Genius can take many forms. Based upon the definition given, there are some people who can be considered a financial genius, a political genius, or a musical genius. Men such a Ludwig von Beethoven (1770-1827), Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791), Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), and others are considered to be musical geniuses. Their contributions to music have passed the test of time. The music they wrote is still performed by orchestras and studied by music students after all of these centuries.
Philosophy has produced its share of geniuses. The contributions of Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC), Plato (424 BC-348 BC), Socrates (469 BC-399 BC), Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), and others have had a profound impact on Western culture. Their contributions in the area of ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology are still read by Philosophy students and discussed by philosophers to this day.
The title of genius extends to the field of literature also. Writers such as Mark Twain (1835-1910), Charles Dickens (1812-1870), Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), Albert Camus (1913-1960), Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910), Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940), Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841), and Walt Whitman (1819-1892) are each considered to be literary geniuses by countless generations.
One author, in particular, was a literary genius who has had a profound impact on future generations and whose philosophical insights spoke not only to his own generation, but to the present generation. His name was Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoevsky (1821-1881).
Dostoyevsky was born in Moscow to Mikhail and Maria Dostoevsky, the second of seven children. The family lived in a small apartment on the grounds of Marinsky Hospital. The hospital was located in one of the city's worst areas near a cemetery for criminals, a lunatic asylum, and an orphanage for abandoned infants. This urban landscape made a lasting impression on the young Dostoevsky, whose interest in and compassion for the poor, oppressed, and tormented was apparent in his life and works. Although it was forbidden by his parents, Dostoevsky liked to wander out to the hospital garden, where the patients sat to catch a glimpse of the sun. The young Dostoyevsky appreciated spending time with these patients and listening to their stories.2
From the age of nine, Dostoevsky suffered sporadically from epilepsy throughout his life and his experiences are thought 3 to have formed the basis for his description of Prince Myshkin's epilepsy in his novel The Idiot and that of Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov, among others. In fact, Dostoevsky’s son died as a result of epilepsy while Fyodor was in the process of writing The Brothers Karamazov.
His genius was evident in regard to his ability to develop his characters in his novels and use these characters to discuss the important philosophical and social issues which were being discussed during his lifetime. This is particularly true in The Brothers Karamazov.
In one particular scene in the novel, two of the brothers, Alyosha and Ivan, are having a discussion about God. Ivan is the embodiment of Enlightenment ideas. He does not believe in God and sees himself as a completely autonomous person who does not have to rely upon anyone. However, he also deeply resents his father because he realizes that he is dependent upon his father, to a certain extent, and this dependence goes against his notion of personal autonomy. Alyosha is a novice at a local monastery. He believes that we are completely dependent upon God and finds a sense of belonging and purpose for his life by being a member of a religious community.4
This novel not only shows the dynamic of the relationship between the three brothers (Dmitry, Ivan, and Alyosha) and their father, Fyodor, it is also a murder mystery. Fyodor is murdered and the reader has to determine which of his sons is responsible for murdering him. In addition to his three sons, there is also a half-brother, Smerdyakov, who is treated very poorly by Fyodor.
What was the patriarch of this family like? Fyodor Karamazov is portrayed as a rather self-absorbed man who believes in the notion that he is an autonomous human being; however, he too craves the attention of others. However, instead of receiving such attention in a positive way, he chooses to act like a clown. It has been said that there is no such thing as “negative attention” because any attention at all is better than no attention for someone who craves it so badly.
Dmitry is very much like his father; however, instead of taking on the role of a clown, he takes on the role of a scoundrel. Throughout the novel, the only thing that is important to Dmitry is his own well-being and happiness. However, everything changes for him while he is in prison.
After being convicted of the murder of his father, Dmitry is sent to prison and one evening he has a dream in which he encounters a little child who is suffering. Dmitry is moved with pity for this child and wants to find a way to relieve his suffering, but, instead, the little child kisses Dmitry on the head and comforts Dmitry.
Dmitry tells his dream to Alyosha and declares that he is willing to suffer in prison if it means that others can be happy. Dostoevsky is asking a profound question. Does someone’s happy have to come at the expense of someone else’s suffering? Dmitry has spent his life thinking only about himself and now he is prepared to offer himself as a “martyr for happiness”.
Alyosha, moved by his brother’s new found compassion, said that there is an alternative to this idea. The novel ends at the grave site of Illyusha Snegiryov, a child who had been mistreated and emotionally abused by his classmates. Illyusha’s father, Captain Snegiryov, had earlier been publicly humiliated by Dmitry and this brought shame on the entire family.
