As a result of Ivan's story, how would you characterize the Inquisitor's view of human nature, and is he correct in his estimation? Why or why not? 

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davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Fyodorovich is a profoundly troubled young man. He is extraordinarily sensitive, someone who feels the weight of the world on his shoulders. He has an acute sense of the sufferings of the world, and the woes of humankind force him to question the religious beliefs of a society from which he has become utterly estranged. Try as he might, Ivan cannot reconcile the existence of so much suffering in the world with that of a benevolent, loving Creator.

It is not that Ivan rejects God; he simply has a profound contempt for organized religion. Indeed, this is the main thrust of his story "The Grand Inquisitor," in which Christ returns to earth in the middle of the Spanish Inquisition only to be sentenced to death. The parable told by Ivan is intended to highlight deficiencies in human nature, rather than serve as a withering critique of the Christian message. Even when the Son of God, the savior of mankind, returns to earth to walk among us, he is vilified and sentenced to death.

Yet, this is precisely what happened during Christ's original ministry on earth. The suggestion from Ivan here is that human nature has not really changed all that much in the past 2,000 years. Human nature seems to be irredeemably corrupt, fallen, and wholly incapable of positive development. At the same time, Ivan's story could also be seen as a critique of the saving power of Christ. Even those who call themselves Christians—and who display great outward piety in their lives—are unable to recognize their Lord and master when he is standing right there in front of them. Yet, they still cannot be saved from the myriad corruptions of their nature. Christianity, then, would appear incapable of reforming the unreformable. If the Son of God cannot achieve this, then what hope is there for humankind?

Ivan's estimation of human nature is correspondingly low. God, in the person of His only begotten son, has provided us with the means not just for our salvation, but also for the redemption of this world. Yet, we have chosen not to do so. Whether we agree with Ivan or not, there is no doubt that the question he addresses is still relevant to our times. One quick glance at the newspapers or the TV tells us that the world continues to be riven by conflict, hatred, and widespread death and destruction. The same horrors keep on befalling the human race with depressing regularity time after time. What does this say about human nature?

What of the Inquisitor himself? Is his estimation of human nature in any way more compelling? There is certainly an incredible degree of cynicism about the way he looks at his fellow men. He castigates Christ for resisting Satan's temptations in the desert; he really ought to have turned those rocks into loaves of bread. Men are material creatures; they will follow those who fill their bellies. The Inquisitor is a thoroughgoing materialist; human beings are primarily heaps of matter. A rich and fulfilling spiritual life is ultimately dependent on one's material well-being. Man may not live on bread alone, but securing his daily bread is the most important thing in life.

As well as being crudely cynical, The Inquisitor is also guilty of breathtaking hypocrisy. Despite his assumption of the guise of a religious zealot, The Inquisitor is in fact an atheist. He tells Christ in no uncertain terms that he is no longer needed. This is a particularly significant point in the story, as it highlights the fundamental contradiction at the heart of a completely humanistic understanding of the world. On one hand, The Inquisitor's cynicism regarding human nature leads him to believe that we are all beyond salvation. At the same time, however, his peremptory dismissal of Christ is strongly suggestive of the humanist notion that we can save ourselves, rise above our merely human nature, and create a better world.

In many respects The Inquisitor is himself a symbol of fallen human nature. In that sense, his cynicism represents a heightened form of self-awareness. He also provides us with an insight into our own individual selves. We look at him and see something of ourselves as we really are. Our evaluation of The Inquisitor's conception of human nature depends, to a large extent, on how we would have treated Jesus had we been there in Seville during the Spanish Inquisition. Would we have summarily dismissed him as The Inquisitor did? Alternatively, would we have regarded him as an impostor and called for him to be put to death as a heretic? Would we have acknowledged the Second Coming, accepting Christ as our Lord and savior? We need to try, if possible, to put ourselves in the shoes of those in the story.

Ultimately, the resolution of this notoriously thorny question is down to the individual. However, perhaps we can tentatively put forward a kind of middle position with respect to the matter. Human nature may appear to display all the signs of being immutable. Nevertheless, there are enough examples of extraordinary individuals throughout history who have broken the mould, as it were, to show us that a different world is possible. This world is no longer torn apart by bloodshed, hatred and seemingly interminable conflict.

In the final analysis, it all comes down to whether such people were able to transcend the limitations of human nature entirely through their own resources, or whether they required divine assistance in their endeavors. In other words, our answer to the question depends on whether we regard ourselves as purely human and purely material, with the ability to shape our own destinies or as spiritual creatures totally dependent upon divine grace.

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The Grand Inquisitor

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