The Legend Of The Grand Inquisitor

Symbols are always worth noting, for they help bring into focus some of our half-formed ways of thinking and feeling. They clarify what had been indistinct; they solidify what had been scattered and amorphous.
One of the most powerful symbols for me, as I view the current social-political panorama, comes out of the sixteenth century by way of a nineteenth-century novel. Time and again I ask, "Where have I seen that before?" and the answer is "It's the Grand Inquisitor all over again."
"The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor" is a stand-alone section of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's nineteenth century novel The Brothers' Karamazov. (In every edition I've seen, it appears in the table of contents, so you can find it easily.)
The Legend is set in Seville, Spain, during the height of the Inquisition, with the Grand Inquisitor in command. The story begins with the sudden appearance of Christ among the people, who all throng to His side.
Instead of welcoming Christ, the Grand Inquisitor has Him seized and imprisoned. The Grand Inquisitor's philosophy unfolds in the conversation - a one-sided conversation -- between the two as he visits Christ in His cell. He begins by saying ". . . tomorrow I shall condemn Thee and burn Thee at the stake as the worst of heretics. And the very people who have today kissed Thy feet, tomorrow at the faintest sign from me will rush to heap up the embers of Thy fire." (At the end of the story, however, the Grand Inquisitor releases Christ with the admonition never to return.)
The Grand Inquisitor says, "For fifteen centuries we have been wrestling with Thy freedom, but now it is ended and over for good. . . .today, people are more persuaded than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet." Christ is the enemy because He champions freedom.
The Grand Inquisitor reveals that he has been working on Satan's side, against Christ, and he has been doing so out of a love for mankind. He brings up the three temptations presented by Satan (Matthew 4:1-11). Christ, he implies, gave the wrong replies to these temptations. For, he says, it was Satan, not Christ, who recognized the three needs of the mass (not the elite) of mankind:
1) "bread" - people place first importance not on the ability to make free choices, but on satisfaction of material wants. Hence he says "there is no crime, and therefore no sin; there is only hunger. . . . ," for in order to commit crimes and sins, people must have free choice.)
2) miracles - overwhelming power, sufficient to overcome the natural order of things, serving as an object of worship.
3) world-wide unity, a world-wide kingdom among men, in which there are no dissenting views to challenge the accepted dogma.
In his view, the mass of people have a deep and overpowering desire not to be free, because they are weak creatures who find meaning through satisfaction of material desires and submission to authority and dogma. The Grand Inquisitor governs them not by force but by the power of "miracle, mystery and authority."
Thus we see two sharply opposed pictures of human beings and their ultimate needs, and of the nature of society: Christ represents freedom -- freedom to choose. What this means, exactly, is hard to discern (Christ doesn't have a speaking part), and would be an interesting subject for debate. It is perhaps most clearly defined in opposition to the view of the Grand Inquisitor.
The Grand Inquisitor, in view of the oppressive and dictatorial government he heads, may at first glance appear to be merely a precursor of Big Brother. But his grasp, and his significance, is deeper and more subtle than that. The repression he presides over is cultural and psychological. He presents a materialistic society in which an elite class of leaders use their absolute authority to manipulate the mass of people, who in turn offer up their robot-like, slavish obedience. And this is accomplished not through force but because the people have quite willingly given up their power to think and to choose.
Which side is America on? The American creed of course champions freedom. However, the Grand Inquisitor eloquently argues that the belief in freedom can be false: ". . . people are more persuaded than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet." As we scan the American social landscape, with its advertising-driven consumerism, its cash-driven politics, its blind patriotism, its unthinking dogmatism, we may from time to time see the Grand Inquisitor raising his all-too-attractive head.
So the final question is: Who stands on the side of the Grand Inquisitor, and who stands on the side of Christ?
Read More on Minding the Issues
Volume 1, Issue 4, Posted 06.13 AM / 09th August 2005.