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Nietzsche and Dostoevsky

On the Verge of Nihilism


Paolo Stellino

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?
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Contextualization of the Problem


Non, mon père, dit-il. Je me fais une autre idée de l’amour. Et je refuserai jusqu’à la mort d’aimer cette création où des enfants sont torturés. (A. Camus, La peste)

One of the classic topics, on which Nietzsche and Dostoevsky studies have focused their attention from the end of the nineteenth century until the present day, is the striking similarity between Ivan Karamazov’s idea – according to which, if there is no God and no immortality of the soul, everything is permitted – and the maxim “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” that appears in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, in the Genealogy, as well as in some posthumous fragments of 1884 and ’85. According to Nel Grillaert (2008: 40), it was the Russian philosopher and psychologist Nikolai Grot who in 1893 first affirmed that Nietzsche had repeated Ivan’s idea “without any skepticism and false shame.”176 Grot used Ivan’s idea in order to explain Nietzsche’s overman, who was consequently interpreted as one to whom all was permitted. By so doing, Grillaert (ibid.: 41) points out, Grot gave birth to “a mythopoem that will foster and contribute to the later identification of the Übermensch [overman] with other Dostoevskian nihilistic characters.”

This mythopoem had such a wide spread in fin de siècle Russia, that Solovyev and Tolstoy also linked Nietzsche’s philosophy to the idea that “everything is permitted.” One year after Grot’s article, Solovyev, explaining the difference between masters and slaves in Nietzsche’s thought, claimed...

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