The Musing of Smerdyakov

by Philip McPherson Rudisill

September 18, 2010. Edited 4/8/2014

The thinking of the servant Karamazov brother, Smerdyakov, who comes to understand and accept Ivan Karamazov's theoretical atheism, but then puts it into practice. The following is my own expression of this character of Dostoyevsky The Brothers Karamazov.

“I can buy into Uhl's Golden Rule of Enlightened Selfishness. It makes sense. Things are a lot better and easier for me if the world is orderly and friendly and civil, and so of course I will promote that in my talk and action. And sometimes the pay-back is quicker than you think. For example, when I found the master's money, I returned it to him. I didn't really need it, but more importantly I was able in that way to win his trust. He knew I was an honest man, a man whom he could count on and someone he might confide in. And since the master (who is probably also my reprobate father) has lots of money, this could be a very good thing. So Uhl's rule: do the right thing and you will be rewarded, proved very true in my case, for when I needed the old man to trust me in order that I might kill him later, he trusted me. Oh, he recognized me at the very end, that he had been set up, but then it was too late and he was dead and I was safe and . . . mission accomplished.

“Once I learned from my brother and idol, Ivan, that there is no God and that all things were legal, I got to thinking really hard about our dismal situation. Our father is a filthy, lecherous old man who was keeping the fortune that belonged to his sons and using it for his own perverted and selfish ways, showing nothing but contempt for the boys. He is preparing to give it all to a hussy in order to marry her and have lots of fun in his old age. One of his sons, Dimitri, is just as bad and will throw away everything he has for the embrace of a whore. So let's arrange things so that the old man get's murdered before he can give away the money and so that the no-count Dimitri is held responsible and goes to jail, and we get not only the money that is rightfully ours, but also the surplus of Dimitri's share. Since this can be done safely, I shall do it. I shall arrange it. It would be stupid not too. Utterly stupid. The Golden Rule of Enlightened Selfishness always means to look after me first and foremost, right? Usually it works nicely and is easy. But I would violate the premise, i.e., looking after my own interests first, if I did not kill my father. And who knows, perhaps if I were in his wretched condition I would want someone to kill me. In the final analysis, nothing really matters, so why not just do it. Take a chance. Be daring and go for the gold.”

Remark. The above is my take on Smerdyakov's thinking as presented in Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov and where I imagine him as being cognizant of Uhl's thinking regarding the Golden Rule of Enlightened Selfishness or the more common notion of animal pity.

Analysis. The selfish and personal happiness is obviously always first and foremost, and Uhl's Golden Rule of Enlightened Selfishness is subject always to the interest of the self, and indeed is premised on that. As Goebbels put it: tell the truth if you can; tell a lie if you must. Likewise the supreme rule for the rational atheist is always: comply with the Golden Rule if you can; violate it if you must. In other words, consistent with the absence of God and the consequent meaningless of life, look out first for yourself, and seek to maximize the return. [This also ties in nicely with the spirit of capitalism.]

See also Smerdyakov.

Return to Sagan Kant essay or to the Handbook for Atheists