the idiot

This past weekend,  I had the following article published in the religion section of our local paper. I posted a slightly different version on The Voice of One two years ago. Given America’s current political climate, I feel like the thoughts in this article are especially relevant.


“The Idiot” is a book by Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. The story begins with a man named Myshkin returning to St. Petersburg from Switzerland. Myshkin convalesced in Switzerland because of fragile health. Having recovered, he hopes to go on with life as peacefully as possible. But on re-entering Russian society he finds a socio-political clash.

Caught in the Crossfire

On one side are the aristocrats. They are “old money” and Christians. But their faith is mostly cultural; it has little bearing on their motives or way of living. The aristocrats are also conservative; they want to maintain social traditions and status quo.

On the other side are the liberal progressives. (This is the group that eventually led the Bolshevik revolution and transformed Russia into a communist state). The progressives are atheists and not nobility. They feel Russian society — especially the aristocracy — has cheated them out of the economic resources they have a right to. Religion is just another prop of privilege.

Dostoevsky memorably describes one progressive this way: “There was not a trace of irony or introspection in his face, nothing but a complete blank conviction of his own rights; and, at the same time, something like a strange and incessant craving to be and feel insulted” (“The Idiot,” Part II, ch. 7).

Myshkin, a sensitive, loving soul, makes friends on both sides. He is devoted to people, not ideology. But this doesn’t win him friends in return. The aristocrats see him as naïve and use him for their own gain. The progressives attack him because he won’t disavow aristocrat friends. Myshkin is caught in the crossfire. His health deteriorates. At the end of the book he suffers a catastrophic breakdown. He returns to Switzerland a destroyed man, beyond recovery.

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