Part II Book V - Pro and Contra (Chapter 5)
Chapter 5: The Grand Inquisitor
In his poem, "The Grand Inquisitor," Ivan imagines that Christ has returned to earth and has appeared in sixteenth-century Spain. This is the time of the Inquisition, which tortured and burnt heretics who went against Catholic orthodoxy.
Christ walks through the streets, blessing the people, healing the sick and raising a child from the dead. Then a cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor, appears and orders his guards to arrest Christ. The guards lock Christ into a prison. The Grand Inquisitor visits Christ in prison and tells him that he intends to burn him tomorrow as a heretic. He goes on to explain why. During the Inquisitor's speech, Christ listens calmly and intently, looking the Inquisitor straight in the eye.
The Inquisitor says that when Christ first came to earth, he taught that men have free will - to follow him or not, and to do good or not. But free will has come at a great cost to humanity: it is as much a curse as a blessing, since most people are not strong enough to refuse earthly securities like enough food in return for heavenly glory.
The Inquisitor reminds Christ of when he was tempted by Satan three times in the wilderness (Matthew iv: 1-25). Christ had fasted for forty days and nights, and was hungry. In the first temptation, Satan appeared and asked Christ why he did not turn some stones into bread and satisfy his hunger. Christ resisted the temptation, saying, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God." The Inquisitor says Christ did not turn the stones into bread because he did not want the kind of obedience from mankind that was bought with loaves of bread. He wanted man to be free to follow him or not, and such a miracle would effectively enslave him, to the immediate promise of bread but also to the miracle itself (miracles go against free will, according to the novel, because they leave people with no choice but to believe). But the Inquisitor says Christ should have turned the stones into bread, since no one should expect man to be virtuous if he is starving. He says that out of compassion for humanity, the Church is replacing free will with security, and humanity thanks it, saying, "Better that you enslave us, but feed us." Free will is an intolerable burden to mankind, as most are not strong enough to forgo earthly bread for heavenly sustenance.
In the second temptation, Satan set Christ on the pinnacle of the temple, and asked him to throw himself off, as if he is the Son of God, the angels will bear him up and prevent his falling to his death. Christ refused, as it is wrong to tempt God. In refusing, he was rejecting the power of miracle over mankind. He wanted a faith that was free, not forced by the terror of miracles. The Inquisitor says Christ was wrong to refuse, as man is weak and seeks not God, but miracles. If Christ does not provide the miracles, man will seek them elsewhere, from charlatans and quacks. Again, Christ is demanding a strength and resolve from man that most do not possess.
In the third temptation, Satan took Christ to a mountain, showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and told him that if he would fall down and worship him, he (Satan) would give him power over all that he could see. Christ refused, on the grounds that he should serve only God. The Inquisitor says Christ should have accepted this power. Because he did not, the Church has had to step in and take it in Christ's name, in order to relieve man of his burden of free will and to give him security.
In all three temptations, says the Inquisitor, Christ rejected miracle, mystery and authority - the three elements that have power to keep man in order and contentment - in favor of free will for mankind. But free will has only brought suffering to mankind. Thus the Church has filled the vacuum left by Christ. When it took charge of the Holy Roman Empire, it seized secular power over the earth. It has allied itself with Satan to give mankind the miracle, mystery and authority that he needs because of his weakness. It exercises total control over men's earthly, as well as spiritual, lives. The Church cannot afford to have Christ back on earth, undoing its work. Thus it must burn him.
Alyosha, in great agitation, interrupts Ivan's narrative to point out that the poem praises Christ instead of reviling him, as Ivan meant it to. With sorrow, Alyosha concludes that Ivan does not believe in God.
Ivan continues his narrative. The Inquisitor falls silent, giving Christ time to reply. Wordlessly, Christ gets up and gently kisses the Inquisitor on the lips. That is his only reply. The Inquisitor shudders. He opens the prison door and sets Christ free, but orders him never to come back. Thereafter, though the Inquisitor holds to his former ideas, "the kiss burns in his heart."
