More Merciful: The Grand Inquisitor or Jesus?

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More Merciful: The Grand Inquisitor or Jesus?In Feodor Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor, Jesus and the Grand Inquisitor exhibit entirely different philosophies with regards to the treatment of the human masses. While Jesus advocates an approach that places emphasis on the spiritual development of his subjects without any material rewards, the Grand Inquisitor employs a more earthly approach; rewarding obedience and faith with material plunder for mankind. Fundamentally, the Grand Inquisitor does not believe that freedom is beneficial. On the contrary, he advocates men “[laying] their freedom at [his] feet, and [saying] to [him], ‘Make us your slaves, but feed us”(127). Jesus, on the other hand, offers heavenly bread and nothing more, believing that a man’s spiritual freedom is more significant than his material wellness. The Inquisitor provides food and other goods in exchange for their obedience and following, while Jesus does no such thing. Jesus’ principles may be noble, but it is apparent that the Grand Inquisitor’s methods reflect more sympathy and mercy towards mankind.

With his philosophy, it appears as though Jesus only cares “for the tens of thousands of the great and strong dear to [him] while the millions, numerous as the sands of the sea, who are weak but love [him], must exist only for the sake of the great and strong”(127). As the Grand Inquisitor points out, instead of providing for the masses, Jesus provides leadership and inspiration for the select few who can take on what he has to offer. Spiritual growth and evolution without earthly, tangible benefits or rewards is a concept that not all are readily willing to accept and embrace. In his day, Jesus led the few who were able to empower themselves to adopt his philosophy, but left the vast majority of his people behind, waiting for someone else. The Grand Inquisitor appears to fill the void that Jesus has left, serving as a “Jesus” for the masses, more forgiving, more sympathetic, and certainly more merciful. Instead of embracing a select few individuals like Jesus, the Grand Inquisitor sustains all those that cry “Feed us, for those who have promised us fire from heaven haven’t given it” (127). He realizes that “man is weaker and baser by nature than [Jesus] believed him to be,” and as a result, provides basic material subsistence and comfort to man, in exchange for his faith and loyalty (131). Instead of sympathizing with tens of thousands of people, the Grand Inquisitor sympathizes with tens of millions because he realizes that the average man is not of Jesus’ caliber. His expectations of man, unlike Jesus’, are realistic.

Unlike the Grand Inquisitor, Jesus “chose all that is exceptional, vague and enigmatic” and what is “beyond the strength of men” (129). Instead of presenting man with tangible bread, Jesus expected him to follow his leadership with the mere promise of “heavenly bread.” Obviously, Jesus is not an ordinary man, being able to reject all three powers of “miracle, mystery, and authority,” as well as being able to resist “tempting God” by performing miracles (130). The biggest and most severe mistake that Jesus makes is overestimating the capabilities, will power, and resolve of the ordinary man. As the Grand Inquisitor asks, “You did proudly and well as a God; but men, that weak, rebellious race, are they gods?”(130). To this question, Jesus does not reply, but through his acts, it is apparent that he in fact places man much closer to gods than the Grand Inquisitor does. On the one hand, the fact that Jesus expects so much from man shows his confidence and hope for mankind, but on the other, it shows that he does not have as much mercy and sympathy for mankind. Rather than comforting man by providing him with his basic needs, Jesus asks man to “cling to God and not ask for a miracle,” much like he did, and unfortunately, most are not capable of this feat (130). The Grand Inquisitor does not think highly of the human race, but it is this disdain that creates his compassion and empathy.

Throughout this excerpt from The Brothers Karamazov, the Grand Inquisitor alludes to all the ways that he makes it relatively easy for his subjects to survive, and even prosper. He knows that man has three basic anguishes: “someone to worship, someone to keep his conscience, and some means of uniting everyone in one indisputable general and unanimous anthill” (132-133). Unlike Jesus, who did not accept the “third counsel of the mighty spirit,” he provides man with all of the answers to their anguishes. He provides himself and the church for them. He acts to keep man’s conscience, by ruling over him, deciding right and wrong, punishing and giving mercy accordingly. After all, “who can rule men if not he who holds their conscience and their bread in his hands?” (133). Lastly, he provides his subjects with universal unity and with a universal state, which he maintains and controls. By alleviating all three of man’s basic anguishes, the Grand Inquisitor is able to ensure that “everybody will be happy and will neither rebel nor destroy each other any more as they did under [Jesus’] freedom”(133).

The Grand Inquisitor comprehends and readily acknowledges that by ruling in the manner in which he does, he takes away the freedom that his subjects would have under Jesus. He also knows, however, that this freedom is not necessarily a benefit to mankind, and herein lies his sympathy and mercy towards man. Rather than guaranteeing man freedom to destroy himself, he ensures that no such thing will happen. Jesus’ freedom brings man “the horrors of slavery and confusion,” while the Grand Inquisitor’s rein makes men’s lives “like a child’s game, with children’s songs, choruses and innocent dances” (135). Despite the fact that their freedom is essentially nonexistent, a tremendous amount of the burden is also lifted from their lives. The Inquisitor tells them what is right and what is wrong. The Inquisitor tells them how to obtain bread. The Inquisitor even tells them how to absolve themselves from the responsibilities of their sins. The formula for living under the Grand Inquisitor’s rule is excessively simple and elementary, and this simplicity illustrates his merciful attitude towards mankind perfectly. All man has to do in order to prosper is listen and follow. On the other hand, by “showing [man] so much respect, [Jesus] acted as though [he] had ceased to have compassion for him”(131). By expecting man to follow him without earthly rewards, without seeing miracles, and without being united, Jesus imparted an unmanageable burden upon mankind, under which man would eventually collapse.

Jesus provides freedom of choice to man, while the Grand Inquisitor takes it away entirely. Jesus respects and admires man, holding him up to a standard he cannot possibly ascend to, while the Grand Inquisitor firmly believes and maintains that “man is [weak] and [base]”(131). Ultimately, Jesus expects man to be more like him, while the Grand Inquisitor knows that this will never be the case. As a result of this realization, the Grand Inquisitor is able to exhibit sympathy and mercy towards mankind in ways that Jesus cannot. Jesus would have his subjects suffer with him in the desert, while the Grand Inquisitor would have them sit comfortably in their homes with food on the table and a roof over their heads. The Grand Inquisitor’s policies may be degrading, devoid of respect, and objectionable from an outside point of view, but ultimately, those that he rules find contentment in their ignorance. Their lives are far easier, more simplistic, and certainly more carefree with the Grand Inquisitor as their ruler, and in the end, this is a result of the mercy that he has for mankind, which is obviously missing from Jesus’ repertoire.

BibliographyThe Grand Inquisitor, Dostoevsky, Fyodor (1821-1881)