Dostoevsky & Nietzsche
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Dostoevsky & Nietzsche

William Lombardo
William Lombardo

Pavlos Papadopoulos posed an interesting question: if Richard III is William Shakespeare’s response to Machiavelli (or treatment of Machiavellianism), then what is the equivalent literary response to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche? By way of an answer, I offered The Brothers Karamazov.[1] The novel is Dostoevsky’s rejoinder to the emptiness of Nietzscheanism and a defense of modern faith.

The Brothers Karamazov is a family drama, centered on Fyodor Karamazov and his sons Dmitri, Ivan, and Alexi—and his illegitimate son and servant Smerdyakov. Each Karamazov brother corresponds to an archetype. Dmitri is hedonic; Ivan is intellectual; and Alexi is pious. Through Alexi, Dostoevsky charts a path through the spiritual crisis of modernity, offering that modern—or postmodern—people need not be Nietzschean.

We first find Alexi studying in a monastery under the charismatic monk Father Zossima, famous throughout the town as a miracle worker and an ecstatic. Alexi’s relationship with God is mediated almost entirely through Father Zossima, whose very existence seems to be a testament to the Divine. His effect on Alexi is powerful enough to overcome the Karamazov family’s antipathy toward religion. Yet Zossima is old, and soon dies. The villagers, already convinced of his sainthood, eagerly await evidence of his body’s incorruptibility. Something, however, goes awry. Imperceptibly at first, then very obviously, a stench begins to emanate from the friar’s tomb. His body decomposes, and nature seems to frustrate the Divine. Nobody is as affected as Alexi, whose faith is shaken and who abandons his plan to enter the monastery, returning to the world unsure of his purpose.

Alexi’s position becomes one of disenchantment. The world is sapped of its magic, no longer the battlefield of angels and demons, signs and premonitions, or wonders and miracles. Indeed, Max Weber saw disenchantment as an integral part of the modern disposition; Alyosha quickly moves from a pre-modern imaginary (the way people think of themselves and the world) to a modern, disenchanted one. Of course, none of this approaches a refutation of the Divine. It rather changes our relationship. Yet it makes faith more fragile and inevitably raises questions about the foundation on which faith rests. We might see this as the state of the world that Nietzsche found himself interpreting.[2]

Nietzsche enters the novel through Ivan, who, in a conversation at an inn just before Zossima’s death, buffets Alexi with arguments, not to refute the existence of God, but to expose the incoherency of the Christian project. He first questions the very notion of divine justice, asking why he should be content as children suffer unspeakable abuse, whose very lives are hellish, sometimes murdered in front of their mothers, with only the assurance that their abusers will be held to account in the next life. Ivan wants their heads; “I must have justice.” There is no theodicy that will satisfy Ivan, for there is no justice in an omnipotent God who sits idly by as innocent children are tormented and their tormentors live long and comfortable lives. If that is Christianity, Ivan says, then “I give back my ticket.”

His second argument—he calls it a poem—is placed in the mouth of the famous Grand Inquisitor, who apprehends Christ at the Second Coming and subjects him to questioning, demanding to know why Christ abandoned humanity to their own devices. Why, he asks, did Christ not accept Satan’s three temptations in the desert, to feed humanity; to prove his divinity; to rule them benevolently? Because Christ abandoned humanity, opting to give them freedom instead of guaranteed salvation—in effect, damning the weak—the Grand Inquisitor must assume the responsibility, shepherding them toward the afterlife and damning himself in the process. His is a tragic story, says Ivan; he does what he does out of love for humanity. In the end, he lets Christ go never to return.

Ivan’s polemics are perhaps unanswerable challenges without the cosmological worldview of the Scholastics. Indeed, Nietzsche was the trumpeter of this erosion. For Heidegger, Nietzsche oversaw the ultimate dissolution of the “onto-theological” foundation of Western civilization. Thanks finally to Kant, Nietzsche thought, the entire metaphysical superstructure of the enchanted, Christian cosmos had disintegrated. Educated people perhaps still believed in God, but their belief was resting on nothing. This is the message that Nietzsche’s madman delivers: “God is dead, and we have killed him!” And like Ivan, Nietzsche attempts to deconstruct what remains as well. His genealogy of Christianity is an attempt to expose the incoherence on which Christianity rests: the religion of peace and justice is merely the result of cruelty and slavishness.[3] Ultimately, Nietzsche and Ivan have similar visions of post-Christianity: Übermenschen who will lead humanity—or at least those worthy—to a more authentic future.[4] Unlike Ivan Turgenev or himself in other novels (Demons especially), Dostoevsky is concerned less with nihilism than with the Nietzschean escape from it.

The Brothers Karamazov emphasizes tutorship, as well. Dostoevsky sets Alexi and his teacher, Father Zossima, in sharp contradistinction to Ivan and his student, Smerdyakov. Smerdyakov is Nietzschean philosophy embodied (so, too, is Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment). He zealously consumes Ivan’s ravings, especially his pithy phrase: “Without God, everything is permitted.” Smerdyakov imagines himself as an Übermensch, entirely unbound by any moral law. Yet does he use this feeling of unboundedness to work toward a rational, humane future? On the contrary, he murders Fyodor then hangs himself. Ivan, for his part, is reduced to self-isolation and madness, racked with guilt for the murder of his father and denied (by himself) the means of redemption or hope.

Before his death, Father Zossima describes a vision he once had of Hell. Like the rich man looking up at Lazarus, the sufferers see the saved and are tormented. Not because of envy or of any kind of physical pain, but because they have nothing to love. The deepest part of their souls reach for an object of love. Like all people, they desire to be in a reciprocal, loving community, and in Hell they are denied that.[5] Ivan likewise drives himself into isolation, into Hell on Earth. We are forced to wonder the same about Nietzschean Übermenschen; how are they not driven into madness by their isolation? If a person without a community is either a beast or a God, Nietzsche would say they should be a little of both. We should entertain the notion, however, that they are simply lonely and bitter, playing God with others and then unable to accept the consequences.

The remainder of Alexi’s story is not a treatise, or an argument, or any kind of philosophical response to Ivan. It is rather throwing oneself back into faith and into the community Ivan denied himself. Nietzsche’s mistake was to assume that distinctively modern faith could not be both tenuous and inescapable. For him, as for Ivan, there could be no mystical or paradoxical component to belief. They demand theodicy and existential proofs and, denied them, they shun the Divine altogether. Alexi, on the other hand, rushes back in headlong. To be sure, he has changed since his leaving the monastery. He no longer has the certitude Zossima provided him. His comportment is rather one of soteriological hope and expectation. The novel concludes with an expression of hope: “Certainly we shall all rise again, certainly we shall see each other and shall tell each other with joy and gladness all that has happened.” Alexi and his friends move forward “hand in hand.”

  1. Nietzsche and Dostoevsky were contemporaries, and The Brothers Karamazov was published in a series between 1879 and 1880, before many of Nietzsche’s mature works were published. I want to be clear that the novel is a response to Nietzscheanism, not necessarily to the writings of Nietzsche himself. ↩︎

  2. Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse (1886). ↩︎

  3. Nietzsche, Zur Genealogie der Moral (1887). ↩︎

  4. Nietzsche, Also sprach Zarathustra (1883) and Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (1882). ↩︎

  5. See Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatologie: Tod und ewiges Leben (1977), for a concept of salvation that is, in effect, the negation of Zossima’s vision of Hell. ↩︎

Featured Image: Photo of Optina Monastery by Grigorius m via Wikimedia Commons

William Lombardo is the Politics editor. He is a policy researcher living in Washington, DC and a graduate of Duke University.