Sunday, 8 July 2018

The Grand Inquisitor: pointing forward rather than back



Each of Dostoevsky’s final five novels is long. They are long in terms of the number of pages, but not only long in this way. There are long novels I have read that it is possible to read so continuously that the pages fly past in a swirl of plot. I have read novels with over a thousand pages that seem short. Even Dostoevsky’s short novels like Notes from Underground seem long.

The Brothers Karamazov in terms of plot could be turned into a fairly short novel. If an editor reduced the novel to only those parts that were necessary to understand the story what would remain? I think the whole thing could be told in 150 pages.


 So much is completely unrealistic. Alyosha meets Ivan in a bar. The course of their meeting is three chapters, over thirty pages. Much of it involves dialogue which goes on for pages without paragraph breaks. Have you ever had a conversation with someone in a bar that involves you or him speaking a monologue that might take an hour for you to speak aloud?

The Grand Inquisitor is supposed to be a poem that Ivan made up though he didn’t write it down. He learned it by heart and now for the first time he is going to speak it to his first listener. Is this likely?

As so often in Dostoevsky’s novels we are forced to go along with conversations and conventions that are inherently impossible. Frequently they don’t even fit the time frame. In terms of plot there may be a conversation that can take no more than an hour, yet one hundred pages later we are still involved in these lengthy monologues that often do not advance the plot one little bit, but just explore some topic or other.

Is this a complaint? No. This is what makes Dostoevsky great. His plots are sometimes fascinating. Often I return to the complexity of the plot, but it is not fundamentally plot that interests me. The plot is the frame on which Dostoevsky hangs his depictions of character and his ideas about philosophy, psychology, theology, life and love. It is these things that matter. It is for this reason that I don’t really describe plot. Read the books for yourself. The plots are frequently clever. As works of literature Dostoevsky’s novels are as good as anything ever written. But this is not why I write about Dostoevsky. I don’t write about Tolstoy. I don’t write about Jane Austen. They too wrote great novels. But I don’t keep returning to their books, drawn in by long passages that might have been edited out, because they contribute nothing to plot. I read and re-read Dostoevsky only because of these passages.

It has taken me a long time to come to any sort of understanding of the chapter called the Grand Inquisitor. It is a thought experiment. What would happen if Jesus returned to Earth during the Spanish Inquisition? There has just been an auto da-fe in Seville where over one hundred heretics have been burned. But Jesus appears and performs miracles. A blind man is made to see. A girl is resurrected from the dead. The Grand Inquisitor, a very old man, witnesses this and has Jesus arrested. This man visits Jesus in a prison cell. He promises that the next day Jesus will be burned as a heretic.

What is the nature of Jesus’ crime? The inquisitor says “you have no right to add anything to what you already said once” (p. 250). This is quite an interesting point. There is a tendency to treat revelation as something that has finished. When was the last canonical book of the Bible written? When did we decide what was in the Bible and what was not? This all happened in the early days of the Church. Since then have we added any new books? Why should the letters of Saint Paul be in the Bible, but the letters of another saint excluded. Why could not Saint Augustine’s letters be the result of revelation? Or those of Saint Thomas Aquinas. We have rejected all subsequent revelation. The Church does not accept the revelation of Mohamed. Christians do not think that the Koran is divinely inspired. We do not add it to the New Testament, though it clearly is influenced both by the Old and the New Testaments. We do not think that the Book of Mormon is divinely inspired. We think that Joseph Smith was a false prophet. If we did not think in the way we would be Latter Day Saints.
But then this is a problem. Is it possible to add to the revelation that we already have in the Bible? What would count as adding to that revelation? If nothing would could, then how can Jesus return and be recognised by Christians. This return would add a new book to the Bible. But we think the Bible is finished and has been finished since the days of the early church.

Ivan points out in an aside “the most basic feature of Roman Catholicism … ‘Everything’ they say, ‘has been  handed over by you to the pope, therefore everything belongs to the pope, and you may as well not come at all now’” (p. 251) The you here is clearly Jesus, but really it is any second revelation. Only the Pope is allowed to have a second revelation. Papal infallibility means that it would be for the Pope to judge if Jesus appeared. I don’t mean the Pope literally. The Pope is guided by his cardinals and by the Church in general. His infallibility consists in the theology of the Church. But there is then an issue here of how the Church would respond to a later revelation.

Yet it has to be admitted that the Church from time to time allows the idea that some ordinary person is contacted directly by the divine. Saints can perform miracles. People can have visions of the Virgin Mary. When Bernadette of Lourdes saw the Virgin, she was not given any permission. This revelation was given to her and her alone. But if later day revelation is possible why is it not possible to add to the revelation of the Bible. What if Bernadette was inspired to write a letter and she told everyone that the letter was dictated to her by the Virgin. Would such a letter end up in the Bible?

