This article is by author Professor Slavoj Žižek, International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, University of London, and one of the world’s most influential public intellectuals. His latest book is Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism.
Although the statement “If there is no God, everything is permitted” is widely attributed to Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (Sartre was the first to do so in his Being and Nothingness: An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology), he simply never said it.
The closest one gets to this infamous aphorism are a hand-full of approximations, like Dmitri’s claim from his debate with Rakitin (as he reports it to Alyosha):
“‘But what will become of men then?’ I asked him, ‘without God and immortal life? All things are permitted then, they can do what they like?’”
But the very fact that this misattribution has persisted for decades demonstrates that, even if factually incorrect, it nonetheless hits a nerve in our ideological edifice. No wonder conservatives like to evoke it whenever there are scandals among the atheist-hedonist elite: from millions killed in gulags to animal sex and gay marriages, this is where we end up if we deny transcendental authority as an absolute limit to all human endeavours.
Without such transcendental limits – so the story goes – there is nothing ultimately to prevent us from ruthlessly exploiting our neighbours, using them as tools for profit and pleasure, or enslaving, humiliating and killing them in their millions. All that stands between us and this moral vacuum, in the absence of a transcendental limit, are those self-imposed limitations and arbitrary “pacts among wolves” made in the interest of one’s survival and temporary well-being, but which can be violated at any moment.
But are things really like that? It is well-known that Jacques Lacan claimed that the psychoanalytic practice inverts Dostoyevsky’s dictum: “If there is no God, then everything is prohibited.” This reversal, of course, runs contrary to moral common sense. So, for example, in an otherwise sympathetic review of a book on Lacan, a Slovene Leftist daily newspaper rendered Lacan’s version as: “Even if there is no God, not everything is permitted!” – a benevolent vulgarity, changing Lacan’s provocative reversal into a modest assurance that even we, godless atheists, respect some ethical limits.
However, even if Lacan’s inversion appears to be an empty paradox, a quick look at our moral landscape confirms that it is a much more appropriate description of the atheist liberal/hedonist behaviour: they dedicate their life to the pursuit of pleasures, but since there is no external authority which would guarantee them personal space for this pursuit, they get entangled in a thick network of self-imposed “Politically Correct” regulations, as if they are answerable to a superego far more severe than that of the traditional morality. They thus become obsessed with the concern that, in pursuing their pleasures, they may violate the space of others, and so regulate their behaviour by adopting detailed prescriptions about how to avoid “harassing” others, along with the no less complex regime of the care-of-the-self (physical fitness, health food, spiritual relaxation, and so on).
Today, nothing is more oppressive and regulated than being a simple hedonist.
But there is a second observation, strictly correlative to the first, here to be made: it is for those who refer to “god” in a brutally direct way, perceiving themselves as instruments of his will, that everything is permitted. These are, of course, the so-called fundamentalists who practice a perverted version of what Kierkegaard called the religious suspension of the ethical.
So why are we witnessing the rise of religiously (or ethnically) justified violence today? Precisely because we live in an era which perceives itself as post-ideological. Since great public causes can no longer be mobilised as the basis of mass violence – in other words, since the hegemonic ideology enjoins us to enjoy life and to realise our truest selves – it is almost impossible for the majority of people to overcome their revulsion at the prospect of killing another human being.
Most people today are spontaneously moral: the idea of torturing or killing another human being is deeply traumatic for them. So, in order to make them do it, a larger “sacred” Cause is needed, something that makes petty individual concerns about killing seem trivial. Religion or ethnic belonging fit this role perfectly. There are, of course, cases of pathological atheists who are able to commit mass murder just for pleasure, just for the sake of it, but they are rare exceptions. The majority needs to be anaesthetised against their elementary sensitivity to another’s suffering. For this, a sacred Cause is needed: without this Cause, we would have to feel all the burden of what we did, with no Absolute on whom to put the ultimate responsibility.
Religious ideologists usually claim that, true or not, religion makes some otherwise bad people to do some good things. From today’s experience, however, one should rather stick to Steven Weinberg’s claim: … while, without religion, good people would have been doing good things and bad people bad things, only religion can make good people do bad things.
