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Nietzsche and Dostoevsky

On the Verge of Nihilism

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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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2. Nothing Is True, Everything Is Permitted

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The maxim “nothing is true, everything is permitted” (Nichts ist wahr, Alles ist erlaubt), which was the watchword of the Order of Assassins, an Islamic sect dating from the eleventh to the thirteenth century A.D,202 appears in the fourth part of Zarathustra and in the second essay of the Genealogy of Morality.203 Among the posthumous fragments, this sentence can be found few times in the notebooks of 1884 and ’85.204 As early as 1936, Jaspers (1997 [1936]: 227) warned Nietzsche scholars against the facility with which this maxim could be falsely interpreted: “When removed from context, such a statement – often repeated by Nietzsche – is unintelligible. Taken by itself it expresses complete lack of obligation; it is an invitation to individual caprice, sophistry, and criminality.” In the next sections, I will follow Jaspers’ warning and examine the meaning of Nietzsche’s maxim, inserting it both in its particular (the aphorism and the posthumous fragments in which it appears) and in its wider context (Nietzsche’s philosophy and, more specifically, his position on morality). ← 169 | 170 →

2.1 Zarathustra’s Shadow

The sentence “nothing is true, everything is permitted” appears for the first time in the oeuvre in Zarathustra’s speech The Shadow.205 The protagonist of this speech, Zarathustra’s shadow, is portrayed by Nietzsche as “thin, blackish, hollow and outdated.” (Z IV, The Shadow) To Zarathustra, who asks him who he is, the shadow answers that he is “a wanderer, who has already walked much at your heels; always on...

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