Why Dostoyevsky wrote "The Grand Inquisitor"
Dostoyevsky's motivations behind writing the literary masterpiece
Ooh la la, The Grand Inquisitor. The "super deep" poem that Dostoyevsky bombs us with mid-way through the novel The Brothers Karamazov, leaving us quite off-guard to fully comprehend it.
One read of The Grand Inquisitor is enough for the reader to understand that this "story within a story" is packed with significance.
I'd like to explore with you what Dostoyevsky’s motivations were for writing The Grand Inquisitor.
Let's start with a quick recap.
The Quick Recap
The Grand Inquisitor is a poem told by the intellectual rationalist Ivan Karamazov in a conversation with his brother, the spiritual and compassionate Alyosha.
Ivan is tormented with a doubt in God. He is an atheist because he refuses to believe in a God that can let innocent, sinless children suffer. He says to Alyosha,
“Look: if everyone must suffer in order with their suffering to purchase eternal harmony, what do young children have to do with it, tell me, please?” (Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 319)
The story begins when Christ comes back down to earth during the Spanish Inquisition, 15 centuries after his prophecy to return. The Inquisitor arrests Christ, whom will be persecuted. He explains to Christ that he has arrested him for doing mankind a great injustice. The Inquisitor insists that by rejecting “The Three Temptations,” Christ had plunged man into suffering for 15 centuries. The setting is significant because of the irony that Christ himself is about to be persecuted for committing sins against mankind.
The premise of The Grand Inquisitor is based off of the Bible, where it is said that Christ was offered by Satan “The Three Temptations”: the temptation to turn stones into bread, to cast Himself off a cliff and be saved by angels, and to rule over all the kingdoms of the world. Christ rejects all of these, in favor of freedom—the freedom to choose to have faith in God.
The Inquisitor argues that Christ shouldn’t have rejected the temptations. According to the Inquisitor, Christ had misunderstood the nature of man. He argues that the burden of free will is too much for most people to handle in a world full of suffering. He believes that people value security over freedom, and they will willingly give up their freedom in exchange for a definite figure of authority to bow down to and be given a definite set of beliefs to adhere to.
The Inquisitor informs him that the Church is now taking it into their hands to create an order in which people sacrifice their freedom for security, the opposite of the world Christ had in mind when he rejected the tempations. He says that Christ will only pose as a nuisance after all the effort the Church has done to correct his mistakes. He asks a stupefied Christ,
“Why have you come to get in our way?” (Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 326)
After a long admonition, of which Christ had remained silent throughout, the Inquisitor demands a response from Christ. Christ goes close to the Inquisitor and quietly kisses him on his lips.
The Inquisitor, taken aback by such a response, releases Christ, saying
“Go and do not come back… do not come back at all… ever… ever!” (Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 342)
The story ends here, and Ivan asks Alyosha whether or not he thinks less of him after hearing his radical beliefs. Alyosha walks over to him and kisses him quietly on the lips.
Ivan accuses Alyosha of plagiarism, but is secretly touched, and they part.
Dostoyevsky’s Spiritual Rebirth
What did Dostoyevsky want to tell us through The Grand Inquisitor?
The key to answering this question is that Dostoyevsky went through a spiritual rebirth during his time in prison that forced his whole belief system to turn a whole 180 degrees.
When he was 27, Dostoyevsky was arrested for being part of the Petrashevsky Circle, a literary discussion group where intellectuals discussed progressive Western books banned by the tsar. They set up a printing press and illegally distributed propaganda against serfdom, with the aim to bring forth a revolution in Russia. The members of the group were told that they were to be executed by the state.
Blindfolded and strapped up, he and the members were led in front of a firing squad, only to be stopped at the last moment and sentenced to 4 years in Siberia instead. This mock execution made a huge psychological impact on Dostoyevsky, who experienced what it feels to be at the brink of death.
In prison, he was not allowed to write in prison, and the only book he was allowed to bring with him was the Bible. There were 1413 markings found in his Bible, in the form of fingernail markings and page folds. Dostoyevsky attentively read the Bible and which heavily influenced his new perspective on life.
After leaving prison, Dostoyevsky began to consider life as a beautiful gift and began to value freedom and integrity rather than the materialistic thinking of the intelligentsia.
What new ideas did Dostoyevsky's belief system consist of? One was the rejection of progressive Western ideas.
Dostoyevsky on Socialism
In The Grand Inquisitor, the Inquisitor argues that bread is the utmost concern for man, rather than faith.
