The PLEA: Book Club

The PLEA: Book Club

Ideals: The Grand Inquisitor

Freedom is an ideal everyone in society strives towards. However, because society is a complex system of competing interests, some authoritative control is required to maintain order. The question of how we balance the competing needs of individual freedom and societal control is raised in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor.

The Grand Inquisitor is a parable from Dostoyevsky’s 1880 novel The Brothers Karamazov. In it, Christ returns to Earth, performing miracles on the streets. For his work, he is arrested and sentenced to death. While he awaits his punishment, the Grand Inquisitor visits the imprisoned Christ to denounce his actions.

The conflict between the Inquisitor and Christ is rooted in their belief systems. Christ believes that people should be free to do as they wish. The Grand Inquisitor believes that humankind should be left happily ignorant while a ruling class holds the burdens of controlling and providing for society. After silently hearing out the Grand Inquisitor, Christ’s response is to kiss him. The Grand Inquisitor, set aback, sets Christ free.

Of the many themes of The Grand Inquisitor, the conflict between absolute freedom and societal control is of central importance. So who was correct? The Grand Inquisitor, who believed society should be controlled, or Christ, who believed society should be free?

How do we determine limits to freedom?

The conflict between freedom and control in our society is an age-old debate. While absolute control is contradictory to the liberal society we have built, so too is absolute freedom.

Consider this simple example. History has shown that when individuals were free to do whatever they pleased with their garbage and other waste, they ended up throwing untreated waste in the streets and in rivers. This harmed the environment and damaged public health.

Facing polluted rivers and filthy streets, cities and countries created laws and regulations to limit what could be done with waste. This resulted in a cleaner environment and less disease. So while people’s freedom to dispose of their waste as they pleased was limited, their freedom from filth and disease was enhanced. In other words, one freedom had to be limited in order to preserve another freedom.

This illustrates why society has generally accepted that the most freedom an individual can enjoy is the freedom to do what they please, so long as their actions do not infringe upon the freedom of another. To determine the limits to these freedoms, we democratically elect governments to create laws and regulations on our behalf.

In this sense, there was some validity to both the position of the Grand Inquisitor and the position of Christ. In practice, society has determined that the concept of freedom must be balanced with the concept of control. This perhaps explains the ending of The Grand Inquisitor: when the Grand Inquisitor lets Christ free, the meaning could very well be that both freedom and control must find ways to co-exist in our society.

Book Chat

  1. Some literary critics believe that because Christ refused Satan’s’ offerings, Christ represented the ability of people to act with inherent goodness. Even if there is an inherent goodness in people, do our actions sometimes fall short of our ideals?
  2. What do you think motivated the Grand Inquisitor to believe in absolute control? What checks do we have on those in power in our local, provincial, and national governments?
  3. Can you think of some examples of freedom and control co-existing in your everyday life?

Just who was Machiavelli?