“For in those three questions the whole subsequent history of mankind is, as it were, brought together in one whole, and foretold, and in them are united all the unsolved historical contradictions of human nature.’

The Brothers Karamazov
Book Five, Chapter Five
by Dennis Abrams

As we begin our examination/reading/exploration of “The Grand Inquisitor,” I thought I’d begin to post what others have to say about the chapter — first up Robin Feuer Miller:

“Ivan begins his poem of the Grand Inquisitor with a literary preface that shows off his knowledge and functions well within the medieval scholastic tradition of citing numerous sources and models to prepare the way for one’s ‘own word.’ It is typical of both Dostoevsky and his literary creation, Ivan, that the scholastic habit of citing sources becomes an excuse to concoct a hearty stew containing some unexpected ingredients. Dante, French clerks and monks, the religious plays performed in the court of Peter the Great, Russian monks — all are more or less likely sources for this historical tale. But then we find a contemporary source in Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris and his rendition of “Le bon judgment de la tres sainte et gracieuse Vierge Marie.’ This recalls to Ivan’s mind another important source about the Virgin Mary, ‘The Wanderings of Our Lady Through Hell,’ a twelfth-century apocryphal tale. Suddenly the roles reverse: we have the specter of a mother who does plead for mercy to be shown ‘all without distinction.’ And God here, in Ivan’s rendition, echoes Ivan’s rebellious words of a few moments earlier. He ‘points to the hands and feet of her Son, nailed to the Cross, and asks, ‘How can I forgive His tormenters?'” But Mary prevails. Under her influence God offers up a kind of limited or conditional forgiveness. Thus Ivan offers a paradoxical counterpoint to his own just uttered words: ‘Let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him.’ In Ivan’s rendering of this apocryphal tale, God has, in part, agreed with Ivan, but Mary has gone ahead with her own forgiveness. Ivan’s most powerful interlocutor is his own literary sensibility.

Most important, Ivan’s preface contains the dominant thematic motifs that have governed all of Book V: the interconnected problems of parent-child (shepherd and flock) relations and suffering — both the imposition and the endurance of it. Ironically, the poem, the most powerful statement of Ivan’s rebellion, begins with a preface whose main episode has been about forgiveness. What is even more surprising perhaps is that forgiveness will figure at the close of Ivan’s poem as well. Thus, as readers, we would do well to ask ourselves, what is the relationship of the opening and closing frames to the poem itself?

After his preface Ivan offers up a one-sentence summary of his poem: ‘He comes on the scene in my poem, but He says nothing, only appears and passes on.’ Key, then, are His arrival, His departure, His silence. According to Ivan’s title, Jesus appears in Seville during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. ‘He came softly, unobserved, and yet, strange to say, everyone recognized him. That might be one of the best passages in the poem.’

Ivan’s ongoing literary critique of his own poem as he narrates it to Alyosha sets up a complex interplay, which continues through the rest of this pivotal chapter, between Alyosha as listener (audience) and sometime critic and Ivan as author and sometime critic as well. This interplay becomes even more complex as the reader begins to discern the similarities between Ivan and his Grand Inquisitor and between Alyosha and Jesus. The net result is a blurring of the moral lines of demarcation between subject and object. More significant for the model of reading imposed in this novel by Dostoevsky, this crucial blurring may extend even to the boundary between character and reader.

Moreover, given the growing preoccupation in the novel, and particularly in Ivan’s recent words, with children, it is fitting that Jesus’ single act on arriving in Seville is to raise a child from the dead. There is a mother’s joy, as well as general weeping, cries, and confusion, at the enactment of this miracle. Ivan’s words in the previous two chapters have prepared us to rejoice at this miracle, for he, Alyosha, and we with them have just heartily rejected any edifice, however just, built on the tears of even a single child.

