Raskolnikov’s fictive essay—which the reader never sees but is only paraphrased for her by its writer—is called ‘On Crime.’ In it, he posits that certain men are extra-moral, or, beyond the law. History yields, every now and then, a Napoleonic hero who, in the present, is always doomed to the status of criminal even if he is praised in successive generations as an innovator. This Raskolnikov explains to Razumihin and Porfiry long after he himself committed murder earlier in the book.
For Raskolnikov, a man capable of turning his crime into something beneficial and also having the nerve and intelligence to deal with the ramifications of his actions is beyond good and evil, as it were. The ‘common men’ fulfill their ‘conservative duty’ when they punish lower criminals.
The incredible danger of this ideology would seem quite easy to deal with. One has only to challenge the grammar of Raskolnikov’s presuppositions. The very fact that some men are subject to the law and some men are beyond it would lead one to ask on what grounds it can be known which man is which. This is precisely the question that Porfiry raises when he suggests that these two types of men should be marked somehow—perhaps by uniform.
Of this man beyond the law, Porfiry says: ‘Tell me, please, are there many people who have the right to kill others, these extraordinary people? I am ready to bow down to them, of course, but you must admit it’s alarming if there are a great many of them, eh?’
Raskolnikov assures him that these men are very few and that other men who do not have a right to kill never get very far in their crime or have much to say due precisely to the fact that they do not level up to the higher kind of man.
At first, Raskolnikov’s conclusions would seem convincing enough. After all, judges, statesmen and juries are always making decisions about life and death though when they order someone’s death, it is never called ‘murder’ but ‘execution,’ (precisely a point that Stirner made). However, the key flaw in Raskolnikov’s idea is the very soft spot that Porfiry has for the law.
Later in the argument, Raskolnikov says, ‘One thing only is clear, that the appearance of all these grades and sub-divisions of men must follow with unfailing regularity some law of nature. That law, of course, is unknown at present, but I am convinced that it exists, and one day may become known.’
In other words, the law is an order created by men, but nature has its own law. As long as Raskolnikov’s opponents believe in the sovereignty of the law, they can believe in the sovereignty of any given natural law so long as it seems reasonable.
There’s something very telling that happens just after Raskolnikov’s initial monologue paraphrasing his ‘On Crime.’ In conclusion, he says, ‘till the New Jerusalem, of course!’
To this, Porfiry says, ‘Then you believe in the New Jerusalem, do you?’
Raskolnikov answers in the affirmative. When asked if he believes in God, he answers in the affirmative. When asked if he believes in the raising of Lazarus from the dead, he answers in the affirmative.
Constantly second-guessing him, Porfiry asks, ‘Literally?’
‘Literally,’ Raskolnikov responds a final, decisive time.
This very small aside in the conversation reveals much about the moral dialogue of the novel. It would be too easy for Razumihin and Porfiry if Raskolnikov was a common revolutionary or nihilist—one of the characters ever haunting the streets of Dostoyevsky’s Saint Petersburg. We learn, rather, that Raskolnikov is a biblical literalist, or at least claims to be one for the sake of the debate.
A few of Raskolnikov’s passing comments later in the text about God would lead us to suggest that he’s no kind of believer at all. Those who would go looking throughout the text for quantitative signs as to the exact beliefs of the novel’s antihero would just barely miss the point.
The real issue is this: If Raskolnikov didn’t believe what he said about New Jerusalem, the existence of God and the raising of Lazarus, then he deceived both Porfiry and Razumihin. If, however, Raskolnikov believed what he said, then all three of them were deceived. The arbiter of this deception matters little. What matters is that Raskolinov likened the religious moral absolute to another immoral (or extra-moral) absolute in such a way that the men were forced to look at both of them as though they both belonged to the same discourse of ‘natural law’ and, thus, sovereignty.
There are many places where Nietzsche echoes Raskolnikov. They pair quite easily when Nietzsche goes anti-democratic, talking about how he would have it that whole nations of men would be sacrificed so that one Goethe or one Napoleon would arise from the masses.
However, for Nietzsche, this man to arise represented his nostalgia for aristocracy. Rather than purely doing away with the law altogether, as his title Beyond Good and Evil would suggest, he believed he was speaking to men of the future who would be capable of cultivating, not a complete negation of morality (destructive-nihilism) but a whole new series of gestures and formative moralities with a conscious project in mind (nihilism-perfected).
In Nietzsche’s ideal world, the only sovereignty would be an ever-shifting chain of command, with the task of each man to learn where he must command and where he must obey. Authority then comes about as a project of careful identification.
Nietzsche’s ethical conclusions, though always backed with rigorous teleological investigation and though never quite reaching what one would feel compelled to call an out-and-out non-sequitur, nevertheless contain the shrillness of conclusions based almost entirely on a sense of refined personal taste. In Nietzsche’s ideal future, or perhaps only in some realm of being that can only be illumined every now and again through different points in the Eternal Return, man’s order of rank is one we will come to understand intuitively. For a man driven to unmask the greatest of sovereignties, God himself, intuition doesn’t strike one as a terribly reliable sovereignty by comparison.
In this, Nietzsche’s vision of the free spirit or the ubermensch is similar to Raskolnikov’s higher man, only Nietzsche’s vision is one of a cultivated yet somehow accumulative taste while Raskolnikov’s vision is one of natural law.
Roberto Calasso said of Nietzsche’s writings that they often seemed to be written by a man doing battle with some taunting spirit, and Calasso believed that spirit was Max Stirner.
One can’t help but imagine Max Stirner entering the picture and laying waste to both Raskolnikov’s higher man and Nietzsche’s order of rank with one fateful blow similar to the one that Nietzsche himself delivered to the positivists in his Twilight of the Idols:
There are no facts. There are only interpretations. And if you were to turn and say to me, ‘Then this too is an interpretation,’ I would have only to say, ‘So what?’
One imagines Max Stirner restating himself to some enemy in like manner, which could easily be Raskolnikov or Nietzsche, by saying, ‘I receive no right from you, but only the right I grant myself.’ And if his opponent were to turn and say to him, ‘Then the right you give me is not mine either but only that which I grant myself.’ Stirner would then turn and say, ‘So what?’