Dostoevsky’s Personification of Nihilism Essay
Crime and Punishment was written in quite an exciting era in Russian history. Many new social, political, and economic philosophies were flourishing all over the country—especially in St. Petersburg. Although Dostoevsky certainly subscribed to many philosophies of reform, he was certainly not one willing to adhere to any new ideal that came around the corner. However, regardless of his personal stance on any specific way of thinking, he does an excellent job of portraying his character Raskolnikov as an adherent to the new philosophy of nihilism.
Nihilism is strictly utilitarian and thus fundamentally agnostic. Because the utilitarian system of thought exalts simply that which provides the greater happiness for the greater amount of people, Raskolnikov feels that his highly “beneficial” murder is justified.
In chapter 3 of part I, Raskolnikov receives a letter from his mother. She finalizes the lengthy correspondence with a prayer stemming from her fear that her son has “been visited by the fashionable new unbelief” (39). Her motherly instinct proves correct in this case. Rodya has been visited by the “new unbelief.” Now, of course, from the text alone, an “unbelief” can imply any general atheism or agnosticism. However, as we shall soon find out, Raskolnikov subscribes to the school of thought known as utilitarianism. The term “utilitarian” is quite general and covers many philosophies, but Rodya lives in St. Petersburg, and its central “fashionable new unbelief” in this era is known as nihilism.
Nihilists were certainly not devout religionists. At best, they were agnostic. They looked on the world in simple terms of utility. Utility does not really favor any one system of ethics; if an apparently immoral act will provide more happiness for more people, it is justified in a utilitarian sense. Raskolnikov’s nihilistic philosophy is actually explained through another character. In a tavern, he overhears another student speaking “exactly the same thoughts” he had just had. The student had been expounding on the benefits of the death of Alyona Ivanova: “A hundred, a thousand good deeds and undertakings that could be arranged and set going by the money that old woman has doomed to the monastery! Hundreds, maybe thousands of lives put right; dozens of families saved from destitution, from decay, from ruin, from depravity, from the venereal hospitals—all on her money. Kill her and take her money, so that afterwards with its help you can devote yourself to the service of all mankind and the common cause: what do you think, wouldn’t thousands of good deeds make up for one tiny little crime? For one life, thousands of lives saved from decay and corruption. One death for hundreds of lives—it’s simple arithmetic!” (65). Although a lengthy explanation, this account of the student’s ideas is a perfect description of the nihilist philosophy embraced by Raskolnikov. Killing Alyona would be the lesser evil—a product of simple and rational arithmetic.
In basically every ethical code in history, first-degree murder such as this is a definite, blatant immoral act. However, nihilism is a very new philosophy. It does not take the ethics of the past into account. It creates a new ethics, completely based on reason and thus rational utilitarianism. It embraces socialist ideals; note the student’s vehemence in proclaiming the social benefits of distributing Alyona Ivanova’s wealth. All these social benefits only fuel the fire of Raskolnikov’s yearning to murder the old woman. To Rodya, this murder is not a crime. It is not a crime to him because he feels a greater good will come from his action. Thus, because it is actually no crime, his “reason and will” will remain with him throughout. In other words, he has willed himself a new morality. He has rationally deduced a complete justification for his act. Because the utilitarianists (and thus the nihilists) feel that the moral value of each action is situation-specific and based on the reason power of the individual, Raskolnikov is a perfect example of an adherent to this philosophy.