The frequent mention of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky together is still topical for the very reason that both of them were among the acutest anatomists of our cultural, social and moral crisis, the symptoms of which were already so prominent at the turn of the nineteenth century.
It was a flourishing period for the creative powers of European humanity and at the same time the beginning of the tragic “breakdown” of history that gave birth to two world wars and unprecedented calamities, the ripples of which still linger, as shown by the uninterrupted decline of traditional culture.
This gave way to fundamental questions such as the problem of man, his essence, the meaning of his existence, and the problem of man’s relations with society and the world.
Both Dostoevsky and Nietzsche’s writing may have been conditioned also by their own bad health. Dostoevsky suffered from episodes of epilepsy, while Nietzsche had to fight a long and painful illness which ended up in progressive paralysis and a complete mental collapse during the last 11 years of his life. Yet their very ailments fostered in a way their psychological insight as well as their belief in the value of extraordinary states of mind and body.
Both had strikingly similar themes: both were haunted by central questions surrounding the human existence, especially ones concerning God. They were both keen questioners and doubters. Both were “underworld minds” unable to come to terms either with other people or with the conditions they saw around them and both of them desperately wanted to create truth.
It is almost sure that Dostoevsky, who died in 1881, had never even heard the name of Nietzsche. Nietzsche on the other hand, not only knew some of Dostoevsky’s principal works, but actually acknowledged (in The Twilight of the Idols) that he regarded him as “the only psychologist from whom he had anything to learn” and that he “ranked amongst the most beautiful strokes of fortune in his life.” He was grateful to him in a remarkable way, however much he goes against his deepest instincts.
1. The Übermensch
In 19th century Russia nihilism became prevalent, espousing for the end of belief in religion and God. At this time Nietzsche famously wrote that God is Dead, not a celebratory but a tragic statement. However, he believed that men could do without religion and create new values, rising up to the figure of the Übermensch. Thus, man becomes God.
This is most popularly expressed in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where Zarathustra, overflowing with wisdom, descends from his mountain retreat in search of followers. “I love man” he declares to an old hermit whom he encounters in the woods. But the hermit who had gone into the forest in disillusionment because he had once loved man all-too-much, replies: “Now I love God; man I love not. Man is for me too imperfect a thing. Love of man would kill me”. And he advises Zarathustra not to bring men gifts, but rather to take part of their load.
When they old man went away, Zarathustra spoke thus to his heart: “Could it be possible! This old saint has not yet heard in his forest that God is dead!”
Zarathustra wishes to distribute the overflowing honey of his wisdom, which he gathered staying in solitude for a decade, he goes to the marketplace in town and preaches that: “man is a rope, tied between beast and overman – a rope over an abyss. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.”
A core idea of Nietzsche is that man is an overture and a going-under and that man remain faithful to earth, identifying himself as a polluted stream that must be overcome, avoiding the temptation of the banal existence of the so-called “last man.”
But the people on the square remain dumb to Zarathustra’s pleas and laugh, they are not “the ears for his words”.
Nietzsche created the concept of the Übermensch whose antithesis is the last man, a mediocre animal without dignity and comfortably surrounded by the herd, who despises everything the Übermensch has to say.
It is the pinnacle of self-overcoming, to rise above the human norm and above all difficulties, embracing whatever life throws at you.
Dostoevsky saw this new atheist movement as incredibly dangerous; it laid the seeds for the character of Raskolnikov, with his own superman beliefs presented in his wonderful, thrilling and enthralling book: Crime and Punishment, which remains the single most widely known Russian novel as well as one of the greatest works in world literature.
It focuses on the mental anguish and moral dilemmas of Raskolnikov, an impoverished law student in St. Petersburg unable to pay for his studies. He can be viewed as a materialistic rationalist, an oddity at that time and taken by the idea that God was dead.
Dostoevsky wanted to set up a character who had every reason to commit murder: philosophically, practically, and ethically.
It starts of early with Raskolnikov formulating a plan to kill an evil and wealthy person after eavesdropping on a conversation in which a student claimed that the world would be better off if that person were dead and the money were given to someone who needed it more.
