Freedom and Authority
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 7 - Social and Political Philosophy
Fyodor Dostoevsky, from The Brothers Karamazov
Kem Stone - 12 March 2008
Of all of the texts that I have undertaken to analyse, this will probably be the most difficult.  Dostoevski’s The
Brothers Karamazov
is the best book I have ever read, and Ivan’s story of “The Grand Inquisitor” is one of the
most brilliant passages in the novel.  Every line is utter genius, each paragraph providing enough to write pages of
detailed analysis.  This book is so philosophically dense that I could probably spend an entire year writing
exclusively on its themes and still not cover everything.  Even in taking this particular passage on its own, I can not
help but leave out the majority of issues that are raised.  So although “The Grand Inquisitor” has much to say
about topics ranging clear across the philosophical spectrum I will try to limit myself to a social/political approach,
as it is under this section of the anthology that this work is presented.

Another great difficulty in writing about this passage is that it is a fiction within a fiction.  I can not make claims
about Dostoevsky’s own beliefs, because he is merely speaking through one of
his characters, Ivan, who is
speaking through one of his characters, the cardinal.  Although the Inquisitor himself is making an argument, it is
not clear whether it reflects Ivan’s beliefs, and certainly unclear as to whether it reflects the beliefs of Dostoevsky.  
I can therefore not write the kind of exposition I am used to, and will approach this text purely to highlight some of
the ideas it contains and offer my own thoughts regarding them.

The context of this passage is a conversation between two brothers living in 19th century Russia, Alyosha and
Ivan Karamazov.  Alyosha is a very traditional, compassionate person who is drawn to the monastic life.  Ivan is
an intellectual who has rejected God and traditional Christianity.  The third brother, Dimitri, a tragic figure who in
spite of his good nature is a slave to his passions, is not present in this scene although he is a central figure in the
book.  But here Ivan and Alyosha are engaged in a conversation about the existence of God, and Ivan has
explained that the trouble he has with the belief in a divine justice is the needless suffering of innocent children,
which he can not imagine a benevolent God would allow.  Alyosha is troubled by Ivan’s arguments but Ivan
presses on, and offers to describe to his brother a poem he has written about the nature of the Church in relation
to the teachings of Christ, the story of the Grand Inquisitor.

This story is set in Spain during the time of the Inquisition, when on the day after a hundred heretics were burned
at the stake, Christ himself returns to the world of men to walk among the people in the town of Seville.  “He
came softly, unobserved, and yet, strange to say, every one recognised Him…The people are irresistibly drawn to
Him, they surround Him, they flock about Him, follow Him.  He moves silently in their midst with a gentle smile of
infinite compassion.  The sun of love burns in His heart, light and power shine from His eyes, and their radiance,
shed on the people, stirs their hearts with responsive love.  He holds out His hands to them, blesses them, and a
healing virtue comes from contact with Him” (413).  This description serves several purposes, the most immediate
to set up a contrast between the reactions people have to Christ—a primeval feeling of love and awe—and to the
Inquisitor, who promptly bids to the guards to have Christ taken away while the people obediently tremble in
submission.  They allow the cardinal to arrest their saviour, which is the first suggestion that human beings are
more ready to act out of fear than out of love and compassion.

When the cardinal takes Christ into the prison and stands before him, he tells him that tomorrow he shall be
burned at the stake as a heretic.  He accuses Christ of having come back to hinder him, but insists that he will not
succeed because the people will bend to his will.  “The very people who have today kissed Thy feet, tomorrow at
the faintest sign from me will rush to heap up the embers of Thy fire” (414).  Thus we see from the beginning that
the Church sees Christ not as an ally but an adversary.

