The Idiot By Fyodor Dostoevsky Part III: Chapter 1

It was true enough that everybody was laughing, the prince among them.

"I cannot tell you on the instant whether I agree with you or not," said the latter, suddenly stopping his laughter, and starting like a schoolboy caught at mischief. "But, I assure you, I am listening to you with extreme gratification."

So saying, he almost panted with agitation, and a cold sweat stood upon his forehead. These were his first words since he had entered the house; he tried to lift his eyes, and look around, but dared not; Evgenie Pavlovitch noticed his confusion, and smiled.

"I'll just tell you one fact, ladies and gentlemen," continued the latter, with apparent seriousness and even exaltation of manner, but with a suggestion of "chaff" behind every word, as though he were laughing in his sleeve at his own nonsense — "a fact, the discovery of which, I believe, I may claim to have made by myself alone. At all events, no other has ever said or written a word about it; and in this fact is expressed the whole essence of Russian liberalism of the sort which I am now considering.

"In the first place, what is liberalism, speaking generally, but an attack (whether mistaken or reasonable, is quite another question) upon the existing order of things? Is this so? Yes. Very well. Then my 'fact' consists in this, that RUSSIAN liberalism is not an attack upon the existing order of things, but an attack upon the very essence of things themselves — indeed, on the things themselves; not an attack on the Russian order of things, but on Russia itself. My Russian liberal goes so far as to reject Russia; that is, he hates and strikes his own mother. Every misfortune and mishap of the mother-country fills him with mirth, and even with ecstasy. He hates the national customs, Russian history, and everything. If he has a justification, it is that he does not know what he is doing, and believes that his hatred of Russia is the grandest and most profitable kind of liberalism. (You will often find a liberal who is applauded and esteemed by his fellows, but who is in reality the dreariest, blindest, dullest of conservatives, and is not aware of the fact.) This hatred for Russia has been mistaken by some of our 'Russian liberals' for sincere love of their country, and they boast that they see better than their neighbours what real love of one's country should consist in. But of late they have grown, more candid and are ashamed of the expression 'love of country,' and have annihilated the very spirit of the words as something injurious and petty and undignified. This is the truth, and I hold by it; but at the same time it is a phenomenon which has not been repeated at any other time or place; and therefore, though I hold to it as a fact, yet I recognize that it is an accidental phenomenon, and may likely enough pass away. There can be no such thing anywhere else as a liberal who really hates his country; and how is this fact to be explained among US? By my original statement that a Russian liberal is NOT a RUSSIAN liberal — that's the only explanation that I can see."

"I take all that you have said as a joke," said Prince S. seriously.

"I have not seen all kinds of liberals, and cannot, therefore, set myself up as a judge," said Alexandra, "but I have heard all you have said with indignation. You have taken some accidental case and twisted it into a universal law, which is unjust."

"Accidental case!" said Evgenie Pavlovitch. "Do you consider it an accidental case, prince?"

"I must also admit," said the prince, "that I have not seen much, or been very far into the question; but I cannot help thinking that you are more or less right, and that Russian liberalism — that phase of it which you are considering, at least — really is sometimes inclined to hate Russia itself, and not only its existing order of things in general. Of course this is only PARTIALLY the truth; you cannot lay down the law for all . . . "

The prince blushed and broke off, without finishing what he meant to say.

In spite of his shyness and agitation, he could not help being greatly interested in the conversation. A special characteristic of his was the naive candour with which he always listened to arguments which interested him, and with which he answered any questions put to him on the subject at issue. In the very expression of his face this naivete was unmistakably evident, this disbelief in the insincerity of others, and unsuspecting disregard of irony or humour in their words.

But though Evgenie Pavlovitch had put his questions to the prince with no other purpose but to enjoy the joke of his simple-minded seriousness, yet now, at his answer, he was surprised into some seriousness himself, and looked gravely at Muishkin as though he had not expected that sort of answer at all.

"Why, how strange!" he ejaculated. "You didn't answer me seriously, surely, did you?"

"Did not you ask me the question seriously" inquired the prince, in amazement.

Everybody laughed.

"Oh, trust HIM for that!" said Adelaida. "Evgenie Pavlovitch turns everything and everybody he can lay hold of to ridicule. You should hear the things he says sometimes, apparently in perfect seriousness."

"In my opinion the conversation has been a painful one throughout, and we ought never to have begun it," said Alexandra. "We were all going for a walk — "

"Come along then," said Evgenie; "it's a glorious evening. But, to prove that this time I was speaking absolutely seriously, and especially to prove this to the prince (for you, prince, have interested me exceedingly, and I swear to you that I am not quite such an ass as I like to appear sometimes, although I am rather an ass, I admit), and — well, ladies and gentlemen, will you allow me to put just one more question to the prince, out of pure curiosity? It shall be the last. This question came into my mind a couple of hours since (you see, prince, I do think seriously at times), and I made my own decision upon it; now I wish to hear what the prince will say to it."

"We have just used the expression 'accidental case.' This is a significant phrase; we often hear it. Well, not long since everyone was talking and reading about that terrible murder of six people on the part of a — young fellow, and of the extraordinary speech of the counsel for the defence, who observed that in the poverty-stricken condition of the criminal it must have come NATURALLY into his head to kill these six people. I do not quote his words, but that is the sense of them, or something very like it. Now, in my opinion, the barrister who put forward this extraordinary plea was probably absolutely convinced that he was stating the most liberal, the most humane, the most enlightened view of the case that could possibly be brought forward in these days. Now, was this distortion, this capacity for a perverted way of viewing things, a special or accidental case, or is such a general rule?"

Everyone laughed at this.

"A special case — accidental, of course!" cried Alexandra and Adelaida.

"Let me remind you once more, Evgenie," said Prince S., "that your joke is getting a little threadbare."

"What do you think about it, prince?" asked Evgenie, taking no notice of the last remark, and observing Muishkin's serious eyes fixed upon his face. "What do you think — was it a special or a usual case — the rule, or an exception? I confess I put the question especially for you."

"No, I don't think it was a special case," said the prince, quietly, but firmly.

"My dear fellow!" cried Prince S., with some annoyance, "don't you see that he is chaffing you? He is simply laughing at you, and wants to make game of you."

"I thought Evgenie Pavlovitch was talking seriously," said the prince, blushing and dropping his eyes.

"My dear prince," continued Prince S. "remember what you and I were saying two or three months ago. We spoke of the fact that in our newly opened Law Courts one could already lay one's finger upon so many talented and remarkable young barristers. How pleased you were with the state of things as we found it, and how glad I was to observe your delight! We both said it was a matter to be proud of; but this clumsy defence that Evgenie mentions, this strange argument CAN, of course, only be an accidental case — one in a thousand!"

The prince reflected a little, but very soon he replied, with absolute conviction in his tone, though he still spoke somewhat shyly and timidly:

"I only wished to say that this 'distortion,' as Evgenie Pavlovitch expressed it, is met with very often, and is far more the general rule than the exception, unfortunately for Russia. So much so, that if this distortion were not the general rule, perhaps these dreadful crimes would be less frequent."

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At the end of Part III, Nastasya and Rogozhin each ask Myshkin the same question. What was it?