Why Dostoyevsky Hated Intellectuals

Fyodor Dostoevsky hated intellectuals. Is that really true? Yes. But wasn’t he an intellectual himself? That’s one of the reasons. But first, let’s define what an intellectual is. Let me give you an analogy. A merchant buys goods from suppliers and sells them to a lot of people. An intellectual does pretty much the same thing. Instead of goods, they sell ideas. So intellectuals are merchants of ideas. Here we can see the difference between an intellectual and a philosopher. A philosopher is more like an inventor or discoverer with original ideas while an intellectual is more like a merchant or entrepreneur.

1/19/20248 min read

But how do you know he hated intellectuals? Read his novels. Most of his villains are intellectuals. Hang on a minute, Dostoevsky didn’t have any villains. His characters are fully human, with flaws and redeeming qualities. True. But those with the most flaws tend to be intellectuals. And men. Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment is idea-driven who intellectualises himself into committing murder. Ivan Karamazov is another intellectual who questions everything. In Demons there are a bunch of intellectuals who start a revolution. None of these intellectuals turn up well in Dostoevsky’s novels. They either end in Siberia or go insane. You could say all his novels are autobiographical because Mr D himself ended up in Siberia because of his intellectual activities. Let me give you a little historical context.


In mid-19th century, young Russian aristocrats were educated in French, German and English so they wanted to imitate the Europeans, by adopting western ideologies such as atheism, socialism, utilitarianism, liberalism, individualism, etc. which more or less went against the teachings of Orthodox Christianity, which promoted community, godliness, altruism, etc. These intellectuals wanted to liberate the serfs. At the time, most Russian people were slaves to the land-owning elite. So these young, educated men wanted to copy the French who revolted against their monarch a few decades before.

Dostoevsky himself was educated in French, so he was fascinated by these ideas, so much so that his involvement with one of these radical intellectual groups, The Petrashevsky Circle resulted in his arrest in 1849. Dostoevsky was just starting his career as a novelist but now he faced a new dose of reality which shocked him. Dostoevsky stood in front of the firing squad to be executed for his radical activities. He imagined his life would end in a few minutes. He describes this moment in his novel, the Idiot in great detail. But this was a mock execution to scare him off.

Instead he was sent to Siberia to a labour camp. For the first time, he really understood the ordinary Russian people, the peasants, the uneducated class, the real Russia to speak. He realised that as a Russian intellectual, he was in a bubble in Saint-Petersburg that only saw Europe, not the real Russia. Siberia was cold, the work was hard but the biggest shock was his fellow inmates. Quote: “I learned, moreover, to know one suffering, which is perhaps the sharpest, the most painful that can be experienced in a house of detention apart from laws and liberty. I mean, “force cohabitation”… There are men there, with whom no one would consent to live. I am certain that every convict, unconsciously, perhaps, has suffered from this.” —Fyodor Dostoevsky (The House of the Dead). Dostoevsky, an educated intellectual, and a nobleman was thrown into the freezing cold of Siberia, into a labour camp, full of hardened criminals and convicts from across Russia. Forget about the freezing cold, forget about the struggle to survive in such harsh environment, his biggest challenge was how to deal with other inmates. There were a few intellectuals or educated men, but most of the inmates were ordinary criminals, uneducated, coarse, unmannered, rough and extremely dangerous. Dostoevsky who had never experienced such environment was pushed into a small space filled with the most terrible and dangerous men in Russia. He recounts his experience in his famous book, The House of the Dead. As a keen observer, he noticed how different ordinary Russian were compared to the intellectuals of Saint-Petersburg, which brings to the first reason Dostoevsky disliked intellectuals.


These intellectuals didn’t understand the poor and when push came to shove, they would be bundled with the rich, not the poor. They had nothing in common with the people they were defending. Dostoevsky noticed that the intellectuals disliked being close to the peasants, they hated their smell, their poor language, tattered clothes, rough manners, and so on. The poor too didn’t really saw these intellectuals as allies but enemy because they dressed and acted like the rich elite. These intellectuals indulged in their European outlooks, smoked Cuban cigars, drunk French wine, ate German sausage, and English breakfast, and followed European philosophers on Twitter and the only thing they avoided was Russian food, Russian clothes, Russian way of life and everything Russian. The only thing they had was the Russian blood running through their veins, everything they wanted was European. And the things the Russian peasants valued the most were shunned by these intellectuals. The Russian peasants loved their family, Orthodox religion, sense of duty, feeling guilt and responsibility, while the intellectuals wanted none of those things. So this led Dostoevsky to conclude that these intellectuals were not really friends of the poor, but only pretend so. They are hypocrites. This brings me to the second reason Dostoevsky disliked intellectuals.


Accountability. In fiction, you love the characters who are selfless, often naive and take their duties very seriously, often at the cost of their own happiness. Intellectuals for the very fact that they use their intellectual, rational faculty are selfish and self-preserving. So when something terrible happens, they point fingers at someone else. It wasn’t my fault. It was the Tsar or the system, or my childhood.

Throughout his novels, Dostoevsky pushes his intellectual characters to take responsibility. There are a lot of tantrums, outright denials, a lot of hesitation, a lot of finger-pointing, and a lot of rationalisation, but ultimately Dostoevsky makes his characters succumb to the reality that they are responsible for their deeds. For Dostoevsky, a bad idea is like a bug, a virus that attacks the nervous system so it is very difficult to get rid of it. This is shown in Crime and Punishment, the bulk of the novel is about Raskolnikov refusing to confess to the crime he has committed. There is so much back and forth, as he tries to justify the act to himself and to others while dodging accountability. At the end he realises that rationality is not enough. No matter how much he can rationalise to dodge responsibility for his crime, he cannot escape his own conscience.

