The Grand Inquisitor


“The Grand Inquisitor” is a chapter of Dostoevsky’s masterpiece “The Brothers Karamazov”. In “The Grand Inquisitor”, Christ returns to 1500s Spain during the height of the inquisition. The people are drawn to him; a flock emerges as he walks the streets with his gentle smile of infinite compassion, performing miracles, raising a dead girl, and healing even those who touch his garments. He did this without saying a word except when he commanded the girl to rise, saying “Maiden, arise”. However, this attracts the attention of the Grand Inquisitor, an aged man of ninety, who has such great power that without a word the crowd is cowed to submission and allows Christ’s arrest. I would recommend that all read The Grand Inquisitor, for I am not Dostoevsky and can not do it justice. However, I have for your benefit paraphrased the rest of the story, hopefully, shortening its length, but not removing or contorting the ideas presented.

The Grand Inquisitor walks into Christ’s cell, he is alone, and the door is shut behind him. “Is it you? … No, be silent – do not speak, I already know what you would say. You do not have the right to add to what you have said before, and you may not lift from men the freedom you so praised fifteen hundred years ago. Whatever you say will take the freedom of faith from men you hold so high, for it will be seen as a miracle. Were you not fond of saying “I will make you free”? Look at these free men, the criminals, the heretics, and the lost. but at last, we have completed your work, people today “are more persuaded than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they have brought freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet’.

‘The wise dread Spirit, the spirit of self-destruction, and non-existence”, it is said, that you talked with him and that he “tempted” you, is that true? And could anything be truer than the statement of those three questions? If those questions were lost to time, and the task was set upon man to reinvent those three phrases could all the wisdom of the earth create them? Could any philosopher, poet, or learned man, write such questions? Questions of such force that they bring the entirety of human history and the contradictions of man’s nature into one? Could anyone but the wise dread Spirit write such questions and reveal such wisdom? “Three questions were so justly divined and foretold, and have been so truly fulfilled, that nothing can be added to them or taken from them. Judge yourself who was right—You or he who questioned you then?”. Think back to his first question. Reworded, he said that you were going into the world empty-handed, with some vague notion of freedom that the simpleness of man not only fails to understand but fears, for nothing has been more insupportable to man and society than freedom. But you see these stones, turn them into bread, and mankind will be your flock of sheep forever running after you, though forever wary, less you withhold their bread. But you did reject the offer, unwilling to sacrifice man’s freedom for obedience wrought by earthly bread. However, in the coming ages, man will proclaim that there is no crime nor sin; there is only hunger. Man will write on their banners as they rebel against you “Feed men, then ask of them virtue!” and as they tear down your temples and conquer you, and will follow him crying “Who is like this beast? He has given us fire from heaven!”. Then mankind with its science and wisdom will begin again the Tower of Babel. But when their tower has fallen, they will come to us whom they persecuted and tortured and cry to us “Feed us, for those who have promised us fire from heaven haven’t given it!” and we will complete the masses’ tower, as he who feeds them finishes the tower. Can the heavenly bread so promised, compare to the earthly bread before the “Weak, ever sinful, and ignoble race of man?” Are the tens of thousands that will follow the heavenly bread greater than the tens of millions that will follow the banner of earthly bread and still love God? We care for the weak and so shall deceive them, enduring for them the burden of freedom. We shall say that we are God’s servants, and rule in his name, this will be our “suffering, for we shall be forced to lie”. By not choosing bread, you denied the everlasting craving of humanity to find something that is “Beyond dispute” so that all will worship the same thing and by doing so, unite the world and make men ants, but gleeful ants. So the desire for community worship is sated and man will be together in worship. Because without a conception of the object of life, man will choose the darkness of the grave over the light of God’s earth. The people will turn to God and say the truth is not in you, for they could not have experienced greater confusion and suffering than through the burden of freedom and free choice”.

