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Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment-Is mankind inherently good or evil?

Bake0345 1 / -  
Apr 8, 2008   #1
Humanity collectively owns a nebulous capability for evil and flexes this inherent muscle with epicurean apathy. "The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness." so said famous author Joseph Conrad who delved deep into the human psyche and discovered there a "heart of darkness". It is precisely this sentiment that Dostoyevsky echoes in his novel, Crime and Punishment. Illuminated through cerebral use of philosophies on the human psychology and the exploits of Rodya Raskolnikov, a murderous young man suffering from mental turmoil, the reader is presented with a concise theory as to the level and depth of immorality humanity truly possesses.

First and foremost, Dostoyevsky asserts the notion that people are born with an almost vague evil that is as natural as feeling pain, pleasure, or any other basic urge one may feel. In the beginning of the book, Rodya experiences a heightened sense of guilt and paranoia about his depraved plot to kill the pawnbroker. He agonizes about his unstoppable thoughts saying, "And how could such an atrocious thing come into my head? What filthy things my heart is capable of. Yes, filthy above all, disgusting, loathsome, loathsome!--and for a whole month I've been. . ." (8). In this snapshot of Rodya's conscience, Dostoyevsky forms the assertion that "evil" thoughts are inherent and inexorable; a keystone to the human mind that cannot be extracted through sheer force of will. In addition, the author demonstrates that mere acknowledgement of characteristic evil does not dispel it though societal conditioning has branded murder as odiously "unlawful" and everything Rodya has been taught affirms the idea; indeed he sincerely wishes he did not have the thoughts and urges he has, but it comes as a polluted inevitability that vexes his conscience. He physically, mentally, and emotionally cannot stop his criminal fantasies.

Dostoyevsky also addresses the presence of criminality in different social ranks and seeks to classify and unite them under the common ideal that all humankind retains a communal "original sin". The author plainly outlines by way of Rodya himself that there are two types of criminal, man, and evil; that of the "extraordinary" and that of the ordinary. Dostoyevsky writes, "People with new ideas, people with the faintest capacity for saying something new, are extremely few in number, extraordinarily so in fact. One thing only is clear, that the appearance of all these grades and sub-divisions of men must follow with unfailing regularity some law of nature." (132). It is here, the author clearly states two facts that allow the reader to view his philosophies. One such philosophy, being that "ordinary" and "extraordinary" men exist, though not in equal rations, and they are both bound by "some law of nature". The novel gives evidence that a law of nature, rather than a law of the intellect, or a law of society controls man, whether he be ordinary or extraordinary. "Do men go to commit a murder as I went then? I will tell you some day how I went! Did I murder the old woman? I murdered myself, not her! I crushed myself once for all, for ever. . . . But it was the devil that killed that old woman, not I..."(211), here Rodya describes the driving force behind his crime and ominously identifies the true murderer which he religiously depicts as "the devil" which can be viewed as a metaphor for the "devil" inside every person. Physically yes, Rodya was the killer and he understands this despite his monomania, however perceiving his words in a more psychological sense and examining this quote with the earlier, the reader is able to add them up and discover the sum to be yet another way in which Dostoyevsky solidifies the theme that men have a collective soul that is innately a breeding-ground for evil.

Likewise, Dostoyevsky makes evident that religion, in true nihilist theory, cannot compensate or "save" man from this fundamental and natural turpitude. Even Friedrich Nietzsche the alleged father of nihilism and elemental influence on the novel states, "To the clean are all things clean' - thus say the people. I, however, say unto you: To the swine all things become swinish!...For these are all unclean spirits..." And because it is an essential belief in nihilism that there is no substantial God, when Dostoyevsky writes, "At seven the child is vicious and a thief. Yet children, you know, are the image of Christ: 'theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.' He bade us honor and love them, they are the humanity of the future. . . ."(320), the intrinsic theme which the author attempts to convey is basically that God and religion play no part in the evil of humanity and faith can neither prevent nor cure that which people are born with- the capacity for evil. He does so by illustrating the corruption of children, (who are the picture of innocence or "the image of Christ"), and how they can be wicked and yet this wickedness is not due to their choice of sin over piousness, but rather something inborn; another nihilistic psychology that dictates man exists simply to survive, for there is no rationale in the world. By rule, religion is a structure that is wholly based upon rationalization and serves as an explanation of the mechanics of the world people live in. Therefore, logically the reader is able to see the linear yet subtle argument that Dostoyevsky employs to provide evidence that evil is not as "sinful" as religion would have it, but rather a quality mankind is born with and thus ingrained in its psychology allowing reason and elucidation for the "monomania" Rodya experiences without a spiritual pretext.

