I am reading Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov for the fourth time. Like all great books, it rewards repeated reading: there seem to be layers of meaning in such books and with every visit you come away with something more. One of the issues Dostoevsky deals with in this novel is the question of human freedom: what is it and how do we achieve it?
In America we think that we have freedom as a birthright: our ancestors fought for it and it is precious and worth protecting, though recently we seem to be showing a disturbing willingness to trade it in for a sense of security. But do we even know what it is? Most people think freedom is simply the absence of restraint or the ability to choose among the large number of loaves of bread on the grocer’s shelf. If we aren’t in jail we are free; if we have a great many choices we are free. This is true. But there’s more to it than this, as Dostoevsky tells us in this interesting passage buried in the middle of his novel — in a chapter dealing with the life and some of the reflections of the saintly elder Zosima.
“The world has proclaimed freedom, especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs: only slavery and suicide! For the world says: ‘You have needs, therefore satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the noblest and richest men. Do not be afraid to satisfy them and even increase them’ — this is the current teaching of the world. And in this they see freedom. But what comes of this right to increase one’s needs? For the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; for the poor, envy and murder, for they have been given rights, but have not been shown any way of satisfying their needs. We are assured that the world is becoming more and more united . . . by the shortening of distances, by the transmitting of thoughts through the air. Alas, do not believe in such a union of people. Taking freedom to mean the increase and prompt satisfaction of needs, they distort their own nature, for they generate many meaningless and foolish desires, habits, and the most absurd fancies in themselves. They live only for mutual envy, for pleasure-seeking and self-display. To have [possessions] is now considered such a necessity that for the sake of it, to satisfy it, they will sacrifice life, honor, and love of mankind, . . . We see the same thing in those who are not rich, while the poor, so far, simply drown their unsatisfied needs and envy in drink. . . And no wonder that instead of freedom they have fallen into slavery, and instead of serving brotherly love and human unity, they have fallen, on the contrary, into disunity and isolation. . . And therefore the idea of serving mankind, of the brotherhood and the oneness of people, is fading more and more in the world, and indeed the idea now even meets with mockery, for how can one drop one’s habits, where will this slave go now that he is so accustomed to satisfying the innumerable needs he himself has invented? He is isolated, and what does he care about the whole? They have succeeded in amassing more and more things, but they have less and less joy.
“I cut away my unnecessary and superfluous needs, [and] . . . attain freedom of spirit, and with that spiritual rejoicing! Which of the two is more capable of upholding and serving a great idea — the isolated rich man or one who is liberated from the tyranny of things and habits?”
Someone once said: we don’t own things, they own us. Wise words. And Zosima’s words are also sobering, especially at a time when 1% of this country controls 40% of the wealth and most of the remaining 99% strive only to become part of that 1%.