“You were offered the three forces capable of creating eternal happiness for man, mystery, miracle, and authority and you did reject them each. When the dread spirit asked that if you are truly the son of God then cast yourself down from the temple’s pinnacle and prove that the angels of heaven will save you. You did not, rather you chose to act in a righteous manner, one worthy of your stature and not to test God, and not to tie the act of following him to miraculous works. However, man is not like God and when he casts aside miracles, then God is cast aside as well and man will make miracles of his own to satiate his need for the miraculous. If you had come down from the cross, as their voices had called to you, then man might have been saved. But you did so crave freedom of faith and love, and not a slave’s love based upon awe and miracles. However, you expect too much of man, you think too highly of his abilities for man is but a rebellious slave, who is much weaker and baser than you believe. Thus the respect shown to him, through not enslaving him by awe and miracle is not kindness or love, but a tragedy, for the burden put upon man is far too great for him. To respect man less and thus ask less of him, that would be truly loving him, loving him as he is. For “[man] is weak and vile” and prone to rebellions as he is now against the Church and God. Though these rebellions are like school children rioting and casting out the teacher with childish delight and pride; this will all come to pass, their pride and delight, when the blood drenches the earth. Then finally, awash in tears man will realize that God made him an “impotent rebel, unable to keep up [his] own rebellion”. He will see then that God must be mocking him and so he will then in despair mock God and commit great blasphemes. But blaspheme is against man’s nature, and so he will avenge this blaspheme on himself, creating the present lot of men, one of “unrest, confusion, and unhappiness”; all of this after you bore so much for his freedom. I ask you this, did you come only to the elect and for the elect? For how are the weak souls guilty of not bearing that terrible burden, how can they be judged like the twelve thousand elect, who for years endured in the wilderness only off of locus and roots; the ones which God points to with great joy and pride, the children of freedom, the children of free love and great sacrifice for God’s name. It is a mystery if you have come to and for only the elect and if it is so a mystery, then we, have a right to preach a mystery and teach the people “That it’s not the free judgment of their hearts, not love that matters, but a mystery, which they must follow blindly, even against their own conscience”. We have corrected your work and founded it upon miracle, mystery, and authority and man is happy once more, for he is once again led blindly like sheep and that terrible gift is taken from him once more…Speak! Were we not right to do what we have done and will do?; “Did we not love mankind, so meekly acknowledging their feebleness, lovingly lightening their burden, and permitting their weak nature even sin with our sanction?’. 

Why have you come to hinder us! … Don’t look at me like that, with pity and care, I do not want your love, for I do not love you. For we have been working with him for eight centuries. Ever since we took from him, the last gift, the last temptation. We took what you rejected with scorn as you sat atop the mountain looking out at all the kingdoms of man … We accepted what you did not, Rome and the sword of Caesar; all the land that the eye can ever see is ours, we proclaim ourselves rulers of the world, though that may not be so yet, it will be one day and the day that we are triumphant we shall be Caesars and will plan the universal happiness of man. But yet this day could have come already if you had taken the last counsel of the Great Dread Spirit and forged the universal state. You could have given to man universal peace, for you would have accomplished all that man desires; “someone to worship, someone to keep his conscience, and some means of uniting all in one unanimous and harmonious ant-heap, for the craving of universal unity, is the third and last anguish of men”. The one who rules man, is the one that holds both his conscience and his bread, and that day is near for the Church, for man in his rebellion has started upon his tower of Babel without us, and for this, it will surely end in cannibalism. Then when the beast comes back, it will lick our feet and we will sit upon him, and raise up the cup which has mystery written upon it, then and only then will peace reign for men. Because we shall convince him that to become free, they must renounce their freedom to us, and submit entirely to us, in order to be happy. And the people will believe that we are true, that we are right because they will look back and see the horrors of the past; the great atrocities of slavery, and the numerous deaths that their freedom leads to. Their freedom of thought and science will garner much, but it will sail them down dire straits in which they will see marvels and unsolvable mysteries; the strong among them will destroy themselves, the rebellious will destroy each other, but the weak – the weak,  they will crawl to us and say that we were right, that we alone hold His mystery and they will plead to us to save them from themselves. They will become weak and mild; when given the sign, they will cry like women and then just as quickly rejoice and smile in childish glee. They shall work, but in their leisure hours, we shall make life a child’s game with children’s song and dance. Their sins will be allowed, with our consent, for we love them, as you do not. We will take upon ourselves, man’s sins, and the painful secrets of his conscience, his questions will be answered and joy will dance upon his lips for the anxiety of free decision-making we will carry and so whether a man may take a wife, or have children will be according to if he is obedient or rebellious. The only ones who shall be unhappy, are the few who rule over them. Only those who safeguard the mystery will be unhappy; Oh “Peacefully they will die, peacefully, they will expire in God’s name, and beyond the grave, they will find nothing but death”. For the sake of man’s endless joy, we will keep the terrible secret unknown and allure man with grand ideas of heaven and eternity.

