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I have chosen the theme of vocation for my paper. I will use the texts of Plato’s “Apology, the Trial and Death of Socrates” and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor” in order to comprehensively analyze the theme and consider the questions of who I am, what I am to become, and what is my life’s task. The theme of vocation is very important, as it helps us understand what our purpose in life is. For most people, it is difficult to understand their true vocation; therefore, they must be taught the methods of how to find it from the early childhood and exert themselves until they find it, as it will entirely determine the future of their lives.
In Plato’s “Apology, the Trial and Death of Socrates”, the theme of vocation is one of the main themes. Socrates, who is put on trial, explains the jury his vocation of demonstrating ignorant people their ignorance and teaching them to be wise and the importance of finding a true vocation. He is certain that he has found his vocation and mastered it, as he sees the results of his work in the actions of his apprentices. However, unwise and ignorant people, as he calls them, accuse him of not believing in God and teaching people the wrong principles and showing them the wrong path. He states that their accusations are false and that it is them who teach people the wrong principles, but, despite his efforts to justify himself, the jury does not believe him and condemn him to death.
In Dostoyevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor,” the theme of vocation is also one of the main themes. In his monolog to Jesus, the Grand Inquisitor tells about the principles of a true vocation, human nature, and freedom. In general, he divides people into leaders who can handle their freedom and can take moral responsibility for their actions and followers who are willing to be slaves in order to simply live in a peaceful and stable world. Additionally, he claims that the number of followers is significantly bigger than that of leaders. The vocation of leaders is to provide their followers with what they need, and in return, take responsibility for their actions upon themselves, while the vocation of followers is to serve and support their leaders.
The main characters of both texts, namely Socrates and the Grand Inquisitor, have found their vocation and understood the mission that they must fulfill in their lives. However, their missions are different. For example, Socrates says:
So even now, I continue this investigation as the god bade me – and I go around seeking out anyone, citizen or stranger, whom I think wise. Then if I do not think he is, I come to the assistance of god and show him that he is not wise. Because of this occupation, I do not have the leisure to engage in public affairs to any extent, nor indeed to look after my own, but I live in great poverty because of my service to the god. (Plato, 23b)
Here, Socrates explains that he preferred his true vocation of trying to make ignorant people wise and wise people wiser and living in poverty to a wealthy life and engagement in politics and public affairs. In addition, he mentions it one more time after the verdict:
Clearly, it should be a penalty I deserve, and what do I deserve to suffer or to pay because I have deliberately not led a quiet life but have neglected what occupies most people: wealth, household affairs, the position of general or public orator, or the other offices, the political clubs and factions that exist in the city? I thought myself too honest to survive if I occupied myself with those things. I did not follow that path that would have made me of no use either to you or to myself, but I went to each of you privately and conferred upon him what I say is the greatest benefit by trying to persuade him not to care for any of his belongings before caring that he himself should be as good and as wise as possible, not to care for the city’s possessions more than for the city itself, and to care for other things in the same way. (Plato, 36b)
Again, he emphasizes that he does not pursue any wealth and that he has refused from all the possible professions that could bring it to him, as he thinks that he is too honest for these professions and that there is much more use from him when he does what he was born to do.
As for the Grand Inquisitor, his vocation is completely different. For example, he says:
No, we care for the weak too. They are sinful and rebellious, but in the end, they too will become obedient. They will marvel at us and look on us as gods because we are ready to endure the freedom which they have found so dreadful and to rule over them – so awful it will seem to them to be free. But we shall tell them that we are Thy servants and rule them in Thy name. We shall deceive them again, for we will not let Thee come to us again. That deception will be our suffering, for we shall be forced to lie. (Dostoyevsky 30)
Here, the Grand Inquisitor explains his vocation and the Inquisition’s mission. He claims that their duty is to protect ordinary people by deceiving them and telling them that they are true servants of God and carry out his will. He also tells Jesus that he will not let people see him again; otherwise, their deception will be destroyed, and there will be chaos. Eventually, the Grand Inquisitor tells about the ideal society that he and the Inquisition are trying to create:
Yes, we shall set them to work, but in their leisure hours, we shall make their life like a child’s game, with children’s songs and innocent dance. Oh, we shall allow them even sin, they are weak and helpless, and they will love us like children because we allow them to sin… The most painful secrets of their conscience, all, all they will bring to us, and we shall have an answer for all. And they will be glad to believe our answer, for it will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves. (Dostoyevsky 38)
Thus, in the Grand Inquisitor’s opinion, the ideal society is where the vocation of leaders, whom he considers himself and the Inquisition, is to care for their followers and protect them from the universal truth, whereas the vocation of followers is to obey to their leaders. Consequently, everyone is happy.