It is for the Church to determine whether Bernadette’s visions were authentic. They could have ruled that she was a fraud or insane. After careful investigation the Church believed her. But they might not have. So if Jesus visited Seville during the time of the Inquisition, who would determine if he was genuine or a fraud? The Church would determine. At that point in Seville the person appointed to judge over these matters was the Grand Inquisitor. Could he decide that the returned Christ was a fraud? Why not? But what is interesting about the present case is that that Grand Inquisitor doesn’t think that Christ is a fraud. He thinks that Christ is genuine. That he really has returned, but still he wants to burn him. Why should this be so? Why should this man be the judge of whether Christ has returned? Who is he to determine this? After all when Christ appeared on Earth two thousand years ago it was ordinary people who first became aware of the revelation. It wasn’t the “Church” that existed then that determined whether Jesus was the Messiah. That “Church” with all its learned rabbis and Pharisees rejected Jesus as being the Messiah. Why should the Church that exists at the time of the Inquisition be allowed to determine the truth? If we admit that the Church could be in error in Seville during the Inquisition, must we admit that it could be in error today. Perhaps we would not be inclined to burn the returning Christ today, but can we be so smug about how he might be treated. Might we for instance confine him to a mental hospital as someone who suffers delusions? If I claim to be able to turn water into wine to my doctor what do you think he would do? So this story is about us. It isn’t only about the Inquisition in Seville.

But the situation in the time of the Inquisition is different from the time when Christ walked upon the Earth. The disciples chose to follow Jesus, but during the Inquisition there is no choice. Failure to believe in the Seville of those days leads to the stake. The reason for this, the Inquisitor explains, is that the “people are more certain than ever before that they are completely free, and at the same time they themselves have brought us their freedom and obediently laid it at our feet” (p. 251) This sort of freedom is illusory. It is no longer the people who are free to choose and believe. The church commands. The inquisitor thinks that he and his colleagues “have finally overcome freedom, and have done so in order to make people happy” (p. 251).

This is the essence of the debate. Does freedom make people happy or is being commanded the key to happiness. This is the essence of the debate between existentialism and collectivism, the debate between Hegel and Kierkegaard. The Grand Inquisitor thinks that Christ “rejected the only way of arranging for human happiness, but fortunately, on your departure, you handed the work over to us” (p. 251). It is for this reason that although he believes Christ has returned he wants to reject him saying “surely you cannot even think of taking this right away from us now” (p. 251).

The Grand Inquisitor thinks that what matters is earthly happiness, but that Christ’s message does not bring happiness to this world. This is the debate between believing in heaven or believing in heaven on earth. Socialism is the attempt to create heaven on earth. It is the attempt to apply the Christian message to politics, but to do so in an unchristian way. Whereas Jesus says that we ought to share and love our neighbour, socialism says we must. It turns morality into a matter of law. If I reject the methods by which socialism will enforce equality, then I will not be burned at the stake, but I will soon find the forces of law ranged up against me. Human happiness in this way depends on man losing his freedom. This I think is the parallel that Dostoevsky wants to make. But let’s look further.

The Grand Inquisitor looks at Jesus being tempted in the Wilderness (Matthew 4 1-11). The temptations given to Jesus by the Devil are to turn stones into bread, throw himself off a cliff relying on angels to rescue him and to rule over the whole world on condition that he worships the Devil. Jesus rejects all three temptations.

The inquisitor thinks that he was wrong to do so for “Turn them into bread and mankind will run after you like sheep, grateful and obedient, though eternally trembling lest you withdraw your hand and your loaves cease for them” (p. 251).

Will man be willing to give up freedom for bread? Well look at our own society. Our Government has the power to provide bread to those who lack the means to find their own bread. What are benefits but the bread that the government gives? Those who receive this bread do indeed eternally tremble that it might be withdrawn. Are they willing to exchange their freedom for this bread?

Jesus objects to the Devil that man does not live by bread alone. The inquisitor takes the Devil’s side “do you know that in the name of this very earthly bread, the spirit of the earth will rise against you and fight with you and defeat you … do you know that centuries will pass and mankind will proclaim with the mouth of its wisdom and science that there is no crime, and therefore no sin, but only hungry men?” (p. 252-253)

But this is where we are now. Christianity has been all but defeated by secularism. Communism defeated Christianity in Russia and promised a new religion of heaven on earth with a new Messiah called Lenin. Stalin was indeed the Devil incarnate and his ideology was the opposite of Christianity. But Christianity was less under threat from communism than it is under threat from indifference and the wisdom of science. What matters to us today is indeed earthly bread. What matters to us is heaven on earth, pleasure and putting off the evil day of death for as long as possible. We no longer believe in sin. Everything is permissible. If you think that the Grand Inquisitor is a figure from long ago, think again. He is now. He is with us.

