Nietzsche and Dostoevsky

On the Verge of Nihilism

by Paolo Stellino (Author)
Monographs 247 Pages


The first time that Nietzsche crossed the path of Dostoevsky was in the winter of 1886–87. While in Nice, Nietzsche discovered in a bookshop the volume L’esprit souterrain. Two years later, he defined Dostoevsky as the only psychologist from whom he had anything to learn. The second, metaphorical encounter between Nietzsche and Dostoevsky happened on the verge of nihilism. Nietzsche announced the death of God, whereas Dostoevsky warned against the danger of atheism.
This book describes the double encounter between Nietzsche and Dostoevsky. Following the chronological thread offered by Nietzsche’s correspondence, the author provides a detailed analysis of Nietzsche’s engagement with Dostoevsky from the very beginning of his discovery to the last days before his mental breakdown. The second part of this book aims to dismiss the wide-spread and stereotypical reading according to which Dostoevsky foretold and criticized in his major novels some of Nietzsche’s most dangerous and nihilistic theories. In order to reject such reading, the author focuses on the following moral dilemma: If God does not exist, is everything permitted?

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Contents
  • Note on Translations and Abbreviations
  • Preface
  • Part I. Nietzsche Discovers and Reads Dostoevsky
  • 1. Nietzsche’s Discovery of Dostoevsky
  • 2. L’esprit souterrain (Katia, The Landlady)
  • 3. L’esprit souterrain (Lisa, Notes from Underground)
  • 4. Resentment
  • 5. Notes from the House of the Dead
  • 6. The Insulted and Injured
  • 7. A Heated Debate
  • 8. A “Subterranean” at Work
  • 9. Petersburg-Style Nihilism
  • 10. Further Readings
  • 11. On the Possible Reading of Crime and Punishment
  • 12. Jesus as Idiot
  • 13. Demons
  • 14. Dostoevsky as Artist. Russian Pessimism and Décadence
  • 15. An Unexpected Silence? A Recapitulation of Nietzsche’s Discovery and Reading of Dostoevsky
  • Part II. If God Does not Exist, Is Everything Permitted?
  • Contextualization of the Problem
  • 1. The Brothers Karamazov
  • 1.1 The Plot
  • 1.2 The Reason – Faith Conflict
  • 1.3 Ivan’s Idea
  • 1.4 The Crisis of the Idea
  • 2. Nothing Is True, Everything Is Permitted
  • 2.1 Zarathustra’s Shadow
  • 2.2 The Order of Assassins
  • 2.3 The Posthumous Fragments
  • 2.4 The Variant
  • 2.5 Conclusion
  • 3. Dostoevsky contra Nietzsche?
  • 3.1 Raskolnikov’s Extraordinary Man and Nietzsche’s Overman
  • 3.2 Kirillov’s Man-God as Overman?
  • 3.3 Ivan as Nietzsche’s Forerunner?
  • 4. Conclusive Remarks: Rethinking the Relation between Nietzsche and Dostoevsky
  • Bibliography
  • Name Index
  • Series Index

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Note on Translations and Abbreviations

Nietzsche’s writings:

The English translations of Nietzsche’s works are from the Cambridge Edition. An exception is made for Duncan Large’s translation of Twilight of the Idols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) which seems to me to be more faithful to the original text. Nietzsche’s works are cited by abbreviation, chapter (when applicable) and section number.

Nietzsche’s late posthumous fragments have not yet been fully translated into English. Some of them are collected in the following works: Writings from the Late Notebooks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); The Will to Power (New York: Vintage Books, 1967). I have directly translated from German those posthumous fragments not included in the aforementioned works. The abbreviation PF refers to “Posthumous Fragments”. I specify the reference number of every posthumous fragment quoted (as in the KGW [=Werke, Kritische Gesamtausgabe] or KSA [=Sämtliche Werke, Kritische Studienausgabe] editions) and the estimated period of composition (Colli and Montinari’s chronology).

Nietzsche’s letters as well have been only partially translated into English. The following editions are available: Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969); Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1921). I have directly translated from German those letters which are not included in the aforementioned works. In the KGB [=Briefwechsel, Kritische Gesamtausgabe] or KSB [=Sämtliche Briefe, Kritische Studienausgabe] editions, Nietzsche’s letters are always marked with a number. When I quote a letter, I use the symbol # plus the reference number of the letter.

