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The Grand Inquisitor

The Grand Inquisitor

Overview

The Grand Inquisitor is a parable
Parable
A parable is a succinct story, in prose or verse, which illustrates one or more instructive principles, or lessons, or a normative principle. It differs from a fable in that fables use animals, plants, inanimate objects, and forces of nature as characters, while parables generally feature human...

 told by Ivan to Alyosha in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov
The Brothers Karamazov
The Brothers Karamazov is the final novel by the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Dostoyevsky spent nearly two years writing The Brothers Karamazov, which was published as a serial in The Russian Messenger and completed in November 1880...

(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
Human nature
Human nature refers to the distinguishing characteristics, including ways of thinking, feeling and acting, that humans tend to have naturally....

 and freedom, and because of its fundamental ambiguity
Ambiguity
Ambiguity of words or phrases is the ability to express more than one interpretation. It is distinct from vagueness, which is a statement about the lack of precision contained or available in the information.Context may play a role in resolving ambiguity...

.

Dostoyevsky'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
Friedrich Schiller
Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller was a German poet, philosopher, historian, and playwright. During the last seventeen years of his life , Schiller struck up a productive, if complicated, friendship with already famous and influential Johann Wolfgang von Goethe...

, Don Carlos
Don Carlos (play)
Don Carlos is a historical tragedy in five acts by Friedrich Schiller; it was written between 1783 and 1787 and first produced in Hamburg in 1787...

(1785–1787).

The tale is told by Ivan with brief interruptive questions by Alyosha.
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Encyclopedia

The Grand Inquisitor is a parable
Parable
A parable is a succinct story, in prose or verse, which illustrates one or more instructive principles, or lessons, or a normative principle. It differs from a fable in that fables use animals, plants, inanimate objects, and forces of nature as characters, while parables generally feature human...

 told by Ivan to Alyosha in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov
The Brothers Karamazov
The Brothers Karamazov is the final novel by the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Dostoyevsky spent nearly two years writing The Brothers Karamazov, which was published as a serial in The Russian Messenger and completed in November 1880...

(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
Human nature
Human nature refers to the distinguishing characteristics, including ways of thinking, feeling and acting, that humans tend to have naturally....

 and freedom, and because of its fundamental ambiguity
Ambiguity
Ambiguity of words or phrases is the ability to express more than one interpretation. It is distinct from vagueness, which is a statement about the lack of precision contained or available in the information.Context may play a role in resolving ambiguity...

.

Dostoyevsky'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
Friedrich Schiller
Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller was a German poet, philosopher, historian, and playwright. During the last seventeen years of his life , Schiller struck up a productive, if complicated, friendship with already famous and influential Johann Wolfgang von Goethe...

, Don Carlos
Don Carlos (play)
Don Carlos is a historical tragedy in five acts by Friedrich Schiller; it was written between 1783 and 1787 and first produced in Hamburg in 1787...

(1785–1787).

The parable


The tale is told by Ivan with brief interruptive questions by Alyosha. In the tale, Christ
Jesus
Jesus of Nazareth , commonly referred to as Jesus Christ or simply as Jesus or Christ, is the central figure of Christianity...

 comes back to earth in Seville
Seville
Seville is the artistic, historic, cultural, and financial capital of southern Spain. It is the capital of the autonomous community of Andalusia and of the province of Seville. It is situated on the plain of the River Guadalquivir, with an average elevation of above sea level...

 at the time of the Inquisition
Spanish Inquisition
The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition , commonly known as the Spanish Inquisition , was a tribunal established in 1480 by Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. It was intended to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in their kingdoms, and to replace the Medieval...

. 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
Grand Inquisitor
Grand Inquisitor is the lead official of an Inquisition. The most famous Inquisitor General is the Spanish Dominican Tomás de Torquemada, who spearheaded the Spanish Inquisition.-List of Spanish Grand Inquisitors:-Castile:-Aragon:...

 visits him in his cell to tell him that the Church no longer needs him. The main portion of the text is devoted to 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
Temptation of Christ
The temptation of Christ is detailed in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. According to these texts, after being baptized, Jesus fasted for forty days and nights in the Judean desert. During this time, the devil appeared to Jesus and tempted him...