It is a book disguised as a murder mystery that delves deeply into the psychology and the mind of what a “murder” can be. What is fascinating about Dostoevsky is his ability to make the opposite of his beliefs, the antithesis of what he believed, the strongest views possible.
The book is focused on Raskolnikov’s moral dilemma between good and evil, he distinguishes between ordinary and extraordinary people (such as Napoleon, which Nietzsche also highly admired and considered him, among others, as people to look up to, in order to get closer to the ideal man, the Übermensch).
Raskolnikov’s pride separates him from society, he sees himself as a sort of “higher man”, indeed an Übermensch, a person who is extraordinary and thus above all moral rules that govern the rest of humanity, and so he cannot relate to anyone of the ordinary people, who must live in obedience and do not have the right to overstep the law. He states:
“In general, an unusually small number of people are born with a new idea, or who are capable of even uttering something new…”
“…and great geniuses, the culmination of humanity – perhaps only as a result of the passing of many billions of people across the earth.”
Thus, he considers himself one of them, and in view of unfortunate worldly circumstances and the advancement of mankind in some way, he steps over the obstacles of murder and robbery.
However, things did not go as planned. After the carefully planned murder, he finds himself confused, paranoid and with disgust for what he has done. He enters periods of delirium in which he struggles with guilt and horror and has a series of disturbing dreams. In a way, along with the murder, he had also killed a part of himself. He could not live up to his superman beliefs. He could not endure to be extraordinary, to be something more than to merely exist among the ordinary people, as he thought.
For Dostoevsky, ultimately god is above man, and man can never be god. For “if there is no God, everything is permitted.” And to live without hope is to cease to live.
3. Nietzsche and Dostoevsky
Nietzsche and Dostoevsky both recognise the terrifying and questionable character of existence. Yet, Nietzsche does not want to live with illusion, he does not want to misunderstand the terrifying character of existence. However, Dostoevsky, with the same tragic vision of life, did not want to remain with earthly truth. His time in a prison labour camp in Siberia in extremely harsh conditions, while physically sick and depressed, turned his religious faith even stronger, this made life on earth meaningful to him. He believes in the necessity of illusion, the necessity of faith in something beyond and above man, something man ceaselessly strives for and even worships but can never attain on earth. His faith was so strong, that even if truth were to be outside Christ, he’d rather remain with Christ than with truth. This remained central to Dostoevsky’s work throughout his life.
Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, then, take separate paths at the crossroads of illusion. But both understood reality in the same way; both faced reality with the courage of despair. Survival for one meant the embracing of illusion; survival for the other meant ultimately the rejection of illusion.
Nietzsche urges us to remain faithful to the earth, to let our gift-giving love and our knowledge serve the meaning of the earth. And to not fly away from earthly things into religion, for much virtue has already flown away, we are rather to lead it back to the earth, back to the body, back to life, so that it may give the earth a meaning, a human meaning.
Nietzsche and Dostoevsky were artists with a tragic view of human existence. They were despairing creators who, unable to reconcile themselves to the face of the world as they saw it, were similarly unable to renounce to their high idealism, an idealism which expressed itself, however, in radically different approaches to the place of illusion in human existence. Dostoevsky’s view of man striving toward an unattainable ideal was in the end more realistic than Nietzsche’s demands upon man and human nature. Yet there is in Nietzsche something monumental, a vigour and unexampled courage, an epic burst of energy and faith in man’s potential as a builder that we do not find Dostoevsky, and perhaps in no other modern thinker.
Nietzsche does acknowledges the necessity of illusion in the face of his own striving to provide the philosophical foundations for a life without illusions to conquer this terrifying reality and questionable character of existence, proposing Amor fati, to love one’s fate and everything that happens.
Nietzsche makes man depend upon himself alone, and in all of his contempt for the “herd”, Nietzsche has seemed to remain faithful to man as an individual, man at the centre of the universe, man as an explorer, man as the creator.
He calls upon man to make way for the Übermensch, calls upon a man-in-transition, or upon an elite core of men, to overcome themselves, to become their own reality; in the face of an indifferent universe to make of themselves and their life a living form of art.