The Grand Inquisitor

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)

The address today is on the Russian philosophical novel, ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, the last book written by Fyodor Dostoevsky. But more specifically, today’s address is on a short story that one of the main characters tells within novel - The Story of The Grand Inquisitor. But before I read to you all an abridged version of that story, I’ll give you all the context in which it appears. It’s a conversation between the two main characters within the novel, two brothers, Karamazov brothers, Alyosha and Ivan. The story is told by Ivan. Ivan is the older of the two brothers, he is educated in the West, and is an enlightenment type figure. He is fiercely intelligent, and is often described (by literary critics) as an atheist, which is not strictly true. He accepts the existence of God, he just rejects that God, and there’s a lot more to say on that. Alyosha is described as being immediately likeable; he is a good-hearted novice monk of 19th Century Russia, the youngest of the brothers, and somewhat naïve.

So, Ivan is wrestling with God. He’s wrestling with the existence of cruelty in the world. He accepts that God exists, but he doesn’t accept the way the world is set up. He is deeply perturbed by the excesses of human cruelty, evils being wrought upon the innocent, and he gives specific examples. First he talks about a five-year-old girl who is abused by her parents. They flog her, isolate her, put her out in the cold, etc. Ivan imagines the prayer of such a girl, praying for protection and deliverance from her parents, a prayer which God doesn’t answer. Ivan doesn’t believe there’s any excuse for the existence of such a world which permits this kind of evil. He rejects all the Christian arguments in defence of God: that all such suffering will make sense at the end of time, that suffering is a means by which we are taught certain lessons or purified, that we couldn’t know ‘good’ if we didn’t also know ‘evil’, and most importantly, that such ‘evil’ is a consequence of our God-given freedom. We have our free will, and thus we must be permitted the ability to commit evil against one another. These arguments all fall short, because you could not possibly articulate them as justification to that little girl.

Ivan goes on, and tells another equally distressing story, this time about a small eight-year-old boy, out in rural serfdom Russia. The boy is playing, and he throws a stone, and accidently, the stone hits the paw of a prized dog. The General’s favourite hunting dog. And when the General finds out that his prized dog has been hurt he retaliates. The boy is stripped, and the General’s pack of hunting dogs is set on him, and they rip him apart as his mother watches on. With that, Ivan asks his brother, ‘What then, do you think should happen to the General?’ And Alyosha, the novice monk, replies ‘Shoot him’. And there Ivan’s point is made. Christians talk of forgiveness, but even you, a fine monk, are not willing to forgive? And then they progress into a conversation about the nature of forgiveness, that in Christ everyone is surely forgiven, even the sins of this horrendous General. But are we to mirror the forgiveness of Christ in this way? Is the mother, is the boy, is the five-year-old girl to mirror such forgiveness? To Ivan the mere suggestion is offensive. The prospect of the mother offering forgiveness to the General is a horrendous possibility. Just as horrendous as the act of evil perpetrated by the General itself. And so, Ivan is torn about what his response should be, torn between the ideal of forgiveness as exemplified through Christ, and the human reality of dealing with people within our deeply flawed world. And so, it’s within this context that Ivan then tells the story of ‘The Grand Inquisitor’.

 Reading 2 ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ by Dostoevsky. (Abridged)

It is Christ who appears on the scene. The scene of action is placed by me in Spain, at Seville, during that terrible period of the Inquisition, when, for the greater glory of God, stakes were flaming all over the country.
Burning wicked heretics.
According to the programme, 'after the tribulation of those days,' He will appear 'coming in the clouds of heaven.' For, that 'coming of the Son of Man,' as we are informed, will take place as suddenly 'as the lightning cometh out of the east and shineth even unto the west.'

No; this once, He desired to come unknown, and appear among His children, just when the bones of the heretics, sentenced to be burnt alive, had commenced crackling at the flaming stakes. Owing to His limitless mercy, He mixes once more with mortals and in the same form in which He was wont to appear fifteen centuries ago. He descends, just at the very moment when before king, courtiers, knights, cardinals, and the fairest dames of court, before the whole population of Seville, upwards of a hundred wicked heretics are being roasted, in a magnificent auto-da-fe ad majorem Dei gloriam, by the order of the powerful Cardinal Grand Inquisitor. "He comes silently and unannounced; yet all—how strange—yea, all recognize Him, at once!

The population rushes towards Him as if propelled by some irresistible force; it surrounds, throngs, and presses around, it follows Him.... Silently, and with a smile of boundless compassion upon His lips, He crosses the dense crowd, and moves softly on. The Sun of Love burns in His heart, and warm rays of Light, Wisdom and Power beam forth from His eyes, and pour down their waves upon the swarming multitudes of the rabble assembled around, making their hearts vibrate with returning love. He extends His hands over their heads, blesses them, and from mere contact with Him, aye, even with His garments, a healing power goes forth.

He pauses at old cathedral, just as a wee white coffin is carried in, with tears and great lamentations. The lid is off, and in the coffin lies the body of a fair-child, seven years old, the only child of an eminent citizen of the city. The little corpse lies buried in flowers.

