This past summer, I invited historian Jon Meacham to write a piece about the approaching presidential election. After bandying several ideas, he delivered an essay on the kind of president Hillary Clinton might be based on her professed admiration for Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. That was September 1. Like many Americans—including me—he assumed Clinton would win the election. In the early hours of November 9, he agreed to write a reflection on Trump’s victory. We decided to run both articles.
The setting, at least for the historically-minded, was a familiar one: the hall at Moscow State University in which Ronald Reagan had hailed the “Moscow spring” of two decades before, in the waning hours of the Cold War. In that classic Reagan speech, the American president struck characteristically optimistic notes. “Freedom is the right to question and change the established way of doing things,” Reagan said. “Freedom is the recognition that no single person, no single authority of government, has a monopoly on the truth, but that every individual life is infinitely precious, that every one of us put on this world has been put here for a reason and has something to offer.” Now, in the autumn of 2009, the American Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, stood before a colorful mural featuring a hammer and sickle—the bust of Lenin from Reagan’s day had been removed—to address the students not of the Soviet Union but of Russia. And while Lenin was gone, the Russian past, and her own, was very much on Clinton’s mind.
Asked from the floor about what book had “changed [her] life”—it was a university crowd, after all—the Secretary of State cited Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s epic The Brothers Karamazov. Recalling two readings of the sprawling philosophical nineteenth century novel, Clinton singled out “The Grand Inquisitor” section of the book, what Dostoyevsky’s atheistic narrator Ivan refers to as a “poem” he recites to his devout brother, Alyosha. Conventionally interpreted as a depiction of Roman Catholic certitude against a more personal and Protestant understanding of faith, the scene features a cardinal of the church describing the perils of free will to a Christ who has returned to sixteenth century Spain. A long lament that God had made faith a matter of choice, the cardinal’s monologue offers a defense of the church’s subsequent—and in the cleric’s view, necessary—creation of order, ritual, and creed. “Thou mayest not add to what has been said of old,” the Inquisitor tells Jesus, adding: “For fifteen centuries we have been wrestling with Thy freedom, but now it is ended and over for good.” Doctrine and authority have replaced the radical message of Christian love. The church, the Inquisitor believes, has been pragmatic in the face of the existential human problem: how to govern men and their appetites in the maelstrom of what George Eliot, another nineteenth century novelist concerned with life’s largest questions, called the “dim lights and tangled circumstance of the world.” In the end, before Christ is burned as a heretic, the Messiah—for the church, once an answer, now a puzzle—steps forward to kiss the cardinal in a symbolic gesture, as simple as it is disruptive, that silently declares the Lord’s affirmation of love above all.
Clinton appeared to subscribe to the essence of the Catholic versus Protestant interpretation in her remarks in Moscow. The New York Times reported her comments as a warning of “the dangers of certitude,” quoting her as saying, “One of the greatest threats we face is from people who believe they are absolutely, certainly right about everything.” The newspaper failed to include the rest of her sentence. In Moscow, Clinton added that she worried about those who believe “they have the only truth that exists and that it was passed on from God. And I think God has the ultimate truth, I just don’t think any one of us is smart enough to figure out all that it is.”
The omitted part of her reply is revealing, as is her affection for Brothers, a book she has affirmed as her favorite on a number of occasions. There is a popular impression of Clinton—on the right, and even in some quarters on the left—as doctrinaire, a Saul Alinsky-style closet radical who cloaks her own certitude in apparently focus-grouped platitudes. The truth, as usual, is more complicated, and her enduring connection to Dostoyevsky provides an unusual window into the kind of president Clinton is likely to be.
Of course, seeking literary clues to political mysteries—and political personality is nothing if not fundamentally mysterious—is a fraught enterprise. However, we tend to pursue it all the same. James Madison, himself a quietly shrewd public man, sought political guidance from the memoirs of the French cardinal de Retz, a wily cleric. Andrew Jackson thought of himself as the warrior-hero of Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs. Both Roosevelts—Theodore and Franklin—loved Alfred Thayer Mahan’s Influence of Sea Power Upon History and the imperialist poetry of Rudyard Kipling. John F. Kennedy read Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and came away with a renewed appreciation of how quickly things can spin out of control once capitals and armies begin to move. As a child Reagan read and reread a book called That Printer of Udell’s, published in 1903, which describes the conversion of an earnest young man who, like Reagan, grows up with an alcoholic father, finds redemption and purpose in Christianity, and ultimately goes to Washington. George H. W. Bush nursed a quiet affection for War and Peace (with its meditations on what shapes history) and The Catcher in the Rye (a story of a sensitive preppie from a world not unlike Bush’s). His son, George W. Bush, loved Marquis James’ biography of Sam Houston, The Raven, which told the tale of a hard drinker who nevertheless rose to power. Barack Obama favors books about the working class, citing John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, and Studs Terkel’s Working, as well as the theological and philosophical titles of Nietzsche, Niebuhr, and Tillich—men who saw life as difficult and tragic, but also hopeful and possibly redemptive.
