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Propagated Misattribution about Dostoevsky

Possibly the best-known quote from the works of Dostoevsky is from The Brothers Karamazov:

“If God does not exist, everything is permitted.”

The sentence does not appear, nor anything close to it. Nor does it appear in any of the other four Dostoevsky novels whose complete English texts are available online. The fact that a nonexistent text can be widely attributed to a famous author reveals the limitations of pre-computer scholarship. The fact that I could so quickly prove it erroneous highlights the opportunities for modern scholars. It is true that “If God does not exist, everything is permitted” is an accurate capsule description of the belief espoused by Ivan Karamazov in the early chapters of The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan has concluded, or pretends to conclude, that there is no God, no immortality. As what he claims is a logical consequence, “everything is lawful.” However, Ivan never speaks the sentence in question, and neither does any other character in the novel! The phrase, “everything is lawful,” is used frequently by other characters as an idea that they got from Ivan. And once, Ivan says “If there is no immortality, there is no virtue.” But the magic sound-bite sentence is not to be found. Jean Paul Sartre has said that all of French Existentialism is to be found in Ivan Karamazov’s contention that if there is no God, everything is permitted. But what did Dostoevsky say?

While it is undeniable that Ivan advances this view, that does not mean it is Dostoevsky’s view, and it is wrong to imply that it is — at least, without more support. In this respect, note that the sentence is a logical implication, if A then B. Ivan advances the truth of the implication as a whole, apparently as an intellectual proposition.In common talk, people assume that a claim if A then B automatically implies the contrary claim …and if not-A then not-B. However, logic is not common-sensical. When the antecedent A is not true, an implication is not automatically false; it becomes null — the truth of B is simply unknown.

To my rather casual reading, it appears that the whole irony of The Brothers Karamazov is that Ivan advances this logical statement, but later admits to Alyosha that, in fact, he believes in God. Hence Ivan has believed right from the start that the antecedent is false and, therefore, that the implication is null — it was never more than an intellectual toy. Alas, other characters take the succedent B seriously and act on it, resulting in great evil, for which Ivan must feel indirectly responsible. In any case, did Dostoevsky himself mean to argue the truth of the logical implication? Or to argue either the antecedent (God does not exist) or the succedent (everything is lawful) separately? Did Dostoevsky believe the inverse statement (“If God does exist, then not everything is lawful”)? Or did he only believe mean to show that almost everyone else believes it true, without examination? From David E. Cortesi

4 Responses

  1. Yay! You’ve started talking about Dostoevksy. 😀 Now I just need to finish AK so I can start!

  2. There seems to be this longstanding (illogical?) belief that equates god with morality, as if all humans would be totally immoral unless there is some god who keeps mankind together. I think Dostoyevski is perhaps much more tenuous in for example Crime and Punishment where although Roskalnikov is portrayed as someone who eventually accepts punishment for his crimes, I don’t think D actually advocates Sonya’s approach that if only Roskalnikov would confess his guilt an believe that god is salvation, he would be saved: he simply expounds that kind of belief as one that makes Sonya what she is. Not necessarily more right. Or have I got that wrong?

  3. Hey! Thanks for writing this article. It’s quite compelling. As a former English major, I often look back now and think of how much easier it would have been to do literary analysis if I had full-text search. The hours of work that would have saved…

    I’m struck also by a similar event in which I’d seen a quote attributed to Shakespeare in a magazine article that caused me to read and re-read a copy of The Tempest only to discover that the quote never occurred in the text. It’s not the worst way to misspend ones time, but frustrating nonetheless.

    FWIW, there is a lot to say on the message of the Dostoevsky quote in question. By what logic does one assert that all morality comes from the existence of a god? Some notable atheists have posed a vibrant question to Christians on this subject. It takes a form like–So are you really telling me that if you found out god doesn’t exist you’d begin stealing from your neighbor, murdering innocents, and sleeping around?

  4. one little mis-translation and misattribution changes all of the meaning. i love that you take the time to catch these little errors. as someone who is an avid reader of translated books – i appreciate reading them as they were intended.

    your blog is fantastic, by the way – blogrolling. 🙂

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