The aim and ambition of Jeremy Bentham was that everyone would be happy. But how is it possible for everyone to be happy? The Grand Inquisitor gives the answer: by yielding their freedom and submitting to their overlords. This is the dysfunctional and distorted psychology behind the entitlement culture and the welfare state.
When on retreat or vacation it’s a habit of mine to prowl around the home library picking up books to pack with no particular rhyme or reason. Therefore, last week on retreat with the Norbertine Canonesses in central California I had in my suitcase The Brothers Karamazov, Cardinal Sarah’s God or Nothing, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia story, The Silver Chair, and his collection of essays, God in the Dock.
Part of my time was spent researching and writing my new book, Be-heading the Hydra, which explains twelve different serpentine “ism’s” that slither in and through modern society. One of these noxious philosophies is utilitarianism, which brings me to Jeremy Bentham. The father of utilitarianism worked on the principle that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”
Certain questions immediately arise: “What constitutes happiness? Who decides that question?” And more importantly, “Once the form of happiness is decided who imposes it on all for whom this great happiness is intended?”
Cardinal Sarah’s book is a grim jeremiad against the materialism and atheism of the modern world. He pulls no punches as he describes the current situation. Seeking the fleeting happiness that individual freedom offers, Western man has fallen into atheism.
Atheism has its principal origin in the heightened individualism of European man… wishing to be totally free, man refuses to accept what he considers to be constraints and even goes so far as to reject any form of dependence on God. He rejects the authority of God who nevertheless created us free so that, by the reasonable exercise of our freedom, we might go behind our wild impulses and tame all our instincts by taking full responsibility for our life and growth.
I found the same tension between happiness, freedom, and responsibility in Dostoevsky’s famous Grand Inquisitor scene. Jesus Christ has reappeared and the Grand Inquisitor blames him for granting mankind freedom. “They don’t want freedom,” the Grand Inquisitor claims, “because the exercise of freedom means they must take responsibility for themselves. They don’t want to grow up.”
Instead, the obscene anti-Christ describes how the masses will happily sacrifice their freedom for food, but more importantly, they will submit to their masters so they do not have to take responsibility for themselves. “We shall allow them even sin,” boasts the Grand Inquisitor, “they are weak and helpless, and they will love us like children because we allow them to sin. We shall tell them that every sin will be expiated, if it is done with our permission, that we allow them to sin because we love them, and the punishment for these sins we take upon ourselves…. We shall allow or forbid them to live with their wives and mistresses, to have or not to have children—according to whether they have been disobedient—and they will submit to us gladly and cheerfully…. and we will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves. And all will be happy.”
“And all will be happy.” Ah, there was the aim and ambition of Jeremy Bentham—that everyone would be happy. But how is it possible for everyone to be happy? The Grand Inquisitor gives the answer: by yielding their freedom and submitting to their overlords. Not wishing to restrain their passions and lust for power in order to gain true freedom, they would rather yield their freedom to retain their pleasures. They would rather sacrifice their freedom not only to retain their pleasures but also, as they give away their freedom, as a corollary they hand over responsibility for themselves.
This is the dysfunctional and distorted psychology behind the entitlement culture and the welfare state. “Let us take care of you,” says nanny, and as she pops in the pacifier and plops us in front of a TV playing Loony Tunes. “Let us educate you, feed you, house you, treat your illnesses and ensure your security. Leave it to Mary Poppins. We are, after all, practically perfect in every way!”
So we are happy but we are not free.
In his essay “Is Progress Possible?” Lewis acknowledges this state of affairs in post-war Britain as early as 1953:
The modern State exists not to protect our rights but to do us good or make us good—anyway, to do something to us or to make us something. Hence the new name ‘leaders’ for those who were once ‘rulers.’ We are less their subjects than their wards, pupils or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, ‘Mind your own business.’ Our whole lives are their business.
Not surprisingly, Jeremy Bentham was an early advocate of the welfare state, and his thought was very influential in the development of the philosophy of law in England and the newborn United States. His ambition to bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number must, in the end, lead to the domination of the individual by the state, for how can the happiness of the greatest number be achieved unless the minority (who do not happen to care for the state’s imposed happiness) are suppressed? Bentham could very well have donned the Grand Inquisitor’s robes and say, “We will allow them to sin and they will gladly and cheerfully submit. And they will all be happy.”
The atheistic utilitarian philosophy of Bentham is the practical outworking of Hume’s empiricism the generation before. Empiricism is one of the masks of materialism, or the belief that there is no invisible realm, no heaven to win and no hell to pay. There is only this world, so in the absence of a better world one had better make everyone in this world as happy as can be, and because life is short and we’d better force this happiness through before the time runs out.
This materialism is a kind of drug or demonic enchantment. In The Silver Chair Puddleglum, Jill, and Scrubb journey through the underworld to liberate Prince Rilian. The wicked witch catches them as they try to escape and puts them under a spell. Using hallucinogenic smoke and singing a seductive song, she tries to convince her captives that there is no overworld. There is no Narnia where the grass is green and the sky is blue. The notion of the sun, moon, and stars is a child’s game, a silly fancy, a ridiculous figment of a wild imagination. The underworld is the only world. There is nothing else. They must submit to her and she will make them happy.
But Puddleglum, the pessimistic realist, comes to the rescue and smashes the evil lies of the Green Queen, Jeremy Bentham, David Hume, the Grand Inquisitor, and all those who would enslave us with promises of pleasure, freedom from responsibility, and freedom ultimately from the demand to use our freedom to determine the state of our eternal souls.
Puddleglum stamps out the fire which spreads the witch’s intoxicating incense and says:
“One word ma’am… I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed or made up all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as much as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.”
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