While in Siberia, Dostoevsky hated all the criminals around him. They were cruel, callous animals. They had no manners. Dostoevsky couldn’t imagine he belonged to the same species as these criminals. As time went by, he saw more and more of their humanity. He saw how ordinary criminals took responsibility for their crimes. Why? Because they didn’t intellectualise their acts. They didn’t rationalise their acts. But the most important thing he noticed was this. These men didn’t complain about how badly they were treated in prison. They didn’t whine as much. They accepted their fate. Why? Because they knew they had committed terrible acts. They took accountability. Not all were remorseful, but they didn’t hide their crimes. Their honesty opened Dostoevsky’s eyes to a simple concept that he and his fellow intellectuals lacked. Accepting the truth.

This brings me to the third reason Dostoevsky saw intellectuals as flawed humans.


They were dishonest. Not only to others, but to themselves too. How do you bend reality to fit an idea? We use deception. Animals have evolved amazing camouflages to deceive their enemies or prey or the opposite sex in order to look bigger, stronger, taller and more beautiful than they really are. We humans also do that. We use make-up, fashion, expensive cars, or horses to woo the opposite sex. The Ancient Chinese book, the Art of War by Sun Tsu is full of these strategies in warfare which are used in business today. But how does this apply to the Russian intellectuals? Dostoevsky’s problem wasn’t just deception, it was intellectuals’ lack of integrity as soon as their ideas faced a stumbling block.

Dostoevsky shows this beautifully in Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov develops fever after he commits the murders. Ivan Karamazov breaks down in the first trouble. In the olden days, heroes would sacrifice themselves for honour, integrity and heroism, but the intellectuals who were the so-called defenders of the poor peasants lacked these characteristics. After his return from Siberia in the 1860s, Dostoevsky travelled to Europe, and after his his visit to France he said : “The Westerner speaks of fraternity as of a great motivating force of humankind, and does not understand that it is impossible to obtain fraternity if it does not exist in reality. . . . But in French nature, and in Occidental nature in general, it is not present; you find there instead a principle of individualism, a principle of isolation, of intense self-preservation, of personal gain, of self-determination of the I, of opposing this I to all nature and the rest of mankind as an independent, autonomous principle entirely equal and equivalent to all that exists outside itself.” — Winter Notes.

So Dostoevsky understood that these intellectuals didn’t really live in reality. They live in their head while sitting in comfy chairs, behind a desk. The closest an intellectual experiences a storm is a brainstorm. The closest an intellectual experiences a war is the battle with a house spider or a mosquito. Or the biggest issue of reality they face is spilled coffee on a desk. Ok, Dostoevsky said none of those things. But you can understand Dostoevsky’s own experience of the labour camp taught him that for most Russian intellectuals, reality was skewed because they lived in a safe bubble that only imagined a futuristic utopia. He was right, the Russian intellectuals wanted a revolution so bad that they succeeded some 40 years after Dostoevsky’s death in turning Russia into a socialist state that lasted 70 years. These socialists believed in materialism which relies on reason, and reason alone to determine what’s valuable.

This brings me to the final reason Dostoevsky disliked intellectuals. Reason itself.


If you have to really sum up, Dostoevsky's problem with intellectuals is rationality itself. Intellectuals are those who take rationality as god-given, the only tool for existence. After his trip to Europe in the 1860s, including his visit to the London Crystal Palace, the marvel of modern age, when reason had triumphed, Dostoevsky wrote "Winter Notes on Summer Impressions”. He took aim at the fact that reason wasn’t enough. We humans need more than reason, because reason alone turns us into a selfish robot, a self-indulgent nihilist. Dostoevsky developed this further in his novel, Notes from Underground. The underground man is so defeated, humiliated by a society driven by reason that he refuses to get treatment for his lung disease. He is so wounded that he likes hiding underground. He is not rational to the point of insanity but Dostoevsky wanted to show how modern reason pushes a massive number of men underground, in the basement, behind their computers, or dark offices, like a bunch of robots.


So what’s there for us today? Can we learn from Dostoevsky?

I think the biggest difference today is that we all have adopted these ideas. for 150 years, these ideas were common among the educated elite but now everyone is an intellectual. We all blame others. We all act as hypocrites, online and offline.

I think reading Dostoevsky today can help us. How? He gives us a dose of reality. You don’t have to go to a Siberian labour camp, but you can leave your basement and take a walk in your neighbourhood and observe how others live. Watch construction workers. Talk to them if you can. This will bring you close to reality.

Dostoevsky also tells us to take responsibility. Of course, today Mr Peterson has made this his mantra. But Dostoevsky actually shows this in his novels that taking responsibility does not imprison you. Taking accountability actually liberates you. The fear of responsibility is perhaps a worse prison than taking accountability. It’s like the fear of an exam or interview is often greater than the actual exam or interview.

But the biggest takeaway from Dostoevsky is that we shouldn’t be too much of a consumerist. Don’t shop too much to the detriment of your wallet or credit card, but also don’t consume too many ideas to the detriment of your soul and mental well-being. Clarity of mind is perhaps the greatest and most precious thing you might have and the more you indulge yourself to new ideas, the more muddled you might become.