esli Boga net — znachit, vsio pozvoleno

While attempting to track down exact wording and attribution for Dostoevsky’s famous phrase, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted” — which supposedly was uttered by Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, I discovered David Cortesi’s assertion that the famous quote is not to be found in English translations of The Brothers Karamazov or in any of Dostoevsky’s novels. Cortesi suspects, instead, that the famous phrase comes from Sartre, who supposedly wrote

“The existentialist…finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven….Dostoevsky once wrote, ‘If God did not exist, everything would be permitted,…” —

Even Christiaan Stange’s Doetoevsky Research Station website admits the uncertainty of the quote.

But apparently the phrase does occur in the novel’s original Russian — according to an email to sent to Cortesi by someone named Valeria. She claims that the Russian phrase “esli Boga net — znachit vsio pozvoleno” is indeed spoken by Ivan Karamazov in the untranslated novel. She translates it as “if there is no God, that means everything is permitted/allowed/permissible.” Unfortunately, she didn’t reveal to Cortesi where in the novel this wording occurs so that it can be confirmed.

Searching for the Russian phrase on Google, Yahoo and AltaVista got me nowhere. Additionally, I have been unable to locate the novel in its original Russian online, or else it would be easy enough to search for the quote (and thereby locate the corresponding passage in the English translation).

As far as the English translation goes, I have tried to go through it searching for every phrase containing the word “God” and I cannot see where Ivan used this particular wording, or anything close to it. Ivan presents the general idea, surely enough, but not the wording in question. For example, in Book I “History of a Family” Chapter 6, we find Miusov recalling a speech in which Ivan

“solemnly declared in argument that there was nothing in the whole world to make men love their neighbours. That there was no law of nature that man should love mankind, and that, if there had been any love on earth hitherto, it was not owing to a natural law, but simply because men have believed in immortality. Ivan Fyodorovitch added in parenthesis that the whole natural law lies in that faith, and that if you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up. Moreover, nothing then would be immoral, everything would be lawful, even cannibalism. That’s not all. He ended by asserting that for every individual, like ourselves, who does not believe in God or immortality, the moral law of nature must immediately be changed into the exact contrary of the former religious law, and that egoism, even to crime, must become not only lawful but even recognised as the inevitable, the most rational, even honourable outcome of his position. ” [emphasis added]

Asked if this is what he really believes, Ivan himself responds,

“Yes. That was my contention. There is no virtue if there is no immortality.” [emphasis added]

Although the idea is here, the famous quote is not.

Ivan’s hypothesis, that if there is no God/ no immortality, then everything is lawful, is crucial to the plot of the novel. Influenced by Ivan’s ideas, Smerdyakov commits murder and justifies it by quoting Ivan. In Book XI, Chapter 8 (“The Third and Last Interview with Smerdyakov”) Smerdyakov tells Ivan he felt no compunction against behaving immorally

“chiefly because ‘all things are lawful.’ That was quite right what you taught me, for you talked a lot to me about that. For if there’s no everlasting God, there’s no such thing as virtue, and there’s no need of it. You were right there. So that’s how I looked at it.” [emphasis added]

It appears to me that the most likely source for the famous quote is actually Ivan’s brother, Mitya Karamazov. In Book XI, Chapter 4 “A Hymn and a Secret”, Mitya tells Alyosha about a conversation he had with the atheist Rakitin.

“‘But what will become of men then?’ I asked him [Rakitin], ‘without God and immortal life? All things are lawful then, they can do what they like?’ ‘Didn’t you know?’ he [Rakitin] said laughing, ‘a clever man can do what he likes,’ he said. ‘A clever man knows his way about, but you’ve put your foot in it, committing a murder, and now you are rotting in prison.’ He says that to my face!” [emphasis added]

A final possibility is that the quote actually comes from another character, Father Zossima (in Book VI “The Russian Monk” Chapter 3 “Conversations and Exhortations of Father Zossima” Section F “Of Masters and Servants, and of whether it is possible for them to be Brothers in the Spirit”) for we find Zossima asking “if you have no God what is the meaning of crime?”

“It is different with the upper classes. They, following science, want to base justice on reason alone, but not with Christ, as before, and they have already proclaimed that there is no crime, that there is no sin. And that’s consistent, for if you have no God what is the meaning of crime?” [emphasis added]

So although the idea for the famous phrase “If there is no God, everything is permitted” can be attributed to Ivan Karamazov, it is quite possible that the actual quote comes from a different character in the novel: Smerdyakov or Mitya or Father Zossima. I’m hoping someone who has access to The Brothers Karamazov in Russian can search for “esli Boga net — znachit, vsio pozvoleno” and find out where the quote is located and which character says it. Anyone?

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