IlIyusha was excluded from any “community” developed by the other boys in his village and his suffering became a source of amusement for them. All of these things contributed to Illyusha becoming more and more ill.
At one point, Illyusha becomes convinced that he had killed a little dog. His caretaker, who knew the truth, refused to tell Illyusha that the dog had recovered. However, as Illyusha was close to death the other boys in the village experienced a sense of conversion. Instead of excluding Illyusha, they chose to include him in their “community” and his caretaker brought the little dog to him. Seeing how happy this made Illyusha was a source of joy for these little boys.
IlIyusha was excluded from any “community” developed by the other boys in his village and his suffering became a source of amusement for them. All of these things contributed to Illyusha becoming more and more ill.
While at the gravesite, Alyosha tells these boys that they will never forget IIlyusha. Illyusha was a fine, caring, loving, young boy who wanted to be happy. He tells the boys that they should love each other and that they will always remember when they were at the grave stone. The twelve boys, now in tears, take each other by the hand and return to the Snegiryov family home. 5
Another novel which tells us something about life in Russia during the late 19th Century was The Idiot. The main character, Prince Myshkin, not only suffered from epilepsy, but was thought to be rather naïve. He is such a beautiful soul that he is often taken for an idiot, and indeed, he considers himself to be stupid. However, while he suffers from mental illness, he is only “simple” in the sense that he cannot grasp evil. He thinks good of everyone he meets and expects that everyone else does too. This simple acceptance of people, and his simple way of living, leads those around him to befriend him and yet to feel themselves smarter and better than him. 6
He is compassionate, benevolent, patient and forgiving. He arrives in Russia at the age of twenty six having spent four years in Switzerland treating his epilepsy and mental illness. He refers to himself as an 'idiot' because of this illness. The reason for his arrival to St. Petersburg is to start a new life with the help of his distant relative, Yelizaveta Prokofievna Yepanchin, General Yepanchin's haughty yet sensible wife. At the General's house he is attracted to Aglaya, the General’s youngest daughter, as a new hope. He is, to some extent, an amateur psychologist who can find out a great deal about people looking at their faces, pictures or handwriting. This ability draws him compassionately toward Nastasya Fillipovna as he sees great suffering in her and he wants to save her from self-destruction.
On the matters of the real world, the world which people find it necessary to operate in, the Prince is not able to detect the proportion of things- as he himself puts it. This is because his view of the world is of no deceit or make over. He views all the people as good and debases himself in comparison to them. He has no definite tact to go about his objectives and insists on going to it openly and frankly. His insistence on doing good to all the people crosses the boundary of human limitations and practicability. In the end his actions end up hurting more than doing good. He gets obsessed with trying to save Nastasya. Parfyon Rogozhin out of his love for Nastasya, and seeing she loves the Prince nearly tries to kill him. In the end, however, he stabs Nastasya to death. Prince Myshkin chooses Nastasya over Aglaya overlooking their engagement and her love towards him. This stains the family reputation of the Yepanchins and devastates Aglaya's true love.
By contrast, there is Parfyon Rogozhin. He is a rich merchant's son who meets the Prince on a train, by which they are both going to St. Petersburg. Rogozhin is going home from hiding because he squandered his father's money to buy presents for Nastasya. Now that his father had died he is going to claim his inheritance.
Rogozhin is the sort of person who when they want something do not stop at anything and go to any extreme to obtain it. He is a man driven by passion. His fate is intertwined with that of the Prince and Nastasya Fillipovna. Rogozhin is a rich man so he is an indulgent in his passions. His love for Nastasya is a full fervor passion, with both love and hate. She totally possesses him. When she asks him to buy her something for one hundred thousand rubles he does without a word of protest. When Nastasya runs away from him to Myshkin he follows her swallowing reproach and humiliation from her. He is totally mastered by this passion and to fulfill it squanders his wealth, time and energy. In the end when he knows for sure that he can never have Nastasya forever he kills her. He isn't totally bad, as many of his conversations with the Prince reveal, it is only that the passionate love for Nastasya that ruins him. 7
Dostoevsky was very supportive of traditional Russian values. Dostoevsky’s The Idiot is about an imaginary second coming of Christ, personified by Prince Myshkin, who is ridiculed, persecuted, and ultimately crushed by the Russian society of the 1860s, just as his predecessor in Judea had been centuries earlier. Myshkin is therefore an unlikely ‘positive hero’ conjured up primarily for the edification of the Russian youth. However, as Dostoevsky’s didactic intent had been somewhat disguised to increase the novel’s artistic value, his message was not altogether easy to unravel.8
Russia underwent many cultural changes during the reign of Peter the Great (1672-1725). Czar Peter desired to make Russia similar to Western Europe which included forcing men to shave off their beards, introducing European clothing, and changing the existing governmental structure. One of the major challenges was that the structure which had existed up until that point was directly tied to Orthodox culture. One thing which Czar Peter did was assume control of the Russian Orthodox Church by appointing an archbishop who was loyal to him.
