“The Grand Inquisitor” is a part of Dostoyevsky’s novel “The Brothers Karamazov” which is one of the major and important pieces of literature written by this author. In this excerpt, Dostoyevsky describes a conversation between two brothers. Alyosha is very religious and wants to become a monk while Ivan is a self-proclaimed atheist who doubts the power of God.
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The contradiction between the standpoints of two brothers is emphasized by Ivan’s narrative of his work, which is based on the fantastic idea of Christ returning to Earth during the medieval Inquisition in Spain. The philosophical concepts of the nature of man presented by the author as a part of this narrative reflect the atheistic ideas of the major political movements that were popular at that time in Russia.
The author utilizes a biblical parable as a method to illustrate certain philosophical assumptions. Therefore, the narrative can be interpreted in various ways depending on the competence of the reader. The ideas supported by Ivan are emphasized by the parallel between biblical temptations of Christ by the devil and the so-called temptations used by the old inquisitor in his speech to the Christ. Remarkably, Christ is forbidden to speak in the narrative, which might be a consequence of the atheistic denial of God’s existence based on the statements that God is silent.
Moreover, the great inquisitor notes that “I know not who Thou art and care not to know whether it is Thou or only a semblance of Him, but to-morrow I shall condemn Thee and burn Thee at the stake as the worst of heretics” (Dostoyevsky 24). This statement is utilized for further denial of God’s existence. It also leads to the suggestion that even if Christ appeared before the public, he would be denied and condemned once more, which also illustrates human nature.
The great inquisitor states that the questions asked by the devil on the day where three temptations of Christ took place were the wise ones and reflected the nature of man. The fact that an inquisitor regards these questions as wise might be interpreted as the suggestion that the Church is separated from anything spiritual and pursues such material values as power and wealth. Indeed, material proofs of God’s existence such as miracles or wealth and power given from above were always very significant to people.
Therefore, human nature is shown as weak and unworthy. Most people cannot understand the notion of freedom that comes as a result of unifying with God and denying anything material in favor of spiritual. Misinterpreting of biblical values used in the narrative makes it possible to claim that people do not want any freedom at all. Thus, it is stated that the Church replaces freedom with security to make people happy.
It is noted that “this craving for community of worship is the chief misery of every man individually and all humanity from the beginning of time” (Dostoyevsky 31). This standpoint was widely used by atheists to uncrown the Church and underestimate its functions in supporting religious beliefs and basic human values. It is a general idea that these atheistic views were used by communists later and resulted in totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century.
The culmination of the narrative comes when Alyosha kisses his brother’s lips to say goodbye, copying the last scene of Ivan’s story where Jesus kisses the old inquisitor before leaving. It might be understood that no matter of any philosophical ideas, Ivan unconsciously accepts that God is love and his brother reminds him about it by his kiss. Still, the atheistic concepts proclaimed by Ivan make his brother state that he does not believe in God.
The philosophical concepts presented by the author reflect the atheistic ideas about the nature of man. It is possible to say that the purpose of the narrative was to present a general overview of atheistic concepts that disparaged the sacral meaning of Christ’s figure and its influence on people’s values. Atheistic standpoint was later used by communists and Dostoevsky’s work might have predicted it.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Grand Inquisitor on the Nature of Man. Translated by Constance Garnett, Prentice Hall Professional Technical Reference, 1998.