The Parable of the Grand Inquisitor
from The Brothers Karamazov (1880)


Turgenev’s Point: The intelligentsia must embrace a liberal path to social reform based on Western models. That means the government must grant freedom to the serfs and establish an economy which provides incentives for individual initiative. Reform should be led by the educated elite whose practical business skill is matched and moderated by humanitarian ideals and patriotic love of country. Turgenev urges his readers to commit to this reform movement yet pursue it with patience because real change takes time- it relies upon the free decisions of those in power to make the just choice. Further, we must moderate any utopian expectations by acknowledging that no change will bring us a fairy tale ending. The best we can hope for is the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Chernyshevky (and Bazarov’s) Response: Social justice can never be achieved if we rely upon the ideals of those in power. Liberals will use any rationale to expand their wealth and power. Sharecropping (ie a market economy) is only slavery in a more advanced form-- humans are still regarded as property and workers are robbed of the fruits of their labor. We buy and sell each other in a blind competitive frenzy whose rapaciousness will eventually be revealed. Let the liberals pursue their selfish ends. Let them justify their greed. When enough people recognize that society is built on the blind pursuit of self-interest, when wealth has been concentrated in a tiny number of hands, when the oppression of the poor reaches new extremes, a new consciousness will dawn. People will recognize that their true self-interest resides in their class’ recognition of the might of their collective will. When that great day comes, the workers will unite and overthrow their liberal masters- and a new society will be born- not one based on false ideals but on equality and reason. The Crystal Palace.

Dostoevsky dives into the debate and clobbers both the liberal westernizers and their radical antagonists.

In the excerpt we read for today, he explores the problem of freedom in ways which Turgenev evades and pooh-poohs. “We must be patient…. We must not have unrealistic expectations…. We must rely on ideals and patriotism and so urge those in power to make the right choice- to lead more compassionately and responsibly.”

Dostoevsky furiously interrupts, “Freedom! The problem of freedom is the problem of evil. Social Justice? There can be no social justice in a free society. However, the alternative may be even worse! Any society which seeks equality must radically limit our freedom, and without the opportunity to make moral choices, we cease to be human beings. So, who’s to blame? How have we developed such irreconcilable contradictions? Or were we created to begin with?” and he directs his fury, like Job, against God himself. He takes on the ultimate liberal, Christ.

He attacks:

  • Faith in progress: the idea upon which all liberalism is based.
  • Any political movement which justifies progress at the expense of the suffering of innocents.
  • Liberals who justify poverty or radicals who justify violence with utilitarian arguments of social justice.


Close Reading:  

Part II.
Book V: Pro and Contra 

Chapter 4: Rebellion

The problem of freedom is the problem of human evil. How can it be reconciled with theology, and by extension, with the best possible political philosophy?

The Situation: Ivan Karamazov confesses to his brother Alyosha that he may just opt out of an existence which tolerates the suffering of innocents. He says, “I must have justice, or I will destroy myself. And not justice in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth.”

Ivan believes that his hope for the future depends on embracing violence as a tool of social change, and he tests his resolve as he edges closer to arranging the murder of his father: an aging and corrupt landowner who has committed outrage after outrage in his life to satisfy his taste for emotional cruelty. In his most notorious misdeed he raped Lizaveta, a simple retarded woman whom the town had adopted. Lizaveta died giving birth to Smerdyakov, Ivan and Alyosha’s half brother. Now grown up, Smerdyakov wants to pin the murder on the third Karamazov brother, the impulsive Dimitri, who certainly has the motive to kill his father. The old man is courting Dimitri’s lover, Grushenka….

[Engrossing, Highly readable, will change your life category]

“Ivan argues that the call to violence as a means to the goal of social justice is the answer of reason to the Christian ethic of forgiveness, which seems, on the observable evidence of history and human behavior, to be singularly ineffective as a means of persuading men not to oppress their neighbors. Though Dostoevsky had, as his letters reveal, chosen Christ in spite of reason, he concedes that the arguments of reason can be rejected, but never finally refuted. Ivan and his alter ego, the Grand Inquisitor, are not devils but devil's advocates, challenging the mystery of the Christian ethic in the name of the people whose suffering it does nothing to relieve.” (Kelly)

In this episode of the action, Ivan takes on the theological concept of Theodicy: (The Justice of God)

·         The Problem of Evil (theological) How can God tolerate it?

