The Idiot

Title                 : The Idiot

Author             : Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Publisher         : Oxford University Press

Year                : 2008

Pages              : 688

 “But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23)

  1. The Folly of Christianity

Christianity is beautiful and true. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it is the only lens through which we can holistically perceive reality as it is meant to be seen—undistorted by sin or the facades this world tries to convince us of. It is also the only way to truly see God’s divine splendor, both in man and in nature, thus providing us the joy and peace we need as we struggle to live our faith as Christians. And how does one live as a Christian? Chiefly by living like Christ, our Lord and Savior.

But I beg your willingness, brothers and sisters, to consider with me a question so basic, that it might come across as stirring up unnecessary problems: Is truly living like a Christian—that is, to truly live like Christ with all His gentleness and compassion—really possible? We can definitely come up with ‘doctrinally correct’ answers for this question, ranging from saying that it certainly is possible through the strength of the Holy Spirit, to encouraging Christians to anchor their compassion with being as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

Yet evidence abounds that imitating Christ’s gentleness and compassion is not something historically well-looked upon, even by fellow Christians. We all know the insults non-Christians say to such ‘foolishness’. Nietzsche, for example, deemed many Christian values, such as faith, sacrifice, and martyrdom, as idiotic and encouraging weakness.[1] Christians themselves have always been cautious in encouraging such a way of “gentle, compassionate” life. Eastern Christianity uses the term ‘Holy Fool’ (yurodivy) for people who challenge social norms to deliver the Christian message, while Western Christianity uses the term ‘Foolishness for Christ’. Many of us probably have experienced firsthand trying to imitate Christ’s gentleness and compassion, only to find people gladly taking advantage of our vulnerability. Their hearts were not touched by it, let alone changed. What do all these mean, then? Is living like Christ truly possible, that it is the true wisdom, or is it actually folly?[1] 

Through The Idiot, Dostoyevsky explores the possibility of imitating Christ’s gentleness and compassion in a fallen world. In his letters to his friends and family, Dostoyevsky conferred that he wanted to depict an “entirely positive [person] … with an absolutely beautiful nature”[2]. He admitted that the project was daunting, and it took him two years of intellectual agony, writer’s block, and countless rewrites before he was able to bring it to completion[3]. Dostoyevsky’s ideals were embodied by Prince Myshkin, an epileptic descendant of a reputable family who fell from grace before he was born. The novel follows Prince Myshkin’s integration into the high society of St. Petersburg, a paradoxical society that Dostoyevsky depicts as both admirable and vain: admirable due to their love for virtue and ideals, yet disgracefully vain due to their love for money and status. Against this backdrop, Prince Myshkin had to reconcile his positive, absolutely beautiful nature against the sinful nature of his contemporaries.

  1. “He must be an idiot.”

The Idiot consists of 47 chapters divided into four books. The novel starts with the arrival of Prince Myshkin at St. Petersburg after spending most of his formative years being treated in Switzerland due to epileptic fits. It then introduces the main characters along with their first impressions of the Prince. The Prince’s foreshadowing of Christ is almost evident from the beginning. Ganya, an ambitious yet vain young man who will later be transformed by the Prince’s Christlike attitude, unavoidably thinks very little of him when they first meet. The Prince looks very poor—he brings only a small bag and wears worn-out clothes. He has no majesty nor appearance to attract St. Petersburg’s high society (Isa. 53:2). He does not know how to carry himself in social settings (Luke. 5:29-31), he overshares his personal information, and he always gives the benefit of the doubt to anyone. Ganya’s first impression of the Prince represents almost everyone in the society: The Prince must be an idiot.