Yet Jesus’ miracle still looms as problematic — mysterious — for he has here chosen to save a single child but not any of those ‘hundred heretics’ burned at the stake the day before. Is Ivan indirectly testing his own proposition? Our emotions at this point are operating in a reverse manner from the way in which Ivan structured his argument. Just moments earlier Ivan had argued that he would not even concentrate on adults, who have already eaten of the apple, but would instead focus on children. Yet surely in this chapter we do find ourselves more engaged with the vivid agonies of the nameless multitude (those dirty sinners who have already eaten of the apple) than we do with the possible suffering endured by the little girl, resting in her coffin of flowers, whom Jesus raises? This refocusing of emotional energy is paradoxical; it also underscores the axiom in this novel that miracles, when they do occur, are mysterious, unheralded events that do not serve to solve general problems.

Jesus arrives on this dreadful scene of religious massacre, but he solves no problems and does not alleviate the intense sufferings of the people. He saves a single child, not even a beggar child but the daughter of a prominent citizen, a child who had died a natural death. It almost seems a pointless miracle, given the terrible, unjustified sufferings of the dying multitudes. But it is not, for as we shall see, it reflects the ongoing determination of Jesus not to give in, in any way, to those three temptations proposed to him by the devil in the wilderness some 15 centuries earlier.

The Grand Inquisitor comes on the scene, exercises his firm authority over the people, and has Jesus arrested. Late that night he visits Jesus in his cell and ‘speaks openly of what he has thought in silence for ninety years.’ A tension begins to emerge between words and silence: the Grand Inquisitor speaks, Jesus is silent; Ivan speaks, Alyosha, for the most part, listens in silence. According to the Grand Inquisitor, the most ‘stupendous miracle’ of all had involved the statement of words and had occurred on the day that ‘The great spirit talked with Thee in the wilderness…The statement of those three questions was itself the miracle…From those questions alone, from the miracle of their statement, we can see we can see that we have here to do not with the fleeting human intellect, but with the absolute and the eternal. For in those three questions the whole subsequent history of mankind is, as it were, brought together in one whole, and foretold, and in them are united all the unsolved historical contradictions of human nature.’

The Grand Inquisitor, the devil, and perhaps Ivan — because it is he who gives the Grand Inquisitor these words — believe that these statements constitute a miracle because they encapsulate and predict the contradictions and the shape of human history. Jesus, God, Alyosha, and, as we shall see, Zosima indicate indirectly that the miracle lies elsewhere. But words remain crucial to it — perhaps the words with which Jesus answers the devil. But where does that leave silence?

Silence becomes part of the mystery, part of the measure of man’s freedom of choice, a verbal absence somehow related to that moment when the seed (word) dies and before it brings forth its great fruit. Dostoevsky frequently offers up to us for consideration rich polarities and juxtapositions, but they never operate in a mechanistically binary way. Words are instruments of both God (grace) and the devil (damnation); silence may be a force of divine good (Jesus’ silence here) or may work toward the enabling of evil. (Ivan’s later moments of silence are a dangerous goad, an acquiescence.)

The Grand Inquisitor then proceeds to restate the events described in the New Testament, especially in the gospels of Matthew and John, in which the devil appears to Jesus and sets before him the three temptations. The devil urges Jesus to turn stones into bread, “Turn them into bread, and mankind will run after Thee like a flock…But Thou wouldst not deprive man of freedom and didst reject the offer, thinking what is that freedom worth, if obedience is bought with bread? Thou didst replay that man lives not by bread alone.’ The Grand Inquisitor then goes on to make an argument that continues to exert tremendous force on the social and ethical thought of our time: ‘Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!’ The Grand Inquisitor argues that he and his church, by caring for the weak and by lying to them — saying, ‘We are Thy servants and rule…in Thy name’ are showing greater love for mankind than Jesus. ‘That deception will be our suffering…Didst Thou forget,’ asks the Grand Inquisitor, ‘that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil?’ Earlier the Grand Inquisitor had asked, ‘Dost Thou know that the ages will pass, and humanity will proclaim by the lips of their sages that there is no crime, and therefore no sin; there is only hunger?’ The Grand Inquisitor repeats the rationale that virtually every totalitarian system has used to justify its rule, but he also, paradoxically, repeats the beliefs of many benevolent social thinkers and philanthropists.