·         The Problem of Freedom (political) When deliberate evil becomes the ‘most advantageous advantage’, radical restrictions on freedom become necessary)

Ivan creates a test case which calls into question not only the existence of an omnipotent and benign God, but the wisdom of founding any political state on the principle of freedom.

Dostoevsky’s rhetorical style can be called eschatological. [Eschatology: (f. Gr. Description: {elenisacu}Description: {sigma}Description: {chi}Description: {alpha}Description: {tau}Description: {omicron}-Description: {fsigma} last + -Description: {lambda}Description: {omicron}Description: {gamma}Description: {giacu}Description: {alpha} discourse from the Greek Eschatos meaning "last" and –logy) --   imagining the "End of Days”. The department of theological science concerned with ‘the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell’. (OED)] 

Ivan says,

“Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature -- that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance -- and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?” (7)

To hammer home his argument, Ivan rubs his reader’s face in a series of horrific situations (drawn from contemporary news stories) with Grand Guignol delight. (Poe was a strong influence on Dostoevsky.)

  1. Blunt irony of Richard, a young man shaped by poverty and cruelty into a murderer who finds religion in prison, just before his execution. (3)
  2. nightmare image: a peasant lashing the eyes of a horse, Violence against the defenseless who cannot comprehend the reason for their punishment…] (4)
  3. nightmare images of child abuse:

    “At last the child cannot scream, it gasps, 'Daddy daddy!'” (4)
    The child punished by being forced down into a privy. (4)
    An eight year old boy torn to pieces by owner’s hounds (5)

What has been proven?

Even that child’s mother may have the right to forgive her boy’s murderer for her own suffering, but we cannot forgive because the child’s suffering has gone unexpiated. It cannot be expiated.


·         Has Ivan simply gotten Alyosha to admit that some crimes deserve capital punishment?
Or have we just been given permission to use any means necessary including violence in pursuit of justice? 

·         Or has he just proven that humans cannot be the creation of a just God? Has Ivan justified turning in his ticket to life by revealing how unbearable indifference to human cruelty is to a thinking person.

·         Or, you might use the same evidence to say, “How can you argue that absolute Good and Evil do not exist?” Hasn’t Dostoevsky just revealed to his gentle reader that the moral world does exist, but not in the brain; the soul resides in more basic functions of the human body: in our nervous system, in our guts. (See Macbeth)

Chapter 5: The Grand Inquisitor

How does Ivan introduce his story? What is its context?

At the outset of his story, Ivan takes pains to place it in a tradition which extends back to the Mystery Plays of medieval times.

  • [A Mystery Play]  “In France, clerks, as well as the monks in the monasteries, used to give regular performances in which the Madonna, the saints, the angels, Christ, and God Himself were brought on the stage.” (8)
  • [A Mystery Play ala the Harrowing of Hell by the Virgin which resulted in respite for the damned on Easter]
  • Tales of Jesus’ appearance to saints and martyrs,  even returning to Earth, not for Judgment Day, but to commune with his suffering people. 
  • “And behold, He deigned to appear for a moment to the people, to the tortured, suffering people, sunk in iniquity, but loving Him like children.” (10)
  • And so Jesus came to Seville on the day of a splendid auto-da-fe in which a hundred heretics are to be burned at the stake, and the people of the city immediately recognize him. As he heals a blind man and raises a little girl from the dead (that little girl beaten in the previous chapter), the Grand Inquisitor watches ‘and his face darkens.’ (11) He orders the immediate arrest and imprisonment of the Messiah.
  • That night he comes to Jesus’ pitch dark cell and demands to know why he has returned.
  • Jesus says nothing in response to the Grand Inquisitor’s monologue, but at the end of it he rises and kisses the old man, who has threatened to burn him alive the following day, and the Inquisitor lets him go.

