Polibooks

Politics and books, ideally at the same time.

Dostoevsky's Books Have The Best Words

In a 'best books of all time' project where 125 of the most famous living writers were each asked to list the top 10 books ever, Fyodor Dostoevsky ranked 6th among authors listed based on how many of his books were selected by the group (5). As one of the great writers to come out of Russia's golden age of literature, it's safe to say that his influence has endured, and will continue to.

If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

This reputation carries some baggage with it, at least in my experience. Crime & Punishment sat on my bookshelf, waiting to be read, for over 15 years before I finally picked it up. It felt like a book that should be read, but there was a vague sense that to do so would be a chore. It was intimidating. One day, finally, I opened it to the first page and just fell in.

If you were to ask me for a book recommendation I'd give you two, both by Dostoevsky - Crime & Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. Both of these stories are centered around a murder, but to call them murder mysteries or crime thrillers is to miss the point. These are works of philosophy, treatises on human psychology, and explorations of the most fundamental questions of human nature. You could spend, and people have spent, an entire lifetime thinking about them.

It's difficult to capture what exactly makes these books so good with a standard "here's why you should read X" sort of approach - maybe the best way to make a pitch for Dostoevsky's work is to narrow the focus. Examining how he writes on the subject of morality, and the implications of that writing, should provide a nice sampler of what the reader gets out of a Dostoevsky book.

The Brothers Karamazov

Two of the three Brothers Karamazov are Ivan and Alyosha. Alyosha, a few years younger, is a pure young man who spends time in a rural monastery assisting a holy Elder of the Church, named Zosima. Ivan could hardly be more different. He was educated in the city and is enamored of the modern, European way of thinking about the world. Ivan is an atheist and an intellectual, and has certain ideas about the moral implications of a world without God. Consider the following quote about Ivan, from a conversation between members of the Karamazov family, the Elder Zosima, and several monks.

Let me tell you another anecdote, gentlemen, about Ivan Fyodorovich himself, a most typical and interesting one. No more than five days ago, at a local gathering, predominantly of ladies, he solemnly announced in the discussion that there is decidedly nothing in the whole world that would make men love their fellow men; that there exists no law of nature that man should love mankind, and that if there is and has been any love on earth up to now, it has come not from natural law but solely from people's belief in their immortality. [He] added parenthetically that that is what all natural law consists of, so that were mankind's belief in its immortality to be destroyed, not only love but also any living power to continue the life of the world would at once dry up in it. Not only that, but then nothing would be immoral any longer, everything would be permitted, even anthropophagy (cannibalism). And even that is not all: he ended with the assertion that for every separate person, like ourselves for instance, who believes neither in God nor in his own immortality, the moral law of natural ought to change immediately into the exact opposite of the former religious law, and that egoism, even to the point of evildoing, should not only be permitted to man but should be acknowledged as the necessary, the most reasonable, and all but the noblest result of his situation."

This idea is a popular one today, and has been worked over by the philosophers of the past few centuries. Without God, how can there be morality? And without an absolute foundation for morality and ethics, why should people be kind to others, follow the law, and generally live a moral life?

Under this theory God, and more specifically the chance for eternal life in Heaven, is what motivates humans on earth to behave in a moral way. We shouldn't understand this claim as specific to the Christian God either - this is a general claim about the consequences of belief in the idea of an afterlife and divine reward or punishment.

It's an interesting idea to play with, especially if you're inclined to disagree. What exactly is it that prevents me from, say, just murdering a person who I'm angry with? In my case it's certainly not a calculation based on divine reward. Neither is it exactly because I know I would be arrested and tried. A murder while in the grip of anger is an extreme example, but in truth there's nothing we say or do that is devoid from emotional, irrational processes. There is no purely cold calculation that humans make, with the exception perhaps of the psychopath or sociopath.

So why not murder? Perhaps because I, along with most people, strive to master my emotions, and to lash out is to lose control. Add to that a basic respect for human life, and the instinctive knowledge we all have that to act in a certain way towards others is to set a precedent for how others may act towards you.