The tie between Russian culture and the Orthodox Church is essential. Everything we know about Russian society is directly tied to their understanding of the importance of community. Dostoevsky's ideas about the Russian soul are closely connected with Eastern Orthodox Christianity, its ideal of Christ, His suffering for others, His willingness to die for others, and His quiet humility about it. The Russians do not understand suffering for the sake of suffering. Depressed people have a dampened spirit and are without inner strength. Without a healthy spirit the Russians would not have survived through the most tragic history among living nations. They would have perished like so many other nations. They love to share everything and especially joy of living. Folk music depicts that aspect of the Russian soul (chastushka). 9
In The Idiot, Prince Myshkin represented the ideal Russian soul. He represented the best aspects of Russian culture. In contrast, there is Parfyon Rogozhin. He is a rich merchant's son who meets the Prince on a train, by which they are both going to St. Petersburg. Rogozhin is going home from hiding because he squandered his father's money to buy presents for Nastasya. Now that his father had died he is going to claim his inheritance.
Rogozhin is the sort of person who when they want something do not stop at anything and go to any extreme to obtain it. He is a man driven by passion. His fate is intertwined with that of the Prince and Nastasya Fillipovna. Rogozhin is a rich man so he is an indulgent in his passions. His love for Nastasya is a full fervor passion, with both love and hate. She totally possesses him. When she asks him to buy her something for one hundred thousand rubles he does without a word of protest. When Nastasya runs away from him to Myshkin he follows her swallowing reproach and humiliation from her. He is totally mastered by this passion and to fulfill it squanders his wealth, time and energy. In the end when he knows for sure that he can never have Nastasya forever he kills her. He isn't totally bad, as many of his conversations with the Prince reveal, it is only that the passionate love for Nastasya that ruins him.
Parfyon Rogohzin can represent Russian society without its connection to the Church. This society can easily be understood as a giant ship without a rudder. This ship runs the risk of running aground without the proper direction and we can see in Rogohzin’s life that his life was moving out of control.
Nastasya Fillipovna can be seen as representing the transition from Orthodox culture to a culture where the Church has very little significance. She finds Prince Myshkin’s personality and values to be appealing, but she is drawn to Rogohzin. At one level, she knows that Rogozhin is not right for her, but she believes that Prince Myshkin is too good for her.
Another Dostoevsky novel which displays his genius was Crime and Punishment. The main character, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, has developed a theory that people are divided into two “camps” namely the ordinary and the extraordinary. Rodion Raskolnikov believes that the “ordinary” person must pay the consequences for their actions, but this is not true for the “extraordinary” person.
An impoverished former law student, Raskolnikov considers himself to be one of the “extraordinary” people. He decides to test his “theory” by robbing and murdering Alyona Ivanovna, a local unpleasant and elderly pawnbroker, with an ax which he stole and theorizes that this robbery is justified because the money will be used for a “higher purpose”. While attempting to flee from this woman’s apartment he is confronted by her half-sister, Lizaveta Ivanovna, whom he also kills. He manages to steal a few items, but the majority of the old woman’s wealth and possessions are left untouched.
Following the murder of these two women, Raskolnikov begins to descend into madness. Prior to the murder he had begun losing his grip on reality, but the double murder has only made him worse. His suspicious behavior points to him as the primary suspect of this crime, but there is no proof of his guilt.
Based upon the available evidence, Raskolnikov could “get away with murder”, if it were not for the fact that his conscience is tearing him apart emotionally. He does not want to confess to this double murder and have to pay the penalty for his actions, but he is finally confesses his actions to Sonia, a prostitute who has very strong Christian values and only becomes a prostitute because of her family’s financial state.
