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Dostoyevsky, Just After His Death Sentence Was Repealed, on the Meaning of Life

“To be a human being among people and to remain one forever, no matter in what circumstances, not to grow despondent and not to lose heart — that’s what life is all about, that’s its task.”

Dostoyevsky, Just After His Death Sentence Was Repealed, on the Meaning of Life

“I mean to work tremendously hard,” the young Fyodor Dostoyevsky (November 11, 1821–February 9, 1881) resolved in contemplating his literary future, beseeching his impoverished mother to buy him books. At the age of twenty-seven, he was arrested for belonging to a literary society that circulated books deemed dangerous by the tsarist regime. He was sentenced to death. On December 22, 1849, he was taken to a public square in Saint Petersburg, alongside a handful of other inmates, where they were to be executed as a warning to the masses. They were read their death sentence, put into their execution attire of white shirts, and allowed to kiss the cross. Ritualistic sabers were broken over their heads. Three at a time, they were stood against the stakes where the execution was to be carried out. Dostoyevsky, the sixth in line, grew acutely aware that he had only moments to live.

And then, at the last minute, a pompous announcement was made that the tsar was pardoning their lives — the whole spectacle had been orchestrated as a cruel publicity stunt to depict the despot as a benevolent ruler. The real sentence was then read: Dostoyevsky was to spend four years in a Siberian labor camp, followed by several years of compulsory military service in the tsar’s armed forces, in exile. He would be nearly forty by the time he picked up the pen again to resume his literary ambitions. But now, in the raw moments following his close escape from death, he was elated with relief, reborn into a new cherishment of life.

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov, 1871

He poured his exultation into a stunning letter to his brother Mikhail, penned hours after the staged execution and found in the first volume of the out-of-print collection of his complete correspondence, the 1988 treasure Dostoevsky Letters (public library).

A century before Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl offered his hard-won assurance that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances,” Dostoyevsky writes:

Brother! I’m not despondent and I haven’t lost heart. Life is everywhere, life is in us ourselves, not outside. There will be people by my side, and to be a human being among people and to remain one forever, no matter in what circumstances, not to grow despondent and not to lose heart — that’s what life is all about, that’s its task. I have come to recognize that. The idea has entered my flesh and blood… The head that created, lived the higher life of art, that recognized and grew accustomed to the higher demands of the spirit, that head has already been cut from my shoulders… But there remain in me a heart and the same flesh and blood that can also love, and suffer, and pity, and remember, and that’s life, too!

Art by Shaun Tan from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

Still, even through this elation, the animating force of his being — his identity as a writer — grounds him into a depth of despair. “Can it be that I’ll never take pen in hand?” he asks in sullen anticipation of the next four years at the labor camp. “If I won’t be able to write, I’ll perish. Better fifteen years of imprisonment and a pen in hand!” But he quickly recovers his electric gratitude for the mere fact of being alive and, reassuring his brother not to grieve for him, continues:

I haven’t lost heart, remember that hope has not abandoned me… After all I was at death’s door today, I lived with that thought for three-quarters of an hour, I faced the last moment, and now I’m alive again!

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

In a beautiful testament to the elemental fact that when all the static of our self-righteousness dies down, what remains between good people is only love, he writes:

If anyone remembers me with malice, and if I quarreled with anyone, if I made a bad impression on anyone — tell them to forget about that if you manage to see them. There is no bile or spite in my soul, I would like to so love and embrace at least someone out of the past at this moment.


When I look back at the past and think how much time was spent in vain, how much of it was lost in delusions, in errors, in idleness, in the inability to live; how I failed to value it, how many times I sinned against my heart and spirit — then my heart contracts in pain. Life is a gift, life is happiness, each moment could have been an eternity of happiness. Si jeunesse savait! [If youth knew!]

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from The Well of Being.

Half a century before Oscar Wilde penned his extraordinary letter about suffering as a force of transformation and transcendence from prison, where he was interned for having loved whom he loved, Dostoyevsky adds:

Now, changing my life, I’m being regenerated into a new form. Brother! I swear to you that I won’t lose hope and will preserve my heart and spirit in purity. I’ll be reborn for the better. That’s my entire hope, my entire consolation.