 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 the Inquisitor 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. The Inquisitor thus 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 has the Inquisitor saying that the Catholic Church
Roman Catholic Church
The Catholic Church, also known as the Roman Catholic Church, is the world's largest Christian church, with over a billion members. Led by the Pope, it defines its mission as spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, administering the sacraments and exercising charity...

 follows "the wise spirit, the dread spirit of death and destruction," i.e. the Devil
Devil
The Devil is believed in many religions and cultures to be a powerful, supernatural entity that is the personification of evil and the enemy of God and humankind. The nature of the role varies greatly...

, Satan
Satan
Satan , "the opposer", is the title of various entities, both human and divine, who challenge the faith of humans in the Hebrew Bible...

. He says "We are not with Thee, but with him, and that is our secret! For centuries have we abandoned Thee to follow him." For he, through compulsion, provided the tools to end all human suffering and for humanity to 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 advances this argument by explaining 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
Parable
A parable is a succinct story, in prose or verse, which illustrates one or more instructive principles, or lessons, or a normative principle. It differs from a fable in that fables use animals, plants, inanimate objects, and forces of nature as characters, while parables generally feature human...

 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.

Influence on other media

  • The scene is the basis of the play Only We Who Guard The Mystery Shall Be Unhappy by Tony Kushner
    Tony Kushner
    Anthony Robert "Tony" Kushner is an American playwright and screenwriter. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993 for his play, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, and co-authored with Eric Roth the screenplay for the 2005 film, Munich.-Life and career:Kushner was born...

    .
  • "Talitha Cumi
    Talitha Cumi (The X-Files)
    "Talitha Cumi" is a 1996 episode of The X-Files television series. It was the final episode broadcast in the show's third season. "Talitha Cumi" involved the appearance of a mysterious man who can heal with his hands.- Plot :...

    ," the third season finale of The X-Files
    The X-Files
    The X-Files is an American science fiction television series and a part of The X-Files franchise, created by screenwriter Chris Carter. The program originally aired from to . The show was a hit for the Fox network, and its characters and slogans became popular culture touchstones in the 1990s...

    borrowed heavily from this parable for an interrogation between The Smoking Man and Jeremiah Smith (as the Inquisitor and Jesus, respectively).
  • Noam Chomsky
    Noam Chomsky
    Avram Noam Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, and activist. He is an Institute Professor and Professor in the Department of Linguistics & Philosophy at MIT, where he has worked for over 50 years. Chomsky has been described as the "father of modern linguistics" and...

     references The Grand Inquisitor in the first chapter of his book Necessary Illusions
    Necessary Illusions
    Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies is a 1989 book by US academic Noam Chomsky concerning political power using propaganda to distort and distract from major issues to maintain confusion and complicity, preventing real democracy from becoming effective...

    .
  • Aldous Huxley
    Aldous Huxley
    Aldous Leonard Huxley was an English writer and one of the most prominent members of the famous Huxley family. Best known for his novels including Brave New World and a wide-ranging output of essays, Huxley also edited the magazine Oxford Poetry, and published short stories, poetry, travel...

     references The Grand Inquisitor in the last chapter of his book Brave New World Revisited.
  • The Ocean Collective
    The Ocean Collective
    The Ocean is an experimental metal band from Berlin, Germany. Their work combines elements of progressive metal and electronic soundscapes, occasionally incorporating strings to create their aggressive post-metal sound. The band often describes its sound as "ambient soundtrack doomrock".- History...

     references The Grand Inquisitor in their album Anthropocentric, running the parable across three songs.
  • David Bentley Hart
    David Bentley Hart
    David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian, philosopher, and cultural commentator.Hart was educated at the University of Maryland, the University of Cambridge and the University of Virginia. He has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of St. Thomas , Duke Divinity School,...

     references The Grand Inquisitor in section V of chapter one, in his book The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami?
  • Dolores Umbridge is referred to as The High or Grand Inquisitor of the Inquisitorial squad in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

External links