Ponderings About Responsibility from Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot”

One of the reasons why tax resistance for reasons of conscientious objection is so slow to catch on, I think, is that it takes a lot of imagination to trace the path between the effort we expend to earn money, the often subliminal ways in which that money is siphoned away from us by the government, the ways the government spends the money, and the effect of that spending on people.

It’s easy to think of your income as your after-tax income and just ignore the taxes as an inevitable friction loss. And it’s easy to get flummoxed by the diffusion by which all of your tax contributions get churned together in one big pot with everyone elses’ and so it’s impossible to know whose taxes got spent on what. Maybe “yours” were spent on something benign. Hard to say. The connection passes through such a fog that to most people it seems absurd to think that any responsibility passes along with it.

In large-scale evils, the sort that governments enable people to do, this sort of diffusion of responsibility is commonplace, so that in the end there can be mass murders that require the cooperation of thousands of people in which everyone involved can claim that they are not responsible for murdering anybody.

Indeed, engineering this sort of thing has become an art — case in point is the U.S. torture policy, where the torturers cannot be prosecuted because they were told by their superiors that their actions were legal; their superiors cannot be prosecuted because the White House assured them the same thing; the folks in the White House cannot be prosecuted because they were relying on their legal analysts; the legal analysts cannot be prosecuted because they were just giving good faith legal advice. So you end up with a situation in which a chain of easily-identified people doing well-documented acts and leaving smoking guns scattered like cigarette butts, engaged in a conspiracy to repeatedly violate clear national and international laws against torture, and yet nobody is actually responsible for torturing anyone.

I’ve harped on this before. There’s another angle on this, though, too. Just as people fail to understand that it is their small contributions to coordinated evil that allows large projects of coordinated evil to take place, it can also be hard for people to believe that their small, benevolent acts can ever add up to anything worthwhile.

I’ve lately been reading a translation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. In one section of the book, a relatively minor character named Ippolit (or Hippolyte in some translations), a young man dying of tuberculosis, has penned a rambling sort of last testament that he recites to a group of people who have gathered to drink champagne in honor of the title character’s birthday.

Ippolit covers a lot of ground in the testament, which goes on for page upon page like a monologue in an Ayn Rand novel and has a strikingly “existentialist” feel to it. Ippolit is confronting death, which he sees as an approaching brick wall, opaque and impenetrable, and finds himself increasingly unable to engage with a world that seems like it’s no longer his to live in. Even a fly is at home in this world while it’s here, but for him the world is not his home but just the waiting room for his appointment with oblivion.

But among the things he recounts is a recent occasion on which he went out of his way to do a favor for a needy stranger for whom he had no reason to feel any obligation or duty (indeed, if anything, the stranger owed him a favor). A very crucial courtesy from the point of view of the stranger, to be sure, but of no possible meaning to someone who is on the verge of death and who isn’t entertaining any superstitious ideas about getting rewards for his good deeds in the hereafter.

Ippolit speaks to someone about this (as he recounts during his tirade), and says:

There was an old fellow at Moscow, a “general” — that is, an actual state councilor, with a German name. He spent his whole life visiting prisons and prisoners; every party of exiles to Siberia knew beforehand that the “old General” would visit them on the Sparrow Hills. He carried out this good work with the greatest earnestness and devotion. He would turn up, walk through the rows of prisoners, who surrounded him, stop before each, questioning each as to his needs, calling each of them “my dear,” and hardly ever preaching to anyone.

He used to give them money, send them the most necessary articles — leg wrappers, undergarments, linen — and sometimes took them books of devotion, which he distributed among those who could read, firmly persuaded that those who could read would read them to those who could not. He rarely asked a prisoner about his crime; he simply listened if the criminal began speaking of it.

All the criminals were on equal footing with him; he made no distinction between them. He talked to them as though they were brothers, and they came in the end to look on him as a father. If he saw a woman with a baby among the prisoners, he would go up, fondle the child and snap his fingers to make it laugh.

He visited the prisoners like this for many years, up to the time of his death, so much so that he was known all over Russia and Siberia — that is, by all the criminals. A man who had been in Siberia told me that he had seen himself how the most hardened criminals remembered the general; yet the latter could rarely give more than twenty kopecks to each prisoner on his visits.

It’s true they spoke of him without any great warmth, or even earnestness. One of these “unhappy” creatures, a man who had murdered a dozen people and slaughtered six children solely for his own pleasure (for there are such men, I am told), would suddenly, once in twenty years, apropos of nothing, heave a sigh and say: “What about that old general; is he still alive, I wonder?”

Perhaps he smiles as he says it. And that’s all. But how can you tell what seed may have been dropped in his soul forever by that old general, whom he hasn’t forgotten for twenty years? How can you tell, Bahmutov, what significance such an association of one personality with another may have on the destiny of those associated? … You know it’s a matter of a whole lifetime, an infinite multitude of ramifications hidden from us.

The most skillful chess player, the cleverest of them, can only look a few moves ahead; a French player who could reckon out ten moves ahead was written about as a marvel. How many moves there are in this, and how much that is unknown to us!

In scattering the seed, scattering your “charity,” your kind deeds, you are giving away, in one form or another, part of your personality, and taking into yourself part of another; you are in mutual communion with one another; a little more attention and you will be rewarded with the knowledge of the most unexpected discoveries. You will come at last to look upon your work as a science; it will lay hold of all your life, and may fill up your whole life. On the other hand, all your thoughts, all the seeds scattered by you, perhaps forgotten by you, will grow up and take form. He who has received them from you will hand them on to another. And how can you tell what part you may have in the future determination of the destinies of humanity? If this knowledge and a whole lifetime of this work should make you at last able to sow some mighty seed, to bequeath the world some mighty thought, then…

Of course, this being part of the Depressing 19th Century Russian Literature genre, Ippolit’s goes straight from this speech to solemnly determining to kill himself. (Though mostly, it seems, as a way of wresting one last consciously-chosen act from life before he dies, rather than just letting death take him passively.)

Anyway, last night when I read this it spoke to me as being a pretty good articulation of its perspective. This afternoon I came to think of it again and decided it was worth posting here. It may be that the novel itself will recapitulate (or transcend) the ideas in this excerpt on a larger scale, but I’m still only ¾ of the way through, so I don’t really know where Dostoevsky is taking me yet.