During the sixteenth century in Spain, at the height of the Inquisition, someone resembling Christ appears unannounced in the streets. The people recognize Him immediately and begin to flock about Him. But, as He is healing several of the sick and lame, an old cardinal also recognizes Him and orders the guards to arrest Him. Once again Christ is abducted.
That night, He receives a visitor. The Grand Inquisitor enters the darkened cell and begins a severe reprimand of Christ for appearing again and hindering the work of the church. The Grand Inquisitor explains to Christ that, because of His rejection of the three temptations, He placed an intolerable burden of freedom upon man. The church, however, is now correcting His errors and aiding man by removing their awful burden of freedom. He explains that Christ erred when He expected man to voluntarily choose to follow Him. The basic nature of man, says the Inquisitor, does not allow him to reject either earthly bread or security or happiness in exchange for something so indefinite as what Christ expects.
If Christ had accepted the proffered bread, man would have been given security instead of a freedom of choice, and if Christ had performed a miracle and had cast himself down from the pinnacle, man would have been given something miraculous to worship. The nature of man, insists the Inquisitor, is to seek the miraculous. Finally, Christ should have accepted the power offered Him by the devil. Because He did not, the church has now had to assume such power for the benefit of man. And since Christ's death, the church has been forced to correct the errors made by Him. Now, at last mankind willingly submits its freedom to the church in exchange for happiness and security. This balance, says the Inquisitor, must not be upset.
At the end of the monologue, the Grand Inquisitor admits that of necessity he is on the side of the devil, but the challenge that Christ placed on mankind allows only a few strong people to be saved; the rest must be sacrificed to the strong. The Grand Inquisitor's scheme, at least, provides an earthly happiness for the mass of mankind even though it will not lead to eternal salvation. On the other hand, Christ's method would not have saved these same weak and puny men either.
When he finishes, the Grand Inquisitor looks at Christ, who has remained silent the entire time. Now He approaches the old churchman and kisses him on his dry, withered lips. The Grand Inquisitor frees Him suddenly, saying that He is never to come again.
Ivan finishes his story and wonders now if Alyosha will reject him or will try to accept him as a brother. As an answer, Alyosha leans forward and kisses his brother. "You are plagiarizing my poem," Ivan cries in delight. The brothers leave the restaurant together, but then they part, each going his separate way.
In the chapter preceding "The Grand Inquisitor," Ivan struggles with the problem of suffering humanity and the injustice of this world. Now he turns to one of the major philosophical questions — one that has worried the Western world for centuries: the awesome burden placed upon man by his having complete freedom instead of church-directed happiness and security.
Dostoevsky achieves his dramatic impact in this chapter by having the two antagonists embody the two ideas in question — the Grand Inquisitor pleading for security and happiness for man; Christ offering complete freedom. Furthermore, the advocate for freedom — the reincarnate Christ — remains silent throughout the Inquisitor's monologue; his opponent does all the talking. Yet the old Inquisitor is no mere egotist. His character is one that evokes our respect. We consider his position in the church, his intellect, his certainty, and, above all, his professed love for mankind. All this he does in spite of the fact that, as he finally admits, he has aligned himself with Satan.
The complexity of the Grand Inquisitor increases when we realize that he, like his divine opponent, has been in the wilderness and could have stood among the elect but deliberately chose to take his stand with the weak and puny mass of mankind. And just as Ivan, in the preceding chapter, declared that even if God could justify innocent suffering, he would refuse to accept the explanation, so the Grand Inquisitor also affirms this stand. The two — Ivan and the Grand Inquisitor — are in close accord, and much of the Grand Inquisitor is also seen in Ivan's questioning and perplexity. The two are also kissed by their opponents, Christ and Alyosha.
In the tale, when Christ reappears, the Grand Inquisitor has begun to build a world on the concepts of authority, miracle, and mystery. As a cardinal, he speaks and commands with unquestionable authority. When he sees Christ performing miracles among the people, he has merely to hold out his finger and bid the guards take Him. The townspeople are cowed by him; they tremblingly obey him.
