Evil according to Dostoevsky

Why do we hurt each other?

For Dostoevsky, evil was an unspeakable secret. Said in Subsoil memories that there are secrets that we confess to a few people, others that we confess to no one and torment us in hiding, and those that, like evil, inhabit the most recondite and hidden depths of the soul.

Humiliation and pride

Photograph of Dostoevsky in 1876.
Wikimedia Commons / Н. Досса

To a great extent, evil and hatred come from offense and humiliation, from wounded pride. Writing about Dostoevsky, the writer André Gide appreciated that “humility opens the doors of paradise; humiliation those of hell ”.

Pride implies the desire for superiority and is the moral core of narcissism, from which springs indifference towards the suffering of others and contempt. The wound in pride unleashes frustrations and resentments that gnaw at the conscience.

Suffering humiliations and seeing dignity taken away can be the prelude to the emergence of shame and ruin. A society that humiliates multiplies the evils among the humiliated. Hatred breeds hatred and material misery can lead to moral misery, as we read in Humiliated and offended.

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Photograph by Giovanni Papini, 1921.
Wikimedia Commons

On The devilGiovanni Papini observed that “whoever is taller is also more subject to pride”. And if Lucifer was punished for his pride, “buried and confined in the limitless darkness of loneliness and hatred,” what to think of the limitless desire to be higher and higher? To base our lives on success, the parasite ambition and envy, and fear failure more than anything?


On Crime and Punishment, the haughtiness and deification made Raskolnikof had no qualms when it came to murdering an old woman because he considered her an obstacle in his way.

For evil, others are nothing but instruments that oppose its ends, things that must be sacrificed to achieve success. They are despised because they are not recognized as human beings, but as objects to serve us. And whoever despises feels superior, experiences a voluptuous pleasure in exercising dominance.

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Photograph of Hannah Arendt in 1933.

Even the wickedness and absolute contempt of others can be trivialized and made everyday. Evil can become a routine to follow, as the philosopher Hannah Arendt explained about the paroxysm of evil that was Nazism.

And that excessive contempt was also what in the story Vlas He made two peasants fight for the feat of committing the most vile misdeed. What drove them was “the need to reach the limit, to crave strong sensations that lead to the abyss.”

Boredom and freedom

If we did not have the freedom to decide how we are, evil would not exist, nor would virtue. In Dostoevsky’s characters, the bloody inner struggle that arises from the ability to choose our destiny is waged.

And sometimes infamy is chosen, even if it is to get out of the routine. Perhaps it is that need to break the monotony that leads us to struggle with others. Perhaps this is how our tendency to reject rest and tranquility is justified. Perhaps because much of the evil is born of boredom, because we prefer the opportunity to do evil to doing nothing. And maybe that’s why Blaise Pascal said:

“All human evil comes from a single cause, the inability of man to stay still in a room.”

We choose the abject seduced by the fascination of transgression, of what contravenes the norm and the law. We read in The Karamazov brothers:

“There is nothing more seductive for man than free will, but also nothing more painful.”

In this sense, Dostoevsky’s characters are related to the existentialist philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre:

“We are condemned to be free.”

Love and hate

Dostoevsky’s characters are never flat or superficial. We glimpse in them the deep and paradoxical duality of the human being, its complex contradiction, because two opposite and indissoluble characters converge in a single person: good and evil.

This is how in The demons, Stavrogin’s character points out that he feels equal satisfaction in wanting to do a good deed as in wishing evil. The extremes meet and beauty ends up merging with the grotesque.

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Illustration of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson, by Charles Raymond Macauley (1871 – 1934).
Wikimedia Commons

In Dostoevsky, virtue and evil are simultaneous. This is how we read it in Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson: in a single person we find the contradiction of heaven and hell, the light and shadow of Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro.

It is about the opposition between an inclination to union and the desire for destruction. It is what Sigmund Freud called Eros and Thanatos: life and death drive.

Above all, Dostoevsky sought fulfillment, infinite life. For that very reason, it was unbearable for him to leave aside his perverse and debased dimension. It would have been something like stripping it of one of its fundamental parts. His characters are thrown over the moral precipice, into cruelty and the debauchery of evil. And so the writer Stefan Zweig warned:

“Living correctly means for him to live intensely and to experience everything, the good and the bad at the same time, and in its most intense and intoxicating forms.”

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Photograph by Franz Kafka.
Wikimedia Commons

Dostoevsky explored those abysses of wickedness in all their rawness. It revealed the secret truth of evil, that side that no one wants to look at face to face. Its reading is not easy or comfortable, it requires the affective commitment of the reader. It may be that what he discovers us is not in fact to our liking, that it even disgusts us. But, as Kafka observed, “a book must be the ax that breaks the frozen sea within us.” And Dostoevsky undoubtedly provokes an inner turmoil in those who dare to read it.

A dream

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Photograph of Dostoevsky on his deathbed.
Ivan Kramskoi / Wikimedia Commons

We read in his novel The idiot that we were born to make each other suffer. However, in The dream of a ridiculous manPerhaps the most beautiful of his stories, a man on the verge of suicide dreams of a world of harmony devoid of inhuman baseness. And although it is a utopian illusion, an unattainable paradise given our nature, that “ridiculous man” who did not care about anything and nobody ends up saying:

“I do not want and I can not believe that evil is a normal condition in people.”

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