Why You Need to Read Dostoevsky
Mythos over logos
"Mythos over logos"
In Ancient Greek, that means "storytelling over rational argument." Aristotle, for instance, believed that fictional stories often held more truth than non-fiction. I believe that too —especially when it comes to the work of Russian novelist Dostoevsky.
Dostoevsky's stories are often dark, violent, and tragic. But they're also incredibly beautiful.
As you turn the pages in his books you often stop and think, "This sounds exactly like something that has happened to me." Dostoevsky had a depth of vision unrivaled, he saw that the cultural, political, and economic problems we all deal with in our day-to-day lives have their main source in a crisis of the spirit.
He foresaw how man’s rebellion against the Transcendent would progressively accelerate into full-blown anarchy. And now, over a century later, we are in the throws of that very existential crisis.
As I’ve grown older each of Dostoevsky’s five great novels is like a warm blanket on a cold winter’s night. They are comfort food for the soul. So, here is why reading each of them is essential for anyone who wants to understand the human condition.
Notes From the Underground
Lesson: How to Deal With Cynicism and Misanthropy
This was the first book to make me cry.
"Notes From the Underground" is a beautiful little novel that feels as though it was written yesterday, not over 150 years ago. It's the story of a man who is deeply cynical and unhappy with life. He's an outsider who doesn't fit in and he hates it.
What makes this book so special is that, even though the protagonist is an unsympathetic character, he is technically right about a lot of his assumptions.
“The whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key!”
—The Underground Man
The Underground man is smart, but he has a bad worldview that can't be sustained, and Dostoevsky wants you to see that you have a lot of that within you.
This is a deeply introspective book—and to this day the final point the Underground Man makes about cynicism and cynical people causes me to reflect.
Crime and Punishment
Lesson: Dealing with Guilt and Overcoming it
I don't believe "Crime and Punishment" is the best starting point for getting into Dostoevsky — “Notes From the Underground” or “The Brothers Karamazov” are better IMO — but this is his most famous book for a reason.
It's the story of a man who commits a perfect murder: He can get away with it, nobody will miss the person he kills, and he stands to gain a lot from it. But the problem is that he can't deal with the guilt of his decision.
The book then becomes a story of how our actions can have punishing consequences on our mental health and well-being, even if we think we're getting away with them.
“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart.”
Even if your bad decisions don't have any immediate impact on your mental health, as they do in Raskolnikov in "Crime and Punishment," they will affect your relationships, your job, and your ability to enjoy life.
Some people call this “karma,” but Dostoevsky would say it’s just the natural order of things. Ignoring any kind of ethic or morality as though it doesn’t affect you opens the possibility to all kinds of psychological ills, as Raskolnikov found out the hard way.
Lesson: To be truly good, you need to go through a period of bad or evil, or at least suffering
Out of all of Dostoevsky's works, "The Idiot" left me the most bewildered. I couldn't believe the ending after reading it. I felt as though I had seen something that I wasn't supposed to.
The book is about a man, Prince Myshkin, who is incredibly good and pure. He goes through life seeing the best in people, even when they don't deserve it.
“Beauty will save the world”
- Prince Myshkin
Myshkin, however, is an idiot because he doesn't understand that the world doesn't work so easily like that. People are not good, they are often cruel, and Myshkin not only gets taken advantage of, but he does more harm than good to his friends because he tries to please everyone — and ends up pleasing nobody.
What Dostoevsky is trying to convey here is that emotional maturity—and perhaps developing a better character overall— derives from embodied experience, not abstract principles.
Good alone is not good enough.
The Brothers Karamazov
Lesson: The Problem of Evil and Existentialism
Wait a second—aren't I skipping one?
Yup! Props to you astute literary reader. "Demons" is the next Dostoevsky book after "The Idiot" but I'm not going to talk about it here. I read "Demons" for the first time last year and want to re-read it again before talking about it.
"Demons" is one of Dostoevsky's most complex books and covers politics, postmodernism, anarchy, and atheism, but I don't feel confident enough in my understanding to do it justice.
So let's finish today with "The Brothers Karamazov," my personal favorite Dostoevsky book.
“The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”
—The Brothers Karamazov
This book is the "Lord of the Rings" of Russian literature. It's long, has a large cast of characters, and it's incredibly dense.
The book is about... well, a lot of things. But the crux of it is the problem of evil and existence. A central question is, “If God exists, then why is there so much evil in the world?” It's a question that has been asked throughout history, but Dostoevsky tackles it in a manner that has cultural importance for this generation and many more to come.
I'm currently re-reading it and only now realized that “existentialism” (i.e. feeling as though everything is meaningless) didn't stem from atheists, it stems from Christians:
First existentialist text: Ecclesiastes (from the Bible)
First existentialist philosopher: Kierkegaard (a Christian)
First existentialist novelist: Dostoevsky (a Christian)
"The Brother's Karamazov" is a masterwork not just because it's a great story, but because it takes on some of the most difficult questions we as humans can ask.
Well, there you have it, why you need to read Dostoevsky. There's no author with a richer understanding of the human condition, and there's nobody who can put it into words quite as he did.
I'll leave you with a quote from "The Brother's Karamazov:"
“ This is my last message to you: in sorrow, seek happiness.”