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This video is a rare version of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor produced by the Open University in 1975. The Grand Inquisitor selection is taken from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Book V:  Pro and Contra, Chapter 5.

The chapter opens with Ivan explaining to his brother Alyosha his fantasy poem of The Grand Inquisitor, which is really an unwritten prose story:

“You see, my action takes place in the sixteenth century, and at that time, as you probably learnt at school, it was customary in poetry to bring down heavenly powers on earth. …He comes on the scene in my poem, but He says nothing, only appears and passes on. Fifteen centuries have passed since He promised to come in His glory, fifteen centuries since His prophet wrote, ‘Behold, I come quickly’ … My story is laid in Spain, in Seville, in the most terrible time of the Inquisition, when fires were lighted every day to the glory of God, and ‘in the splendid auto da fe the wicked heretics were burnt.’ …

He came down to the ‘hot pavements’ of the southern town in which on the day before almost a hundred heretics had, ad majorem gloriam Dei, been burnt by the cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor, in a magnificent auto da fe, in the presence of the king, the court, the knights, the cardinals, the most charming ladies of the court, and the whole population of Seville. …

He stops at the steps of the Seville cathedral at the moment when the weeping mourners are bringing in a little open white coffin. In it lies a child of seven, the only daughter of a prominent citizen. … [T]he mother of the dead child throws herself at His feet with a wail. ‘If it is Thou, raise my child!’ she cries, holding out her hands to Him. The procession halts, the coffin is laid on the steps at His feet. He looks with compassion, and His lips once more softly pronounce, ‘Maiden, arise!’ and the maiden arises. …

[A]t that moment the cardinal himself, the Grand Inquisitor, passes by the cathedral. He is an old man, almost ninety, tall and erect, with a withered face and sunken eyes, in which there is still a gleam of light. He is not dressed in his gorgeous cardinal’s robes, as he was the day before, when he was burning the enemies of the Roman Church-at this moment he is wearing his coarse, old, monk’s cassock. …

He stops at the sight of the crowd and watches it from a distance. He sees everything; he sees them set the coffin down at His feet, sees the child rise up, and his face darkens. He knits his thick grey brows and his eyes gleam with a sinister fire. He holds out his finger and bids the guards take Him. And such is his power, so completely are the people cowed into submission and trembling obedience to him, that the crowd immediately makes way for the guards, and in the midst of deathlike silence they lay hands on Him and lead him away.

The crowd instantly bows down to the earth, like one man, before the old Inquisitor. He blesses the people in silence and passes on’ The guards lead their prisoner to the close, gloomy vaulted prison–in the ancient palace of the Holy, inquisition and shut him in it.”

On one level, the story attacks the Roman Catholic Church and the Grand Inquisitor’s hierarchy. On another level, the story is a prophecy of the totalitarian state that intends to establish “universal happiness” through a form of positive Christianity to bring about a unanimous and harmonious world order.

In Ivan’s story, the Inquisitor makes his case that as long as man is free he will choose to satisfy his individual needs and not the collective needs of society, which means that a stable, perfect social order with necessities for all mankind is impossible. Only when men renounce their freedom and submit to the hierarchy’s plan for the universal happiness of man will they be free.

“Hadst Thou taken the world and Caesar’s purple, Thou wouldst have founded the universal state and have given universal peace. For who can rule men if not he who holds their conscience and their bread in his hands? We have taken the sword of Caesar, and in taking it, of course, have rejected Thee and followed him.” – the Grand Inquisitor

 

I.M. Kane

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