At this point, Alyosha, who does net yet understand the cardinal’s meaning, interrupts to ask Ivan whether this is
merely a fantasy or a mistake on the part of the cardinal.  Ivan’s reply is that he may consider it to be a mistake if
he pleases, as what is important is not whether the prisoner really is Christ, but only that the cardinal believes it
and should speak out his true feelings.  The prisoner remains silent throughout the tale, having been told by the
Inquisitor that he has no right to add anything to what was said of old.  Ivan tells Alyosha: “One may say it is the
most fundamental feature of Roman Catholicism, in my opinion at least.  ‘All has been given by Thee to the Pope,’
they say, ‘and all, therefore, is still in the Pope’s hands, and there is no need for Thee to come now at all’” (414).  
Although the Church is supposedly founded on the teachings of Christ, it appears that they no longer want
anything to do with him.  The cardinal says that he has no “
right” to add to what was said, implying that rights are
not bestowed on mankind from Heaven but are granted exclusively by the Church.  Nobody but the Church—not
even Christ himself—has the right to speak in Christ’s name.

Should he speak, the Inquisitor says, it will be manifest as a miracle, and through this miracle Christ would
encroach upon the freedom of men’s faith that he died for fifteen hundred years beforehand.  Men have paid
dearly for this freedom, which in the cardinal’s mind is the greatest obstacle to man’s happiness.  After struggling
with the freedom Christ had given the people for fifteen centuries, the Church has finally ended it for the sake of
the happiness of mankind.  “Man was created a rebel; and how can rebels be happy?  Thou wast warned…Thou
hast had no lack of admonitions and warnings, but Thou didst not listen to those warnings: Thou didst reject the
only way by which men might be made happy” (415).  The “admonitions and warnings” that the cardinal here
alludes to are the three temptations that Christ received in the wilderness.  The rest of the cardinal’s speech is an
explanation of how by rejecting the offers given to him by “the wise and dread spirit, the spirit of self-destruction
and non-existence” (415) Christ had bought men’s freedom while cursing them to lives of misery and unhappiness,
and this is the reason he must be burned as a heretic.

These three questions are regarded by the Inquisitor as the greatest miracle that has ever taken place.  Had these
questions never been asked and had they to be invented by all the wise men, chiefs and rulers, priests and
philosophers, not even all the wisdom on earth could have come up with anything comparing to their force and
depth.  “From those questions alone, from the miracle of their statement, we can see we have here to do not with
the fleeting human intelligence, but with the absolute and eternal.  For in those three questions the whole
subsequent history of mankind is, as it were, brought together into one whole, and foretold, and in them are united
all the unsolved historical contradictions of human nature” (415).  Whether these words reflect the opinion of
Dostoevsky himself, his character Ivan, or merely the cardinal in the tale, they are extremely powerful.  It is clear
when reading the remainder of this passage that the relevance of its ideas extends well beyond the story, beyond
the book as a whole, and even beyond the historical context of Dostoevsky’s writing, but that their significance
applies across the entire spectrum of human history: past, present, and future.

The first temptation put to Christ in the wilderness was to turn stones into bread so that all men would flock to him
like sheep and submit so that they may be fed.  But Christ rejected this, saying that man does not live on bread
alone, and that freedom is worth nothing if obedience is bought with bread.  The Inquisitor condemns this choice,
insisting that bread is far more precious to the mass of mankind than freedom.  They would practice virtue if
asked, but not before being fed.  The Church will feed them in Christ’s own name, telling them falsely that it is in
his name.

The cardinal knows that men will gladly sacrifice their freedom for the sake of bread.  Only the strongest would be
able to resist, and Christ had done wrong by asking men to go without bread for the sake of a higher ideal.  “And
if for the sake of the bread of Heaven thousands and tens of thousands shall follow Thee, what is to become of the
millions and tens of thousands of millions of creatures who will not have the strength to forego the earthly bread for
the sake of the heavenly?  Or dost Thou care only for the tens of thousands of the great and strong, while the
millions, numerous as the sands of the sea, who are weak but love Thee, must exist only for the sake of the great
and strong?  No, we care for the weak too” (416).  I find it nothing sort of sheer brilliance to level this charge
against Christian morality, which supposedly champions the weak and the starving.  The cardinal’s accusation is
that by glorifying the destitute, he condemns those who suffer most to continue to suffer.  By telling a starving man
that he ought to be more concerned with the bread of Heaven than with earthly bread, Christ makes it sinful to
satisfy the hunger, and asks of the starving that they continue to starve for the sake of God’s love—which in this
case appears to be a very difficult and costly love to earn.