The Grand Inquisitor points out that the people will eventually tire of the promise of heavenly bread. They will then go to the Church and say “Feed us, for those who promised us fire from heaven did not give it” (p. 253). The Church will give the bread on the condition that man loses his freedom for “No science will give them bread as long as they remain free, but in the end they will lay their freedom at our feet” (p. 253).

The Grand Inquisitor is the equivalent of Lenin. You are poor and hungry, you need food banks to survive. We will give you bread. This is the promise of heaven on earth that socialism gives us, but we must all be aware of the price that we need to pay. It is a bargain with the devil and leads to the loss of freedom. It leads to the loss of freedom because I do not accept that I am responsible for my bread. I give the responsibility to the Church or the Government to provide me with what I need to live. But I do not need to give this responsibility. People have lived in the wilderness. The pioneers in the United States made their own bread without the help of the Government. But then they really were free. The Grand Inquisitor is a socialist. The auto da fe was not so long ago. It happened throughout the 1930s. It happened after 1789. It happens today when people vegetate and lose their souls because they depend completely on the Government and this eventually leads them to live a life which only seeks transient pleasure. Sex, alcohol, shopping. Whatever I want to do I will do. This is to lose your soul. This too is an auto da fe.

The Grand Inquisitor thinks that people face a choice “They will finally understand that freedom and earthly bread in plenty for everyone are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share among themselves” (p. 253). We are not then really looking back to Seville in the 15th century but looking forward to Russia in the 20th century. The Christian ideal of loving our neighbour, plus altruism to a great extent contradicts human nature. Which of us really would give up our cloak to a robber? Which of us really would respond to a slap by turning the other cheek? This has always been the challenge of Christianity. None of us, apart from saints, can even begin to imitate Christ. We fail every day in living as Christ asks us. Are you really ready to leave your mother and your father, your husband or your wife? Are you ready today to give all you have to the poor and follow Jesus? Our freedom of choice is what makes the Christian ideal inconceivable. The Grand Inquisitor would take away that choice and impose equality by law and by threat. But this is exactly what Russia faced some decades later. People will not share unless they are forced to. Socialism is only possible if freedom is taken away from the masses. Above all else this chapter is prophetic. The greatest inquisition of all was undertaken in the 1930s by the NKVD. Only with terror could collective farming be introduced to the Soviet Union. There was equality of course, but it was an equality of starvation.

The Grand Inquisitor goes still further. The people “will also be convinced that they are forever incapable of being free, because they are feeble, depraved, nonentities and rebels. You promised them heavenly bread but … can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, eternally depraved, and eternally ignoble human race” (p. 253).

But when did the Catholic Church provide anyone with equality, when indeed did it set out to provide bread? People living in Seville in the 15th century were not given equality by the Church. There then were nobles and the poor. The poor frequently did not have enough to eat. The conflict during the Reformation was not about creating heaven on earth, rather it was about salvation and how to obtain it. Was it not all about whether I can obtain salvation by works or by faith alone? So again it is not really that we are looking backwards but rather forwards. The Grand Inquisitor is saying that people will prefer heaven on earth to the promise of an eternal reward and they will be willing to give up their freedom for this earthly heaven. Moreover they will have to give up their freedom as heaven on earth is incompatible with choice. The people must be forced to be free. The task of socialism then is to convince the people that they are incapable of being free. This is what the Welfare State does. If you are dependent on the Government for your existence, if you live this way for a few years, you will lose all sense of self, all sense of being capable of earning a living. At this point you will have no sense of being properly free. So too in Communism. Everything depends on the party. There is little or no room for initiative. Bringing Christianity down to earth, making an earthly heaven requires that we lose our freedom. It is for this reason that earthly Christianity or socialism is not Christianity at all. For Christianity above all depends on a choice. A leap of faith. It is for this reason that socialism is incompatible with Christianity. Socialism is the attempt to force others to live a Christian life. But the force means that it ceases to be Christianity at all. Rather it is the temptation that the Devil gave to Jesus. It is for this reason that socialism always ends in terror and monstrosity. It is quite literally the work of the Devil.

The Grand Inquisitor points out that only a few tens of thousands are really strong enough to follow Christ. The rest, the millions are too weak, but because of this weakness they will be obedient. The rulers however will have freedom. He continues “They will marvel at us, and look upon us as gods, because we, standing at their head, heave agreed to suffer freedom and to rule over them” (p. 253).

The party always maintained this sort of distance between it and the proletariat. The party had freedoms that everyone else lacked. The party were the new gentry and the rules did not always apply to them. This is the essence of socialism. It is why the leaders of socialist parties always get rich. Tony Blair could never have become as rich as he did if he had been honestly in favour of capitalism, but by pretending to want equality he became as unequal as it is possible to be.

The Grand Inquisitor admits to Jesus that there is a deceit. He says that the Church will pretend to rule in Jesus’ name. But it is a lie and it is for this reason that the Church will not allow Jesus to reappear. It is because the Church has taken the Devil’s side in the first of the temptations. They have rejected freedom.

Jesus puts freedom at the heart of his message. It is a free choice whether someone will follow him or not. It is a free choice whether someone will act as Jesus does. It is also a free choice whether someone believes in Jesus at all. But do I have a choice when I believe that grass is green or that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. No I have no choice about these things because there is no question of doubt. But it is this question that the Grand Inquisitor thinks is the flaw

“Man seeks to bow down before that which is indisputable, so indisputable that all men at once would agree to the universal worship of it.” (p. 254).

But what could such a thing be? What is indisputable? It certainly isn’t Christianity, unless Christianity becomes a tyranny. When people are forced to believe perhaps because they fear the consequences of expressing their doubt then there is something indisputable.

But here too I think the Inquisitor may be mistaken. He argues that if Christ had accepted the loaves, accepted that is that stones would be turned into bread then he would have become indisputable. But Jesus of course did perform miracles. He did multiply loaves when he fed the five thousand. He did change water into wine. Did these things make him indisputable? Far from it. All of these things depended on a miracle. But it is because the story of Jesus involves a miracle that so many doubt it. Why? Because miracles are contrary to nature and science.

The Christian message is always going to be disputable unless it is enforced by the auto da fe. Everything that is important about Christianity involves a contradiction. It is for this reason that it involves a choice. It is not like watching the sun come up in the morning. Here there is not evidence.

Where are there people who believe without question? Some people in the Soviet Union believed what the party told them. They believed that Lenin was almost the equivalent of a god. They believed contrary to reason, because they had no choice. So too where apostasy is punished by death there is no question of freedom of choice in believing. You will believe or you will be killed. But this is not faith at all, but rather compulsion. You can make me believe that the moon is made of green cheese if you put a gun to my head. I will tell you that I believe. Winston Smith finally could believe even that 2 plus 2 was five.

But what also is indisputable? We can feel smug about those who are forced to believe things. But we should not feel smug, for many of us too think that there are things in the world that are indisputable. Science for instance. If I even express doubts about climate change then I am a heretic.  If I doubt the wisdom of doctors or the wonders of the NHS I am beyond the pale. If I doubt that a man can turn into a woman or that two men can marry I sin against the most modern of faiths. I may not be killed if I express these doubts, but I might lose my job or be arrested for hate speech. Are we so very far away from the inquisition?

The Grand inquisitor argues that man seeks something indisputable to believe because it is not enough to find something that each individual can bow down to. Rather it is necessary to find “something before which everyone else will also believe in and bow down to, for it must needs be all together” (p. 254).
Christianity is about individual choice, but it is distorted by the demand that everyone must follow. But this can only be done in two ways. Either faith becomes a matter of force and threat or it is about something that does not admit of doubt. Communism and some religions including Christianity have at times depended on threat, even if the threat is mild such as social ostracism. Why are there religious wars? Because we have historically been unwilling to allow people to choose their own faith. A king wanted all of his subjects to believe as he did and so he forced them. This is one form of tyranny. But there is another.

Today in the West there is a tyranny of ideas. Nice people only believe certain things. These things may be quite unlikely. They may be things that almost no-one believed one hundred years ago. They are also things that can be disputed. But the purpose of saying that something is politically correct is to say that the alternative is politically false. It is indisputable that something that is correct ought to be believed and that something that is false ought to be disbelieved. But what are these things that ought to be believed? Are they really indisputable? Not at all. Many people do dispute them. But to try to force people to believe things that are disputable is exactly what the Grand Inquisitor was trying to do. Forcing people to believe the politically correct for fear of social ostracism is no different from forcing people to go to church for fear that the neighbours would twitch their curtains. But eventually people cease to care if you are twitching your curtains. This is happening today. Political correctness is a modern church, but its threat is empty. People no longer care about its threats.

The Grand Inquisitor thinks that Jesus in rejecting the temptation of the Devil rejected the only way to make man bow down to him indisputably. This is the earthly bread. This is making his kingdom of this world. But what of the other temptations?

The Inquisitor argues that there are only three powers capable of holding captive man’s conscience “these powers are miracle, mystery and authority” (p. 255). He argues that Jesus hoped that man “would remain with God, having no need of miracles. But you did not know that as soon as man rejects miracles, he will at once reject God as well” (p. 255).

It is true that Jesus hoped that belief would not depend on miracles. There are those who need to see the marks of the nails. There are those who need to see that the blind can see or the lame can walk. But if faith depended on witnessing miracles there would be precious little faith. It is as if the Inquisitor thinks that Jesus needs continually to perform miracles in order to get people to believe. But the Inquisitor is right I think that to reject miracles is to reject God.