Which brings us to Hillary and “The Grand Inquisitor.” The parable—a better term than “poem”—is more complex in context than a straightforward dramatic contrast between papal authority and Lutheran individualism. As Charles B. Guignon lucidly argued in a 1993 edition of the episode with related chapters from Brothers, the parable is rooted not only in theological dispute but in arguments over the course and nature of reform movements in nineteenth century Russia. “In Dostoyevsky’s view, the only way to answer philosophical and theological doubts is by drawing on and making manifest the deep understanding of life embodied in our active lives,” Guignon writes. “The questions he asks are: What are the existential consequences of a particular ideology? What form of life follows from this way of thinking? How will such a viewpoint pan out in action? For what is important to Dostoyevsky is not whether propositions are true or false in some abstract sense, but whether the form of life they embody and express is viable or not.”
This is also what is important to the forty-fifth president. A Midwestern Methodist, Clinton is imbued with the social gospel—the idea that, in the words of the old saying often attributed to John Wesley, one’s duty on earth is to “do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.” Yet she is not an idealist in the sense that she believes life is perfectible—and we need look no further than “The Grand Inquisitor” to get a sense of her own somewhat tragic view of human nature.
No one with a perennially sunny disposition toward the world and its prospects could be a fan of Brothers, and still less the parable of “The Grand Inquisitor.” That section of the novel is hard going in both a literary and philosophical sense. The Inquisitor is a realist to the bone, a man with much experience of a fallen creation, and his indictment of mankind is not easily dismissed. It is tempting to nod along with the case he builds about the depravity of the human race. One can almost hear his voice rising as the words tumble forth. He chides Jesus for failing to succumb to the three temptations of Satan in the wilderness, culminating in the scene of the jeering soldiers and crowds at Golgotha.
Thou didst not come down from the Cross when they shouted to Thee, mocking and reviling Thee, ‘Come down from the cross and we will believe that Thou art He.’ Thou didst not come down, for again Thou wouldst not enslave man by a miracle, and didst crave faith given freely, not based on miracle. Thou didst crave free love and not the base raptures of a slave. . . . But Thou didst think too highly of men therein, for they are slaves, of course, though rebellious by nature. Look around and judge; fifteen centuries have passed; look upon them. . . . I swear, man is weaker and baser by nature than Thou hast believed him! Can he, can he do what Thou didst? By showing him so much respect, Thou didst, as it were, cease to feel for him, for Thou didst ask far too much from him—Thou who hast loved him more than Thyself! . . . We have corrected Thy work and have founded it upon miracle, mystery, and authority. And men rejoiced that they were again led like sheep, and that the terrible gift that had brought them so much suffering was, at last, lifted from their hearts.
And so we are left with—what, exactly? To find a coherent way forward in Brothers, we must listen to the voice of Zossima, the Russian monk whose tale follows the Grand Inquisitor. For Zossima, life, even with its inherent imperfections, is always sanctified, and we recover meaning in loving one another and the creation as best we can. To return to Eliot, what do we live for, Middlemarch’s Dorothea asks, but to make life less difficult for one another? Zossima’s version of this truth is more verbose (he is Russian, remember) but strikes the same note: “If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.”
In Moscow, Clinton closed her remarks on Dostoyevsky with a Zossima-like call to community—not a gooey or gauzy call, but a practical one—for if the Grand Inquisitor brilliantly laid out the problem of existence, Zossima at least offers a partial solution, one in keeping with the spirit of the words attributed to Wesley. “The final thing that I would leave you with is that we have to be open because we live in such a world today that we have no choice,” Clinton told the audience. “I really do have a strong sense of what the world will look like if we work together and what it will look like if we don’t. . . . I choose a different future.” That future, Clinton said, begins with this common conviction: “one of the greatest responsibilities that we have as human beings is to open ourselves up to the possibility that we could be wrong and to learn from the experiences of those who have very different world views, so that you can better understand them, but also understand yourself.” That future is now our present.