No less important, the same also seems to hold for the display of so-called “human weaknesses.” Isolated extreme forms of sexuality among godless hedonists are immediately elevated into representative symbols of the depravity of the godless, while any questioning of, say, the link between the more pronounced phenomenon of clerical paedophilia and the Church as institution is rejected as anti-religious slander. The well-documented story of how the Catholic Church has protected paedophiles in its own ranks is another good example of how if god does exist, then everything is permitted. What makes this protective attitude towards paedophiles so disgusting is that it is not practiced by permissive hedonists, but by the very institution which poses as the moral guardian of society.
But what about the Stalinist Communist mass killings? What about the extra-legal liquidations of the nameless millions? It is easy to see how these crimes were always justified by their own ersatz-god, a “god that failed” as Ignazio Silone, one of the great disappointed ex-Communists, called it: they had their own god, which is why everything was permitted to them.
In other words, the same logic as that of religious violence applies here. Stalinist Communists do not perceive themselves as hedonist individualists abandoned to their freedom. Rather, they perceive themselves as instruments of historical progress, of a necessity which pushes humanity towards the “higher” stage of Communism – and it is this reference to their own Absolute (and to their privileged relationship to it) which permits them to do whatever they want.
This is why, as soon as cracks appear in this ideological protective shield, the weight of what they did became unbearable to many individual Communists, since they have to confront their acts as their own, without any alibi in a higher Logic of History. This is why, after Khrushchev’s 1956 speech denouncing Stalin’s crimes, many cadres committed suicide: they did not learn anything new during that speech, all the facts were more or less known to them – they were simply deprived of the historical legitimisation of their crimes in the Communist historical Absolute.
Stalinism – and, to a greater extent, Fascism – adds another perverse twist to this logic: in order to justify their ruthless exercise of power and violence, they not only had to elevate their own role into that of an instrument of the Absolute, they also had to demonise their opponents, to portray them as corruption and decadence personified.
For the Nazis, every phenomenon of depravity was immediately elevated into a symbol of Jewish degeneration, the continuity between financial speculation, anti-militarism, cultural modernism, sexual freedom and so on was immediately asserted, since they were all perceived as emanating from the same Jewish essence, the same half-invisible agency which secretly controlled society. Such a demonisation had a precise strategic function: it justified the Nazis to do whatever they wanted, since against such an enemy, everything is permitted, because we live in a permanent state of emergency.
And, last but not least, one should note here the ultimate irony: although many of those who deplore the disintegration of transcendental limits present themselves as Christians, the longing for a new external/transcendent limit, for a divine agent positing such a limit, is profoundly non-Christian. The Christian God is not a transcendent God of limitations, but the God of immanent love: God, after all, is love; he is present when there is love between his followers.
No wonder, then, that Lacan’s reversal – “If there is a God, then everything is permitted!” – is openly asserted by some Christians, as a consequence of the Christian notion of the overcoming of the prohibitive Law in love: if you dwell in divine love, then you do not need prohibitions; you can do whatever you want, since, if you really dwell in divine love, you would never want to do something evil.
This formula of the “fundamentalist” religious suspension of the ethical was already proposed by Augustine who wrote, “Love God and do as you please” (or, in another version, “Love, and do whatever you want.” – from the Christian perspective, the two ultimately amount to the same, since God is love). The catch, of course, is that, if you really love God, you will want what he wants – what pleases him will please you, and what displeases him will make you miserable. So it is not that you can just “do whatever you want” – your love for God, if authentic, guarantees that, in what you want to do, you will follow the highest ethical standards.
It is a rather like the proverbial joke, “My fiancee is never late for an appointment, because when she is late, she is no longer my fiancee.” If you love God, you can do whatever you want, because when you do something evil, this is in itself a proof that you do not really love God. However, the ambiguity persists, since there is no guarantee, external to your belief, of what God really wants you to do – in the absence of any ethical standards external to your belief in and love for God, the danger is always lurking that you will use your love of God as the legitimisation of the most horrible deeds.