The church-conceived way to salvation and its strong-arm authority are targets for Dostoevsky. Through Ivan, he builds up a case of condemnation against the Roman Catholic Church. The Grand Inquisitor, for example, visiting Christ in the night says to Him, "Thou hast no right to add anything to what Thou hadst said of old." That is, Christ has said all that was necessary. Since then the church has taken over with its great authority and established what should — and should not — be believed. The church, not Christ, is the supreme authority in matters of faith and conduct. "Why hast Thou come to hinder us," he asks Christ. To make sure that He does not overthrow the centuries of authority of the church, he says that he will "condemn Thee and burn Thee at the stake as the worst of heretics."
The argument between the Grand Inquisitor and Christ is made especially effective because Dostoevsky arranges their meeting on ancient terms: Christ is once again the prisoner, the accused, yet He does not defend Himself. Ironically, it is the executioner who must defend himself. The prisoner never utters a word. But it is wrong to see them as hero and villain. Both men — one silently, the other verbosely — argue for the best way in which man can achieve happiness. Both have humanistic motives and love for the mass of mankind. Their end result — happiness for man — is identical; only by definition and method do the men vary.
The Grand Inquisitor criticizes Christ for wishing to set man free, asking "Thou hast seen these 'free' men?" For fifteen centuries the problem of freedom has weighed heavily on both the church and mankind, but now, says the Inquisitor, the church has "vanquished freedom and has done so to make men happy." His pity for the weakness of man has made him realize that man cannot handle such a burdensome problem as freedom. To prove this point, he reminds Christ of the temptations He was tested by.
The source for the Grand Inquisitor's view is found in St. Luke, 4:1–13:
And Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost returned from Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness,
Being forty days tempted of the devil. And in those days he did eat nothing: and when they were ended, he afterward hungered.
And the devil said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, command this stone that it be made bread.
And Jesus answered him, saying, It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.
And the devil, taking him up into a high mountain, showed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.
And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will, I give it.
If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine.
And Jesus answered and said unto him, Get thee behind me, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.
And he brought him to Jerusalem, and set him on a pinnacle of the temple, and said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence:
For it is written, He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee:
And in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.
And Jesus answering said unto him, It is said, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.
And when the devil had ended all the temptation, he departed from him for a season.
An important question evoked by this passage is whether or not Christ was refusing the temptations — security through bread, authority, and miracle — for Himself alone, or whether by refusing He was doing so for all mankind and placing a burden too tremendous upon such a frail creature as man. If Christ refused solely for Himself, His refusal does not carry such heavy implications because He was divine and could easily afford to resist such temptations. But if He was refusing for all mankind, then it follows that He expects man to believe in something intangible even while He does not have enough to eat.
To complicate the matter, the Grand Inquisitor places his questions in the terms of being asked by "the wise and dread spirit," who offers Christ three things. Christ is clearly the rejector, but not for Himself alone — for all mankind. And when the Grand Inquisitor states, "The statement of those three questions was itself the miracle," he means that Satan is so wording his questions that the future fate of all mankind will be determined. He asks Christ to "Judge Thyself who was right — Thou or he who questioned Thee."
The first question is viewed in terms of freedom versus security. By refusing the bread, Christ is insisting that man must have freedom to choose to follow Him without being lulled into a sense of security by being provided with bread. If bread is provided, then man loses his freedom to choose Christ voluntarily: "Thou wouldst not deprive men of freedom and didst reject the offer, thinking what is that freedom worth, if obedience is bought with bread." The Grand Inquisitor feels that what Christ wants for man is impossible. "Nothing," he says, "has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom." By denying bread or security for man and by giving man in its stead the freedom to follow Him of his own volition, Christ failed to understand the human nature of men who are "weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious." To promise the bread of heaven to a man starving for earthly bread, and to expect him to choose the former of his own volition, puts an insufferable weight upon mankind who must, by nature, reject Christ in favor of whoever offers earthly bread. The Grand Inquisitor cries, "Feed men and then ask of them virtue."
Instead of freeing all mankind, Christ (charges the Grand Inquisitor) succeeded only in freeing the strong. The tens of thousands who have the strength to voluntarily accept heavenly bread follow Him, but what, asks the Inquisitor, is to become of the tens of millions who are too weak to accept, responsibly, the dreadful freedom of choice? Are the weak to be condemned for the sake of the elect who have the strength to follow after the heavenly bread?
