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Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche were instrumental in introducing new ideas into the spectrum of the human psyche and how we view criminals and punishment. There are not many novels that sift through the behavior that humans exhibit the way that Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky does. The book goes into explicit detail with the main character, Raskolnikov’s psychological nature as he plots and commits murder against an old pawnbroker, is guilt-ridden by his actions, and struggles with the thought of turning himself in. We know he is someone who believes himself to be an “extraordinary” person who feels he is above the law and whose life is more important than others. Nietzsche’s book On the Genealogy of Morals focuses on explaining the origins of guilt and human consciousness and the relationship between a debtor and a creditor. We can try to apply several of Nietzsche’s ideas to Dostoyevsky’s novel and try to explain why Raskolnikov reached to this conclusion and did what he did. First, we will start with how Nietzsche looks at the idea of guilt and its origins.
Nietzsche begins Essay 2 of his book by expunging that man is a paradoxical creature we have “the right to make promises” and that we are also creatures of “forgetting”. What Nietzsche means by this is that for promises to be fulfilled or kept, we must remember the promises which we make and be confident of the future. For this to be the case for human beings, we have to become predictable creatures and we have to conform to a set of rules that govern our behavior – “the right to make promises evidently … makes men to a certain degree necessary, uniform, like among like, regular, and calculable” (Nietzsche, 58-59). These rules create an environment where we can make promises and creates a sense of responsibility which Nietzsche calls the “conscience”. This can be applied to Raskolnikov because he has made promises to several people including his landlord whom he is indebted to because he owes several months of back-rent and actively tries to avoid her which shows his guilt.
Nietzsche then continues to say that guilt has its origin “in a very material concept, [schulden] debts” (Nietzsche, 62-63). Punishment came about to “inspire trust …. to provide a guarantee of the seriousness and sanctity of this promise, to impress repayment as a duty” and the types of punishment evolved with man as we came to be able to differentiate between “ intentional, negligent, accidental, and accountability” as punishment has to differentiate between those who knowingly break the rules and those who unknowingly do so. Then he explains the contractual relationship between a debtor and the creditor in that if a debtor were to not keep his/her promise, this would be the same as inflicting pain upon the creditor. The contract of the relationship commits that if the promise would be broken, the “equivalent… can actually be paid back, even if only through pain of the culprit”. Nietzsche says the feeling of guilt originates from “the oldest and most primitive personal relationship, the buyer and seller, debtor and creditor … it was here that one person could measure himself against another” (Nietzsche, 70). Measuring one’s self against another is very familiar in Dostoyevsky’s novel because Raskolnikov as a debtor sees the creditor Alyona as a louse; “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” (Dostoyevsky, 66) and see’s himself as a “superman” who should kill her and take her money for the greater good, in a sick way to justify his plans.
In Genealogy of Moral, Nietzsche shares his ideas on justice. He starts by saying that the purpose and benefits of a community is to live “protected, cared for, in peace and trustfulness, without fear of certain injuries to which the man outside, the man without peace is exposed” (Nietzsche, 71). This is another case of a creditor and debtor relationship but in a broader sense. The debtor are the ones whom benefit from these advantages of the community and the creditor is the community as a whole. If one were to break their promise to the community, then the according punishment would be to be stripped of all the benefits the community provides; that is to be “thrown back into the savage and outlaw state against which he was hitherto protected against”. Nietzsche notes that as a community grows, these transgressions are taken less seriously, because they can no longer be considered “dangerous and destructive” to the community where as a smaller community would not be able to sustain such consequences. Relating to Dostoyevsky’s novel, after Raskolnikov commits his murder, before he is punished in a corporeal sense, his own mind throws him into a that primitive state of being that Nietzsche describes. That state of anxiety, stress, and worrying about everything around you. This is the state of being that man first encountered where the only concern was surviving to the next day, and this is the state that a community attempts to shelter man from.
Dostoyevsky’s novel attempts to but the reader in the mind of a remorseful killer to give an idea of why criminals commit crimes and the type of punishments they can face. Nietzsche tries to explain the origin of the feeling guilt and the philosophy of punishment. Both philosophers will be eternally relevant as long as society stands. As civilization continues to advance, different kinds of criminals will always appear, but the psychology of crime will remain. Nietzsche’s ideas are part of the fabric of our world, as the creditor and debtor relationship can be found anywhere. Whether you own a car, a house, or a credit card, it’s all based on the contract that you, the debtor, will confidently be able to repay your debts and if not, you will be punished. These two philosophers have afforded a deeper understanding of crime, punishment, guilt, and human conscience and have encouraged many others to study and disseminate the topic to greater detail and hopefully will continue to do so.
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