THE GRAND INQUISITOR By Feodor Dostoevsky

THE GRAND INQUISITOR

By Feodor Dostoevsky

(Translation by H.P. Blavatsky)

[Dedicated by the Translator to those sceptics who clamour so

loudly, both in print and private letters–“Show us the wonder-

working ‘Brothers,’ let them come out publicly–and we will

believe in them!”] [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. One of the three brothers of the story, Ivan, a

rank materialist and an atheist of the new school, is supposed to

throw this conception into the form of a poem, which he describes

to Alyosha–the youngest of the brothers, a young Christian

mystic brought up by a “saint” in a monastery–as follows:

(–Ed. Theosophist, Nov., 1881)]

“Quite impossible, as you see, to start without an introduction,”

laughed Ivan. “Well, then, I mean to place the event described in

the poem in the sixteenth century, an age–as you must have been

told at school–when it was the great fashion among poets to

make the denizens and powers of higher worlds descend on earth

and mix freely with mortals… In France all the notaries’

clerks, and the monks in the cloisters as well, used to give

grand performances, dramatic plays in which long scenes were

enacted by the Madonna, the angels, the saints, Christ, and even

by God Himself. In those days, everything was very artless and

primitive. An instance of it may be found in Victor Hugo’s drama,

Notre Dame de Paris, where, at the Municipal Hall, a play called

Le Bon Jugement de la Tres-sainte et Graceuse Vierge Marie, is

enacted in honour of Louis XI, in which the Virgin appears

personally to pronounce her ‘good judgment.’ In Moscow, during

the prepetrean period, performances of nearly the same character,

chosen especially from the Old Testament, were also in great

favour. Apart from such plays, the world was overflooded with

mystical writings, ‘verses’–the heroes of which were always

selected from the ranks of angels, saints and other heavenly

citizens answering to the devotional purposes of the age. The

recluses of our monasteries, like the Roman Catholic monks,

passed their time in translating, copying, and even producing

original compositions upon such subjects, and that, remember,

during the Tarter period!… In this connection, I am reminded of

a poem compiled in a convent–a translation from the Greek, of

course–called, ‘The Travels of the Mother of God among the

Damned,’ with fitting illustrations and a boldness of conception

inferior nowise to that of Dante. The ‘Mother of God’ visits

hell, in company with the archangel Michael as her cicerone to

guide her through the legions of the ‘damned.’ She sees them all,

and is witness to their multifarious tortures. Among the many

other exceedingly remarkably varieties of torments–every

category of sinners having its own–there  is one especially

worthy of notice, namely a class of the ‘damned’ sentenced to

gradually sink in a burning lake of brimstone and fire. Those

whose sins cause them to sink so low that they no longer can rise

to the surface are for ever forgotten by God, i.e., they fade out

from the omniscient memory, says the poem–an expression, by the

way, of an extraordinary profundity of thought, when closely

analysed. The Virgin is terribly shocked, and falling down upon

her knees in tears before the throne of God, begs that all she

has seen in hell–all, all without exception, should have their

sentences remitted to them. Her dialogue with God is colossally

interesting. She supplicates, she will not leave Him. And when

God, pointing to the pierced hands and feet of her Son, cries,

‘How can I forgive His executioners?’ She then commands that all

the saints, martyrs, angels and archangels, should prostrate

themselves with her before the Immutable and Changeless One and

implore Him to change His wrath into mercy and–forgive them

all. The poem closes upon her obtaining from God a compromise, a

kind of yearly respite of tortures between Good Friday and

Trinity, a chorus of the ‘damned’ singing loud praises to God

from their ‘bottomless pit,’ thanking and telling Him:

Thou art right, O Lord, very right,

Thou hast condemned us justly.

“My poem is of the same character.

“In it, it is Christ who appears on the scene. True, He says

nothing, but only appears and passes out of sight. Fifteen

centuries have elapsed since He left the world with the distinct

promise to return ‘with power and great glory’; fifteen long

centuries since His prophet cried, ‘Prepare ye the way of the

Lord!’ since He Himself had foretold, while yet on earth, ‘Of

that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven

but my Father only.’ But Christendom expects Him still. …

“It waits for Him with the same old faith and the same emotion;

aye, with a far greater faith, for fifteen centuries have rolled

away since the last sign from heaven was sent to man,

And blind faith remained alone

To lull the trusting heart,

As heav’n would send a sign no more.

