What Dostoyevsky Taught Me A few Navy Technologist’s Predictions

By Invoice Bray

Just a few years in the past, after I was serving as a senior Navy fellow, a technologist on the group predicted that sailors quickly could possibly be wired, fitbit-style, to such an beautiful diploma that every little thing about them, from moods to future dangerous selections, could possibly be identified, tracked, logged, and used. As he defined, this know-how can be used for every little thing from emergency intervention to analysis writing. In actual fact, the evaluations would virtually write themselves. He was younger and, to my information, had by no means led anybody, but introduced with an nearly breathless certainty.

These of us who had spent years within the fleet could possibly be forgiven for being skeptical, and even shocked, since we might imagine we all know folks—who they’re, what makes them tick, or why they do the issues they do. As a lot as I used to be shocked by the younger technologist’s simple confidence, as he spoke I discovered myself recalling an expertise I had as a younger officer. With greater than three years on board my first ship, I believed I knew the sailors I led and labored with very effectively. Know your folks was a management mantra even again then, though it had but to be taken so far as the younger technologist’s predictions. What I couldn’t predict was that early one morning, one in all my sailors would get up at his off-base San Diego residence, retrieve his legally owned handgun, and shoot and kill his two roommates whereas they slept.

When first visited in jail, he stated little or no past that he felt he had the appropriate to do what he did. Whereas a bit aloof and boastful, he was in any other case quiet and mild-mannered and had by no means been in hassle. Just a few days after the murders, I questioned to my captain how such an unassuming younger sailor might do one thing so horrible. He stated, maybe now in contradiction to the technologist with whom I might later work, “you’ll by no means know.”

One who wrestled with a mid-Nineteenth-century model of the technologist’s optimism was the nice Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Naturalism was then the trend (Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was printed in 1859). There was nice confidence that man could possibly be understood (fully) via statement and experimentation (the scientific methodology). For instance, one in all Dostoyevsky’s contemporaries, Ivan Mikhailovich Sechenov, printed The Reflexes of the Mind (1863) based mostly on his analysis with frogs (his primary declare was that each one human habits could possibly be defined as reflexive motion). Dostoyevsky had seen an excessive amount of in life by then to consider it. He thought it not simply nonsense, however harmful nonsense. Its implications for political and social life have been terrifying.

I first learn Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky’s first novel of his main literary interval, a couple of months after leaving my first ship. As I learn it and ventured into Dostoyevsky’s world for the primary time, the sailor and his destiny have been entrance of thoughts. With crime, the why is all the time tougher to know, and extra fascinating to ponder, than the what. Navy justice offers primarily with the crime itself, with the vital targets of deterring felony exercise and sustaining good order and self-discipline. However at a grander degree Dostoyevsky was not writing about crime and the felony. By way of a dramatic narrative, he demonstrates how human intentions, motivation, subjective expertise, and habits will not be knowable, not to mention explainable, solely via bodily statement. They can’t be categorized into “knowledge units,” to borrow a extra modern time period. Dostoyevsky helped me be skeptical of, if not the entire human sources subject, no less than the religion that know-how can ever make human efficiency and habits predictable.

Concepts weren’t inconsequential for Dostoyevsky. Crime is commonly a phenomenon that begins with an thought. Analyzing how people will be swept up by an thought and rationalize crime is a recurring theme—one might say an obsession—for Dostoyevsky all through his main literary interval starting with Crime and Punishment (1866). He was a gifted dramatist, a lot in order that in Crime and Punishment, whereas there isn’t any query of the scholar Raskolnikov’s guilt or that he won’t escape earthly justice, the reader nearly hangs on each paragraph, trying to find solutions to the why of the crime—and to everlasting questions, akin to can homicide ever be justified, and for what? Crime and Punishment could be the best whydoneit ever written.