What is it to reject miracles? It is to believe that the world is governed by the laws of nature and that science can and eventually will reveal everything that there is to be known about the universe. The belief in God is the belief that there are important things that science cannot reach and know. It is a completely different world view. It is contrary to reason. In the story of the creation of the world science can find no room for God. In the story of the creation of each individual and in his destruction science can find no room for God. It explains birth in terms of biology and death in terms of destruction. This is a matter of nature. But Christianity involves the belief that God is involved in the creation of the world, that he is involved in the beginning of life and he is involved in death. This is to believe in something that contradicts the laws of nature. It is to believe in miracles.

The Inquisitor says to Jesus “you did not want to enslave man by miracle and thirsted for faith that is free, not miraculous” (p. 256) This is true. Faith is not knowledge. It is for this reason that it is free. I have no choice to believe that the sun is rising in the East. To doubt this is to doubt that I understand the words sun and East. But although faith is not knowledge and therefore is a free choice, the object of faith is miraculous. Belief in Jesus requires me to believe that God became man. This is contrary to nature. Science has no explanation of how a God could become man. But even if I witnessed water turned into wine, or Lazarus raised from the dead, would this have given me indisputable evidence that Jesus was the son of God? If it is indisputable evidence why is it that not everyone in the world believes? Later if I had witnessed the water being turned into wine I might conclude that magic was involved or that I was drunk. I might have thought that Lazarus was not really dead at all. I might believe when the blind see and the lame walk that the person who cures them is a charlatan and that these people have been planted in the audience. Even viewing Christ after the resurrection might be taken to be just another ghost story. There are any number of such stories throughout the world. Do they prove the existence of ghosts?

The Inquisitor overestimates the power of miracles. There are miracles every day in the world. The Church has testified to thousands of miracles. The Virgin Mary has appeared to more than one person. People with incurable diseases have been cured. Why then does not the whole world believe in what the Church teaches? Because there is always the possibility to dispute whether the miracle actually occurred. Even eye witnesses will doubt. It is not even really possible to witness a miracle. If I testified in court that I saw a miracle, the court would doubt my testimony. It would always be reasonable to do so.

What about the second way of controlling people. The Grand Inquisitor continues we “had the right to preach mystery and to teach them that it is not the free choice of the heart that matters, and not love, but the mystery, which they must blindly obey, even setting aside their own conscience” (p. 257).

Faith is indeed a mystery. There is no understanding it on earth. There is a limit beyond which I cannot go in my study of theology. I cannot batter down the gates of heaven with my reason. But how can this make me choose to believe in the mystery. The mystery in itself can make no one believe. It was of course possible in the time of the Inquisition to say to people you do not understand this, but must blindly accept it, but it is not the mystery that is making them believe it is the authority of the Inquisition and the power that it has over men’s lives.

The Inquisitor thinks that freedom of choice is a burden and that man prefers to be told what to do. He thinks that only a small sub section of mankind is capable of exercising freedom. The rest want to be controlled. There is an element of truth in this. Why is it that throughout the world there is tyranny and has been throughout history? It is in part because we prefer it that way. If you give many men freedom they will not choose to keep it. We liberated Iraq from the tyranny of Sadam Husein. They had the ability to choose democracy and freedom, but they preferred barbarism. The Arab Spring was a prime example of people being granted freedom but choosing to use it only once so as their side should win and then no other side would get the chance to win.  Democracy is fragile because we care more about winning that democracy. This can be witnessed in people being unwilling to accept the result of an election or a referendum.

The Inquisitor has a negative view of the majority of mankind. Only people like him are capable of being free. The masses are incapable. He is too pessimistic. There is more freedom in the world that either during the time of the Inquisition or Dostoevsky’s own time. But even if I live in a tyranny I still always feel my freedom. Even if I lived in Stalin’s Russia I felt free when I crossed the road. I made thousands of free choices every day. Even in the Gulag I had freedom of choice even if it was only in choosing to walk to the left rather than the right. This freedom is the seed of the destruction of all tyranny. It is also the reason why people have faith. My freedom is contrary to nature and involves a continuous miracle.

The Grand Inquisitor thinks that by taking away man’s freedom the Church has been kind “Have we not indeed, loved mankind, in so humbly recognizing their impotence, in so lovingly  alleviating their burden and allowing their feeble nature even to sin, with our permission” (p. 257).

Sin is mediated through the Church. So long as the sinner tells the Church of his sin then it can be forgiven on the performance of some penance that most often is trivial. The Inquisitor puts a cynical gloss on confession, but it is not far from the truth. It is as if the individual person gives up his own responsibility before God to repent of his sins. He is told what is right and what is wrong by the confessor.

But apart from the cynicism perhaps the confessor has a point. Man is weak, we are tempted to sin and frequently we cannot help it. Zosima recognised this point. But do we need permission from this cynical Inquisitor. Jesus himself is forgiving. God will be kind about my sins. I don’t need the permission of the Inquisitor I just need to believe in a God that will love me.