“True, again, we have all heard of miracles being wrought ever

since the ‘age of miracles’ passed away to return no more. We

had, and still have, our saints credited with performing the most

miraculous cures; and, if we can believe their biographers, there

have been those among them who have been personally visited by

the Queen of Heaven. But Satan sleepeth not, and the first germs

of doubt, and ever-increasing unbelief in such wonders, already

had begun to sprout in Christendom as early as the sixteenth

century. It was just at that time that a new and terrible heresy

first made its appearance in the north of Germany.*   [*Luther’s

reform]  A great star ‘shining as it were a lamp… fell upon the

fountains waters’… and ‘they were made bitter.’ This ‘heresy’

blasphemously denied ‘miracles.’ But those who had remained

faithful believed all the more ardently, the tears of mankind

ascended to Him as heretofore, and the Christian world was

expecting Him as confidently as ever; they loved Him and hoped in

Him, thirsted and hungered to suffer and die for Him just as many

of them had done before…. So many centuries had weak, trusting

humanity implored Him, crying with ardent faith and fervour: ‘How

long, O Lord, holy and true, dost Thou not come!’ So many long

centuries hath it vainly appealed to Him, that at last, in His

inexhaustible compassion, He consenteth to answer the prayer….

He decideth that once more, if it were but for one short hour,

the people–His long-suffering, tortured, fatally sinful, his

loving and child-like, trusting people–shall behold Him again.

The scene of action is placed by me in Spain, at Seville, during

that terrible period of the Inquisition, when, for the greater

glory of God, stakes were flaming all over the country.

Burning wicked heretics,

In grand auto-da-fes.

“This particular visit has, of course, nothing to do with the

promised Advent, when, according to the programme, ‘after the

tribulation of those days,’ He will appear ‘coming in the clouds

of heaven.’ For, that ‘coming of the Son of Man,’ as we are

informed, will take place as suddenly ‘as the lightning cometh

out of the east and shineth even unto the west.’ No; this once,

He desired to come unknown, and appear among His children, just

when the bones of the heretics, sentenced to be burnt alive, had

commenced crackling at the flaming stakes. Owing to His limitless

mercy, He mixes once more with mortals and in the same form in

which He was wont to appear fifteen centuries ago. He descends,

just at the very moment when before king, courtiers, knights,

cardinals, and the fairest dames of court, before the whole

population of Seville, upwards of a hundred wicked heretics are

being roasted, in a magnificent auto-da-fe ad majorem Dei

gloriam, by the order of the powerful Cardinal Grand Inquisitor.

“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. The Sun of Love burns in His heart,

and warm rays of Light, Wisdom and Power beam forth from His

eyes, and pour down their waves upon the swarming multitudes of

the rabble assembled around, making their hearts vibrate with

returning love. He extends His hands over their heads, blesses

them, and from mere contact with Him, aye, even with His

garments, a healing power goes forth. An old man, blind from his

birth, cries, ‘Lord, heal me, that I may see Thee!’ and the

scales falling off the closed eyes, the blind man beholds Him…

The crowd weeps for joy, and kisses the ground upon which He

treads. 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. The lid is off, and in the

coffin lies the body of a fair-child, seven years old, the only

child of an eminent citizen of the city. The little corpse lies

buried in flowers. ‘He will raise the child to life!’ confidently

shouts the crowd to the weeping mother. The officiating priest

who had come to meet the funeral procession, looks perplexed, and

frowns. A loud cry is suddenly heard, and the bereaved mother

prostrates herself at His feet. ‘If it be Thou, then bring back

my child to life!’ she cries beseechingly. 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 …. The crowd is

violently excited. 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 is tall, gaunt-looking old man of nearly four-score years and

ten, with a stern, withered face, and deeply sunken eyes, from

the cavity of which glitter two fiery sparks. He has laid aside

his gorgeous cardinal’s robes in which he had appeared before the

people at the auto da-fe of the enemies of the Romish Church, and

is now clad in his old, rough, monkish cassock. His sullen

assistants and slaves of the ‘holy guard’ are following at a

distance. 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….

