By Ashley Riley
At a first glance, Thomas Hobbes’ use of the inverted “Golden Rule” provides a compelling argument for the operation of society, primarily in the sense that it encourages everyone to be a considerate citizen. Treating others the way that they want to be treated, or avoiding the opposite, indeed feels like a fundamental principle, as Hobbes describes it to be in Chapter XIV of his Leviathan. In theory, the demand for policing and government intervention should be unnecessary if everyone simply did right by each other. Regardless whether humans are as innately politically inclined as Aristotle famously describes, or selfishly animalistic as Hobbes argues, this would seem to be a satisfactory rule of thumb to abide.
However, this claim may not speak to our humanity beyond a superficial level. If human beings are truly the despondent creatures that Hobbes claims we are, meaning that we are unable to live happily and peacefully without the intervention of a Leviathan, then this simple framework would prove to be insufficient. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment demonstrates this to be the case. Although Crime and Punishment illustrates the consequences for when this law is broken from a Hobbesian perspective, it simultaneously makes the case that abiding by this law ultimately leads to the downfall of society as a whole.
Before studying in greater detail the effect of this law in the novel, it is necessary to first dissect this rule in its original biblical context, and how it is used within Hobbes’ Leviathan more vividly. What we understand today as the “Golden Rule” first appears in Matthew 7:12, when Jesus states, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” This encapsulates the idea that one must use the self as a guide to living ethically among one’s peers, and within a society as a whole. Notably, Hobbes includes the total inverse of this law within his Leviathan. At first glance, this appears to be the very same rule; however, there is a striking difference in its effect. Although both versions are general rules, they require reflection upon one’s particular self, which ultimately will provide a guide for how one will treat another. In order to understand this rule, one has to think about oneself, and one’s particularity in relation to others. This is where the two philosophies diverge: whereas the original rule is positive, in the sense that human action tends to matter more than inaction, Hobbes’ distortion is far less morally demanding. What matters most in the original perspective are the things that you do, whereas Hobbes suggests that the Leviathan instead should be responsible for action, and therefore that there is peace in passivity (e.g. as in do not kill, do not steal, etc). This is the crux of Hobbes’ pessimistic attitude towards mankind.
Although Hobbes’ first fundamental law of nature is “to seek peace and follow it” (99), this is not the same as Jesus’ intent in his sermon on the mount. Hobbes follows this law with another proclamation, claiming “[we must do] by all means what we can do to defend ourselves” (99). This seems contradictory, even within Hobbes’ own reasoning; if humans truly are as animalistic as he describes us to be, then peace can easily be sacrificed for the sake of self preservation (98). Even he seems to realize this contradiction, arguing:
From this fundamental law of nature, by which men are commanded to endeavour peace, is derived this second law:
that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far forth as for peace and defense of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself… This is the law of the gospel: Whatsoever you require that others should do to you, that do ye to them. And that law of all men, What you do not want done to you, do not do to another. (99)
By distorting this biblical law and defining it as a rule of nature, it appears as though Hobbes himself is trying to be Christlike. His Leviathan is not only what he believes to be an “honest” analysis of man, but he also provides us with a way to react to these flaws. Instead of trying to fight our true nature, we can embrace it; thus, Hobbes’ Leviathan acts as a “new Bible,” beginning with a distorted “Golden Rule,” or a first rule of living. If he is correct, then it seems as though mankind has a more stable path to follow; but if he is wrong, which Crime and Punishment proves to be the case, then there are severe consequences to following his advice. Both texts illustrate the dystopia that would result in humanity’s acceptance of this philosophy, placing the tragic consequences at the forefront for us to observe.
As already stated, Crime and Punishment argues against Hobbes’ “Golden Rule” to an inverted degree. While Crime and Punishment also offers a story of a main character attempting to challenge an unjust society, Raskolnikov simultaneously encompasses and defies Hobbes’ philosophies. Similar to Hobbes’ account of man, Raskolnikov validates the philosopher’s beliefs by arguing that “living souls demand life . . . are suspicious . . . [and] are reactionary!” (306-7). However, Raskolnikov additionally claims, “you can’t leap over nature by logic alone,” and this directly fights against Hobbes’ argument (307). While the philosopher claims that it is “reason” and the desire for “peace” that reconcile our dark nature (9; 97), Raskolnikov unravels this with his complex nature. He also defies Hobbes’ fundamental law of nature by committing his gruesome crimes. He unjustly does on to others what he would not want done upon himself, so he is deserving of the punishment bestowed upon him when the authorities intervene. Raskolnikov also defies Hobbes’ caricature of man with his constant acts of kindness and charity (282-91), and therefore in this sense, occasionally exhibits the tendencies of the original “Golden Rule.” All at once, Raskolnikov is the embodiment, and rejection of Hobbes’ principles.
