The Grand Inquisitor: Miracle, Mystery and Authority

In Dostoevsky's The Grand Inquisitor, a scene from a larger work, The Brothers Karamozov, the character Ivan relates a poem he has written in prosaic fashion to his brother Alyosha. In his prose-poem, Ivan tells of a fanciful encounter between the Grand Inquisitor, a Catholic cardinal, and Christ during the Inquisition in Spain. Instead of welcoming his Savior, the Grand Inquisitor incarcerates Him and begins to chastise and criticize Him for neglecting the "rebellious and sinful" majority of mankind by refusing to unify their worship through the use of miracle, mystery or authority, the "'"only three powers that can conquer and capture the conscience of these impotent rebels forever"'" (p. 129-130). The Grand Inquisitor's admonitions focus on His rejection of the three temptations offered Him by "'"the wise and dread spirit of self-destruction and non-existence"'" (p. 125). The Grand Inquisitor feels the acceptance of these three temptations would subjugate and unify man forever, since they represent the three powers that can accomplish this task. The first temptation presented by the Wise Spirit, as the Grand Inquisitor refers to him, asks Christ to change stones into bread in order to feed His people. By feeding them, He would solidify their loyalty, but, at the same time, revoke their freedom to choose to follow Him of their own accord and for no temporal reward. The constriction of people's free will is precisely the reason the Grand Inquisitor cites as the key to Christ's refusal of all three temptations. The Grand Inquisitor's admonitions result from his anger over Christ's decision to allow mankind free will, despite His knowledge of human nature. If Christ had chosen to provide an earthly reward for His followers, he would have provided an incentive for them to follow and believe in Him, other than the promise of eternal salvation. This, in the eyes of the Grand Inquisitor, only inhibits the union of people and increases their unhappiness: "'This craving for community of worship is the chief misery of every man individually and of all humanity from the beginning of time. . .In bread there was offered to You an indisputable banner; give bread and man will worship You, for nothing is more indisputable than bread.'" (p. 129-130) The Grand Inquisitor perceives Christ's rejection of this temptation as a condemnation of mankind to a life of suffering and struggle as they attempt to follow His example. According to the Grand Inquisitor, if Christ had chosen to give His people a reward for following Him, He would have possession of their conscience and, therefore, possession of their faith. Christ's resistance to this temptation preserves mystery in mankind's faith because, instead of owing God faith and worship in return for bread, men must choose, of their own free will, to follow Christ's example. The Wise Spirit's second temptation challenges Christ to cast himself down in order to allow the angels to carry Him up and keep Him from harm. Christ resists this temptation as well. In His rejection of the temptation, Christ prevents a faith based on miracle: "'for again, You would not enslave man by a miracle, and craved faith given freely, not based on a miracle.'" (p. 130) By casting Himself down and being aided by angels, Christ would have erased blind faith since man would then have proof of His holiness and power. Christ, however, did not want this sort of faithless worship--faithless because with proof, faith does not exist--rather, He wanted a worship freely given by those who would follow in His example. The final temptation is the most obvious and most direct method by which mankind could have been "enslaved" by the awesome power of God. The Wise Spirit offers Christ all the kingdoms of the world for Him to rule. Christ, of course, rejects the offer and thereby prevents a rule of faith by authority. Thus, the only option left to the Grand Inquisitor, and those like him, is to utilize the mystery of faith to subjugate and unify the weaker masses. The Grand Inquisitor admits that, for the past eight centuries "'"We are not working with You, but with him--that is our mystery"'" (p. 132). The preservation of mystery in faith has allowed those like the Grand Inquisitor to continue to subjugate man and to relieve him of his freedom: "'But just then the beast [mankind] will crawl to us and lick our feet and spatter them with tears of blood from their eyes. And we shall sit upon the beast and raise the cup, and on it will be written "mystery."'" (p. 133) The Grand Inquisitor seeks to accomplish his goal of unity and subjugation through any means possible, including deceit. Because of this deceit, "'"they [mankind] will die peacefully, they will expire peacefully in Your name, and beyond the grave they will find nothing but death"'" (p. 135). The Grand Inquisitor's ideal of making mankind happy on earth, albeit in a childlike and innocent way, will eventually lead the masses away from Christ and salvation, toward nothingness and death.