'He will raise the child to life!' confidently shouts the crowd to the weeping mother.

The officiating priest who had come to meet the funeral procession, looks perplexed, and frowns. A loud cry is suddenly heard, and the bereaved mother prostrates herself at His feet. 'If it be Thou, then bring back my child to life!' she cries beseechingly. The procession halts, and the little coffin is gently lowered at his feet. Divine compassion beams forth from His eyes, and as He looks at the child, His lips are heard to whisper once more, [‘Little child, I say to you, get up!’]—and 'straightway the damsel arose.'

Fernando Niño de Guevara

Fernando Niño de Guevara

The crowd is violently excited. A terrible commotion rages among them, the populace shouts and loudly weeps, when suddenly, before the cathedral door, appears the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor himself.... He is tall, gaunt-looking old man of nearly four-score years and ten, with a stern, withered face, and deeply sunken eyes…

He pauses before the crowd and observes. He has seen all. He has witnessed the placing of the little coffin at His feet, the calling back to life. And now, his dark, grim face has grown still darker; his bushy grey eyebrows nearly meet, and his sunken eye flashes with sinister light. Slowly raising his finger, he commands his minions to arrest Him....

The guards conduct their prisoner to the ancient building of the Holy Tribunal; pushing Him into a narrow, gloomy, vaulted prison-cell, they lock Him in and retire....

In the darkness of the old Tribunal Hall the iron door of the cell is suddenly thrown open, and the Grand Inquisitor, holding a dark lantern, slowly stalks into the dungeon. He is alone, and, as the heavy door closes behind him, he pauses at the threshold, and, for a minute or two, silently and gloomily scrutinizes the Face before him. At last approaching with measured steps, he sets his lantern down upon the table and addresses Him.

The Grand Inquisitor begins from his very first words by telling Him that He has no right to add one syllable to that which He had said before. Anything new that Thou would now proclaim would have to be regarded as an attempt to interfere with that freedom of choice, as it would come as a new and a miraculous revelation superseding the old revelation of fifteen hundred years ago, when Thou didst so repeatedly tell the people: "The truth shall make you free." Behold then, Thy "free" people now!'

In place of the clear and rigid ancient law, You [oh Lord] made man decide about good and evil for himself, with no other guidance than Your example. But did it never occur to You that man would disregard Your example, even question it, as well as Your truth, when he was subjected to so fearful a burden as freedom of choice?”

It is Thyself who hast laid the foundation for the destruction of Thine own kingdom and no one but Thou is to be blamed for it. For what, then, hast Thou come again to trouble us in our work? Why lookest Thou at me so penetratingly with Thy meek eyes, and in such a silence? I need not Thy love, I reject it, and [I] love Thee not.

What I now tell thee will come to pass, and our kingdom shall be built, I tell Thee not later than to-morrow Thou shalt see that obedient flock which at one simple motion of my hand will rush to add burning coals to Thy stake, on which I will burn Thee for having dared to come and trouble us in our work. For, if there ever was one who deserved more than any of the others our inquisitorial fires—it is Thee! To-morrow I will burn Thee.

Having disburdened his heart, the Inquisitor waits for some time to hear his prisoner speak in His turn. His silence weighs upon him. Suddenly [Christ] rises; slowly and silently approaching the Inquisitor, He bends towards him and softly kisses the bloodless, four-score and-ten-year-old lips. The Grand Inquisitor shudders. There is a convulsive twitch at the corner of his mouth. He goes to the door, opens it, and addressing Him, 'Go,' he says, 'go, and return no more... do not come again... never, never!' and – lets Him out in to dark night.

The conceit of the story is that the second coming of Christ has already taken place; it took place during the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th Century. Christ is seen by the inquisitor as such a great threat to everything the church has created, the very stability of society, because people have demonstrated that they cannot live up the ideals of Christ. They’re beyond humanity’s ability, too lofty, too pure, and if we were to surrender ourselves to such an ideal, we would also be surrendering order. It would usher in discord, and thus a far greater evil. As such, the inquisitor is left with no choice but to sentence Christ once again to death, before his shame changes his mind as he just tells Christ to leave, which he does. Is the Inquisitor wrong to seek the death penalty? He is presented to us on one hand as cruel looking, twisted features, gaunt looking, and stern. He who seeks Christ’s death is surely our natural adversary. But on the other hand, he comes across as prudent and admirable, he acts not in his own interest, not out of greed, not for power, but in service to the greater good. The implication of his argument, that a wholesale surrender to the idealism that Christ offers, that degree of freewill, will lead to anarchy, doesn’t seem unfounded. His apprehension is perfectly valid. The grand inquisitor is wise enough that he can shoulder the burden of his own freedom.

19th Century Russian serf posing with spade.

19th Century Russian serf posing with spade.