“The day wanes, and night–a dark, hot breathless Spanish night

–creeps on and settles upon the city of Seville. The air smells

of laurels and orange blossoms. In the Cimmerian darkness of the

old Tribunal Hall the iron door of the cell is suddenly thrown

open, and the Grand Inquisitor, holding a dark lantern, slowly

stalks into the dungeon. He is alone, and, as the heavy door

closes behind him, he pauses at the threshold, and, for a minute

or two, silently and gloomily scrutinizes the Face before him. At

last approaching with measured steps, he sets his lantern down

upon the table and addresses Him in these words:

“‘It is Thou! … Thou!’ … Receiving no reply, he rapidly

continues: ‘Nay, answer not; be silent! … And what couldst Thou

say? … I know but too well Thy answer…. Besides, Thou hast no

right to add one syllable to that which was already uttered by

Thee before…. Why shouldst Thou now return, to impede us in our

work? For Thou hast come but for that only, and Thou knowest it

well. But art Thou as well aware of what awaits Thee in the

morning? I do not know, nor do I care to know who thou mayest be:

be it Thou or only thine image, to-morrow 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, to-morrow at

one bend of my finger, will rush to add fuel to Thy funeral

pile… Wert Thou aware of this?’ he adds, speaking as if in

solemn thought, and never for one instant taking his piercing

glance off the meek Face before him.”….

“I can hardly realize the situation described–what is all

this, Ivan?” suddenly interrupted Alyosha, who had remained

silently listening to his brother. “Is this an extravagant fancy,

or some mistake of the old man, an impossible quid pro quo?”

“Let it be the latter, if you like,” laughed Ivan, “since modern

realism has so perverted your taste that you feel unable to

realize anything from the world of fancy…. Let it be a quid pro

quo, if you so choose it. Again, the Inquisitor is ninety years

old, and he might have easily gone mad with his one idee fixe of

power; or, it might have as well been a delirious vision, called

forth by dying fancy, overheated by the auto-da-fe of the hundred

heretics in that forenoon…. But what matters for the poem,

whether it was a quid pro quo or an uncontrollable fancy? The

question is, that the old man has to open his heart; that he must

give out his thought at last; and that the hour has come when he

does speak it out, and says loudly that which for ninety years he

has kept secret within his own breast.”

“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,” again retorted

Ivan. “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.

….Believest not Thou it is so very strong? … And why should

Thou look at me so meekly as if I were not worthy even of Thy

indignation?… Know then, that now, and only now, Thy people

feel fully sure and satisfied of their freedom; and that only

since they have themselves and of their own free will delivered

that freedom unto our hands by placing it submissively at our

feet. But then, that is what we have done. Is it that which Thou

has striven for? Is this the kind of “freedom” Thou has promised

them?'”

“Now again, I do not understand,” interrupted Alyosha. “Does the

old man mock and laugh?”

“Not in the least. He 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!'”

“But what can he mean by the words, ‘Thou has been fairly

warned’?” asked Alexis.