The Thriller of Man

Hemingway famously wrote in Inexperienced Hills of Africa that “Dostoevsky was made by being despatched to Siberia. Writers are cast in injustice as a sword is cast.” Certainly, Konstantin Mochulsky, one of many best Dostoyevsky biographers, writes within the introduction to Dostoyevsky: His Life and Work, “The life and work of Dostoyevsky are inseparable. . . Dostoyevsky was all the time drawn to confession as a creative type. His works unfold earlier than us as one huge confession, because the integral revelation of his common spirit.”1

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881). (Heritage Photographs/Getty Photographs)

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky was born 30 October 1821. His father, Mikhail Andreyevich, was a health care provider, and by most accounts could possibly be stern and moody. After Dostoyevsky’s mom, Marya Fyodorovna, died in 1837 of tuberculosis, father Mikhail retired to his nation property, the place his consuming and therapy of serfs worsened. In 1839, whereas Dostoyevsky was enrolled within the Nikolayev Faculty of Navy Engineering in St. Petersburg, the serfs allegedly beat his father to demise following one notably abusive episode (proof uncovered within the Nineteen Seventies casts some doubt on this story).2

Dostoyevsky didn’t care a lot for engineering. He handed into the Faculty of Engineering extra inquisitive about studying writers akin to Schiller, Hoffman, Balzac, and Pushkin than in learning arithmetic. In The Diary of a Author (a collection of essays he wrote within the 1870s), Dostoyevsky claimed that as quickly as they arrived in St. Petersburg in Could 1837, he and his brother Mikhail made a go to to the spot the place Pushkin died (Pushkin was killed in a duel together with his brother-in-law in February of that yr).3 By 1839 he knew for sure his calling. That yr he wrote Mikhail:

To review the which means of man and of life—I’m making ample progress right here. I place confidence in myself. Man is a thriller. One should clear up it. Should you spend your complete life attempting to puzzle it out, then don’t say that you’ve wasted your time. I occupy myself with this thriller as a result of I wish to be a person.4

By the mid-1840s, Dostoyevsky was turning into identified in St. Petersburg literary circles. He printed his first ebook, the novella Poor People, in January 1846. Shortly thereafter, he requested launch from navy service. He then printed the The Double in late January. Within the subsequent two years, he related himself with no less than two political-literary teams.

The 1840s have been heady political occasions in Europe, and affiliating with such teams was dangerous in imperialist Russia. One group was based by Mikhail Petrashevsky, lengthy a proponent of social and civil reform in Russia. In 1848, revolution swept western Europe and the Tsar Nicholas I turned extra terrified of shedding his grip on energy. In April 1849, members of the Petrashevsky circle, together with Dostoyevsky and his brothers Andrey and Mikhail, have been arrested and jailed within the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg (Dostoyevsky’s brothers have been launched inside two months for an absence of proof). A navy court docket discovered Dostoyevsky responsible in November and really useful he be executed. Nevertheless, the Tsar agreed to commute the sentence, however solely after the author endured a mock execution on 22 December at Semenovsky Sq.. The Tsar’s messenger arrived simply in time to announce the commutation—“Nicholas fastidiously orchestrated the state of affairs on this event to supply the utmost impression on the unsuspecting victims of his regal solicitude.”5

Dostoyevsky spent 4 years of onerous labor in a jail camp in Omsk, adopted by 5 years of navy service. One can scarcely think about how ghastly life in a Siberian jail camp was within the 1850s. Dostoyevsky’s first letters to his brother on launch in 1854 (he was unable to correspond whereas in jail with one exception) and his later account in Notes from the Home of the Lifeless (1861) vividly describe a horrifying penal existence.

