The Grand Inquisition

A live look in on the morose and whiny Epsilon Theory crew.

The rough idea for this note has been kicking around in my head for a while now. But it was our recent correspondent, “Charles from the North Shore”, who finally brought it together for me. If you haven’t yet read Ben’s excellent Fiat World note, Charles observed the following:

You and your contributors seem to be continuously complaining, whining and expressing a kind of morose discontentment. Why are you all so unhappy and dissatisfied? Maybe take a few of your intellectually earned dollars and buy yourself and each of your contributors a surfboard, mountain bike, snowboard, and climbing gear, with the proviso, all must be put to use.

I must admit, I’m a bit bewildered by any characterization of Epsilon Theory as whiny and “morose.” Personally, I find piercing the veil of Narrative abstraction incredibly empowering. To me, promoting autonomy of mind is a profoundly hopeful endeavor. Then again, I’ve spent more than a little time with Russian literature. So maybe my perspective is a bit skewed. But while I wait for my Epsilon Theory-branded surfboard to arrive in the mail (Ed Note: Chuck’s allusion to the idea that we need to enjoy real life a bit more rings a bit hollow since that’s maybe half of what we write about doing – but alas, with our interests, you’re more likely to get an Epsilon Theory-branded wool scarf), Russian literature is what I’ve got for this note.

I’ve long been fascinated by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s parable, “The Grand Inquisitor.” It’s a story within a story. In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan relates the parable to his brother Alyoshaas a meditation on the tension between the existence of free will and the existence of a benevolent God.  

The premise is simple. During the Inquisition, Christ returns to Earth and begins performing miracles. Rather than welcoming him with open arms, the Grand Inquisitor immediately has Christ imprisoned, fully intending to have him burned alive as a heretic. The Inquisitor spends most of the parable explaining himself.

The thrust of his argument is that human beings can’t handle free will. Freedom makes human beings miserable. Rather than embrace our freedom we spend our lives seeking new and inventive ways of throwing it away. As the Inquisitor puts it:

There exists no greater or more painful anxiety for a man who has freed himself from all religious bias, than how he shall soonest find a new object or idea to worship. But man seeks to bow before that only which is recognized by the greater majority, if not by all his fellow-men, as having a right to be worshipped; whose rights are so unquestionable that men agree unanimously to bow down to it. For the chief concern of these miserable creatures is not to find and worship the idol of their own choice, but to discover that which all others will believe in, and consent to bow down to in a mass. It is that instinctive need of having a worship in common that is the chief suffering of every man, the chief concern of mankind from the beginning of times. It is for that universality of religious worship that people destroyed each other by sword. Creating gods unto themselves, they forwith began appealing to each other: “Abandon your deities, come and bow down to ours, or death to ye and your idols!” And so will they do till the end of this world; they will do so even then, when all the gods themselves have disappeared, for then men will prostrate themselves before and worship some idea.

Sound familiar?

What the Inquisitor is describing here is a common knowledge game. It’s not a desperate quest for what you ought to believe. It’s a desperate quest for what you believe that everyone believes you ought to believe. The conflict between Christ and the Inquisitor is therefore a conflict between missionaries. Christ is of course God’s missionary. The Inquisitor reads as a missionary for what we refer to around here as the Nudging State.

I’m often tempted to think of the Nudging State in the context of some grand struggle between good and evil. There are certainly some strains of truth there. But on closer reading, I’d argue the animating impulse for the Nudging State isn’t oppression in the generic sense, or even power for its own sake.

The way I see it, the Nudging State is about freedom. A very particular kind of freedom.

Freedom from choice.

The Nudging State believes with every fiber of its being that freedom of choice is an unbearable burden to us. Left to our own devices, we’ll screw everything up. We won’t save money. We’ll mismanage our businesses. We’ll embrace nihilism and anarchy. We’ll give in to all our worst impulses.

The Nudging State seeks to protect us from all that—to free us from the burden of choice.

As the Inquisitor puts it:

We will give them that quiet, humble happiness, which alone benefits such weak, foolish creatures as they are, and having once had proved to them their weakness, they will become timid and obedient, and gather around us as chickens around their hen. They will wonder at and feel a superstitious admiration for us, and feel proud to be led by men so powerful and wise that a handful of them can subject a flock a thousand millions strong. Gradually men will begin to fear us. They will nervously dread our slightest anger, their intellects will weaken, their eyes become as easily accessible to tears as those of children and women; but we will teach them an easy transition from grief and tears to laughter, childish joy and mirthful song. Yes; we will make them work like slaves, but during their recreation hours they shall have an innocent child-like life, full of play and merry laughter. We will even permit them sin, for, weak and helpless, they will feel the more love for us for permitting them to indulge in it. We will tell them that every kind of sin will be remitted to them, so long as it is done with our permission; that we take all these sins upon ourselves, for we so love the world, that we are even willing to sacrifice our souls for its satisfaction.

