Dostoyevsky and the Defense of Compassion

Published date01 December 2022
Date01 December 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2022, Vol. 75(4) 11311142
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211046579
Dostoyevsky and the Defense of
Max Lykins
Is cruelty a problem for politics? For Hannah Arendt, the answer was no. On her view, a compassionate response
towards persons suffering cruelty is best avoided because compassion can only become political by transforming in-
communicable individual pain into abstract suffering. At crucial moments in her argument in On Revolution, she cites the
great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky as an ally. However, I argue that Arendt misrepresents Dostoyevsky.
Through a critical examination of his mature novels, I show how suffering is communicable and compassion is political for
Dostoyevsky. By attending to this theme in his writings, I argue that Dostoyevsky sheds light on the problem of cruelty in
a way that Arendts framework cannot. This suggests that he is more at home with theorists like Judith Shklar who put
cruelty f‌irstthan with Arendt, although in favoring compassion I argue that he departs from Shklars liberalism of fear
and offers a more constructive, hopeful political vision.
cruelty, compassion, Dostoyevsky, Arendt
Is cruelty a problem for politics? If so, how should we
react to it? The political theorist Judith Shklar famously
argued that cruelty was a political problem, and that its
ubiquity in the human experience justif‌ied liberalism. Her
liberalism of fearis grounded in a wariness for the
potential of state agents to inf‌lict cruelty on citizens,
especially marginalized populations (Shklar 1984,110).
On Shklars view, cruelty is an omnipresent human ex-
perience whose immediacy cuts across cultural, linguistic,
and geographic boundaries.
The fear of suffering needs
no justif‌ication or extended ref‌lection, allowing liberals to
avoid relativism, imperialism, and disputed positive as-
sumptions of the good.
There is a long tradition of claiming that suffering is
inherently repulsive to humans. Adam Smith notes that
humans have a natural felt aversion to seeing suffering
(1,8586). The Roman historian Tacitus observes that
during times of misfortune there is softness in the human
soul(Tacitus 2008, 4.68). The Greek historian Polybiuss
observations of Olympic boxing led him to posit that there
is a natural human inclination toward the underdog
(Polybius 1962, 27.9).
These claims presuppose that suffering is communi-
cable. That is, suffering persons can give an account of
their pain and observers can recognize suffering and react
accordingly. Shklar argues that suffering prompts fear,
where the others suggest, slightly differently, that it
prompts compassion or sympathy. Either way, suffering
and its attendant emotions
are politically salient because
it is possible to communicate about them. If this is true,
then cruelty is a political problem: by deliberately con-
travening a natural, other-regarding impulse, cruelty de-
stroys community and the possibility of politics.
Compassionthe aversion to an individuals suffering
and the effort to relieve itis, therefore, also politically
relevant, and even necessary for maintaining community.
However, if suffering is entirely private, then it cannot
be political and there is no need or obligation to react to it
specif‌ically. This is Hannah Arendts position, as laid out
in The Human Condition:
the most intense feeling we know ofthe experience of
great bodily pain, is at the same time the most private and
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA
Corresponding Author:
Max Lykins, Department of Political Science, University of Michigan,
5700 Haven Hall, Ann Arbor MI, 48109, USA.

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