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Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and God

One can hardly overestimate Nietzsche’s influence on modernity. And by ‘Nietzsche’s influence,’ I think of two interrelated intellectual projects: one tears down the Judeo-Christian ethic, the other rebuilds a new ethic in its place. 

The latter, the reconstructive project, consists in erecting the Übermensch, whose ethic is one of repudiation of weakness. This is not so much a repudiation of weakness in other people, but rather a repudiation of weakness in oneself. These, however, cannot be isolated from one another. Because if weakness is per se repugnant, the strong may want to alleviate the suffering and humiliation inflicted on others (i.e. by the weakness). The Nietzschean parallel to contemporary transhumanism is undeniable; here, too, there is repudiation of weakness, concealed in worship of pleasure and idolization of intelligence. Having said that, the repudiation of weakness is apparent not only in transhumanism, but in more conventional politics as well, perhaps most explicitly materialized in the debate on assisted suicide.

In order to understand Nietzsche’s reconstructive project, one must first understand the destructionist project: the murder of God. “Curse God and die,” Job’s wife exclaimed. Nietzsche inverts the exclamation: Curse God and live. And this cursing and murdering of God epitomizes the great crisis which Nietzsche prophesies about:

Someday my name will be associated with the memory of something tremendous, a crisis like no other on earth, the profoundest collision of conscience, a decision conjured up against everything that had been believed, required, and held sacred.

What is this great crisis? How did it arise? And is it a real crisis — or is it falsely constructed, illusory? That is to say, ought we all seek to become Übermensch, and partake in the continuous murdering of God? Nietzsche thought so. Dostoevsky, on the other hand: not so much.

The streams of existentialism

Nietzsche claimed that Dostoevsky was the only one who could ever teach him something original about the human psyche. Although, whereas Nietzsche exclaimed that Dostoevsky’s works were among the “happiest windfalls” of his life, it is quite certain that Dostoevsky never encountered the thought of Nietzsche. Despite this fact, Dostoevsky was indeed influenced by the same impulses as Nietzsche: the streams of existentialism. 

Existentialism is the belief that philosophical inquiry begins with the human subject — the thinking, acting, feeling and living self. The primary objective of existentialism is the quest for an authentic understanding of this self. Characteristic of the philosophy of Nietzsche, this quest is intrinsically related to the self’s emancipation. Even though existentialism did not reach its full height before the mid-20th century, with the plays of Sartre and novels of Camus, the first existential impulses originated much earlier. The works of Schopenhauer are among the first modern impulses (but existentialism ought not be restricted to modernity as such: see, for instance, Ecclesiastes), and perhaps especially his treatment of suicide: “If children were brought into the world by an act of pure reason alone, would the human race continue to exist? Would not a man rather have so much sympathy with the coming generation as to spare it the burden of existence, or at any rate not take it upon himself to impose that burden upon it in cold blood?” (1851).

Nietzsche was thoroughly disturbed by Schopenhauer’s ruthless rationalism, which is the very essence of the Aufklärung — and deeply attracted to it. In fact, Nietzsche even refers to Schopenhauer as his “master,” comparing his Schopenhauer-community to the early Jesus-community. 

This attraction is reflected in his understanding of the suicide, as presented by the outcry of Silenus in The Birth of Tragedy (1872), which resonates perfectly with Schopenhauer: “What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is — to die soon.” At his master’s feet, Nietzsche found the teaching he believed to authentically expose the naked self: the human subject is lost in the cold barrenness of cosmos’ meaninglessness. And in his hands, Nietzsche thought, this teaching would emancipate humankind from the chains that restricts the Übermensch; these are the chains of religion in general, and the Judeo-Christian ethic in particular. This quest for emancipation was not only the fulfillment of the demands of the rationalism of Aufklärung, it was also a personal quest: Nietzsche was himself raised a Christian, and aspired to priesthood as a boy, before rejecting Christianity in its entirety. By accepting the cold barrenness of cosmos, and redefining it, Nietzsche thought that a new order of meaning and values could emerge.

Dostoevsky, on the other, went the other way around: he turned from godless rationalism to Christianity. Especially one episode regarding the conversion is worth mentioning. At one point, after reading and circulating banned literature, Dostoevsky and some mates found themselves sentenced to death. Dostoevsky was lined up with two others, Pleshcheyev and Durov, in front of the firing squad, waiting for the bullets to pierce his flesh — but just then, a messenger from the Tsar approached in great haste, bringing everything to a halt. For some reason the Tsar himself had commuted the sentence. Dostoevsky was sent to Siberia, where he was allowed to read nothing but the New Testament. A decade later he returned as Christian. The years he spent in Siberia were explored in the masterly crafted The House of the Dead (1862), depicting a reality of ice, lice, and dirt — and little else. In fact, it was this very work that introduced Nietzsche to the thought of Dostoevsky. However, Nietzsche’s aforementioned excitement for Dostoevsky is rather ironical: in his later works, Dostoevsky would prove to be an ardent opponent of Nietzsche’s ideas, even before Nietzsche himself formulated them.

