The journey to penetrate deep into the suffering of the human soul
“The wisest of all, in my opinion, is he who can, if only once a month, call himself a fool.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Wisdom is about the ability to call yourself a fool. Thus spoke Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Russian novelist whose works explored the human condition. His writing style peeked into his characters inner lives, penetrating deep into the darkness of the soul.
Humanity for him was a mystery. One that he spent his entire life studying. Why? Because he wanted to be human.
“To study the meaning of man and of life — I am making significant progress here. I have faith in myself. Man is a mystery: if you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out, then do not say that you have wasted your time. I occupy myself with this mystery, because I want to be a man.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky
In a way, Dostoyevsky’s work reflected the principles coming down from Socrates of ancient Greece. Know thyself. The wisest man is the one who knows he knows nothing.
The Russian novelist took it a step further. He asked one fundamental question. Why are people so dark?
This is as pertinent as ever. The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine has reminded us of the evil that lurks in human nature. It is as present now as it was in the 19th century when Dostoyevsky was writing. Sometimes it goes into hiding, only for it to awaken with full fury in the worst of times.
The traditional view of evil gets it backwards. The darkness in humanity is not a reflection of the Devil. Rather, the Devil is a reflection of humanity. In one of his works, Dostoyevsky commented that humans created him in their own image.
“I think the devil doesn’t exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Society is corrupt, and always will be
The defining moment in Dostoyevsky’s life came right at the instant his life was about to be extinguished. As a young man, the writer got mixed up with a group of political radicals. Scooped up by the tsarist police, he was sentenced to die by firing squad.
Lined up, the countdown to his death already started, salvation for Dostoyevsky arrived at the last second. The tsar decided to commute his sentence. Instead of death, he was sent to a prison camp in Siberia. For four years he labored there in harsh conditions.
Yet, he constantly kept the lesson from his near death experience at the back of his mind. It would later inform the plot of one of his novels, The Idiot. This aptly titled work, describes one interesting aspect of the human experience. If you are a genuinely good person, you are usually taken to be an idiot by other people.
Prince Myshkin, the hero of the story, possesses all the positive traits and qualities an ideal man should have. He is kind. He is generous. He thinks of others before himself. This beautiful soul shines all around. And this is not an act. It’s all real and genuine.
Unfortunately, society chews him up and spits him out raw. He has no chance. The first sentence of the novel describing a train approaching St. Petersburg at full speed foreshadows that Myshkin’s life will be a train wreck.
Due to his goodness, everyone else views him as an idiot. It’s the classic example of the nice guys finish last trope. He doesn’t get the girl (who instead goes to an assholish nobody). He gets treated like shit. And his life ends up in ruins.
This character perfectly symbolizes how things work in this world. There’s no justice. No karma. No nothing. Goodness doesn’t get rewarded. Evil doesn’t always get punished. Life goes on. Or it doesn’t.
The End of History is a fata morgana
The biggest lesson of history is that there is no end of history. Human nature always strikes back.
The idealistic view some people have of truth and love prevailing is a fata morgana. Just like thirsty people stuck in the hot desert see images of oases in the distance, some people have visions of a perfect society in their head.
The problem is that when the wanderer approaches the supposed oasis, he finds out it was just a figment of his own imagination. It’s the same with society. When you think you know how to achieve a more just way of doing things, it all disappears in a puff of smoke.
Greed, envy, the lust for power are perennial artifacts of human nature. The average person has delusions of grandeur. Some bigger than others.
Dostoyevsky explores this in probably his most famous novel, Crime and Punishment. The protagonist there, Rodion Raskolnikov, is an ordinary guy down on his luck.
Finding himself living in harsh circumstances, he tries to conceive of ways to get out of poverty. He knows about an elderly woman pawn-broker living in a flat. She is rich, spineless, and Raskolnikov feels a deep revulsion towards her.
The idea of killing her pops into his head. Imagining how much better off the world would be without her, and how all that money she has could be used to save many poor people, he keeps mulling the idea around in his mind.
In a telling passage, Dostoyevsky has Raskolnikov justify his plan to kill:
“Kill her, take her money and with the help of it devote oneself to the service of humanity and the good of all. What do you think, would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds? For one life thousands would be saved from corruption and decay. One death, and a hundred lives in exchange — it’s simple arithmetic! Besides, what value has the life of that sickly, stupid, ill-natured old woman in the balance of existence! No more than the life of a louse, of a black-beetle, less in fact because the old woman is doing harm.”
It’s a utilitarian argument that is popular even today. Kill the rich. Save the world.
Raskolnikov thinks of himself as an extraordinary person. The man he admires and styles himself after is Napoleon. In a later passage, he quips that all men in Russia think of themselves as the former French emperor.
This has a deeper meaning, pointing at how we as people view ourselves. We all think we are special. Extraordinary. The world revolves around us.
Studies show that 93% of drivers think they are above average. Nobody is average. At least in their mind. Everyone thinks they are Napoleon.