“These words give the key to what the old man has to say for his

justification… But listen–

“‘The terrible and wise spirit, the spirit of self annihilation

and non-being,’ goes on the Inquisitor, ‘the great spirit of

negation conversed with Thee in the wilderness, and we are told

that he “tempted” Thee… Was it so? And if it were so, then it is

impossible to utter anything more truthful than what is contained

in his three offers, which Thou didst reject, and which are

usually called “temptations.” Yea; if ever there was on earth a

genuine striking wonder produced, it was on that day of Thy three

temptations, and it is precisely in these three short sentences

that the marvelous miracle is contained. If it were possible that

they should vanish and disappear for ever, without leaving any

trace, from the record and from the memory of man, and that it

should become necessary again to devise, invent, and make them

reappear in Thy history once more, thinkest Thou that all the

world’s sages, all the legislators, initiates, philosophers and

thinkers, if called upon to frame three questions which should,

like these, besides answering the magnitude of the event, express

in three short sentences the whole future history of  this our

world and of mankind–dost Thou believe, I ask Thee, that all

their combined efforts could ever create anything equal in power

and depth of thought to the three propositions offered Thee by the

powerful and all-wise spirit in the wilderness? Judging of them by

their marvelous aptness alone, one can at once perceive that they

emanated not from a finite, terrestrial intellect, but indeed,

from the Eternal and the Absolute. In these three offers we find,

blended into one and foretold to us, the complete subsequent

history of man; we are shown three images, so to say, uniting in

them all the future axiomatic, insoluble problems and

contradictions of human nature, the world over. In those days, the

wondrous wisdom contained in them was not made so apparent as it

is now, for futurity remained still veiled; but now, when fifteen

centuries have elapsed, we see that everything in these three

questions is so marvelously foreseen and foretold, that to add to,

or to take away from, the prophecy one jot, would be absolutely

impossible!

“‘Decide then thyself.’ sternly proceeded the Inquisitor, ‘which

of ye twain was right: Thou who didst reject, or he who offered?

Remember the subtle meaning of question the first, which runs

thus: Wouldst Thou go into the world empty-handed? Would Thou

venture thither with Thy vague and undefined promise of freedom,

which men, dull and unruly as they are by nature, are unable so

much as to understand, which they avoid and fear?–for never was

there anything more unbearable to the human race than personal

freedom! Dost Thou see these stones in the desolate and glaring

wilderness? Command that these stones be made bread–and mankind

will run after Thee, obedient and grateful like a herd of cattle.

But even then it will be ever diffident and trembling, lest Thou

should take away Thy hand, and they lose thereby their bread!

Thou didst refuse to accept the offer for fear of depriving men

of their free choice; for where is there freedom of choice where

men are bribed with bread? Man shall not live by bread alone–

was Thine answer. Thou knewest not, it seems, that it was

precisely in the name of that earthly bread that the terrestrial

spirit would one day rise against, struggle with, and finally

conquer Thee, followed by the hungry multitudes shouting: “Who is

like unto that Beast, who maketh fire come down from heaven upon

the earth!” Knowest Thou not that, but a few centuries hence, and

the whole of mankind will have proclaimed in its wisdom and

through its mouthpiece, Science, that there is no more crime,

hence no more sin on earth, but only hungry people? “Feed us

first and then command us to be virtuous!” will be the words

written upon the banner lifted against Thee–a banner which

shall destroy Thy Church to its very foundations,  and in the

place of Thy Temple shall raise once more the terrible Tower of

Babel; and though its building be left unfinished, as was that of

the first one, yet the fact will remain recorded that Thou

couldst, but wouldst not, prevent the attempt to build that new

tower by accepting the offer, and thus saving mankind a

millennium of useless suffering on earth. And it is to us that

the people will return again. They will search for us catacombs,

as we shall once more be persecuted and martyred–and they will

begin crying unto us: “Feed us, for they who promised us the fire

from heaven have deceived us!” It is then that we will finish

building their tower for them. For they alone who feed them shall

finish it, and we shall feed them in Thy name, and lying to them

that it is in that name. Oh, never, never, will they learn to

feed themselves without our help! No science will ever give them

bread so long as they remain free, so long as they refuse to lay

that freedom at our feet, and say: “Enslave, but feed us!” That

day must come when men will understand that freedom and daily

bread enough to satisfy all are unthinkable and can never be had

together, as men will never be able to fairly divide the two

among themselves. And they will also learn that they can never be

free, for they are weak, vicious, miserable nonentities born

wicked and rebellious. Thou has promised to them the bread of

life, the bread of  heaven; but I ask Thee again, can that bread

ever equal in the sight of the weak and the vicious, the ever

ungrateful human race, their daily bread on earth? And even

supposing that thousands and tens of thousands follow Thee in the

name of, and for the sake of, Thy heavenly bread, what will

become of the millions and hundreds of millions of human beings

to weak to scorn the earthly for the sake of Thy heavenly bread?