But the “unspeakable, interminable struggling” was the turning level within the author’s non secular improvement.”6 In lots of letters Dostoyevsky describes his time in jail as one in all introspection and “regeneration.” Dostoyevsky might by no means reconcile his spiritual religion with the novel rationalism so prevalent within the mid-1800s. “The ‘magic of extremes’ which had shaken Dostoyevsky’s private life made him comply with man into the darkest corridors of his thoughts, the place nothing stays hidden and the place the one method out is the flight into God’s open arms.”7

When he returned to St. Petersburg in 1859, he discovered the mental setting brimming with this radical rationalism. The “vibrational stew” he encountered, in accordance with James Parker, included “nihilism, egoism, materialism. . . The human is being reconceived.” Purpose is pitted towards religion, towards the irrational. What’s extra truthful? What’s extra genuine? What’s man able to if he believes solely in his capability to cause? From the place comes the ethical legislation in a world the place man is the one lawgiver? These questions plagued Dostoyevsky. As Mochulsky put it: “And thus started the wrestle between religion and cause within the author’s consciousness, thus arose the elemental drawback of his philosophy.”8

From Thriller to Warfare

What I ought to have first learn, earlier than Crime and Punishment, is Notes from Underground, printed in 1864 within the January and April problems with Epoch, the second journal Dostoyevsky ran with Mikhail (the primary, Vremya [Time] was closed by the censors the yr prior).

At simply 125 pages, Notes from Underground is the philosophical premise of the writer’s nice works. In it, we discover a thundering cry from the wilderness, an writer whose “regeneration of convictions” and lengthy years observing man’s capability for cruelty and depravity coalesced right into a fiery conviction to avoid wasting humanity from destroying itself. In at this time’s parlance, Dostoyevsky was a tradition warrior—a reactionary who noticed the state of man within the mid-nineteenth century as corrupt and sick, an consequence of his nearly breathless vanity earlier than nature and God. Society was deep in an existential disaster. Its foundations have been starting to crumble. Few appeared to acknowledge the approaching apocalypse.

Dostoyevsky was at conflict with the prevailing mental present of his time, one which positioned humanity’s destiny squarely within the hopes of a scientific positivism that held that understanding man’s character, nature, and behaviors will be derived via sensory expertise (statement), experimentation, and cause. Change man’s setting for the higher via science, and man’s nature will change for the higher.

One in every of Dostoyevsky’s antagonists was the socialist Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky, who in 1863 printed the utopian novel What Is to Be Completed? At least V.I. Lenin would level to Chernyshevsky’s novel as a pivotal affect. Richard Pevear, within the ahead to the interpretation of Notes from Underground he and his spouse Larissa Volokhonsky printed in 1993, explains that Dostoyevsky initially deliberate to jot down a assessment of What Is to Be Completed? in Epoch, however determined that literary critique alone can be insufficient. It required the power of a creative response, in step with Dostoyevsky’s conviction that solely via artwork can the human situation be understood in a method that might expose the pretensions and falsehoods of a thinker akin to Chernyshevsky. Pevear notes:

[Chernyshevsky’s hero] is the voice of the wholesome rational egoist, the ingenuous man of motion. Dostoyevsky takes up the problem. Although Chernyshevsky shouldn’t be talked about by identify in Notes from Underground, his theories, and specifically his novel, are essentially the most rapid goal of the underground man’s diatribes and of Dostoyevsky’s subtler, extra penetrating parody.9

Rational egoism was Dostoyevsky’s bête noir. He knew the place this unquestioned perception in science to reply all questions was heading, and it was not fairly. His tortured, mysterious characters will be seen as irrationality resisting science’s dogmatic adherents. His underground man mocks Chernyshevky:

Oh, inform me, who first introduced, who was the primary to proclaim that man does soiled solely as a result of he doesn’t know his actual pursuits; and that have been he to be enlightened, have been his eyes to be opened to his actual, regular pursuits, man would instantly cease doing soiled, would instantly turn into good and noble, as a result of, being enlightened and understanding his actual revenue, he would see his actual revenue exactly within the good, and it’s widespread information that no man can knowingly act towards his personal revenue … Revenue! What’s revenue? And can you’re taking it upon your self to outline with excellent exactitude exactly what man’s revenue consists in? And what if it so occurs that every now and then man’s revenue not solely might however exactly should consist in generally wishing what’s dangerous for himself, and never what’s worthwhile? And if that’s the case, if there will be such a case, then the entire rule goes up in smoke.10

In fact, Dostoyevsky notes, man acts towards his personal self-interest on a regular basis. That is pure, if incomprehensible, habits. Man is without delay rational and irrational. The statement/experimental methodology had no reply for this (fashionable neuroscience has not supplied a solution both).

Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment is the epic, full-bodied drama that poured out of Dostoyevsky in a frenzy of inventive exercise following the 1864 deaths of his first spouse and his brother Mikhail, and was impressed, partially, from his studying in regards to the French homicide trial of the sociopath Pierre-Francois Lacenaire. In July 1865, he was in Wiesbaden on his third journey overseas. He had gambled away what financial savings he had and was asking acquaintances, together with the Russian author Ivan Turgenev, to mortgage him cash. Sooner or later that summer season he deserted work on The Drunks (the story of the Marmeladov household was finally included into Crime and Punishment) and started work on what he had indicated to Mikhail as early as 1859 can be a “confession” novel, one he had first considered whereas in jail when “mendacity on a mattress of picket planks, in an oppressing second of melancholy and self-dissolution.”11

In September, Dostoyevsky wrote a letter to the outstanding editor Mikhail Katkov through which he pitched the novel as a “psychological account of against the law,” going into nice element about how a lot of the dramatic motion wouldn’t be in regards to the crime itself, however how the protagonist navigates the aftermath of the crime morally and spiritually.12 He had completed a draft of the novel by late November when again in St. Petersburg, however was not pleased with the result, and started rewriting it. The primary a part of what turned a six-part novel was printed in January 1866 in The Russian Messenger. Components two and three adopted within the ensuing months, and all the novel was printed by the top of the yr.

Dostoyevsky’s characters are unusual, outlandish, and even grotesque. In Crime and Punishment, we’re not on lavish estates, in drawing rooms, or at grand balls—we’re within the gutter, on the fringe of civilized society, in a dismal environment of torment, illness, and despair. Many characters are given to exaggerated emotional outbursts and behaviors. As William Hubben wrote, “All of Dostoyevsky’s tales belong to the literature of utmost conditions. An ominous restlessness broods over the women and men in his novels. Continuously their response to seemingly small incidents is extreme, and occasions take a most surprising flip.”13 

Dostoyevsky is commonly accused of being an overbearing author who preached that the trail to salvation was via hardship and struggling. In Russian, this outlook is named dostoyevshchina, or as Y. Karyakin explains, “a masochistic wallowing in struggling, a pathological acceptance of the ugly on this planet … a sick conscience which derives consolation from the idea that there will be no simple conscience…”14

Dostoyevsky’s protagonist Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov is maybe an embodiment of dostoyevshchina—without delay clever and aloof, simply irritable, with a disdain for folks generally. He’s tormented, affected by some internal turmoil. He’s “functionally insane,” in accordance with Parker. However even once we study he intends to commit cold-blooded homicide, he isn’t wholly unlikeable. He has real empathy—for the Marmeladovs, for instance, particularly the oldest daughter, the prostitute Sonya—and a deep love for his mom and sister, one that’s ostensibly the motive for the crime. He has dropped out of college and desires cash to maintain his mom (Pulkheria Alexandrovna) and liberate his sister (Avdotya Romanovna, or Dunya) from marrying the corrupt businessman Pyotr Luzhin, which he believes she is barely doing to assist him return to highschool.

On the novel’s outset, Raskolnikov is already within the throes of disaster. Though his wrestle shouldn’t be distinctive, it’s common. He’s Dostoyevsky’s instance of the brand new idealists that suffer an “infirmity of notions, having come below the affect of a few of these unusual, ‘incomplete’ concepts which go floating about within the air…”15 The one method out of his predicament is to homicide the previous cash lender Alonya Ivanovna, a despicable, vile lady he believes the world will probably be higher off with out. He commits a grotesque ax homicide and, when walked in on by Alonya’s youthful sister Lizaveta, he kills her too.

