I decided to read Crime and Punishment upon the encouragement of a former professor. He and I had been discussing the Montreal student protests. This year, tens of thousands of students have been “on strike” in what has been called “the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.” University students are protesting both the increase in their already extremely heavily state-subsidized tuition and Bill 78, a short-term emergency law that requires protests on or near university campuses to first be granted police approval.
Students consider themselves entitled to higher education and more students than ever are attending post-secondary institutions. It seems that the student status is a major source for their sense of self. A student’s identity is wound up in his or her affiliation to an institution of higher learning and to a program of studies.
Hungry for belonging and purpose, students live in relativistic times where commitments are made to trends rather than principles. They don’t know who their heroes are and cannot imagine something worth dying for. I recall hearing a speaker recently who said, “People who do not know what is worth living for will sell their lives cheaply.”
So this professor of mine called my attention to Dostoyevsky’s character Raskolnikov, noting that the character consistently refers to himself throughout the book as a “former student.” And so I picked up a copy of the book while in Ottawa, the capital of Canada that borders the province of Québec. I had been across the bridge to the French province and seen the pubs brimming with “poor” students, all wearing red squares of fabric pinned to differing parts of clothing… a strange effort at diversity amid conformity.
I picked up the book and was captured by this sentence on the back cover: “In the slums of czarist St. Petersburg, Raskolnikov, a sensitive intellectual, is driven by poverty to believe that he is exempt from moral law.” Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France lamented, “The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.” Today, we may lament that it is the age of relativists, subjectivists, and utilitarians that is succeeding.
I read Crime and Punishment leisurely over the past month, not because it wasn’t gripping, but because it was a busy month. A part that really struck me is the scene where Raskolnikov is eavesdropping on a conversation between a young officer and a student in a restaurant. The student says:
“This old woman’s money, which is going to be sequestered in a monastery, could beget a hundred, a thousand good deeds and fresh starts! Hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives could be put on the right path, dozens of families rescued from poverty, from ruin, from collapse, from decay, from the venereal wards of the hospitals – all this with her money! Kill her, take her money, dedicate it to serving mankind, to the general welfare. Well, what do you think – isn’t this petty little crime effaced by thousands of good deeds? For one life, thousands of lives saved from ruin and collapse. One death and a hundred lives – there’s arithmetic for you!”
In May, shortly before beginning the book, I was in Rwanda studying the genocide with fifteen Canadian students who have similarly utilitarian inclinations to those expressed by the student above. While in Rwanda, over dinner in Kigali, I asked my peers, “If you had to choose between saving a thousand animals or a single person, what would you do?” These students with whom I had been touring genocide memorial sites replied nearly unanimously, “It depends on the animal” and “It depends on the person.”
I was frustrated by their utilitarianism, exhibited all throughout the trip from their views on “overpopulation” to their excuses for all sorts of government intervention. It was especially disconcerting as I sought to discern and affirm the dignity of human life amid studying the horrors of genocide. I sought to understand what a genocidaire who slaughtered people he had in common with an adorable grinning African child, waving to us on the side of the street and calling out, “Muzungu!” – that we should call both of them persons.
When I read the scene of the student and the young officer in the restaurant, I recalled the scene in Machiavelli’s “Mandragola” where Ligurio aims to persuade Friar Timothy to procure an abortion for a young, unmarried woman. He says:
“What is there to think over? Just look at how many good things will flow from this action. You’ll maintain the honour of the convent, of the girl and her relations; you’ll restore a daughter to her father; you’ll be doing a favour for his Honour, for all his relations; you’ll do as many good works with these three hundred ducats as you can. And on the other hand, you’re not harming anything except a bit of unborn flesh, devoid of feeling, that could be lost in a thousand ways. And I do believe that a deed is good when it is good for the majority and the majority is happy with it.”
Here is foreshadowing of the doctrines of pleasure-maximizing and the “greatest-happiness principle” that would be promoted by utilitarians Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.
The next section of Crime and Punishment that had the greatest impact on me is where Raskolnikov describes his desire to be a Napoleon and to “do everything in a big way.”
“All right. So be it! It was like this: I wanted to make myself a Napoleon: that’s why I murdered… Well, now do you understand? […] It’s like this. Once I asked myself a question sort of like this: suppose Napoleon had been in my place, without Toulon or Egypt or the passage across the Mont Blanc to launch his career, but instead of those beautiful monumental, epoch-making events there had simply been some absurd old hag, a stinking clerk’s widow, and she had to be killed so he could steal some money from her trunk (for his career, mind you) – well, suppose there had been no other way – would he have brought himself to do a thing like that? Would he have shrunk back because it wasn’t monumental enough, because it was … sinful? Well, as I say, this ‘question’ tormented me for a terribly long time, so I felt horribly ashamed when it finally occurred to me – all of a sudden, somehow – not only would he not have shrunk back, it would never have occurred to him that what he was doing wasn’t monumental … and he wouldn’t have understood what there was to shrink back from.”
