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The Brothers Karamazov

Summary

Book V: Pro and Contra, Chapter 5: The Grand Inquisitor

Summary Book V: Pro and Contra, Chapter 5: The Grand Inquisitor

As the Grand Inquisitor finishes his indictment of Christ, Christ walks up to the old man and kisses him gently on the lips. The Grand Inquisitor suddenly sets Christ free, but tells him never to return again.

As Ivan finishes his story, he worries that Alyosha will be disturbed by the idea that if there is no God, there are no moral limitations on man’s behavior. But Alyosha leans forward and kisses Ivan on the lips. Ivan, moved, replies that Alyosha has stolen that action from his poem. Ivan and Alyosha leave the restaurant and split up. Ivan begins walking home and Alyosha walks to the monastery where Zosima is dying.

Analysis

The story of the Grand Inquisitor strongly resembles a biblical parable, the kind of story that Christ tells in the New Testament to illustrate a philosophical point. Both Ivan’s story and Christ’s stories use a fictional narrative to address a deep philosophical concern and are open to various interpretations. The similarity between Ivan’s story and Christ’s stories illustrates the uneasy relationship between Ivan and religion. At the same time that Ivan rejects religion’s ability to effectively guide human life, he relies on many of its principles in forming his own philosophical system. Like Christ, Ivan is deeply concerned with understanding the way we define what is right and what is wrong, and with understanding how morality guides human actions. However, Ivan ultimately rejects both Christ’s and God’s existence, as he cannot accept a supreme being with absolute power who would nonetheless allow the suffering that occurs on Earth.

The story also implicitly brings up a new point with regard to Ivan’s argument about expanding the power of ecclesiastical courts. By setting his story in sixteenth-century Spain, where ecclesiastical courts were at the height of their power to try and punish criminals, Ivan asks what verdict such a court would have reached in judging Christ’s life. Since Christian religions teach that Christ lived a sinless life, presumably an ecclesiastical court would have been unable to find Christ guilty of any sin. However, the fact that Ivan’s court finds Christ guilty of sins against mankind illustrates the difference between Ivan’s religious beliefs and his beliefs in the efficacy of ecclesiastical courts. He sees the courts as an effective way to guide human action, but not necessarily as a way to induce men to believe more strongly in God or religion.

The conflict between free will and security further illustrates the reasons for Ivan’s dissent from Christianity. The fundamental difference between Christ’s point of view and that of the Grand Inquisitor is the value that each of them places on freedom and comfort. Christ’s responses to the three temptations emphasize the importance of man’s ability to choose between right and wrong, while the Inquisitor’s interpretation of Christ’s actions emphasizes the greater value of living a comfortable life in which the right path has already been chosen by someone else.

The assumption at the heart of the Inquisitor’s case is that Christ’s resistance of Satan’s temptations is meant to provide a symbolic example for the rest of mankind. The Inquisitor interprets the rejection of the temptations as Christ’s argument that humanity must reject certain securities: comfort, represented by bread; power and the safety that power brings, represented by the kingdoms; and superstition, represented by the miracle. The Inquisitor believes that Christ’s example places an impossible burden on mankind, which is inherently too weak to use its free will to find salvation. Effectively, the Inquisitor argues, the only option is for people to lead sinful lives ending in damnation. The Inquisitor’s Church, which is allied with Satan, seeks to provide people with stability and security in their lives, even if by doing so it ensures that they will be damned in the afterlife.