Alyosha is upset by what he sees as the impossibility of Ivan's loving anything or anyone "with such hell in your heart and in your head." He feels that Ivan will either join those represented in the poem by the Inquisitor's people, or he will kill himself in despair. Ivan says he believes that "everything is permitted," that is, that without a benevolent God, there are no moral absolutes and one can do as one likes. He worries that Alyosha will disown him because of his belief, but Alyosha simply gets up, goes over to him, and kisses him on the lips. Ivan, moved, tells Alyosha that he stole that action from his poem. Ivan promises that if he sticks with life for the sake of the "sticky little leaves," he will love them only by remembering Alyosha. He says that he no longer wants Alyosha to even mention him to Dmitri any longer, as there is nothing left to say. But if Ivan ever feels that life is no longer worth living, he will talk things over with Alyosha.
Ivan leaves. Forgetting his intention to look for Dmitri, Alyosha returns to the monastery.
This chapter forms the most coherent indictment of God's ways in the novel, and occupies the opposite polarity to the simple faith of Alyosha and Zosima. The Grand Inquisitor (a spokesman for Ivan) believes that God laid a curse on humanity when he gave him free will, since most people are not strong enough to be free and still do the right and moral thing. Christ embraces free will: it is his gift to mankind, as he wants everyone who follows him to do so freely without being forced by some external power. On the other hand, Satan, tempting Christ, offers a path of security involving miracle, mystery and authority. The gifts offered by Satan would improve man's earthly lot but decrease his freedom. These gifts are what man, in his sheeplike weakness, really wants, says the Inquisitor.
Ivan's poem identifies the Roman Catholic Church with Satan. Ivan adopts a radical stance by suggesting that it is Satan who is on humanity's side, not Christ, who is simply asking too much of mankind and compounding its suffering. Ivan believes that man would be better off being enslaved and secure rather than free and making appalling mistakes.
From the point of view of logic and most people's experience of the world, Ivan and his Inquisitor have a strong argument. Significantly, Christ does not contradict or comment on anything the Inquisitor says. His only response is silence and a profound gesture, a kiss on the Inquisitor's lips. The gesture symbolizes the pure love for mankind that Christ taught and embodied. Perhaps it also recognizes that the Inquisitor, like Christ, is motivated by love for mankind. This kiss of love does not defeat the Inquisitor's argument, but equally, the argument does not defeat the kiss. They are coexistent realities: intellect and heart, doubt and faith, logic and love, words and silence. But the fact that the kiss silences all argument and transforms the occasion renders it a transcendent gesture, a gesture that goes beyond thought and words.
The fact that Alyosha takes up Christ's profound gesture and kisses Ivan on the lips in the same way shows that Dostoevsky means to draw a symbolic link between Alyosha and Christ.
Ultimately, whatever the reader's beliefs about God, his or her response to the two polarities - logic and love - will likely be visceral. Ivan's/the Inquisitor's argument is pessimistic and despairing of humanity. Christ's/Alyosha's attitude is one of conviction in the redemptive possibilities of the human lot. The kiss is suggestive of love, life, and great possibilities. It is difficult not to respond positively to a loving kiss, as is obvious from the fact that both the Inquisitor and Ivan are moved by Christ's and Alyosha's gesture. The reader will follow them in softening his or her attitude to the characters involved, and through them, to humanity.
Likewise, it is impossible to escape the symbolism and forebodings surrounding Ivan's attitudes. His talk of ending his life at thirty shows the potentially destructive results of his despairing attitude. On the other hand, the "sticky little leaves" are symbols of the regeneration of life in spring after the dead time of winter. That Ivan loves them suggests that a part of him is, in spite of his intellect, on the side of life, love and hope. The fact that Ivan ended his poem as he did, with Christ's kiss, and the fact that he is touched by Alyosha's kiss, mean that he desires redemption through love.
In these ways, Dostoevsky has his most serious opponent of religious faith, Ivan, take an ambiguous attitude towards it. He rebels against it, yet is irresistibly drawn to it. Thus Dostoevsky suggests that religious faith is a powerfully attractive force, even for those who think they have rejected it.