A lonely superhuman with simple arithmetic

In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, one of the characters wonders whether “thousands of good deeds will wipe out one little, insignificant transgression.”  The “insignificant” transgression is murder. “For one life taken, thousands saved from corruption and decay! One death, and a hundred lives in exchange–why, it’s simple arithmetic!” The same question troubles the main character, Raskolnikov. I will not discuss the novel here. I will say, however, a few words about the question: how disastrous it is for the one who entertains it and how easy it is for it to take a hold, in various forms, of one’s soul.

Of course, the first reaction to such a question may be abhorrence. The lack of consideration for another human’s life seems the attribute of brutes. Such attitudes, one may say, are absent in a civilized world, and only a deranged human being would disregard the life of another to such an extent. However, as we too often discover, this idea is prevalent precisely in modern “civilization,” because modernity usually entertains the thought that it can beatify the world according to its own principles.

When we consider this attitude at the level of political regimes, the “arithmetic” is terrifying. Criminal regimes have brought death to millions in the name of creating a new order. I would include here Nazism and Communism (in August 2015, at the Tallinn conference, several Eastern and Central European countries initiated the process to create an international institute for the investigation of the crimes of Communism). Both regimes claimed the superiority of a new man, the Arian or the Worker, respectively. For their victory, the others were just expendable numbers. 

Let us come back to the individual. How can a person consider someone else a number, an object that one can destroy for the “benefit” of others? How can anyone become so blind that he would consider becoming a “hero” for many (“thousands saved from corruption and decay”) by sacrificing a life, even a miserable life, as the one murdered in Crime and Punishment?

Well, let us consider a few phrases: “the world would be just fine if ‘that country’ did not belong to it.” “My country would be just fine if ‘this kind of people’ did not belong to it” (this is especially applicable to election seasons). “My family would be just fine if it weren’t for that crazy uncle.” In each of these situations I murder something: a country, a group of people, or a person. For me, they become expendable. I would be happy if my world did not contain them. And it would be for the “good,” for it would increase the beauty of my world. Beauty minus ugliness equals just beauty. It’s simple “arithmetic.” So it feels as if I have a responsibility for accomplishing this arithmetic.

By these “simple” thoughts, I have already committed a murder–several, for that matter. The first one who died is me, for I have extracted myself from the world given to me and I have created one for me alone, according to my views. In doing so, I have destroyed my constellations. Martin Buber is often cited for two types of relationships, I-thou, in which the other human being is an infinite person with whom I enter an infinite relationship, and I-it, in which the other human being becomes an object and is used merely for the function that he or she may perform in the relationship. But we forget that in the I-it mode of existence there is no “I.” The “I”–a person–can only be an “I” with other “I”s. When “I” relate to an it, “I” am no longer a person, but an object myself. “I” have created already a world for myself, and I am alone in it: a murderer. The world that has been given to me has died; the persons who were in my world have died; I have died as person and have become an individual. I have died to life, but I continue to exist: a lonely superman with simple arithmetic.


I read something on Facebook today. St. Porphyrios apparently said, “You don’t become holy by fighting evil. Let evil be. Look toward Christ and that will save you. What makes a person saintly is love.” St. Porphyrios may not be well known. Then trust Yoda. He says a similar thing.


About Tavi's Corner

Blogging on ancient philosophy, communist persecution in Romania (including deportation to Siberia), and Orthodox Christianity. I've translated books from Romanian to English, and I also write about them from time to time.
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