“It is prophesied”, the Inquisitor said, “that God will come down with his chosen to judge the world, and we will say that they have saved themselves, whereas we have saved all, and it is written that the meek will rise up, and rend the royal purple of the Harlot who sits atop the beast holding in her hands the mystery. Then we, those who have carried the burden, of freedom, the knowledge of good and evil, and the mystery will ask if you dare judge us, ask if you even can. I have no fear of you, I was one of them, the elect, the chosen; those who for years in the wilderness ate only locus and roots, I as well saw glory in the freedom you so gave to man and God looked at me with pride. “But I awakened and would not serve madness. I turned back and joined the ranks of those who have corrected thy work. I left the proud and went back to the humble, for the happiness of the humble”. When the sun sets tomorrow, you shall see your faithful flock, who at but a sign from my hand will set fire to your cross with joy, childish joy alight, burning in their eyes. “For if anyone has ever deserved our fires, it is you. Tomorrow I shall burn you. Dixi”. 

When the Grand Inquisitor finished, the silence weighed heavy in the room pressing down upon his aged body. And the silence took the form of a snake for it coiled around the Inquisitor’s heart and poisoned his mind. But the Prisoner’s face was the same, it still bore that expression of gentle compassion, the same as when he healed the weak and raised the dead. His eyes were intent upon the Grand Inquisitor, just as they had been when he spoke, and Inquisitor saw then that he had listened and understood all, and oh how he longed for him to speak, to say any word, no matter how bitter or terrible it may be. But the prisoner merely rose and walked to the aged man and softly kissed his bloodless lips. “That was all his answer. The old man shuddered. His lips moved. He went to the door, opened it, and said to Him: ‘Go, and come no more… Come not at all, never, never!’ And he let Him out into the dark alleys of the town, The Prisoner went away”.

End of Story


The Grand Inquisitor’s philosophy is a utopian philosophy, which in this essay will be called dependencism. It states that man can reach heaven on earth if one were to take away the burden of freedom from man, provide him earthly bread, and rule man with mystery, miracle, and authority. His philosophy is shown through the three temptations of Christ, the temptation of earthly bread, miracle, and authority.


Earthly bread is the first lever used to control man: gained when Satan asks Christ, that if he is truly the son of God, then why does he not turn the stones of the wilderness into bread and save himself from hunger. To this Christ responds that “Men shall not live and be upheld and sustained by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God”. The Grand Inquisitor understands this on an abstract level, where the bread is a symbol for all earthly desires, and the words of God are heavenly bread, that which nourishes his soul. Christ’s rejection of the first offer, is a rejection of earthly bread as a means of controlling men: he “Would not deprive man of freedom … [for] what is that freedom worth if obedience is bought with bread?” (232). The Grand Inquisitor thinks that freedom of faith is foolishness, for by accepting the first offer, the chief desire of man would be sated, his “Everlasting craving [to] find someone to worship” (232). The reason he believes this is that he thinks man to be a rebellious, “Ever sinful and ignoble race”, whom the vast majority of which have not the “Strength to forgo the earthly bread for the sake of the heavenly” (233). Thus they will rebel against God, bearing the banner of bread, which reads “Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!”(233). What this means is that man can not be judged, he can not be asked of morals and morality, for “there is no crime, and therefore no sin; there is only hunger” (233). Or in other words, he has not the strength to overcome his biological cravings, he is weak and oppressed and therefore he can not be judged, for his will is not entirely his own, he is a product of past events and circumstances. In practice, the Grand Inquisitor’s ideology: Dependencism, will attempt to build again the Tower of Babel, or try to create heaven on earth, through bread, mystery, miracle, and authority. It also believes that mankind will attempt to build the tower of Babel, this being their utopian project. However, their utopia and the tower will crumble once more, for he who finishes the tower is he who feeds them, and “No science will give them bread so long as they remain free” (233). To amend this, the Grand Inquisitor will accept man’s offer to strip them of their freedom, in exchange for bread. Men will offer their freedom away, for they will have seen the horrors their freedom wrought upon them and realize that “Freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together” (233). This is the first part of Dependencism’s plan for the happiness of man; man’s freedom is gone, thus peace and material wealth, his desire for worship will be sated with worshiping the giver of bread, all of which is justified, for it moves man closer to the mystery. Mystery is the second of three powers needed to govern man but relates most closely to earthly bread. This is because Mystery is the dogma of society or the object that man will follow even against his conscience. Mystery will become the object of man’s life, his goal, for men, do not live by bread and bread alone. Man “would not consent to go on living, and would rather destroy himself than remain on earth” (234), even if gold flowed like water before his feet, and while in the morning the very flowers bloomed for his joy and his harems were greater than the Persian kings of old. Still, he would not be happy, still, the noose would be more appealing, and the knife in which he cuts his earthly bread would one day wander near and cut his throat thinking that in there he would find heavenly bread, the meaning to his life, a mystery of his own. Mystery and heavenly bread are very similar, as they hold the same outcome, the only difference being that mystery is the product of the other. They both help man to understand his place in the universe, find an ideal and fulfill a fundamental necessity: a stable “conception of life”. Now, are these not the products of religion or ideology? And is mystery not a dogma, or ideology? So then does mystery like heavenly bread not nourish the soul? The answer is yes, they both nourish the soul, the difference being that mystery is more expansive than heavenly bread; heavenly bread is the product of religion or ideology while mystery is the religion or ideology itself

