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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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3. Dostoevsky contra Nietzsche?


One of the recurrent topics in Nietzsche-Dostoevsky studies is the idea that the great novels of Dostoevsky foreshadowed some of Nietzsche’s main thoughts. In order to prove this similarity, scholars have often drawn a parallel between Raskolnikov’s extraordinary man or Kirillov’s man-god and Nietzsche’s overman, or they have linked Ivan’s idea to the maxim “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” Thus, so the reading goes, by portraying the failure of his heroes, and consequently of their ideas, Dostoevsky not only succeeded in launching an attack on the nihilistic ideas of his time, but he also provided a critique ante litteram of Nietzsche’s philosophy, illustrating its inherent contradictions. Therefore, according to this view, plunging into the novels of Dostoevsky would keep us immune from the “Nietzschean poison”, to use de Lubac’s expression (1995 [1944]: 284). As I will try to show in what follows, this kind of reading is usually the consequence of a prejudicial interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy (supporters of such readings tend to look at Nietzsche’s philosophy through the screen of Dostoevsky’s novels). Even worse, sometimes these readings are based on a superficial and incorrect understanding of Nietzsche’s thought: the result is a distortion of the message of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Without denying the several similarities that it is possible to find between the theories of Raskolnikov, Kirillov, and Ivan, on the one side, and Nietzsche’s philosophy on the other side, the following sections aim to emphasize the irreducible and radical differences that exist among the former and...

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