Three ways to live

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Dostoyevsky on capital punishment

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 6:21 am on Saturday, June 28, 2008

With so much discussion on capital punishment, this excerpt from Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” provides a fresh perspective. It is a bit lengthy, but well worth the read. And, by the way, Dostoevsky knows what he is talking about – he himself was sentenced to death and underwent a ‘mock’ execution.

Prince Myshkin: “Yes—I saw an execution in France—at Lyons. Schneider took me over with him to see it.”
Servant: “What, did they hang the fellow?”
Prince Myshkin: “No, they cut off people’s heads in France.”
Servant: “What did the fellow do?—yell?”
Prince Myshkin: “Oh no—it’s the work of an instant. They put a man inside a frame and a sort of broad knife falls by machinery —they call the thing a guillotine-it falls with fearful force and weight-the head springs off so quickly that you can’t wink your eye in between. But all the preparations are so dreadful. When they announce the sentence, you know, and prepare the criminal and tie his hands, and cart him off to the scaffold—that’s the fearful part of the business. The people all crowd round—even women— though they don’t at all approve of omen looking on. And I may tell you—believe it or not, as you like—that when that man stepped upon the scaffold he CRIED, he did indeed,—he was as white as a bit of paper. Isn’t it a dreadful idea that he should have cried —cried! Whoever heard of a grown man crying from fear—not a child, but a man who never had cried before—a grown man of forty-five years. Imagine what must have been going on in that man’s mind at such a moment; what dreadful convulsions his whole spirit must have endured; it is an outrage on the soul that’s what it is. Because it is said ‘thou shalt not kill,’ is he to be killed because he murdered some one else? No, it is not right, it’s an impossible theory. I assure you, I saw the sight a month ago and it’s dancing before my eyes to this moment. I dream of it, often.”
Servant: “Well, at all events it is a good thing that there’s no pain when the poor fellow’s head flies off”
Prince Myshkin: “Do you know, though,” cried the prince warmly, “you made that remark now, and everyone says the same thing, and the machine is designed with the purpose of avoiding pain, this guillotine I mean; but a thought came into my head then: what if it be a bad plan after all? You may laugh at my idea, perhaps—but I could not help its occurring to me all the same. Now with the rack and tortures and so on—you suffer terrible pain of course; but then your torture is bodily pain only (although no doubt you have plenty of that) until you die. But HERE I should imagine the most terrible part of the whole punishment is, not the bodily pain at all — but the certain knowledge that in an hour,—then in ten minutes, then in half a minute, then now — this very INSTANT—your soul must quit your body and that you will no longer be a man — and that this is certain, CERTAIN! That’s the point—the certainty of it. Just that instant when you place your head on the block and hear the iron grate over your head—then—that quarter of a second is the most awful of all.

This is not my own fantastical opinion—many people have thought the same; but I feel it so deeply that I’ll tell you what I think. I believe that to execute a man for murder is to punish him immeasurably more dreadfully than is equivalent to his crime. A murder by sentence is far more dreadful than a murder committed by a criminal. The man who is attacked by robbers at night, in a dark wood, or anywhere, undoubtedly hopes and hopes that he may yet escape until the very moment of his death. There are plenty of instances of a man running away, or
imploring for mercy—at all events hoping on in some degree—even after his throat was cut. But in the case of an execution, that last hope—having which it is so immeasurably less dreadful to die,—is taken away from the wretch and CERTAINTY substituted in its place! There is his sentence, and with it that terrible certainty that he cannot possibly escape death—which, I consider, must be the most dreadful anguish in the world. You may place a soldier before a cannon’s mouth in battle, and fire upon him—and he will still hope. But read to that same soldier his death-sentence, and he will either go mad or burst into tears. Who dares to say that any man can suffer this without going mad? No, no! it is an abuse, a shame, it is unnecessary — why should such a thing exist? Doubtless there may be men who have been sentenced, who have suffered this mental anguish for a while and then have been reprieved; perhaps such men may have been able to relate their feelings afterwards. Our Lord Christ spoke of this anguish and dread. No! no! no! No man should be treated so, no man, no man!”

6 Comments

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Comment by laissezfaire

June 30, 2008 @ 7:38 pm

I agree with Prince Myshkin on his thoughts about capital punishment. It is so much more torturous to suffer the mental anguish of being aware of one’s mortality and to die without hope. Looking forward to finishing the rest of the movie. =)

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Comment by Vitali

July 13, 2008 @ 6:32 am

Hi Tim, sorry, I just realized that you commented was classified as spam, so that’s why it took for me so long to realize it needs to be approved.

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Comment by Gregg C

August 25, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

Which is worse,the certainty of death, or the uncertainty of life? Is there not a benefit to a man who knows for sure when he is going to die? Is dieing the worst part of living; especially for a Christian? How many have died not knowing they were going to die and left this life with regrets? Could God not use the certainty of death to bring a man to his salvation? Does not God in His providence decide the time to die for all men? Is not the issue more complex than to simple say capitol punishment is wrong?

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Comment by Gregg C

August 30, 2010 @ 4:43 pm

do you ever answer posted comments, or respond in any way?

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Comment by Vitali

August 30, 2010 @ 6:25 pm

Sorry Gregg, I stopped updating this blog more than a year ago – too busy with work and 2 kids :) Don’t think I will have energy to engage in a meaningful dialog with you.

I still stand by everything I wrote back then. Hope one day things will be less busy and I will have time to write again…

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Comment by Siddhartha

November 21, 2012 @ 5:48 am

I read this passage when i was 15 and it has shaped my view on capital punishhiment ever since

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