The Motives of Raskolnikov’s Actions Through the Prism of Socrates’ Works

Published 17 Feb 2017

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Dostoevsky was writing his Crime and Punishment at the time, which was historically difficult for Russia. Nevertheless, he was capable of depicting moral sufferings of a young man, who had committed a serious crime, and leading that young man to the absolute crash of his philosophical theory. The major motive of Raskolnikov’s crime was not in trying to change the social conditions, in which he existed; Raskolnikov was urged by his nihilistic attitudes and his Napoleonic desires to realize himself as a personality.

Raskolnikov was the man of ideas. The ideas overwhelmed him, they possessed him, and they occupied his mind. Those ideas were turning into his essence, and as soon as any idea entered his mind, he had to realize it. Dostoevsky was writing at the time when the people’s dissatisfaction with the existing order was growing. Raskolnikov was one of the dissatisfied and Dostoevsky was trying to depict people, who were capable of fighting against evil in the society. The question was in whether the instruments used in that fight had been properly chosen. Probably, the most important question was not even in how Raskolnikov made his choice, but the motives, which moved him towards committing a murder. It will also be interesting to analyze, how Raskolnikov’s ideas of a “good life” coincided or contradicted to those expressed by Socrates in Plato’s Euthyphro and Apology.
We meet Raskolnikov in the city of Petersburg on a hot day in July. He was a former student and he was already thinking, what he could do to change the existing social unfairness in his society.

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“All these questions were not new ones suddenly confronting him, they were old familiar aches. It was long since they had first begun to grip and rend his heart. Long, long ago his present anguish had its first beginnings; it had waxed and gathered strength, it had matured and concentrated, until it had taken the form of a fearful, frenzied and fantastic question, which tortured his heart and his mind.”

What was the question torturing Raskolnikov? The first pages of the novel provide us with the idea of Raskolnikov’s thinking about some serious plan of actions. Raskolnikov’s “idée fix” had first visited his mind the month before we got acquainted with him. The idea has first occurred to him when he had to impawn the ring to the old pawnbroker; the ring had previously been given to him by his sister and represented significant value to Raskolnikov. This started to be a mere dream, having developed into a thoroughly designed plan, to which Raskolnikov got used and which already considered to be a part of himself. Surprisingly, but the motive moving Raskolnikov was not in his socially desperate situation. Interest and curiosity have served his motives; it was the interest to try his theory, and to check his feelings and physical/ moral capabilities:

“I want to attempt a thing like that and am frightened by these trifles. Hm… yes, all is in a man’s hands and he lets it all slip from cowardice, that’s an axiom. It would be interesting to know what it is men are most afraid of.”

The motives were gradually strengthening or Raskolnikov himself was looking for some justification of his righteousness; each talk, each move and each word about the old pawnbroker he heard from other people was perceived by him as pushing him towards murder. That “stupid, senseless, worthless, spiteful, ailing, horrid old woman” was viewed by Raskolnikov as the source of evil and as the person who didn’t deserve to live. He already started to view his future crime as a step towards a “good life”, in which everyone would have fair social rewards. Hearing and viewing negative people’s attitudes towards the pawnbroker, he already saw his future crime as the pathway towards releasing the society from that “horrid old woman”. Raskolnikov was sure that the world was full of evil, that the world was socially unfair, and that the world was governed by the rich, cruel and unworthy. Raskolnikov’s living conditions only confirmed his ideas referring to social inequality:

“It was a tiny cupboard of a room about six paces in length. It had a poverty-stricken appearance with its dusty yellow paper peeling off the walls, and it was so low-pitched that a man of more than average height was ill at ease in it and felt every moment that he would knock his head against the ceiling. The furniture was in keeping with the room: there were three old chairs, rather rickety; a painted table in the corner on which lay a few manuscripts and books; the dust that lay thick upon them showed that they had been long untouched. A big clumsy sofa occupied almost the whole of one wall and a half the floor space of the room; it was once covered with chintz, but was now in rags and served Raskolnikov as a bed.”

Raskolnikov had already turned against that world; by the time we first met him in Dostoevsky’s novel, he had been almost ready to commit a crime. The old pawnbroker had already become the impersonation of that evil, violence and unfairness. It may seem that Raskolnikov’s primary motive was to make the lives of others easier. However, in that case he should have felt a hero, or should have felt no moral tortures. The people whom Raskolnikov met and the social unfairness he saw was only a justification for the idea he had in his mind. He had to be confident, that he was undertaking a correct step, and the life itself provided him with the bright examples of what he was searching. The primary motive of Raskolnikov’s actions was not in fighting against social unfairness, but in proving his own convictions, and his theory which he had created half a year before committing the crime. The murder, which Raskolnikov had initially considered to be a social fight, had appeared the sign of his weakness, and it could not be justified.