This impression is very far from the truth, but everyone will only realize it later on. The Prince also curiously does not defend himself. Despite all the wisdom and social leverage he actually possesses, he lets people trample over him. One event gives us a glimpse as to why the Prince insists on this attitude: When a cross-seller tries to talk him into buying a fake silver cross, the Prince, knowing from a glance it is overpriced, buys it only to then observe the seller from afar. The Prince sees the seller get drunk with the money he cheated out of him. He will later say to Rogozhin, a friend who secretly wants to kill him out of jealousy:

“I had comprehended nothing of Russia before … So I walked on, thinking no, I won’t be too hasty in condemning this Christ-seller. Only God knows what is concealed in those weak and drunken hearts.”[4]

What the Prince did was to observe firsthand the religious state of his fellow men by letting himself be wounded by their transgressions (Isa. 53:5). Our actions reveal the idols within our hearts, and as the Prince’s contemporaries try to take advantage of him, their sins and idols are inevitably exposed along the way. The Prince looks like a lamb being brought to the slaughter—the lamb is dumb and it opens not its mouth before its shearers (Isa. 53:7):

“He’ll rue the day!” cried Rogozhin. “You will be ashamed Ganya for insulting this … sheep! (He couldn’t think of any other word)”[5]

  1. “He can not be an idiot.”

By the second book, everyone starts to notice that the Prince is actually very clever. He might even be the smartest among them all. Furthermore, everyone can see he has two distinctive qualities no other person has: The Prince understands the heart of man, and that his desire is only good (Prov. 11:23). A brief discourse allows the Prince to discern what someone actually needs, whether they realize it or not, and listening to his counsel brings life. This inevitably draws friends and enemies alike closer to him. Everyone starts to confide in the Prince because they sense that knowing and being known by the Prince might redeem them (John 17:8).

Is this not the case with Christ Himself? No one could deny He was blameless in all His conducts, not even those who wanted to kill Him. Those whose hearts were not blinded by pride and hatred eventually started to seek His teachings. Men were drawn to Him because they could sense there was something in Him they needed that they could not find anywhere else (John 4:13). And what about us Christians? Aren’t we supposed to incite the same feelings upon our fellow men? To make people realize, through our words and deeds, that there is something vital missing in their life that they can only find in Christ?

But there is a cost to follow Christ. His actions defied social norms and expectations set up by sinful human values. Similarly, those who admire the Prince start to realize that they can not agree with all the Prince’s actions. Despite acknowledging his wisdom, despite knowing that his words are true and his counsel brings life, many can not help but think that to follow the Prince’s example is folly. His actions do not make sense, and no one will ever be able to emulate them without destroying their own lives. [2] 

  1. “Is he truly an idiot?”

Through the third and fourth books, the Prince smears his own reputation by plunging himself into a scandal no respectable man in society will ever do: He passionately chases after a loose woman, the notorious Nastasya Fillipovna. No one can truly understand why the Prince goes to such lengths for the woman. Defamed herself, society knows Nastasya as a mistress of a wealthy general who, after being forsaken by him in rural Russia, followed him to St. Petersburg and withheld nothing in trying to ruin the general’s life. The Prince sees her picture and says warmly, “So that’s Nastasya Fillipovna? .. She’s astonishingly pretty!”[6] as if he is looking at someone he has known for long.

Nastasya’s first impression of the Prince is similar to Ganya’s, but being clever and insightful herself, it does not take long for her to perceive that there is something more to the Prince. She then entrusts a decision that might affect her whole life, namely whom she should marry, to this man whom she barely knows. The Prince, on his part, turns out to have an ulterior motive himself. The Prince shockingly declares his intention to marry Nastasya, and even more shockingly, Nastasya almost accepts his proposal—only to call it off because she genuinely thinks marrying him will make the Prince’s life miserable.

What we see then is a chase that appalls the whole society of St. Petersburg. Nastasya repeatedly says she regrets calling off the marriage and will come back to the Prince, only to as often break her vows and then run away with another man. Like a wanton woman, she often lives for a couple of months with a man who is not her husband, and society can only guess whether her deeds are morally acceptable during that time. And like an idiot, the Prince keeps chasing after this morally dubious woman, forsaking everything including his friendships and a marriage prospect with Aglaya, a virtuous woman whom he loves and who loves him back.

