[essay] Dostoevsky and the Cry of Rachel

Francisco Plaza, PhD
Cathedral High School, Houston TX
Editor, Reality

How do we confront evil? There is no easy solution to this problem; but we learn much from a literary investigation, if we have the eyes to see what great thinkers like Jacques Maritain and Fyodor Dostoevsky have to tell us.

One of the most recurring issues in the history of philosophy is the problem of evil: more specifically, of how to reconcile the inevitability of suffering with man’s natural desire for ultimate happiness. There are a variety of approaches to this problem, but in the mind of the sufferer, a logical answer may not suffice. A major challenge in responding to the experience of evil in life is that it is not merely an intellectual phenomenon. Pain is an undeniable sensation. While pain is felt as a physical state, it does not merely result from direct, physical cause-and-effect (e.g. being struck by a hard object). Pain can also arise without this, for instance, the suffering that comes from witnessing the death of a loved one. In many ways, this kind of pain is worse. When we consider the problem of evil, it is this latter kind of pain which tends to be at the forefront of our minds. When faced with this kind of suffering, it can seem impossible to move beyond it. We cannot simply will it away, even as we wish to be free from pain. Rational arguments can help us to overcome such a state, but not immediately. Moreover, it is tempting to ignore reason altogether when faced with such a tragedy. It becomes easier instead to cast profound, existential doubt upon the meaning of life given the overbearing nature of our suffering at the time.

While this emotional reaction to evil intensifies the problem, it is also an appropriate response. Indeed, evil should be abhorred; it should be treated as a genuine problem for human beings. We empathize with one another in the consideration of the problem, affirming at some basic level the dignity of the human person. However, if we are to seek a purely philosophical answer, we must leave our emotions behind at some point in order to proceed rationally. While the intensity of our emotions in the face of evil speaks to certain unspoken truths, it can also act as a double-edged sword, clouding our judgment as we attempt to grasp reality beyond ourselves. Jacques Maritain considered this very issue in his 1942 Marquette Lecture on the Problem of Evil, as he presented the case of Rachel in scripture (intended as a stand-in for all mothers facing such a tragedy), wherein she loses both of her children at the hand of a tyrant. Rachel’s grief is understandable, and her response, summed up as follows, is very natural: “forget the order of the universe, I only want my children back!”

In the Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky provided his own version of the dilemma through Ivan and his “grand inquisitor” poem. Ultimately, Ivan takes the same attitude as Rachel, questioning the existence of evil in and of itself, such that even if there is some kind of retribution in the future, it will not, and cannot, change the fact that evil existed at some point. Ivan presents the problem in such a way that evil is irreconcilable, irreversible. Once the damage is done, there is no turning back. Even if a wound heals after a harsh blow, it will not change the very fact of its existence at one point in time; it will not take away the very moment of pain that caused the wound to begin with. So Ivan, through the grand inquisitor, will question further: regardless of any possible retribution, why must evil exist at all? Is it because of our freedom? Some greater good to be had? In any case, Ivan’s position will be that evil is much too great a price to pay, and that if we must eliminate human freedom in order to eliminate evil completely, then so be it.

The Absurdity of Life in the Face of Evil

Ivan Karamazov is a young, enlightenment intellectual of the nineteenth century influenced by the socialist movements of his day. He sympathized with the social engineers of his time, who sought to transform society in the interest of the masses according to their own self-imposed principles without any submission to God. Not much has changed since then, as this political ideology persists even today. The central characteristic of this political movement is not merely the absence of God, but taking His place altogether. This idea is driven mainly by the feeling that this world is inherently flawed, and that man’s task should be, therefore, to recreate it in such a way that eliminates all suffering (a “Brave New World” of sorts, as Huxley presented later). Ivan puts it bluntly to his brother Alyosha, the young monk (Ivan’s ideological opposite): “Yet, would you believe it, in the final result I don’t accept this world of God’s, and although I know it exists, I don’t accept it at all. It’s not that I don’t accept God, you must understand; it’s the world created by Him I don’t and cannot accept.”[1] This stand serves as a preamble to Ivan’s conversation with Alyosha, as he proceeds to recount with simultaneous repulsion and morbid fascination several news clipping detailing horrific evils done to children.

