non-just) men ruled over by a very few just ones. Since most of its citizens can never discover for themselves what is right or wrong, their proper civic duty consists in unquestioning obedience. Doxa or belief is the highest form of understanding of which the ordinary man is capable, as distinct from the philosopher's noesis or appodictic knowledge, so that the task of the Republic's rulers is the inculcation in the citizens of "correct" beliefs: beliefs that promote the stability of the state. Plato's utopia thus poses, according to Raphael Demos, a paradox: that his ideal state is composed largely of un-ideal individuals. "Both the warrior class and the masses are deprived of reason and must be governed by the philosopher-king. How can one legitimately call a community perfect when so many of its members are imperfect?"

Professor Demos believes that he resolves the paradox by the following argument:

  What [Plato's] Socrates, in effect, is saying is that the perfection
  of the whole requires the subordination of the parts; and that
  the subordination of the parts contributes to the perfection of the
  whole. Going further he asserts that the parts would not be proper
  parts if they achieved perfection independently of their place in
  the whole. For the parts are defined by their function in the whole
  --for instance, the eyes by their function of guiding the whole man
  . … 
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.