The novel’s remaining 5 elements cope with Raskolnikov’s anguish and looming destiny. The police investigator, Porfiry Petrovich, suspects Raskolnikov not solely has dedicated the crime, however that his conscience would ultimately get the higher of him and result in a confession. What primarily holds readers’ curiosity is that they wish to know what Petrovich desires to know—why did he do it.

An illustration to Crime and Punishment by Nikolay Karazin, displaying the second Raskolnikov is pressured to kill the pawnbroker’s sister to defend himself from seize. (Wikimedia Commons)

The reply flows from Raskolnikov’s personal philosophical quest. Can an evil act be justified if it produces good penalties? Are some folks, by advantage of their greatness, permitted to transgress the ethical legislation that bounds everybody else? He thought so, and the act was meant to show it. In line with Karyakin, “Dostoyevsky’s hero is a person obsessed by an thought, a person in whom Dostoyevsky appears to be like for and finds a human being wounded by an thought, killed by an thought or resurrected by it.”16

Mochulsky claims that Crime and Punishment would have been extra precisely titled Crime and Expiation: “Raskolnikov shouldn’t be solely the compositional, however the non secular heart of the novel … the tragedy springs up in his soul and the exterior motion solely serves to disclose his ethical conflicts.”17 Raskolnikov tries to place himself above the ethical legislation. However he can’t, simply as his actions can’t be defined as reflexes in his mind.

A Lesson on Thriller and Fantastical Predictions

Why did my sailor commit a double murder? Was he maybe pushed by one thing greater than ardour and rage at a perceived slight? Was his crime an act towards his personal self-interest? An illustration of man’s concurrently rational and irrational thoughts in motion? A lot to that younger, optimistic technologist’s dismay, we are going to probably by no means know. Human habits is complicated and irreducible to knowledge and formulation, one thing human sources professionals and knowledge scientists not often wish to hear. If something, Dostoyevsky’s work and life are a testomony to the inherent thriller of human habits, the irreducible complexity of truly figuring out somebody effectively.

Latest progress in synthetic intelligence has spawned, once more, some fantastical predictions of data-driven expertise administration processes that can categorize subordinates (employees) to such a nice diploma that near-total behavioral predictability will probably be doable. Human efficiency knowledge will probably be constantly collected within the office, categorized and collated, populating digital profiles and giving future leaders a “game-changing” technological toolset to know their folks. However earlier than younger leaders consider that can occur, they need to learn Crime and Punishment. Dostoyevsky might give them trigger for skepticism. And that could possibly be factor.

Invoice Bray is a retired Navy captain. He’s the deputy editor-in-chief of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings journal.


1. Kostantin Mochulsky, Dostoyevsky: His Life and Work (Princeton, NJ: Princeton College Press, 1967), xix.
2. Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850–1859 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton College Press, 1990), 85–88.
3. Mochulsky, Dostoyevsky: His Life and Work,
4. Mochulsky, 17.
5. Frank, Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, 51.
6. Mochulsky, Dostoyevsky: His Life and Work,
7. William Hubben, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Kafka: 4 Prophets of Our Future (New York: Macmillan Publishing Firm, 1952), 68.
 8. Mochulsky, Dostoyevsky: His Life and Work,
9. Richard Pevear, Ahead to Notes from Underground (New York: Classic Books, 1993), xiii-xiv.
10. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Classic Books, 1993), 20–21.
11. Mochulsky, 271.
12. Mochulsky, 272.
13. Hubben, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Kafka, 64.
14. Karyakin, Re-reading Dostoyevsky (Moscow: Novosti Press, 1971), 7.
15. Fyodor Dostoyevsky to Mikhail Katkov, as quoted in Mochulsky, 272.
16. Karyakin, Re-reading Dostoyevsky, 124.
17. Mochulsky, 299.

Featured Picture: “Illuminations in St. Petersburg,” by Fedor Aleksandrovich Vasiliev/Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow Russia,/ Bridgeman Photographs.

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