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Andrei Volkov Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky Did Say It: A Response to David E. Cortesi (2011)

Andrei I. Volkov

I recently read an old Secular Web article by David E. Cortesi titled “Dostoevsky Didn’t Say It” (2000). This essay is now widely cited and referenced across the Internet. When believers attribute to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880) the phrase “If God does not exist, everything is permitted,” nonbelievers often retort: “Dostoevsky did not say that!” For example, in his Choice in Dying blog Eric McDonald cites Cortesi’s article as “a correction to this attribution.” On his Religion Exposed! site Broghen Anders writes of the quotation: “Even if that is what the character has been attributed to feel, he never said the quote ([per] Cortesi).” Finally, in a talk given at the March 21, 2011 “The Lust for Certainty” conference organized by the Sea of Faith Network, Kenan Malik says:

“If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” Dostoevsky never actually wrote that line, though so often is it attributed to him that he may as well have. It has become the almost reflexive response of believers when faced with an argument for a godless world. Without religious faith, runs the argument, we cannot anchor our moral truths or truly know right from wrong. Without belief in God we will be lost in a miasma of moral nihilism.

Did Dostoevsky Write It?

As a native Russian speaker I am very puzzled by this denial. On Russian webpages “If God does not exist, everything is permitted” is all too often cited as a kind of moral argument for theism, but no one accuses those who appeal to it of misquotation or misattribution. The quote in the original Russian reads:

Без бога всё позволено

A Google search produces a number of hits for this Russian phrase, and Google’s search box suggests another variant, “Без бога всё дозволено.” The second clause—всё дозволено—is a variant of the phrase “everything is permitted,” which appears several times in Dostoevsky’s novel, along with всё позволено.

This key phrase appears word for word in Part 4, Book 11, Chapter 4 (“A Hymn and a Secret”) of the novel. Addressing Alyosha, Mitya (Dmitri) Karamazov quotes himself saying it when retelling an earlier conversation with Rakitin. Rakitin is an aspiring journalist who interviews Mitya in the jail right before Alyosha comes along. Both Mitya and Rakitin picked up the idea from Ivan Karamazov. I have bolded the key phrase below:

А не любит бога Ракитин, ух не любит! Это у них самое больное место у всех! Но скрывают. Лгут. Представляются. ‘Что же, будешь это проводить в отделении критики?’ – спрашиваю. ‘Ну, явно-то не дадут’, – говорит, смеется. ‘Только как же, спрашиваю, после того человек-то? Без бога-то и без будущей жизни? Ведь это, стало быть, теперь всё позволено, всё можно делать?’ ‘А ты и не знал?’ – говорит. Смеется. ‘Умному, говорит, человеку всё можно, умный человек умеет раков ловить, ну а вот ты, говорит, убил и влопался и в тюрьме гниешь!’ Это он мне-то говорит. Свинья естественная! Я этаких прежде вон вышвыривал, ну а теперь слушаю.

Despite such direct evidence, in his 2000 article Cortesi asserts:

Dostoevsky never wrote it!**

I say this with confidence because I have searched the online text of the Constance Garnett translation of The Brothers Karamazov, examining every use of “God” and “exist” and “lawful” (“lawful” is how Garnett translates the word that others translate as “permitted”).

Let’s examine Constance Garnett’s English translation of the Russian excerpt above (with the key phrase in my bold):

And Rakitin does dislike God. Ough! doesn’t he dislike Him! That’s the sore point with all of them. But they conceal it. They tell lies. They pretend. ‘Will you preach this in your reviews?’ I asked him. ‘Oh, well, if I did it openly, they won’t let it through,’ he said. He laughed. ‘But what will become of men then?’ I asked him, ‘without God and immortal life? All things are lawful then, they can do what they like?’ ‘Didn’t you know?’ he said laughing, ‘a clever man can do what he likes,’ he said. ‘A clever man knows his way about, but you’ve put your foot in it, committing a murder, and now you are rotting in prison.’ He says that to my face! A regular pig! I used to kick such people out, but now I listen to them. (Dostoevskii, p. 635)

The first part of the phrase without God is there, and it’s the most literal translation of the Russian Без бога; but the second part goes somewhat astray.

