There does not seem to be any doubt that The Grand Inquisitor is the most famous passage in The Brothers Karamazov. It is in the part of the book we just finished, and both of us thought it deserved its own post.
It is a section of the book which consists of a story that Ivan wrote and is telling to Alyosha. Remember, Ivan is the intellectual among the brothers, the kind of insufferable guy you end up talking to a party as he describes the big controversy he got into at his department chair’s meeting last week. Even in this case, he fatuously states that he doesn’t think he’s a very good writer before starting the story.
The basic idea is that Jesus comes back to earth and meets the Inquisitor, who tells Jesus that he failed because he gave people freedom and that people are incapable of being free and happy. He further goes on to say that Jesus erred in resisting the three temptations Satan offered because he threw away the things that could have been used to manipulate the people into being happy–more or less, bread and circuses. There’s also a rich helping of the Book of Revelations, which is an eye-opener if you are not familiar with it.
At the end, after the Inquisitor has spent pages berating Christ (CHRIST!) while Jesus says nothing, Jesus does what I think you would expect. He kisses the inquisitor and walks away.
It’s quite a read. I think you might be able to spend your life unpacking all of the meaning embedded. In fact, some people probably have. It covers ideas and debates that Dostoevsky had been thinking–hard–about for his entire life and about which he cared deeply. When it came time to write this passage in his last book, he had a lot to say.
This debate is something that had been ringing through Christianity for centuries. It is, in fact, a dark ages concept. After the fall of Rome, the judgment was that a free society was self-destructive, and you went through the middle ages and then really ramped it up during the Reformation, when people literally had the ability to choose their church.
What Dostoevsky does so effectively in this book is present you with the inherent conflicts of any lifestyle. You can be pious and then you’re standing in front of the starets looking for spiritual healing. You can be licentious and tormented—see Dmitry.
In this section, we see the gothic inquisitor, full of grandeur and arrogance and we can contrast it to Zosima. We see two methods of persuasion–providing shock and awe mysticism directed at the unwashed and then the presentation or truly divine miracles.
To me, the ultimate question is one of faith. We’ve all heard the old logical puzzle that if you believe in God and he doesn’t exist you are better off than if you don’t believe in him and he doesn’t exist. To me, that doesn’t seem like faith. Similarly, if you are forced to believe in God, that doesn’t seem to reach the transcendence of a true faith. Rather, to have your freedom and choose to worship…that seems to me to be the kind of thing you’d be looking for.
Finally, we can’t leave this section without seeing how Alyosha reacts to this. Aloysha is the pious brother–if a little naive now and again.
Aloysha is sad that his brother’s heart is with the Inquisitor. Ivan tells him the whole thing is “muddle-headed,” and that of course, he isn’t becoming a Jesuit. He just wants to live for 30 years and be done with it.
Alyosha asks him how he can have “such a hell in your heart and your head.” (He’s right…there’s no other word for what’s between that man’s ears. He’s as messed up as his brother and his Father, just in his own way).
Ivan tells him he has a special strength, what the kids today would call a superpower:
“The Karamazov Depravity”
No one can argue with that.