Excerpt 1 on the Death Penalty from The Idiot

This passage below is from The Idiot by Dostoyevsky ,and shows his opposition to the death penalty as a type of spiritual torture, as one comes to know the exact moment of their death. As is common knowledge, Dostoyevsky himself was subjected to a mock execution while he was imprisoned. They purposefully had the prisoners lined up before a firing squad and stopped it only seconds before pulling the trigger.

You can see a similar story related here in the passage presented. The experience had such a profound effect on him that it brought on the onset of his epileptic fits, which ironically some say gave him some of his deep insights into human nature. 

This brings up the relevant question today, does the death penalty violate our understanding of human dignity? Is it a form of "spiritual torture" as Dostoyevsky claimed? 

I will post a second passage on the death penalty from The Idiot soon. 

Here is the passage from The Idiot:

"As to life in a prison, of course there may be two opinions," said the prince. "I once heard the story of a man who lived twelve years in a prison—I heard it from the man himself. He was one of the persons under treatment with my professor; he had fits, and attacks of melancholy, then he would weep, and once he tried to commit suicide. His life in prison was sad enough; his only acquaintances were spiders and a tree that grew outside his grating-

but I think I had better tell you of another man I met last year. There was a very strange feature in this case, strange because of its extremely rare occurrence. This man had once been brought to the scaffold in company with several others, and had had the sentence of death by shooting passed upon him for some political crime. Twenty minutes later he had been reprieved and some other punishment substituted; but the interval between the two sentences, twenty minutes, or at least a quarter of an hour, had been passed in the certainty that within a few minutes he must die. 

I was very anxious to hear him speak of his impressions during that dreadful time, and I several times inquired of him as to what he thought and felt. He remembered everything with the most accurate and extraordinary distinctness, and declared that he would never forget a single iota of the experience. "About twenty paces from the scaffold, where he had stood to hear the sentence, were three posts, fixed in the ground, to which to fasten the criminals (of whom there were several). The first three criminals were taken to the posts, dressed in long white tunics, with white caps drawn over their faces, so that they could not see the rifles pointed at them. Then a group of soldiers took their stand opposite to each post. My friend was the eighth on the list, and therefore he would have been among the third lot to go up. A priest went about among them with a cross: and there was about five minutes of time left for him to live. 

"He said that those five minutes seemed to him to be a most interminable period, an enormous wealth of time; he seemed to be living, in these minutes, so many lives that there was no need as yet to think of that last moment, so that he made several arrangements, dividing up the time into portions—one for saying farewell to his companions, two minutes for that; then a couple more for thinking over his own life and career and all about himself; and another minute for a last look around. He remembered having divided his time like this quite well. While saying good-bye to his friends he recollected asking one of them some very usual everyday question, and being much interested in the answer. Then having bade farewell, he embarked upon those two minutes which he had allotted to looking into himself; he knew beforehand what he was going to think about. He wished to put it to himself as quickly and clearly as possible, that here was he, a living, thinking man, and that in three minutes he would be nobody; or if somebody or something, then what and where? He thought he would decide this question once for all in these last three minutes. A little way off there stood a church, and its gilded spire glittered in the sun. He remembered staring stubbornly at this spire, and at the rays of light sparkling from it. He could not tear his eyes from these rays of light; he got the idea that these rays were his new nature, and that in three minutes he would become one of them, amalgamated somehow with them. 

"The repugnance to what must ensue almost immediately, and the uncertainty, were dreadful, he said; but worst of all was the idea, 'What should I do if I were not to die now? What if I were to return to life again? What an eternity of days, and all mine! How I should grudge and count up every minute of it, so as to waste not a single instant!' He said that this thought weighed so upon him and became such a terrible burden upon his brain that he could not bear it, and wished they would shoot him quickly and have done with it."


Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Idiot [with Biographical Introduction] (pp. 37-38). Neeland Media LLC. Kindle Edition. 


  1. Without a doubt, the emotional argument, as Dostoyevsky thus presents, is a the most convincing argument against the death penalty. But we must recognize that, at the end of the day, should the prisoner be guilty of the crime for which he is tried, it is the right and prerogative of the state to execute him. Indeed, the purpose of the penal system is not rehabilitation, but justice. When man sins, there must be atonement. Just as if he were to break a window, the owner of the window may forgive him, but the window must be paid for. The role of the state is to be the vicar of the owner, running the property of the master. As such, the vicar must take care of the property so as to preserve it and improve it for the master. Thus the state must take care of society, punishing those who break apart the social fabric, as Christ's secular vicar. Although the state may not be just (such as the United States, which promotes the holocaust of millions of babies in the womb), it is still the role of the state to be just. Just as it is better for a sinner to hate certain sins rather than no sin at all, so it is with the state. The state may promote evil, but sometimes it does good, and when it does, we must applaud and support it. All this to say, the state must promote justice, and the means by which it is so done, include the death penality. When there is a debt, the debt must be paid, and the state is the collector of that debt - and in the case of such heinous crimes, such as murder and rape, the debt is the life of the offender.

    1. Hmm, I do agree with most of this about justice ... but two questions.
      1) The Church classifies torture as an intrinsic evil which cannot be done in any circumstances. According to Dostoyevsky, forcing someone to confront the moment of their assured death is a form of torture.
      2) John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae does talk about the penal system as having an end of rehabilitation ... indeed that is one of the purposes of punishment in general, but allowing someone to pay for their crime they can regain their dignity. The death penalty doesn't allow this for someone in this life, therefore it is missing a key component of punishment.


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