The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche : Philosophy and Preaching


     The basic idea of Crime and Punishment is already expressed almost completely in the very title of the novel. It consists in the fact that the breaking of the "rule" cannot be authorized under any circumstances, even when one absolutely does not see its necessity.

     A poor student, Raskolnikov, decides to kill an old Woman of whom it can be said that she is barely still alive, in order to procure the means for continuing his existence. Raskolnikov is a man of talent, full of life, and filled with the need to find some activity worthy of his powers. Dostoevsky, who is not at all, as is Tolstoy, convinced that all intellectual work is immoral, is quite sympathetic to his aspirations. Indeed, if Raskolnikov had by chance obtained the resources necessary for the furthering of his plans by legal means, Dostoevsky would have blessed all his plans. But it was impossible for the student to procure these resources in permitted ways. He had to choose between two alternatives: either renounce the future and squander his life on work that was crude and devoid of meaning for him, struggling for his daily bread, or break open for himself a way to true (true also in Dostoevsky's opinion) life by means of his crime. The first half of the novel is concerned with the inner struggle of Raskolnikov against the idea living in him that murder is not permitted. On the one hand, an inner voice tells him, "you must not kill"; on the other, a thousand arguments come to him to prove that he must not listen to this voice, that he may kill. In the search for such arguments, Raskolnikov (i.e., Dostoevsky) is inexhaustible. This is also called "the psychology of the criminal," and it is this that has made the novel famous. There is, moreover, a single fundamental theme: countless murders have been committed, and without punishment. The whole question, Raskolnikov tells himself, does not at all reside in whether it is forbidden to kill but in whether it is forbidden only to small and weak men. Great and strong men are not afraid of this moral obstacle and, when in pursuit of their goal they are stopped by it, they sweep it out of their way, as, for example, Napoleon. In this spirit Raskolnikov wrote an article for a review, and it was almost the same considerations that made him decide to commit the murder.

     It is hardly necessary to point out here that Raskolnikov is a phantom of the author's creation and that in a state of mind such as his it is not possible to commit a murder. Dostoevsky himself would probably not have denied this. But here precisely lies the entire interest of the novel. A real murderer and the means by which he rid himself of the commandment "You shall not kill" did not at all interest Dostoevsky. That is why he chose as Raskolnikov’s victim an old woman ready to return her soul to God any day. It is exactly what Dostoevsky needed. He wished to place his hero in such a situation that his crime would be a crime only from the formal point of view. I think that if Dostoevsky had been able, without complicating the novel too much, to arrange things in such a way that Raskolnikov struck the old woman only after her natural death, he would have done it; and, later, he would nevertheless still have led him to succumb to his remorse, to hand himself over to the law, to go as a convict to Siberia. For Dostoevsky, the question was: who is right, who is better - those who (like Dostoevsky himself) follow the rule even when they do not see the meaning of it, or those who for one reason or another dare to break it? The second part of Crime and Punishment serves as an answer. Raskolnikov gives himself up, and not at all because he is stricken with pity for his victim (the victims, both victims, do not play any role in the novel and for Dostoevsky, as for Raskolnikov, have only the altogether external meaning of that line which one must not cross); he gives himself up simply because he has understood that the rule must not be broken. To lead Raskolnikov to this conviction Dostoevsky invents for him the most frightful tortures.

     A "cruel talent" - so one critic called Dostoevsky. But how did he come to this cruelty? Was Dostoevsky created differently than all other men? It is the same with him as with Tolstoy, only in a different form. Raskolnikov (a murderer of the author's fantasy, who, I repeat, never existed) must be forced to submit to the rule in order to make of this submission a virtue. Dostoevsky, like Tolstoy, is ready to turn the other cheek to his neighbor, but as for his right to virtue, not only will he not give it up but he will sooner strip his neighbor of it. And in fighting for this right he is implacable. The more cruelty he can show, the more sharply he can punish his victim, the greater is his triumph. But this is still too little for him. He is not satisfied with torturing his victim; he wrings from him confession of his wrong, of his fault, of his crime. I will quote some words in which all of Dostoevsky appears: "It was a strange thing to see how in this little room a murderer and a prostitute came together to read the eternal book." The murderer is Raskolnikov, the prostitute Sonia. Why did Dostoevsky, who never let the gospel out of his hand, need to stigmatize with these frightful names the hungry student and Sonia, who by her shame fed her entire family? Is this what he found in the gospel? Was it in this way that he read the gospel? Not at all. What he needed were special rights and privileges for himself, the underground man, who could not keep from making way on meeting an officer and who vainly sought to surpass Napoleon in greatness. And he counted his preparedness not to break the rule, his virtue, which he had won in long sleepless nights in struggle for the power not given to him, a merit. The result: a "psychology," or even two psychologies: on the one side, the first part of Crime and Punishment, in which Raskolnikov, and with him the author, understands his incapacity for murder as a weakness; on the other side, the second part, where Dostoevsky, alone this time without Raskolnikov, discovers in fidelity to virtue a new halo, a source of glory and pride.

