The Grand Inquisitor

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"The Grand Inquisitor" is a story within a story found in Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov (1879–1880). It is one of the best-known passages in modern literature because of its ideas about human nature and freedom, and its fundamental ambiguity.

In the coffin lies the body of a fair-child... and the little coffin is gently lowered at his feet. Divine compassion beams forth from His eyes, and as He looks at the child, His lips are heard to whisper once more, 'Talitha Cumi'--and 'straightway the damsel arose.' The child rises in her coffin... and, looking round with large astonished eyes she smiles sweetly...
Everything was given over by Thee to the Pope, and everything now rests with him alone; Thou hast no business to return and thus hinder us in our work.

Quotes[edit]

Full text online, multiple formats (Translation by H. P. Blavatsky, The Theosophist, (November-December 1881)

  • He comes silently and unannounced; yet all--how strange--yea, all recognize Him, at once! The population rushes towards Him as if propelled by some irresistible force; it surrounds, throngs, and presses around, it follows Him.... Silently, and with a smile of boundless compassion upon His lips, He crosses the dense crowd, and moves softly on.
  • Children strew flowers along His path and sing to Him, 'Hosanna!' It is He, it is Himself, they say to each other, it must be He, it can be none other but He! He pauses at the portal of the old cathedral, just as a wee white coffin is carried in, with tears and great lamentations...in the coffin lies the body of a fair-child, seven years old...The little corpse lies buried in flowers. 'He will raise the child to life!' confidently shouts the crowd... The procession halts, and the little coffin is gently lowered at his feet. Divine compassion beams forth from His eyes, and as He looks at the child, His lips are heard to whisper once more, 'Talitha Cumi'--and 'straightway the damsel arose.' The child rises in her coffin. Her little hands still hold the nosegay of white roses which after death was placed in them, and, looking round with large astonished eyes she smiles sweetly...
  • A terrible commotion rages among them, the populace shouts and loudly weeps, when suddenly, before the cathedral door, appears the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor himself.... He pauses before the crowd and observes. He has seen all. He has witnessed the placing of the little coffin at His feet, the calling back to life. And now, his dark, grim face has grown still darker; his bushy grey eyebrows nearly meet, and his sunken eye flashes with sinister light. Slowly raising his finger, he commands his minions to arrest Him...
  • Such is his power over the well-disciplined, submissive and now trembling people, that the thick crowds immediately give way, and scattering before the guard, amid dead silence and without one breath of protest, allow them to lay their sacrilegious hands upon the stranger and lead Him away.... That same populace, like one man, now bows its head to the ground before the old Inquisitor, who blesses it and slowly moves onward. The guards conduct their prisoner to the ancient building of the Holy Tribunal; pushing Him into a narrow, gloomy, vaulted prison-cell, they lock Him in and retire.... "
  • And his prisoner, does He never reply? Does He keep silent, looking at him, without saying a word?"... Of course; and it could not well be otherwise... The Grand Inquisitor begins from his very first words by telling Him that He has no right to add one syllable to that which He had said before. To make the situation clear at once, the above preliminary monologue is intended to convey to the reader the very fundamental idea which underlies Roman Catholicism--as well as I can convey it, his words mean, in short: 'Everything was given over by Thee to the Pope, and everything now rests with him alone; Thou hast no business to return and thus hinder us in our work'... In this sense the Jesuits not only talk but write likewise.
  • 'Hast thou the right to divulge to us a single one of the mysteries of that world whence Thou comest?' enquires of Him my old Inquisitor, and forthwith answers for Him. 'Nay, Thou has no such right. For, that would be adding to that which was already said by Thee before; hence depriving people of that freedom for which Thou hast so stoutly stood up while yet on earth....
  • Anything new that Thou would now proclaim would have to be regarded as an attempt to interfere with that freedom of choice, as it would come as a new and a miraculous revelation superseding the old revelation of fifteen hundred years ago, when Thou didst so repeatedly tell the people: "The truth shall make you free." Behold then, Thy "free" people now!' adds the old man with sombre irony. 'Yea!... it has cost us dearly.' he continues, sternly looking at his victim. 'But we have at last accomplished our task, and--in Thy name.... For fifteen long centuries we had to toil and suffer owing to that "freedom": but now we have prevailed and our work is done, and well and strongly it is done.
  • Art Thou as well aware of what awaits Thee in the morning?... tomorrow I will condemn and burn Thee on the stake, as the most wicked of all the heretics; and that same people, who to-day were kissing Thy feet, tomorrow at one bend of my finger, will rush to add fuel to Thy funeral pile...
  • His words mean, in short: 'Everything was given over by Thee to the Pope, and everything now rests with him alone; Thou hast no business to return and thus hinder us in our work.' In this sense the Jesuits not only talk but write likewise.
  • He [the Grand Inquisitor] seriously regards it as a great service done by himself, his brother monks and Jesuits, to humanity, to have conquered and subjected unto their authority that freedom, and boasts that it was done but for the good of the world... 'For only now,' he says (speaking of the Inquisition) 'has it become possible to us, for the first time, to give a serious thought to human happiness. Man is born a rebel, and can rebels be ever happy?...
  • Thou has been fairly warned of it, but evidently to no use, since Thou hast rejected the only means which could make mankind happy; fortunately at Thy departure Thou hast delivered the task to us.... Thou has promised, ratifying the pledge by Thy own words, in words giving us the right to bind and unbind... and surely, Thou couldst not think of depriving us of it now!'"
  • Having disburdened his heart, the Inquisitor waits for some time to hear his prisoner speak in His turn. His silence weighs upon him. He has seen that his captive has been attentively listening to him all the time, with His eyes fixed penetratingly and softly on the face of his jailer, and evidently bent upon not replying to him. The old man longs to hear His voice, to hear Him reply; better words of bitterness and scorn than His silence.
  • Suddenly He rises; slowly and silently approaching the Inquisitor, He bends towards him and softly kisses the bloodless, four-score and-ten-year-old lips. That is all the answer. The Grand Inquisitor shudders... He goes to the door, opens it, and addressing Him, 'Go,' he says, 'go, and return no more... do not come again... never, never!' and--lets Him out into the dark night.

