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The Grand Inquisitor. “[N]othing has ever been more insufferable for man than freedom!”. A Prose Poem Given by Ivan to Alyosha from The Brothers Karamazov. Existentialism.

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the grand inquisitor

The Grand Inquisitor

“[N]othing has ever been more insufferable for man than freedom!”

A Prose Poem Given by Ivan to Alyosha from

The Brothers Karamazov


This is a philosophical movement in which individual human beings are understood as having full responsibility for creating the meanings of their own lives. It is a reaction against more traditional philosophies, such as rationalism and empiricism, which sought to discover an ultimate order in metaphysical principles or in the structure of the observed world. The movement had its origins in the 19th century thought of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and was prevalent in Continental philosophy in the 20th century.

setting in the novel
Setting in the Novel
  • The “poem” is given while Ivan and Alyosha are dining
  • Earlier Ivan’s dinner conversation with Alyosha adds a new level of complexity to the novel’s exploration of religion and spirituality.
  • The novel does not simplistically suggest that belief in God brings unmitigated happiness while doubt brings unmitigated suffering, and the brothers’ dinner conversation provides the rationale behind the idea that not believing in God is more reasonable and compassionate than believing in him.
  • Through his description of the unjust suffering of children and of the general misery of mankind’s situation on Earth, Ivan presents the strongest case against religion in the novel.
  • Ivan’s dilemma mirrors the biblical dilemma of Job, who asked how a loving God could allow mankind to endure injustice and misery for no apparent reason.

Listen: if everyone must suffer, in order to buy eternal harmony with their suffering, pray tell me what have children got to do with it? It’s quite incomprehensible why they should have to suffer, and why they should buy harmony with their suffering.

Ivan cannot understand why young children would be made to suffer under a loving God.
  • In rejecting outright the explanation that God’s ways are too mysterious for mankind to comprehend, Ivan illustrates the depth of his commitment to rational coherence.
  • He can only believe in a God who is rational like the human beings he created, and he thinks that a truly loving God would have made the universe comprehensible to mankind.
  • As such, Ivan’s religious doubt is slightly different from atheism, because Ivan says that if God does indeed exist, he is not good or just. “Oh I still believe in God; the question is what kind of God?” (Lewis A Grief Observed)
  • The problem is not resolvable.
    • Either no God exists, or a God exists who is the equivalent of a torturer. This problem is the ultimate source of Ivan’s despair. Ivan’s understanding of the world means that mankind is alone in the universe and that Fyodor Pavlovich’s revolting attitude toward life is acceptable and even logical. If this is not the case, then God himself must be a heartless tyrant.
setting of the story
Setting of the Story
  • Ivan explains his prose poem, “The Grand Inquisitor.” In a town in Spain, in the sixteenth century, Christ arrives, apparently reborn on Earth.
  • As he walks through the streets, the people gather about him, staring. He begins to heal the sick, but his ministrations are interrupted by the arrival of a powerful cardinal who orders his guards to arrest Christ.
  • Late that night, this cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor, visits Christ’s cell and explains why he has taken him prisoner and why he cannot allow Christ to perform his works. Throughout the Grand Inquisitor’s lecture, Christ listens silently.
the frame of the argument
The Frame of the Argument
  • The Inquisitor frames his denunciation of Jesus around the three questions Satan asked Jesus during the temptation of Christ in the desert.
  • In Mathew 4: 1-11 and Luke 4: 1-14 these three temptations 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 Grand Inquisitor says that by rejecting these three temptations, Christ had guaranteed that human beings would have free will. However, free will is a devastating, impossible burden for mankind.
the bread
The bread
  • The first temptation Christ rejected was bread. Hungry after his forty days of fasting, Christ was confronted by Satan, who told him that if he were really the son of God, he could turn a stone to bread and satisfy his hunger. Christ refused, replying that man should not live by bread, but by the word of God.
  • The Grand Inquisitor says that most people are too weak to live by the word of God when they are hungry. Christ should have taken the bread and offered mankind freedom from hunger instead of freedom of choice.
demonstrate through miracles
Demonstrate through Miracles
  • The second temptation was to perform a miracle. Satan placed Christ upon a pinnacle in Jerusalem and told him to prove that he was the messiah by throwing himself off it. If Christ were really God’s son, the angels would bear him up and not allow him to die. Christ refused, telling Satan that he could not tempt God. Beaten, Satan departed.
  • But the Grand Inquisitor says that Christ should have given people a miracle, for most people need to see the miraculous in order to be content in their religious faith. Man needs a supernatural being to worship, and Christ refused to appear as one.
earthly power
Earthly Power
  • The third temptation was power. Satan showed Christ all the kingdoms in the world, and offered him control of them all. Christ refused.
  • The Grand Inquisitor says that Christ should have taken the power, but since he did not, the Church has now has to take it in his name, in order to convince men to give up their free will in favor of their security.
the role of institutionalized faith
The Role of Institutionalized Faith
  • The Grand Inquisitor tells Christ that it was Satan, and not Christ, who was in the right during this exchange. He says that ever since the Church took over the Roman Empire, it has been secretly performing the work of Satan, not because it is evil, but because it seeks the best and most secure order for mankind.
Ivan indicates that the Inquisitor is an atheist. After a lifetime of pursuing God, he has given up in frustration.
  • He is nevertheless left with his love of humanity and desire to see humanity not suffer.
  • Despite declaring the Inquisitor to be an atheist, Ivan also implies that the Inquisitor and the 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 kiss
“The Kiss”
  • The segment ends when Christ, who has been silent throughout, kisses the Inquisitor on his "bloodless, aged lips" (22) 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 ideas."
  • The kiss that Christ plants on the lips of the Grand Inquisitor is the equal of Christ's whispered words to Judas (John 13.27) "that thou doest, do quickly." Just as Jesus in no way condones Judas' betrayal, so Christ's kiss does not excuse the Grand Inquisitor.
Just as Alyosha is unable to offer a satisfactory response to Ivan’s critique of God, Christ says nothing during the Inquisitor’s critique of him, one of several parallels between Alyosha and Christ during this chapter.
  • But Christ’s enigmatic kiss on the Inquisitor’s lips after his indictment completely changes the tenor of the scene.
  • Recalling Zosima’s bow before Dmitri at the monastery in Book I, the kiss represents an overriding act of love and forgiveness so innate that it can only be expressed wordlessly. On its deepest level, it defies explanation.
  • The power of faith and love, Dostoevsky implies, is rooted in mystery—not simply in the empty and easily digestible idea that God’s will is too complex for people to understand, but in a resonant, active, unanswerable profundity. The kiss cannot overcome a logical argument, but at the same time there is no logical argument that can overcome the kiss.
  • It represents the triumph of love and faith, on their own terms, over rational skepticism.
what does it do
What Does it Do?
  • 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!" The brothers part soon afterwards.
  • In having Ivan end his poem on a note of such deep and moving ambiguity, Dostoevsky has his major opponent of religion acknowledge the power of faith, just as Dostoevsky himself, a proponent of faith, has used Ivan to acknowledge the power of doubt.
  • Alyosha’s kiss for Ivan indicates how well the young Alyosha understands the problems of faith and doubt in a world characterized by free will, and just how committed his own will is to the positive goodness of faith.
the dying father zossima
The Dying Father Zossima
  • In many ways the last words of Father Zossima work as a counterweight against the rational of Ivan.
  • The main philosophical conflict of the novel is apparent in the structural division between Books V and VI: the dark and brooding Book V is consumed with the tremors of Ivan’s doubt, while the more peaceful Book VI is devoted to the quiet wisdom of Zosima’s faith.
  • Ivan’s frenzied logical examinations are replaced with more positive examples of the power of faith to do good in the world. In a way, the anecdote of the murderer is the exact opposite of the Grand Inquisitor story. The Grand Inquisitor story tells about an innocent man who is imprisoned and judged, while Zosima’s anecdote of the murderer tells about a guilty man who is goes free and is forgiven.
In addition to the parallel between the story of the Grand Inquisitor and the anecdote of the murderer, there are a number of other parallels between things Zosima describes in Book VI and events that take place in the larger narrative, both before and after this section of the novel.
  • For instance, Zosima’s description of himself in youth as a soldier like Dmitri, with a brother who helped to redeem him spiritually, echoes the relationship between Dmitri and Alyosha: Alyosha also helps to redeem Dmitri, and Zosima says specifically that Alyosha reminds him of his brother.
Zosima’s youthful duel and the murder committed in the anecdote of the murderer are both crimes of passion committed for a woman’s love, and thus echo the rivalry between Fyodor Pavlovich and Dmitri for Grushenka.
  • The murderer’s acceptance of responsibility and his desire to confess involve many of the same issues of responsibility and redemption that affect Ivan.
  • These parallels ultimately are another sign of the infallible wisdom of Zosima. He is able to predict, better than anyone else, what lies ahead for the Karamazovs, and he is thus able to tailor his final lesson to what he knows will be Alyosha’s needs in the coming crisis. Alyosha has proved himself capable of internalizing Zosima’s lessons, and he emerges from this final conversation with Zosima better prepared to handle the hardships that lie ahead.
from the text of the brothers karamazov
From the Text of The Brothers Karamazov