This was a bit startling to me since I had recently been considering the relationship between great and pivotal events and great and pivotal people. I have thought about this concerning saints. Would they be saints in more ordinary circumstances or does the greatness of their suffering and their circumstances help to make them holy people? It’s a bit of a different sort of question, but still related. And it is the wrong view to take, of course, since it is not their greatness, but the greatness of God in them, as all the saints would surely say. God’s grace is the source of the saints’ magnanimity.
On another note, the idea of wanting to be exceptional does not seem that extraordinary. “What writer or scholar hasn’t started out by trying something original!” one character asks Raskolnikov rhetorically. These days it seems to be enough for many to be granted the illusion of exceptionalism, such as when every student gets a gold star or when an entire class graduates with “highest honours.” Maybe the illusion suffices to maintain mediocrity to the extent that individuals do not seek to prove or assert their exceptionalism?
As I travel the United States, I cannot resist thinking about Alexis de Tocqueville who came from France to the United States in 1831 with a friend. He was 25 years old, only a few years older than I am, when he made his journey. He was on assignment by the French government to study the American prison system, but seized the opportunity to study broader American society and eventually wrote his two volume work Democracy in America.
Then, I read an article by professors Barry Cooper and John von Heyking about Eric Voegelin and George Grant. They write:
“Voegelin and Grant had in common the biographically unique encounter of a foreigner with the United States. For both men, that experience was critical and significant. Moreover, both were aware of the link between biography and philosophy; both knew that [biographical] consciousness was somebody’s philosophical consciousness. That is, concrete human beings, with specific and identifiable names such as George Grant and Eric Voegelin, participate in the order and disorder of particular times and places. Their reflections are already under way in their pre-reflective experiences of participation in the here and now of the America they knew. Looked at in terms of the accounts they rendered of their participation in the reality of America, what they said was also an account of how they understood themselves. In order to see their respective assessments of the United States, it is first necessary to consider where they were standing and where they were going.
Voegelin learned from his experience of the United States that political science begins from an understanding of the self-interpretation of those individuals who actually participate in any particular political order, and not from an elaborate ‘scientific’ understanding.”
And so after thinking about Tocqueville, Voegelin, Grant and others, I started to ask myself: What’s happening now? Is anything exciting going on? In what ways do my travel experiences constitute a sort of political philosophizing? How will these experiences of participating in a particular political order influence my soul and shape my understanding?
Peter Kreeft’s 15th thing that philosophy is according to history’s first and wisest philosopher in Philosophy 101 by Socrates is this: Philosophy is laborious.
“Socrates calls his philosophical ‘wanderings’ ‘my own Labours’ referring to the well-known legend of the twelve labours of Hercules, the Greek Superman. […] Whether philosophy is easy, like watching a movie, or laborious, like childbirth, depends on whether you are only observing some other philosophers in action, passively, or actually philosophizing yourself, actively (either in dialogue with another or alone), and on whether you are honestly trying to find the truth or just pretending, whether you are actually thinking or just imagining that you are thinking.
So far, this summer has been filled with activity. I have met people from so many different demographics. I’ve met Catholics, Evangelicals, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Jews, Atheists, Liberals, Conservatives, Republicans, Democrats, Voegelinians, Straussians, Libertarians, Rothbardians, Randians, Hayekians, Chestertonians, etc., etc. I have not read enough about all of these many religions and philosophies, yet it is wondrous how I come to learn about them through meeting people who identify with them or subscribe to them in order that I might form an initial impression on the philosophies themselves.
I’ve met people who have attended public schools and private schools, people who were homeschooled and unschooled. I’ve been inspired to strive for excellence, especially by students from St. John’s College, Louisiana State University, Universidad Francisco Marroquin, Grove City College, Ave Maria University, and Thomas Aquinas College and by phenomenal professors and guest lecturers who I have had the privilege of learning from all summer.
It can be easy to be enamored with whatever ideas and institute I am acquainted with at the time, but attending so many summer seminars back to back affords me some distance and helps me to judge everything more carefully.For Tocqueville and his travel companion Beaumont:
“The purpose of their journey became more precise. It would concern a double and simultaneous intellectual journey whose subject would be France as well as America. ‘I will admit to you that what most prevents me from knowing what is happening on this point in America,’ wrote Tocqueville to his friend Blosseville, ‘is being almost completely ignorant of what exists in France.'”
I can relate to this. The more that I learn about America, the more that I realize how ignorant I am of Canada. Tocqueville was from France and I am from Canada. We are both foreigners coming to gain insight in a country not our own. And for foreigners, some tension seems to exist between the depth and insight achieved through immersion and the critical and reflective perspective of an outsider.
Sometimes while I travel, I observe in myself a desire to elevate my experiences, by comparison to those of others and to historical examples. It’s easy to fall into thinking that lots of commotion makes people better. I am reminded of a conversation I had with a member of the Canadian military who conveyed his surprise that the busiest times when citizens enlist are after a soldier dies. I can see how the question: What if I lived in more interesting times? quickly becomes: I shall change the times and make them more interesting. And as history and as Raskolnikov show, this desire to transcend monotony is dangerous and even disastrous when the actions are not well-ordered and lovingly directed.