The Grand Inquisitor says that he has corrected Christ's errors. He has done so because he loves the weak who hunger after earthly bread. Man is now fed by the church and, in return, has willingly relinquished his former freedom for security. "Man seeks to worship what is established beyond dispute" so that he will not have to face the dreadful "freedom of choice." If Christ had only chosen the bread, He then would "have satisfied the universal and ever-lasting craving for humanity — to find someone to worship." Christ erred in rejecting earthly bread for the sake of freedom. "Instead of taking men's freedom from them, Thou didst make it greater than ever! Didst Thou forget that man prefers peace and even death to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil?"
Also, by His rejection of earthly bread, Christ forced man to choose between security and something that is "exceptional, vague, and enigmatic. Thou didst choose what was utterly beyond the strength of men. Instead of taking possession of man's freedom, Thou didst increase it and burdened the spiritual kingdom of mankind with its suffering forever." Now each individual must decide for himself "what is good and what is evil, having only Thy Image before him." Had Christ truly loved mankind, He should have had more compassion and should have understood man's inherent weaknesses.
The Grand Inquisitor explains then that he (the church) has compassion and understanding for man and has given him "miracle, mystery, and authority." The church tells man what to believe and what to choose and thereby relieves him of choosing for himself. At last man has a sense of security, which Christ denied him.
By miracle, the Grand Inquisitor explains that when Christ rejected the second temptation — the refusal to cast Himself down — he was rejecting one of the essential characteristics man expects from religion: the truly miraculous. Of course, Christ, as divine, could reject the miraculous, but He should have understood that the nature of man desires a miracle. "But Thou didst not know that when man rejects miracles he rejects God also; 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." In other words, man's basic nature is to seek that which transcends human existence; he worships that which is superhuman, that which has a sense of the miraculous.
"We are not working with Thee," the Inquisitor says, "but with him — that is our mystery. It's long — eight centuries — since we have been on his side and not on Thine. Just eight centuries ago, we took from him what Thou didst reject with scorn, that last gift he offered Thee, showing Thee all the kingdoms of the earth. We took from him Rome and the sword of Caesar."
The church has taken the kingdom of earth — that which Christ rejected. Here the church has established its plan for the universal happiness of man. "Freedom, free thought, and science" will create such insoluble riddles and chaotic disunity that soon, all men will gladly surrender their freedom, saying, "You alone possess His mystery . . . save us from ourselves."
The future world of happiness will be based on a totalitarian state, organized on the principle of total obedience and submission, and "they will submit to us gladly and cheerfully . . . because it will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves." The church will even allow certain people to sin so long as they are obedient and submissive. Man's happiness will be the happiness of children who have no responsibilities and no choices; all questions will be answered by the church. The only person unhappy will be, ironically, those few who will "guard the mystery." That is, only the members of the church who understand the above concepts will suffer because they will be the "sufferers who have taken upon themselves the curse of the knowledge of good and evil."
Like Ivan, the Grand Inquisitor is unwilling to become one of the few elect when it means that "millions of creatures have been created as a mockery." Only a few people in the world can prize or understand the freedom given them by Christ; these are the strong and the powerful. Out of pity for all mankind, the Grand Inquisitor, who could have been on the side of the elect, repudiates the system that would doom millions of the weak. Such a system is unjust, and thus he chooses to accept a system designed for the multitudes of the weak rather than for the few of the strong.
At one point, the Grand Inquisitor says that he must burn Christ so that "man will not have to be plagued with that horrible burden of inner freedom." He is a martyr in a special sense because he reserves the privilege of suffering for the few strong people; in this way, the mass of mankind will not have to undergo the terrible suffering associated with absolute freedom. Christ consequently has no right to interfere in the church's organized happiness; He must be punished as an enemy of the people.
At the end of the discussion, Christ responds to the Grand Inquisitor by giving him a kiss on his withered lips. This paradoxical ending undercuts the soliloquy, leaving us to wonder what is right. The reader, however, should remember that Dostoevsky has created two opposite poles of response; man is seldom faced with such clear-cut opposition.
When Alyosha re-enacts the poem and kisses Ivan, it is partly because he recognizes that a man cannot come to such opinions as he has just heard unless he has given them considerable thought; they are obviously the most important questions of mankind. Furthermore, Ivan, like Alyosha, does have a deep love for humanity, a quality that makes anyone worthy of redemption.