The Inquisitor confesses that he doesn’t love Jesus. He says “we are not with you, but with him, that is our secret” (p. 257). This is Ivan’s attack on Jesuits and the Catholic Church that also no doubt reflects Dostoevsky attitude that the Catholic Church is Satanic. The reason is that “we took from him what you so indignantly rejected, that last gift he offered you when he showed you all the kingdoms of the earth: we took Rome and the sword of Caesar from him, and proclaimed ourselves sole rulers of the earth, the only rulers, though we have not yet succeeded in bringing our cause to its full conclusion” (p. 257) It is because the Catholic Church became a worldly power that Dostoevsky thinks it is the work of the Devil.

But we might argue that the Orthodox Church of Dostoevsky’s time was just as much a part of the Russian Empire. It told the Tsar that he had a divine right to rule and told everyone to submit to this autocracy. The Orthodox Church likewise through its priests controlled man’s sin and through the sacrament of confession regulated this sin. In what real way is there a difference? The Roman Empire split and the two halves went their separate ways. They manufactured an argument over a sentence that no-one will ever understand. The Church in the East just as much as in the West has been for centuries involved in secular power. Schismatics in Russia were persecuted by the state because they disagreed over how many fingers to cross themselves with.

But once more it is more interesting to look forward than to look back. It is with communism in Russia that we see the vision of the Grand Inquisitor come to life. He is talking about world revolution.  We have not yet brought about communism we are still working towards our goal. But in time after we have broken a few eggs we will arrive at our goal. No wonder the communists in Russia so disliked Dostoevsky. He talks about them even when he talks about something else. The goal of the Church, what they are striving towards is “the universal happiness of mankind” The Inquisitor is with the Devil because he wants to create heaven on Earth. But this is communism. It might take a few auto da fe, it might take the reign of terror in France or the horrors of 1930s Soviet Union, but it will be worth it because of the telos. This is the temptation that is offered to us all. Shall we try to create heaven on Earth and pay the price which usually is rather high? People set out with high ideals to create their heaven on earth. Not every communist nor every socialist, it amounts to the same thing, is wicked to begin with. They may have high ideals. But soon they find in order to reach their goal they have to do something dreadful. It may be burning people at the stake. It may be stealing their property or putting them in the Gulag, it may merely be making morality a matter of law. Yes this is the opposite of Christianity for Christianity cares little in the end about what happens on earth.

The Inquisitor explains that by rejecting the ability to rule the world Jesus rejected all that man requires “Had you accepted that third counsel of the mighty spirit, you would have furnished all that man seeks on earth, that is: someone to bow down to, someone to take over his conscience, and a means for uniting everyone at last into a common, concordant, and incontestable anthill—for the need for universal union is the third and last torment of man” (p. 257).

In this he is describing the ideal of abolishing countries. He is describing John Lennon’s Imagine. The ideal of some people is indeed to abolish all borders for all people in the world simply to be treated as simply people. This too was the aim of world revolution.

This likewise is the distinction between Kierkegaard and Hegel. The Inquisitor writes “Mankind in its entirety has always yearned to arrange things so that they must be universal” (p. 257). This is the Hegelian Marxian idea that individuality is not real, that ultimate truth is one thing, one universal. The Kierkegaardian alternative is that individuality is the basic and that mediation is not possible because of paradox. It is only contradiction that prevents the universal.

The Inquisitor makes the point more explicit by saying “There have been many great nations with great histories, but the higher these nations stood, the unhappier they were, for they were more strongly aware than others of the need for a universal union of mankind” (p. 257). This is the choice then between the individual, whether it is family or nation or person and the universal, bringing down borders, establishing one universal world Government. Again Dostoevsky’s Inquisitor is pointing forward rather than backwards. The Catholic Church did not seek to abolish countries, but communism did and so do those today who seek to abolish borders and the distinctions between countries.

The Inquisitor’s criticism of Jesus is that he was not political. He should have made his kingdom of this world. He should have been the Jewish Messiah seeking to overthrow the Roman Empire. But he could only have been this by giving in to the temptation of the Devil. The Inquisitor says “who shall possess mankind if not those who possess their conscience and give them their bread” (p. 258). This is the mission of the left. The party took over the conscience of each citizen and provided a cradle to grave system of giving bread. This too is the aim of all of the Left. Dissent is not tolerated. Political correctness forbids what ordinary people want to think. The bargain is that by accepting that conscience is taken over you get welfare you are looked after. This is all done moreover in order to break down the nation state. If only we could have no borders and allow anyone from anywhere to move where they wanted, we would have no countries and no distinctions between peoples. There would be no peoples, only humanity.