“Are you aware that centuries will pass, and mankind will proclaim with the lips of its wisdom that there is no crime and consequently no sin either, but only the hungry. 'Feed them, and then ask virtue of them!" — that is what will be inscribed upon the banner they will raise against you and before which your temple will come crashing down. (Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 330)”
The Inquisitor expresses the Western progressive beliefs, that were increasingly gaining popularity among the youth in St. Petersburg. Dostoyevsky noticed that all socialism was concerned with was poverty.
“The present socialism, in Europe and here in Russia, removes Christ everywhere and cares foremost about bread, summons science and asserts that the reason for all human calamities is one — poverty...” (Dostoevsky’s letter to V.A. Alekseev, 1876)
Dostoyevsky, however, was convinced that the focus on poverty was a fundamental mistake. Unlike Christianity, the new ideology shifted its focus to a pursuit a materialistic structure of society instead of one built on faith and morals.
“How shall you unite men to reach your civil goals if you have no basis in a great and initial moral idea? All moral principles are based upon the idea of personal absolute self-perfection ahead, in the ideal, for this holds everything within, all aspirations and all cravings, and, it would be, thence derive all of our civil ideals. Just try and unite men into a civil society with the only goal of ‘saving our tummies’... With such a formula, no civil institution will last long.” (Diary of a Writer, 1877)
Horrifyingly, Dostoyevsky's predictions unraveled in the form of Bolshevism and mass famines that swallowed Russia decades later. He understood the dangers of attempting to rebuild society on a materialistic basis. Dostoyevsky therefore condemned socialism and turned to other ways to better society.
Dostoyevsky's "Practical Christianity"
He formed his own ideas which he called the "theory of practical Christianity." It is "practical" because it doesn't seek for a good afterlife in heaven; instead, it seeks to bring paradise down to Earth. It focuses on making the world a better place through our own actions; our own strength.
Additionally, instead of encouraging a monastic retreat, Dostoyevsky wanted to bring monasticism into the real world; into society. Thus, the spiritually enlightened individual would "live in the world like a monk." This is why Elder Zosima, the most revered elder at the monastery, sends Alyosha into the world.
In order to "live in the world like a monk," Dostoyevsky believed that the first step was for each person to develop their spiritual principles.
“It is my idea that the world must be refashioned, but that the first step ought to consist of... starting with one's self.” (Dostoyevsky)
One crucial principle that Dostoyevsky introduces is the idea of universal responsibility — that "everyone is really responsible for everyone and everything".
It's interesting that he took "collectivism" and "unity," an idea so stressed in socialism, and gave it meaning in a different way. The moment we hold ourselves accountable of society's injustices, we begin taking the initiative to fix them.
“There is only one way to salvation, and that is to make yourself responsible for all men's sins. As soon as you make yourself responsible in all sincerity for everything and for everyone, you will see at once that this is really so, and that you are in fact to blame for everyone and for all things.” (Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov)
Because each person affects others, Dostoyevsky believed that is was important for each person to abide to their own morals and strive to be a righteous, virtuous person.
It is said that each of the brothers represent a part of Dostoyevsky. Ivan and Alyosha have drastically differing views on Christianity, but their beliefs both come from Dostoyevsky’s experiences himself. Ivan’s beliefs represents his views before this transformation and Alyosha after.
The Grand Inquisitor is a poem meant to express the beliefs of those who try to reason through faith. The story brings up the burden of free will—the difficulty of staying faithful in God in an imperfect world. Rational thinkers like Ivan struggle to be fulfilled by a faith that is dependent on arbitrary devotion.
In response to these skeptical ideas, Dostoyevsky tells us through The Grand Inquisitor that the first step to making the world a better place is to start within. Dostoyevsky projects these ideas onto Alyosha. As someone who is devoted to realizing this worldly monasticism, he practices forgiveness and unconditional love to everyone. He inspires a young group of boys to look up to him, who will in turn inspire others in a positive way.
I agree with Dostoyevsky's vision because the vastness of this world can overwhelm us at times. There are so many people in this world who are in pain, stripped of their basic human rights because their country is at war or their government is corrupt. It can feel discouraging because it feels like we're forsaking them.
Amidst all the theological and philosophical ideas discussed in The Grand Inquisitor, one concept is quite simple—that amidst all the rapid societal changes, one thing that will always remain constant is our morals. Dostoyevsky tell us that it will never be out of date to practice love and kindness to others.