Life in the casemate has already sufficiently killed off in me the needs of the flesh that were not completely pure; before that I took little care of myself. Now deprivations no longer bother me in the slightest, and therefore don’t be afraid that material hardship will kill me.

Having spent years in material privation myself — though never, mercifully, nearly to the extent Dostoyevsky endured — and being always grateful for how those times annealed me, how they made me less afraid of poverty and hardship, more willing to take risks others might not, to take less materially secure paths in life (one resulting in the birth of Brain Pickings), I can’t help but wonder how much this harrowing experience fomented Dostoyevsky’s extraordinary perseverance as an artist against the tides of convention and the constant specter of poverty. It certainly reverberates throughout Notes from the Underground, Crime and Punishment, and especially The Brothers Karamazov; it certainly informed his ideas about the meaning of life, set forth decades later in the guise of a dream, and inspired his insistence upon the existential duty of seeing the goodness in people “despite the abundance of all sorts of wretches.”

Complement with a young neurosurgeon on the meaning of life as he faces his death and Walt Whitman on what makes life worth living, then revisit Anna — the love of Dostoyevsky’s life, who saved him from poverty and debtor’s prison — on the secret to a happy marriage.


The Banality of Evil: Hannah Arendt on the Normalization of Human Wickedness and Our Only Effective Antidote to It

“Under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not… No more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.”

The Banality of Evil: Hannah Arendt on the Normalization of Human Wickedness and Our Only Effective Antidote to It

“Never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it,” the great French philosopher and activist Simone Weil wrote in 1933 as she contemplated how to be a complete human being amid a world that seemed to be falling apart. But modern life is no fairy tale and one of its most disorienting perplexities is that evil isn’t always as easily recognizable as a Grimm stepmother. Maya Angelou captured this in her 1982 conversation with Bill Moyers about courage and facing evil, in which she observed: “Throughout our nervous history, we have constructed pyramidic towers of evil, ofttimes in the name of good.” Joseph Brodsky echoed the sentiment five years later in his spectacular speech on our greatest antidote to evil: “What we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good.”

A core cause of this perplexity lies in the fact that while acts of evil can mushroom into monumental tragedies, the individual human perpetrators of those acts are often marked not with the grandiosity of the demonic but with absolute mundanity.

This was the revolutionary and, like every revolutionary idea, at the time controversial point that Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) made in 1962, when The New Yorker commissioned her, a Jew of who had narrowly escaped from Nazi Germany herself, to travel to Jerusalem and report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann — one of the chief architects of the Holocaust. In 1963, her writings about the trial were published as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (public library) — a sobering reflection on “the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us — the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”

Hannah Arendt

A decade after Arendt established herself as a formidable thinker with her incisive inquiry into how totalitarian tyrants take hold of a people, she writes:

The essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them.

It is through this lens of bureaucracy (which she calls “the rule of Nobody”) as a weapon of totalitarianism that Arendt arrives at her notion of “the banality of evil” — a banality reflected in Eichmann himself, who embodied “the dilemma between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the undeniable ludicrousness of the man who perpetrated them.” In a passage that applies to Donald Trump with astonishing accuracy — except the part about lying, of course; that aspect Arendt addressed with equal prescience elsewhere — she describes Eichmann:

What he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.

The Nazis, Arendt argues, furnished this deliberate disconnect from reality with what she calls “holes of oblivion.” (Today, we call them “alternative facts.”) In a searing testament to the power of speaking up, she considers what the story of the Holocaust — a story irrepressibly told by its survivors — has taught us:

The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story.


The lesson of such stories is simple and within everybody’s grasp. Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.

Arendt took great care to differentiate between the banal and the commonplace, but some reviewers — as those pre-bent on a reflexive rebuttal are always apt to do — accused her of suggesting that the atrocity of the Holocaust had been commonplace, which of course was the very opposite of her point. Among those who misunderstood her notion of the “banality” of evil to mean a trivialization of the outcome of evil rather than an insight into the commonplace motives of its perpetrators was the scholar Gerhard Scholem, with whom Arendt had corresponded warmly for decades. At the end of a six-page letter to Scholem from early December of 1964, she crystallizes her point and dispels all grounds for confusion with the elegant precision of her rhetoric:

You are quite right, I changed my mind and do no longer speak of “radical evil.” … It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is “thought-defying,” as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its “banality.” Only the good has depth that can be radical.