One of the simplest ways to consider the problem of evil is to meditate upon the suffering of the innocent. It is difficult to imagine something more innocent than a child. If one thinks of evil done to adults, on the other hand, it is easier to brush it aside by saying that they may have deserved it for one reason or another, given that adults no longer possess the apparent sinlessness of a young child in its innocence.[2] No one, however, could say this about a child. One could also argue that the death of an adult does not seem as tragic by comparison considering they have already experienced life in a more complete way. The death of a child by contrast is particularly heinous given that children have yet to really experience life as such. Lastly, the vulnerability of a child in comparison to an adult also makes them more precious, as they are helplessly left to the mercy of others. Thus, evils suffered by children appear especially pointless and cruel, thereby emphasizing the problem of evil itself.

After establishing the foundation of his case, Ivan attacks two major religious answers to the problem of evil with children in mind. The first is the idea that children suffer evil on account of the sins of their fathers. If this were the case, Ivan asserts, God would obviously be unjust.[3] Secondly, if one appeals to justice in the after-life, it does not change the fact that the child still had to suffer in the first place, and that the problem is only being solved with more suffering (that of the criminal).[4] Following that statement, Ivan continues by revealing his major sentiment, which also ties into his legend of the grand inquisitor afterward, being that if evil exists in this universe on account of freedom (or something else that accounts for the existence of evil), then that price is too much to bear; nothing could make up for the existence of evil: “And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sums of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price.”[5]

It is not just religion, however, which fails to account for the problem of evil in Ivan’s eyes, but even the atheistic, enlightenment philosophy of his day as well. Even as a proponent of this kind of thinking, Ivan acknowledges that without God, we cannot truly ground any absolute, moral principles in and of themselves (the famous saying of his being that without God, “everything is lawful”[6]). Such moral nihilism eliminates altogether any notion of true “good” or “evil,” thereby eliminating any genuine possibility of justice. All that we can be left with is a brutish sense of positives and negatives, pleasure and pain, in a minimalistic, materialist cosmos. Ivan states this in the following manner:

With my pitiful, earthly, Euclidian understanding, all I know is that there is suffering and that there are none guilty; that effect follows cause, simply and directly; that everything flows and finds it level – but that’s only Euclidian nonsense. I know that, and I can’t consent to live by it! What comfort is it to me that there are none guilty and that effect follows cause simply and directly, and that I know it – I must have justice, or I will destroy myself.[7]

Therefore, Ivan is left between two unpalatable alternatives, left unsatisfied by both the atheist and the theist on this problem, not only making the problem seem all the more irresolvable (from the rational point of view at least), but also making life unbearable and altogether absurd. The only thing that Ivan can hold onto is his primal urge to continue on living regardless: “I have a longing for life, and I go on living in spite of logic.”[8] In the end, however, Ivan acknowledges that according to his logic, the only answer left is suicide:

I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket.[9]

Ivan’s statement here that “too high a price is asked for harmony” is important in what follows after with the grand inquisitor, as his main point will be that the Christian answer demands too much of us, and that all we are left with then is to suffer.

Up until this point, Alyosha has primarily been listening as Ivan pushes through his ideas, but a pivotal point in their discussion arises when Alyosha points to Jesus Christ as the one who has the power to address the problem of evil with the authority and ability to not only forgive the criminals, but to also suffer along with the child. This point comes from one of Ivan’s final statements:

I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and who could forgive?[10]

To this, Alyosha replies:

You said just now, is there a being in the whole world who would have the right forgive and could forgive? But there is such a Being, and He can forgive everything, all and for all, because He gave His innocent blood for all and everything. You have forgotten Him, and on Him is built the edifice, and it is to Him they cry aloud, ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed!’[11]

Ivan then replies by bringing up his poem, the “grand inquisitor,” stating that he has not actually forgotten about Christ, and that he composed this poem with Christ in mind faced with the problem of evil. His tale takes place in the sixteenth century, wherein Christ returns at the height of the inquisition era. The grand inquisitor character is a ninety-year old Jesuit cardinal who has personally ordered hundreds of heretics burnt at the stake throughout his life. In Ivan’s story, the grand inquisitor meets Christ and has him thrown in jail. While the tale seems to recount a dialogue between Christ and the inquisitor in prison, Christ never actually speaks to the old cardinal, although it is clear he is listening intently to him throughout.