Miracle is the first power needed to control man, and it is the reason, the foundation, the mandate of heaven, the proof of the legitimacy of both the state’s authority and the proof of the mystery. The second temptation of Christ is where the power of miracle is gained, it is where the Devil takes Jesus to the temple’s pinnacle and questions him, that if he is the son of God, then he must cast himself down and have the angels of heaven save him. However, “[He] did refuse and would not cast [himself] down [and he] did [so] proudly and well like God” (235). Though, as the Grand Inquisitor points out, man could not face such temptation and if he casts out miracle, then he will cast out God as well. The reason for this is that “Man seeks not so much God as the miraculous” (235). Thus, having rejected miracle and God, he will create miracles and will worship these new miracles, though he might be an Atheist. The Grand Inquisitor takes the opposite view as Christ; while Christ “Would not enslave man by a miracle, [for he] did crave for free love and not the base raptures of the slave” (235). Dependenceism, wants exactly that, to buy men’s love with earthly bread, and enslave them by miracle, so gaining the base raptures of a slave. The Grand Inquisitor wants this, because man is rebellious, yet wishes to give his freedom and conscience to another, to find something which all can undisputedly worship, and for all of man to be united in peace and to do this is a step to accomplishing all of the fundamental desires of man. It is also because in a Dependist’s view, “man is weaker and baser than [Christ] has believed him [to be]” (235), and as such man must be treated more like children, for by respecting him, “[Christ] did, as it were, cease to feel for him and [ ] ask far too much from him” (235). To truly love man, in his philosophy one must not respect him so much and thus ask less of him, one must lighten his burden (freedom, conscience, material want), to truly love him, meeting him at his level. Fundamentally, this is the justification for his philosophy, and it is epitomized when he questions “How is the weak soul to blame that it is unable to receive such terrible gifts?” (236). The gifts here are the freedoms Christ gave to man from refusing the Dread Spirit’s offers, and being unable to receive them is being unable to use them to meet the expectations of God. From this, it is shown that the Grand Inquisitor’s philosophy is born not from want of power, but a love of man, a love which corroded his mind, till the darkness became the light and he forgot his god, transfixed by his tower of Babel, his utopian vision. Next, miracle is the Divine, for it shows that there must be something divine, something greater than man, such that to compare the two would be blaspheming itself. Thus man will follow and believe in the mystery, for he recognizes that something greater than he: wiser, more knowledgeable holds it to be, and by doing so he becomes like a slave to it. To further elaborate, it is the reason, it is the explanation of the mystery and authority; Why does the mystery exist? Because the divine made it, what legitimacy is the authority based upon? The divine endowed it with its authority in order to accomplish its will. This last one could also be rephrased as the authority is based upon the fact that it is needed to reach the ideal, which is the same as to fulfill the divine’s will. Finally, why should man listen to the divine? For the divine is greater than he, look at the grand miracles done by it.


The final force needed to control man’s conscience is authority, which is the latent desire of man to unite all into one unanimous state. The Grand Inquisitor cites Timour and the Genghis-Khans of history as “But the unconscious expression of the same craving for universal unity” (237) and so he hopes to fulfill this “third and last anguish of men” which most troubles the nations the more developed they become, by accepting the final offer of the Dread Spirit: Rome and sword of Caesar. From this, they will conquer the world and become Caesars of their own, finally able to complete the tower of Babel: to achieve universal happiness for man. The Grand Inquisitor predicts, that this will not happen for many ages which man must endure “The confusion of free thought, of their science and cannibalism” (237), but eventually the strong will destroy themselves and the weak will come back saying that the Church, (Dependencism taking on the role of the church) were right, giving joyfully their freedom for earthly bread. In the Grand Inquisitor’s philosophy authority in principle is the enforcement of the dogma, or ideology (Mystery). It is the iron hand that a parent uses to force their children to their will. This statement itself is uncannily accurate, for, in Dependencism’s utopia, men will be taught “That they are only pitiful children … [that] they will become timid … [and] their life [will be] like a child’s game”(238).