Raskolnikov on the small-scale, guys like Trump or Putin on the large-scale. And this is where history comes in. If people believe they are above the rest, then they think common rules don’t apply to them. Guys like Raskolnikov start breaking the small rules. Trump and Putin the big ones.
In the novel, Dostoyevsky has Raskolnikov publish a paper discussing this idea. In the heads of “great” individuals, the ends justify the means. Bloodshed is often the final result.
“Legislators and leaders of men, such as Lycurgus, Solon, Mahomet, Napoleon, and so on, were all without exception criminals, from the very fact that, making a new law, they transgressed the ancient one, handed down from their ancestors and held sacred by the people, and they did not stop short at bloodshed either, if that bloodshed — often of innocent persons fighting bravely in defense of ancient law — were of use to their cause.’’
In another novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky goes even further in describing how darkness can envelop a person’s mind. It starts off with lying to yourself, and believing those lies. This poisons your psyche, and dehumanizes other people in your thoughts. A slippery slope is the result.
“A man who lies to himself, and believes his own lies, becomes unable to recognize truth, either in himself or in anyone else, and he ends up losing respect for himself and for others.”
If you want to find something akin to laws of history, that’s where you should look. This tendency of human nature explains why events often appear cyclical. It’s as if history keeps on repeating itself. It never ends, just recycles.
Self-help Dostoyevsky style
There is one common theme about people running all throughout the different Dostoyevsky novels. People will always find something to be unhappy about.
It’s as if unhappiness just ends up climbing the ladder of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. First you are unhappy you don’t have food, water, or sex. Then once you have that, you are unhappy about not having a house. Then you cry about not finding love. Then self-esteem issues make an appearance.
Finally, you start taking drugs, because you are bored. That’s how humans are. They always find something to complain about.
And this is where you can take lessons from Dostoyevsky. While there are no final answers, his writing did outline certain paths. Accept that human life is suffering. You can’t escape it. It will always be there.
“Accept suffering and achieve atonement through it — that is what you must do.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky in “Crime and Punishment”
According to Dostoyevsky, people actually secretly yearn for suffering. It’s a counter-intuitive idea, but if you think about it, it’s true. Sometimes people prefer feeling sorry for themselves, over actually achieving their goal. Self-pity is a powerful emotion, one that reinforces your sense of victimhood.
However, that is another form of escapism. The point is not to yearn for pain, but instead to accept the reality of the world as it is. Dostoyevsky had much in common with existentialist philosophers. His ideas in fact influenced guys like Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre in their own thinking.
In Man’s Search For Meaning, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl recalled an idea from Dostoyevsky that helped him pull through. Be worthy of your suffering. In this, he discovered a sense of purpose.
In your life you will face many absurd situations. While you might not be able to control what happens to you, you can affect the things you think and feel. Albert Camus had his Sisyphus smile in defiance while doing a repetitive task, while Viktor Frankl found meaning in the evil he was subjected to.
It has even been argued that Fyodor Dostoyevsky saw value in suffering. However, he didn’t mean the self-pity type of suffering. Rather, it is the existential suffering that proves transformative for an individual.
In Part I Chapter 5 of The Idiot, Dostoyevsky uses his own near death experience at the hands of a firing squad to teach a lesson. Through the words of the main character, he recounts the things a man about to die was thinking.
“What should I do if I were not to die now? What if I were to return to life again? What an eternity of days, and all mine! How I should grudge and count up every minute of it, so as to waste not a single instant!”
It’s only in being faced with his life ending, did the man discover how to live. With acceptance of suffering comes another element of living life according to your own terms. Gratitude.
Now, that’s the problem with humanity. People don’t take into account the good things they have in their life, until they lose them. That’s due to the negativity bias that’s ingrained in the human brain. It’s hard to bypass, but if you don’t want to spend your entire life being unhappy, go around it you must.
“People only count their misfortunes; their good luck they take no account of. But if they were to take everything into account, as they should, they’d find that they had their fair share of it.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky in “Notes from the Underground”
How to apply Dostoyevsky’s insights into your life
First of all, let’s get one thing out of the way. Most people won’t apply any of this. That is in keeping with Dostoyevsky’s appraisal of humanity. Humans are imperfect creatures, and they often don’t do the things they should do. That’s because people are mentally weak.
Even the man saved from being executed at the last minute ended up not applying his own advice. Faced with death, he had finally discovered what he must do to lead a good life. In The Idiot, Dostoyevsky has his main character mentally revisit this man.
What he finds out is quite in line with how humans often behave. The guy ended up wasting his life anyways.
“He said that he had not lived a bit as he had intended, and had wasted many, and many a minute.”
There is one grand truth about humanity. People don’t learn from their mistakes. Through exploring the human experience, Fyodor Dostoyevsky came up with a simple definition of a person:
“The best definition of man is: a being that goes on two legs and is ungrateful.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky in “Notes from the Underground”
With these imperfections in mind, what can you actually do? Toughen up. Accept suffering as inevitable. Use it as a source of your strength.
“Man is not born for happiness. Man earns his happiness, and always by suffering.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky