Photograph by Jim Richardson – Westminster Abbey, London
“Anyone who can appease a man’s conscience can take his freedom away from him.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Grand Inquisitor
The other day, I popped into my local library for a very specific search on Russian Literature. Browsing through, I came across The Grand Inquisitor by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Having seen this as a reference in various places, I had to take it home with me. I have not read the brilliant and monumental work that is “The Brothers Karamazov”, which is the book where you find the prose poem, The Grand Inquisitor. However, this particular part of the book is available separately due to its importance as one of the best-known passages in modern literature.
The Grand Inquisitor, the most famous section of The Brothers Karamazov is a parable told by Ivan to his brother Alyosha. The story is set in Spain, during the Spanish Inquisition. In this story, Jesus comes back to Earth, to Seville, and begins performing miracles, and people recognise him for who he is. People weep for joy, children throw flowers at his feet and a large crowd gathers outside the cathedral. And naturally, he is arrested by the Inquisitors for heresy and is sentenced to be burned to death.
The night before his execution, the Grand Inquisitor visits Jesus in his cell. Jesus doesn’t speak, but the Grand Inquisitor speaks to him at length about how the church doesn’t really need Jesus anymore and how the church is running just fine without him. He says that since Christ did not take the power, and instead gave people free will; the Church has now taken the power in his name by taking away people’s free will and replacing it with security. “We have corrected Thy work and founded it on miracle, mystery and authority”
The Grand Inquisitor reminds Christ of the three temptations by Satan that Jesus rejected. He argues that Christ should have turned stone to bread and offered mankind freedom from hunger instead of freedom of choice. The Inquisitor says that people are too weak to live by the word of God when they are hungry; they follow the ones who feed their bellies. “Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!”
The Grand Inquisitor says that most people need to see the miraculous in order to be content in their religious faith. He says that Christ should not have refused to throw himself off the pinnacle of Jerusalem to be caught by angels. If he did, he would have assured people of his divinity and they would have followed him forever without a speck of doubt.
Finally, the Inquisitor reminds Jesus of the third temptation where Jesus refused power in order to give men their free will. The Grand Inquisitor says that the Church now has regained that power Jesus rejected. “There is nothing more seductive for man than the freedom of his conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting either. And so, instead of a firm foundation for appeasing human conscience once and for all, you chose everything that was unusual, enigmatic, and indefinite, you chose everything that was beyond men’s strength,” says the Inquisitor to Jesus.
He goes on to say that in fact, Jesus’ return at this point is just disruptive to the overall meaning of the church, and the church’s mission in preaching Jesus has become more important than Jesus himself.
Jesus silently listens to this lengthy statement and the old Cardinal waits for him to say something, anything for that matter. Jesus simply stands up, walks up to the Grand Inquisitor, and kisses his “bloodless, aged lips”. The Grand Inquisitor shudders, but the kiss still glows in his heart. The Inquisitor does not execute Jesus after all. Instead, he sends him away, demanding he never return.
The Grand Inquisitor has become an Atheist Manifesto, sort of, however, it gives out a different message. And it doesn’t pander to a childish fantasy of who God is either. Dostoevsky was a fervent believer but his personal views are similar to the Inquisitor’s low opinion of the common herd.
It seems that the Grand Inquisitor knows of the truth himself, however, he also knows that the truth which sets us free is too demanding for us, and that it is a lie that grants us happiness. He reasons out that people desire worldly things and not some impossible ideals they are too weak to follow. They need the worldly, in order to make up their minds about the otherworldly. In fact, it is a prerequisite for belief. They want the bread of Earth first, before they can believe in bread of Heaven, and they’d rather surrender their freedom to a benevolent authority who will care for their earthly needs and relieve them of their spiritual suffering, than bear the burden of freedom and freewill. “Better that you enslave us, but feed us.”
The Grand Inquisitor is not without ambiguity. While it explores human nature and freedom, and makes some really valid statements, it doesn’t offer its closing argument to us on a platter, which is to say that Dostoevsky leaves the thinking to us.
At the end of the story, Ivan, who is an opponent of religion asks his brother Alyosha who is a firm believer whether he renounces his beliefs after hearing the story, to which Alyosha responds by giving Ivan a soft kiss on the lips, mimicking the actions of Christ in the poem. The kiss isn’t a symbol of overcoming the logic in the argument, and neither can the logic in the argument be triumphed by a kiss, but it represents how well Alyosha understands the problems of faith and doubt in a world characterized by free will. It is a gesture of love over reasoning. Through this profound and moving ambiguity at the end, Dostoevsky has his major opponent of religion, Ivan, acknowledge the power of faith, just as Dostoevsky himself, a proponent of faith, has used Ivan to acknowledge the power of doubt.
The story reflected my own beliefs about the world of religion and its institutions. I have always believed that if Jesus ever returned, he would be utterly disappointed at the way people depict him, represent him, illustrate him and celebrate him today. His ministry bears no resemblance to him anymore and he would challenge the very religious institutions who claim to speak for him. However, in order to truly appreciate this masterpiece of literature we have to respect its middle ground and its two very powerful points of view, and I hope you would too, if you get the chance to read it.