The ethic of the Übermensch

When Zarathustra proclaims that “God remains dead. And we have killed him,” Nietzsche is obviously not referring to the actual killing of any being; rather, the rationalism of Aufklärung has delegitimized Christianity as intellectual and moral authority. And in the void of Christianity, Nietzsche begins formulating the foundations of his own ethic. The first question he must address is: who is to define morality, if not Christendom? In the Genealogy of Morality (1887), Nietzsche claims that: 

[The] judgment ‘good’ does not emanate from those to whom goodness is shown! Instead it has been ‘the good’ themselves, meaning the noble, the mighty, the high-placed and the high-minded, who saw and judged themselves and their actions as good, I mean first-rate, in contrast to everything lowly, low-minded, common and plebeian.

The elite, the Übermensch, those who are able to cope with the death of God, shall define morality and values according to their own right. And the weak find their place somewhere lower in the hierarchy, as slaves accepting the judgments of their strong masters.

What makes the spirit or will of a the human strong or weak? The way in which the human experiences God’s death, which is characterized either by anguish and fear (life is deprived of meaning and purpose) or joy and enthusiasm (the horizon is again free and infinite and “our ships may set out again, set out to face any danger”). Thus, the essence of Nietzsche’s philosophy is the relativistic perspective: what the strong finds to be good is good by virtue of being found good by the strong. Interestingly, one finds a similar master-slave dialectic in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), where the protagonist Raskolnikov claims that:

People are divided according to the law of nature, into two categories: a lower or, so to speak, material category (the ordinary), serving solely for the reproduction of their own kind; and people proper — that is, those who have the gift or talent of speaking a new word in their environment.

Raskolnikov was in a dire state: poor, cold and starving. Due to his state of affairs, he simply did not have the means of placing himself amongst the elite. However, he truly believed God to be dead, and consequently “that all things are lawful.” Therefore, he thought, he could prove to himself that he belonged to the elite, his spirit raised above the law, by committing murder. 

As Raskolnikov commits the murder, he is left with a deep sense of guilt. He experiences the most excruciating punishment: “Did I murder the old woman?” he wondered. “I murdered myself, not her. I murdered myself forever.” In this way, the death of God is intrinsically linked to Raskolnikov’s own death; by murdering God (qua the old woman), Raskolnikov murders himself. This is reflected in Brandes (I should mention that in 1888, Nietzsche writes a letter to Brandes, cursing himself for not being able to read Danish, the language which Brandes wrote Impressions of Russia): “it is not the old woman he has killed; it was himself, his own ego. His deed has grown above his head: it has isolated him completely, thrown him wholly back into himself” (1889). In passing, I must point out that here is something Kierkegaardian about Dostoevsky’s understanding of the human psyche: face the facts about yourself. This is the only way of changing who you are. And the fact of the matter is that you are not the Übermensch — nor a great Napoleon — and you never will be. You are a human, and being human is in its very nature to be, amongst other things, weak.

One might ask if Nietzsche’s philosophy creates a similar nihilistic void, swallowing the human, deeming the suicide desirable. However, Nietzsche claims that the relativistic redefining of values in fact redeems the human; the suicide is not a necessity — it is rather a choice which can be emancipating, depending on the circumstances. This is exactly what Zarathustra exclaims in the speech “On Free Death,” where the distinction is drawn between voluntarily and non-voluntarily death: “free for death and free in death.” And herein lies an interesting tension between Raskolnikov and the Übermensch. Scholars have related Nietzsche’s eternal redefinition of values to the myth of Sisyphus, upon which Camus later would construct an entire philosophy: as long as one embraces destiny, one is de facto free (which is a Nietzschean amor fati). In the case of Camus, that implies embracing the absurdity of life. Similarly, as mentioned, Nietzsche claims that by accepting the cold barrenness of cosmos, and redefining it, a new order of meaning and values emerges. But this seems shallow: is saying that something has value really a way of giving something real value? Is a slave really emancipated merely by embracing his destiny as slave?

Raskolnikov as the incarnation of the Übermensch

In many ways, Raskolnikov can be understood as the incarnation of the Übermensch. Raskolnikov exhibits the rational intellect to identify and accept the death of God. In this sense, he is already emancipated according to the criteria of Nietzsche: he has overcome the brute reality of God’s death. However, in order to prove his status as Übermensch, he is convinced that he must murder the old woman — and murders himself. Raskolnikov dies only metaphorically, but Dostoevsky seems to be making a general point of the necessity of suicide when God is deemed dead: many, not to say all, of the principal atheists in Dostoevsky’s works commit suicide (Stavrogin and Kirillov in The Idiot, Ivan and Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov, and Svidrigaylov in Crime and Punishment).

