Nietzsche and Dostoevsky
It is a cold December evening in Switzerland. On a mountain stands a common hiking spot many Swiss citizens enjoy. In the cafe there is a small platform constructed as a means for talents to perform their latest works. Musicians, poets, and writers were all celebrated by applause and cheering. All except for one who had quite controversial thoughts. That, however, does stop him from performing. He steps on the stage and clears his throat. “My brothers, I present to you today an aphorism from my upcoming work.” He tilts his glasses to the point of his nose and clenches his fist. With great power he says, “What, is man merely a mistake of god’s? Or god merely a mistake of man’s?” (Nietzsche 467). In the deafening silence of the crowd, a man starts applauding. He is bushy-bearded and wears an exceedingly large coat. He walks to the stage, still applauding and says, “That is quite an interesting statement, bold even. May I buy you a drink?” The two men sit at a table and remain quiet.
“I’ll start; my name is Fyodor Dostoevsky. I’m quite interested in understanding your aphorism, care to explain such a statement? Uh, well of course start with your name haha!”
“My name is Friedrich Nietzsche. The point of my aphorism is quite simple. If god is perfect, then how could something so perfect create something as flawed as men? And if men created god, then how could they ever accept perfection? The relationship doesn’t work.” Dostoevsky frowns at the explanation. He sits up straight.
“So you think there’s a problem in the system?” Nietzsche laughs.
“No, I think it is the system that is flawed. Let me explain it to you, ‘Christianity is the practice of nihilism [that] persuades men to nothingness of course, one does not say “nothingness” but “beyond” or “god.” … Nihilism and Christianism: It rhymes but it doesn’t only rhyme. (the Antichrist). Dostoevsky, now fully engaged and ready for what seems to be “the debate of a lifetime” says,
“You’re looking at this all wrong; I think rather than comparing Christianity to nihilism, one must fight nihilism with Christianity. ‘The main question, that very question with which I have consciously and unconsciously tormented myself all through my life, is the existence of god.’ (Reminiscence 396). However, I was exiled for clandestine political activity. I was exiled for ten years, ten years my friend. It was an extremely difficult time. However, I came across inmates who kept their spark of spirit, they said it was due to their religious belief and admittance of guilt. It was there that I found Christ, it brought me tranquility. In the hardest moment of my life I realised that, ‘if god did not exist, everything would be permitted.’”
“I disagree.” Nietzsche says boldly. “‘God is dead and we have killed him.’ (Nietzsche 95). My father died when I was 5; he was a Protestant. A man of god. Why would god allow his own servant to die? One who delivered his words and honoured him? He kills a man of honour but lets the criminal live? That makes no sense. Now, don’t think I’m belittling you for the crimes you have committed, on the contrary I admire that part of you.”
“Why do you admire the most shameful part of my life?” Dostoevsky asks. “Ah! Let me tell you about the pale criminal.”
“Christian morality blocks individuals from having complete and utter freedom. This demoralises the criminal; the masses make him anemic. The criminal, however, is a subterranean genius. Crime is an act of pure authenticity.”
“I understand what you’re telling me but the pale criminal experiencing guilt is due to his experience of himself being fallen and corrupt. He needs God’s grace. It will serve to illuminate the immortality of a man’s soul. That is the one sovereign idea. ‘God’s purpose is not to condemn you; he wishes to remove your sins and to keep you away from them.’ (John 3:17). I do agree that ‘all man wants is an absolute free choice’ (Dostoevsky 284) as ‘man has always and everywhere – whoever he may be – preferred to do as he chose, and not in the least as his reason or advantage dictated…’ (Dostoevsky 283).
“Don’t you see my brother! There should be no limitations for men. A man can’t overcome if he has borders and rules. ‘Man is something that shall be overcome.’ That is the principle of the overman. He is one that is above the regular man. He has continuously evolved. If god is dead then they must now find meaning in themselves. It is a difficult process but those who live dangerously can attain it! You can’t follow the shepherd to overcome!” Dostoevsky shakes his head in disapproval.
“It can’t be; you can’t achieve the sovereign idea if you don’t believe in god. ‘Without a sovereign idea, neither man or nation can exist. And there is but one sovereign idea: namely the idea of the immortality of the human soul.’ (Against Nihilism). That is why men shall always thirst for goodness
“You say man shall acquire goodness, well I say they shall acquire greatness! That can only be acquired through the will to power! The quest for happiness, of course. Life and happiness are linked, one is unattainable if the other doesn’t exist. Suffering is a necessary part of the process as it is the only alternative to pleasure. One must taste the bad to cherish the good.”
“I agree that we must suffer as everybody will or has suffered; it is what we all have in common. It is the vindication of our existence. We must suffer to learn. ‘Which is better: cheap happiness or exalted suffering?’ (NFU Dostoevsky 376). Suffering can be reconciled with the sovereign idea. How could one truly reach happiness without immortality?”
“You clearly haven’t heard of the eternal recurrence; it is the idea that everything is going to repeat itself without change. Not better, not worse. It’s the circular coming and going. It is determined by fate. Amor Fati my brother, Amor Fati. No one is responsible for it, they must only live to their fullest extent. To die without regret. In the eternal recurrence, good and evil merge and it is now about being and becoming! ‘Everything dies, everything blossoms again, eternally runs the year of being’ (Nietzsche 329). This sounds more appealing than the linear trap you suggest, my friend.” Dostoevsky chuckles at the first persuasive thoughts he’s heard in a long time.
“You put up a good fight, but whether you are right or wrong I still prefer to believe in god. I must let you go as I owe money to a pawnbroker near here. Thank you for giving me the first argument worth listening to. My next book will be inspired by you.”
“I appreciated our conversation with my brother but nothing will change my mind. I surely would greatly appreciate being part of your next book. Bonsoir mon frère.”
Dostoevsky went on to write The Brothers Karamazov in honour of the memorable conversation he had that night. He took Nietzsche as inspiration for the character Ivan Karamazov. Nietzsche had read every book written by Dostoevsky but unfortunately never made it to read The Brothers Karamazov.