Though Garnett’s translation is the earliest and probably most widely read one, it has often been criticized by scholars for being too sloppy, and for trying to “Westernize” or “naturalize” Dostoevsky at the expense of his original “polyphonic” language. For example, Lawrence Venuti writes:

Constance Garnett, the most widely read English-language translator of Russian literature, was also among the most naturalizing in her cultivation of a fluent strategy. Her translating cast two illusions simultaneously: she invested her versions with realism and with transparency, made them seem true as representations of reality and of the Russian texts. (pp. 45-46)

A modern translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is highly regarded by scholars for being true to Dostoevsky’s original Russian. This translation won the PEN Book-of-the-Month Translation Prize and received many positive reviews, such as the June 1991 New York Review of Books review by John Bayley. Caryl Emerson writes of the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation: “This ambitious new translation of Dostoevsky’s final and greatest novel goes far toward restoring the form and lowering the cost for English-language readers” (p. 309). Victor Terras describes how the new translation compares to the old Garnett one:

I compare two translations, both excellent: a relatively free one and one that is as close to the original as seems possible. The former is the Constance Garnett translation, revised by the late Ralph E. Matlaw (New York: W. W. Norton, 1976), and the latter is by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990). (p. 150)

Terras also notes that Dostoevsky’s language includes:

occasional overstatements, pleonasms, awkward syntax or choice of words, unexpected noun-adjective combinations, and quirky phraseology. All of these traits tempt the translator to improve on the original. Garnett often yields to this temptation; Pevear tends to be more literal. (p. 156).

Lawrence Venuti praises this new translation as “an intriguing example in which a formal interpretant inscribes an interpretation that is not only scholarly, but consistent with a Russian understanding of the formal properties of the Russian text” (p. 39).

Now let’s examine the more scholarly Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of the same passage we last read in the Garnett translation above (again with the key phrase in my bold):

And Rakitin doesn’t like God, oof, how he doesn’t! That’s the sore spot in all of them! But they conceal it. They lie. They pretend. ‘What, are you going to push for that in the department of criticism?’ I asked. ‘Well, they won’t let me do it openly,’ he said, and laughed. ‘But,’ I asked, ‘how will man be after that? Without God and the future life? It means everything is permitted now, one can do anything?’ ‘Didn’t you know?’ he said. And he laughed. ‘Everything is permitted to the intelligent man,’ he said. ‘The intelligent man knows how to catch crayfish, but you killed and fouled it up,’ he said, ‘and now you’re rotting in prison!’ He said that to me. A natural-born swine! I once used to throw the likes of him out—well, and now I listen to them. (Dostoevsky 1990, p. 589)

We can now see that all of the wording is there. Note also that the first part of the phrase in question—”Без бога” (“Without God”)—can be translated to English as “If God does not exist” or “If there’s no God,” as in Andrew R. MacAndrew’s translation (with the key phrase in my bold):

Rakitin now—he doesn’t like God, doesn’t like Him at all. To people like him, God is a sore spot. But they hide it, they lie, they pretend. ‘Will you,’ I asked him, ‘try to develop these ideas in your literary criticism?’ ‘They won’t let me do it too openly,’ he said, and laughed. ‘But tell me,’ I asked him, ‘what will happen to men? If there’s no God and no life beyond the grave, doesn’t that mean that men will be allowed to do whatever they want?’ ‘Didn’t you know that already?’ he said and laughed again. ‘An intelligent man can do anything he likes as long as he’s clever enough to get away with it. But you, you got caught after you killed, so today you have to rot in prison.’ He’s real swine to say that to my face; a few months ago I used to throw people like that out of the window. But now I just sit and listen to him. (Dostoevsky 1983, p. 788)

Although all three translations capture the spirit of Dostoevsky’s words quite well, I must admit that they do differ in some little details. For instance, Mitya’s question ‘What, are you going to push for that in the department of criticism?’ is translated correctly only in Pevear-Volokhonsky’s version. “Department of criticism” is where Rakitin seeks employment in St. Petersburg. The question is not so much about ‘preaching this’ or ‘developing these ideas,’ but about bringing these ideas into the department. Rakitin’s answer, that the folks from the department “won’t let me do it openly,” makes much more sense in this context as well.

