The Grand Inquisitor

Last week I posted on Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov which I finally got around to reading recently. There was one passage from the book that I had read before and it’s one that is known even by some who haven’t read the whole novel. I’m talking, of course, about The Grand Inquisitor, which takes up a whole chapter towards the beginning of the book.

While reading over the chapter again, what struck me was how well it worked as a socio-psychological description of what has happened over the past three years during corona. Of more personal interest was how closely it aligned with my Devouring Mother analysis. The Grand Inquisitor uses different language but, to paraphrase Gregory Bateson, hearing the same thing from within a different ontology can add to our knowledge. With that in mind, let’s see how the Grand Inquisitor’s description of human psychology explains corona.

Within the novel, the Grand Inquisitor is a story told by the middle Karamazov brother, Ivan, to his younger brother, Alyosha. Ivan is the chief rationalist in the book and also represents the modern atheism which was taking hold in Europe at the time. The well-known phrase “If God does not exist, everything is permissible” is his idea.

The story of the Grand Inquisitor is set at the time of the Inquisition in Seville, Spain. The local cardinal is in a good mood, having burned a hundred heretics at the stake the day before. While riding past the cathedral, he notices a man performing miracles and realises that it’s Jesus returned to earth. Now, you might think a cardinal would welcome this turn of events as the fulfilment of the religion he claims to represent. Nope. He has Jesus arrested and thrown in a dungeon. Inquisitors gonna Inquisit.

Later that evening, he goes alone to the cell where Jesus is being held. A dialogue between the two follows. Well, it’s not really a dialogue. Jesus doesn’t say a word. The Inquisitor does all the talking and his purpose is to explain to Jesus the reasons why his presence is no longer required on earth, why he will therefore be burned at the stake the following day and why the townsfolk will gladly stack up the firewood and stoke the fire with their own hands even though they know the one they are burning is Jesus himself.

There are a number of ways to interpret the story. For example, a distinction between earthly and heavenly power and how the historical Church had, almost from its inception, come to serve the former at the expense of the latter. In a Jungian sense, I would argue that the story is Ivan’s rational mind (Ego), represented by the Inquisitor, arguing against his conscience (or his Jungian Self), represented by Jesus. If so, this would prefigure a later scene where Ivan faces the devil; his Shadow.

To the extent that Ivan represents the ascent of reason in the modern world, the Grand Inquisitor story is also historically accurate. The Inquisitor tells Jesus that he’s not wanted here anymore because things on earth have now been properly ordered and everybody is “happy”. The word happiness is used explicitly here and is contrasted with freedom.

The Inquisitor accuses Jesus of offering mankind a freedom which the majority of people were not able to attain. Only the great and the strong could follow Jesus’ teaching. Most people, however, are weak, vicious, worthless, rebellious, sinful and ignoble. The Christian faith is too much for them and they would perish by it. Thus, the Inquisitor and the other priests stepped in to fill the void. They provided a structure by which the majority of mankind could live.

That structure is designed to meet the 3 primary desires of mankind, according to the Inquisitor: 1) to have someone to worship; 2) to have someone to keep one’s conscience; 3) to have someone to create unity. These are taken from the Bible story of the Temptation of Christ where Jesus explicitly rejected fulfilling these needs in favour of “freedom”. But men, says the Inquisitor, fear freedom.

“Didst thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil?”

It’s clear that what we saw in the last 3 years in relation to the lockdowns and then the vaccines was the removal of free choice. Nobody would deny that. The denial of choice was cloaked up in the garb of “science”, of course. But anybody with a passing understanding of the science could see that this was a charade.  

According to the psychology of the Grand Inquisitor, what was really going on was that people wanted to have their choice (freedom) taken away. They wanted somebody else to make the choice for them and that somebody else were those modern day cardinals – the “experts”.

The information about the relative risks of the virus and the risks of the vaccine was freely available to anybody. That’s one thing that the internet has given us, for better or worse. But most people chose not to consider that information. I suspect part of the reason was the inherent uncertainty that pertains to the discipline of virology and especially to the field of medicine. So, people traded uncertainty (in the Inquisitor’s language: freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil), for “peace”.

All of this falls under the first of the Inquisitor’s basic human needs: the need to worship something. In modern society, the object of worship is “science” itself; ironic because science quite explicitly set itself up in opposition to the old object of worship of which the past Inquisitors were representatives.

What is worshipped in “science” is happiness and material gain. That is what the average person thinks of science and technology. They do not think of Einstein, relativity or Quantum Mechanics for these are more like philosophy in that they don’t hold much practical value and are inclined to make one doubt what one knows. The science that holds in the mind of the general public is science as the provider of happiness; bread and circuses (and vaccines). According to the Inquisitor, we will worship what brings us happiness. But that happiness is a trap, as we will see shortly.

