In Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” there is discussion about crime between the main character and murderer, Raskolnikov, and the policeman in charge of the old lady’s murder case, Porfiry. The book is fantastic and this dialogue just blew my mind. So I felt like writing it here.
Porfiry: The whole point of his article is that the human race is divided into the “ordinary” and the “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. That’s more or less what you wrote, isn’t it, if I’m not mistaken?
Raskolnikov: No, that’s not quiet what I wrote. Actually, I will admit that you’ve given an almost correct account of my idea, even a completely correct one, if you like…The only point of difference is that I don’t at all insist that extraordinary people are in all circumstances unfailingly bound and obliged to commit “all sorts of atrocities”, as you put it. No, all I did was quite simple to allude to the fact that an “extraordinary” person has a right…not an official right, of course, but a private one, to allow his conscience to step across certain…obstacles, and then only if the execution of his idea (which may occasionally be the salvation of all mankind) requires it. You say that my article is obscure; I am prepared to explain it to you, to the best of my ability. I think I may not be mistaken in supposing that that is what you would like me to do; by all means, sir. It is my view that if the discoveries of Kepler and Newton could not on any account, as a result of certain complex factors, have become known to people other than by means of sacrificing the life of one person, the lives of ten, a hundred or even more persons, who were trying to interfere with those discoveries or stand as an obstacle in their path, then Newton would have had the right, and would even have been obliged…to get rid of those ten or a hundred persons, in order to make his discoveries known to all mankind. From this it does not, of course, follow that Newton had the right to kill anyone and everyone he wanted to, or go stealing at the market every day. Furthermore, as I remember it, I went on to develop the idea that all the…well, for example, all the law-makers and guiding spirits of mankind, starting with the most ancient ones, and continuing with the Lycurguses, the Solons, the Mahomets, the Napoleons and so on, were all every one of them criminals, if only by the fact that, in propounding a new law, they were thereby violating an old one that was held in sacred esteem by society and had been inherited from the ancestors; and, of course, they did not shrink from bloodshed, if blood (sometimes entirely innocent and shed in valour for the ancient law) was something that could in any way help them. It is in fact worth noting that the majority of those benefactors and guiding spirits of mankind were particularly fearsome blood-letters. In short, I argued that all people – not only the great, but even those who deviate only marginally from the common rut, that’s to say who are only marginally capable of saying something new, are bound, by their very nature, to be criminals – to a greater or lesser degree, of course…As for my division of people into the ordinary and the extraordinary, I agree that it is somewhat arbitrary, but after all, I don’t insist on precise figures. It’s only my central idea that I place my faith in. That idea consists in the notion that, by the law of their nature, human beings in general may be divided into two categories: a lower one (that of the ordinary), that is to say raw material which serves exclusively to bring into being more like itself, and another group of people who possess a gift or a talent for saying something new, in their own milieu. There are within these categories infinite subdivisions, of course, but the distinguishing features of each are quite clearly marked: the people of the first category, the raw material, that is, are in general conservative by nature, sedate, live lives of obedience and like to be obeyed. In my view, they have a duty to be obedient, as that is their function, and there is really nothing about this that is degrading to them. The second category all break the law, are destroyers, or have a tendency that way, depending on their abilities. The crimes of these people are, of course, relative and multifarious; for the most part what they are demanding, in highly varied forms, is the destruction of the present reality in the name of one that is better. But if such a person finds it necessary, for the sake of his idea, to step over a dead body, over a pool of blood, then he is able within his own conscience to give himself permission to do so – always having regard to the nature of the idea and its dimensions- note that. It’s in this sense alone that I speak in my article or their right to crime.