What ‘Crime and Punishment’ tells us about American politics


November marks the bicentenary of the birth of the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, famous for his novels of sprawling and difficult ideas. With the possible exception of the Harry Potter craze, Americans are not known for their penchant for long novels. Yet Dostoevsky’s works had an impact in America, spanning high culture to popular culture and in American prisons.

One of the greatest American novels, that of Ralph Ellison Invisible Man, is influenced by Dostoyevsky’s fiction, as is the work of two other black novelists, Richard Wright and James Baldwin. Wright speaks for all three when he says that he found in Dostoyevsky a fine analysis of “the psychological state of modern man”.

For us today, Dostoyevsky asks an urgent and timely question: is there a true and universal basis for morality? Whether guilt arises from a God-given conscience or whether it is simply the result of social conditioning is the central question of Crime and Punishment, and the theme is repeated over and over again in our culture, from Woody Allen films to college ethics seminars.

Crime and Punishment is particularly popular in prison education programs. The one anchored at the University of Wisconsin was the subject of a documentary, Reading Dostoyevsky behind bars. About seven years ago Texas monthly published a feature article on a prison education program at the Cleveland Correctional Center in east Texas. The program’s executive director at the time, Bert Smith, laid out many of the book’s key themes, “from the crooked rationalization of criminal behavior by the criminal to the deep psychological and personal consequences of the crime, and ultimately the role that love of another person can play to restore hope in the life of the criminal.

Rationalization in Crime and Punishment concerns a destitute writer named Raskolnikov who murders a pawnshop, partly for money and partly to test the theory that morality only applies to those who do not have the will to elevate above conventions. He begins with a murder and then spends the rest of the book detailing the impact of the crime on the perpetrator, gnawing at his conscience, his soul and his body.

Raskolnikov is plagued by many modern ideas, and one of the most important is the idea that morality is a false construction, a social creation that a “superman” can ignore. He is also captive of Western notions of utilitarianism which would justify all kinds of heinous acts for the common good.

But no effort of will or intellect can overcome the reality of his guilt, which taking a human life – even that of an old pawnshop described as “a useless, wicked, pernicious louse” – violates something. something that exists beyond society and beyond humanity. himself.

But Dostoyevsky fails to provide the kind of cartoonish defense of morality or faith that underlies so many contemporary Christian stories, especially in popular faith-themed films. While others see the harm he has done not only to innocent victims but also to his own broken soul, Raskolnikov, trapped in toxic theories, remains, until the end, uncertain whether his suffering points to reality. of his conscience or the fact that he was just not a superman.

No modern artist or philosopher is better than Dostoyevsky at keeping opposing ideas in dramatic tension. His vision in later works, in particular The Karamazov brothers, is informed by a standard of Christian love that begins with an acknowledgment of an individual’s guilt, of having offended God, other people, and the natural world. But in that same work he also wrote, in a section called “The Grand Inquisitor”, one of the most convincing defenses of atheism ever written.

Appreciating opposing points of view is not something we are particularly good at today. We are, like so many Dostoyevsky characters, tempted by abstract ideas whose simplicity is both seductive and destructive of individual souls and the social fabric.

Perhaps it is time for Americans who are tempted to politicize everything and see everything through an ideological lens to reflect on the warnings of Dostoevsky, whose books remain remarkably prophetic, perhaps because they touch on universal truths and sustainable.

Thomas S. Hibbs is the J. Newton Rayzor Sr. Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.


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