The second fundamental need of the majority of people is to want somebody to keep their conscience i.e. somebody to take responsibility for the difficult decisions; somebody to do the things which an individual would not want to do because it would give them a bad conscience. Why do we elect politicians who continually and openly lie and deceive? Not because they are paragons of virtue but precisely because they are not. They are paragons of vice. They will do the dirty work so that we may keep our consciences clean. Of course, this leads to hypocrisy on a grand scale but perhaps that is the price for earthly happiness.

The Inquisitor posits 3 ways in which the conscience of people can be captured: miracle, mystery and authority.

“Man seeks not God but the miraculous”.

In the case of corona, the miracle was the vaccines. Again, anybody with an understanding of the science could see that it required an actual miracle for them to work. And, of course, they didn’t. But that hasn’t stopped a whole lot of people from believing in them anyway. This comes back to the idea I talked about a couple of posts ago. Heroic materialism (modern science and technology) is the provider of miracles and has been for two and a half centuries. The miracles it has provided include bridges, tunnels, airplanes and vaccines.

The reference to the Inquisitor here is very fitting because it was when the then Pope turned the real historical Inquisitor onto Galileo that he, as Galileo himself predicted, ensured that the emergent science of the time would come to an end in Italy and the Catholic south while the Protestant north would become ascendant. That’s exactly what happened and that’s why Heroic Materialism took off in England primarily with Holland and America not far behind. Heroic Materialism out-miracled the Church. The rest is history.

Alongside miracles there must be mystery. The vaccine is a mystery to the extent that the average person has apparently no idea, and less interest, in how the vaccine works or indeed how viruses and microbiology in general work. Again, there is no excuse for this ignorance in the modern world. All the information is available at the click of a computer mouse. We might be tempted to say it’s a failure of education or that people don’t have time to find out for themselves. But the Inquisitor would say that it’s the desire for mystery and that desire drives ignorance because to know is to take away the mystery and with it the miracles.

Finally, there is authority and this one needs no further explanation in relation to corona as we saw the exercise of authority in the most blatant fashion. Put the three together and you get miracle, mystery and authority; all fulfilling the underlying need of people to avoid their own conscience.

The vaccine could have been offered to those who wanted it and everybody else could have been allowed to get on with their life. But that didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because that freedom of choice would have placed the burden of decision onto the individual. Everybody would have had to weigh up the decision of whether to take the vaccine with their own conscience. But that, per the Inquisitor, is precisely what people want to avoid. So, we got the completely irrational vaccine mandates which served to take the choice away and clear people’s consciences.

This brings us to the Inquisitor’s 3rd human need: the desire for unity.

“…the craving for universal unity is the third and last anguish of men.”

It was this section which resonated most strongly with me in light of my Devouring Mother analysis because the Inquisitor uses the child metaphor numerous times here and this equates in my analysis to the Orphan archetype.

“We shall show them that they are weak, that they are only pitiful children, but that childlike happiness is the sweetest of all.

The desire for somebody to create unity is the desire for somebody to be the political parent to the societal children; somebody to sort out the petty squabbles, to provide food (bread), to be the voice of authority even if it means lying (the noble lie), to be responsible and to be the object of worship in the way that a child worships its parents and believes whatever they say. The happiness on offer is the archetypal childlike happiness of obliviousness (ignorance) with a side order of bullying and victimhood.

All of this adds up to obedience. People trade freedom of conscience, which is a burden, for bread and circuses (and vaccine mandates). The trap inherent in this deal is that, having become obedient, you become dependent:

“Turn them into bread, and mankind will run after Thee like a flock of sheep, grateful and obedient, through forever trembling, lest Thou withhold Thy hand and deny them Thy bread.”

Of course, we saw exactly that during corona. The rebellious children were denied their bread, most famously the Canadian truckers with their frozen bank accounts. Here in Australia, numerous people lost their jobs for refusing to acquiesce to an experimental pharmaceutical product.

All of this was in the service of unity. Remember the catchphrase from the start of corona: “we’re all in this together”. You couldn’t ask for a more succinct summary of the Inquisitor’s 3rd human need. But unity doesn’t just happen. Somebody must enforce it. We’re all in this together (or else!)

The modern Inquisitor is the “expert”. We swapped the cardinal’s robe for a white lab coat. People don’t get hauled off to dungeons as much anymore. They just have their social media account deleted and their bank account frozen. It amounts to much the same thing.