But Cortesi’s main point is simply unequivocally wrong. Dostoevsky did write, word for word, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” The phrase is not just “an accurate capsule description of the belief espoused by Ivan Karamazov.” It is not surprising that the original wording of the phrase has been lost in English translations; much less so in double translations such as Russian to French to English, as in the case of Jean-Paul Sartre. In any case, it is not at all “misleading” to put the key phrase in quotes and attribute it to a character in Dostoevsky’s novel. Perhaps inserting an ellipsis in the middle of the phrase to indicate the omission of “and a future life” is in order to satisfy strict purists: “Without God … everything is permitted.” But no further qualification is needed.

Did Dostoevsky Mean It?

Despite his error, Cortesi does make a number of good points in his article. For example, he is quite right to insist that it is “false to attribute (on the basis of this novel alone) the proposition to Dostoevsky either as something he held or as something he denied.” I might add that it is equally false to infer that the character Ivan Karamazov either held or denied the idea that “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.”

Ivan Karamazov is one of the “good guys” in the novel. He is honest, smart, well educated, and financially well off, and never asks his negligent father for help. He starts off as a journalist and literary critic, then publishes a newspaper article about ecclesiastical courts, which was a very popular issue of the time. In his article he analyzes existing opinions and expresses his own view, earning prominence and respect among both churchmen and secularists (including atheists). Thus Ivan establishes himself as an independent thinker, capable not only of commenting on existing ideas but of generating his own original “theories.”

“If God does not exist, everything is permitted” is a brief and oversimplified summary of one of Ivan’s early “theories.” In his essay Cortesi suggests that Ivan “is ‘like a sphinx’ on the matter, which irritates all his friends.” This isn’t quite right, for Ivan has no friends, as he admits in the first conversation with his brother Alyosha, with whom he seeks friendship. With Alyosha he is not only open about his ideas—including “everything is permitted”—but quite prolific and eloquent, too. In fact, the best parts of the novel are about Ivan’s views and theories! These include:

  1. Rebellion, Part 1, Book 5, Chapter 4—”Tears of the Little Ones.” (Hereafter titles are taken from the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation.) In the first conversation with Alyosha, Ivan cites Voltaire’s famous line “If God did not exist, he would have to be invented,” then quite unexpectedly changes direction and brilliantly criticizes core Christian beliefs based on his own view of the problem of evil. This sort of argument still poses a major problem for Christian apologists. As William Lane Craig acknowledges, “Perhaps no one has stated more powerfully the objection that human, moral evil poses to the existence of God than the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky” (Craig 2003, p. 77). He makes a rather Orwellian attempt to answer Ivan’s objections by labeling painful death as a good rather than an evil because one can imagine that it paves a way for some sort of a greater good, such as bringing suffered children and their families closer to God or sending them straight to Heaven (pp. 105-107). One cannot help but think that in Craig’s view, Andrea Yates must have been praiseworthy since by drowning her five children in a bath, she would have sent them straight to Heaven. No evil, problem solved. This response would be laughable if so many people did not actually believe it.
  2. The Grand Inquisitor, Part 1, Book 5, Chapter 5. The title speaks for itself—it is an open attack on organized religion. This is the religious counterpart of “Without God, everything is permitted.” In Ivan’s view Jesus Christ came to set people totally free, but because Jesus did not tell them what to do with this freedom, they ended up in the chaos of nihilism, conflict, anarchy, and unhappiness. To escape from this chaos they had to flock around grand inquisitors and surrender their freedoms in exchange for a slavish happiness.
  3. The Devil. Ivan Fyodorovich’s Nightmare—Part 4, Book 11, Chapter 9. Ivan is struck by brain fever and suffers from hallucinations. In a vision he is visited by his own alter ego—the Devil. The Devil turns out to be a very chatty companion, and in spite of Ivan’s objections, he comments on a wealth of Ivan’s past ideas and thoughts.

