You’ve seen them and met them, self-righteous do-gooders who seem to love humanity more than any one individual. They are always talking about saving humanity, saving the planet, saving the American people, saving the environment, saving the American way of life, saving the poor etc., and they know exactly what needs to be done. However, they don’t quietly lead by example, changing their lifestyle and contributing their own time and resources to their chosen cause, rather they spout clichés, angrily attack opponents and lobby for legislation to force other people to change their lifestyles and contribute their resources. The classic and extreme literary example is Raskolnikov, the young ex-law student in Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, who kills a miserly old pawnbroker for money, justifying his actions by the utilitarian calculation that he could do much more good with the money than leaving it in her possession where it will just be horded and then left to the Church to pay for masses for her soul.
Raskolnikov has different facets to his character but it is his rational side that leads him to commit murder. He is always thinking and trying not to let his feelings get in the way of his actions. His idée fixe is that extraordinary men like himself know better and therefore have a right to transgress any cultural norms, even the one prohibiting murder. Raskolnikov is supremely overconfident and has no concept of the unintended consequences of human action until he is also forced to kill Lizaveta, the pawnbroker’s sister, who makes an unexpected appearance at the murder scene. Lizaveta is often beaten by her sister and protecting Lizaveta was one of the reasons Raskolnikov gave to justify murdering her sister! Once Raskolnikov has crossed the line he becomes far worse than the people he despises and causes no end of distress to the people who still care for him. While holding on to his theory of the superior man he is incapable of love and lives mostly in his head, arrogantly refusing closer ties to family and friends who would deflate his over-arching pride and ambition.
Compare Raskolnikov to the slightly ridiculous figure of Leopold Bloom, one of the two protagonists in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Bloom is everyman but above all he is sensuous rather than cerebral. He can enjoy eating fried kidneys, defecating and urinating, participating in an orgy in a brothel or just contemplating water. He has plenty of faults, he talks too much, uses big words and never buys a round of drinks. However, his cardinal rule is to do no harm. He is mature and even-headed, recognizing that one government is as good as another because they interfere equally in people’s lives, and so he refuses to be drawn into politics. But it is his ability to empathize and to be charitable that renders Bloom heroic. He is compassionate both to humans and to animals and during the course of a single day performs a remarkable number of good deeds becoming, in many ways, a modern Christ figure. He attends a funeral knowing he will not be accepted by the other mourners because they think him Jewish, he visits the widow to help her understand the life insurance policy, feeds hungry sea gulls, helps a blind youth cross a street, visits a woman who has been three days in labor, and cares for Stephen Dedalus, a virtual stranger, eventually taking him home, feeding him and acting in loco parentis.
Bloom exemplifies the principle that good things happen when people are left alone to tackle the important matters of life. Unhindered, people will, according to political scientist, Charles Murray “continually make small, incremental changes in their lives that facilitate their pursuit of happiness, and the mechanism whereby they accomplish this is voluntary affiliations with other people.” Raskolnikov, on the other hand, represents hubris and his actions illustrate the idea that reason is limited in scope. As the Nobel Prize winning economist and social theorist, Friedrich Hayek once commented:
“…it may be that the most difficult task for human reason is to comprehend its own limitations. It is essential for the growth of reason that as individuals we should bow to forces and obey principles we cannot hope to understand, yet on which the advance and even the preservation of civilization may depend.”
Such limitations imply that relying on reason alone to solve life’s most important questions, particularly those of a moral or ethical nature, may lead to ghastly consequences. Raskolnikov rationalized murder and we are horrified. Why? Each of us will answer that question in a different way but I suspect that most of our answers will come down to the same idea. We are horrified because it wasn’t the right thing to do. Raskolnikov eventually comes to that conclusion too, but the reason his crime wasn’t right had nothing to do with his rational theories.
“Love life more than the meaning of it?”
“Certainly, love it, regardless of logic, as you say, it must be regardless of logic, and it’s only then one will understand the meaning of it.”
Fyodor Dostoyesky, The Brothers Karamazov