When necessary, I have partially rectified or modified the translations following the Digital Critical Edition of the Complete Works and Letters of Nietzsche edited by Paolo D’Iorio. See Nietzsche Source: <http://www.nietzschesource.org> ← 11 | 12 →

The abbreviations used are the following:

A=The Anti-Christ
BGE=Beyond Good and Evil
BT=The Birth of Tragedy
CW=The Case of Wagner
DD=Dithyrambs of Dionysus
EH=Ecce Homo
GM=On the Genealogy of Morality
GS=The Gay Science
HH=Human, All Too Human
NW=Nietzsche contra Wagner
TI=Twilight of the Idols
TL=On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense
WS=The Wanderer and His Shadow
Z=Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Dostoevsky’s writings:

With the exception of the volume Erzählungen von F. M. Dostojewskij (Leipzig: Reclam, 1886), Nietzsche read Dostoevsky in the French translations published by Plon (Paris). As will be shown, these translations played a pivotal role in Nietzsche’s understanding and interpretation of Dostoevsky’s writings. To ease the reading, without sacrificing philological accuracy, in the first part of this volume I cite the English translation of Dostoevsky’s writings in the body of the text and then the corresponding French translation in the footnotes.

For the English translations, when available, I have used the Pevear and Valokhonsky translations. For Notes from the House of the Dead and The Insulted and Injured, I have used B. Jakim’s new translations. The Landlady is contained in the volume Poor Folk and Other Stories (London: Penguin, 1988), translated by D. McDuff. The Complete letters are available in five volumes (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ardis, 1988–91). A Writer’s Diary has been translated by K. Lantz (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1994, 2 Vols.). ← 12 | 13 →

The abbreviations used are the following:

Ad=The Adolescent
BK=The Brothers Karamazov
CL=Complete letters
CP=Crime and Punishment
Er=Erzählungen von F. M. Dostojewskij
ES=L’esprit souterrain
FK=Les frères Karamazov
HO=Humiliés et offensés
I&I=The Insulted and Injured
Id=The Idiot
L=The Landlady
NHD=Notes from the House of the Dead
NU=Notes from Underground
P=Les possédés
SMM=Souvenirs de la maison des morts
WD=A Writer’s Diary

Other abbreviations used:

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“They arrive in compact, deep lines. It is the revenge of 1812.1 They will not set fire to Paris; we do not need any help to do that. They will drown it under printer’s ink. Throughout the summer they have furtively proliferated, they have come out of the press. […] I search for a volume of Voltaire: it has disappeared under a stack of Tolstoy’s books. My Racine has disappeared under those of Dostoevsky.”

With these words, which introduce one of several articles on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky published in the French newspapers during the 1880s, the literary critic Eugène Melchior de Vogüé (1886b: 824) alludes to the increasingly widespread diffusion of Russian novels within the Western Europe cultural world at the time. It is precisely within this historical and cultural context that Nietzsche’s discovery of Dostoevsky has to be set. It is the winter of 1886–87. Nietzsche arrives in Nice around the 20th of October. He stays some months, taking advantage of the mild weather of the Mediterranean coast. While browsing in a bookshop, the volume L’esprit souterrain catches his attention. If we trust Nietzsche’s own account, he does not even know the name of the author. Nonetheless, he instinctively feels a sense of affinity and familiarity with him. Nietzsche buys the volume and reads it very carefully. From then on, in his last two years of lucidity, the philosopher conducts a deep inner dialogue with Dostoevsky.

It is no surprise that Dostoevsky’s novels fascinated Nietzsche. Without denying the considerable differences that make their respective worldviews diverge from each other, one could easily find several similarities between the novelist and the philosopher. Both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky were great psychologists, able to explore the depths of the human soul and to grasp both its complexity and its more problematic and immoral aspects. They also understood and diagnosed the phenomenon of nihilism probably better than any other intellectuals ← 15 | 16 → of the nineteenth century, providing an excellent and essential analysis of this multifaceted phenomenon. Moreover, they sought to give an answer to similar moral and philosophical problems. Their answers clearly differed, but what characterized them both was their same depth of approach.

European intellectuals soon realized that the paths of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky were destined to merge. Strictly speaking, it was Georg Brandes, the Danish critic and scholar, who first connected the works of Dostoevsky with Nietzsche’s philosophy in his book Impressions from Russia.2 In a chapter dedicated to Dostoevsky, Brandes applied Nietzsche’s categories to the novelist, interpreting him as a particular example of the man of ressentiment, while his morality was precisely the same slave morality described by Nietzsche in his Genealogy of Morality. Besides this brief comparison, however, there is little doubt that the first to draw attention to the relationship between Nietzsche and Dostoevsky were Russian intellectuals. The peculiarity of this first reception was the identification between Nietzsche’s overman with some of the main nihilistic characters (such as Raskolnikov, Kirillov or Ivan Karamazov) in the great Dostoevsky novels. This “mythopoem”, to use Grillaert’s expression (2008: 41), was generally accepted and turned into a sort of unquestioned dogma, enduring throughout the years.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (October)
Nietzsche Dostoevsky Nihilism
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 247 pp.

Biographical notes

Paolo Stellino (Author)

Paolo Stellino is a postdoctoral fellow at the Nova Institute of Philosophy (IFILNOVA), New University of Lisbon. He is a member of the Nietzsche International Lab (NIL). His publications mainly focus on Nietzsche’s philosophy. On this topic, he has co-edited two books and published several articles in international journals.


Title: Nietzsche and Dostoevsky