Dostoevsky and Nietzsche

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More than a century after publication, Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche’s writings speak with an urgency that remains undiminished. Both Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky wrote extensively, publishing over 15 books each in the span of their careers. Nietzsche was a philosopher, and Dostoyevsky, a writer, yet the ideas and themes expressed in their works share striking themes and similarities. Both are haunted by central questions surrounding human existence, especially ones concerning God, truth, and beauty. Dostoyevsky’s literary works often explore these overarching themes and interactions through nuanced characters and intertwining plot lines. On the other hand, Nietzsche’s writing style is more aphoristic and poetic rather than descriptive or narrative.

Nietzsche Reads Dostoyevsky

It remains unlikely that Dostoyevsky read Nietzsche, even though Dostoyevsky had philosophical influences such as Kant, Hegel, and Solovyov amongst others. While Dostoyevsky had acquired a prominent status as a literary figure during his lifetime, Nietzsche was known for being a prodigy more than he was known for his works and ideas during his life. Much of Nietzsche’s prominence in the academic and intellectual circles occurred after his death and the second world war.

Nietzsche wrote On the Genealogy of Morality in 1887, exploring the idea of the origin and construction of value itself. Later in the same year, he encountered Dostoyevsky. In Twilight of the Idols he explicitly mentions that Dostoyevsky is “the only psychologist from whom I (Nietzsche) had something to learn”, and that he “ranks amongst the most beautiful strokes of fortune in my life”[1]

On God

Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky were both raised in Christian households but would go on to question the idea of God in their later years. Deeply aware of the threats of nihilism, they took it upon themselves to find a plausible answer. The point of convergence for both Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky is the central idea regarding this questioning in the context of the human condition itself. Lev Shestov, a Russian existentialist famous for his philosophy of despair wrote Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Nietzsche where he describes Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky as “thinkers of tragedy”.

In 1849, Dostoyevsky was subjected to death, but the sentence was later reduced to exile in Siberia for four years and compulsory military service for six. After this experience, Dostoyevsky found a renewed faith in God, and even wrote in a letter that “If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with truth."[2]

Nietzsche on the other hand, came to revolt his Christian upbringing early on, criticizing Christianity for cultivating and promoting ideals of mediocrity by glorifying a chaste and apathetic life. In The Gay Science he would go on to explicitly write the famous phrase “God is Dead”. Nietzsche’s response to the existential suffering of mankind was the active creation of value as opposed to its passive acceptance. Centered around the concept of the Übermensch and exerting one’s will to power, his ideas would go on to suggest that the purpose of life was to achieve greatness, while striving for the highest, most ambitious goals.

Several of such psychological and philosophical ideas are mirrored and reflected in Dostoyevsky’s works. In Crime and Punishment, for instance, the character of Roskolnikov commits murder, but not before contemplating whether he is justified in doing so. Roskolnikov would go on defend his act by saying that “all men are divided into 'ordinary' and 'extraordinary.' Ordinary men have to live in submission, have no right to transgress the law, because, don't you see, they are ordinary. But extraordinary men have a right to commit any crime and to transgress the law in any way, just because they are extraordinary”.[3]

Where Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky diverge then, would be in their approach to answering the existential burden of man. While greatness, achievement, and creation are important to the former, the latter believes that the answer is to be found in faith.  

Mental Illnesses

Dostoyevsky suffered from a rare form of temporal lobe epilepsy that had a profound impact on his life and work. Not only was Dostoyevsky able to incorporate his suffering into his craft but was also able to give the glimpse of the same to the reader. The Idiot is classic example that showcases his personal struggle with paranoia and cognitive dissonance.

While Nietzsche did not suffer from any mental illnesses during the time of his writing, at the later stages of his career (age 44) he suffered from a complete mental breakdown putting his creative years behind him[4]. He lived the remaining years of his life with his sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche and died in 1900. One of Nietzsche’s central texts Will to Power was later compiled by his sister and published posthumously. As a result, she arranged and edited the book based upon her own interpretations of Nietzsche’s ideas and outlines which may not have reflected Nietzsche’s true intent. 

References

  1. Nietzsche, Friedrich (2019). Twilight of the Idols. Dover Publications. ISBN 9780486434605.
  2. Letter To Mme. N. D. Fonvisin (1854), as published in Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoevsky to his Family and Friends (1914), translated by Ethel Golburn Mayne, Letter XXI, p. 71   
  3. Dostoyevsky, Fyodor et al. Crime & Punishment. Limited Editions Club, 1948.   
  4. Robert Matthews (4 May 2003), "'Madness' of Nietzsche was cancer not syphilis", The Daily Telegraph   

Further Reading

Lavrin, Janko. “A Note on Nietzsche and Dostoevsky.” The Russian Review, vol. 28, no. 2, 1969, pp. 160–170. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/127505.

Dana-Cohen, Thomas. “Reading a Blind ‘Parataxis’ Dostoyevsky (Nietzsche) Bakhtin.” Boundary 2, 15/16, 1988, pp. 45–71. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/303249.

Hamilton, Christopher. “Nietzsche on Nobility and the Affirmation of Life.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, vol. 3, no. 2, 2000, pp. 169–193. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27504130.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm et al. On The Genealogy Of Morals. Vintage Books, 1969.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Neeland Media LLC, 2018.