“The Brothers Karamazov”/ The Grand Inquisitor and Totalistic Classical Utilitarianism

 Brothers Karamazov”/ The Grand Inquisitor and Totalistic Classical Utilitarianism (2005, The Netherlands) by Blerina Berberi

Ivan, the most complex character in The Brothers Karamazov tells to his brother Alyosha, who is a novice in the monastery, his unwritten “poem” of The Grand Inquisitor.

In this research the ideas of the Grand Inquisitor are compared to those of Classical Utilitarianism, in reference to Jeremy Bentham. Moreover, the “principles” of the Grand Inquisitor are regarded as resembling those of Utilitarianism and Totalitarianism. The criticism of the Grand Inquisitor’s utilitarian ideas shows similar shortcomings as the Classic Utilitarianism theory.

The story of the Grand Inquisitor starts with Jesus coming back in the 15th century, in Spain. The Grand Inquisitor immediately imprisons Him, and says that he will bury Him for the “universal happiness” of mankind. Before going into more details, Jeremy Bentham, one of the first philosophers who rejects references to God and abstract rules of the “heavens”, states that morality is not a matter to please God but is an attempt to bring happiness in this world (Rachels, p.92).

The Grand Inquisitor says to Jesus that for a long time man was “disturbed” by the notion of freedom which He gave to men, but the Grand Inquisitor says that, popes and church, have gotten rid of it, and “now we are rid of it for good” (Dostoevsky, p. 302). Thus they do not need Him. The Grand Inquisitor states that men are “rebel” and rebels cannot be happy, and they do not need His freedom since He rejected to make people happy. The pope says:

 “It is only now that it has become possible…to think of men’s happiness” (Dostoevsky, p.303).

Bentham advocated that religion would endorse the Utilitarian approach if its believers would take seriously their view of God as a benevolent creator (Rachels, p.95). More specifically he states:

“The dictates of religion would coincide …with those of utility, were the Being, who is the object of religion, universally supposed to be (as) benevolent…But among the votaries of religion there seem to be but few who are real believers in his benevolence. They call him benevolent in words, but they do not mean that he is so in reality” (Rachels, p.95).

The Grand Inquisitor, of whom Bentham seem to refer to, did once pursue the path of Jesus but he found it a mad cause, hence freedom, so then he turned to the “meek” for their happiness. Yet the Grand Inquisitor says to Jesus that he is not with him but with God (Dostoevsky, p.310). The Grand Inquisitor is thankful to God that let him the control over the church and he states that is only Jesus who is not benevolent while God has let his “benevolence” to the Grand Inquisitor. Thus the Grand Inquisitor considers himself more a benevolent men rather than a Christian one, since he deceives humanity in the name of God for the sole reason to establish human happiness. 

Happiness is crucial to Bentham and he states that morality should play a role in achieving happiness “down to earth”. The aim of Utilitarianism wasn’t just to have a different doctrine but also to make a change in practice. The Grand Inquisitor also aims for happiness on earth and he states that men will be happy under the church. But with the freedom that He gave to men, they will rise in rebellion and kill one another all over the world (Dostoevsky, p.311).

Is the Grand Inquisitor wrong in taking away freedom from men? The Principle of Utility holds that “every action whatsoever” which does not maximize the greatest happiness is morally wrong (Sweet, 2001). Furthermore, it is only the consequences that count. The Grand Inquisitor explains his actions in saying that Jesus did not provide bread to men but preferred freedom and the Grand Inquisitor says that it was wrong because men would say to him: “Feed us first, then ask for virtue” (Dostoevsky, p. 304). Furthermore, the Grand Inquisitor says to Jesus that he had the opportunity to give men happiness but he did not, such as did not show men that was son of God by plunging from the pinnacle when was crucified. The Grand Inquisitor tells to Him that he could have shortened the sufferings of all men, and there had been around a thousand years of torment. Yet it will be the church the only one who will feed men. The Grand Inquisitor states that peace is more attractive to man because the freedom of choice is very agonizing to men. Furthermore, the increase of freedom that Jesus gave men put a “torment on men’s soul”, which would bring confusion and misery. The Grand Inquisitor says to him that he “…leave them with so many anxieties and unsolved problems” (Dostoevsky, p.307).

