The Grand Inquisitor

"The Grand Inquisitor" is a poem (a story within a story) inside Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov (1879–1880). It is recited by Ivan Karamazov, who questions the possibility of a personal and benevolent God, to his brother Alexei (Alyosha), a novice monk. "The Grand Inquisitor" is an important part of the novel and one of the best-known passages in modern literature because of its ideas about human nature and freedom, and its fundamental ambiguity.

The Grand Inquisitor
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Standalone copy of the chapter "The Grand Inquisitor"
CountryRussian Empire
Genre(s)Poem, parable, philosophical fiction, story within a story

Scholars cite Friedrich Schiller's play Don Carlos (1787) as a major inspiration for Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor, while also noting that "The sources of the legend are extraordinarily varied and complex."[1]


The tale is told by Ivan with brief interruptive questions by Alyosha. In the tale, Christ comes back to Earth in Seville at the time of the Inquisition. He performs a number of miracles (echoing miracles from the Gospels). The people recognize him and adore him at the Seville Cathedral, but he is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burnt to death the next day. The Grand Inquisitor visits him in his cell to tell him that the Church no longer needs him. The main portion of the text is devoted to the Inquisitor explaining to Jesus why his return would interfere with the mission of the Church.

The Inquisitor founds his denunciation of Jesus on the three questions that Satan asked Jesus during the temptation of Christ in the desert. These three are the temptation to turn stones into bread, the temptation to cast Himself from the Temple and be saved by the angels, and the temptation to rule over all the kingdoms of the world. The Inquisitor states that Jesus rejected these three temptations in favor of freedom, but the Inquisitor thinks that Jesus has misjudged human nature. He does not believe that the vast majority of humanity can handle the freedom which Jesus has given them. The Inquisitor thus implies that Jesus, in giving humans freedom to choose, has excluded the majority of humanity from redemption and doomed it to suffer.

Despite declaring the Inquisitor to be a nonbeliever, Ivan also has the Inquisitor saying that the Catholic Church follows "the wise spirit, the dread spirit of death and destruction." He says: "We are not with Thee, but with him, and that is our secret! For centuries have we abandoned Thee to follow him." For he, through compulsion, provided the tools to end all human suffering and for humanity to unite under the banner of the Church. The multitude then is guided through the Church by the few who are strong enough to take on the burden of freedom. The Inquisitor says that under him, all mankind will live and die happily in ignorance. Though he leads them only to "death and destruction", they will be happy along the way. The Inquisitor will be a self-martyr, spending his life to keep choice from humanity. He states that "anyone who can appease a man's conscience can take his freedom away from him".

The Inquisitor advances this argument by explaining why Christ was wrong to reject each temptation by Satan. Christ should have turned stones into bread, as men will always follow those who will feed their bellies. The Inquisitor recalls how Christ rejected this, saying "man cannot live on bread alone", and explains to Christ: "Feed men, and then ask of them virtue! That's what they'll write on the banner they'll raise against Thee and with which they will destroy Thy temple. Where Thy temple stood will rise a new building; the terrible tower of Babel will be built again, and though, like the one of old, it will not be finished". Casting himself down from the temple to be caught by angels would cement his godhood in the minds of people, who would follow him forever. Ruling over all the kingdoms of the Earth would ensure their salvation, the Grand Inquisitor claims.

The segment ends when Christ, who has been silent throughout, kisses the Inquisitor on his "bloodless, aged lips" instead of answering him. On this, the Inquisitor releases Christ but tells him never to return. Christ, still silent, leaves into "the dark alleys of the city". Not only is the kiss ambiguous, but its effect on the Inquisitor is as well. Ivan concludes: "The kiss burns in his heart, but the old man adheres to his idea".

Christ's kiss may also mirror an event that occurs earlier in the novel when the elder Zosima bows before Dmitri Karamazov. No one seems to understand why Zosima does this, and Fyodor Karamazov exclaims: "Was it symbolic of something, or what?".

Not only does the parable function as a philosophical and religious work in its own right, but it also furthers the character development of the larger novel. The parable reveals Ivan's contempt for organized religion. After relating the tale, Ivan asks Alyosha if he "renounces" Ivan for his views. Alyosha responds by giving Ivan a soft kiss on the lips, to which the delighted Ivan replies: "That's plagiarism... Thank you, though". The brothers part soon afterward.

Influence on other media

  • The composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann used this tale, along with Book of Ecclesiastes, in his oratorio Ecclesiastical Action. He committed suicide five days later after composing the piece.[2]
  • The scene is the basis of the play Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy by Tony Kushner.
  • "Talitha Cumi", the third-season finale of The X-Files, borrowed heavily from this parable for an interrogation between The Smoking Man and Jeremiah Smith (as the Inquisitor and Jesus, respectively).[3]
  • Noam Chomsky refers to The Grand Inquisitor in the first chapter of his book Necessary Illusions.[4]
  • Aldous Huxley refers to The Grand Inquisitor in the last chapter of his book Brave New World Revisited.
  • The Ocean Collective refer to The Grand Inquisitor in their album Anthropocentric, running the parable across three songs.
  • David Bentley Hart refers to The Grand Inquisitor in Section V of Chapter One of his book The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami?
  • It was filmed as 'Inquisition[5]' in 2002 for Channel 5 in the UK, starring Sir Derek Jacobi as the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor.
  • David Foster Wallace refers to The Grand Inquisitor on pages 968-69 of his book Infinite Jest.
  • Christian Filostrat refers to "The Grand Inquisitor" on page 49 of his book Jerome's Pillows.
  • Irvin D. Yalom refers to The Grand Inquisitor in chapter 27 of his book The Gift of Therapy.[6]
  • Peter Brook produced a play of this starring Bruce Myers, performed at The Barbican, London, in February 2006. The Independent criticised the casting of Myers saying "And he conveys no sense of the cardinal's torment, of his arrival at this point after a lifetime of suffering, as opposed to Myers' smug superiority" whilst The Guardian merely focused on a lack of depth saying "But, while the brief evening has a stony severity, it is not one that admits of argument or dramatic debate.".

See also


  1. Avramenko, R. and Trepanier, L., Dostoevsky's Political Thought, Lexington Books, 2013, p. 110, Note 20.
  2. Tim Ashley (2012-12-02). "LPO/Jurowski – review | Music". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2013-10-07.
  3. Chris Carter (narrator) (1995–1996). Chris Carter Talks About Season 3: Talitha Cumi. The X-Files: The Complete Third Season (featurette). Fox.
  4. "Necessary Illusions: Chapter 1 [6/6]". Retrieved 2013-10-07.
  5. Dolomede (22 December 2002). "Inquisition (TV Movie 2002)". IMDb.
  6. Yalom, I. D. (2002). The gift of therapy: An open letter to a new generation of therapists and their patients. New York: HarperCollins.
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