One of the main ideas behind Ivan’s story (as hinted prior) is that Christ’s demands for humanity are too much to bear, only fit for the elite few (the saints). Christ’s demands for mankind follow upon God’s gift of freedom for the human being, what the grand inquisitor argues, however, is that it would be preferable to eliminate freedom for man, as it has proven to be more of a hindrance to his happiness than a gift. Again, this ties into the socialist thought of the nineteenth centuries (the intellectual foundation for totalitarian governments in the twentieth century), where the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the good of the state in order to ensure the existence of a communal utopia. The bargain appears to be that losing one’s freedom is preferable to the existence of suffering. As the inquisitor complains to Christ:

Instead of taking men’s freedom from them, Thou didst make it greater than ever! Didst Thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil? Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering. And behold, instead of giving a firm foundation for setting the conscience of man at rest forever, Thou didst choose all that is exceptional, vague, and enigmatic; Thou didst choose what was utterly beyond the strength of men, acting as though Thou didst not love them at all – Thou, who didst come to give Thy life for them! Instead of taking possession of men’s freedom, Thou didst increase it, and burdened the spiritual kingdom of mankind with its sufferings forever.  Thou didst desire man’s free love, that he should follow Thee freely, enticed and taken captive by Thee. In place of the rigid ancient law, man must hereafter, with free heart, decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Thy image before him as his guide. But didst Thou not know he would at last reject even Thy image and Thy truth, if he is weighed down with the fearful burden of free choice? They will cry aloud at last that the truth is not in Thee, for they could have been left in greater confusion and suffering than Thou hast caused, laying upon them so many cares and unanswerable   problems.[12]

There is an immediate parallel between Ivan’s sentiments and that of Rachel in scripture (as presented by Maritain): “… she will answer that she cares not one whit for the machine of the world, – let them give her back her child!”[13] The existence of evil, of sin as such, in the world seems to be a necessary consequence of its ordering, particularly when considering human freedom. Ivan’s response then becomes the same as Rachel’s here, which could be reiterated as “I don’t care about freedom for the sake of harmony in the universe if it means evil has to exist because of it.”

The Cry of Rachel

Although the grand inquisitor wishes to eliminate freedom from the human being, the cost of that is his very personhood. As Maritain explained in his 1942 Marquette lecture, the human being is not simply a creature, but a “person” in virtue of his freedom. In light of this, a human being can only be a “whole,” not “part”: “… man and angel are both persons, and in that light not parts but real wholes; for the person signifies in itself, wholeness. Neither man nor even the angel are persons in the perfect and absolute state, but they are in a real sense persons, – however wretchedly that condition of person is realised in man.”[14] From this point of view:

… the existence of evil in things injects into being an incongruity from which nothing can console us … the sin of a man is the sin of a person, the disaster of a universe and wounding of God (not as far as God’s being is concerned, but as concerns His love). The suffering of a man is the suffering of a person, of a whole. Here he is considered no longer a part of the universe, but insofar as he is a person he is considered as a whole, a universe to himself; to suffer that pain as part of the universe in the perspective of nature   or of the world taken as God’s work of art, does not do away with the fact that as far as the person is concerned is an utter anomaly.[15]

Given that man is a whole under this view, it would be anomalous to sacrifice the whole for the sake of another (namely, the order of the universe at large).

In writing this, Maritain was concerned primarily with the text of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae (ST I, 48, 2c) on “whether evil is found in things.” The main tenet here which arose concerns for Maritain was St. Thomas’ writing that “the perfection of the universe requires that there should be not only incorruptible beings, so the perfection of the universe requires that there should be some which can fail in goodness and which sometimes do fail,” the reason for this being “so that every grade of goodness may be realized.”[16] The main point taken in this article is that God permits evils for the perfection of the universe. Thus, for Maritain, the problem of evil lies in that the good of the individual person, a whole, seems to be sacrificed for the good of another whole.