          Also Bentham advocates that happiness is the good that all men deserve to have and that everyone should strive for. He defines happiness as being “determined by reference to presence of pleasure and the absence of pain” (Sweet, 2001). The Grand Inquisitor argues that if men would gain freedom they would rebel against the church, and men will then admit that:

“…He who created them rebels intended to mock them and no more. They will say it in despair and it will be blasphemy, and then they will be even more unhappy…” (Dostoevsky, p.309).

The Grand Inquisitor says to Jesus that He is prided among some chosen men, while the church “will bring peace of mind to all men” (Dostoevsky, p.311). 

Utilitarianism holds that every person’s happiness counts the same (Rachels, p.92). The Grand Inquisitor says that the church is also concerned about the weak. While He, according to Grand Inquisitor, considers the weak as the “material for the strong and mighty”. Later on, the Grand Inquisitor says that the great prophet had seen those men in the first resurrection, who were the children of freedom living in wilderness, and they were gods not men. But they were only around twelve thousands who bore Jesus cross. So the Grand Inquisitor says that He came just for the few and not about all the other men. Like Bentham, who states that “every man is worth as another”, the Grand Inquisitor wants to provide happiness to all humankind on earth.

According to Bentham, utility is also for legislators as for ordinary people. The purpose of law is same as that of morals to promote general welfare and that seems to be the case with the Grand Inquisitor, who considering himself as the legislator of humanity, wants to establish happiness, bread, and unity to mankind. But Bentham states, “if the law is to serve this purpose (general welfare), it should not restrict the freedom of citizens more than necessary” (Rachels, p. 96).

Thus Bentham states that a form of restriction of freedom might be necessary to promote general welfare, but “How much is it necessary?”. Bentham states that laws should not diminish but increase happiness. So the Grand Inquisitor promotes happiness among all men and increases happiness. The Grand Inquisitor states that all men will be happy apart from those who know the secret. He states:

“…everyone will be happy, all the millions of beings, with the exception of the hundred thousand men who are called upon to rule over them. For only we, the keepers of the secret will be unhappy.” (Dostoevsky, p.312).

The secret is that beyond death there is nothing. But the secret will be kept for their happiness. The Grand Inquisitor claims that those around Jesus have saved just themselves while the church “has saved all mankind”.

The Grand Inquisitor is a Utilitarian. He even sacrifices himself, and the others who know the truth about death, in order to maximize the happiness of all men on earth. The question of whether the Grand Inquisitor is wrong, would always be positive in the utilitarian perspective. Bentham claimed that whatsoever action that promotes happiness is morally right, thus the Grand Inquisitor cannot be wrong in his principles and doings. What about justice and men’s rights?

To conclude, the answer to this question also refers to the shortcomings of Bentham’s theory. As Rachels says, Utilitarianism is “incompatible with the ideal of justice (Rachels, p.106). Here the Grand Inquisitor does not treat people fairly and he consider human kind an “ant-heap” who just, according to him, have to be happy, after some of them will be buried at stake. What about men’s freedom to choose himself whether to believe in the church? The Grand Inquisitor states that burning heretics is for the happiness of all humanity, there will be some suffering but in the end people will be happy because they are not free, and freedom according to him “agonizes” and “confuses” men. Respecting human rights is also principle, which clashes with that of utility. It is not right not to have the freedom of speech, right to life itself, right to freedom of religion (Rachels, p.107).

Rachels claims that Utilitarianism is too demanding in stating that we have to concern for everyone. But even if we concern about everyone, would we still be right? The Grand Inquisitor wants to give happiness to men, but does he know what kind of happiness men want? The Grand Inquisitor states that bread, authority, mysticism, and unity are things that men need to be happy.

The main feature of the Grand Inquisitor is Totalitarianism because he considers himself and the church, as a form of government/state, which aims in absolute and centralized control over the society. His intentions are for good, utilitarian in principles but the actions in achieving “universal happiness” are not sound, as is the case also with Classical Utilitarianism. 


Dostoevsky F. (1981) The Brothers Karamazov, Trans. MacAndrew A. R., Bantam Classic Edition.

– Sweet W. (2001) Jeremy Bentham (1748- 1832), Moral Philosophy, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,. Retrieved from:


– Rachels, J. (2003) The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 4th edition, New York: McGraw- Hill


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