     And then, having conquered his fears about his weakness, Dostoevsky celebrates the victory of the commandment over Raskolnikov as if it were his own triumph. And the more Raskolnikov is humiliated, covered with shame, and crushed, the greater is Dostoevsky's peace of soul. At the end of the novel when Raskolnikov, deprived of all his legal rights and even his moral rights, repents of the past, Dostoevsky bestows upon him peace of soul, on the condition that he remain a convict the rest of his life. He must live in Siberia as a repentant "murderer," not daring to aspire to happiness, in the company of the prostitute Sonia who must also redeem by good works the misfortunes of her youth.

     In this way it is possible to understand the "cruel talent." And it is also possible to understand why both Nietzsche and Tolstoy came to do homage before him. The souterrain meditations of the first part of Crime and Punishment were not at all alien to Nietzsche. Since he had become hopelessly sick and could no longer consider the world and men except from the depth of his souterrain existence, he accustomed himself to replace real power with meditations on power. He willingly forgave Dostoevsky for the second part, the expiation, for the first part, the crime. Tolstoy, on the other hand, pardoned the first part for the second. For that "psychology" which threatens to destroy the obligatory character of the rule certainly did not please Tolstoy. All this is only "corruption," "depravity," "perverted ideas," the invention of the "idle educated crowd" (all expressions of Tolstoy's which, taken together, hardly give an impression of humility but, also taken singly, give no picture of the "mildness" of the famous writer); obviously, the book cannot be praised for such things. But Raskolnikov was punished, from him the confession of his crime was wrung, to him mercy was given only on condition that he lead a life conformable to the "good" - this must suffice to merit the title of teacher of the people.

     Here I shall permit myself a short digression which, given the object of the present book, will perhaps not be altogether superfluous. I would compare the outlook of Shakespeare, the same Shakespeare whom Tolstoy despises, and that of Dostoevsky - not in their fullness but only in their understanding of evil and crime. In Dostoevsky we have Raskolnikov, in Shakespeare Macbeth. The subject is the same. And both writers are Christians. But Shakespeare never brought out this fact, while Dostoevsky made out of it his literary credo.