Quotes about[edit]

  • The following is an extract from M. Dostoevsky's celebrated novel, The Brothers Karamazof, the last publication from the pen of the great Russian novelist, who died a few months ago, just as the concluding chapters appeared in print. Dostoevsky is beginning to be recognized as one of the ablest and profoundest among Russian writers. His characters are invariably typical portraits drawn from various classes of Russian society, strikingly life-like and realistic to the highest degree. The following extract is a cutting satire on modern theology generally and the Roman Catholic religion in particular. The idea is that Christ revisits earth, coming to Spain at the period of the Inquisition, and is at once arrested as a heretic by the Grand Inquisitor.
    • H.P. Blavatsky in the Foreword of The Grand Inquisitor, The Theosophist (November-December 1881)
  • In one of the most electrifying chapters of all of world literature, Russian writer Feodor Dostoevsky imagines an unexpected arrival of Jesus Christ in Seville, Spain, during the height of the Holy Inquisition. Jesus enters the city unannounced, silently, but people recognize him immediately. People gather around him, amazed, and Jesus, with a smile of compassion, walks across down the crowd, irradiating love. He extends his hands over their heads and blesses them, and those who touch his clothes receive power and healing. A man blind since his birth shouts, “Lord, heal me, that I may see you”, and the scales fall from his eyes and the man begins to see. The crowd weeps for joy and kisses the ground on which Jesus walks, and children lay flowers on his path and sing “Hosanna.”... People are moved, ecstatic, but suddenly the door of the cathedral opens. The Cardinal... raises his hand and orders that Jesus be arrested... we see the Cardinal open the iron door of the cell...and saying, “Why should you come now, to hinder us in our work? ”... Fortunately the church has recognized Jesus’ mistake, says the Inquisitor....and for this the Inquisitor must burn Jesus on the stake, lest he disturbs the work of the Church.
    • The Grand Inquisitor, Evangelical Focus Europe, (23 December 2017)
  • Among other things, the Grand Inquisitor mocks Jesus for bringing... autonomous moral liberty to his followers, an autonomy that they do not want and cannot endure... Rather than “taking over man’s freedom,” he taunts Christ, “you increased it still more for them.” ... The horror of this moral autonomy — this glimpse into the abyss — led Jesus’ followers to submit to authoritarian rule over their religious and moral lives, epitomized — the Inquisitor charges — by a caricature of the Roman Catholic hierarchy.
    • The Grand Inquisitor and Independence Day: A Catholic Question About the 4th of July, Ken Craycraft, The Catholic Herald (2 July 2021)

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