The Idiot on capital punishment
Gethsemane: the garden of tears. Who knows what terrors shook His tortured soul, what battles raged beneath His fleshly breast?
Ok so, it's pretty easy to be florid in description after spending time with Dostoyevsky, especially as his own gift for description is embodied in the The Idiot by the Prince; his powers of persuasion represented by this enigmatic character.
Dostoyevsky is clearly aware that fictional description and narrative can pierce through the fog of facts and figures, discussion, debate and opinion that surround controversial issues of daily life and reach the heart, our most vital decision-guiding organ. The Idiot is just one among many attempts for him to use this power at his fingertips to persuade his readers to join in acceptance or rejection of a particular act or viewpoint, and in The Idiot, an issue he singles out for especial care is capital punishment.
Readers cannot overlook the long discourses on death-by-guillotine; drawn into the dining room the reader sits with the three beautiful Epanchin daughters, or with a servant in the Epanchin foyer, the reader listens to Muishkin narrate with horror and fascination his observations of capital punishment and his claim that it is so different to murder because of the intense psychological suffering of the recipient. It is clear Muishkin believes capital punishment to be ethically wrong, he cannot reconcile it with his understanding of the biblical command not to murder.
“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 someone else? No, it is not right, it's an impossible theory.” (Part One, Chapter Two).
Sadly, this blog is not the place to discuss the various theological, scriptural ramifications of this argument, and in fact, whatever one thinks of capital punishment, the emotional impact of the Prince's observations are clear.
And how much light do they shed on the suffering of our own Saviour who, exactly like the criminals Muishkin speaks of, knew the day and the hour of His death. Knew that it was coming.
Yes, He had cried before, unlike this “Le Gros” who broke down on the scaffold. Yes, He had already faced the terrors of life as a vulnerable human in a world that is spiritually, physically and relationally opposed to God.
But what torture He must have endured, that night in the garden, during his trials and floggings, knowing the awful climax that was yet to come. To quote the Prince/Dostoyevsky again,
“But in the case of 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.”
For our sake, He was led like a lamb to slaughter. But a painfully self-aware lamb, who knows exactly the reality of what is coming, knows the inevitable struggle the body will instigate in order to escape the threat of death. And yet, in facing this, the 'most dreadful anguish in the world', He persevered, suffered patiently and oh so lovingly, and was triumphant.