Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky
The Grand Inquisitor
Embedded in Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” is an essay or prose poem titled “The Grand Inquisitor”, which probably reflects the recognitions gained by Dostoevsky himself after many inner struggles. In this essay or parable, Dostoevsky seems to be expressing his views through Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov, one of the Karamazov brothers of the book’s title, in a conversation he has with his younger brother, Alyosha (Alexey Fyodorovich), who has just returned from the monastery where he had retired as a monk. The conversation is titled by Ivan, the Grand Inquisitor.
In the preface to this edition there are the following biographical comments on Dostoevsky and his book:
“… In 1877, he [Dostoevsky] suspended his publication to compose a vast cycle called The Life of a Great Sinner, which was to deal with the existence of God, ‘the problem that has consciously and unconsciously tormented me my life.’ The Brothers Karamazov, the sole part of the work that he completed, was published in 1880.”
The part of the book reviewed here, is from Book V, “Pro and Contra” Chapter V: The Grand Inquisitor, which has also been published separately as the book, The Grand Inquisitor.
In this conversation between Ivan and Alyosha, Ivan expresses his thoughts using the Grand Inquisitor as his mouthpiece. He sets the allegory in the 15th century when the Inquisition had newly been instituted under the command of a Grand Inquisitor, who was at the same time also a cardinal, elected or appointed by the head of the Roman Catholic church. In his allegory, Ivan makes the Son of God Jesus appear again among men in the 15th century, where Jesus suffers upon His person and upon His Teaching the exact same violations and offences that He had suffered some 1500 years or so earlier in the Palestine.
This time around, however, they are inflicted by those very persons who now profess themselves to be His followers. Having had Him seized and cast in a dungeon, the Grand Inquisitor has a discourse with Jesus on the night before He is to be martyred by the auto-da-fé. The auto-da-fé was the ceremony of pronouncing judgement by the church institution of the Inquisition which was then followed by the execution of the sentence by secular authorities in a public burning of the person or persons thus pronounced “heretic(s)” in a public square of the town. It was the method favoured in Spain for inflicting martyrdom on those adjudged “heretics”, just as in Roman times this had been done for criminals through torture and death by crucifixion on the cross.
The similarities are eerie: in the Palestine, Jesus had been sentenced to death by crucifixion after the highest religious authority of the Jews, the Sanhedrin, had accused Him of blasphemy. In this discourse, “laid in Spain, in Seville”, the Grand Inquisitor (likely to have been based on the notorious first Spanish Grand Inquisitor, Tomas de Torquemada) justifies these renewed transgressions, this time by high priests of the church, by relating events from the life of Christ fifteen centuries before. He cites specifically as the foundation and justification for these transgressions, the three temptations made in the wilderness by the dread spirit, the Antichrist. There is an account of these in the Scriptures, Matthew 4: 1 – 11. They took place just before the earthly commencement of Jesus’ Mission, and were:
The temptation that invites Jesus to “turn stones to bread” and thus feed men.
The temptation lies in seeking to make Him follow a shortcut to the fulfilment of His Mission: to feed men who are so hungry, by turning the stones that are so abundant in the wilderness into bread. They will then believe in Him from the very outset. This is perhaps the greatest of the temptations – because it is aimed at the love which Jesus has for men. The tempter wants to cause Him to seek to undermining Him by asking Him to do what is impossible and unnatural. Jesus rebukes the tempter, telling him that, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”.
The temptation that invites Jesus to cast Himself down from a pinnacle of the temple [the word “pinnacle” is used to describe the highest point of the Temple in Jerusalem].
… and finally, and I quote directly, the third and final temptation:
“Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them;
And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.
Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.
Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.”
The great insight of Dostoevsky is to recognize that “men always seek the miraculous” as the great justification for faith – “miraculous” in the sense of that which is unnatural and against the simple laws of God which can neither be broken nor circumvented, whereas he, Dostoevsky, again using the literary device of speaking through Ivan who in turn voices these thoughts through the Grand Inquisitor, asks:
Is the nature of men such, that they can reject miracle, and at the great moments of their life, the moments of their deepest, most agonizing spiritual difficulties, cling only to the free verdict of the heart?
