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Crime in the Mind of Dostoyevsky
Jul 1, 2008

The theoretical study of crime, due to its potential to provide us with a way to understand the human mind, has been one of the topics that have attracted the greatest interest in human philosophy. One author who has dealt extensively with this problem is Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881). As a writer who is regarded by contemporary scholars as the forerunner of the psychoanalytic approach, not only does Dostoyevsky analyze nineteenth-century Russian culture and man in his works, his ideas also offer key points for understanding mankind today, in that Dostoyevsky identified some universal themes of human nature.

The nineteenth century, particularly towards the end, was a period that was intensively preoccupied with human-centered theories and movements that would be implemented later in the twentieth century. When focusing on the theory of crime developed by Raskolnikov, the protagonist in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, it is possible to see the traces of a variety of philosophical or criminal theory approaches that were developed in this era.

The most well-known of such views was that of Karl Marx (1818-1883), which advocated a completely new and revolutionary world order based on economic equality. Because he held the view that all human behavior was determined by social conditions, Marx maintained that it was social circumstances which were responsible for the crime, not the individual. In fact, Marx did not recognize crime as such. Crime to Marx is a responsibility which a society that has been established on unjust grounds has burdened the victimized individual with. It is Mark’s primary assertion that the only possible way to break free from such chaos is a revolution aimed at establishing a Communist order, which would in turn lead to the construction of a society based on social and economic equality.

It is possible to see significant traces of what Marx describes as a society of injustice in Raskolnikov’s crime theory. In the novel, Raskolnikov is a poor student who murders an old woman pawnbroker. The principle factor pushing Raskolnikov to commit the crime is anger at the social circumstances that surrounded him, such as his own poor economic conditions and that of his family, the huge economic imbalance within society and the atrocious tyranny over others of those who have economic power – like his landlord. As such, similar to Marx, Raskolnikov does not consider the crime he is about to commit a crime. For Raskolnikov, the theory is much more than revenge taken on an unjust society, it is a reform carried out on behalf of society. Raskolnikov envisions hundreds of people being saved with the money he will get from the old woman after he has killed her.

Marx was not the only one whose ideas had an influence on those represented by Raskolnikov. For Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) the theory of crime is relevant to psychological influences; childhood, social pressure and values all have an influence on the individual. It is possible to recapitulate Freud’s approach to crime as, man commits the crime, but he is not the criminal. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) developed Freud’s human analyses within his own nihilist philosophy and had the greatest impact on Raskolnikov’s theory of crime.

Before moving on, let us clarify exactly what Nihilism is. It is, in Nietzsche’s own words, “the self devaluation of the highest of values.”1 In other words, the old Christian ethical worldview is no longer welcome. Nietzsche describes this situation through the famous statement “God is dead.” It is important to point out here that this statement was not made against religion or God per se, but against their corrupted forms. Along these lines, Nietzsche states in The Anti-Christ:

“What sets us apart is not our rejection to recognize God behind history or nature; but our inability to see he who is revered as God to be like God.”

Collapse of the belief in an Absolute Being, which Dostoyevsky considers to be the worst disaster in the history of mankind, consequently eliminates the belief in a real world. This leaves the human being with two alternatives. One is the hopeless and depressive state that is caused by the thought life has no meaning, all is in vain; the other, in the words of a hero in another of Dostoyevsky’s works, is “if there is no God, then God is I”2; or, in other words, Nietzsche’s notion of “Now, I’ve got the power.”

Regarding power as being essential to life, Nietzsche defines power to be “holding a view independent of all other judgments and limitations.”3 His solution to the chaos that is brought forth by the idea of an absence of God can be realized only through the new superior man, who Nietzsche states has the ability to exist beyond the norms of good and evil.

It can be said that it was this desire to become a superior man that resulted in Raskolnikov’s theory of crime. It is possible to see this will in Raskolnikov’s article in which he divides people into two groups; those who join the herd and the heroes. Instead of the first group, whom Raskolnikov designates as victims, he prefers to be affiliated with the second group, whom he groups under the name of Napoleon. A theme even in the poems of Pushkin and Lermantov, Napoleon, the personification of the man for whom nothing is impossible, symbolizes the will to do anything for the sake of one’s ideals for Raskolnikov. This will necessitate the overthrowing of the old value system that states “thou shalt not kill” and the establishment of a system of new values. In this new order, “there is no such thing as ethical phenomenon. There exist only ethical interpretations of phenomena.”4 And beyond this is the idea that, “the worst of vices is necessary for the best of virtues,”5 amounting to the fact that crime is henceforth licit. This is why we can say that it was the determination to become a Napoleon or a super man that formed Raskolnikov’s crime theory, for he justifies the crime on the grounds of an ideal – the eradication of vice.

Up until this point, the theories of Marx, Freud, or Nietzsche would not consider Raskolnikov’s murder to be a crime. It is the author himself who regards the murder as a crime, because for Dostoyevski, crime is a sin, it is a departure from God. In the novel, Dostoyevsky reveals Raskolnikov to be someone mentally tormented by his crime, so much so, that he finally confesses to it. As a solution, Dostoyevsky prescribes the repair of the human soul, which in a society where all the boundaries between vice and virtue have been eliminated Dostoevsky considers to be possible only through a return to the Absolute Being. For him, to believe that there is an immortality of the soul and that there is a God who takes care of human beings is necessary if one is to attain happiness and to create a moral life.


  1. Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Will To Power, translation by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House, 1967.
  2. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, translation by Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky. North Point Press.1990.
  3. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti Christ, translation by H.L. Mencken, 1920.
  4. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good And Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, translation by Walter Kauffman. New York: Random House, 1966.
  5. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, translation by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House, 1995