Contrary to Cortesi, Ivan is not at all “like a sphinx” even with people who are not friends. The first big conversation in the novel, which involves all of the major characters, takes place at elder Zosima’s monastery during a family gathering about an inheritance (Part 1, Book 2). Here Ivan finds an unlikely ally—elder Zosima himself, a local religious leader who happens to share his ideas about ecclesiastical courts and the separation of church and state. When the church-state question is raised, Ivan readily presents a detailed explanation of his views on the subject. He also remarks on other subjects, such as the “liberal dilettantism” which “has long and frequently confused the final results of socialism with those of Christianity” (Dostoevsky 1990, p. 69).

Ivan is “like a sphinx” only in the words of Mitya later in the novel, when Mitya is wrongly accused of his father’s murder and sent to jail. Ivan comes to visit Mitya to uncover the truth about the murder, but he doesn’t say much about anything else. But it is not surprising that Ivan is not very open with Mitya, for Mitya is one of the “bad guys” in the novel, and Ivan clearly dislikes him.

In any case, Ivan does not bring up the idea that “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” A rather distorted version of this idea—perhaps even a mixture of a variety of Ivan’s ideas—is first presented by Pyotr Miusov, Mitya’s relative (Part 1, Book 2, Chapter 6):

[L]et me tell you another anecdote, gentlemen, about Ivan Fyodorovich himself, a most typical and interesting one. No more than five days ago, at a local gathering, predominantly of ladies, he solemnly announced in the discussion that there is decidedly nothing in the whole world that would make men love their fellow men; that there exists no law of nature that man should love mankind, and that if there is and has been any love on earth up to now, it has come not from natural law but solely from people’s belief in their immortality. Ivan Fyodorovich added parenthetically that that is what all natural law consists of, so that were mankind’s belief in its immortality to be destroyed, not only love but also any living power to continue the life of the world would at once dry up in it. Not only that, but then nothing would be immoral any longer, everything would be permitted, even anthropophagy [cannibalism]. And even that is not all: he ended with the assertion that for every separate person, like ourselves for instance, who believes neither in God nor in his own immortality, the moral law of nature ought to change immediately into the exact opposite of the former religious law, and that egoism, even to the point of evildoing, should not only be permitted to man but should be acknowledged as the necessary, the most reasonable, and all but the noblest result of his situation. (Dostoevsky 1990, p. 69)

The idea is immediately picked up by every other character in the novel. Mitya seems to be most impressed:

“Allow me,” Dmitri Fyodorovich suddenly cried unexpectedly, “to be sure I’ve heard correctly: ‘Evildoing should not only be permitted but even should be acknowledged as the most necessary and most intelligent solution for the situation of every godless person’! Is that it, or not?”

“Exactly that,” said Father Paissy.

“I’ll remember.” (Dostoevsky 1990, pp. 69-70).

The subsequent exchange between elder Zosima and Ivan is quite telling:

“Can it be that you really hold this conviction about the consequences of the exhaustion of men’s faith in the immortality of their souls?” the elder suddenly asked Ivan Fyodorovich.

“Yes, it was my contention. There is no virtue if there is no immortality.”

“You are blessed if you believe so, or else most unhappy!”

“Why unhappy?” Ivan Fyodorovich smiled.

“Because in all likelihood you yourself do not believe either in the immortality of your soul or even in what you have written about the Church and the Church question.”

“Maybe you’re right…! But still, I wasn’t quite joking either…” Ivan Fyodorovich suddenly and strangely confessed—by the way, with a quick blush. (Dostoevsky 1990, p. 70)

In other words, Ivan—who does not believe in an immortal soul—is living proof that his own idea is wrong! This was meant as a half-joke. Father Zosima correctly surmises that question is not resolved in Ivan’s heart, and therein lies his “great grief, for it urgently demands resolution.” But what question demands resolution, exactly?