By rejecting the first temptation, it was not merely bread that Christ deprived men of, but another universal craving
of humanity: someone to worship.  Man seeks to worship something that is beyond dispute—something that all
men would agree to worship.  Indeed as the cardinal points out, more misery has been endured, more blood has
been spilled and more human beings have suffered from the dawn of history for the sake of a united community of
worship than for any other cause.  The Inquisitor himself has some of this very blood on his hands, as he is burning
heretics to achieve this aim—something that Christ could have given men fifteen centuries earlier had he turned the
stones into bread and become the universal object of worship.

For the sake of freedom Christ rejected the first temptation, in spite of the fact that man is tormented by freedom
and will quickly hand over that terrible gift to whomever he can.  Had he given them bread they would have given
him their freedom, but instead he chose to ensnare their conscience, and they cast away their bread and followed
him.  “Instead of taking men’s freedom from them, Thou didst make it greater than ever!  Didst Thou forget that
man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil?  Nothing is more
seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering…Thou didst choose
what was utterly beyond the strength of men, acting as though Thou didst not love them at all—Thou who didst
come to give Thy life for them!  Instead of taking possession of men’s freedom, Thou didst increase it, and
burdened the spiritual kingdom of mankind with its sufferings for ever” (417).

By accepting the first offer of the dread spirit, Christ could have provided humanity with bread and a common
figure to worship, but instead he rejected it and doomed men to starvation and suffering, asking of them far more
than most of them would be able to give.  He rejected the old rigid ancient law by which men had lived for
centuries and set up a new morality whereby men had the freedom to choose between right and wrong in their
own hearts, with only Christ’s image to help them decide.  Yet this burden of free choice is too much for most
men to bear.  Most men would rather follow a strict set of rules agreed upon universally, and for the sake of this
he is willing to wage wars and kill his enemies, so that all might agree upon one undisputed code of conduct.  
Christ rejected this
easy morality based on clearly written laws in favour of a far more difficult morality based
purely on conscience and what a man feels in his heart, but by imposing this burden on mankind he has forced him
to suffer a state of affairs which he was not prepared for—to be forced to take responsibility not just for deciding
what is right for himself, but for all mankind.  And weighed down with such a frightful burden, he would ultimately
reject even the image of Christ and look for another to provide him with a ready answer to this impossible

According to the Inquisitor, Christ laid the foundations for the destruction of his own kingdom.  By rejecting the
second temptation—to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple and let the angels save him from death—
Christ refused to accept the three great powers, the only three great powers, that are capable of conquering
forever the conscience of man: miracle, mystery, and authority.  By rejecting the miracle, Christ forever set himself
above the mass of men who would never be able to do so.  “Is the nature of men such, that they can reject
miracle, and at the great moments of their life, moments of their deepest, most agonising spiritual difficulties, cling
only to the free verdict of the heart?  Oh, Thou didst know that Thy deed would be recorded in books, would be
handed down to remote times and the utmost ends of the earth, and Thou didst hope that man, following Thee,
would cling to God and not ask for a miracle.  But Thou didst not know that when man rejects miracle he rejects
God too; for man seeks not so much God as the miraculous” (418).  The Inquisitor has once again shown how
Christ’s own actions are contrary to his purpose: he wants people to embrace God without needing a miracle, but
the cardinal knows that people need a miracle in order to embrace God.