In this way, it is as Dostoevsky prophesies: one cannot murder God — one can only murder oneself. This is also reflected in “The Grand Inquisitor,” a quite ambiguous passage, where the Grand Inquisitor is yet another incarnation of some sort of Übermensch. The reader is not convinced by the argument of The Grand Inquisitor: when the Übermensch defines the values according to himself, how does one prevent elementary notions of the good from collapsing into the void of relativistic narcissism? In the words of Zarathustra: “Must we ourselves not become gods” in order to define the values? 

Even though Nietzsche claimed that Dostoevsky was the only one who could ever teach him something original about the human psyche, Nietzsche failed to grasp that insight which Dostoevsky appears to have considerd as most significant and profound. Dostoevsky’s realized that by aspiring for the status of God, that is becoming Mangod — the Antichrist, to phrase it like Nietzsche — the human collapses into the void of relativistic narcissism. Why is this so? Naturally, it is the Christian ethic that brings Raskolnikov to confession, the desperate longing for purification. To think that one can emancipate oneself from this ethic is illusionary: it resides in the very nature of the human, inscribed on the human heart. Without it, chaotic death is inevitable. 

Some might object that this conclusion is disproved every day: people that refuse to believe in God does not kill themselves. Quite the contrary, it is often the case that the non-believer lives more virtuously than the believer. But this objection fails to appreciate the level at which Dostoevsky operates: Raskolnikov is embodying humanity writ large, not the single individual — thus, it is as humanity murders God, that chaotic death is inevitable. But the West is alive? Dostoevsky might respond, that the West is not through and through non-believing. Not yet, at least. The ethic which all operates according to, is that of Christ. It is materialized in our institutions (e.g. rule of law) and norms (e.g. charity). And these prevent the chaotic death.

According to Dostoevsky, the only remedy is the immortal love of the Godman — depicted by Christ’s kiss on the cold and aged lips of the Grand Inquisitor. This is the most radical act of love; weak, in one sense (i.e. unlike a sharp knife), but at the same time eternally powerful (i.e. the knife cannot transform hearts and minds, only cut them). 

The ‘Deed of Nihilism’ versus the ‘Pesach Mystery’

“The conclusion is apparent,” Dostoevsky argued: “When the idea of immortality is lost, then suicide becomes an unconditional and unavoidable necessity for any human being” (1873). And this is exactly what Nietzsche’s philosophy materializes in: the necessity of the voluntary death. And it does so in two ways. First, by claiming that the weak should be enabled to end their life before nature takes it from them. This is the ‘deed of nihilism.’ Through the hope of resurrection, however, Christianity has deterred the deed of nihilism. And its place, there is the slow, natural death.

Second, whilst the human is strong, he needs something to redeem himself from the void of meaninglessness. And this is art. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche acknowledges that “man must from time to time believe he knows why he exists; his race cannot thrive without a periodic trust in life — without faith in the reason in life!” (1882). And art differ from the lies of religion by, first, openly declaring its function as lie, and therefore avoids staining the consciousness of the Übermensch. Second, art differ from the lies of religion by helping the human to fulfill life, not devaluate it. That is to say, art stimulates life in the here-and-now, enabling the human to survive the meaninglessness until their own will deems the deed of nihilism necessary. And here Nietzsche’s relativism collapses into itself as a form for objectivism: the form of the Übermensch’s ethic is not in fact defined by any Übermensch, it is defined by Nietzsche. A new religion is created, Antichristianity: the religion of Nietzsche the Mangod.

For Dostoevsky, on the other hand, there is hope of immortality: if the Godman penetrates our hearts and minds, he can transform them in love. How? In the sacrificial act, the ‘Pesach Mystery.’ And this awesome act of live love is the essence of immortality: “without this assurance [of the Godman’s love], the ties between man and life dissolve, between man and earth; they become thinner, they rot, they burst, and the loss of belief in a higher purpose in life — although this only manifests itself in an unconscious yearning — pull, as an inevitable consequence, suicide after itself.”

In constructing the Übermensch, Nietzsche creates a dialectic between the strong and the weak. This is also reflected in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, but rather as a perversion, a prophetic criticism of Nietzsche: Raskolnikov aspires to be Der Übermensch, but when all the acts are committed, he collapses in despair. It is impossible to realize the idea of the Übermensch. By depicting the collapse of Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky seeks to reestablish the foundation of the Christian ethic: it is the immortal love of Christ, as depicted on the Cross or in the kiss on the Grand Inquisitor’s cold lip. Without this love, everything implodes into nothingness.

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