     What is most striking when one compares Macbeth and Crime and Punishment is the attitude of the authors towards their victims. In Dostoevsky the two murdered women do not play any role. We emphasize this: had he been able to do so, he would have left them alive or even resurrected them, so indifferent is the fact of their death to him. They were introduced into the novel only because an object for Raskolnikov was required. For Dostoevsky, the meaning of the crime does not lie in the evil that Raskolnikov has done to his victims but in what he has done to his own soul. In this respect, the author and the hero of Crime and Punishment feel and think in completely the same way. Dostoevsky speaks hardly at all of the old woman or the young girl, while he speaks much of things that have nothing to do with the novel and very often tires us with his verbosity. Raskolnikov, for his part, also thinks hardly at all of those whom he has killed, although his fantasy uninterruptedly paints for him the most varied terrors. In Shakespeare it is quite different. Macbeth, it is true, thinks and speaks of nothing but his soul. The horror of all of his actions he reduces to personal responsibility. He "has damned his soul forever," he "cannot pray," he "cannot say Amen when others pray," "God have mercy upon us"; and this tormented state of soul darkens for him the whole world, all other men. He has so deeply steeped himself in blood that turning back seems useless to him. He feels himself cut off from the whole world and sees in all men, living as well as dead, only enemies who wish to destroy his soul. But Shakespeare looks at Macbeth with his own eyes. He never forgets that it is not only a question of the soul and of its destruction when evil and crime are involved. On the contrary, he concerns himself no less with the misfortunes that Macbeth brings to those around him than with the psychology of the criminal soul. Here is how Ross describes the state of Scotland:
Alas, poor country!
Almost afraid to know itself! It cannot
Be call’d our mother, but our grave: where nothing,
But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile;
Where sighs and groans and shrieks that rend the air,
Are made, not mark’d; where violent sorrow seems
A modern ecstasy: the dead man's knell
Is there scarce ask’d for who; and good men's lives
Expire before the flowers in their caps,
Dying or ere they sicken.
[Act IV, Scene 3]
Further on, Shakespeare depicts the horrible scene in which Macduff's family is murdered. What a poignant impression the mute horror of Macduff on learning of the death of his wife and small children produces on the reader. Who does not recall the words that Malcolm addresses to Macduff:
Merciful Heaven!
What, man! ne’er pull your hat upon your brows;
Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak
Whispers the o’erfraught heart, and bids it break.
And then Macduff's cry over Macbeth:
He has no children.
     In Dostoevsky we find nothing of this sort. The crime does not and could not interest him except from one aspect: its meaning for the soul of the criminal. He approached his Raskolnikov from an aspect opposite that which Shakespeare chose to approach Macbeth. The question that concerned him was how others could do, how others dared do that which he, Dostoevsky, could not do, did not dare do. That is why he chose a murderer who studies at the university, who writes articles, who does not know today what, and whether, he will eat tomorrow. With such a one, he knows, psychology will be able to deal in the way desired by him. In other words, the murder will surely annihilate and crush this man - for how could he have done with it? Dostoevsky came to the conclusion that in submission to the rule the highest meaning of life is contained. Now Dostoevsky submitted to the rule; consequently, the meaning of life is on his side. We find no trace of such moods in Shakespeare. For him crime is crime only because it "causes evil" to others, to Duncan, Macduff, his children, all of Scotland. For him there is not and cannot be any question whether it is good to be a murderer, or whether one's greatness of soul is increased when he murders someone. Still more: even if Shakespeare had been able to convince himself that murder could contribute something, or even very much, to his greatness of soul, he would not have killed. Even if his reflection had made it clear to him that there is no commandment "you shall not kill," or that this commandment applies only to the petty and the weak but that for the great and the strong there is another rule "you shall kill," he would not have killed. For beyond the advantages of his own soul, something else still counts for him: the happiness and misery of other men, of Macduff's children, of King Duncan. If "you shall kill" had arisen before him with the same threatening and imperious force as "you shall not kill" arose before Macduff and Raskolnikov, he would not have killed! Obviously Shakespeare's attitude toward crime is entirely foreign to Dostoevsky. For him the whole question comes down to this: which rule is better armed - "you shall kill" or "you shall not kill"? But even on this point he was not an impartial judge. He employed all the talent of his genius to maintain the prestige of "you shall not kill," mainly because it was not given him to be a Napoleon. That is why he chokes his Raskolnikov, that is why he lets him free only on the condition that he admit his "guilt." There is no trace of this in Shakespeare's attitude toward his Macbeth.