Eichmann in Jerusalem remains, unfortunately, an increasingly relevant masterwork as we face a world seized by banal tyrants capable of perpetrating enormous evil with their small hands. But perhaps John Steinbeck put it best in his superb letter written months before Arendt arrived in New York as a refugee from Nazi Germany: “All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.”

Complement it with Dostoyevsky on why there are no bad people and Mary McCarthy — Arendt’s longtime friend and correspondent — on how we decide whether evil is forgivable, then revisit Arendt on lying in politics, the meaning of “refugee,” how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression, and the crucial difference between truth and meaning.


Dostoyevsky on Integrity, Success, and the Ultimate Goal of Creative Work

“The artist … must consecrate all his toil to the holy spirit of art — such toil is holy, chaste, and demands single-heartedness.”

Dostoyevsky on Integrity, Success, and the Ultimate Goal of Creative Work

“Anyone with any degree of mental toughness ought to be able to exist without the things they like most for a few months at least,” young Georgia O’Keeffe wrote to her best friend from the pit of poverty, long before she became one of humanity’s most celebrated artists. That, perhaps, is part of the definition of an artist — someone equally endowed with the emotional porousness necessary for perceiving life’s deepest dimensions, and with the mental toughness necessary for doing so despite the inconvenience, deprivation, and resistance this might entail.

Hardly any artist has articulated this essential duality of creative work with more moving sincerity than Fyodor Dostoyevsky (November 11, 1821–February 9, 1881).

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov, 1871

In 1837, the year his mother died of tuberculosis, teenage Fyodor was sent to a military engineering institute in St. Petersburg. His artistic temperament and physical clumsiness made him poorly suited for the military, but he particularly resented being forced to abandon his study of the humanities, which he felt nourished his soul, for a dry technical career. Life at the military boot camp was hard enough — he slept in a canvas tent even under heavy rain and his bed was a bundle of straw covered in a ragged sheet — but what oppressed him most of all was having no books to read.

Eventually, he swallowed his pride and asked his financially strained father for help. In a letter from May of 1838, found in the altogether terrific Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoyevsky to His Family and Friends (public library) — which also gave us the great Russian author on the heart vs. the mind and how we come to know truth — 16-year-old Dostoyevsky beseeches his father:

How can I pass the time without books? … If you will stand by your son in his bitter need, send him this money by the first of June. I dare not insist upon my petition: I am not asking too much, but my gratitude will be boundless.

What other course in life is there for a person who sees literature as a form of nourishment more vital than food and shelter? This was the dawn of Dostoyevsky’s literary ambition. By that fall, he was already thinking about the question of artistic success, its false relationship with fame, and its proper measure. He writes to his brother:

The poet’s inspiration is increased by success. Byron was an egoist; his longing for fame was petty. But the mere thought that through one’s inspiration there will one day lift itself from the dust to heaven’s heights some noble, beautiful human soul; the thought that those lines over which one has wept are consecrated as by a heavenly rite through one’s inspiration, and that over them the coming generations will weep in echo… that thought, I am convinced, has come to many a poet in the very moment of his highest creative rapture. But the shouting of the mob is empty and vain.

Echoing his contemporary Kierkegaard’s views on popular opinion, young Dostoyevsky adds:

There occur to me those lines of Pushkin, where he describes the mob and the poet:

“So let the foolish crowd, thy work despising, scream,
And spit upon the shrine where burns thy fire supreme,
Let them in childish arrogance thy tripod set a-tremble…”

Wonderful, isn’t it?

Over the years that followed, Dostoyevsky continued to struggle materially and found himself deeply in debt — a predicament he wouldn’t transcend until decades later, thanks to his his brilliant and business-savvy wife Anna.

In a letter form 1844, 23-year-old Dostoyevsky reports unsentimentally that his “position is desperate,” but assures his brother:

As regards my future life, you really need not be anxious. I shall always find means to support myself. I mean to work tremendously hard.

