Is the presidential hopeful living out a theme from Dostoevsky?
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After weeks of avoiding the media, Hillary Clinton sat down with CNN to address lingering concerns about her deletion of over 30,000 emails from a private email address and server she used while serving as Secretary of State.
In her explanation (video above), Clinton used an interesting phrase—not once, but twice:
Everything I did was permitted by law and regulation. [Emphasis added.]
Those five words instantly leapt off the screen. Almost verbatim, they mirrored a key phrase in Dostoevsky’s book The Brothers Karamazov, where the young rationalist Ivan Karamazov argues that if God does not exist, and man is not immortal, then “everything is permitted.”
Convinced that this was just an interesting coincidence, I still did a Google search for “Hillary and Dostoevsky” to find out whether anyone else made this connection. No one seemed to—no one, that is, except Hillary Clinton. “Hillary Clinton is really into Dostoevsky” read the first headline. Asked in several interviews about her favorite book, she named—sure enough—The Brothers Karamazov.
In a 2009 piece from the New York Times, Clinton cites the Grand Inquisitor chapter as being what impacted her most:
In that chapter, which is dominated by the voice of Ivan Karamazov, the phrase “everything is permitted” appears four times on a single page.
Clearly this was no coincidence, and the choice of words was a meaningful one. Even if—especially if—the choice was unconscious, it’s an illuminating glimpse into the former first lady’s attraction to the novel. The Brothers Karamazov is a long, complex book with big themes, and has influenced everyone from Sigmund Freud to Pope Benedict XVI. But internalizing the spirit of that line, from that character, is a fascinating takeaway.
The phrase first appears in a passage describing Ivan’s theory about the connection between morality and a belief in immortality:
everything would be permitted, even anthropophagy. 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. [Emphasis added.]
From that point on, “everything is permitted” becomes a kind of shibboleth, arousing either horror or pride in the character who utters it. The words appear not only in the Grand Inquisitor parable, but also in the final confrontation between Ivan and his father’s murderer, who hails the theory as “brave.” Ivan self-destructs shortly after, diagnosed with an “attack of brain fever.”
Like Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment) or the “Underground Man” (Notes from Underground), Ivan is a fiery thinker operating at the far end of rational thought. He blasts the credulity of common people and engages in ferocious dialectic about everything, from the smallest gesture to the weightiest concepts.
But Ivan’s rebellion against God and his critique of the “dangers of certitude” are part of a broader critique that flows in the other direction. Dostoevsky was a passionate Christian who saw his own faith as being forged in “the crucible of doubt.” His ultimate concern was exposing the hubris of a secular rationalism that—cut off from the wellspring of faith—withers up and collapses in on itself.
And Ivan was the bullseye. Like Raskolnikov, Ivan’s character was an anticipation of
I don’t believe that deep down Clinton believes what Ivan teaches, or that she identified with the character so deeply that the phrase has become a mantra for her in just the same sense.
But leveraging Dostoevsky’s “everything is permitted” in any explanation—legal, political, or whatever—is a bit like leaning on Hamlet’s “there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Hamlet was pretending to be insane when he said this—and Ivan was slouching toward lunacy. In their original context, these phrases are meant as either dangerous truths or wild delusions. What they can’t be are practical explanations.
Everything Clinton did might have been permitted by law. And of course, the phrase might have just bubbled up in her mind as a convenient way to bury the issue once and for all. But the irony is striking: her long-awaited defense was put forward in terms meant to render all laws—including all human laws—absolutely meaningless.
Is everything permitted for the man or woman strong enough and clever enough to get away with it? You won’t hear the pundits or debate moderators ask this question during the campaign season. But clearly, Hillary Clinton has.
Matthew Becklo is a husband and father, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.