Extraordinary People and Civil Disobedience: Fyodor Dostoyevsky

‘Slavic Souls’, Nicolae Vermont. 1900.

In my previous blogpost, discussing Thoreau’s notion of Civil Disobedience, I argued that crime is often warranted when movements for change identify injustices in the existing order of society. Thoreau was speaking about slavery; last week I focused on Rosa Parks and the toppling of a statue of Edward Colston, following the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in Britain. I suggested that the reason these ‘criminal’ acts become warranted or justified — even necessary — is the fact that they serve to highlight prejudices within society and become symbolic, quasi-mythic, acts. This differentiates these acts of illegality from the rioting and looting which accompanies some protests. Instead of seeking personal gain, they strive to trigger a sensibility in the public to a particular issue, opening up conversations about our cultural heritage and the structure of society at large.

Thoreau suggested that each of us have a personal duty to disobey the law when it goes against our conscience and asked for, ‘not at once no government, but at once a better government.’ The ideal of no government and complete individual accountability is some way off and, for now at least, nigh-on impossible to conceptualise. But it is something to strive towards. Thoreau believed we do this by, each of us, breaking laws we deem unjust. Raskolnikov, the protagonist in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, puts forward a different theory, summarised below by another character, Porfiry, who is investigating the murder Raskolnikov has committed.

The whole point of his article is that the human race is divided into the “ordinary” and “extraordinary”.

The ordinary must live in obedience and do not have the right to break the law, because, well, because they’re ordinary, you see.

The extraordinary, on the other hand, have the right to commit all sorts of crimes and break the law in all sorts of ways precisely because they’re extraordinary.

Crime and Punishment‘, translated by David McDuff.

This, Raskolnikov confirms, is indeed the underlying premise of his article; only, he doesn’t insist that “extraordinary people” are ‘bound and obliged’ to commit such crimes, simply that they have a ‘private right’ to, ‘if the execution of [their] idea requires it.’ For Raskolnikov, Napoleon is the shining, modern example of this belief and becomes a sort of role model for him. But it seems this is not the case with Raskolnikov alone. Porfiry suggests, somewhat dejectedly, ‘Who doesn’t think he’s a Napoleon among us in Russia these days?’ Among the Russian youth of the nineteenth century, Napoleon’s pursuit of liberty and democracy at any expense, including widescale violence and bloodshed, is deemed admirable, the most relatable manifestation of Raskolnikov’s philosophy.

In light of this, let us consider the period from which Raskolnikov’s character sprung. Published in the mid-1860s, Crime and Punishment occupies something of a middle-ground in terms of political history, fifty years on from the Battle of Waterloo and just over fifty years before the Russian Revolution. Young, liberal advocates of mass political reform — like Raskolnikov — who were born after Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and were not directly impacted by it, begin to identify with the ideals he propounded and yearn to replicate those changes in their own country. Moving forward, by the dawn of the twentieth century, the majority of Russians had no direct recollection of Napoleon and the founding waves of the French Revolution. This, combined with a general feeling of discontent with the monarchy and social conditions, created a willingness to adopt violence as a means of reform, in the same vein as the French people a century prior.

But conversing with older, more conservative-minded people, and writing in the middle of the century, Raskolnikov’s article, his political theory, is met with suspicion. But he seems to accept the challenge, acknowledging that those “extraordinary people” who are proponents of such transformative ideas, are often rejected in their own time: ‘the masses are almost never prepared to acknowledge them this right [to commit crime].’ Instead, it is up to subsequent generations to, ‘put on a pedestal the people they’ve executed and pay homage to them.’ Where the first category represents “ordinary people” and the second, “extraordinary people”:

Those of the first category are always the lords of the present, while those of the second category are the lords of the future.

The first conserve the world and increase its population; the second move the world and lead it towards its goal.

It is certainly a cynical view of progress, but when we examine history it is one which seems, as a general rule, to be true. Political, social, and cultural movements are virtually never all-encompassing, and are more often than not met with some form of opposition — it takes the drive and willingness of a few “extraordinary people” to bring about the kind of change that will benefit society in the long-run. Thoreau’s belief in personal accountability, the idea that you should disobey laws which go against your moral compass, while a crucial element of change and an ideal to strive for, will not gather the kind of momentum or support needed for mass institutional change. Those courageous, “extraordinary people” and their symbolic acts of illegality are necessary to trigger a more widespread support.

But what shall we make of the conclusion to Crime and Punishment? Raskolnikov ends up turning himself in and being sentenced to penal servitude. Might we suggest that his theory was, in fact, nonsensical and that “extraordinary people” don’t exist or operate as he had imagined? One may point to Napoleon and suggest that despite his supposedly liberal, emancipatory cause, he effectively became a dictator and attempted to conquer Europe; his violence seems to be driven by a desire for power rather than a desire to better the future of humanity. Regardless, the Revolution created a better, more equal and democratic society and the actions of the French people consolidated a better future for humanity with little long-lasting harm done. Either way, Napoleon is a complicated role model, and a complicated example of an “extraordinary person”, but an assessment of his intentions and morality are for political and historical theorists to interrogate more thoroughly.

Raskolnikov, after everything, remains convinced of his views — only, he comes to the conclusion that he himself is not one of these “extraordinary people”. In the second chapter of the epilogue, he explains, ‘those people had the courage of their convictions, and so they were right, while I didn’t, and consequently had no right to take the step I did.’ Here, and throughout the novel, there is often a despondent resignation that this is the way things must be, that pain and suffering is inevitable. That though we try, our efforts will not always pay off, our intentions may sometimes be misguided. But if the few extraordinary, courageous ones amongst us can show the way, and those of us who have the capacity to are willing and brave enough to go with them, the world will become a better place, our lives, as a collective, will improve; and maybe, one day, our conscience will be all we need.

14 thoughts on “Extraordinary People and Civil Disobedience: Fyodor Dostoyevsky”

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