In the news today there is an article about a high-school boy who brought guns to school and shot several students. The parents of the victims are suing various computer game companies saying that the violent games present shooting and killing people as pleasurable and fail to portray realistic consequences. A representative of one of the companies released a statement saying that this is another example of individuals seeking to elude responsibility that has become so common in our society. This case is not about software. What is on trial is the age-old debate between nature and nurture, which also lies at the center of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.
In his dream about the gray nag, Raskolnikov as an unshaped child is innately compassionate; he weeps for horses being cruelly beaten, but already society, in the form of his parents, begins to shape him, to train him, to numb his compassionate feelings for those in pain.
His mother draws him away from the window when he sees such a horse pass and his father tells him when the men kill the nag "They're drunk, they're playing pranks, it's none of our business, come along" (59). Already Raskolnikov is being taught to rationalize murder, for all those people who watched and did not interfere are partly to blame as they rationalize that "it's none of our business." Mikolka, the horse's murderer, also rationalizes his role; first, he defines the mare as property, not as life. Repeatedly he says "It's my goods" (57) while those who object refer to the horse not as an neuter object but as "her." Secondly, he attempts to justify the act through cold reasoning: "I might as well kill her, she's not worth her feed" (56), thus boiling the worth of life down to a simple mathematical equation-if the nag eats x roubles of grain a month and pulls y carts thus earning roubles A) less than x then the horse is not worth feeding or allowing to live, or B) more than x then the horse is useful and should be allowed to live.
Elsewhere in the book we see a similar computation defined for us. At a tavern Raskolnikov overhears a student discussing the hypothetical murder of Alyona Ivanovna: Kill her and take her money, so that afterwards with its help you can devote yourself to the service of all mankind and the common cause: What do you think, wouldn't thousands of good deeds make up for one tiny little crime? For one life, thousands of lives saved from decay and corruption. One death for hundreds of lives-it's simple arithmetic! (65) Yet when the officer asks "but tell me: Would you yourself kill the old woman, or not?" the student replies "Of course not!" (66) because despite his talk the student realizes that there is more to murder than logic. He recognizes the magnitude of ending a life in cold blood, as does Raskolnikov, despite all his rationalization.
After the murder Raskolnikov thinks "I should have known . . . and how, knowing myself, anticipating myself, did I dare take an axe and bloody my hands! I had to have known beforehand . . . Eh! But I did know before hand" (273-274).
After the dream Raskolnikov decides not to kill Alyona, and immediately feels better because the decision is in keeping with his naturally compassionate nature, but when he overhears Lizaveta making an appointment and knows that she will be absent from the apartment at a definite time, this final factor overwhelms his will and his new resolution is abandoned.
By this interpretation of the crime, nurture rather than nature determines Raskolnikov's behavior, but Raskolnikov himself provides a very different interpretation. During his interview with Porfiry, they discuss an article Raskolnikov had written in which he makes the differentiation between ordinary and extraordinary people. Raskolnikov expresses his belief that extraordinary people, geniuses like Napoleon or Newton who appear only rarely-perhaps one genius in millions of people-and are truly independent of the conforming forces of the masses, are the "fulfillers of mankind" (263) and have the right to break laws, even commit murder, if it furthers their purpose of communicating and spreading their original thoughts. These people occur despite the conforming influence of society "through some effort, some as yet mysterious process, through some interbreeding of stocks and races." Thus they are a result of nature in spite of nurture and before the murder Raskolnikov believes himself to be such a man; he comes to the conclusion that so many of the people who commit crimes are caught because "almost any criminal, experiences at the moment of the crime a sort of failure of will and reason" (70) but decided that in his own personal case there would be no such morbid revolutions, that reason and will would remain with him inalienably throughout the fulfillment of what he had plotted for the sole reason that what he had plotted-was "not a crime" (71).
After the murder, he is more humble: The old woman was a mistake perhaps, but she's not the point! . . . I was in a hurry to step over . . . it wasn't a human being I killed, it was a principal! So I killed the principle, but I didn't step over, I stayed on this side . . . all I managed to do was kill (274).
When he reflects on Napoleon and those like him, he says "No, those people are made differently . . . obviously such men are not made of flesh but of bronze!" Raskolnikov's ego and rationalization fools him into denying common sense and intuition. He has clear intuitive insights despite his rationalizing, thus throughout Book One he is divided between the two. "Raskolnikov" means "split" and refers to an actual event in Russian history; a schism in the Russian Orthodox Church occurred in the Middle Ages, one side admitting Western ideas while the other rejected them. Eastern philosophies in general emphasize intuition over reason. Reason and language is learned through society and presents a viewpoint that is separated from reality. Language especially creates an artificial division of the unified whole into "the ten thousand things" as Raskolnikov creates divisions for types of people and sees himself as apart from the rest of the human race.
Reason is emphasized strongly in the Western tradition. People, like Descartes or Raskolnikov, try to logically prove the existence of god and the universe and find comfort in mathematical certainties and try to model their behavior along rigid codes of logic. But, the universe, our desires and behaviors, and the people around us rarely follow logical patterns, to attempt to define such patterns results in the endless rationalization and self delusion that Raskolnikov suffers from. He then suffers from madness and delirium because he cannot reconcile what he knows intuitively and what he rationalizes.
Eastern philosophy proposes that man begins as an uncarved block that society then shapes and to gain enlightenment one must return to the uncarved block. Curiously, this state sounds similar to Raskolnikov's extraordinary person, a being independent of the whims and impressions of society. Western philosophy scorns the natural instincts we are born with and attempt to refine people to be "above the animals," an artificial distinction Eastern thought suggests and biology states. According to Western philosophy it is these primeval urges that bring people to violence and those many mistakes that Raskolnikov sought to avoid through his rational, step by step planning of the murder. Thus, Eastern philosophy supports the nurture view of the nature-nurture argument while Western philosophy supports the nature side. Even today as we scan the news we can still find the nature versus nurture issue addressed by Dostoevky still prevalent in our court cases and legal system.