Crime and Punishment is a skillfully done and engaging read that brings terrifying philosophies to life. Considering the book uses 500 pages to describe the events of a month of so, this might seem to be a dry a boring read. This is not so, for the book moves along at a fast clip and offers a compelling, deep perspective that is not found very often today.
Crime and Punishment is about many philosophic ideas. The "Extraordinary Man" theory is one of them, the redemptive nature of suffering another. In particular, however, I was struck by a certain aspect that does not emerge fully until the epilogue. While sick, Raskolnikov has a dream (p.518):
"...the whole world was condemned to suffer a terrible, unprecedented, and unparalleled plague, which had spread to Europe from the depths of Asia. Except for a small handful of the chosen, all were doomed to perish. A new kind of trichinae had appeared, microscopic substances that lodged in men's bodies. Yet these were spiritual substances as well, endowed with mind and will. Those infected were seized immediately and went mad. Yet people never considered themselves so clever and so unhesitatingly right as these infected ones considered themselves. Never had they considered their decrees, their scientific deductions, their moral convictions and their beliefs more firmly based. Whole settlements, whole cities and nations were infected and went mad. Everybody was in a state of alarm, and nobody understood anybody; each thought the truth was in him alone; suffered agonies when he looked on others; beat his breast; wept and wrung his hands. They did not know whom to bring to trial or how to try him; they could not agree on what to consider evil, what good. They did not know whom to condemn or whom to acquit."
Of course, Dostoyevsky is talking about ideas that spread from one person to another. Russia at this time was a changing place. Notions of Hegelian "historical necessity" had invaded Russia and were influencing revolutionary movements. Revolutionaries and intellectuals thought that if things were historically necessary, and if society advanced through contradiction and negation, this idea would justify potentially immoral means of reaching their ends. Of course, this is part of the reason that Raskolnikov committed the murder.
Raskolnikov thought that truly great men are able to transgress the law in order that their greatness can come forth for the benefit of society. The murder is committed as a test of the murderer's "greatness." If Raskolinov can carry through with the murder and its aftermath, then he can prove to himself that he is a great man.
It is implied that Raskolnikov eventually realizes that his idea was wrong while exiled in Siberia. Dostoyevsky himself was exiled to Siberia for engaging in revolutionary activities in this Hegelian framework. While there, Dostoyevsky underwent (as far as can be determined) a genuine return to Russian Orthodoxy. Upon his return to Petersburg, he became a staunch opponent of the intellectual circles he was once engaged in. It was during this time that his most famous works, like Crime and Punishment, were published.
Dostoyevsky uses the story of Raskolnikov's soul, as well as parts of the novel such as the dream, to criticize the philosophies that were quickly spreading through Russia. Dostoyevsky undoubtedly feared that these philosophies would be the undoing of Russia and the world, as alluded to in Raskolnikov's dream. Communism is heavily influenced by Hegel, so perhaps his fears came to pass.
It would be interesting to learn Dostoyevsky's take on our modern philosophical landscape. The ideas of Hegel have largely been replaced by broad relativism. It would be interesting to examine his response to a philosophy that emphasises personal determination of truth. Although Raskolnikov's dream is undoubtedly directed toward the then-popular Hegelian theories, it could almost be read as a warning against the modern ideas of relativism.