Additionally, Socrates depicts several individuals whom he met and his observations concerning a true vocation and whether those people found it or not:
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I am ashamed to tell you the truth, gentlemen, but I must. Almost all the bystanders might have explained the poems better than their authors could. I soon realized that poets do not compose their poems with knowledge, but by some inborn talent and by inspiration, like seers and prophets who also say fine man things without any understanding of what they say. (Plato, 22b)
In this passage, Socrates states that it is not necessary to be wise or possess special knowledge or skills in order to master one’s true vocation, as the inborn talent and inclination towards it will help them do that. Then, Socrates compares the craftsmen with the poets:
But, gentlemen of the jury, the good craftsmen seemed to me to have the same fault as the poets: each of them, because of his success at his craft, thought himself very wise in other most important pursuits, and this error of theirs overshadowed the wisdom they had, so that I asked myself, on behalf of the oracle, whether I should prefer to be as I am, with neither their wisdom nor their ignorance, or to have both. The answer I gave myself and the oracle was that it was to my advantage to be as I am. (Plato, 22d)
Again, Socrates admits that both the poets and the craftsmen are good at what they do, but in other areas, they are ignorant. He also says that this observation induced him to be what he is meant to be.
The Grand Inquisitor, on the other hand, depicts the notion of vocation from the point of view not of separate individuals but groups of people or the whole humanity:
I tell Thee that man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over the gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is born. But only one who can appease their conscience can take over their freedom… That is true. But what happened? 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? (Dostoyevsky 32)
Here, the Grand Inquisitor tells about the conflict regarding human nature. On the one hand, people want to be happy but prefer death to freedom. On the other hand, it is a human vocation to seek freedom and desire to be free rather than enslaved for a tiny portion of happiness. The Inquisitor continues:
Mankind, as a whole, has always striven to organize a universal state. There have been many great nations with great histories, but the more highly they were developed, the more unhappy they were, for they felt more acutely than other people the craving for world-wide union. (Dostoyevsky 36)
Another natural vocation of human beings is that throughout their history, they always endeavored to create a unified state by conquering the world and that no one has ever managed to achieve that.
My Reflections on the Reading Material
In my opinion, the theme of vocation in the chosen reading materials is vividly expressed. Certainly, the theme is voluminous, and the reading materials do not cover all its aspects. However, the description is quite thorough in both materials, and, moreover, they analyze the theme from different perspectives.
In general, Plato describes vocation as a final destination in the process of finding one’s purpose in life, whereas Dostoyevsky is more focused on human freedom, the existence of free choice, and human volition, and their importance in the process of finding a true vocation. Additionally, while Plato’s description of vocation is applied more to an individual, Dostoevsky shows the general picture and analyzes vocation from the point of view of the whole of humanity.
I think that the principal difference between the two texts regarding the theme of vocation lies in the roles of the main characters of each text. Thus, Socrates’ vocation is to enlighten people and make them wisely so that they could find their own vocation and be happy and free. Conversely, the Grand Inquisitor’s vocation is to keep people ignorant for their own sake, thereby making them happy and obedient.
As for the similarities between the two texts concerning the theme of vocation, there are few of them. In my opinion, the only prominent similarity between them is that both Socrates and the Grand Inquisitor agree that finding a true vocation is crucial for all people because it will make them happy.
Thus, in my opinion, people must find their true vocation as quickly as possible, as it helps them understand who they are, who they want to become, and what purposes they lives have. Otherwise, they will pursue delusive or unfeasible goals, or do what they are not meant to do, thereby causing disruptions and making both other people and themselves unhappy, or simply living miserable lives without knowing what to do.
In conclusion, it can be stated that in the analyzed texts, both Plato and Dostoyevsky describe the notion of vocation and express their opinions on that matter. Although they describe vocation from different perspectives, they both agree on its paramount importance in human life. In this respect, I agree with them because finding a true vocation gives people a purpose and makes their life happier.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, The Grand Inquisitor on the Nature of Man, trans., Constance Garnett. Macmillan Publishing Company, 1948.
Plato, “Apology,” in The Trial and Death of Socrates, trans., G. M. A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000.