Throughout the novel, Ivan is directly asked about the idea that “if there is no immortal soul, then there is no virtue, and everything is permitted.” And when asked, Ivan repeatedly confirms that he stands by affirming it. He even says to Alyosha that Mitya’s version is not bad at all. However, when Ivan speaks about his theories, the reader never really knows whether he is being serious or just joking.

The most accurate presentation of the “everything is permitted” theory comes from the Devil in chapter titled The Devil. Ivan Fyodorovich’s Nightmare:

“…’There are new people now,’ you decided last spring, as you were preparing to come here, ‘they propose to destroy everything and begin with anthropophagy [cannibalism]. Fools, they never asked me! In my opinion, there is no need to destroy anything, one need only destroy the idea of God in mankind, that’s where the business should start! One should begin with that, with that—oh, blind men, of no understanding! Once mankind has renounced God, one and all (and I believe that this period, analogous to the geological periods, will come), then the entire old world view will fall of itself, without anthropophagy, and, above all, the entire former morality, and everything will be new. People will come together in order to take from life all that it can give, but, of course, for happiness and joy in this world only. Man will be exalted with the spirit of divine, titanic pride, and the man-god will appear. Man, his will and his science no longer limited, conquering nature every hour, will thereby every hour experience such lofty delight as will replace for him all his former hopes of heavenly delight. Each will know himself utterly mortal, without resurrection, and will accept death proudly and calmly, like a god. Out of pride he will understand that he should not murmur against the momentariness of life, and he will love his brother then without any reward. Love will satisfy only the moment of life, but the very awareness of its momentariness will increase its fire, inasmuch as previously it was diffused in hopes of an eternal love beyond the grave?’ … well, and so on and so on, in the same vein. Lovely!”

Ivan was sitting with his hands over his ears, looking down, but his whole body started trembling. The voice went on:

“‘The question now,’ my young thinker reflected, ‘is whether or not it is possible for such a period ever to come. If it does come, then everything will be resolved and mankind will finally be settled. But since, in view of man’s inveterate stupidity, it may not be settled for another thousand years, anyone who already knows the truth is permitted to settle things for himself, absolutely as he wishes, on the new principles. In this sense, “everything is permitted” to him. Moreover, since God and immortality do not exist in any case, even if this period should never come, the new man is allowed to become a man-god, though it be he alone in the whole world, and of course, in this new rank, to jump lightheartedly over any former moral obstacle of the former slave-man, if need be. There is no law for God! Where God stands—there is the place of God! Where I stand, there at once will be the foremost place … “everything is permitted,” and that’s that!’ It’s all very nice; only if one wants to swindle, why, I wonder, should one also need the sanction of truth? But such is the modern little Russian man: without such a sanction, he doesn’t even dare to swindle, so much does he love the truth…” (Dostoevsky 1990, pp. 648-649)

This exposé caused Ivan to throw a glass at the Devil, but it should be clear by now that the phrase “If God does not exist, everything is permitted” is a great oversimplification of Ivan’s thoughts (and perhaps those of Dostoevsky as well). This may be the reason why Ivan is generally silent on the matter—otherwise he would have to deliver a lengthy lecture when he has not even made up his mind about what to say.

The starting point sounds very familiar—it’s a recapitulation of naïve socialist ideas of the time of French revolutions. These ideas were utter failures pretty much for the same reason as naïve religious ideas like “Christ set us free.” God or no God—the result seems to be the same: men are supposed to become either God-like or men-gods, and in either case ‘everything is permitted’ since “There is no law for God!” (Dostoevsky 1990, p. 649). Ivan himself highlights this point in his first conversation with Alyosha after admitting that he “long ago decided not to think about whether man created God or God created man” (Part 2, Book 5, Chapter 3):

Well, then, what are they going to argue about, seizing this moment in the tavern? About none other than the universal questions: is there a God, is there immortality? And those who do not believe in God, well, they will talk about socialism and anarchism, about transforming the whole of mankind according to a new order, but it’s the same damned thing, the questions are all the same, only from the other end. (Dostoevsky 1990, p. 234)

Take good old religious morality: what good can it do if it is heavily dependent on the belief in a particular version of a particular God? Even the faith of those pious monks from elder Zosima’s monastery is totally dependent on miracles, and when an expected miracle fails to happen, their faith is shattered to the ground, nearly leading to a little religious war in the monastery. Dostoevsky depicts these events with a deep sense of irony in Part 3, Book 7, Chapter 1 (“The Odor of Corruption”).