By becoming a self-proclaimed deliverer of “justice,” Raskolnikov takes on arguably the most Hobbesian role within the text. Believing that his actions were not only “preordained” (82), but more provocatively, his “duty” (310), Raskolnikov imposes the role of the Leviathan upon himself for the sake of maintaining justice within his own society. In Part Three of the novel, he defends this moral reasoning to his friend, Razumikhin; in greater detail, he claims:
Everyone is divided into two categories, the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘extraordinary.’ Ordinary people should live a life of obedience and do not have the right to overstep the law, because, you see, they are ordinary. But extraordinary people have the right to carry out all manner of crimes and to break the law as they please, all because they are extraordinary. (310; emphasis added)
Regarding himself as a member of this extraordinary fraction of society, Raskolnikov reveals his Napoleonic complex, delivering what he believes is “true justice” within his own community (81). He implicitly argues that “I didn’t murder a person . . . I murdered a principle!” (329), which highlights a poignant flaw within Hobbes’ Leviathan and his distorted rule: although Raskolnikov looks inwards at his own particularity and compares it to Alyona Ivanovna’s, he is mistaken in deciding that they are not equals. Eventually, he understands this miscalculation, and that in actuality, he is equally as sinister because of his actions. In reflection towards the end of the novel, the narrator claims:
He had managed to go through with the murder thanks to his frivolous and craven character, which, moreover, had been irritated by hardship and failure. In reply to the question of what exactly had prompted him to turn himself in, he answered frankly: heartfelt remorse. There was something almost rude about it all. (641; emphasis added)
Although he eliminates those he considers unworthy within the society, he realizes by the end of the novel that he is just as terrible as those he condemns, especially in light of his unjust murder of Alyona’s innocent sister, Lizaveta (98).
Even though the novel presents a dark argument against the innately good nature of humanity, Crime and Punishment is redeemed by having two other Christlike figures: Sonya and Dunya. Both strong women in struggling circumstances, they drive the ethical standards of the novel upward in two ways: the first being their devotion to morality, and the second being their self-sacrifice for those who they care most about. Sonya particularly plays a critical role, due both to her impact and due to the moral philosophies within the novel. Her significance is even highlighted by Raskolnikov’s mother, Pulkheria Alexandrovna, who says of her, “I have this premonition, Dunya. You won’t believe me, but the moment she came in it occurred to me that this is the crux of it all” (288). Therefore, her power within this novel cannot be denied. Sonya’s devotion to goodness and nobility provide Raskolnikov with a lens to observe how he was flawed in his reasoning, and even offers him potential redemption. When Raskolnikov confesses to Sonya about the details of his crime, denouncing Alyona Ivanovna as nothing more than a “louse . . . a useless, foul, noxious louse,” Sonya retorts by saying “[she was] a human being! Not a louse!” (500 emphasis added). It is Sonya who prompts Raskolnikov to consider whether he indeed had the “right to murder” (504), and this is when Raskolnikov’s transformation, or “conversion,” begins to develop. Her significance peaks when she argues, “accept suffering and through suffering redeem yourself—this is what you must do” (505). This is the very crux of the novel’s moral message. The Christian argument that suffering is more noble than causing harm to others, and is also redemptive to those who have done wrong, reconciles the tragic circumstances that this Hobbesian society enforces upon its characters. Sonya reveals to Raskolnikov that being extraordinary does not equate to being free from accountability, and that every person should take moral responsibility for themselves, and for each other. Therefore, this is the purest application of Jesus’ original Golden Rule; instead of living in a world where there is a “war of every man against every man” (Hobbes 95), people must overcome this dark part of human nature, and question if it really exists in the capacity which Hobbes describes.
While Hobbes nobly condones the idea that people should treat each other with mutual respect for the very sake of peace, his greater argument offers a distorted version of man. The subject of his entire text argues that human beings are not capable of living in peace among each other without sacrificing their own freedom, but this does not prove to be successful in Crime and Punishment . If we are to study these laws with the same suspicion of mankind’s capacity as Hobbes possesses, then this appears to be a fragile system, indefensible against those who decide to challenge it. Although the Leviathan exists to carry out punishment to those who violate these laws, it only takes one person to disobey for the whole system to be at risk, as Raskolnikov illustrates in Crime and Punishment . Regardless of the use of Hobbes’ principle however, both texts arrive at the same conclusion: that human beings are far more complex than Hobbes’ theory and “solution” to society’s problem implies. While Hobbes’ own Leviathan suggests that superficial selfishness is enough to satisfy the needs and desires of mankind, it produces in Crime and Punishment the Raskolnikov/Napoleon effect, which is dangerous because it encourages extremist efforts, which are justified by a distorted guise that it is for the benefit of society. Where Hobbes’ distorted law of nature prompts inaction, the original “Golden Rule” demands moral action, encouraging each person to think about their particulars in relation with their fellow man. What matters are the things that you do, not simply that you did not kill, or did not steal. This is the unifying key that the societies of both texts ultimately lack. Only in the Christlike figures do we see this reconciliation, and so this is the tragedy that the Leviathan and Crime and Punishment both ultimately share. Although the characters of Dostoevsky’s novel operate within terribly flawed societies, they are still successful in abiding by noble moral philosophies. They provide an argument for the innate goodness of mankind that Hobbes blatantly disregards from being true, and this is where the philosopher is most deeply flawed in his analysis of human nature and politics.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. 1866. Translated and edited by Oliver Ready, Penguin Classics, 2014.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan: Parts I and II. 1651. Edited by A.P Martinich, and Brian Battiste, Broadview, 2005.