Four forces are needed to fulfill man’s three greatest desires: something for all to worship, someone to keep his conscience, and universal unity. The key to satiating his first and chief desire of having something which all worship, is found foremost in his stomach, for men flock to he who provides for him and keeps him that does so sacred as well. They do this in fear that his bread, their basic necessities, would be withheld. However, if man’s desire for bread is not met, the populace will revolt, seeing that the current system is not functioning. Yet, the weak will go too far as to remove the foundation of society, the society’s God, and then create him once again though contorted. The reason that the weak do is, is that when they revolt, they give too much power to the revolutionaries, for they will accept whatever gives them bread, for they are starving and can not contemplate on philosophy nor the future, while also starving, unlike the elect. Thus they so choose earthly bread, tying whom they worship to who feeds them and rejecting both freedom and individuality. Next, to keep man’s conscience, miracle, mystery, and authority are woven to form a net in which his conscience, his most prized, yet despised possession, the thing which makes him different from an animal, can be caught like a simple fish. The net is first woven with miracle, for it is the foundation of the rest, it is the legitimizing force for society’s mystery and authority. The reason for this is that Miracle can be equated with God and the divine like the Grand Inquisitor does when explaining the second temptation. After this, there is mystery, the society’s dogma, it is the ideology or ideal that authority bows down to and serves. Authority is the state, which enforces the mystery and has the right to preach the mystery. The authority to preach the mystery and rule is confirmed by miracles, which show that the state has heaven’s mandate. From this, man’s conscience can be seized, and his sense of morality, the knowledge of good and evil, his greatest burden, is lifted. In summary, the interplay of these three forces used to capture man’s conscience starts first with miracle as the foundation, then the mystery as the ideal and hence morality, and authority which enforces the mystery and is then legitimized by miracles. “The third and last anguish of men” (236): universal unity. Universal unity is first achieved on a political level, with the establishment of the universal state, and then on an ideological level with mystery and miracle creating the morality or codes which all follow. The consequence of this universal state is that everyone shares the same values, worldview, and culture. This in effect lowers crime, and people’s belonging and increases the populace’s happiness, the Nordic countries and Wales are prime examples of this cultural homogeneity.


While the Grand inquisitor believes that Christ has neither mystery, miracle, or authority, Christ in fact shows all of these in his actions. Christ shows his power of mystery by the fact that he is the ideal and does not speak, rather choosing a silence in which he does not explain or reveal anything; thus ensuring the mystery of his action is preserved and his ideology edified. He shows the power of miracle, by raising a dead girl, and healing those who touch his garments, which only serves to prove his mystery: his ideology is not of man, but divinely inspired, and that it is not one entirely of words, but one of free faith and action. Finally, his authority is shown by how the only thing he does is act, he does not argue, or rage, only actions come from his hands and his very lips; for he kept silent all while the Grand Inquisitor spoke and rambled on; thus showing his dominion. Also, were not the only words uttered from his lips were ones of action and miracle? It is in fact the Grand Inquisitor who lacks mystery, miracle, and authority, as he dashes the veil of mystery that surrounds him by expounding to Christ his philosophy and the problems in Christ’s. The absence of miracle is shown by how he does not create any miracles, either physically or in myth. Finally, his lack of authority is shown by how when he deals with those lesser than himself, he acts in silence, expecting his will to be peerless, but to one greater: Christ, he commands him to speak and not to speak showing a lack of surety in his actions. Also, Christ in fact disobeys him, not allowing himself to be burnt, but rather showing how weak his authority is by disobeying him again by not responding and then rebuking his argument with but a kiss. The kiss can be thought of as the culmination of Christ’s actions in the story; he does not offer words to prove his philosophy’s validity but actions.

Dependencism can be summarized in one sentence: “Mind and freedom for bread”. The mind or conscience is gained through the interplay of mystery, miracle, and authority. Mystery is the dogma, or ideology which people follow against their conscience, miracle shows the validity of the mystery and authority, and authority is the enforcement of the mystery. Man’s freedom is captured through his weakness of will to be able to think of virtues or ideals in the face of starvation and so will offer up his freedom for bread eternal. Thus through mystery, miracle, authority, and earthly bread man’s happiness can be assured and Dependencism’s utopia is achieved.