And work he did — that year, he finished his first novel, appropriately titled Poor Folk. “I am extraordinarily pleased with my novel,” Dostoyevsky wrote to his brother, “beside myself with joy.” But while trying to get the manuscript in the hands of the right literary tastemakers, Dostoyevsky grew even more impoverished. In a letter from the spring of 1845, he consoles his brother as much as he consoles himself:

What do I want with fame, when I’m writing for daily bread? I took a desperate resolve — to wait a little longer, and in the meantime incur fresh debts.


And now to those means of subsistence! You know well, dear brother, that I have been thrown on my own resources in that respect. But I have vowed to myself that, however hard it may go with me, I’ll pull myself together, and in no circumstances will I work to order. Work done to order would oppress and blight me. I want each of my efforts to be incontrovertibly good. Just look at Pushkin and Gogol. Both wrote very little, yet both have deserved national memorials. Gogol now gets a thousand roubles a printed page, while Pushkin had, as you know well, as much as a ducat a line of verse. Both — but particularly Gogol — bought their fame at the price of years of dire poverty.

He adds:

I should rather like to write something that would introduce me to the public… If I fail in this, I’ll hang myself.

Art by Shaun Tan for a rare edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

By October of 1845, strained by poverty and the uncertainty of his manuscript’s fate, he has plummeted into despair:

Until now I have had neither time nor spirits to write you anything about my own affairs. Everything was disgusting and hateful, and the whole world seemed a desert. In the first place, I had no money all the time, and was living on credit, which is most unpleasant, my dear and only friend. In the second, I was in that wretched mood wherein one loses all courage, yet does not fall into dull indifference — rather, which is much worse, thinks a great deal too much about one’s self, and rages uncontrollably.

But the stars soon aligned. Poor Folk made its way to Russia’s most influential literary critic, who proclaimed it the country’s first social novel. It was published in January of 1846 and became an instant commercial success. So began Dostoyevsky’s conflicted relationship with fame — he both longed for it as the ultimate gratification of the ego’s ambition and scorned it as a function of the abominable taste of the masses. He relays the charade of fame in a letter to his brother:

Well, brother, I believe that my fame is just now in its fullest flower. Everywhere I meet with the most amazing consideration and enormous interest. I have made the acquaintance of a lot of very important people… Everybody looks upon me as a wonder of the world. If I but open my mouth, the air resounds with what Dostoevsky said, what Dostoevsky means to do.

But his fame — a phenomenon Einstein once derided as fickle buffoonery — brought its invariable companion: the small-spirited bullying that petty jealousy engenders. Dostoyevsky laments to his brother:

“Poor Folk” appeared on the 15th. If you only knew, brother, how bitterly the book has been abused! The criticism in the [newspaper] Illustration was one unbroken tirade… They scold, scold, scold, yet they read it.

Once again, Dostoyevsky comforts himself with the similar fate his great hero endured:

It was the same with Gogol. They abused, abused, but read him. Now they’ve made up that quarrel, and praise him. I’ve thrown a hard bone to the dogs, but let them worry at it — fools! They but add to my fame.

By the following year, Dostoyevsky is famous beyond his wildest imaginings. But among fame’s most challenging facets is its tendency to force one to confront the contrast between the private person and the public persona, only amplifying the shame of one’s perceived personal flaws against the backdrop of public adulation. And so Dostoyevsky — even Dostoyevsky — succumbs to impostor syndrome. After his second novel, The Double, was published and received some negative reviews, he writes to his brother:

My fame has reached its highest point. In the course of two months I have, by my own reckoning, been mentioned five-and-thirty times in different papers. In certain articles I’ve been praised beyond measure, in others with more reserve, and in others, again, frightfully abused. What could I ask for more?


I hear such hymns of praise that I should be ashamed to repeat them. As to myself, I was for some time utterly discouraged. I have one terrible vice: I am unpardonably ambitious and egotistic. The thought that I had disappointed all the hopes set on me, and spoilt what might have been a really significant piece of work, depressed me very heavily. The thought of [The Double] made me sick. I wrote a lot of it too quickly, and in moments of fatigue. The first half is better than the second. Alongside many brilliant passages are others so disgustingly bad that I can’t read them myself. All this put me in a kind of hell for a time; I was actually ill with vexation.

