The Grand Inquisitor - Dostoyevsky's Manual On Kissing Evil Away

Once abolish the God and the government becomes the God. G.K. Chesterton
three images of a cardinal
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The Grand Inquisitor is a chapter in Dostoyevsky’s world-famous novel The Brothers Karamazov. In his keen insight, he shows why people continuously choose slavery over freedom and how it can be reversed at the soul’s level. When Jesus Christ came to earth for the first time, he was rejected.

He came to His own and His own didn’t accept Him.

When he “comes again” in Dostoyevsky’s imaginary 15-century setting, he is no longer needed.

The Grand Inquisitor, a 90-year-old cardinal, arrests Jesus and explains to him why his whole idea of setting people free is a grave mistake.

His claim is simple yet profound — human beings are weak. By offering them the gift of freedom and responsibility You (God) have gravely misjudged their true nature. The Grand Inquisitor scoffs at Jesus for laying an unbearable burden of freedom on weak creatures who only want three things — bread, quieting of conscience, and authority to bow down to.

The old cardinal reprimands Jesus for rejecting Satan’s offer in the wilderness to turn stones into bread and thus draw all men to himself. Instead, Jesus came to men empty-handed.

“Wouldst Thou go into the world empty-handed? Would Thou venture thither with Thy vague and undefined promise of freedom, which men, dull and unruly as they are by nature, are unable so much as to understand, which they avoid and fear? — for never was there anything more unbearable to the human race than personal freedom.”

What does The Grand Inquisitor say about human nature?

According to the Grand Inquisitor, Jesus grossly misunderstood the nature of human beings by believing that they would, in the end, prefer freedom to bread. No, he chides, — some may indeed do so but not the majority. The majority will always prefer bread to freedom. And they will seek out someone who will agree to take their freedom away and give them bread.

Oh, never, never, will they learn to feed themselves without our help! No science will ever give them bread so long as they remain free, so long as they refuse to lay that freedom at our feet, and say: “Enslave, but feed us!”

Humans actively seek out those to whom they can hand over the dangerous gift of freedom — they seek some external authority that would feed them and alleviate their conscience by taking away the unbearable burden of personal choice:

I repeat to Thee, man has no greater anxiety in life than to find someone to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which the unfortunate creature is born.

People always look for experts (little gods, idols) so they could lay down their freedom of choice at their feet and say: “You tell us what to do. We are too ignorant and scared to make our own choices and take responsibility for them.” 

There is 

“a ceaseless longing alive in the heart of every individual human being, lurking in the breast of collective mankind, that most perplexing problem — whom or what shall we worship?” 

What is the main conflict in the Grand Inquisitor?

Alas, fulminates the old man, looking into the gentle eyes of Jesus, people want bread, not freedom, but there is something else that they want even more — to worship someone who will rule over them and thus relieve them of any qualms of conscience over their choices.

They will regard us as gods, and feel grateful to those who have consented to lead the masses and bear their burden of freedom by ruling over them — so terrible will that freedom at last appear to men!

Humans look for a predictable, manageable ruler (a god) who will give them what they want in exchange for their sacrifices. They don’t look for a God they can trust, they look for a god they can always buy a miracle from. They look for a mystery they can manage.

…for he [man] seeketh less God than “a sign” from Him. And thus, as it is beyond the power of man to remain without miracles, so, rather than live without, he will create for himself new wonders of his own making; and he will bow to and worship the soothsayer’s miracles, the old witch’s sorcery...

So, the Grand Inquisitor continues, we taught them that the only essential thing for them is to obey us blindly even against the dictates of their conscience. And men rejoiced at finding their hearts delivered of the terrible burden laid upon them by God, which caused them so much suffering. They were happy to be led like a “herd of cattle.”

“Weak, foolish creatures as they are,” they acquired that quiet and humble happiness of infants and gathered around us “as chickens around their hen” — timidly and obediently — for we will allow them even to sin and will take the guilt upon ourselves.

What is the Grand Inquisitor's main argument?

The Grand Inquisitor points out that human beings will submit to them most joyfully because all they want is earthly security. They desperately look for a mediator who will atone for their sins. And all of their sins will be authorized and forgiven in God’s name.

