Ivan tells Alexei that his action takes place in the sixteenth century. Back then, it was common in poetic works for higher powers to come down to Earth. For so many centuries, people cried out to God to reveal himself to them. One day, he appeared, “only for a moment” to grace “his tormented, suffering people.” The action of Ivan’s poem is set in Seville, Spain during “the most horrible time of the Inquisition, when fires blazed every day to the glory of God.” Christ walked amongst men “in the same human image in which he had walked for three years among men fifteen centuries earlier.” The day before, the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor had burned nearly “a hundred heretics at once.”
Ivan’s epic poem, which is one of the most famous passages in literature, uses the device of deus ex machina—“god from the machine,” or God descending to Earth. This was a device frequently used in ancient Greek theater. Typically, the gods would descend to Earth and relieve the mortals of their suffering. The same occurs here, but Ivan manipulates the device to show what could happen if God descended and circumstances were such that the community turned against Him.
When Christ appeared, he did so “inconspicuously,” but everyone still recognized him. People flocked to him, “drawn to him by an invincible force.” He healed a blind man. People wept and kissed the earth upon which he walked. Children threw flowers down before him and cried hosannas. He even raised a dead seven-year-old girl from the coffin. This causes a great commotion. The Cardinal Grand Inquisitor arrives, crossing the square in front of the cathedral, where the girl’s little, white coffin sits on the porch. The cardinal scowls at the exalted figure and then orders a guard to take him away. The cardinal’s power is so great that the crowd parts for his guards.
Christ is the opposite of the cardinal, marked by his unconditional love, boundless goodness, and supernatural power. What is ironic is that the cardinal is supposed to be acting in service of Christ. However, he merely exploits the savior to instill the fear that keeps him in power. The community obeys the Church to keep a vague idea of evil at bay, not realizing, or being too afraid to admit, that the cardinal himself embodies evil.
Christ, now a prisoner, is taken to a “small, gloomy, vaulted prison in the old building of the holy court.” The Cardinal Grand Inquisitor enters his cell, carrying a lamp. He is alone. He asks the prisoner, “Is it you?” Getting no response, he tells him to “be silent” and then asks why he came to “interfere” with the community. He adds that he doesn’t know who the prisoner is and does’t want to know but, tomorrow, he’ll condemn the prisoner and have him burned at the stake. The very people who kissed his feet will turn on him and, with just “a nod” from the cardinal, will “rush to heap the coals up around [the] stake.”
The lamp that the cardinal carries suggests the search for truth, reminiscent of the ancient Greek cynic Diogenes’s supposed use of a lantern to look for an honest man. (Yet, ironically, the cardinal sees the truth but chooses to reject it.) Despite being a clergyman, the cardinal doesn’t welcome the reappearance of Christ due to the threat that the Savior poses to his power. The cardinal reminds Christ of the real, physical influence that he wields. He also holds a cynical view of humanity and its fickle cruelty, similar to Ivan himself.
Alexei asks if the prisoner just sits silently. Ivan says that the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor tells him to be silent because “he has no right to add anything to what has already been said” and that this is “the most basic feature of Roman Catholicism,” in Ivan’s view. Everything already belongs to the pope. The old cardinal says that, if Christ introduces anything new, it’ll be a miracle that will encroach upon “the freedom of faith” that the devout have handed over to the Church in exchange for their happiness. The cardinal says that God surely has not come to take this right away from the Church, so why, then, is he interfering?
The cardinal is unwilling to let Christ interfere with what has already been committed to the New Testament, and Christ is symbolically silent in response. In this part of the poem, Ivan explains how the institutional power of the Church and its wish for self-preservation would prevent its authorities from being willing to welcome the Second Coming. This is why the cardinal refers to the Savior’s reemergence as interference.
The Cardinal Grand Inquisitor tells the prisoner that people will submit to enslavement in exchange for being fed. Christ has promised “heavenly bread,” but can this “compare with earthly bread?” What will become of those millions who do not have the strength to forego earthly bread for heavenly bread? The weak, the cardinal says, are very dear to the Church. Though they are “depraved,” they will eventually become “obedient.” He insists that humanity is eager to hand over its freedom in exchange for peace and that Christ has left them in “confusion and torment,” thereby laying “the foundation for the destruction of [his] own kingdom.”
The cardinal uses the desperation of the populace, particularly their poverty, to keep them in line. He tells Christ that he will use their physical hunger as a means to demand their loyalty and devotion. He also stresses that physical suffering is more immediate and palpable than any idea of spiritual suffering, which the devout can only imagine. To avoid discomforts in the here and now, which the cardinal insists were created by Christ, followers will grant the Church authority over them. This reflects Ivan’s conversation with Zosima—Ivan thought people would fear the Church’s physical punishments, while Zosima thought the Church could truly punish criminals by morally condemning them. The cardinal takes Ivan’s view, again demonstrating a cynical view of humanity and its basest impulses.
