It’s been a long time since I read, nay, swallowed the famous novel “Crime and Punishment” by Dostoyevsky (Достоевский). But yesterday, I took part in a meetup discussion on this book, which brought the novel into my focus.
Over the last twenty years, I have learned a few things from Ayn Rand that gave me the tools to see “Crime and Punishment” on the meta level. First, the novel is written in a Romantic style, much like writings of Hugo, Dumas, Jules Verne, and Ayn Rand. In the Romantic literary style, characters such as Edmond Dantes (the Count of Monte Cristo) are idealized and don’t have miscellaneous irrelevant attributes. In contrast, for example, Poirot of Agatha Christi is characterized in the Naturalistic style: beside being an ingenious detective, he was a capricious gourmand who hated the outdoors.
The Romantic literary style lives on today in the works Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, Terry Goodkind. In film, you will see it in “Titanic,” “La La Land,” the “God Father,” and “Iron Man.” In most cases, such as with J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter,” Ayn Rand’s “Anthem”, or Orwell’s “The Animal Farm,” the setting is in another world which the thinking reader must apply to reality. In fact, few Romantic works described own contemporary time. Dostoyevsky does this in “Crime and Punishment,” Hugo does this in “Les Miserables” and Ayn Rand does this in “Atlas Shrugged.”
Second, let’s discuss the content of the “Crime and Punishment.” (Beware of plot spoilers.) The protagonist Raskolnikov rationalizes a premeditated murder of an old lady. Furthermore, when he commits the deed, he also murders her younger sister who had the misfortune of cleaning the old lady’s apartment at the time.
The word “raskol” in Russian means “schism” or “split.” Raskolnikov begins to doubt the righteousness of his deed and then feels the pains of guilt about the murders he committed. (Notice that naming a character according to his primary characteristic is consistent with the Romantic style, but would be inconsistent with the Naturalistic style.)
What is the message that Dostoevsky wants to bring to the world with this example? That if one is guided only by “cold reason,” then one would commit unspeakable atrocities. (Was Hitler guided by cold reason of the eugenics movement to which many intellectuals of the time subscribed?) And, if cold reason is bad, what’s the implied alternative? Faith, religion, and human innate nature not to do evil, that can’t be justified by science alone.
What are the roots of this idea? Dostoevsky subscribed to the philosophy of Voluntarism by Arthur Schopenhauer. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it as “the theory that God or the ultimate nature of reality is to be conceived as some form of will (or conation).” In his later novel “Notes from Underground” (Russian “Записки из подполья”), Dostoevsky’s protagonist says:
Two times two makes four — why, in my opinion, it’s mere insolence. Two times two makes four stands there brazenly with its hands on its hips, blocking your path and spitting at you. I agree that two times two makes four is a splendid thing; but if we’re going to lavish praise, then two times two makes five is sometimes also a very charming little thing.
If we want to find a source of a crazy philosophical idea, there’s a good bet the starting point is either Plato or Emanuel Kant who resurrected Plato’s philosophy after it got a beating by Aristotle’s. Until Aristotle’s philosophy resurfaced in the Renaissance thanks to the work of Thomas Aquinas, platonists such as St. Augustine and Plotinus gave the philosophical backing to the Church and the Dark Ages.
Kant infamously stated that to save faith he thad to destroy reason. He writes in his “Critique of Pure Reason” that reason alone is insufficient to reach truths. To illustrate his case, he shows that he can both prove and disprove the same claim through an argument that appears logical. He further concludes that man’s core knowledge is “transcendental,” i.e beyond the observable world. The term “transcendental” was a contemporary fancy way to say “innate ideas” of Plato. The “Critique of Pure Reason” had a great impact on scientists and intellectuals of the time. Kant gave rise to a several schools of philosophers, one of which was Voluntarism.
To the school of Voluntarism have subscribed, and still subscribe, artists. It’s common to think that art is opposite to reason, to science, that it defies logic, and furthermore, that the same person can’t be both a scientist and an artist. It is fashionable to say that art can’t be defined, and that literature can be written only through inspiration not through determination and a formula. In the past, however, great scientists were often where great artists. Pythagoras, Ptolemy, Omar Khayam, and Da Vinci come to mind. But it is true about many thinkers in antiquity. Many generals who fought wars through strategies were writers and excellent orators. Julius Caesar was his own war journalist, his writings are part of the Latin classics, he was second only to Cicero in oratory, and he was also an ingenious military strategist: in the Battle of Alesia, he beat an enemy army double the size of his own, while being sandwiched by the enemy.
But what thinker of our times could define what is art, and furthermore, not see it as an antagonist to reason? Wait for it … it was Ayn Rand. That Ayn Rand was a good artist can be seen only if by the fact that people of all walks of life read a 1000 page novel in a month or two. This includes computer programmers, artists, and truckers. In her non-fiction book “The Romantic Manifesto” and in her lectures series “The Art of Fiction”, she explained what makes art an art, and described literary art of which she was an expert, in particular.
So what was the error then, in Raskolnikov’s thinking? His argument went as follows. The most famous people of the past were legalized mass murderers: The Roman Sulla murdered thousands of political opponents. Caesar conquered Gaul through battles that killed a million men. Napoleon is another example. And, here, Raskolnikov just needs to kill one old lady, who nobody likes, and who sits on a pile of money so long as she remains alive. The money would enable Raskolnikov to achieve greater things in life. So, why not kill the old lady and take (steal) the money?
Do you see where there is the error in this logic? As Frederic Bastiat famously illustrated with his parable of the broken window, errors are hidden in the “unseen.” What the argument did not state, is that the old lady has an inalienable right to life. Ayn Rand’s protagonist philosopher character Hugh Akston states,
Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.
The missed premise in the argument above that people have inalienable rights. Did Dostoevsky, who lived in the 19th century, not hold this premise? I will leave this as a research exercise to the reader. In any case, it’s up to the present day reader to find the missing premise, since by now this is common knowledge. However, before John Locke of 17th century, who first gave a philosophical defense to the idea of inalienable rights, this wasn’t one. In fact, the institution of slavery contradicted the idea of such rights.
And what about the idea that our knowledge of right and wrong is transcendental? The only way to justify this would be through faith in some form of reincarnation, so that we posses knowledge before we are born (in a non-material soul that descends into a body). Plato got the idea from Pythagoras, and Pythagoras got it from India, where reincarnation is taken to be as an indisputable “fact” of life. Even Buddha’ who is celebrated by many today a “the first atheist” took this idea for granted. (That’s why Buddha was in fact not an atheist.) But it is false, because there is no evidence backing this idea. And without evidence, the idea is mere fantasy.
We are born with a blank consciousness, but with a mechanism to learn. We are like a computer with an empty hard drive, which we proceed to fill as we learn from the environment. And, we learn by using reason to make sense of the observations. For more details see the “Introduction to the Objectivist Epistemology” by Ayn Rand, and the more recent “How We Know” by Harry Binswanger.
In summary, the “Crime and Punishment” is a great novel. Dostoevsky made a philosophical error because he subscribed to the theories of Voluntarism and by implication Kant and Plato, but we now have the means to understand it and correct the error. The full depth of this error would have been impossible to understand without Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Before Ayn Rand no other philosopher was able to fully oppose Kant and Plato.
If you have enjoyed “Crime and Punishment,” read next “The Fountainhead,” to see what “cold reason” is capable of.