Maritain sympathized with Rachel’s complaints, accounting for them with the following explanation:

The person asks, – from a desire which is “conditional” and “inefficacious,” but real and natural – to see the first cause in its essence, it asks to be free without being able to sin, it asks that it should not suffer, should not die. In the state of pure nature, these aspirations of the person would have remained forever unsatisfied; grace causes us to reach up toward a final state where these aspirations will be super-abundantly satisfied by a gift which surpasses all nature, being a formal participation in the Deity.[17]

Thus, it seems that the problem of evil falls again unto freedom, as held by Ivan’s grand inquisitor. When we cry out against evil as Rachel or Ivan would, it arises from a natural desire of fulfillment which could only be satisfied by a perfect state of freedom, one in which it is impossible for sin to occur. This perfect state of freedom, of course, is that of the beatific vision, whereby when this desire is intensified by the suffering of evils, what is ultimately at root is a desire which arises from grace and could only be satisfied by God. It is a desire which points us to God as the answer.

In considering evil, Maritain has shifted from philosophy to theology, ending with an answer from revelation. Maritain re-described the problem of evil, however, not as a “problem” but a “mystery.”[18] Moreover, he acknowledged this shift and states that one who is currently suffering evil will not be satisfied by a rational answer:

In the perspective I have just mentioned, which are those of theology or of a moral philosophy which is not merely philosophical but backed up by faith and theology, it   seems to me that we can obtain a slightly better understanding of the problem of evil, which in truth is not a problem but a mystery. I do not say, moreover, that he who is at this moment a prey to evil can find satisfaction in any answer no matter how true it may be.[19]

There is no one answer, then, which we could give that would fully account for the mystery of evil. What Maritain did instead at the end of his lecture is reiterate why freedom is given to us even if it accounts for the possibility of evil:

The creature’s liability to sin is thus the price paid for the outpouring of creative Goodness, which in order to give itself personally to the extent that it transforms into  itself something other than itself, must be freely loved with friendship’s love and communion, and which to be freely loved with friendship’s love and communion must create free creatures, and which in order to create them free must create them fallibly free. Without fallible freedom there can be no created freedom; without created freedom there can be no love in mutual friendship between God and creature; without love in mutual friendship between God and creature, there can be no supernatural transformation of the creature into God, no entering of the creature into the joy of his Lord. Sin, – evil, – is the price of glory.[20]

Against Ivan’s grand inquisitor, Maritain affirms that the price of freedom is worth the cost of evil, given that freedom is what allows for true goodness. However, as stated prior, even if this explanation were true, the person suffering evil may choose to be obdurate on the matter.

A Metaphysical Conclusion to the Problem of Evil

In order for us to argue that the possibility of the good is worth the possibility of evil, we need to understand that from a metaphysical standpoint, evil is not something in and of itself, but a privation of the good. As Maritain explained, St. Thomas appropriates this view from St. Augustine, and it can be summed up as follows: “evil is neither an essence nor a nature nor a form nor an act of being – evil is an absence of being; it is not a mere negation, but a privation: the privation of the good that should be in a thing.”[21] This is not to say that evil is mere illusion, but only that it is parasitic upon the good. The existence of evil depends upon a prior existence of a good. Not just any good, however, but specifically a goodness that is owed to the creature. For example, blindness in man is an evil given that man should possess sight. Not possessing the ability to fly, on the other hand, is not an evil to man as it is not something owed to us. In St. Thomas’ Summa Contra Gentiles, he states this as such:

Now, evil is in a substance because something which it was originally to have, and which it ought to have, is lacking in it. Thus, if a man has no wings, that is not an evil for him, because he was not born to have them … But it is an evil if he has no hands, for these he is born to, and should, have – if he is to be perfect. Yet this defect is not an evil for a bird.[22]

We can clearly state by way of analogy that evil exists in the same manner as blindness. God permits it to exist in this way, even if He does not will it directly. This allowance has left many to question God’s omnipotence or goodness. However, it is precisely by God’s omnipotence and goodness that He can draw good even out from evil.[23] Even though some feel that the existence of evil in the world disproves the existence of God, St. Thomas turned this argument on its head, writing instead that “if evil exists, God exists.” Now, God is the principle of existence for all things – He is “subsistent existence itself” (ipsum esse subsistens), as St. Thomas famously declares in De Ente et Essentia, ch. 4.[24] As we have stated prior, however, evil is merely a privation. Metaphysically, then, for evil to exist, a subject must exist on its own, pre-existing the state of evil, such that evil can only exist in and through that subject as a privation.[25] Thus, St. Thomas reasoned: “’If evil exists, God exists.’ For, there would be no evil if the order of good were taken away, since its privation is evil. But this order would not exist if there were no God.”[26] In other words, if God did not exist, nothing else would exist either.