With a miracle, Christ could have removed the burden of freedom from mankind.  Had he come down from the
cross and shown himself to be immortal, all mankind would have bowed before him as God.  Yet he did not
desire the awe and terror of a slave, but the free love of men’s hearts, and the cardinal tells him in this he thought
too highly of men.  Men are slaves by nature, though also naturally rebellious.  “What though he is everywhere
now rebelling against our power, and proud of his rebellion?  It is the pride of a child and a schoolboy.  They are
little children rioting and barring out the teacher at school.  But their childish delight will end; it will cost them dear.  
They will cast down temples and drench the earth with blood.  But they will see at last, the foolish children, that,
though they are rebels, they are impotent rebels, unable to keep up their own rebellion.  Bathed in their foolish
tears, they will recognise at last that He who created them rebels must have meant to mock at them” (418).  By
refusing to enslave mankind he embraced the rebellious side of man’s nature, but the Inquisitor knows that any
rebellion on his part is doomed to failure.  Man knows what he is rebelling
against but unaware what he is fighting
for.  What he really desires is to be a slave, and thus his rebellion is always a hopeless one.  The final
consequence of this rebellion is a blasphemy: man curses his Creator for endowing him with this absurd dichotomy
of impulses—to submit on the one hand while forever resisting submission on the other.  “And so unrest, confusion
and unhappiness—that is the present lot of man after Thou didst bear so much for their freedom” (419).

The cardinal once against challenges Christ to answer for his actions; knowing that man’s soul is weak and that he
could never know what to do with his freedom, how could he blame these weak souls for their failure?  The
Church has corrected Christ’s work, setting freedom to the side and founding it upon miracle, mystery, and
authority.  Once again, men are led like sheep and the burden of having to make their own moral choices has been
lifted from them.  The Church has proclaimed Christ’s work as the miracle, and claimed for itself divine authority.  
The cardinal hesitates to reveal to Christ their mystery, but he reasons that all he knows is known to Christ
already, and frustrated by his prisoner’s silence and calm, wishing perhaps to provoke him to anger, he reveals the
darkest secret of the Church in what is perhaps the most striking part of this narrative: “Listen, then.  We are not
working with Thee, but with
him—that is our mystery.  It’s long—eight centuries—since we have been on his
side and not on Thine.  Just eight centuries ago, we took from him what Thou didst reject with scorn, that last gift
he offered Thee, showing Thee all the kingdoms of the earth.  We took from him Rome and the sword of Caesar,
and proclaimed ourselves sole rulers of the earth, though hitherto we have not been able to complete our work”

Much can be said about this powerful idea; that the Church is not ultimately in the service of Christ but in the
service of the spirit that tempted him—the spirit of self-destruction and non-existence.  It is noteworthy that Ivan
does not use the word “evil” to describe this spirit, so his meaning can not be simplified to represent the Church as
a servant of evil.  It is enough to assert that the core ideals by which the Church operates are fundamentally
opposed to the ideals of Christ.  Christ champions freedom, treating man as an end in himself with the ability and
power to choose his own destiny, though this may come at the expense of his happiness.  The Church fights
against man’s freedom, struggling to bring him to submission before a higher authority, destroying man’s dignity for
the sake of his petty, temporary happiness.  Although the latter would be characterised by many Christian
theologians as the essence of evil, no such condemnation is passed by Ivan in this story.  The question of which
ideals are superior is, appropriately, left unanswered.  It is our burden in reading this story to consider the cardinal’
s point of view and decide for ourselves whether he is wrong or right.

What makes this story so powerful is the force of the Inquisitor’s argument.  Had Christ accepted the last
temptation, he says, he would have “accomplished all that man seeks on earth—that is, someone to worship,
someone to keep his conscience, and some means of uniting all in one unanimous and harmonious ant-heap, for
the craving for universal unity is the third and last anguish of men” (419).  The cardinal speaks of the great
conquerors who strived to unite mankind under one unified banner, believing that this is not only the best state of
affairs for man, but that all men long for it.  One universal state means universal peace, and in embracing the offer
of the beast the Church has acted on behalf of all mankind and not just the elect who are strong enough to endure
Christ’s freedom.  The Church offers a different kind of freedom: that of total submission—freedom from personal

