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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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4. Conclusive Remarks: Rethinking the Relation between Nietzsche and Dostoevsky


Nietzsche and Dostoevsky can be numbered among the greatest thinkers of nineteenth century Europe. Their ability to grasp all the complexity of the human soul, to understand the social and cultural phenomena of their time and to reflect on philosophical and religious problems was unique. It is no coincidence that their paths crossed. A spiritual affinity linked them, although their views on religion and morality radically diverged. This divergence precisely led several interpreters to understand the relation between Nietzsche and Dostoevsky as strong and radical opposition. The philosopher and the novelist offered two completely different viewpoints on the world: the first, atheist and immoral; the second, Christian and moral. These points of view could not be reconciled: Nietzsche’s philosophy was the very expression of Westernized ideas, while Dostoevsky was the bulwark of Russian orthodoxy.

The first Russian interpreters understood Nietzsche’s thought in connection with the nihilistic ideas incarnated in the characters of Dostoevsky’s great novels. Raskolnikov, Kirillov and Ivan Karamazov, in particular, were recognized as forerunners of Nietzsche’s philosophy. In this way, to the extent that Dostoevsky had shown the disastrous results of their nihilistic theorizations, his novels were at the same time understood as providing a critique ante litteram of Nietzsche’s thought. This reading became so predominant, that a great number of Western European thinkers accepted it without further questioning. As shown, even if plausible in certain aspects, these comparisons were usually the consequence of a reductive and simplified, when not even unfaithful and misleading...

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