But should such liberty, freedom, and forgiveness be afforded to all? What of those full of sinister guile? What about the parents of that five-year-old girl, should they be afforded freedom and forgiveness? What about the General? Dostoevsky’s Christ would forgive all such sin and compel us to forgive as we too have been forgiven. The grand inquisitor however would bring swift justice. And we must ask ourselves, who would we rather in charge, one who seeks justice or one who seeks to forgive all? The Christ or the inquisitor? For the Grand Inquisitor position is unambiguous. It is necessary for the wise and free to curtail the liberty of the belligerent, to fence them off, and protect the cohesion of the sacred community, the sacred realm.

So, we have this natural revulsion towards acts of evil which we share with Ivan, we’re perturbed by the excesses of human cruelty. We have a deep intuitive sense that the world ought not to be this way. But the problem the thesis has is that God has seemingly permitted such a world; such evil has happened and is happening. So, many people have this experience that when they confront the reality of such cruelty, they in turn withdraw from God. This is called the problem of evil, and if people have a considered atheism position, this is often the rational they’ll give for it. Because it makes a lot of sense. You’re refusing to identify with the omnipotent God who says ‘accept and forgive, for all happens for a reason, and all will be made right in the end’. And instead you identify with the suffering of the innocent, like the innocent children I mentioned, seemingly overlooked in the now. And thus, where it is in your power to intervene on behalf of the suffering innocent one, you are willing take on the role of the Inquisitor. You do so, because God has shirked his responsibility. In playing the inquisitor you seek to balance the scales in the best way you can, allowing lesser evils to mitigate great evils (allowing short term suffering for the future payoff), but you do inflict evil all the same, you do judge, and you do authorise force, and you do cast off others. You do so that a greater good might prevail. You do so, because God has failed to do so, failed to protect the innocent, or guide this world towards a more pleasant state. Failed to create a world that curtails the excesses of human toxicity and cruelty.

Dostoevsky, however, does imply that there is a problem in this line of thinking. There is something spiritually corrosive in taking on the role of the inquisitor. It is not a spiritually healthy place to inhabit indefinitely. It has to do with the nature of freedom as the Inquisitor perceives it. The inquisitor perceives himself as being a free agent, who exercises his authority to curtail the freedom of belligerents, to bring about good. The trouble with that is that it demonstrates that the inquisitor is not really free at all, because freedom entails nothing having power over him, but that is not the case. His sense of obligation to humanity, his sense of obligation in forcing the lesser evil, shows that something does fundamentally curtail his freedom - a self-devised vision of the way the world should be utterly ensnares him. The case though against the Grand Inquisitor, and ultimately against Ivan who is telling the story, and using the Inquisitor character to make his point, is demonstrated less with an intellectual rebuttal. As indeed the hearer, the young Alyosha, lacks the intellectual tools to even respond, merely opting to embrace Ivan after he gives his long tirade against God and church. Rather, the case is made far more in what becomes of Ivan himself, the no end of torment his own position affords him across the rest of the novel, the spiritual torment he endures. As he catalogues and collects examples of these deplorable acts of cruelty which he is obsessed by, he is ever plagued by his need to respond, and act as the Inquisitor would, and yet he is unable to act. Powerless to curtail great evil. Ivan is ever the doubter who refuses to be comforted by some promise of heavenly bliss to come, for himself or others, and ultimately, he is eaten up in his own madness. Nevertheless, all Ivan’s erudite arguments still stand. They’re not in themselves refuted, and so no ultimate conclusion is reached. Dostoevsky does not validate one side of this debate and sideline the other, he allows the tension and the difficulty to stand.

Jordan and Kermit.

Jordan and Kermit.

The fact is that within each one of us, we have these impulses (perhaps the better angels of our nature) which push us towards being more Christ-like, and those more realist impulses to be more like the inquisitor, and one cannot resolve that tension. And in a way, we should not seek to resolve the tension. To borrow the language of the Jungian psychologist Jordan Peterson, one represents the pathology of order - the inquisitor, and the other the pathology of chaos - Christ. And so in part, it is the claim that within ourselves we can resolve this conflict, and stand resolutely with our Christ or our inquisitor, which causes such disharmonious cognitive dissonance within us. We cannot possibly live up to the lofty ideal exemplified in Christ, but nor can we endure the torment of taking upon ourselves the sins of the world (the Inquisitor’s lot is too much to bear). Rather we must reconcile ourselves to the middle way, not tormenting ourselves over some ideal which we can never reach. And so, this is the vision of the saintly ideal, which Dostoevsky is leading us towards. It’s not a Christ figure or an Inquisitor figure, but someone who holds the tension between the two, someone who is profoundly aware of the cruelty humanity is capable of, and profoundly aware that there are no simple answers, and still is willing to feel their way though and inhabit the part they are called to play in that place and time. A paradoxical figure, sometimes resembling the Inquisitor and sometimes the Christ, (tempering the impulses of others, bringing more chaos to the ordered, and more order to the chaotic), and yet never being wholly enveloped by either identity. Someone who sees bare reality, and yet keeps hope and love alive in their heart. Someone who can intuit the sacred sense that somehow that of ultimate concern supersedes the finality of this world.

I'll end with a final quote from the novel: “Above all, don't lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”


Lewis Connolly