The Inquisitor realises that the Church has not reached its goal. The people are building a Tower of Babel, but this will end in cannibalism. The Tower of Babel is the thing that created division between people, because it created the distinction of language. The aim of the Church is the opposite. It is to bring about a world without this distinction. Let us all speak Russian and then we can build socialism.

Dostoevsky is saying that these attempts to destroy individualism, the family, the nation, are the work of the Devil, or the work of his, or Ivan’s Inquisitor. But really this has less to do with Catholicism than with socialism.

The Grand Inquisitor is fundamentally arguing that what matters is pacifying humanity and taking away its freedom so that it should be content on earth. It is an anti-religious message, even though Inquisitor himself believes in Jesus. But once more this is in essence communism. It’s not religion that is the opiate of the masses but Marxism, for Marxism by attempting to bring heaven down to earth is trying to pacify humanity so that it is fully content with its lot even if it has no freedom. He argues “We shall convince them that they will only become free when they resign their freedom to us, and submit to us” (p. 258). We will force them to be free. This is how the left always distorts language. This is the Orwellian message of the Left. If you give up your freedom you will be truly free.

The Inquisitor thinks that freedom leads to chaos. Given the ability to think for himself man will revolt and exterminate each other. Finally faced with enough such horrors man will come to the Church and say “you alone possess his mystery, and we are coming back to you—save us from ourselves” (p. 258). Again Dostoevsky is pointing forward to the horrors of the twentieth century. But although he is prescient in this he is mistaken. It was totalitarianism and the loss of freedom that was responsible for the horrors of Communism, Nazism and Islamic fundamentalism. Each of these tries to limit man’s freedom. No truly free society, which valued individualism, was responsible for these horrors.

The Inquisitor thinks that happiness consists in submitting to authority. But again twentieth century history suggests the reverse. How much long term happiness did the authority of communism and Nazism give to the people living under these regimes? Would you have preferred to live in Germany, the Soviet Union or the USA in 1939?

The Inquisitor wants people to be like children, not proud but pitiful. He thinks this will make them happy. But it is really the old dilemma would you rather be a pig happy or Socrates unhappy? Once more it is the idea of taking away responsibility, cradle to grave welfare. But this is to be a pig happy. But it doesn’t even work for all the pigs. Eventually a pig will decide that it is Socrates and that it wants to choose for itself.

The Inquisitor describes the essence of Communism when he says that the people “will tremble limply before our wrath, their minds will grow timid … but just as readily at a gesture from us they will pass over to gaiety and laughter” (p.259). Think of the crowds in North Korea. Think of May Day celebrations in the Soviet Union. We have all seen the crowds of happy people who have been commanded to be happy. No-one was commanding the people in Seville in this way when the Inquisitor lived.

The Inquisitor will arrange leisure time like a children’s game, with songs and innocent dancing. This sounds just like the House of Culture in every Russian town. Moreover he “will allow them to sin, too; they are weak and powerless, and they will love us like children for allowing them to sin” (p. 259).This too looks forward to some Soviet ideas of free love where experiments were made with breaking down the ideas of family and marriage. But it also looks forward to the free love of the sixties and beyond where in the West the idea that there is such a sin has been undermined.

Again the Inquisitor thinks that if only he can take away man’s freedom he will be content. He says that “they will have no secrets from us” (p. 259). This indeed was the experience of communism in the Soviet Union. A network of spies reaching even into the family meant that there were no secrets. A chance remark whispered to a stranger might come back to you.

The Inquisitor describes a society where the elite, people like him have freedom and knowledge “There will be thousands of millions of happy babes, and a hundred thousand sufferers who have taken upon themselves the curse of the knowledge of good and evil” (p 259). Only the elite rulers will be fully human then, the rest will be as it were living in the Garden of Eden. The elite will promise these people a heaven on earth and heaven in heaven, but they will lie about the latter. The Inquisitor does not think there will be an afterlife for them “Peacefully they will die, peacefully the will expire in your name, and beyond the grave they will find only death” (p. 259).

But why should this be so, for the masses have no sin. If they are in the situation before the Fall of man, before there is any knowledge of good and evil, then these masses are in the situation of infants. Their situation is even better than that of infants because they have no original sin. Why should they not then be saved?

What does the Inquisitor himself believe about death? Is there only death for him too? But he cannot save himself of course. If there is immortality and a God or a Jesus who judges, why would they choose the Inquisitor and his friends over the innocent?

But it is important to remember who has written this poem. It is Ivan. The idea of there being no sin, for there is no knowledge of good and evil, is simply his idea that everything is permitted. But this is the idea that there is no God. The Inquisitor is an atheist for he is Ivan.

