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DOSTOYEVSKY/ The Grand Inquisitor

The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, found in the middle of the novel The Brothers Karamazov, is one of the most famous things written by Dostoyevsky. Sergio Cristaldi comments.

Feodor Dostoyevsky Feodor Dostoyevsky

The staggering Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, which Dostoyevsky set in the middle of his last novel, The Brothers Karamazov, his last, completely frank, challenge to European consciousness, continues to provide fodder for discussion. The act played out in the scene between the protagonists, the old Spanish Cardinal hunting down heretics and the Son of God come back to Earth and arrested by the jealous, spying Cardinal, has not lost its power. The bet placed in these pages is clearly still current. How can we look at it today?

Without a doubt, one of the poles toward which the Legend gravitates is the gift of freedom, a gift so demanding and enigmatic that it becomes a burden. Isn’t it better to trade it in for an easier substitute? So the Grand Inquisitor thinks in his decrepit wisdom.  Dostoyevsky points out these alternatives, which tempt even the dullest and weakest, and appear to measure up to even the most intelligent, in a clear way. One must be true to his indications, take them in their precise physiognomy, whatever one thinks about his analysis, in order to be able to be compared with him.

The first substitute is well-being, which, in the Gospel story of the temptations of Christ, is called “bread”, the unquestionable earthly bread. This is the slogan of the mutinous, the motto destined to stand out on every subversive standard. “Do you know that the ages will pass, and humanity will proclaim by the lips of their sages that there is no crime, and therefore no sin; there is only hunger?”. The reduction of desire in the name of an alleged concern, a caricature of need and of the attention to need, which, in its most authentic form, rushes to the side of immediate necessity, at the same time spreading awareness about those needs which are more radical, more open towards the infinitely great.

But the infinite is not the goal of revolutionaries, who are worried about only the redistribution of earthly goods, without even succeeding at that. And not even the Grand Inquisitor, even more skeptical about human nature, and even more persuaded that, in the aftermath of the failed revolutions, his hour will come again. His heirs will take on the needs of man with success. Men will become docile and submissive while being fed. This is how one serves and governs mankind, by satiating their hunger. Provided, of course, that they are able to assuage the people’s anxiety over their conscience. The Grand Inquisitor, in fact, recognizes that food alone is not enough. Even the weak and inept have a conscience. Therefore, one must delude them.