What makes the story of the Grand Inquisitor so powerful is that it doesn’t propose that these things are done against the public interest but rather in the public interest i.e. in the psychological interest of the majority. No doubt some, and perhaps the majority, of our “elites” would agree wholeheartedly with this ethic.

The alternative is the “freedom” of which the Inquisitor ascribes to the teachings of Jesus. The Brothers Karamazov as a work of art is the explication of that freedom; that is, the freedom of the individual to live by their own conscience. This freedom is not happiness. In fact, one could argue that it is the opposite of happiness. In the next post, I’ll go into more detail about what that looks like from a Dostoevskyan point of view.

16 thoughts on “The Grand Inquisitor”

  1. You might be going into it in the next post, but what are your thoughts on Jesus’ response to the Inquisitor?

    As a side note, some synchronicity this week. I was going through some old family papers and came across some writing by a second cousin of mine, who died young in the 80s in a motorcycle accident. My family always referred to him as very intellectual and interesting but I never knew him. Anyway this piece he wrote is hard to define (its almost like a polemic), but it is getting at what the Chthonic (in the Jungian sense) presence of the Australian soil spirit is doing to the descendants of Europeans, how we are reacting to it and, and what it holds for the future of Australia. Our psyche is no longer European, but not completely Australian yet either, and causes us immense spiritual grief. He talks of Patrick White and ‘Voss’, but also of Xavier Herbert, and compares both to Patterson and Lawson.

    Synchronicity indeed, following tracks (Songlines, Tao, Meridian?) comes to mind.

  2. Skip – good question. In a Jungian sense, it seems to represent a failed individuation. That is, this should have been the integration of the Ego into the Self in the form of Jesus. But the Inquisitor doesn’t kill Jesus but merely let him go setting up a possible reunion later but still representing a division between heart and mind. That works for Ivan’s character arc. He’s still running on Ego alone. Later he will be forced to face his demons (literally). This seems to raise the idea that if one renounces Christianity (the Self) one has to then go through the Shadow (the devil) in order to individuate. I think that’s partly what Jung believed was the task of our age.

    That’s really interesting about your cousin. Do you remember more specifically what he said about Voss?

  3. Simon — Before your musings, it never occurred to me the conscience is in a sense pre-linguistic, a mirror/wall the rational self bounces its ideas from. Not unlike how a sonar works, to use a corrupt analogy 🤔
    💬 Jesus doesn’t say a word. The Inquisitor does all the talking

    A tempting shortcut to a peace of lazy mind is indeed to outsource the ranging/mapping of complex life terrain: to politicians, cardinals, experts, the chattering classes in whole, whatever other bespoke authorities one might devise. A temptation hard to resist until you absolutely can‘t sleep-walk any longer.

    Btw, the Galileo case isn‘t so clear-cut as the thoroughly pruned history canon would lead us to believe. Neither is Bruno-the-martyr‘s. Your fella countryman Tim O’Neill does an amazing job on his History for Atheists 👌

  4. That makes sense. I also took it to mean that even with all the intellectual power of the ego it really is just faking it, running from facing the spirit, and Jesus’s kiss reveals this. Aloydha obviously embodies this in the story too.

    He was saying how White and Herbert are trying to reach forward into a new Australian psyche and represent the torment. Perhaps related to how you see Voss as call to the future. He thought that it is actually a move away from what we would call Faustian man to something new.

  5. Sorry fat fingers I meant Alyosha.

    And just to add he thought that Patterson and Lawson were the first stumbling attempts towards something new but the infant was killed in the crib by the depression (1890s) and the war, although they are still to him more European than Australian (especially Lawson). Although I think Lawson was the better story teller and writer, Banjo was actually feeling out a more mythic space, although it’s all hokey and colonial. Waltzing Matilda in some ways reminds me of ‘Voss’.

  6. Hey mate,
    People don’t want freedom. That’s certainly true in many periods of history.
    However if it was true at any point in time, societies should just settle into a stable state of paternalism. This does not seem to be the case.
    So i guess there must be other forces acting as well.
    There always seems to be a minority of freedom loving disobedient children.
    We are certainly on the losing side at the moment, but during some periods we have the upper hand. I wonder what causes these shifts.