It is well know that Dostoevsky struggled in all his novels against the prevailing liberal notion of his day, and our own, that criminal acts can be explained away, even excused, by the terrible effect on the criminal of an environment of suffering and poverty. Yet this is not to say that Dostoevsky opposed alleviating dreadful conditions. His letters and, above all, his Diary of a Writer reflect his compassion and his understanding of precisely such potentially adverse effects of environment. Nevertheless, he believed that the capacity to choose between good and evil was present in every human being and should be exercised everywhere.

Moreover, the Grand Inquisitor deftly twists the import of Jesus’ response to the import of Jesus’ response to this first temptation by failing to quote it fully. ‘It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.’ The full utterance carries a different connotation, an acknowledgment that bread is indeed important, but the words of God are more so. The Grand Inquisitor’s silence about the second part of Jesus’ answer returns us to that tension between words and silence. The devil, as Fyodor had observed in Part I, is the father of lies, of words twisted and misshapen. Here the Grand Inquisitor reflects his allegiance to the devil by presenting Jesus’ own words to Him, and to us, in misshapen, elliptical form.

The Grand Inquisitor then asserts that there are only three powers that can hold captive the consciences of men and make them happy: miracle, mystery, and authority. ‘We have corrected Thy work and founded it upon miracle, mystery, and authority.’ He accuses Jesus of having rejected all three. In Ivan’s poem the Grand Inquisitor will repeat these three words until they gain an incantatory force and become lodged in the readers’ mind. At the center of his novel, in the ‘deep heart’s core’ occupied jointly by the Grand Inquisitor’s words, as spoken by Ivan, and by Zosima’s words, as transcribed and edited by Alyosha, Dostoevsky states the key ideas of his novel in their most naked, unadorned, vulnerable form. The riddles of miracle, mystery, and authority figure at the heart of both the Grand Inquisitor’s diatribe and Zosima’s exhortations, and each uses the rhetoric of persuasion to the utmost. The rest of the novel will renew and recast their words.

In the second temptation, which we have already seen extensively parodied through Smerdyakov’s verbal antics, the devil tries to persuade Jesus to hurl himself from the pinnacle of the Temple to show His faith that God would not let Him fall. ‘Thou didst know then that in taking one step…Thou wouldst be tempting God and have lost all Thy faith in Him.’ But the Grand Inquisitor argues that men, unlike Jesus, need miracles ‘at the great moments of their life, the moments of their deepest, most agonizing spiritual difficulti8es.’

And indeed, the force of the Grand Inquisitor’s words will shortly be borne out in Alyosha’s own spiritual crisis, whose beginnings are already so evident. He will experience that wrenching need for a miracle at his moment of spiritual difficulty, and it will not come. Like the miracle performed by Jesus at the beginning of Ivan’s poem, the miracle that does come — if any does — will be oddly gratuitous and will occur only after Alyosha has clung, simply and devotedly, ‘to the free verdict of the heart.’

As Ivan’s narrative continues, the doubling between him and his Inquisitor and between Alyosha and Jesus grows more intense. As the Grand Inquisitor says to Jesus, ‘And why doest Thou look silently and searchingly at me with Thy mild eyes?’ it is the image of Alyosha sitting silently before Ivan that comes to mind. It is at this moment that the Grand Inquisitor lays bare his mystery (and Dostoevsky lays bare his ultimate condemnation of the church of Rome): ‘We are not working with Thee, but with him — that is our mystery.’

The Grand Inquisitor reveals that the Church had also accepted the devil’s third temptation, ‘that last gift’ ‘We took from him Rome and the sword of Caesar, and proclaimed overselve sole rulers of the truth.’ Here Dostoevsky welds together his dislike of the Catholic Church and socialist thought, which he believed were both moving toward atheism and the enslavement of man. He has the Grand Inquisitor spout the language of nineteenth-century socialism tempered with Dostoevsky’s own journalistic language of political polemic: ‘We shall plan the universal happiness of man” we shall find a means of ‘uniting all in one unanimous and harmonious anthill.’ The ambiguity of Ivan’s article, which the monks had argued about in Part I, now becomes clearer. The Church that becomes the State has, quite simply, succumbed to the temptation of the devil.