Using irony, he, Dostoevsky, speaks using the voice of the person in the church, that is the Grand Inquisitor, who is supposedly meant to protect the sanctity and inviolability of the Truth, yet who proves himself to be Its greatest enemy. Dostoevsky thereby castigates the religious movements who have sought to “improve” His work, for:
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 [Reviewer’s note: “the Message of Truth brought by Christ”] that had brought them such suffering was, at last, lifted from their hearts. Were we right teaching them this? Speak! Did we not love mankind, so meekly acknowledging their feebleness, lovingly lightening their burden, and permitting their weak nature even sin with our sanction? Why hast Thou come now to hinder us?
…Don’t I know to Whom I am speaking? All that I can say is known to Thee already. And is it for me to conceal from Thee our mystery? Perhaps it is Thy will to hear it from my lips. Listen, then. We are not working with Thee, but with HIM, [Reviewer’s note: the ANTICHRIST] – that is our mystery. It’s long – eight centuries – since we have been on HIS side and not on Thine. Just eight centuries ago [Reviewer’s note: This refers to when the church took over governance in Rome ca. 700 AD], we took from HIM what thou didst reject with scorn, that last gift he offered Thee, showing Thee all the kingdoms of the earth. We took from him Rome and the sword of Caesar, and proclaimed ourselves rulers of the earth, though hitherto we have not been able to complete our work. …
All in all, “The Grand Inquisitor” is an excellent exposition by Dostoevsky, of many of those questions pertaining to faith and personal conviction, with which every serious person looking for clarity ought to occupy himself. …
Thou didst hope that man, following Thee, would cling to God and not ask for a miracle. But Thou didst not know that when man rejects miracle he rejects God too; for man seeks not so much God as the miraculous. …
What would happen if Jesus came to the earth again? In Dostoevsky’s short story it is once again the servants of the church who see in Jesus a disturber of the peace, in exactly the same way as already fifteen hundred years earlier [Reviewer’s note: the account is set in 15th century Spain, in the town of Seville], it was the High Priest and the Pharisees who rejected and reviled Him.
Writing in his typical visionary manner on this subject, Dostoevsky has the Grand Inquisitor have Jesus thrown into the dungeon. The Prince of the Church visits Jesus there, and harangues Him nonstop:
… Thou art come to hinder us? For Thou knowest that.
In the course of his monologue, this highest among the servants of the church admits how the church deals with its believers:
And we alone shall feed them in Thy name, declaring falsely that it is in Thy name. … But we shall tell them that we are Thy servants and rule them in Thy name.
He reproaches Jesus for having been wrong in wanting to make men free inwardly
But if so, it is a mystery and we cannot understand it. And if it is a mystery, we too, have a right to preach a mystery, and to teach them that it’s not the free judgment of their hearts, not love that matters, but a mystery which they must follow blindly, even against their conscience. So we have done. We have corrected Thy work.
Oh, we shall persuade them that they will only become free when they renounce their freedom to us and submit to us
… Oh, we shall allow them even sin, for 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.
And Jesus does not utter one word, He keeps silent just as He did when men accused Him, struck Him and placed the crown of thorns on His head.
Finally, the Grand Inquisitor reveals the secret or mystery on whose side the church stands, what makes the church so powerful. We shall not preempt the discovery by the reader of what this secret is.
It is not just about the unmasking of the servants of the church, but rather the reader is implicitly confronted with questions such as:
What would you do if Christ or an envoy sent by Him were to appear today among human beings in a new guise?
Will you decide then for the freedom of your soul from its immersion in the things that are of the earth?
Or would you continue with the life of comfortable ease, believing that your sins can be forgiven you by a church?
PS In 1879, when Dostoevsky made a presentation of his allegory of the Grand Inquisitor to some students in a lecture, he said the following in his introduction:
If the belief in Christ becomes distorted and is mixed up with the ambitions and objectives of this world, then the sense and meaning of Christianity will also be lost.