The Inquisitor’s Rebuke of Christ:

·         By giving people freedom, Christ destroyed any possibility for social justice.

·         You have no right to say a word! You have no right to add to your ministry of old!

·         “Thou hast no right to add anything to what Thou hadst said of old. Why, then, art Thou come to hinder us?” (12)

What was Christ’s mistake according to The Inquisitor?

·         His unwillingness to coerce faith. People must come to him of his or her own free will.

·         What has been the consequence of freedom? The Hobbesian world of all vs. all.

·         “But now Thou hast seen these "free" men,' the old man adds suddenly, with a pensive smile. 'Yes, we've paid dearly for it,' he goes on, looking sternly at Him, 'but at last we have completed that work in Thy name….For now for the first time it has become possible to think of the happiness of men.” (12)

How? He is speaking of the Inquisition, of course. What sort of government has the Catholic Church exercised? Is Dostoevsky in prophet mode here: is he accurately describing the type of government that would emerge in Russia during the 20th century?

The Inquisitor reminds Christ that he had been warned about the dangers of freedom and had not heeded those warnings. “Thou hast had no lack of admonitions and warnings, but Thou didst not listen to those warnings.” (12) By whom?

·         “Nothing but the advice of the great dread spirit could build up any tolerable sort of life for the feeble, unruly, 'incomplete, empirical creatures created in jest.'”

You remember the story from the Bible- Christ before he began his ministry went into the desert where he encountered the Devil who gave him three temptations.

·         “'The wise and dread spirit, the spirit of self-destruction and non-existence” (12)

The Three Temptations of the Devil

Why not alter the creation so that there is enough bread for all?

·         For the nihilists (and other determinists) will argue that crime is the direct result of poverty and hunger. What possible advantage can there be to a creation which tolerates the misery and moral degradation which results from hunger?

·         “Dost Thou know that the ages will pass, and humanity will proclaim by the lips of their sages that there is no crime, and therefore no sin; there is only hunger? "Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!"” (13)

·         As for freedom, humans have only made a botch of it. The Inquisitor argues that the people could never feed themselves, “Freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share between them!” (14)

·         Even the prospect of freedom intimidates most people. “Without a stable conception of the object of life, man would not consent to go on living, and would rather destroy himself than remain on earth, though he had bread in abundance.” (15)

·         People need to be told a reason for living. Instead of taking possession of men's freedom, Thou didst increase it, and burdened the spiritual kingdom of mankind with its sufferings forever.

·         But seest Thou these stones in this parched and barren wilderness? Turn them into bread, and mankind will run after Thee like a flock of sheep, grateful and obedient, though for ever trembling, lest Thou withdraw Thy hand and deny them Thy bread." (13)

The Inquisitor already knows Christ’s answer: “what is that freedom worth if obedience is bought with bread?” Man does not live by bread alone. Christ offers heavenly bread, not earthly bread.

·         Thou didst desire man's free love, that he should follow Thee freely, enticed and taken captive by Thee. In place of the rigid ancient law, man must hereafter with free heart decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Thy image before him as his guide.” (15)

·         Yet only a few of the many millions are capable of receiving your gift of freedom; the vast majority are too weak. What of them? Should we condemn them for their weakness?

·         “Thou art proud of Thine elect, but Thou hast only the elect, while we give rest to all.” “With us all will be happy and will no more rebel nor destroy one another as under Thy freedom.” (14)

So what sort of government has the church created to address Christ’s error?

·         Freedom is not worth the price, so the church, out of compassion for the limitations of people, has built a new temple, a tower, to which the people will come and be fed their daily bread and a purpose for living. So the church, recognizing your error, has done what you should have dome in the first place, provided people with a purpose to life which they are capable of achieving: obeying: miracle, mystery and authority.