The cardinal speaks of where such freedom will lead men, foreshadowing what is to come in the age of scientific
discovery.  “Freedom, free thought and science, will lead them into such straits and will bring them face to face
with such marvels and insoluble mysteries, and some of them, the fierce and rebellious, will destroy themselves,
others, rebellious but weak, will destroy one another, while the rest, weak and unhappy, will crawl fawning to our
feed and whine to us: ‘Yes, you were right, you alone possess His mystery, and we come back to you, save us
from ourselves!’” (420).  We see this very state of affairs today, as science provides us with the technology to
make us capable of total self-destruction, as well as the knowledge that we are insignificant participants in this
universe, the existence of which is an insoluble mystery.  As a reaction to this—which is no small horror when first
understood—many turn back to religion for more comfortable answers and more familiar mysteries.

Christ taught men to be proud, but the Church teaches man that he is weak.  The Inquisitor thinks of men as pitiful
children, and like children he wishes to protect them from real knowledge and responsibility.  The Church will
allow them to sin, and take the punishment for those sins upon themselves so that the people will love and adore
them as their saviours.  Whatever sins plague their conscience they will take to the Church, and the Church will
offer absolution to relieve them of the terrible anguish of making free decisions.  At their own expense will the
Church relieve the suffering of man, as the Church will guard the secret and be forced to live with the knowledge
that most men would not be able to bear.  “And all will be happy, all the millions of creatures except the hundred
thousand who rule over them.  For only we, we who guard the mystery, shall be unhappy.  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.  Peacefully they will find nothing but death.  But we shall keep the
secret, and for our happiness we shall allure them with the reward of heaven and eternity” (421).

This is another very powerful idea: that men must be protected from the knowledge that death is the final end, and
that by keeping this secret the high Church officials suffer for the sake of the people’s happy ignorance.  A great
deal can be said about this, but most importantly this passage shows us that the Church, though they may be
working with the beast, still sees itself as a force of good.  They do not seek to acquire power for its own sake,
but for the sake of everybody.  They do not ask for men’s submission simply to be lords over a nation of slaves,
but they do so for the sake of the slaves’ happiness.  They will perpetuate the lie of the soul’s immortality and an
eternal reward in heaven, and in hiding the truth from mankind they will spare him the anguish of the knowledge
that death is final.  In true Christian fashion they will sacrifice their own happiness—their own hope for eternal
life—for the benefit of mankind.  Mankind, they will say, is not strong enough to handle the truth.  I believe anyone
who reads this must concede that they may in fact be right.

The cardinal concludes by explaining to Christ that he has not always felt this way, but that he came to see reason
after a long, personal struggle of his own.  “Know that I fear Thee not, Know that I too have been in the
wilderness, I too have lived on roots and locusts, I too prized the freedom with which Thou has blessed men, and
I too was striving to stand among Thy elect, among the strong and powerful, thirsting ‘to make up the number.’  
But I awakened and would not serve madness.  I turned back and joined the ranks of those
who have corrected
Thy work
.  I left the proud and went back to the humble, for the happiness of the humble” (421).  Thus we see at
the end that we have not been listening to the ravings of a madman, a powerful cardinal who became the Grand
Inquisitor through ambition and lust for power, but an essentially
good man who arrived at his conclusions through
years of consideration that culminated in a rejection of Christ’s way for ideals he found to be more
compassionate.  He took the responsibility of Christ’s freedom, and having suffered its consequences to the
greatest extent, made a free moral decision to spare the rest of mankind this suffering by taking this freedom from

It is perhaps for this reason—that the cardinal is essentially a good man—that Christ never speaks out, never
becomes angry, and throughout his entire speech merely listens with a gentle expression on his face.  The
Inquisitor clearly wishes to provoke him, to say something bitter and terrible in reply so that he can at last have
confirmation that he did in fact make the right decision and that his morality really is superior to that which Christ
teaches.  But his prisoner gives him no such satisfaction.  Christ’s only response is to slowly approach the cardinal
and to kiss him softly on the lips.  This is probably the most powerful image in the entire passage—that after such
a long and devastating diatribe accusing his prisoner of being mankind’s greatest enemy, the prisoner shows no
anger but only forgiveness and understanding for his enemy.  Here we see the essence of the fundamental moral
division between Church and Christ.  The former will burn his enemies and destroy man’s freedom for the sake of
his happiness.  The latter will forgive his enemies and grant man the freedom to follow this example at the expense
of his happiness.