The Cardinal Grand Inquisitor tells the prisoner that he didn’t realize that, “as soon as man rejects miracles, he will at once reject Christ as well, for man seeks not so much God as miracles.” Humanity will even seek out “quacks, or women’s magic.” The cardinal says that Christ has overestimated humanity. They are “slaves” who were created as “rebels.” However, with the Church, no one will rebel any longer or destroy each other. They will submit because “freedom, free reason, and science will lead them into such a maze” that they will either exterminate themselves or each other. The remaining third will crawl back to the Church, which will help to save them from themselves. The flock will then gather and submit “once and for all.”
The “miracles” that the cardinal says people seek are modes of temporarily alleviating their suffering on Earth. Here, the cardinal refers to those who promote superstitious tricks or “black magic.” When he talks about “women’s magic,” he’s likely referring to witchcraft—an offense for which women were burned at the stake at this time. The cardinal contrasts the Church’s offer of submission with modernity’s offer of science (the Scientific Revolution coincided with the Inquisition), which he insists will only confuse the masses by offering too much freedom.
The Cardinal Grand Inquisitor says that the flock will become timid and “tremble limply before [their] wrath.” The Church will make them work and, in the free hours, “arrange their lives like a children’s game, with children’s songs, choruses, and innocent dancing.” They will be allowed to sin, and they will have no secrets from the Church. The Church will either allow or forbid them to have mistresses, all depending on their obedience. The flock will “gladly and joyfully” submit to be delivered from the “present terrible torments of personal and free decision” in exchange for happiness. They will then die peacefully, and “beyond the grave they will find only death.” The cardinal repeats that, tomorrow, he shall burn the stranger for interfering. If anyone deserves the stake, he says, it’s him.
The cardinal explains to the visitor how the Church organizes people’s lives, not only because, according to the old adage, “idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” but also because idleness gives people the opportunity to think. With their lives properly organized by the Church into work and play, they will neither consider their suffering nor the control that the clergy holds over them. In this section, the cardinal also reveals that he doesn’t believe in an afterlife (despite talking directly to Christ himself), but it’s important for the flock to believe that their lives are ordered for the purpose of being rewarded in heaven.
Ivan then stops, flushed from speaking, and smiles. Alexei finds the poem absurd and reminds Ivan that it doesn’t “revile” Christ but “praises” him. He denies that there could be “such a fantastic person” as the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor and asks who the “bearers of the mystery” could be who have taken responsibility for men’s happiness. Ivan laughs and tells his brother not to get excited, reminding him that it’s only “a fantasy.” He then asks Alexei if “this whole Catholic movement of the past few centuries” is really nothing more than a pursuit of money. Alexei says that it isn’t. Ivan asks why there can’t be someone like the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor who sees that most mortals will never be able to manage their own freedom. Alexei says that Ivan’s Inquisitor doesn’t believe in God, which Ivan admits is true.
Alexei finds that the poem “praises” Christ, because the Savior’s goodness is illuminated alongside the cardinal’s dark, evil character. What Alexei seems to find unrealistic is that a man like the cardinal would speak directly to Christ and still deny his power and the existence of Heaven. He might also be scoffing at the idea that there could be such a direct conspiracy on the part of the Church to rule the world. Ivan (and Dostoevsky through him) is presenting complex and ambiguous ideas here—that a man could believe in God and still rebel against him, presuming to know better regarding how the world should be run.
Alexei asks Ivan how the poem ends. Ivan says that Christ approaches the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor and kisses him gently “on his bloodless, ninety-year-old lips.” The cardinal walks to the door, opens it, and tells the stranger to leave and not to come again. The prisoner walks out into the “dark squares of the city” and “goes away.” As for the old cardinal, the kiss “burns in his heart,” but he remains fixed on his ideas.
Christ demonstrates unconditional love toward the cardinal, despite his atheism, exploitation of faith to maintain control over the populace, and his threat to destroy Christ to secure his position. The burning in his chest is the guilt of his conscience. Though the cardinal feels this “burning,” the poem’s ending suggests that he has “won” the encounter, and that Christ abandons the world to be ruled by men like the Grand Inquisitor. This would fit with Ivan’s worldview, that God might exist, but that he has abandoned the world to evil.
Alexei asks Ivan how he can love with such ideas in his heart. Ivan says that “the Karamazov force” can “endure everything.” Alexei then asks if he believes that “everything is permitted,” and Ivan says he does. Alexei stands, silently goes to Ivan, and kisses him gently on the lips. Ivan humorously accuses him of “literary theft,” then says that it’s time to go. Even if he doesn’t go away and they meet again, Ivan says he doesn’t want to hear about Dmitri ever again. He asks Alexei to kiss him and then return to Zosima’s bedside. Ivan then leaves. Alexei will wonder later in his life how he “so completely [forgot]” about Dmitri, when he resolved that morning to find him, even if it meant not returning to the monastery.
Alexei wonders how Ivan’s cynicism gives him any ability to love or empathize with others. When Ivan mentions “the Karamazov force,” he’s referring to the sensuality and passion that Dmitri previously mentioned. Though Dmitri derided it as “insect sensuality,” it’s a basic instinct that keeps Ivan engaged with and interested in humanity, though he despises how the world is ordered. Ivan’s belief that “everything is permitted” is a modern notion that people create their own code of morality. It has also become a famous quote used to justify many things, including Smerdyakov’s murder of Fyodor even within the world of the book.