Continental Philosophy

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Why have existentialist philosophers claimed Dostoyevsky as one of their own?

The great Russian novelist Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky (1821–1881) is considered an inspiration to the modern philosophical tradition of existentialism because of the depth of his appreciation for the difficulty of the human condition and the universal problems he and his fictional characters agonized over. Friedrich Nietsche (1844–1900) said that Dostoyevsky was “the only psychologist from whom I have something to learn.” He praised Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground (1864) for having “cried truth from the blood.”

Indeed, in Notes from the Underground Dostoyevsky introduces a self-deprecating narrator, who became an iconic anti-hero for subsequent existentialist writers. The narrator’s first words are, “I am a sick man,” and his ensuing reflections, rantings, and ruminations make it clear that the sickness at issue is primarily a malaise of the soul. Not the least of this sickness is a disgust with reason.

Although Dostoyevsky is well known for valorizing simplicity in religious faith, he did not arrive at that viewpoint easily, either in works of fiction such as Crime and Punishment (1866), or in his own life. In his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov (1881), Ivan is an atheist, while his brother, Alyosha, is studying to become a monk. In the famous “Grand Inquisitor” dialogue within this novel, Ivan presses Alyosha on his faith, going to the heart of the matter in asking how a good God can permit the suffering of innocent children. Ivan recounts the story of a peasant’s child whom the lord allows his dogs to tear apart, because the child threw a stone at one of them. The character of Alyosha is said to be modeled on Dostoyevsky’s close friend, the Russian philosopher Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov (1853–1900), who longed to reunite the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches.


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