“‘In his article all men are divided into ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary.’ Ordinary men have to live in submission, have no right to transgress the law, because, don’t you see, they are ordinary. But extraordinary men have a right to commit any crime and to transgress the law in any way, just because they are extraordinary. That was your idea, if I am not mistaken?'”
This was Crime and Punishment’s main character, Rodya Raskolikov’s belief, as articulated by his primary accuser, the magistrate Porfiry Petrovich, who was investigating the recent murder of a shrewd old pawnbroker.
Rodya, of course, was responsible for the crime, and is in fact haunted by his guilt at the time, when Porfiry, who was rightly suspecting him, confronted him about an article Rodya wrote as a student in the University.
This statement was an admitted oversimplification deliberately made to put Rodya in an uncomfortable position. However, without losing his cool, the antihero was quick to correct the detective in doing so:
“I don’t contend that extraordinary people are always bound to commit breaches of morals, as you call it. In fact, I doubt whether such an argument could be published. I simply hinted that an ‘extraordinary’ man has the right… that is not an official right, but an inner right to decide in his own conscience to overstep… certain obstacles, and only in case it is essential for the practical fulfilment of his idea (sometimes, perhaps, of benefit to the whole of humanity).“
The philosophy of Raskolnikov is reminiscent of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s belief in the ubermensch or the overman (or superman, in other translations). Nietzsche believes that naturally, there are people who excel everyone else in terms of their ability, resilience and will to dominate others. However, compared to ordinary people, they are quite few in number. Thus, finding strength in numbers, the ordinary men bound together to form ideas such as morality, the law and God to create a semblance of equality among otherwise unequal human beings.
These power structures, at least based on my understanding of Nietzsche, are contrary to what nature has preordained. And so he says that naturally, the overman has the natural right to transcend the obstacles provided by such constraints.
There are minor deviations made by Raskolnikov in his articulation of the philosophy behind the extraordinary men. Perhaps because on the outset, it is really hard to embrace the radical idea of Nietzsche of inequality and domination as the proper state of affairs, and Dostoevsky, while disapproving of the thesis, is just enough to provide a rational justification for believing in such a way of life.
The most significant deviation is that the overman is only allowed to “overstep” the hindrances provided by societal norms and codes in so far as he is moving humanity forward. Overmen, therefore, are really like Siegel and Schuster’s Superman, whose benevolence leads the people to see him as a symbol of hope rather than fear.
“I maintain that if the discoveries of Kepler and Newton could not have been made known except by sacrificing the lives of one, a dozen, a hundred, or more men,“ Raskolnikov explains, “Newton would have had the right, would indeed have been in duty bound… to eliminate the dozen or the hundred men for the sake of making his discoveries known to the whole of humanity.”
Of course this would be more sympathetic than the murderous, tyrannical overlords we picture from Nietzsche’s philosophy. But the idea remains the same. As Raskolnikov explains further: “I maintain that all great men or even men a little out of the common, that is to say capable of giving some new word, must from their very nature be criminals—more or less, of course.”
Of course we know that this is coming from a man who just murdered an old woman. And perhaps, he was just passing the blame of the cruelty of murder to nature, as anyone of us would. Following the story of Raskolnikov, we know that he murdered the pawnbroker and her sister not for money, but to express his transcendence of the moral laws that govern ordinary men. We see his insecurity and shiftiness after the crime, and how he is led to the conclusion that these “weaknesses” manifest because he is not, after all, an extraordinary men.
This leads us to inquire further about the philosophy of the overman. Raskolnikov has said that his thesis was not new, and has been professed a thousand times before. Not only to extraordinary men, but to ordinary men as well.
It has been told to people over and over that they are allowed the right to set aside morality to somehow “push humanity forward.” But even if it were true, that such overmen exist, how is one to know that he is one without trying to exercise his will over others? What if ordinary men believe that, like the overmen, they have the natural right to kill, steal and rape for humanity?
This is not far from reality. We have seen people who act as if they were above the law, as if their interests were to be pursued at the expense of others. In the novel, we see Rodya, who was not driven by the natural urge to ascend to power in killing, but rather the fear of being ordinary.
The belief that there are such people, overmen, urges the power-hungry, proud and insecure germ in us to question whether or not what we have is enough, and whether or not we are entitled for more. And it gives us the license to appeal to nature whenever we overstepped the limits dictated by morality and conscience. And even if most of us think that this is too ridiculous to be true, we know from experience how the animals in us would rather turn to lies and be satisfied, than be confronted by reality and find themselves to be inadequate.
Perhaps there are overmen. Perhaps not. But even if there were, I would much rather live in a world where everyone were gods and had no idea, than live in one where everyone believed themselves to be gods when they are really not.