Or is it but those tens of thousands chosen among the great and

the mighty, that are so dear to Thee, while the remaining

millions, innumerable as the grains of sand in the seas, the weak

and the loving, have to be used as material for the former? No,

no! In our sight and for our purpose the weak and the lowly are

the more dear to us. True, they are vicious and rebellious, but

we will force them into obedience, and it is they who will admire

us the most. They will regard us as gods, and feel grateful to

those who have consented to lead the masses and bear their burden

of freedom by ruling over them–so terrible will that freedom at

last appear to men! Then we will tell them that it is in

obedience to Thy will and in Thy name that we rule over them. We

will deceive them once more and lie to them once again–for

never, never more will we allow Thee to come among us. In this

deception we will find our suffering, for we must needs lie

eternally, and never cease to lie!

“Such is the secret meaning of “temptation” the first, and that

is what Thou didst reject in the wilderness for the sake of that

freedom which Thou didst prize above all. Meanwhile Thy tempter’s

offer contained another great world-mystery. By accepting the

“bread,” Thou wouldst have satisfied and answered a universal

craving, a ceaseless longing alive in the heart of every

individual human being, lurking in the breast of collective

mankind, that most perplexing problem–“whom or what shall we

worship?” There exists no greater or more painful anxiety for a

man who has freed himself from all religious bias, than how he

shall soonest find a new object or idea to worship. But man seeks

to bow before that only which is recognized by the greater

majority, if not by all his fellow-men, as having a right to be

worshipped; whose rights are so unquestionable that men agree

unanimously to bow down to it. For the chief concern of these

miserable creatures is not to find and worship the idol of their

own choice, but to discover that which all others will believe

in, and consent to bow down to in a mass. It is that instinctive

need of having a worship in common that is the chief suffering of

every man, the chief concern of mankind from the beginning of

times. It is for that universality of religious worship that

people destroyed each other by sword. Creating gods unto

themselves, they forwith began appealing to each other: “Abandon

your deities, come and bow down to ours, or death to ye and your

idols!” And so will they do till the end of this world; they will

do so even then, when all the gods themselves have disappeared,

for then men will prostrate themselves before and worship some

idea. Thou didst know, Thou couldst not be ignorant of, that

mysterious fundamental principle in human nature, and still thou

hast rejected the only absolute banner offered Thee, to which all

the nations would remain true, and before which all would have

bowed–the banner of earthly bread, rejected in the name of

freedom and of “bread in the kingdom of God”! Behold, then, what

Thou hast done furthermore for that “freedom’s” sake! I repeat to

Thee, man has no greater anxiety in life than to find some one to

whom he can make over that gift of freedom with which the

unfortunate creature is born. But he alone will prove capable of

silencing and quieting their consciences, that shall succeed in

possessing himself of the freedom of men. With “daily bread” an

irresistible power was offered Thee: show a man “bread” and he

will follow Thee, for what can he resist less than the attraction

of bread? But if, at the same time, another succeed in possessing

himself of his conscience–oh! then even Thy bread will be

forgotten, and man will follow him who seduced his conscience. So

far Thou wert right. For the mystery of human being does not

solely rest in the desire to live, but in the problem–for what

should one live at all? Without a clear perception of his reasons

for living, man will never consent to live, and will rather

destroy himself than tarry on earth, though he be surrounded with

bread. This is the truth. But what has happened? Instead of

getting hold of man’s freedom, Thou has enlarged it still more!

Hast Thou again forgotten that to man rest and even death are

preferable to a free choice between the knowledge of Good and

Evil? Nothing seems more seductive in his eyes than freedom of

conscience, and nothing proves more painful. And behold! instead

of laying a firm foundation whereon to rest once for all man’s

conscience, Thou hast chosen to stir up in him all that is

abnormal, mysterious, and indefinite, all that is beyond human

strength, and has acted as if Thou never hadst any love for him,

and yet Thou wert He who came to “lay down His life for His

friends!” Thou hast burdened man’s soul with anxieties hitherto

unknown to him. Thirsting for human love freely given, seeking to

enable man, seduced and charmed by Thee, to follow Thy path of

his own free-will, instead of the old and wise law which held him

in subjection, Thou hast given him the right henceforth to choose

and freely decide what is good and bad for him, guided but by

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