“Brothers, have no fear of men’s sin. Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. . .Work without ceasing. If you remember in the night as you go to sleep, “I have not done what I ought to have done,” rise up at once and do it. If the people around you are spiteful and callous and will not hear you, fall down before them and beg their forgiveness;”


“If the evil doing of men moves you to indignation and overwhelming distress, even to a desire for vengeance on the evil-doers, shun above all things that feeling. Go at once and seek suffering for yourself, as though you were yourself guilty of that wrong. Accept that suffering and bear it and your heart will find comfort, and you will understand that you too are guilty, for you might have been a light to the evil-doers, even as the one man sinless, and you were not a light to them.”


Here Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov’s manuscript ends. I repeat, it is incomplete and fragmentary. Biographical details, for instance, cover only Father Zossima’s earliest youth. Of his teaching and opinions we find brought together sayings evidently uttered on very different occasions. His utterances during the last few hours have not been kept separate from the rest, but their general character can be gathered from what we have in Alexey Fyodorovitch’s manuscript.


“The elder’s death came in the end quite unexpectedly. For although those who were gathered about him that last evening realised that his death was approaching, yet it was difficult to imagine that it would come so suddenly. On the contrary, his friends, as I observed already, seeing him that night apparently so cheerful and talkative, were convinced that there was at least a temporary change for the better in his condition. Even five minutes before his death, they said afterwards wonderingly, it was impossible to foresee it.


He seemed suddenly to feel an acute pain in his chest, he turned pale and pressed his hands to his heart. All rose from their seats and hastened to him.But though suffering, he still looked at them with a smile, sank slowly from his chair on to his knees, then bowed his face to the ground, stretched out his arms and as though in joyful ecstasy, praying and kissing the ground, quietly and joyfully gave up his soul to God.

the priest s last act
The Priest’s Last Act
  • Zosima’s death, as he stretches out his arms to embrace the Earth, is a symbol of acceptance and faith, indicating his love of God’s creation with the last energy left in his body.
  • Zosima’s sincerity and his assent to the will of God are total. He does not die with fear, resentment, or regret.
  • His final gesture is one of rapturous acquiescence, and thus Zosima’s death works as an emblem of everything he has taught, spoken, and stood for throughout the novel.