Fyodor Karamazov might as well be a believer in God’s commandments, but what on earth could possibly force him to follow them? Why would not he just make a donation to the monastery, and pretend that he settled all the scores with God? Threats of hellfire, maybe? Then what sort of “freedom” is that? Besides, recent liberal reforms of the Christian concept of Hell had a rather harmful effect. According to the Devil from Ivan’s Nightmare, everything that happens on earth is reflected in Hell: “all of us there are stirred up now, and it all comes from your science… Everything that you have, we have as well”… including the torments:

“What other torments? Ah, don’t even ask: before it was one thing and another, but now it’s mostly the moral sort, ‘remorse of conscience’ and all that nonsense. That also started because of you, from the ‘mellowing of your mores.’ Well, and who benefited? The unscrupulous benefited, because what is remorse of conscience to a man who has no conscience at all? Decent people who still had some conscience and honor left suffered instead… There you have it—reforms on unprepared ground, and copied from foreign institutions as well—nothing but harm! The good old fire was much better.” (Dostoevsky 1990, p. 643)

It seems to me that the real question tormenting Ivan is: How do we find a proper balance between freedom and responsibility? The answer has to take into account such distinctly human things as conscience (“remorse”), which God either lacks or can overcome with his omnipotence. All present attempts to solve this problem, religious and secular, seem to benefit the “bad guys” the most.

This seems to be the main philosophical framework of Dostoevsky’s entire novel. In “Existentialism is a Humanism” (1946) Sartre gets it right: “without God, everything is permitted” is not the end of morality, but the beginning of it! Or, at least, the beginning of a quest for a new morality. One has to take full responsibility, not only for his own misdeeds, but for the bad things that happen to other people as well. Alyosha, the nice and cuddly Christian, follows this path rather intuitively. Ivan, the (for the most part) cold-blooded rationalist and atheist, tries to find theoretical foundations for it, and, with a bit of luck, good arguments to convince other people.

Dostoevsky may not be much of a philosopher, but he is definitely a great novelist. He follows the principle set forth by his character Ivan Karamazov in Part 2, Book 5, Chapter 3:

I will not run through all the modern axioms laid down by Russian boys on the subject, which are all absolutely derived from European hypotheses; because what is a hypothesis there immediately becomes an axiom for a Russian boy, and that is true not only of boys but perhaps of their professors as well, since Russian professors today are quite often the same Russian boys. And therefore I will avoid all hypotheses. (Dostoevsky 1990, p. 235)

In other words, nothing in the novel must be taken as an axiom, not even as a hypothesis, for hypotheses tend to devolve into axioms. This must include the famous phrase “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” Perhaps it is not a mere coincidence that all of the characters in the novel who took this phrase too seriously—by either accepting or denying it—were “bad guys.”


Bayley, John. “A New Dostoevsky?” The New York Review of Books. Vol. 38, No. 11 (June 13, 1991).

Craig, William Lane. Hard Questions, Real Answers. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003.

Dostoevskii, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett. London, UK: Heinemann, 1912.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Andrew R. MacAndrew. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1983.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. San Francisco, CA: North Point Press, 1990.

Emerson, Caryl. “The Brothers, Complete.” The Hudson Review. Vol. 44, No. 2 (Summer 1991): 309-316.

Terras, Victor. Reading Dostoevsky. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998.

Venuti, Lawrence. “Translation, Interpretation, Canon Formation.” In Translation and the Classic: Identity as Change in the History of Culture, ed. Alexandra Lianeri and Vanda Zajko. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008: 27-51.

Copyright ©2011 Andrei I. Volkov. The electronic version is copyright ©2011 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Andrei I. Volkov. All rights reserved.

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