There is profundity in the simplicity of what Mother Teresa says: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” And I have been reflecting on this very insightful observation of C.S. Lewis: “Doesn’t the mere fact of putting something into words of itself involve an exaggeration?”
G.K. Chesterton wisely says:
“I am ordinary in the correct sense of the term; which means the acceptance of an order; a Creator and the Creation, the common sense of gratitude for Creation, life and love as gifts permanently good, marriage and chivalry as laws rightly controlling them, and the rest of the normal traditions of our race and religion.”
“In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves–the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.”
Similarly, C.S. Lewis says:
“It is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects – military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary [emphasis mine] happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden – that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time.”
I had read an introduction to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and saw the connection between it and the scene where Raskolnikov explains the motivation for his crime to Sonia. Crime and Punishment was read in preparation to read Nietzsche. Before reading Crime and Punishment, I had just read C.S. Lewis’s beautiful and important book The Abolition of Man. The central idea in it is that: “Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.”
That single line, I think, has been the most important thing to keep front of mind while reading these books and living ordinary life. There is a need for humility, for a “right response to reality” (Kreeft), for an effort toward “attunement to the order of being”, and for a golden mean or “balance between the claims that the immanent and transcendent dimensions of human experience make on the human being who lives ‘between’ them.” (Webb on Voegelin)
I have now taken to underlining the words “order” “disorder” and all their various forms in every text that I read. If you flip through my copy of Crime and Punishment, the marginalia will be a testament to what Anne Fadiman describes as a “carnal love” of books. She writes:
“A book’s physical self was sacrosanct, its form inseparable from its content; her [the Danish maid’s] duty as a lover was a Platonic adoration, a noble but doomed attempt to conserve forever the state of perfect chastity in which it had left the bookseller. The Fadiman family believed in carnal love. To us a books words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel, and it was no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated. Hard use was a sign not of disrespect but of intimacy.”
I will look back on this first reading and probably laugh at what struck me, the connections that I drew, the responses that I made, and on how little I grasped. I had a philosophy professor who once told me that he has a handful of books, including several Shakespearean plays, which he reads again and again. Every ten years or so he buys a copy of the text to read and then compares his notes across the years. The books don’t change, but he does. It is the same with going to Mass. Why go to Mass every week? The Mass doesn’t change, but we do.
In her afterward, Robin Feuer Miller poses these questions (among others) to the reader:
What does the novel now mean to you? What does the fact that you have taken the time to read this long novel mean to you in terms of priorities in your own busy life? Has the immensely private act of reading made you more thoughtful or more compassionate, or has it hardened your heart? How will this novel insert itself into the private recesses of your living, thinking, feeling self? Will having read Crime and Punishment make you a better citizen?
They are such excellent questions that they are probably the sorts of questions better answered by one’s life than by one’s words.
The Introduction by Professors Leonard J. Stanton and James D. Hardy Jr. piqued my interest. In it the professors discuss the parallels between Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Saint Augustine’s Confessions since: “The great Christian novel parallels the great Christian autobiographical spiritual journey.”
They are stories of the soul’s return to Truth and to Love. The introduction ends with this:
“The readers of Crime and Punishment know what that reality is. It is the ‘subject of a new tale,’ one in which Raskolnikov’s heart is at rest, in which he gives over being the theorist of the ‘new word’ and becomes the bearer of the true Word.”
In the Gospel, Mary and Martha “sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’” (John 11)
Philosophy is filled with paradoxes because the truth is often paradoxical. How do we combat the desire to innovate, to contrive new theories, and to transcend nature? Perhaps “Be extraordinary!” is a silly thing to say to encourage young people. Perhaps it is better to encourage them to be ordinary, keep the commandments, love order, seek truth, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
There is freedom in truth. There is freedom in the embrace of the order of history, in passion (suffering), death, and resurrection. The order of the soul’s journey mirrors the order of history. The individual life is a microcosm of salvation history. Like Saint Augustine wrote so beautifully, “Late have I loved thee! Too late came I to love you, O Beauty both so ancient and so new! Too late came I to love you – and behold you were with me all the time . . .”, we come to realize that we are part of order, and never outside it, beyond it, or above it.
We are mysteries to ourselves and we often do the things we hate. We easily confuse created things for the Creator because we are creatures, but in God’s image we also have the dignity of co-creators. That is, the dignity to bring forth new life and creative ideas, but not, as in Crime and Punishment, “a new word.” For “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” Like John, we must respond to this gift by affirming that we are not the light, but we live to testify to it.
In Crime and Punishment and in all my experiences of learning and travelling, there is the consistent and beautiful affirmation that, as Tolkien says, “We make still by the law in which we’re made.”
In gratitude for her excellent afterword in my edition of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, this post is dedicated to Robin Feuer Miller and to all professors who patiently journey with their students in search of truth.