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Nietzsche's Tragic Hero and Dostoevsky's Saint: A Philosophical-Literary Contrast
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2015-03-23 12:20:26
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 F. Nietzsche                                          F. Dostoevsky

Nietzche’s has been called, at times, the “antichrist,” nevertheless, since his death he has been widely  recognized as one of the foremost proponent of a secular humanism and has recently returned to popularity within a secular European Union, all but forgetful of its Christian heritage and the ideal of its founding fathers. He remains a pivotal figure for the exploration of a paradoxical tension between heroes and saints as archetypal symbols of paths available to us as persons seeking a meaningful identity and life and a hopeful affirmation of human existence. His fullest expression of the struggle for meaning in human existence is best articulated in Thus Spoke Zarathustra as the teaching of the Will to Power, usually misunderstood and distorted as oppression and domination a la Hitler, when in fact it advocates mastery over the self.

Nietzsche has an uncanny suspicion that beneath the progressive optimism of the Enlightenment lies an unresolved crisis of irreconcilable differences between the figure of the hero and that of the saint. He predicts the coming crash of Western cultural values by declaring the death of God; hence he is usually viewed as a nihilist and a destructive figure, reinforced by the sad details of his troubled personal life, culminating in his descent into madness. Allegedly those details are proof that his philosophy is corrosive, sociopathic, proto-fascists and simply insane.

However, if we read Zarathustra attentively we will soon realize that it is the fullest literary expression of Nietzsche’s thought and his own personal identity. In that sense it is more revealing than his first major work: The Birth of Tragedy. Zarathustra’s teaching of the overman relates directly to Nietzsche’s celebration of the Greek conception of the tragic hero. To be sure, Zarathustra is not an autobiographical surrogate, nevertheless, it establishes the metaphor through which Nietzsche most truthfully creates his own personal identity.


Zarathustra’s principal teaching, central to his identity, is the revelation of the overman (the Ubermensch) as the one who is to come, toward whom human existence is directed. He embodies the fulfillment of the human search for meaning. Zarathustra is based on the founder of the religion known as Zoroastrianism, who lived around the 6th century BC in Persia or present day Iran. He taught that the meaning of human life was determined by participation in the cosmic struggle of two irreducible principles: truth and falsehood. For Nietzsche his character preaches the culmination of a process begun by the historical Zarathustra, a movement beyond good and evil to a joyful participation in the necessary contest between them. It is a relentless drive toward self-mastery.

Nietzsche’s overman is neither a prediction of some future species nor a teleological goal which justifies specific values as means to an end. He understands human existence in terms of the exhilaration of always striving to “pass over” and “pass on,” that is to say the struggle of life with death. This teaching on self-mastery is inseparable from his teaching of the Eternal Recurrence which takes many forms: it could be understood as determinate cosmological doctrine, but it can also be interpreted as a metaphor that contextualizes the metaphor of the overman. In Nietzsche’s overman we have the first draft for the metaphor of the “secular saint.”

And this brings us to Dostoyevsky’s transformative influence on the modern novel and our conception of what it means to be human. Dostoyevsky is not only a literary genius but also a critic of contemporary European secularism. Not for nothing Dostoyevsky as an iconic figure was prominently displayed by Putin at the Russian winter Olympics, while the English displayed the train as a symbol of the Industrial Revolution and ignored the greatness of a Shakespeare. Putin had it on target however: the greatness of a country is their poets. In any case Dostoyevsky is a champion of the ultimately mysterious character of all true religious faith, as exemplifies for him in the religious alternative offered by he Orthodox tradition of Christianity.


Dostoyevsky’s acknowledged masterpiece is The Brothers Karamozov. In this novel there are two crucial figures: that of the Grand Inquisitor and that of the Russian monk. In examining those two figures and episodes of the novel we can determine what distinguishes Dostoyevsky’s view of human identity and the search for meaning from that presented by Nietzsche.

Basically, in the Grand Inquisitor episode, Dostoyevsky uses a parable to criticize the culture of contemporary Western Europe. In the Russian monk section Dostoyevsky’s version of the saint is radical both in its return to the roots of faith as the stories of Abraham, Jesus and Saint Francis, but also in its direct address to Nietzsche’s critique of Western Christianity. This path in the human search for meaning is as compelling as Nietzsche’s, but it heads in an opposite direction. Both are pioneer of the existentialist movement together with Soren Kierkegaard, who was an astute philosopher of religion.

At the end of the 19th century there were widespread political and social upheaval throughout Europe building up to the Bolshevik uprising. Dostoyevsky probes the psychological and spiritual crisis which confronted the Russian people at the time as they came face to face with sweeping cultural changes. The Brothers Karamozov drew from aspects of Dostoevsky’s own personal life which included epilepsy, financial exigencies due to his addiction to gambling, political exile, imprisonment, personal bereavement, professional rejection, religious conversion, you name it; plus the acute recognition of the need for reform and renewal to preserve Russian identity despite assimilation to Western European values.

This amazing novel offers an effective metonymy for Dostoevsky’s literary vision as a whole; Father Zossima, the Russian monk, represents Dostoevsky’s idealized vision of the saint that Russia needed. The novel represents the most direct attempt by the novelist to confront the mysterious source of evil in the human heart, the active depravity and irresponsible acquiescence which that evil gives rise to, and the resources available to resist it. It is nothing short than the human problem of evil incarnated in that decisive exchange between Ivan, the second of the three sons, and his younger brother Aloysha, Zossima spiritual disciple.

In book 5 Ivan explains his vow to commit suicide in six years, effectively summarizing the individualist, rationalist, and nihilist tendencies that Dostoevsky saw as corrupting effects of liberal European values on Russian culture. Ivan cites there his atheistic rejection of God as responsible for the untenable predicament  in which human existence finds itself. In the second chapter of Book 5, Ivan tells Aloysha a parable entitled “The Grand Inquisitor” to illustrate why he believes that Christianity has failed utterly to deal with the ultimate source of the problem of evil, the irresolvable ambivalence at the heart of human freedom.

The parable tells of a powerful 16th century Spanish Jesuit cardinal, leader of the Inquisition in Seville. In the parable Jesus returns to Earth and performs a miracle in Seville, raising a dead child to life. The cardinal has Jesus arrested for his public display and in the interrogation that follows states the charge he makes against him: rather than bringing salvation, Jesus has placed on suffering humanity the additional and intolerable burden of freedom and responsibility for themselves.

Some scholars have interpreted this exchange as signifying the disastrous results of the Lutheral Reform and the Catholic Counter-Reformation for European Christianity. The Cardinal respresents Roman Catholicism and its emphasis on external works, absolving persons of responsibility for their freedom of conscience and stupefying them in a paternalistic collectivity where only their leaders, like the cardinal, bear the burden of knowledge and freedom. The figure of Jesus is a caricature, representing the pure interiority of individual faith unmediated by communal structures of teaching, an example that Dostoevsky saw as characteristics of Lutheran Protestantism.

In contrast, Book 6 presents the story of Father Zossima, the Russian monk, who preaches the hidden meaning of love as revealed in the Resurrection of Jesus, a love whose highest expression is forgiveness. He becomes the living incarnation of this truth.

The two authors seem so different but there is a hidden kinship between Dostoevsky’s saint and Nietzsche’s hero: they both push the inner logic of the world-view they embody to its furthest extreme. By coming full circle they meet on common ground. Do the two authors foresee the necessity to acknowledge that the saint can never dispense with the hero, nor the hero with the saint. Despite their irreconcilable differences, they need each other.

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