So, back to this whole notion of being whiny and morose.

Freedom is not a pleasure palace. Exercising autonomy of mind is not a journey paved with endless delights and accented with rainbows and sunshine dust. It certainly CAN be those things. But it is also a struggle. It is also a burden. It brings fear, anxiety and existential angst. It’s in carrying this burden, and helping our friends, family and neighbors bear their burdens, that we create meaning in our lives.

The Nudging State would have us exchange freedom for the illusion of sunshine and rainbow dust.

The Nudging State would have us outsource the very meaning of our lives.   

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  1. Didya know the author of “Nudge - Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness” (Cass Sunstein) just released his latest book “On Freedom”? First chapter: “What the Hell Is Water?” Pack members will recognize the allusion. Where, oh where, would we be without nudgers like this?

  2. Avatar for nick nick says:

    This is literally the first line of the Amazon product description, copy-pasted:

    “From New York Times bestselling author Cass Sunstein, a brisk, provocative book that shows what freedom really means—and requires—today.”

  3. Good Lord. That a nudger would say that in a pro-nudge book is just too painful to consider.

  4. I assume that whatever date has been targeted for my death by the Almighty or Darwinism, if there is cosmic justice, several days will be added on before I am taken to account for (1) the eight years I lived in a high-rise with an excruciatingly slow elevator and (2) all the time I took flipping back pages to keep the names (and nicknames) straight of the characters in thousand-page Russian novels.

    So putting my tiny pique at Russian novels aside, I can say you developed a great freakin’ analogy between Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor and today’s Nudging State. Building on (stealing) your smart idea helps answer a question that always pings around in my head - how can socialism, with its history of murder and misery, still be popular?

    It’s popular because it promises freedom from freedom - all the fear, anxiety, burdens and, as you so well put it, “existential anxiety” that freedom brings is removed by socialism. Worried about paying for your kid’s college - free education / worried about paying your medical bills if you or someone in your family gets sick - free healthcare / worried that you haven’t saved enough for retirement - more robust social security / worried about making enough money - minimum wages, family leave, overtime. FDR gave the game away when he included the ludicrous “Freedom from Fear” in his Four Freedoms.

    Socialism on paper frees you from everything hard about freedom, but ultimately delivers you into a dystopia of mental and physical fear and deprivation. It’s popular today with the youngest amongst us because (1) they didn’t live through/see socialism’s depredations and (2) they’ve been actively taught the opposite by a socialism-loving educational system.

    If we had three choices: (1) burden-free freedom, (2) real-life freedom with all its challenges and (3) socialism’s promises of freedom from fear, I’d probably push the pleasure button until I starved to death, but fortunately, life really only offers us a choice between the latter two (heck, we’re lucky if we even have the option of choosing the first of those two last choices) and, history has shown, that decision is an easy one. The only real challenge is educating a younger generation to the difference between the theory and the practice of the socio-economic system polls say it supports.

  5. Thumbs up! Except it’s not the educational system. It’s the negative side effect of helicopter parenting and too little free-range. (I’ve been controlled since birth, so I can either escape by taking the nirvana short cut, or I can maintain (being controlled).)

  6. Avatar for nixon nixon says:

    Wow, I just read that passage from The Brother’s Karamazov last night. Either the simulation made that a little to obvious or we are all feeling morose enough to read Russian literature. As to your thoughts on Chuck from the North Shore, for me, this path of “piercing the veil of Narrative” I’ve gone down, thanks in large part to ET, has been incredibly empowering and came with direct financial benefits, but I’m pretty sure it is also the reason my co-worker lunch invites have fallen off a cliff.

  7. Jane - great spot. Funny enough the initial lines of the parable brought to mind another part of the speech:

    “Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive”

    I think this also ties very much into Mark’s question - how is socialism still popular? I totally agree that part of it is the promise of freedom from freedom, but I think on another level, it provides an avenue for meaning - it takes on the characteristics of a religion - it’s something for people to worship.

    Jonathan Haidt argues that a good deal of our politics (on both sides) are mimic religious movements - strident dogmatism and an incessant demand to follow the established orthodoxy - at the risk of being expelled as a heretic for saying the wrong words.

    And speaking of the Nudging Oligarchy - Econ Talk had a fantastically scary episode on a possible future of AI powered nudging….

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