In the end, the Inquisitor opens the door and lets his prisoner go free, telling him to leave and never return.  We
can only speculate as to why he does not carry out the sentence which he promised to inflict on Christ and have
him burned as a heretic, but we know that this was a free decision to forgive an enemy, and thus the cardinal’s
final act contradicts all he has said.  Perhaps the kiss made the cardinal doubt the truth of his own convictions, and
he did not want to risk condemning God incarnate if he was wrong.  Perhaps he merely felt that he lacked the right
to kill the prisoner, as he and Christ suffered the same temptations and merely made different decisions.  Or
perhaps there was still a trace of love for Christ in the old man’s heart, the love that burned inside of him as a
young man but which he later rejected and buried beneath layers of righteous resentment of the terrible burden this
love had imposed on him.  Whatever the reason, his release of the prisoner ultimately serves to make of the
Inquisitor a sympathetic character, who can not be dismissed as an evil antagonist as easily as he could be if he
had carried out the sentence.

After Ivan concludes his tale, Alyosha asks what happens to the cardinal.  “The kiss glows in his heart,” Ivan
explains, “but the old man adheres to his idea” (422).  As a man of God who deeply loves Christ, Alyosha is
worried that Ivan shares the cardinal’s opinions.  To this Ivan laughs, and his response displays the full scope of
Dostoevsky’s genius: “Why, it’s all nonsense, Alyosha.  It’s only a senseless poem of a senseless student, who
could never write two lines of verse.  Why do you take it so seriously?” (422).  With that one line of self-
abasement, Ivan (and Dostoevsky by extension) admits that this entire story is nothing more than an expression of
one man’s ideas.  As forcefully as the Inquisitor speaks and as gravely important as the idea of all of human
history wrapped up in the story of the three temptations appears, it is only fiction and can be taken as lightly or
seriously as one chooses.  Here we find the essence of existentialism, the one common thread running throughout
the story: there is no divine authority, so man must choose for himself his opinions and beliefs.  After making a
long, incredibly forceful argument against freedom, Dostoevsky throws that freedom right back at us and
confronts us with the very same burden that the Inquisitor had spent his life trying to lift.

And so the question is not whether Dostoevsky believes that the Inquisitor was right, but whether we believe it.  If
Dostoevsky has made any judgment, he is careful not to let it enter into the text.  It therefore becomes a personal
decision for each one of us to choose between the unhappy burden of freedom and the blissful ignorance of
submission before authority.  The difficulty in the decision lies not in our own personal choice, but in the
understanding that our decision must extend to all mankind.  I would personally choose freedom at the expense of
happiness, as I find slavery to be the greater anguish.  And yet would I be right to extend this decision to all
mankind?  Can I expect all men, most of whom seem weak and unable to properly handle true freedom, to be
strong and make the right decisions?  I would greatly like to give mankind the benefit of the doubt and hope as
Christ does that they will follow the example of love and righteousness, but my good intentions may turn out to
have disastrous results.  In choosing freedom I force man to sacrifice his happiness, and who am I to say that the
former is more valuable than the latter?

It is this dilemma that makes the story of the Grand Inquisitor so powerful and so timelessly relevant.  It is not the
answer that is important—all who read this will come up with a different answer.  What
is important, and what
makes the study of this piece so valuable, is the
question it asks.  If all men, weak and strong, submissive and
powerful, were to ask themselves the question at the heart of this problem, mankind would come closer to a
necessary understanding of the pendulum that continues to swing between these two ever-present historical
forces—freedom and authority—and perhaps find themselves nearer to achieving the right balance between them.