“The Grand Inquisitor” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
By Ed Marks and Dan Cummings, revised by Joe Phelan
About the Author
In the spring of 1849, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881) faced a Russian firing squad. He had been accused of the political crime of promoting utopian socialism, a popular ideology that threatened the deeply conservative government of Czar Nicholas I. Just as the order was being given to the firing squad to shoot, a messenger appeared with an edict from the Czar commuting the sentence to four years of hard labor in Siberia.
Thus did the young novelist experience a genuine “existential” moment decades before this word was attached to a twentieth century philosophical movement. The absurdity of his brush with death no doubt influenced his future novels, including his masterpieces, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. In these and his other novels, the reader is made privy to the inner consciousness of characters struggling to make sense of a seemingly senseless and meaningless world, a struggle central to the writing of later existentialist philosophers. It should be noted that Dostoevsky himself would have rejected the existentialist viewpoint as a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, he identified faith as a resolution to existential angst.
The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky’s last and perhaps greatest novel, is set against the backdrop of nineteenth-century Russia. Centered on three brothers and broken into twelve books and multiple chapters, it is considered a “philosophical” novel, exploring questions of morality, God, doubt, and free will. One of the more famous chapters includes a bizarre encounter between the infamous “Grand Inquisitor” of the Spanish Inquisition and Jesus himself. The chapter is a story within a story, narrated by the middle of the three Karamazov Brothers, Ivan, in a strange and provocative “poem in prose" which can be read independently as a profound mediation of the aspirations and needs of human beings.
Entitled “The Grand Inquisitor,” the poem in prose is part of an ongoing conversation between Ivan and his younger brother, Alyosha. The two have been discussing, in the chapter entitled “Rebellion”, the existence of evil in a universe said to be created by an omnipotent God. Ivan cannot fathom a God that would let children suffer and even be tortured. Alyosha, somewhat troubled by Ivan's argument, reminds Ivan of the sacrifice made by Christ. In response, Ivan presents his poem in prose and raises questions about the tension between freedom and happiness in the human soul.
If you are not familiar with the biblical story of Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by the devil, it is recommended that you read it before beginning “The Grand Inquisitor.” There are several versions of the gospel story. Here are two in the King James Version: Matthew 4:1–11 and Luke 4: 1–13. Another potential gospel allusion in “The Grand Inquisitor” concerns the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. Read Luke 22.
Suggestions for Close Reading
This Launchpad makes use of the widely available Constance Garnett translation.
On the first reading, make notes of passages that seem important or puzzling. On the second reading, use the following questions to guide your analysis.
- Do you think the Grand Inquisitor truly believes that the “visitor” is Jesus?
- Why would the Grand Inquisitor feel threatened by the coming of the “visitor” (Jesus)?
- If the “visitor” was truly Jesus, why did he let himself be imprisoned by the Grand Inquisitor? Why doesn’t Jesus defend himself?
- What prompts the Inquisitor to speak openly of his rationale for ruling mankind?
- Why does the Inquisitor boast he has “vanquished freedom”?
- How do the three questions put to Jesus in the wildness point to the “unsolved historical contradictions of human nature”?
- State the view of human nature which is propounded by the Inquisitor and how it guides his mission.
- What does the Inquisitor mean by the “fundamental secret of human nature”?
- What are the three powers that will conquer “unruly” mankind?
- What kind of a state follows from the Inquisitor’s analysis of human nature?
- Alysha argues that the Inquisitor is motivated by simple lust for power. Do you agree or disagree. Cite your evidence from the text.
Questions for Further Research and Reflection
- The impact of this tale on twentieth century intellectual life has been enormous. “What is presented to us in this chapter, backed up by powerful though not conclusive arguments, is one of the most important theories of all time … benevolent totalitarianism” writes philosopher Walter F. Kaufmann in his book Religion from Tolstoy to Camus. Analyze the story to identify these elements. Why would Kaufmann writing in 1961 at the height of the Cold War consider the arguments so powerful? Despite this why does he indicate they are unsatisfactory? Do you agree?
- Compare Alexis de Tocqueville’s view of the danger of democratic despotism in at the end of Democracy in America with the Grand Inquisitor’s argument about what mankind wants. Where do they agree and where do they disagree?
- How do you think Enlightenment figures among American statesman such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin or James Madison would respond to the Grand Inquisitor’s views on freedom and happiness, religion and the state?
- Make an argument for either Jesus or the Grand Inquisitor as an existential hero.