“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth” – Albert Camus

We read the quotes of great men and women for a number of reasons. To learn something new, to feel better about ourselves, for inspiration, because we’re bored, and sometimes simply out of a childlike curiosity.

But behind all these there’s a fundamental reason; to change the way we see the world.

The above quote by Albert Camus changed how I saw the world, and particularly how I saw the role of fiction in the world. I was always a lover of non-fiction books, and at one point I even thought fiction to be nothing more than entertainment.

But fiction can echo the most honest truths, truths that may be so profound (and at times disturbing) that we can’t even explain them explicitly.

And there is perhaps no novelist whose novels explored truer themes than Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky.

Born in Moscow in 1821, Dostoevsky, like his contemporaries Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, and Alexander Pushkin, is considered one of the most important novelists of the Golden Age of Russian literature.

He is known for the profound psychology and philosophical quality of his books, with characters that inhabit a vast moral spectrum and take on wildly varying positions as they examine and challenge social conventions. From nihilistic criminals to devout monks, his complex personas wrestle with difficult questions and disturbing truths.

In his twenties, Dostoevsky joined the Petrashevsky Circle, a group of progressive intellectual idealists. A few years later, he and other members of the group were arrested, put on trial, and convicted for anti-government activities. He and the others were sentenced to death and brought in front of a firing squad in 1849, but their sentences were commuted at the last minute.

Instead of being executed, Dostoevsky served four years in a Siberian labor camp before being released in 1854. These experiences had a significant influence on all of his subsequent writings, including his most famous works: Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov.

Dostoevsky is often referred to as one of the first existentialists. While the term “existentialism” was not coined until after the end of World War II, the school of thought is typically traced back to the mid-to-late nineteenth century and the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Soren Kierkegaard, and Dostoevsky.

Nietzsche rejected religion, but both Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky were devout Christians. However, what unites the three is their emphasis on a person’s responsibility to reckon with spiritual questions as an individual. Each in his own way examined what would become one of the hallmarks of the philosophy: the idea that freedom is not easy. To an existentialist, an individual is who they freely choose to be, defined by actions and choices instead of a pre-existing “essence.”

Traditional Christian virtues, especially selfless love, were of utmost importance to Dostoevsky. However, he did not assume these to be the default state of humanity, but achievements borne of spiritual discipline. To be moral is not to surrender freedom, but to act from freedom: to choose a moral course, even when it means turning toward suffering and sacrificing pleasure and comfort for the sake of others. Living in this way allows a person to overcome the corrupting forces of the world and to fully experience the beauty and goodness of life.

Dostoevsky Quotes

Here are 35 Fyodor Dostoevsky Quotes on Love, God, Life, and More!

On Love

“Fathers and teachers, I ponder, ‘What is hell?’ I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”

-The Brothers Karamazov

“Love is such a priceless treasure that you can redeem the whole world by it, and cleanse not only your own sins but the sins of others.”

-The Brothers Karamazov

“Learning to love is hard and we pay dearly for it. It takes hard work and a long apprenticeship, for it is not just for a moment that we must learn to love, but forever.”

-The Brothers Karamazov

“A man who lies to himself, and believes his own lies, becomes unable to recognize truth, either in himself or in anyone else, and he ends up losing respect for himself and for others. When he has no respect for anyone, he can no longer love, and in him, he yields to his impulses, indulges in the lowest form of pleasure, and behaves in the end like an animal in satisfying his vices. And it all comes from lying — to others and to yourself.”

-The Brothers Karamazov

“Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all God’s creation, the whole of it and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day, and you will come at last to love the world with an all-embracing love.”

-The Brothers Karamazov

“I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labour and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science. But I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting farther from your goal instead of nearer to it — at that very moment I predict that you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you.”

-The Brothers Karamazov

To Dostoevsky, love is the utmost virtue—the defining element of the Christian path and the moral life. In his view, love is not simply a feeling, but a course of action. To become able to love, a person must resist the urge to serve the self at the expense of others and choose to do the opposite: to serve others, even at the expense of the self. To love is to choose forgiveness over vengeance, generosity over self-indulgence, and hard truths over comforting lies.

The loving 1soul is forged in suffering and hardship, yet transcends them, opening up to a happiness that is independent of external circumstances. At times, love is hard work, but the one who loves needs little else to be happy. To love is to respond purely to life, to celebrate and affirm it even when it is difficult or painful. Love is its own light, a healing force that not only purifies the soul it arises from, but the souls of others who come into its presence. In Dostoevsky’s world, it is often the saving grace that allows a person to face a world of chaos and corruption.

On Family

“And indeed, what aim in life is more important and sacred than a father’s? To what should one adhere, if not to one’s family?”

-The Idiot

“Even toil will be a joy, you may deny yourself bread for your children and even that will be a joy, They will love you for it afterwards; so you are laying by for your future.”

-Notes from Underground

“As the children grow up you feel that you are an example, a support for them; that even after you die your children will always keep your thoughts and feelings, because they have received them from you, they will take on your semblance and likeness. So you see this is a great duty.”