     It is hardly necessary to point out that the colors with which Shakespeare paints the criminal's torments of conscience are much richer than those which Dostoevsky uses; in the brief Macbeth the moods and agonies of the hero are traced with more fullness and strength than in the long novel Crime and Punishment. Let us recall these words of the unhappy murderer: "Still it cried ‘Sleep no more’ to all the house. ‘Clamis hath murder’d sleep, and therefore Cawdor shall sleep no more, Macbeth shall sleep no more."’ From this, as from similar cries of Macbeth, is wafted genuine medieval terror before the certainty of the Last Judgment. Shakespeare understood how to describe, without the least effort, the most frightful of tragic moods. He did not have recourse to the least artificiality, nor punish the reader's soul with constant repetition of horrible images. And yet, how great is the difference between Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, even here in presenting the psychology of the murderer. Shakespeare does not seek to "destroy" the soul of Macbeth, he does not seek to crush and annihilate even more by his eloquence a man who is already crushed and annihilated; quite the contrary, he is entirely on the side of Macbeth, and this without any conditions, without any limitations, without any demands - things without which Dostoevsky and all others who revere the "good" will never free their criminals. Shakespeare is not at all afraid, in so behaving, of encouraging the murderer or murder. Still less does he think that his moral greatness will be diminished if he does not declare Macbeth a complete outlaw, if he allows the criminal to dare think of himself, of his salvation, and not of expiation. In Shakespeare's work, as the tragedy develops, Macbeth not only does not bow his guilty head before the author's virtue; on the contrary, he becomes even more cruel as he understands, or is grasped by the fearful idea, that the inward judge will not spare him "a single blow." But this cruelty does not arouse in Shakespeare any animosity toward the rebel. It appears to the poet a just and natural reaction against the limitless pretension of the "categorical imperative" which presumes to abandon a man to eternal damnation for having struck "one blow." For Shakespeare, Macbeth does not cease to be a man, his neighbor, even after the fateful event; and even though the brutish king had transformed Scotland into a dark tomb, even though thousands of victims implore the heavens for justice, Shakespeare does not hold it necessary or possible to force Macbeth to recognize his punishment as justified. The more implacably fantastic visions pursue Macbeth, the more vigorously he resists, and as long as his physical powers do not abandon him, he does not submit.

     Is it necessary to say how psychologically more truthful Shakespeare is than Dostoevsky? For, no matter how horrible a man's past, no matter how great the remorse he may have for it, in the depths of his soul he will never admit that he has been justly rejected by men and God. Certainly, everyone in the final analysis gives in before insurmountable inner and outer obstacles. But no man will ever admit that an eternal condemnation can be just, that all his rights are forfeit, that he is handed over to the favor and displeasure of other men who can, on certain conditions, grant him pardon. Macbeth's tremendous struggle against enemies living and dead is an unparalleled illustration of this. Not everyone is as audacious as Macbeth; not everyone resolves to act and speak in his own way and his own name to the very end. Under such circumstances the ordinary man surrenders; he admits that the persecution of the categorical imperative is just, that he really deserves eternal condemnation - but this is only hypocrisy and falsehood, through which he seeks to avoid precisely that fate which ostensibly he recognizes himself as deserving.

     The characteristic traits of the two writers are manifested in their choice of subject. Shakespeare was interested in the insubmissive, truly terrible criminal; Dostoevsky chose a submissive, harmless person whom he allowed to become a murderer. Shakespeare sought to justify the man, Dostoevsky to condemn him. Which of these is the true Christian? How inferior Crime and Punishment, as far as its fundamental idea (I do not even speak of execution) is concerned, is to Macbeth! Between these two works of art, leaving aside the degree of talent of their respective authors, there is an essential difference in proclaimed goal. In the work of Dostoevsky the foreground is occupied by preaching, in the work of Shakespeare, by a purely philosophic question. Dostoevsky wishes to teach the reader that one can either serve the "good" or the "evil," that he himself serves the "good" and consequently is a man worthy of great respect, while other men serve the "evil" and are, by the same token, unworthy. For Shakespeare the question of personal worthiness is secondary. He sees before himself only the horrible phenomenon, the crime. And it is horrible in two respects - by reason of the misfortunes it brings to men, and by reason of the eternal damnation to which it hands over the criminal.

     He strives to understand and explain to himself what this means: whether our ideas on the nature of the criminal soul are really just. He does not wish to be magnanimous toward his criminal, to pardon him, in order to prove his own moral stature. He seeks to ground Macbeth's right and therefore does not deprive him of his power to struggle. After reading Crime and Punishment, one is under the painful impression of having heard the preaching of a "righteous man" against the sin-laden publican. After reading Macbeth, in which the author is not seen at all, one has the impression that there is no power which either can or will destroy a man. In the words of the gospel: "It is not the will of your heavenly Father that a single one of these little ones shall be lost."

     To linger longer over Shakespeare and Dostoevsky is not permitted by the scope of this work. But what has been said seems to me sufficient to show what a fundamental difference there is between philosophy and preaching, and by whom preaching is needed and by whom philosophy.

Orphus system

   home    intro    texts    links    biblio ToC