You are being led to you own execution. You are fixated on your impending death, and your mind is in shock as it desperately looks for a path of escape. For the first time in your life you are forced to face your own immortality. “This can’t be happening to me,” you say to yourself. Your senses flip to maximum overdrive as they search for something, anything that might lead to your escape. But when your senses open up everything comes at you all at once, too much, too fast, and so it happens -- your brain overloads and your mind explodes.
Suddenly everything turns surreal, everything happens in slow motion. The input comes at you slower and you can now process it, but a penalty is paid: you see it all through the fog of a numbed brain. Everything is real and unreal at the same time. And there is one other thing. You are now standing outside yourself, looking down at someone marching ever so slowly to his death.
On both sides of the path that leads to the gallows, there stands a crowd hooting and hollering at the condemned, but you can’t make out what the crowd is hollering because their words are slurred. You are sure of only one thing -- he is why they are there; they are shouting at him. Thy want to watch someone die. Someone throws something at this tortured soul, and you watch it fly though the air towards its target with a slowness that cannot possibly support its flight. It hits him in the head, and the crowd cheers. He winces, turns his head, and it is then you see that this man, this tortured soul, is you.
“How can this be?” you exclaim. “Must I march to my own death? Is there no way out?”
No there is not. You do not control these events; they control you. You are but a means to a determined end, a tool of fate.
”But I am not a tool,” you scream. “I am alive and in control of my life.”
“So why can’t you stop it then?” asks an unknown voice. You have no answer. Not ever.
You are marched up the steps, stood on a trap door, and a noose is placed around your throat. Again you ask
“Is it really going to happen? Is there nothing I can do to stop it?“
Again no answer.
You wait as each second takes an hour to pass. The anxiety almost knocks you over, and the heart beats faster and harder in reply. You cannot face your own end, so your mind escapes by wandering, and it see things of no significance that now have great significance. There are garbage cans with lids askew. How comical. How untidy. Someone should fix that, you say to yourself. The laughing faces in the crowd look cruel with their rotting teeth, clown faces smirking at the man with a rope around his neck. They mock you. There is a baby stroller with no baby in it. That’s wrong, isn’t it? Strollers should have babies in them. Where’s the baby? Someone please find the baby. There is a baby missing you shout to no one. Find it. Put it back in the safety of its stroller where it will live and grow and be happy”
Then your eye catches something in the distance. Three horses trotting towards you. As they get closer you make out three uniformed men riding them. They get closer and closer. They arrive. Someone walks out to meet them. The lead rider hands the greeter a sealed document. The greeter unseals it and reads. Then he turns, looks at you and shouts
“A reprieve. He is not be executed. He is to go to prison instead. Take off the rope and bring him down.”
So you are saved. Today is not the day. But again, your very saving is out of your control. Fate has decided for you. You had nothing to do with it. But today you will not die. That’s good, but, still, you know you weren't in control. Are you ever in control of you life, your actions, you ask yourself? Is it all a roll of dice rolled at the beginning of time?
This is what I imagine went through Fyodor Dostoevsky’s mind as he walked to his own execution but at the last moment was reprieved. And I believe the shock remained with him for the rest of his life. He wrote in his books about his internal struggle, openly pitting free will against determinism, asking where rational thought ends and compassion begins, or if there is any room at all for compassion in a deterministic world. Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov are two such books.
Raskolnikov, the protagonist in Crime and Punishment, struggles throughout the book with this question. Between his guilt and his struggle between rational thought and compassion, he almost loses his mind. And each of the brothers in The Brother’s Karamazov represent a different point of view. Dmitry, the passionate surfeit whose urges drive him to self-destruction; Ivan, the cool intellectual who acts on his objective, rational thoughts but never with compassion; and Alyosha, the compassionate religious intern who believes in God’s goodness and grace and that every man has moral choices to make.
Throughout his writings, Dostoevsky asks the same question over and over again.
Are we tools or are we moral agents?
Are we nothing more than a means to an end, or are we moral agents who can make a difference? If we are tools, then we are no more responsible for what we do than any other tool used to accomplish something. Compassion becomes useless because everything is outside our control, already determined, and human suffering continues unabated until the game has played to its miserable end. But if we have free will, then our choices matter, and compassion matters because it is through compassion that we reduce human suffering. This is Dostoevsky.
Because of the intellectual insights Dostoevsky’s reveals through his characters in responding to these questions, he has become what many consider to be one of the greatest literary artists of all time. Because these questions can never be answered to our satisfaction, the struggle lives on, and this may be why Dostoevsky’s popularity might never wane. For to stop searching for an answer, to end the struggle without an answer, is to give up, and we will never give up searching for an answer to such an important question.
Nietzsche is said to have said Dostoevsky was the only psychologist he had anything to learn from. That’s a pretty good endorsement for an enduring legacy.