By November of that year, Dostoyevsky had grown disenchanted with the publishing business. In a letter to his brother, he extols the supremacy of creative integrity over commercial success:

From the whole business I have deduced a sage rule. First, the budding author of talent injures himself by having friendly relations with the publishers and proprietors of journals, the consequence of which is that those gentry take liberties and behave shabbily. Moreover, the artist must be independent; and finally, he must consecrate all his toil to the holy spirit of art — such toil is holy, chaste, and demands single-heartedness; my own heart thrills now as never before with all the new imaginings that come to life in my soul.

This renewed faith in the true priorities of art — the devotion to ideals grander and more abiding than fame — reinvigorated Dostoyevsky’s creative spirit and he went on to write some of the greatest, most enduring literature of all time. More than twenty years later, he reflects on the ultimate ideal of art in a letter to his niece:

My whole literary activity has embodied for me but one definite ideal value, but one aim, but one hope… I do not strive for fame and money, but only and solely for the synthesis of my imaginative and literary ideals, which means that before I die I desire to speak out, in some work that shall as far as possible express the whole of what I think.

A century and a half later, Dostoyevsky’s literary imagination continues to speak to our deepest humanity.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly satisfying Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoyevsky to His Family and Friends with Felix Mendelssohn on creative integrity and the measure of artistic satisfaction, then revisit Dostoyevsky on why there are no bad people, the story of the day he discovered the meaning of life in a dream, and the secret to his happy marriage.


Dostoyevsky on the Heart vs. the Mind and How We Come to Know Truth

“Nature, the soul, love, and God, one recognizes through the heart, and not through the reason… Reason is a tool, a machine, which is driven by the spiritual fire.”

Dostoyevsky on the Heart vs. the Mind and How We Come to Know Truth

“Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature,” Martha Nussbaum — one of the most insightful and influential philosophers of our time — asserted in her terrific treatise on the intelligence of the emotions. “They are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.” It’s an idea proposed — and resisted — for centuries, if not millennia. “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know,” Blaise Pascal wrote in contemplating intuition and the intellect in the 17th century.

But perhaps the most beautiful meditation on this abiding tug-of-war between reason and emotion comes not from a hoary philosopher but from a teenage boy — one who would grow up to become the greatest psychological writer of all time.

Decades before he found the meaning of life in a dream and was fortunate to find himself in one of history’s most beautiful loves, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (November 11, 1821–February 9, 1881) tussled with the interplay of the heart and the mind in how we come to know truth. In an 1838 letter to his brother Mikhail, penned shortly before his seventeenth birthday and included in Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoyevsky to His Family and Friends (public library), Dostoyevsky accuses his brother of being apt to “philosophize like a poet” and writes:

To know more, one must feel less, and vice versa… Nature, the soul, love, and God, one recognizes through the heart, and not through the reason. Were we spirits, we could dwell in that region of ideas over which our souls hover, seeking the solution. But we are earth-born beings, and can only guess at the Idea — not grasp it by all sides at once. The guide for our intelligences through the temporary illusion into the innermost centre of the soul is called Reason. Now, Reason is a material capacity, while the soul or spirit lives on the thoughts which are whispered by the heart. Thought is born in the soul. Reason is a tool, a machine, which is driven by the spiritual fire. When human reason … penetrates into the domain of knowledge, it works independently of the feeling, and consequently of the heart.

He comes full-circle to the divergent ways in which poetry and philosophy bring us into contact with truth, both necessary but one, in his view, superior:

Philosophy cannot be regarded as a mere equation where nature is the unknown quantity! Remark that the poet, in the moment of inspiration, comprehends God, and consequently does the philosopher’s work. Consequently poetic inspiration is nothing less than philosophical inspiration. Consequently philosophy is nothing but poetry, a higher degree of poetry!

Complement this particular fragment of Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoyevsky to His Family and Friends with British economic theorist and philosopher E.F. Schumacher, writing a century and a half later, on how to see with the eye of the heart, then revisit Dostoyevsky on why there are no bad people and his beloved wife on the secret to a happy marriage.


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