The major Raskolnikov’s mistake was in the fact that he had considered himself to belong to those, who were capable of committing the crime. Raskolnikov’s vision of a good life had initially been misleading, and he had come to that understanding only one month after having murdered the old pawnbroker and her sister:

“Ech, I am anesthetic louse and nothing more. Yes, I am certainly a louse, In the first place because I can reason that I am one, and secondly, because for a month past I have been troubling benevolent Providence, calling it to witness that not for my own fleshy lusts did I undertake it, but with a grand and noble object – ha-ha! Thirdly, because I aimed at carrying it our as justly as possible, weighing, measuring and calculating. Of all the lice I picked out the most useless one and proposed to take from her only as much as I needed for the first step […] and what shows that I am utterly a louse”

Raskolnikov cannot be justified for what he had done, because no higher social motives can serve the justification for a murder. However, critics of Dostoevsky’s novel divide the motives moving Raskolnikov into two different categories. The first category of motives was in “helping his mother and sister and improving his career prospects”. This explanation of Raskolnikov’s motives lacks profoundness. Raskolnikov admitted that he had not aimed to take more than he needed; and his career could not be improved by double murder or by material values he expected to find at the pawnbroker’s house. The second category of motives was in the so-called “Napoleonic idea”. It would be wrong to admit, that these two categories were similar to each other. Improving Raskolnikov’s career through the murder could hardly be used by Raskolnikov. That motive could only be accepted by those who did not want to look into Raskolnikov’s essence. In reality, Raskolnikov has gone too deep into his own superiority. This superiority served his license to act beyond law, and was misleading. Superiority, ambivalence, egoism and nihilism are the four notions which briefly describe Raskolnikov’s motives. His idea of a “good life” was not viewed in social fairness itself, but in capability to produce this social equality by any means without being punished or judged. For some unknown reason, Raskolnikov considered himself to have this silent permission to “fight”, but he failed to produce a good, or at least a better life.

The Socrates’ dialogue in Plato’s Euthyphro is closely connected with the above discussion. The question of murder and the idea of a “good life” are viewed differently. Socrates justifies the decision to prosecute Euthyphro’s father for murder by the fact that the victim might have been his relative. Euthyphro, in his turn, sees the justification of any murder not in relation, but in whether the murder was just. “The real question is whether the murdered man has been justly slain. If justly, then your duty is to let the matter alone”. It is difficult to agree with this statement, especially in the light of events taking place in Crime and Punishment. No higher motives can justify the murder, especially when these motives are caused by what we call “social inequality”. Socrates tended to discuss the issue of virtue as bringing immediate benefits. However, his theory can hardly be believed. First of all, if virtue brought immediate effects, why many “wicked people” were rich and powerful, with virtuous suffering from poverty and limited social opportunities? Second, how do we judge, who wicked is? What criteria do we use to determine that this or that person does not deserve social benefits by being “wicked”? How did Raskolnikov judge the old pawnbroker and concluded she didn’t deserve to live? Social benefits which people possess, or the social position of a person in the society cannot be taken as the basis to judge, whether the person deserves to be alive. In this sense, both Socrates and Raskolnikov display inconsistence of their theories. Plato’s Apology, though, leads us to the thought that Socrates’ theory could change Raskolnikov’s thoughts. In Apology Socrates related to an analogy, describing his life and his right to live:

‘If you put me to death, you will not easily find anyone to take my place. It is literally true that God has specially appointed me to this city, as though it were a large thoroughbred horse which because if its great size is inclined to be lazy and needs the stimulation of some stinging fly. It seems to me that God has attached me to this city to perform the office of such a fly; and all day long I never cease to settle here, there and everywhere, rousing, persuading, and reproving every one of you.”

Crime and punishment in Dostoevsky are parallel to Socrates’ trial and death in Plato. Their importance is equal, but the important difference is in the fact, that Socrates warned his judges of the moral consequences his death would cause. Raskolnikov, on the contrary, did not think of any consequences of his criminal actions.

The importance of the passage is not in the fact that Socrates was relating to God. The importance of this passage is in the fact, that Socrates deprived people of the right to judge one’s right to live. Relating to the impossibility to replace him upon his death, Socrates implies the punishable character of any murder, the character about which Raskolnikov seemed to have forgotten. Raskolnikov had no social right to commit a murder; he had numerous instruments in his hands: he could persuade, he could move, he could reprove, but he had chosen the weakest instrument of all he had at his disposal. Murdering served the proof of his inner significance and an attempt to check his will, his strength and his abilities. He was deeply interested in how criminals were discovered and how crimes were investigated. For some reason he didn’t see any other way to answer those questions except by committing a murder. He viewed his “good life” through satisfying his selfish strivings, which contradicted to the idea that the pawnbroker would stay alive. In one aspect his theory coincided with that of Socrates: while Socrates referred to immediate effects of virtue, Raskolnikov was looking for the same result. A long as his action was viewed by him as virtue, Socrates’ theory has fully been realized in Raskolnikov’s deeds. Has Raskolnikov changed his life and the lives of others for the better? Certainly, he has not.


The motives of Raskolnikov’s crime are found in his own convictions and theories. His desire to step over morality and to prove to himself that he was capable of committing a murder has turned to be the proof of his weakness, psychic instability and egoism. His Napoleonic desires were not caused by his social surroundings – those surroundings and unfairness were used by him only as the justification of his actions. The social conditions, in which Raskolnikov existed, cannot be referred to as the motives of his crime. The good life in Raskolnikov’s understanding is absolutely different from that of Socrates: the notion of virtue is differently interpreted by them. Moreover, while Socrates related to virtue in its direct meaning, the meaning of virtue was totally changed by Raskolnikov, making it serve for the satisfaction of his hidden Napoleonic desires. Ultimately, he didn’t succeed in changing the existing social structure, having ruined his own life. The theory of virtue has served only a cover, being absolutely inapplicable to the actions of Raskolnikov.


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  • Shteir, R.B. “Dostoevsky’s Conversion”, American Theatre, 11 (1994): 29-37
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