...they will believe us and accept our mediation with delight because it will deliver them from their greatest anxiety and torture — that of having to decide freely for themselves.

As soon as we give up our freedom to decide for ourselves — out of fear — we start looking for a mediator. Someone who will tell me what to do — some priestly-looking expert who will alleviate my conscience. At this moment, I will inadvertently create a need for a system — state, Church, institutions, organizations — that will feed me and enslave me. 

They will come, take away the bread I make with my own hands only to give it back to me as if I am receiving it from the hand of God:

Receiving their bread from us, they will clearly see that we take the bread from them, the bread made by their own hands… and give it back to them in equal shares and that without any miracle.

“Once abolish the God and the government becomes the God,” admonished G.K. Chesterton. 

People are always looking for someone or something to worship. If God is abolished, the state becomes God. Emperor becomes divine. Institutions become your life source. Culture becomes a cult. National identity becomes sacred. And the experts will come and take away your bread and give it back to you in equal shares — they will appear as gods in our eyes, telling us what to do and thus appeasing our conscience. 

What are the three temptations in The Grand Inquisitor?

The “terrible and wise spirit” from Dostoyevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor who once conversed with Jesus in the wilderness offered him three temptations: 1) give humans bread, 2) give them a predictable miracle, 3) become their external authority. He rejected all three. The same terrible and wise spirit now comes to each one of us and whispers in our ears the same three offers:

“I will give you predictable bread in exchange for your freedom to decide for yourself; just obey me blindly, and you will be fed.” “You want a manageable miracle — just bring me the right sacrifices, and I will give you one.” “Make me your highest authority — the ultimate expert — and I will appease your conscience. Your anguish about whether you have decided right or wrong will be taken away forever.”

Rejecting these three means I choose trust over control. It means I choose to fall into the unknown. It means I willingly embrace uncertainty. It means I, like Jesus, reject the offers of the terrible spirit and remain in the desert. What will I find in this desert? 

“…and behold, angels came and ministered unto him.” Matthew 4:11.

It’s either a human mediator or divine intervention. Tertium non datur. It’s either a Grand Inquisitor or God. It’s either the state or grace. It’s either human experts or divine guidance. 

But what if the Grand Inquisitor was right in that humans are too weak to choose freedom over bread? This is the question that gnaws away at the old man's heart on the brink of death. He is looking into the gentle eyes of Jesus who is completely silent. Am I right? 

What does the kiss mean in the Grand Inquisitor?

Jesus doesn’t respond but comes up and gently kisses his bloodless lips. That’s all! The Grand Inquisitor lets him go after warning him to never ever come back. Why does he not execute him as he promised? By kissing him, Jesus knocked on the door of his heart and awakened him to his true nature — the divine seed. In spite of all his humanness and weakness, the old man strongly feels that there’s more to life than just bread and physical security.

When all is said and done, the main question that plagues every human being is whether I have been faithful to my divine calling. Bread and earthy security become trash in the face of this question. Here’s how J.R.R. Tolkien explains this phenomenon in The Lord of the Rings when Frodo found himself in the barrow downs:

But though his [Frodo’s] fear was so great that it seemed to be part of the very darkness that was round him, he found himself as he lay thinking about Bilbo Baggins and his stories, of their jogging along together in the lanes of the Shire and talking about roads and adventures. There is a seed of courage hidden (often deeply, it is true) in the heart of the fattest and most timid hobbit, waiting for some final and desperate danger to make it grow. Frodo was neither very fat nor very timid; indeed, though he did not know it, Bilbo (and Gandalf) had thought him the best hobbit in the Shire. He thought he had come to the end of his adventure, and a terrible end, but the thought hardened him. He found himself stiffening, as if for a final spring; he no longer felt limp like a helpless prey.

This is what the Grand Inquisitor grossly misjudged. And this is what Jesus’s gentle kiss summoned out of the dark recesses of his heart. Evil is overcome on an individual level. Though we are all but fat and timid hobbits, there is a divine calling in our hearts and we hear it in our darkest hour. And this is where darkness recedes because it cannot overcome the light.

And the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

I am a translator and blogger who believes that all change comes from inside out, not from outside in.

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