All of us can immediately recognize what this chase tries to depict. Please excuse my language, but the Bible explicitly says that like a whore (Ezek. 23), Israel repeatedly broke their vows to God and turned towards other gods, only to crawl back to Him when their lovers forsake them. Similarly, how many times have we as Christians broken our vows to God, thinking that our lovers—whether they be money, fame, social standing, or any other things which we gave our hearts to—would save us, only to find ourselves shedding ‘tears of repentance’ when we realized that they are not what we imagined them to be? Christians are no better than Nastasya. We, too, have acted like a whore. And these are the kind of people for whom Christ performed the most scandalous act, one that continues to appall humanity throughout history: God became man, and like an idiot, He ended up hanging on the cross, slandered and counted among transgressors (Isa. 53:12).

  1. Are We, Too, an Idiot?

This is Christianity. This is our faith. May God pardon me for using such derogatory language to describe His most holy redeeming act, but isn’t this the truth? Christians are called to follow Christ’s idiotic footsteps, to be His fellow idiots, and then die for Him along the way. No need to sugarcoat nor put this behind a rose-tinted glass. Sure, Christ rose from the death and is currently seated at the right hand of God the Father, and He will come again in terrifying majesty to judge the living and the dead. But that is in the future. What about our life here and now? Aren’t we called to emulate His gentleness and compassion? And for what? To become the laughingstock of the world.

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (ca. 1820). The painting depicts Christ’s dead body just like any other corpse—no splendor, no majesty of the Son of God. The hope of His disciples was buried alongside His corpse.

(Image courtesy: www.historytoday.com)

Dostoyevsky understood this really well, and that is why he closed The Idiot with a very dark note. There was no redemption for the characters. Nastasya was mutilated by Rogozhin. Rogozhin was sent to jail in Siberia. The Prince turned out to be a real idiot—his epileptic fit recurred and he was sent back to Switzerland. Those who put their hope in the Prince can only hang their heads in embarrassment for entertaining such foolish ideas. And what about Aglaya, the woman who faithfully believed in him until the end? It turned out she was an idiot too. Following the Prince’s departure to Switzerland, she ended up marrying a con man and became a religious fanatic. So much for a faithful believer of the Prince.

As much as I want to close this article with the fact of redemption, for that is what Christianity undoubtedly offers, I must be true to Dostoyevsky’s intention. This is the question we asked in the beginning: Is living like Christ truly possible, that it is the true wisdom, or is it actually folly? I believe Dostoyevsky clearly stated his answer. No, it is not possible. Forget it. Forget your ideals, and just live your life with common sense.

My hands shuddered as I finished the novel. I deeply respect Dostoyevsky. I believe he is a good Christian, and he has a solid grasp of Christian doctrines—the depth and abundant riches of his works indicate so. But we need to seriously consider his message. Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot with an experimental technique. Rather than deciding where the story should go (and moving the characters like puppets), he instead only created the characters and then used a thought experiment to observe how ‘real sinful humans’ would respond in each situation. And his rational mind concluded that to live like Christ is impossible. Should we agree with him? I do not, but I invite you, brothers and sisters, to be a judge of your own in this case. Again, this is the case presented before us: Is living like Christ truly possible, that it is the true wisdom, or is it actually folly? O esteemed justices, pronounce your judgment. And you understand really well the implication of your answer. Christ Himself, the Most Esteemed Judge, will search your heart and hold you against your answer. May God’s grace be upon us.  

Martin Lutta Putra
Pemuda GRII Bandung


Referensi:

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, trans. H. L. Mencken (Alfred A. Knopf Inc, 1918).

[2] Richard Peace, Dostoyevsky: An Examination of the Major Novels (Cambridge University Press, 1971).

[3] https://community.middlebury.edu/~beyer/courses/previous/ru351/novels/idiot/making.shtml, accessed Oct. 5th 2023.

[4] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot (Oxford University Press, 2008). Book 2, pg. 229.

[5] Ibid. Book 1, pg. 121.

[6] Ibid. Book 1, pg. 29.