While he is confessing his crime to Sonya, this confession is overheard by Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigaïlov, a former employer of Avdotya Romanovna Raskolnikova, Rodion’s sister. Arkady Svidrigailov, who was considered a suspect in the death of his own wife, attempts to seduce and rape Rodion’s sister, who convinces him not to. He spends the night in confusion and despair and in the morning he shoots himself.
The only person besides Sonya who knows what Raskolnikov did has committed suicide. He could simply leave St. Petersburg and begin a new life somewhere else, but Raskolnikov goes to the police station and confesses his crimes.
The epilogue tells of how Raskolnikov is sentenced to penal servitude in Siberia, where Sonya follows him. Avdotya and Dmitri Prokofich Razumikhin, Raskolnikov’s friend, marry and are left in a happy position by the end of the novel, while Pulkheria Alexandrovna Raskolnikova, Raskolnikov's mother, falls ill and dies, unable to cope with her son's situation. Raskolnikov himself struggles in Siberia. It is only after some time in prison that his redemption and moral regeneration begin under Sonya's loving influence. 10 Sonia can be understood as representing traditional Orthodox values. He is plagued by horrible nightmares of what he had done and this young girl encourages him to do the right thing.
The specific concerns that spurred Dostoevsky to write this novel grew out of a larger pattern of reform and reaction that dominated Russian history throughout the nineteenth century. This pattern, in turn, stemmed from increased exposure to Western European ideas by the Russian upper class. Unlike Western Europe, Russian society continued to consist largely of peasants and lords, with a small, economically weak middle class. Dostoevsky was alone among Russia's major nineteenth-century novelists in terms of belonging to that middle class, for the others all came from the small, but powerful ruling class, or nobility. His contemporary, Lev Tolstoy, for example, was a count.
Amounting to about one percent of the population, the nobility included large landowners whose estates subsumed entire villages, and who controlled vast numbers of serfs, the laboring peasants whose position resembled that of the slaves in the southern United States. Though nominally free, the serf was, in fact, bound to the land and the service of a lord. The character of Svidrigaïlov, a landowner and serial child rapist, who beats and sexually abuses his serfs which represents this system's worst abuses. Serfdom remained the leading issue for Russian intellectuals until its abolition in 1861, but even afterwards Russian leaders continued the pattern of alternating between reforms aimed at modernizing on the European model, and harsh, oppressive reactions against those attempted reforms.11
Each of the people mentioned displayed their genius in a particular way. Fyodor Dostoevsky was certainly no exception. Instead of simply challenging philosophical positions which he did not agree with, Dostoevsky brought those philosophical positions to life by placing them on the lips of his characters and showing what happens when those positions are taken to their logical conclusion.
A devoutly religious man who underwent a religious conversion while in prison in Siberia, it was obvious that he loved his country and understood that Russian culture must remain tied to the Orthodox Church if that culture was going to remain. It could be said that life in post-Communist Russia confirms that Dostoevsky was correct. The fact that people still read these novels is proof that there are still people who believe in the beauty of the Russian culture and that his novels support their beliefs. Since the time of Peter the Great there have been debates over the influence of Western European culture on Russian society. It appears that, thanks to men like Fyodor Dostoevsky, this debate continues.
1) “Genius” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genius (accessed 2/1/12)
2) “Fyodor Dostoevsky” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fyodor_Dostoyevsky (accessed 2/1/12)
3) Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky The Idiot (New York: Vintage, 2001), Introduction pp. xix
4) “Suffering and Community in Brothers Karamazov” http://heideggerm1.blogspot.com/2011/08/suffering-and-community-in-brothers.html (accessed 2/3/12)
5) “Suffering and Community in Brothers Karamazov”
6) “The Kindness of Others” http://heideggerm1.blogspot.com/2011/06/kindness-of-others.html (accessed 2/3/12)
7) “The Kindness of Others”
8) Angela Brintlinger and Ilya Vinitsky (ed.) Madness and the Mad in Russian Culture (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), p. 242
9) “The Beauty of the Russian Soul” http://heideggerm1.blogspot.com/2011/10/beauty-of-russian-soul.html (accessed 2/4/12)
10) “The Great and the Lowly” http://heideggerm1.blogspot.com/2011/09/great-and-lowly.html (accessed 2/4/12)
11) “Crime and Punishment: Events in History at the time of the Novel” http://www.answers.com/topic/crime-and-punishment-events-in-history-at-the-time-of-the-novel (accessed 2/5/12)