And it is this idea of religion playing no part in one's base nature, fuels the nihilist argument that an individual is uniquely responsible for his or her own sufferings founded upon his/her psychological state which is in turn affected by the componential darkness present in all human minds. Rodya acknowledges this when he replies to Sonya, "It was not because of your dishonor and your sin I said that of you, but because of your great suffering. But you are a great sinner, that's true."(353). Here, Rodya acts as the voice of the author, illuminating a premise that uses the assertion that man's basic nature is one of darkness by qualifying Sonya's "purity". In this scene Dostoyevsky seeks to expound the idea that although Sonya may or may not be "sacrificing" herself for the good of her siblings, it does not matter for she still toils in sin and evil as an occupation by her own free will. The author chooses the picturesquely innocent Sonya, to show that even the most righteous and noble being not only holds the capacity for great sin, but exercises it- this is literary verification that even people considered saintly have in common with the most vile criminal, a depth of evil that is applicable to all.

And the notion that humanity is born with an evil side must give way to corresponding psychological conjectures and principles. One of Dostoyevsky's prime examples of what an inner darkness' constraints consist of can be seen in Rodya's "monomania". In reference to the madness one may feel coping with a fundamental evil, the author writes, "In that sense we are certainly all not infrequently like madmen, but with the slight difference that the deranged are somewhat madder, for we must draw a line. A normal man, it is true, hardly exists.(340). It is acknowledged immediately in the novel that a "madman" such as Rodya who possesses "monomania" or any psychosis is a detriment to themselves and potentially to their society. With this in mind, the quote explores the depth and level to which inborn evil puppets an individual, remarking that indeed "we are all...like mad men", but the underlying question is answered when he responds with, "...we must draw a line...". It is when this "line" is drawn that certain characters fall under the mentally "deranged" title and a new philosophy about their responsibility in their illness must be contemplated. Much like modern day legalities and medicines, humanity faces the widely accepted truth that there exists people who are not in control of their faculties and commit evil crimes- we call them "mentally ill", and special rules, responsibilities, and punishments are applied to them. By Dostoyevsky's standard and the above quote, every man possesses the same "madness" or monomania that a murderer such as Rodya does. And it is this joint ownership of the same madness or in other words, evil that unties all of the human race.

Overall, Dostoyevsky with his nihilistic novel postulates and supports the ideal that every man, woman, and child is born with the capacity for great evil, and inevitably will fall to some degree to it. However, the author also indicates that free will constitutes that by which a person is bound to his or her personal evil and offers a delicately hopeful prospect. While mankind does retain a darker psychological make-up, nihilistically it is strictly up to an individual to control their actions and thus their outcome. As Carl Jung, the revolutionary psychiatrist once summed, "Enlightenment is not imagining figures of light but making the darkness conscious."

EF_Team2 1 / 1,709  
Apr 9, 2008   #2

You've written an excellent essay! There is very little that I'd suggest changing. I should point out that, when using American English, the period (or comma) always goes inside the quotation mark: so said famous author Joseph Conrad who delved deep into the human psyche and discovered there a "heart of darkness." - You have several instances of this, so you might want to check carefully.

Here, I'd use a semicolon and add a comma: Physically yes, Rodya was the killer and he understands this despite his monomania; however, perceiving his words in a more psychological sense

Outstanding work!


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