Dostoevsky on Capital Punishment

The following dialogue takes place in Book 1, Chapter 2 of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot between Prince Myshkin (the titular character) and a servant of the Epanchin family. Keep in mind that Dostoevsky himself was sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted only moments before his execution. The excerpt is lengthy, but worth it. Prince Myshkin starts:

“Yes. I saw it [an execution] in France, at Lyons. Dr. Schneider took me with him.”

“Do they hang them?”

“No, in France they always cut off their heads.”

“Do they scream?”

“How could they? It’s done in an instant. They make the man lie down and then a great knife is brought down by a heavy, powerful machine, called the guillotine. . . . The head falls off before one has time to wink. The preparations are horrible. When they read the sentence, get the man ready, bind him, lead him to the scaffold – that’s what’s awful! Crowds assemble, even women, though they don’t like women to look on. . . .”

“It’s not a thing for them!”

“Of course not, of course not! Such a horrible thing! . . . The criminal was an intelligent, middle-aged man, strong and courageous, called Legros. But I assure you, though you may not believe me, when he mounted the scaffold he was weeping and was as white as paper. Isn’t it incredible? Isn’t it awful? Who cries for fear? I’d no idea that a grown man, not a child, a man who never cried, a man of forty-five, could cry for fear! What must be passing in the soul at such a moment; to what anguish it must be brought! It’s an outrage on the soul, that’s what it is! It is written ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ so because he has killed, are we to kill him? No, that’s impossible. It’s a month since I saw that, but I seem to see it before my eyes still. I’ve dreamt of it half a dozen times.”

Myshkin was quite moved as he spoke, a faint color came into his pale face, though his voice was still gentle. The footman followed him with sympathetic interest, so that he seemed sorry for him to stop. He, too, was perhaps a man of imagination and strainings after thought.

“It’s a good thing at least that there is not much pain,” he observed, “when the head falls off.”

“Do you know,” Myshkin answered warmly, “you’ve just made that observation and every one says the same, and the guillotine was invented with that object. But the idea occured to me at the time that perhaps it made it worse. That will seem to you an absurd and wild idea, but if one has some imagination, one may suppose even that. Think! if there were torture, for instance, there would be suffering and wounds, bodily agony, and so all that would distract the mind from spiritual suffering, so that one would only be tortured by wounds till one died. But the chief and worst pain may not be in the bodily suffering but in one’s knowing for certain that in an hour, and then in ten minutes, and then in half a minute, and then now, at the very moment, the soul will leave the body and that one will cease to be a man and that that’s bound to happen; the worst part of it is that it’s CERTAIN. When you lay your head down under the knife and hear the knife slide over your head, that quarter of a second is the most terrible of all. You know this is not only my fancy, many people have said the same. I believe that so thoroughly that I’ll tell you what I think. To kill for murder is a punishment incomparably worse than the crime itself. Murder by legal sentence is immeasurably more terrible than murder by brigands. Anyone murdered by brigands, whose throat is cut at night in a wood, or something of that sort, must surely hope to escape till the very last minute. There have been instances when a man has still hoped for escape, running or begging for mercy after his throat was cut. But in the other case all that last hope, which makes dying ten times as easy, is taken away FOR CERTAIN. There is the sentence, and the whole awful torture lies in the fact that there is certainly no escape, and there is no torture in the world more terrible. You may lead a soldier out and set him facing the cannon in battle and fire at him and he’ll still hope; but read a sentence of certain death over the same soldier, and he will go out of his mind or burst into tears. Who can tell whether human nature is able to bear this without madness? Why this hideous, useless, unnecessary outrage? Perhaps there is some man who has been sentenced to death, been exposed to this torture and has been told ‘you can go, you are pardoned.’ Perhaps such a man could tell us. It was of this torture and of this agony that Christ spoke, too. No, you can’t treat a man like that!”


2 thoughts on “Dostoevsky on Capital Punishment

  1. This is such an interesting idea — that the suffering of dying slowly is not nearly as great as the suffering of the certainty of death. There are many other places in Dostoevsky’s works which support the proposal that is expressed here in the Idiot.

    For example, in Notes from Underground, the narrator explains that a completed goal, symbolized by the mathematical certainty that “two times two makes four,” is “the beginning of death.” He believes that life is only found in striving, or, in the words of a character from Crime and Punishment, that life is only found when “you have somewhere, anywhere to go.”

    I have wrestled with this idea for quite some time, and since I have never been condemned to death, I can only understand it on a smaller scale.

    When I was a young child, I was grounded for one week and told that I could not play with friends for that time, and that if I continued to behave poorly then I would be grounded for another week, and another, until I improved. It was difficult and painful for my childish self, but I always had a strong hope that I would be allowed to see my friends soon. However, later in life I had a friend who committed suicide and the hope that I would see him again in this life was taken away from me completely. This was much more difficult for me.

    Likewise, I rarely saw my grandma, and since she was old, I knew that it was possible that I would not see her again before she passed away. This, however, did not bother me. I always had a hope that I might see her, and it true sadness and tears only came once she passed away and I had lost all hope that I would see her again in this life.

    In the same vein, Prince Mushkin argues here that the guillotine is a more severe form of torture specifically because it takes away the hope of survival, whereas other forms of execution attempt to kill by prolonged suffering and therefore you are able to believe that you may be able to withstand that torture and pull through. You do not focus on your death, but on the pains. When death is so certain, however, you can only focus on the certainty of that death.

    This description of the guillotine is really expressing the belief that it is hope which is the most important to a person, and that without it, death is better than life, for, as Dostoevsky expressed in another novel, when all hope is taken away, people become “monsters in their misery.”

  2. Good thoughts…I tend to go back and forth on the issue of capital punishment.

    On the one hand, I do believe Scripture allows it but doesn’t command it (John Macarthur has stated that Jesus’ statement “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” is a statement in favor of capital punishment, but I disagree…I think it’s talking more about consequence of rushing into violence). And I would argue that there are times when I am so sickened by a crime (particularly against children) that my thought is “kill them.”

    However, my personal thought on the issue (and it’s far from a thus sayeth the Lord) is that, while Capital Punishment is CONDONED, it’s far from the best solution. Our argument against euthanasia and abortion both stem from the fact that we cannot know when God wants a life to end. And I feel capital punishment prohibits the chance for the Gospel to reach the most unlikely suspects and transform their lives in the prison system (I am a supporter of life sentences). I also feel that while the punishment itself is dealt in a humane physical matter (dostoevsky’s comments speak to the emotional and spiritual cruelty of it), that capital punishment DOES produce a bloodthirsty, vengeance-seeking society. Notice the crowds with Saddam Hussein was hung or the people who have campaigned to televise executions.

    That said, our laws are not made by pastors. The state cannot prohibit capital punishment simply on the basis of spiritual growth. And I don’t feel strong enough in my opinion to become a person dedicated to stamping out capital punishment. I’m glad I live in a state without it. I pray that the judges and lawyers in states with it are using wisdom and issuing it only after guilt is proven witout a shadow of a doubt. But when asked my personal opinion (and that’s the only capital I have on this) then I have to say that while it’s allowed, I believe the godly thing is to show mercy where applicable.

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