The Grand Inquisitor

September 23, 2008

For reasons that I can’t remember, my Russian literature teacher claimed that Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” story should only be considered in the context of the entirety of The Brothers Karamazov, the novel in which it appears. Nobody ever does that, because the novel is 800 pages long, so I’m not about to start. The Grand Inquisitor is, at its heart, a parable about free will and responsibility.

According to the Inquisitor, Jesus came to the world hoping to save it while keeping human integrity intact via free will. This was a great mistake, because the vast majority of people are not capable of exercising that kind of free will, and are therefore doomed. The Inquisitor puts the question to Jesus:

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?

The Church and Inquisiton purport to correct Jesus’s unfounded faith in man’s ability to freely choose good over evil by forcing people to submit to the Church.

So is it tremendously inappropriate to draw a parallel between Dostoevsky’s story and politics? In political debates, my opponents often cast themselves in the role of the Grand Inquisitor. In the case of the drug salvia, the Washington Post wants to protect people against their bad decisions. When I argue about school privatization, people say “But what about parents who don’t care about sending their kids to good schools?” My friends argue that people who smoke or are obese are where they are because they are weak, and they need laws and regulations to protect them from themselves.

Perhaps it’s unfair to make someone oppose Jesus, since the presumption in His favor is so strong, but in Dostoevsky’s parable Jesus doesn’t really win the debate. In fact, there is no debate. The Inquisitor’s assumptions are so obviously true, his argument is so cogent, that the reader is forced to accept it. However, the reader still wants Jesus to be right.

Read the story. Then read the book.

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