Furthermore, when Dostoyevsky proposes a line of thought, along the lines of “If there is no God, then everything is permitted,” he is in no way simply warning against limitless freedom – that is, evoking God as the agency of a transcendent prohibition which limits human freedom: in a society run by the Inquisition, everything is definitely not permitted, since God is here operative as a higher power constraining our freedom, not as the source of freedom. The whole point of the parable of the Great Inquisitor is precisely that such a society obliterates the very message of Christ: if Christ were to return to this society, he would have been burned as a deadly threat to public order and happiness, since he brought to the people the gift (which turns out to be a heavy burden) of freedom and responsibility.
The implicit claim that “If there is no God, then everything is permitted” is thus much more ambiguous – it is well worth to take a closer look at this part of The Brothers Karamazov, and in particular the long conversation in Book Five between Ivan and Alyosha. Ivan tells Alyosha an imagined story about the Grand Inquisitor. Christ comes back to earth in Seville at the time of the Inquisition; after he performs a number of miracles, the people recognize him and adore him, but he is arrested by inquisition and sentenced to be burnt to death the next day. The Grand Inquisitor visits him in his cell to tell him that the Church no longer needs him: his return would interfere with the mission of the Church, which is to bring people happiness. Christ has misjudged human nature: the vast majority of humanity cannot handle the freedom which he has given them – in other words, in giving humans freedom to choose, Jesus has excluded the majority of humanity from redemption and doomed it to suffer.
In order to bring people happiness, the Inquisitor and the Church thus follow “the wise spirit, the dread spirit of death and destruction” – namely, the devil – who alone can provide the tools to end all human suffering and unite under the banner of the Church. The multitude should be guided by the few who are strong enough to take on the burden of freedom – only in this way will all mankind live and die happily in ignorance. These few who are strong enough to assume the burden of freedom are the true self-martyrs, dedicating their lives to keep choice from humanity. This is why Christ was wrong to reject the devil’s temptation to turn stones into bread: men will always follow those who will feed their bellies. Christ rejected this temptation by saying “Man cannot live on bread alone,” ignoring the wisdom which tells us: “Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!” Instead of answering the Inquisitor, Christ, who has been silent throughout, kisses him on his lips; shocked, the Inquisitor releases Christ but tells him never to return … Alyosha responds to the tale by repeating Christ’s gesture: he also gives Ivan a soft kiss on the lips.
The point of the story is not simply to attack the Church and advocate the return to full freedom given to us by Christ. Dostoyevsky himself could not come up with a straight answer. One should bear in mind that the parable of the Grand Inquisitor is part of a larger argumentative context which begins with Ivan’s evocation of God’s cruelty and indifference towards human suffering, referring to the lines from the book of Job:
“He destroys the guiltless and the wicked. If the scourge kills suddenly, He mocks the despair of the innocent. The earth is given into the hand of the wicked; He covers the faces of its judges. If it is not He, then who is it?”Job 9:22-24
Alyosha’s counter-argument is that all that Ivan has shown is why the question of suffering cannot be answered with only God the Father. But we are not Jews or Muslims, we have God the Son, Alyosha adds, and so Ivan’s argument actually strengthens Christian, as opposed to merely theist, belief: Christ “can forgive everything, all and for all, because He gave his innocent blood for all and everything.” It is as a reply to this evocation of Christ – the passage from Father to Son – that Ivan presents his parable of the Great Inquisitor, and, although there is no direct reply to it, one can claim that the implicit solution is the Holy Spirit: “a radically egalitarian responsibility of each for all and for each.”
One can also argue that the life of the Elder Zosima, which follows almost immediately the chapter on the Grand Inquisitor, is an attempt to answer Ivan’s questions. Zosima, who is on his deathbed, tells how he found his faith in his rebellious youth, in the middle of a duel, and decided to become a monk. Zosima teaches that people must forgive others by acknowledging their own sins and guilt before others: no sin is isolated, so everyone is responsible for their neighbour’s sins.
Is this not Dostoyevsky’s version of “If there is no God, then everything is prohibited“? If the gift of Christ is to make us radically free, then this freedom also brings the heavy burden of total responsibility.