  7. Daiva – I’ve been wondering how the conscience is different from Jung’s Self and I keep coming back to the idea that it’s the metaphorical heart, hence Dostoevsky’s concern with love. Conscience/Heart seems different to Jung’s soul (anima) too. Thanks for that link to O’Neil. I agree with his general approach. Anybody sticking it to the modern atheists is a-ok in my book. As those atheists are the new Inquisitors, they have a vested interest in besmirching the name of the old Inquisitors 😉

    Skip – yes, that also makes sense and touches on what I’ll be talking about next week. If Jesus is the Self and his reappearance is a call to individuation, then the rejection of that call is understandable as it entails Ego death (followed by resurrection/individuation). I agree about Voss being a call away from the Faustian. It is a strange era of Australian history the late 1800s. Seemed like there was all this enthusiasm and real movement for independence and then no sooner was it achieved (at least in a legal sense) than we swung right back to serving Empire and we’ve been there ever since with a few exceptions along the way. Not sure if you’ve ever heard it before, Lawson has the funniest advice to aspiring writers I’ve ever heard: “buy yourself a gun and a good book on anatomy and then carefully shoot yourself”.

    Roland – I’ve been pondering that recently too. It seems like there happens these discontinuities, paradigm shifts that seem to come out of nowhere. I wonder if some kind of pressure builds up in the lead up to the change. It certainly feels that way right now. There’s a hell of a lot of “pressure” that feels like it’s building towards something.

  8. Indeed, reading from that time is an eye opener. Even Ned Kelly thought himself Australian and non European in a way that few modern Australians would. I think this is what I was thinking about with Waltzing Matilda and Voss, and Kelly ties into it.

    Mr Judd in Voss is the character of import here, because he is the ex con, but actually goes through to the next stage of acceptance and loving it compared to Voss who goes in with the European attitude and dies. What my cousin was getting at is if you do not come to accept and love the Australian landscape you will come to hate it, and flee it (spiritually and intellectually), which is what a lot of white Australians have done. But the problem is you can’t flee it, because you are it, and you’re hating yourself. Aboriginal Australians have been trying to tell white Australians this for a long time; you belong here, accept it, come into relation with us.

    Perhaps the white Australians who have actually come closer to loving it and accepting it are those from the lower ends of society, without the intellectual baggage of someone like Voss.

    To bring it all the way back, perhaps the Indigenous Australia is Jesus to white Australia’s Inquisitor?

  9. Simon — An intermural no-holds-barred battle between Inquisitors new and old, what a sight to behold! Where do I claim my pass to the venue? 🤣 Ty for the fresh take 🔥

    Again in O’Neill’s discerning words,
    💬 our obsession with separating the natural from the supernatural is fairly recent. Even for Galilei and Newton science, theology and philosophy were intertwined. So any such conflict was never just about science vs. religion.

  10. Skip – “To bring it all the way back, perhaps the Indigenous Australia is Jesus to white Australia’s Inquisitor?” Now that’s a fascinating thought. I’ll have to ponder that. Makes me think of Voss having his head chopped off.

    I think you’re doing the character Voss a small injustice in relation to the landscape question. There is that thread in the story prior to his journey into the desert where he seems to fall in love with the landscape and White puts some beautiful descriptions in his mouth. That goes along with his idea of discovering the “real Australia” which, in a way, he does. I can see a Jungian parallel there too. Voss as Ego dies and is resurrected in Laura Trevelyan (and their daughter) as Self.

    Daiva – yes. There was a satire of Newton written in his own time where he was mercilessly parodied for being an alchemist. The splitting of theology, philosophy and science is a very recent phenomenon and not one to our advantage.

  11. Simon – interesting that you come up with Dostojewski. A few years ago I was looking a lot of Jordan Peterson videos, he relied heavily in his argumentation on C.G. Jung and Dostojewski (plus the bible). Since then Dostojewski is on my reading list, but until now he is still in the waiting line.

    In dissident or reactionary circles, there are quite a few writers who are either Christians or have recently converted. Do you think that Jesus could make a comeback or will this remain a fringe phenomenon? A part of myself cheers for him in secrecy.

  12. Secretface – Spengler predicts a Second Religiosity. It’s not hard to see how it could happen. Our modern day atheists are running what amounts to a religious movement – the religion of fundamentalist materialism. These are the people who are in charge at the moment. We can already see that they are not going to change their position based on feedback from reality. They are going to keep on pushing the same failed policies until they are forcibly removed from power. In the meantime, a lot of people might go looking for a “real religion”. I don’t see much evidence for that at the moment in the general culture but maybe you’re right and it will take hold from the dissident circles.

  13. 🗨 Do you think that Jesus could make a comeback

    The Bible has all the answers ↓↓ 😇

    💬 Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.
    ~~Acts 1:11

  14. Daiva – I vaguely recall that Newton spent an inordinate amount of time trying to calculate when Jesus would return and concluded that it would not be before 2030. The way things are going, we’re gonna need him.

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