For us today, Dostoyevsky poses an urgent and timely question: Is there any true and universal foundation to morality? Whether guilt is a matter of a God-given conscience or is merely a result of social conditioning is the driving question of Crime and Punishment, and the theme is repeated again and again in our culture, from Woody Allen films to university seminars on ethics.
The rationalization in Crime and Punishment concerns a destitute writer named Raskolnikov who murders a pawnbroker, partly for money and partly to test out the theory that morality applies only to those who do not have the will to rise above convention. It begins with a murder and then spends the rest of the book detailing the impact of the crime on the perpetrator, the gnawing at his conscience, his soul and his body.
But no effort of will or intellect can overcome the reality of his guilt, that the taking of a human life — even that of an old pawnbroker described as “a useless, nasty, pernicious louse” — violates something that exists beyond society and beyond humanity itself.
Raskolnikov is in the grip of many modern ideas, and among the most important is the idea that morality is a false construct, a social creation that a “superman” can ignore. He’s also captive to Western notions of utilitarianism that would justify all sorts of heinous deeds for the sake of the greater good.
One of the greatest American novels, Ralph Ellison’s 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 an acute analysis of the “psychological state of modern man.”
Crime and Punishment is particularly popular in prison education programs. One anchored at the University of Wisconsin has been the subject of a documentary, Reading Dostoevsky Behind Bars. About seven years ago, Texas Monthly published a feature story on a prison education program at the Cleveland Correctional Center in East Texas. The program’s chief executive at the time, Bert Smith, laid out many of the key themes of the book, “from the twisted rationalization of criminal behavior by the criminal to the profound psychological and personal consequences of the crime, and ultimately to the role that the love of another person can play in restoring hope in the criminal’s life.”
But Dostoyevsky is not providing the kind of caricature defense of morality or faith that informs 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 shattered soul, Raskolnikov, trapped in toxic theories, remains, until the very end, unsure whether his suffering indicates the reality of conscience or the fact that he was simply not a superman.
No modern artist or philosopher is better than Dostoyevsky at holding opposite ideas in dramatic tension. His vision in later works, particularly The Brothers Karamazov, is informed by a standard of Christian love that begins with an individual’s acknowledgment of guilt, of having offended God, other persons, and the natural world. But in that very work he also penned, in a section titled “The Grand Inquisitor,” one of the most compelling defenses of atheism ever written.
The appreciation of opposing views is not something we are particularly adept at today. We are, as are so many of Dostoyevsky’s characters, tempted by abstract ideas whose simplicity is at once seductive and destructive of individual souls and of the social fabric. Perhaps it’s time for Americans who are tempted to politicize everything and to see everything through an ideological lens to ponder the warnings of Dostoyevsky, whose books remain remarkably prophetic, perhaps because they do touch the enduring, universal truths.
Thomas S. Hibbs is the J. Newton Rayzor Sr. professor of philosophy at Baylor University. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.