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Standalone copy of the chapter "The Grand Inquisitor"
The Grand Inquisitor is a parable told by Ivan to Alyosha in Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880). Ivan and Alyosha are brothers; Ivan questions the possibility of a personal, benevolent God and Alyosha is a novice monk.

The Grand Inquisitor is an important part of the novel and one of the best-known passages in modern literature because of its ideas about human nature and freedom, and because of its fundamental ambiguity.

Dostoevsky's notebooks show that he was inspired to use the figure of the Grand Inquisitor after he encountered it in a play by Friedrich Schiller, Don Carlos (1785-1787).

The parable

The tale is told by Ivan with brief interruptive questions by Alyosha. In the tale, Christ comes back to earth in Sevillemarker at the time of the Inquisition. He performs a number of miracles (echoing miracles from the Gospels). The people recognize him and adore him, but he is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burnt to death the next day. The Grand Inquisitor visits him in his cell to tell him that the Church no longer needs him. The main portion of the text is the Inquisitor explaining to Jesus why his return would interfere with the mission of the church.

The Inquisitor frames his denunciation of Jesus around the three questions Satan asked Jesus during the temptation of Christ in the desert. These three are the temptation to turn stones into bread, the temptation to cast Himself from the Temple and be saved by the angels, and the temptation to rule over all the kingdoms of the world. The Inquisitor states that Jesus rejected these three temptations in favor of freedom, but thinks that Jesus has misjudged human nature. He does not believe that the vast majority of humanity can handle the freedom which Jesus has given them. Thus, he implies that Jesus, in giving humans freedom to choose, has excluded the majority of humanity from redemption and doomed it to suffer.

Despite declaring the Inquisitor to be an atheist, Ivan also implies that the Inquisitor and the Catholic Church follow "the wise spirit, the dread spirit of death and destruction," i.e. the Devil, Satan, for he, through compulsion, provided the tools to end all human suffering and unite under the banner of the Church. The multitude then is guided through the Church by the few who are strong enough to take on the burden of freedom. The Inquisitor says that under him, all mankind will live and die happily in ignorance. Though he leads them only to "death and destruction," they will be happy along the way. The Inquisitor will be a self-martyr, spending his life to keep choice from humanity. He states that "Anyone who can appease a man's conscience can take his freedom away from him." The Inquisitor proceeds to explain why Christ was wrong to reject each temptation by Satan. Christ should have turned stones into bread, as men will always follow those who will feed their bellies. The Inquisitor recalls how Christ rejected this saying, "Man cannot live on bread alone," and explains to Christ "Feed men, and then ask of them virtue! That's what they'll write on the banner they'll raise against Thee." Casting himself down from the temple to be caught by angels would cement his godhood in the minds of people, who would follow him forever. Rule over all the kingdoms of the Earth would ensure their salvation, the Grand Inquisitor claims.

The segment ends when Christ, who has been silent throughout, kisses the Inquisitor on his "bloodless, aged lips" instead of answering him. On this, the Inquisitor releases Christ but tells him never to return. Christ, still silent, leaves into "the dark alleys of the city." Not only is the kiss ambiguous, but its effect on the Inquisitor is as well. Ivan concludes, "The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man adheres to his idea."

Christ's kiss may also mirror an event that occurs earlier in the novel when the elder Zosima bows before Dmitri Karamazov. No one seems to understand why Zosima did this. Fyodor Karamazov exclaims, "Was it symbolic of something, or what?"

Not only does the parable function as a philosophical and religious work in its own right, but it also furthers the character development of the larger novel. Clearly, Ivan identifies himself with the Inquisitor. After relating the tale, Ivan asks Alyosha if he "renounces" Ivan for his views. Alyosha responds by giving Ivan a soft kiss on the lips, to which the delighted Ivan replies, "That's plagiarism... Thank you though." The brothers part soon afterward.

According to Dostoevsky's own letters, even the author struggled with the questions posed in the Grand Inquisitor and wondered how they might affect even the faith of the reader. Dostoevsky himself could not come up with a straight answer, but rather put forth the life of the Elder Zosima, which follows almost immediately this chapter, as his "answer" to Ivan's questions. Therefore the Grand Inquisitor cannot be fully understood without reading it with the chapters on the life of the Elder Zosima and subsequent chapters.

Influence on other media



See also



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