The Inquisitor is not a Christian for he is not teaching the Christian message. Freedom of choice is the essence of that message. Jesus does not want to force anyone to follow him. It is always a choice. More and more it becomes clear that the point of Ivan’s poem is to condemn Christianity and the Church. The Inquisitor plans to burn Jesus. But how could a Christian do this? Even if he really was an Inquisitor in Seville, if he saw the risen Christ would he really condemn him to death, knowing that he was the risen Christ. Would he not at the very least be scared to do so, knowing that in time he would be judged. The story only makes sense from the point of view of atheism. Otherwise the Inquisitor would never act in this way.

How are we to suppose that the Inquisitor prevented the masses finding out the real Christian message? Someone would have been able to read the Bible even if it was untranslated. Someone could explain the teaching to others. The Church can of course for a time act in an authoritarian way, but the seeds of the destruction of this point of view are already there. The Christian message itself undermines the auto da fe.

If the Inquisitor believed in life after death only for the elite he would not act in the way that he is acting. Moreover it is not his choice as to who is saved, therefore to say that there is only death for the masses is to say that there is only death for everyone for what really is the distinction? They are all human. It is not for the elite to save themselves.

The story then is not about heaven in heaven, but only about attempts to create heaven on earth by means of taking away freedom, knowledge and by enforcing this heaven on earth by fear and punishment. This is to describe communism. This is because the distinction between Christianity and socialism is the idea that what matters is heaven on earth rather than heaven in heaven. Socialism wants to make my kingdom on this earth, because there is no other world.

Does the Inquisitor believe in Jesus? How can he not when he is sitting there in the same prison cell and talking to him? But then must he not realise that he will be punished for the way that he is treating Jesus? The Inquisitor’s story depends on the idea that Christianity is a way of pacifying the masses (the opium of the masses), but it also depends on the idea that Christianity is not true (when someone dies, there is only death). But the presence of Jesus in the cell contradicts this.

This may be pushing the logic of Ivan’s poem too far. Taken literally it finally does not make sense. The Inquisitor might have used the Church cynically to control the people while himself not believing a word of the Church’s message. This is familiar enough from history. People have used all sorts of ideas they didn’t believe in order to maintain power and privilege. But now he must believe. He is confronted with Christ. He has no doubt that He is the genuine article. The Inquisitor is a witness to the truth. Given that he witnesses to the truth and knows that the Christian message is true, how could the Inquisitor dare continue to behave as he does? Jesus after all is the son of God. He is the truth. It is not for the Inquisitor to say there is only death, but for Jesus and Jesus’ message is “he who believes in me shall never die.” This is without limitation. There is no elite. We come back then to the idea of what the Inquisitor. Does he believe in traditional Christianity? But then he must realise that he is going to be judged for condemning Jesus.

The behaviour of the Inquisitor implies that he does not really believe that he is talking to the risen Christ. I think the story is not to be taken literally. The Inquisitor really is an atheist. He is Ivan. The story is of Ivan talking to himself. We will meet this again later in the novel when he talks to the devil. The clue is in the way the Inquisitor uses a really unusual word. He writes “having begun to build their Tower of Babel without us, they will end in anthropophagy” (p. 258). This rather unusual word both in English and in Russian is repeated later in the novel. The Devil is talking to Ivan and he says “they propose to destroy everything and begin with anthropophagy” (p. 648). This is Ivan talking to himself. So then we can deduce that the whole of the Grand Inquisitor dialogue is Ivan talking to himself and that the Inquisitor is the Devil. He is what results from giving into the temptation of the Devil.

Ivan is an atheist and so is the Grand Inquisitor, what’s more he is the devil himself. But what is a Christianity plus atheism? It is socialism. It is the idea of creating heaven on earth, because there is no heaven in heaven. What is socialism plus the devil? It is communism and the red terror of the thirties. The Grand Inquisitor is not living in the past in Seville, he is living in the future in Moscow. He is in the Lubyanka developing ingenious methods of extracting a confession. Dostoevsky may think that he is criticising Catholicism, but really he is not. His is the most prophetic of dialogues. The Grand Inquisitor is that most awful of inquisitors, the worst one that ever lived. He is Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s fellow Georgian and the one who did his dirty work. The horror of the story is not that it might have happened in Seville hundreds of years ago, but it quite literally did happen in Moscow and happened repeatedly.

The chapter continues for a few pages, but it is mainly about plot. The set piece Grand Inquisitor finishes with the word “dixi”. Ivan adds a postscript about Jesus kissing the Inquisitor and the Inquisitor letting him go on the condition that he never comes back. Alyosha makes some objections. Ivan confirms that the Grand Inquisitor is an atheist. This is the nature of all Ivan’s arguments. Even when he uses a theological argument it is to undermine the Church. But even Ivan is not quite aware of how his poem points forwards rather than backwards. For him to realise this he would of course have to be able to see into the future and which of us can do this apart from God for whom there is neither future nor past.

This is an extract from The Philosophy of Dostoevsky


The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, Vintage, 1992.


No comments:

Post a Comment