The Grand Inquisitor


Avi Zenilman notes that both Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton cite The Brothers Karamazov as a favorite work of literature, and both specifically cite the “Grand Inquisitor” parable. Here’s Bush:

In the dialogue with the Inquisitor, Jesus remains silent, and the chapter has two endings, the first tragic, the second a victory for Christianity.

For Mrs. Bush, there was no ambiguity. ”It’s about life, and it’s about death, and it’s about Christ,” she has said. ”I find it really reassuring.”

And here’s Clinton:

Asked to name the book that had made the biggest impact on her, she singled out “The Brothers Karamazov.” The parable of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoyevsky’s novel, she said, speaks to the dangers of certitude.

“For a lot of reasons, that was an important part of my thinking,” Mrs. Clinton said. “One of the greatest threats we face is from people who believe they are absolutely, certainly right about everything.”

The passage in question is deliberately ambiguous. That said, I think bother former first ladies are wrong. Clinton just seems confused. There’s a lot of stuff about doubt and certainty in Karamazov but not really in this part. Bush’s point of view I don’t really understand. From a literary perspective, the whole reason the parable is famous is because the Inquisitor’s argument is, as written, pretty persuasive. And yet it’s also repugnant! At the end, Christ’s faith is unshaken, but the Inquisitor is also unmoved. It’s the reverse of reassuring; it’s a deliberate provocation meant to shake us out of our complacency. If it was reassuring, it would be boring.