While this quick metaphysical response to the problem of evil may allow us to make some sense of the matter, it is likely to remain unsatisfying to the suffering (let alone the average modern reader) even if it is true. Dostoevsky seemed to recognize this, as he ended the tale of the grand inquisitor with Christ giving the old Jesuit a kiss, rather than a rational explanation.[27] Maritain also appreciated this problem, as he preferred in the end to treat the problem as a true mystery even though he had also laid out some of the metaphysical reasoning himself. This is because the problem of evil is an existential problem, not merely a theoretical one. One tends to ponder over the nature of evil as it relates to them personally, and knowing that evil in an abstract sense is a privation does not undo the particular evil that one is concerned about in the moment.

There is a final lesson to be gleaned from this problem. The conflict between truth and passion is one which, while not unique to modernity, has been enkindled by modern sentiments of subjectivism. Putting it simply, the truth is not affected by the knower’s acceptance or rejection of it. For the modern subjectivist, however, there is no truth that is not colored by the perception of the knower. Taken to the extreme, the “knower” only knows his own perception, not reality itself. If the answer is unsatisfying then, the problem is not with the recipient, it is only with the answer itself. The search will continue until something “satisfying” has been found, regardless of whether or not it is true in the proper sense. This, of course, is the opposite of realism. The philosophical realist would respond bluntly to this tension by saying that the answer does not need to be satisfying, it only needs to be true. Truth does not conform to our wants, but our wants should conform to whatever the truth is. The prevailing angst over the problem of evil, then, reveals more about the modern mind than it does about the reality of evil itself. Indeed, the problem of evil has not changed, it is one which has been with us since the original fall of man. What has changed is the context in which the question is asked, and perhaps that is the greater problem. As long as subjectivism remains, we cannot resolve this problem, nor any other. In such a framework, it is not just the answer that comes under fire; the very term “answer” no longer has any true meaning.

[1] Dostoevsky, The Grand Inquisitor, 5.

[2] “The second reason why I won’t speak of grownup people is that, besides being disgusting and unworthy of love, they have a compensation – they’ve eaten the apple and know good and evil, and they have become ‘like god.’ They go on eating it still. But the children haven’t eaten anything, and are so far innocent.” – Dostoevsky, 8.

[3] “If they too suffer horribly on earth, they must suffer for their fathers’ sins; they must be punished for their fathers, who have eaten the apple; but that reasoning is of the other world and is incomprehensible for the heart of man here on earth. The innocent must not suffer for another’s sins, and especially such innocents!” – Dostoevsky, 8.

[4] “What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering.” – Dostoevsky, 16.

[5] Dostoevsky, 16.

[6] Dostoevsky, 37.

[7] Dostoevsky, 14.

[8] Dostoevsky, 2.

[9] Dostoevsky, 16.

[10] Dostoevsky, 16.

[11] Dostoevsky, 17.

[12] Dostoevsky, 28.

[13] Maritain, Saint Thomas and the Problem of Evil, 9.

[14] Maritain, 11.

[15] Maritain, 12.

[16] ST I, 44, 2c.

[17] Maritain, 12.

[18] Maritain, 14.

[19] Maritain, 14.

[20] Maritain, 18–19.

[21] Maritain, 1.

[22] SCG III, 6.

[23] St. Thomas, referencing St. Augustine, employs this line of thinking to quickly answer the “problem of evil” objection in the Summa Theologiae on the question of God’s existence. See ST I, q. 2, a. 3, ad 1.

[24] De Ente, ch. 4, n. 7; trans. Maurer, On Being and Essence, 56.

[25] “Evil is in a substance because something which it was originally to have, and which it ought to have, is lacking it.” – SCG III, 6.

[26] SCG III, 71.

[27] Dostoevsky, 36.


Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Grand Inquisitor. Translated by Constance Garnett. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993.

Maritain, Jacques. Saint Thomas and the Problem of Evil. Milwaukee: Marquette University,        1942.

St. Thomas Aquinas. On Being and Essence. Translated by Armand Maurer. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1991.

—. Summa contra Gentiles. Translated by Anton C. Pegis, et al. Indiana: Notre Dame, 1975.

—. Summa Theologiae. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Westminster,   Maryland: Christian Classics, 1981.