Is this a good enough rebuttal to the idea that morality is divinely inspired? Maybe not. Maybe Judeo-Christian influence has ingrained certain ideas about morality into our society over the past few thousand years, and those ideas drive our thought processes whether we acknowledge it or not. These questions are too complex for this post, but are looked at in detail in both of these books.

Crime & Punishment

The topic is examined again, from a different angle, in Crime & Punishment. The back-cover of this book is, without a doubt, the best I have ever seen.

It is a murder story, told from a murderer's point of view, that implicates even the most innocent reader in its enormities. It is a cat-and-mouse game between a tormented young killer and a cheerfully implacable detective. It is a preternaturally acute investigation of the forces that impel a man toward sin, suffering, and grace.

Though this is the story of a murder, it is not a murder mystery. The game is given away on the back cover - the main character, Raskolnikov, is the murderer. He is young, and has had to drop out of university due to a lack of funds. Like many of the young men of St. Petersburg he's come around to new, godless ways of thinking, which play a significant role in his actions.

Some time after the murder Raskolnikov is introduced to Porfiry Petrovich, a police detective and the lead investigator on the case. Porfiry, it turns out, had recently read an article written by Raskolnikov that had been published in a magazine around the time he dropped out of school, and Porfiry asks him about it.

As I recall, I was considering the psychological state of the criminal throughout the course of the crime.
-Rodion Raskolnikov
Yes sir, and you maintain that the act of carrying out a crime is always accompanied by illness. Very, very original, but...as a matter of fact, what interested me was not that part of your article, but a certain thought tossed in at the end, which unfortunately you present only vaguely, by way of a hint...In short, if you recall, a certain hint is presented that there supposedly exist in the world certain persons who can...that is, who not only can but are fully entitled to commit all sorts of crimes and excesses and to whom the law supposedly does not apply."
-Porfiry Petrovich

This idea is born out of the same concept discussed above. If the fear of divine retribution is pushed aside, a new conception of morality must emerge. Raskolnikov's idea is that 'great men' are justified in doing as they please, provided it helps them achieve their great ends. An example he gives takes this basic form: If Newton had had to murder 10 people with his bare hands to bring his ideas to the world, would he not have been right to do so?

Let's put this in a more modern day context. If a medical researcher could find the key to curing all forms of cancer by vivisecting 100 patients, while they were still alive, over the course of weeks, wouldn't they be justified in doing so? Think of the thousands, the millions, who would be saved by these cures. Beside the greatness of this endeavor what is 100 lives?

This example is, essentially, pure utilitarianism, and the problems with it are self-evident. Why not have hospitals grab people off the street and murder them, and use their organs to save several people? In a purely utilitarian conception this would be justified as would any action, no matter how horrible, that resulted in a net positive for society.

Raskolnikov's philosophy is slightly different, however - he's not concerned with minutiae, and only applies his thought to 'great men' who are capable of truly changing the world. Is he wrong? Would Newton have been justified in committing such murders?

Porfiry also mentions that Raskolnikov's article put forward the idea that 'the act of carrying out a crime is always accompanied by illness.' Raskolnikov himself is driven to the edge of madness by his crime - a process that actually begins before he has even committed it, during the planning stage. This is, perhaps, Dostoevsky's answer to a part of the question on morality. Raskolnikov, himself an atheist, cannot live with what he's done. The temptation to confess is enormous, as is the guilt. And, interestingly, in the end he turns towards religion in the hope of salvation. Again, however, the reader must reflect on where this internal sense of morality comes from; a society influenced by God, or something inherent in man?

Coda

The Russian philosopher and literary critic Nikolay Strakhov said that Dostoevsky "loved these questions about the essence of things and the limits of knowledge." Remarkably, he managed to weave these questions into thrilling fiction in a way that enriched his stories - the result is a rare gift, almost unique.

You can find Crime & Punishment here, and The Brothers Karamazov here. Or, if you prefer audiobooks, you can download 2 from Audible for free with this link.