The Second Temptation: Miracle and Mystery

·         Demonstrate your divinity to all by casting yourself from a tower. God will not allow you to perish. "If Thou wouldst know whether Thou art the Son of God then cast Thyself down, for it is written: the angels shall hold him up lest he fall and bruise himself, and Thou shalt know then whether Thou art the Son of God and shalt prove then how great is Thy faith in Thy Father." (15)

·         Tempting God demonstrates your own loss of faith. And faith cannot be coerced because then the people become slaves, not free agents. Instead, people must rely on their own resources in the depths of their doubt and despair.

·         “Thou wouldst not enslave man by a miracle, and didst crave faith given freely, not based on miracle. Thou didst crave for free love and not the base raptures of the slave before the might that has overawed him forever.”

·         But people do not want faith, they want reassurance.

·         “But Thou didst not know that when man rejects miracle he rejects God too; for man seeks not so much God as the miraculous. And as man cannot bear to be without the miraculous, he will create new miracles of his own for himself, and will worship deeds of sorcery and witchcraft.” (16)

The Third Temptation: Authority

·         The Devil takes Christ to the mountaintop and shows him the lands he might conquer if he chose a political course for his ministry.

·         Hadst Thou taken the world and Caesar's purple, Thou wouldst have founded the universal state and have given universal peace. For who can rule men if not he who holds their conscience and their bread in his hands? We have taken the sword of Caesar, and in taking it, of course, have rejected Thee and followed him.” (16)

·         What you would not do, out of inordinate respect for mankind, the church has done: “Too, too well will they know the value of complete submission! And until men know that, they will be unhappy.” “We shall show them that they are weak, that they are only pitiful children, but that childlike happiness is the sweetest of all.” (17)

The Future State: (17)

·         We shall provide the people with childlike happiness. We will forgive them of sin, even when you will not—and so their lives shall be happy even if their souls are damne

·         We shall allow them to sin like children and they will be grateful when we tell them that every sin will be expiated if it is committed with our permission.

·         And they will have no secrets from us.The most painful secrets of their conscience, all, all they will bring to us, and we shall have an answer for all.”

·         We will take their sins upon ourselves and face God alone (as I am doing now) “And we who have taken their sins upon us for their happiness will stand up before Thee and say: "Judge us if Thou canst and darest." Know that I fear Thee not.” (18)

Christ’s Response?

·         “When the Inquisitor ceased speaking he waited some time for his Prisoner to answer him. His silence weighed down upon him. He saw that the Prisoner had listened intently all the time, looking gently in his face and evidently not wishing to reply. The old man longed for him to say something, however bitter and terrible. But He suddenly approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips. That was all his answer. The old man shuddered. His lips moved. He went to the door, opened it, and said to Him: 'Go, and come no more... come not at all, never, never!'” (20)

·         "The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man adheres to his idea." (20)

Dostoevsky’s point?


Kant’s Categorical Imperative:  He accepts Hume’s challenge to cause and effect: we can only gauge the probability of events using science. Because of the puniness of our order of reason, we cannot comprehend the world as it is. And that is good because if the nihilist dream were true and we could depend upon science to predict the consequences of our actions with certitude, we would not then be free to choose. Even in that situation, the Underground Man would wreck the sublime and beautiful just to be able to say that he is a free agent But is even that reaction free?

To test our moral choices, Kant recommends that we imagine ourselves as God despite the radical finitude of our capacity for understanding the consequences of our actions.  

   “Act as though the principle of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature.”

Invent a universe in which you have the power to define natural law. Test out a moral, sociological or theological position by pushing it to its logical extreme and see if it still holds. Would your world be the best of all possible worlds? Would such a policy be just?

For instance, a man is reduced to complete despair but still possesses his reason. Should he decide to commit suicide? Kant suggests that we make the consequence of this choice into a natural law like gravity. Should we shorten life when a longer life span threatens more evil than satisfaction? That is unimaginable. The world would quickly self-destruct.  A world in which people never help each other could function, but would it be the best of all possible worlds a creative God could invent. (Nieman)