The Kindness of Others

Jeremiah R. Grosse
June 24, 2011
Reproduced with Permission

The simplest acts of kindness on the part of one person can be understood as signs of weakness by someone else. There are some who have a certain childlike innocence about them which is often mistaken for either naiveté or stupidity. Has our society become so blind to the concept of basic human goodness that we feel the need to attempt to take advantage of someone or show our superiority over that person simply because they are kind and gentle?

There was a time when we expected such innocence from children, but even this is slowly being taken away. Children are exposed to so many things on the internet or television which only serve to undermine their innocence and make them into "young adults" way before they are ready for this.

The truth is that these issues are not unique to our generation. While earlier generations did not have to deal with the internet or other factors, there were those who would prey upon adults with childlike innocence and attempt to ruin their lives. They would take advantage of this person's basic goodness and pervert it so that they were able to manipulate this person.

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) wrote about such a person in his novel, The Idiot. The main character is Prince Myshkin. He is such a beautiful soul that he is often taken for an idiot, and indeed, he considers himself to be stupid. However, while he suffers from mental illness, he is only "simple" in the sense that he cannot grasp evil. He thinks good of everyone he meets and expects that everyone else does too. This simple acceptance of people, and his simple way of living, leads those around him to befriend him and yet to feel themselves smarter and better than him.[1]

He is compassionate, benevolent, patient and forgiving. He arrives in Russia at the age of twenty six having spent four years in Switzerland treating his epilepsy and mental illness. He refers to himself as an 'idiot' because of this illness. The reason for his arrival to St. Petersburg is to start a new life with the help of his distant relative, Yelizaveta Prokofievna Yepanchin, General Yepanchin's haughty yet sensible wife. At the General's house he is attracted to Aglaya, the General's youngest daughter, as a new hope. He is, to some extent, an amateur psychologist who can find out a great deal about people looking at their faces, pictures or handwriting. This ability draws him compassionately toward Nastasya Fillipnova as he sees great suffering in her and he wants to save her from self-destruction.

On the matters of the real world, as the world that people find it necessary to operate in, the Prince is not able to detect the proportions of things - as he himself puts it. This is because his view of the world is of no deceit or make over. He views all the people as good and debases himself in comparison to them. He has no definite tact to go about his objectives and insists on going to it openly and frankly. His insistence on doing good to all the people crosses the boundary of human limitations and practicability. In the end his actions end up hurting more than doing good. He gets obsessed with trying to save Nastasya. Parfyon Rogozhin out of his love for Nastasya, and seeing she loves the Prince nearly tries to kill him. In the end, however, he stabs Nastasya to death. Prince Myshkin chooses Nastasya over Aglaya overlooking their engagement and her love towards him. This stains the family reputation of the Yepanchins and devastates Aglaya's true love.

His character is of a good ideal Christian and he does good to the people around him expecting them to be the same as himself. This of course isn't how the world operates and not knowing the boundary line or the proportion of things, his actions end up blowing the hopes of a new life for him to smithereens. In the end the results are devastating to himself and to the people around him. Thus he is an irony and a paradox to the modern society: Is the modern society so twisted that acts of simple goodness is equivalent to acts of idiocy? Is an ideal Christian and his conception of good so basic and simple that modern world sophistication looks down upon such acts of goodness?[2]

In contrast, there is Parfyon Rogozhin. He is a rich merchant's son who meets the Prince on a train, by which they are both going to St. Petersburg. Rogozhin is going home from hiding because he squandered his father's money to buy presents for Nastasya. Now that his father had died he is going to claim his inheritance. Rogozhin is the sort of person who when they want something do not stop at anything and go to any extreme to obtain it. He is a man driven by passion. His fate is intertwined with that of the Prince and Nastasya Fillipnova. Rogozhin is a rich man so he is an indulgent in his passions. His love for Nastasya is a full fervor passion, with both love and hate. She totally possesses him. When she asks him to buy her something for one hundred thousand rubles he does without a word of protest. When Nastasya runs away from him to Myshkin he follows her swallowing reproach and humiliation from her. He is totally mastered by this passion and to fulfill it squanders his wealth, time and energy. In the end when he knows for sure that he can never have Nastasya forever he kills her. He isn't totally bad, as many of his conversations with the Prince reveal, it is only that the passionate love for Nastasya that ruins him.