Having gone through his explanatory argument, the acceptance of the three temptations, and the incantatory evocation of miracle, mystery, and authority, the Grand Inquisitor’s self-justificatory statement takes a new, poignant, yet familiar twist that brings the novel back to its own reality — the impending spiritual crises of the three brothers, and the overreaching theme of parents and children. The Grand Inquisitor accuses Jesus of being a poor shepherd to His flock, a poor father to His children. He claims for himself and his church true compassion for humanity. They ‘will look to us and huddle close to us in fear, as chicks to the hen…Oh, we shall allow them even sin. They are weak and helpless, and they shall love us like children because we allow them sin…and the punishment for these sins we take upon ourselves.’ Are the Grand Inquisitor’s compassion and love counterfeit or genuine?

He argues that he will stand at the judgment day before God and justify his lies in the name of ‘the thousands of millions of happy children who have known sin.’ Has the Grand Inquisitor constructed an edifice that is not founded on the unexpiated tears of a child? At the moment of the Grand Inquisitor’s moving verbal crescendo we may be tempted to believe that he has. Dostoevsky has, once again, duplicated in the experience of reading the philosophical and metaphysical with which his novel abounds: he tempts us.

The narrator-chronicler tells us that Alyosha listens in silence, though toward the end he becomes greatly moved and is on the point of interrupting. Do these words also describe Jesus as He listened to the Grand Inquisitor? At any rate, Alyosha’s response may come as a surprise: ‘Your poem is in praise of Jesus, not in blame of Him — as you meant it to be.’ Has the Grand Inquisitor indirectly defeated his own argument, and has Jesus’ silence ultimately been even more rhetorically persuasive than the Grand Inquisitor’s words?

Alyosha at last asks Ivan how the poem ends. ‘Or was it the end?’ Ivan replies that the silent Prisoner looked at the Grand Inquisitor quietly and gently in the face. Then suddenly ‘He approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips. That was all his answer. the old man shuddered. His lips moved.’ He goes to the door and lets Him go. ”And the old man?’ “the kiss glows in his heart, but the old man adheres to his idea.'” A few moments later Alyosha duplicates this kiss, even as the narrator-chronicler echoes Ivan’s words: ‘Alyosha got up, went to him and softly kissed him on the lips.’ Ivan, ever the author-critic, exclaims, though with delight, ‘That’s plagiarism…You sole that from my poem.’ Ivan is right, of course; we have just witnessed an example of the most fundamental power of literature (the word): it offers up an artistic model that can inspire one in life. Art may imitate life, but as Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism affirms, life imitates art. This is not Alyosha’s first act of plagiarism, however; nor will it be his last.”

I’m not certain how persuasive I find this reading — Personally, I find the ambiguities a lot more powerful than the more straight-forward reading that Miller provides. Your thoughts?

Tomorrow I’ll post from Joseph Frank. And on Sunday, the argument I find the most persuasive, from Colin Wilson.

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One Response to “For in those three questions the whole subsequent history of mankind is, as it were, brought together in one whole, and foretold, and in them are united all the unsolved historical contradictions of human nature.’

  1. Ivan aligns himself with the great Inquisitor taking on the role of Judgement that belongs to solely to God. He fancies himself far more important than he is, and minimizes the value of the common man. He takes the attitude that he and his contemporaries are smarter than God and deserve to rule over men who are not worthy of freedom nor even conscious of what freedom is. They have twisted their understanding to conform to this world, and if this world was what the true followers of Christ aspired to, their arguments actually do make sense, BUT, true followers of Christ understand that though we walk for a time upon this earth, it is NOT our home. We do not measure our worth by worldly standards, but by how much our Father in heaven values us. I feel only pity toward Ivan and the Inquisitor, because they have become so consumed by their lust for earthly power that they have lost all connection to the God they profess to represent.

    It was a good read, thanks Dennis for calling my attention to this chapter.

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