Dostoevsky on Morality?

November 11 was Fyodor Dostoevsky's [wiki] birthday (1821 – so 190 years). Here's the lovely google logo for the day in Russia,

Dostoevsky was a great author and had a keen Christian mind. This post was going to be a brief comment about his most famous quote (through a character in his book)…

Without God all things are permitted.

But then I started to chase it down. Of course, the quote has been propogated all over teh intarweb. And some have suggested that it's not true – Dostoevsky didn't write it, let alone mean it. So, as a very good example, Dostoevsky didn't write it on

I say this with confidence because I have searched the online text of the Constance Garnett translation of The Brothers Karamazov, examining every use of “God” and “exist” and “lawful” (“lawful” is how Garnett translates the word that others translate as “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 precomputer scholarship. The fact that I could so quickly prove it erroneous highlights the opportunities for modern scholars.

When it comes to the question of whether Dostoevsky would espouse such a position,

Frankly, I don't know the answers. What I do know is that many, many people have assumed three things that (it seems to me) are not supported by the text of The Brothers Karamazov:


  1. Dostoevsky himself wrote the sentence “If God does not exist, everything is lawful.”
  2. Dostoevsky meant by that, that it is impossible to have a moral system without God (in other words, that he himself felt that both the statement and its inverse were true).
  3. Dostoevsky believed in God.

What had, to this point, been a decent argument, is let down. The question is not whether these things are explicitly stated but whether they can be established in the broader context.

Not that is shut down to good argument. To their credit they have posted up a counter-argument, and a very good one at that: “Dostoevsky Did Say It: A Response to David E. Cortesi (2011)“,

This key phrase appears word for word in Part 4, Book 11, Chapter 4 (“A Hymn and a Secret”) of the novel. Addressing Alyosha, Mitya (Dmitri) Karamazov quotes himself saying it when retelling an earlier conversation with Rakitin. Rakitin is an aspiring journalist who interviews Mitya in the jail right before Alyosha comes along. Both Mitya and Rakitin picked up the idea from Ivan Karamazov. I have bolded the key phrase below:

And Rakitin does dislike God. Ough! doesn't he dislike Him! That's the sore point with all of them. But they conceal it. They tell lies. They pretend. 'Will you preach this in your reviews?' I asked him. 'Oh, well, if I did it openly, they won't let it through,' he said. He laughed. 'But what will become of men then?' I asked him, 'without God and immortal life? All things are lawful then, they can do what they like?' 'Didn't you know?' he said laughing, 'a clever man can do what he likes,' he said. 'A clever man knows his way about, but you've put your foot in it, committing a murder, and now you are rotting in prison.' He says that to my face! A regular pig! I used to kick such people out, but now I listen to them. (Dostoevskii, p. 635) [Constance Garnett's English translation]

So, the notion that Dostoevsky didn't say it is far fetched.

Cortesi's main point is simply unequivocally wrong. Dostoevsky did write, word for word, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” The phrase is not just “an accurate capsule description of the belief espoused by Ivan Karamazov.” It is not surprising that the original wording of the phrase has been lost in English translations; much less so in double translations such as Russian to French to English, as in the case of Jean-Paul Sartre. In any case, it is not at all “misleading” to put the key phrase in quotes and attribute it to a character in Dostoevsky's novel. Perhaps inserting an ellipsis in the middle of the phrase to indicate the omission of “and a future life” is in order to satisfy strict purists: “Without God … everything is permitted.” But no further qualification is needed.

But this still leaves one matter unresolved. Did Dostoevsky believe it? There follows a detailed analysis of how the theme unfolds in The Brothers Karamazov with the following conclusion,

It seems to me that the real question tormenting Ivan is: How do we find a proper balance between freedom and responsibility? The answer has to take into account such distinctly human things as conscience (“remorse”), which God either lacks or can overcome with his omnipotence. All present attempts to solve this problem, religious and secular, seem to benefit the “bad guys” the most.


This seems to be the main philosophical framework of Dostoevsky's entire novel. In “Existentialism is a Humanism” (1946) Sartre gets it right: “without God, everything is permitted” is not the end of morality, but the beginning of it! Or, at least, the beginning of a quest for a new morality. One has to take full responsibility, not only for his own misdeeds, but for the bad things that happen to other people as well. Alyosha, the nice and cuddly Christian, follows this path rather intuitively. Ivan, the (for the most part) cold-blooded rationalist and atheist, tries to find theoretical foundations for it, and, with a bit of luck, good arguments to convince other people.

An excellent observation. The pop-atheists are ever-keen to have a good argument to convince other people, but so far nothing consistent has been achieved. And so Dostoevsky is, still ultimately, proved right (with a minor edit as suggested earlier),

Without God … everything is permitted.

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