Here we have a character that would be considered by most to be "self-absorbed". He wants what he wants when he wants it. While he may be completely bad, he is guided by his passions and will do whatever is necessary to accomplish his goal. Such a person would see someone like Prince Myshkin as foolish. We have all met people like Rogozhin in our lives. They can be very charming and personable; however, do not stand between them and what they desire. Such people would turn against you in an instant and not even feel the slightest tinge of guilt because their only motivation is their own desires.

Dostoyevsky's motives in writing The Idiot stem from his desire to depict the "positively good man". This man is naturally likened to Christ in many ways. Dostoyevsky uses Myshkin's introduction to the Petersburg society as a way to contrast the nature of Russian society at the time and the isolation and innocence of this good man. This is highlighted by his conflicts and relationship with Rogozhin. Indeed, Myshkin and Rogozhin are contrasted from the outset. Myshkin is associated with light, Rogozhin with dark. For example, in their initial descriptions on the train, Myshkin is described as having light hair and blue eyes, while Rogozhin has "dark features". Rogozhin's house is submerged in darkness, with iron bars on the windows. He is not only an embodiment of darkness, but surrounded by it. The two characters are clearly antithetical. If Myshkin should be seen as Christ, Rogozhin could easily be seen as the Devil. "Rog", in Russian, means horn, adding credence to such an assertion, although the primary association of his name is with rogozha ("bast"), possibly hinting at his humble origins. The novel effectively serves to show the folly of altruistic kindness in a society that is rife with self-advancement and unscrupulous behavior, as Myshkin is consistently manipulated and exploited by others around him.

Despite their difference, Myshkin and Rogozhin are both after Nastasya Filippovna - good and bad (and mediocre, in the image of Ganya) strive for the same thing. Love itself is shown in various manifestations, spurred by various motives. While vain Ganya wishes to marry Nastasya in order that he might, through acquisition of a large dowry, spark some of the individuality which he senses he lacks; Rogozhin loves Nastasya with a deep passion. Myshkin, however, loves her out of pity, out of Christian love. This love for her supersedes even the romantic love he has for Aglaya. It is important to note that Aglaya developed a great appreciation for Myshkin's purity of heart and capacity for empathic love, even which he felt for Nastasya. Aglaya and her sisters came to identify Myshkin with the protagonist of a famous Russian poem by Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), "The Poor Knight", because of the Prince's quixotic, tragic quest to defend the honor of Nastasya in the face of the ridicule, and at times contempt, of all his acquaintances. And she grew to love him not in spite of this, but even more so because of it. At a gathering at the Prince's home that included her family and several of the Prince's friends, Aglaya flushes hotly when Kolya enigmatically and ironically declares "There's nothing better than the Poor Knight!" Though the comment is partially mocking him, in the depths of Aglaya's heart she agrees with this fully. In the end, though, Aglaya cannot completely eradicate her jealousy of Nastasya, and cannot measure up to the heights of the Prince's sympathetic love when he apparently scorns her in a final effort to save Nastasya.

There is a parallel between Rogozhin and the Russian upper-class society. The materialistic society which praises the values Myshkin represents and professes itself to be "good" cannot accommodate Prince Myshkin; Rogozhin, though he truly loves Nastasya, commits murder in the end. Nastasya herself has been corrupted by a depraved society. Her beauty and initial innocence have led Totsky (perhaps the most repugnant of all the characters in the novel) to keep her as a concubine and she falls into a quasi-madness, so strongly aching for freedom that she rejects moderate behaviors in favor of the extremity of running off with Rogozhin.3

There certainly is evidence that people are becoming more depraved in our own society as well. Common decency is not all that common any more. People are treating others as a means to an end, instead of as an end in themselves (which is what they truly are). In our own society kindness is very often mistaken for weakness. Living according to what were once known as "Judeo-Christian values" actually makes one appear like a simpleton according to our present culture.

Throughout history there have always been people who have taken advantage of others and there have always been those who had difficulty understanding how others can be genuinely kind without expecting something in return. The challenge now is that we no longer live in a society which even fosters such values as altruism. In earlier periods of history there were those who would take advantage of others, but the culture, as a whole, encouraged altruism and helping one's neighbor simply because it is the right thing to do. Unfortunately, that period of history is now just distant memory.

Whether or not our society will change in the future depends upon what type of values we wish to encourage. Based upon what is going on at the present time, it does not appear that altruism will be encouraged any time soon and we will actually grow further apart as human beings instead of coming closer together.

End Notes