-Notes from Underground

“From the house of my childhood I have brought nothing but precious memories, for there are no memories more precious than those of early childhood in one’s first home. And that is almost always so if there is any love and harmony in the family at all. Indeed, precious memories may remain even of a bad home, if only the heart knows how to find what is precious.”

-The Brothers Karamazov

“Love is a holy mystery and ought to be hidden from all other eyes, whatever happens. That makes it holier and better. They respect one another more, and much is built on respect. And if once there has been love, if they have been married for love, why should love pass away? Surely one can keep it! It is rare that one cannot keep it.

And if the husband is kind and straightforward, why should not love last? The first phase of married love will pass, it is true, but then there will come a love that is better still. Then there will be the union of souls, they will have everything in common, there will be no secrets between them. And once they have children, the most difficult times will seem to them happy, so long as there is love and courage.”

-Notes from Underground

Through his novels, Dostoevsky examined the ways families generate and sustain love, as well as the ways they can be corrupted and torn apart by hatred, jealousy, and vice. One of his most well-known books, The Brothers Karamazov, depicts the downfall of a family through the self-centred actions of its patriarch, Fyodor Pavlovich. Despite the profound goodness of one of the brothers, Alyosha, the life of the family is defined by the sins of the father and the son who is most like him.

Dostoevsky saw children as supremely vulnerable in their innocence and showed how profoundly they can suffer at the hands of cruel parents and the whims of a cold society. Yet just as an individual can embrace a spiritual path of love that defies worldly corruption, a family can provide a haven of love that protects and nurtures its members as they are tested by the world. To Dostoevsky, home should be a place of healing, a place where loving actions forge memories that live on in the hearts of the children long after they have grown up and left. The gifts of home are not given, however; they depend on the parents’ ability to embody and act from love, as well as on the children’s ability to recognize and accept the gifts of home.

Dostoevsky Quotes

On Beauty

“Beauty will save the world.”

-The Idiot

“Silence is always beautiful, and a silent person is always more beautiful than one who talks.”

-The Adolescent

“Beauty is a terrible and awful thing! It is terrible because it has not been fathomed, for God sets us nothing but riddles.”

-The Brothers Karamazov

“We don’t understand that life is heaven, for we have only to understand that and it will at once be fulfilled in all its beauty, we shall embrace each other and weep.”

-The Brothers Karamazov

“She was very fond of thinking and getting at the truth of things… This naive combination in her of the child and the thinking woman, this childlike and absolutely genuine thirst for truth and justice, and absolute faith in her impulses—all this lighted up her face with a fine glow of sincerity, giving it a lofty, spiritual beauty, and one began to understand that it was not so easy to gauge the full significance of that beauty which was not all at once apparent to every ordinary unsympathetic eye.”

-Humiliated and Insulted

“The children of the sun, the children of their sun — oh, how beautiful they were! Never had I seen on our own earth such beauty in mankind. Only perhaps in our children, in their earliest years, one might find, some remote faint reflection of this beauty. The eyes of these happy people shone with a clear brightness. Their faces were radiant with the light of reason and fullness of a serenity that comes of perfect understanding, but those faces were gay; in their words and voices there was a note of childlike joy. Oh, from the first moment, from the first glance at them, I understood it all! It was the earth untarnished by the Fall; on it lived people who had not sinned. They lived just in such a paradise as that in which, according to all the legends of mankind, our first parents lived before they sinned; the only difference was that all this earth was the same paradise. These people, laughing joyfully, thronged round me and caressed me; they took me home with them, and each of them tried to reassure me. Oh, they asked me no questions, but they seemed, I fancied, to know everything without asking, and they wanted to make haste to smooth away the signs of suffering from my face.”

-The Dream of a Ridiculous Man

Dostoevsky appreciated true beauty as the outward appearance of a loving soul, a radiance that emanates from underlying virtue. He was deeply suspicious of seductive surfaces and lamented those for whom beauty was all surface, an invitation to lust and to seek sensual pleasure even at the expense of others.

In The Brothers Karamazov, he compares the “beauty of the Madonna” to “the beauty of Sodom,” noting that while the former is more profound, the latter is what most people choose, often to disastrous results. Unlike that which activates the appetites, the deeper spiritual beauty Dostoevsky admired is a gateway to contemplation for the one who beholds it: an invitation to love and to look deeper.

The kind of beauty that nourishes rather than corrupts the soul arises from the perception of an underlying perfection. This is not the perfection of form, but of the spirit, and often lies beneath an apparently imperfect surface. To Dostoevsky, beauty arises from the recognition of paradise, or Heaven, in this very world. A beautiful soul is faithful, loving, and honest, uncontrived in the same way Eden was uncontrived. To such a soul, untwisted by vice and grasping greed, joy arises naturally and becomes a source of light for others.

On God

“Without God all things are permitted.”

-The Brothers Karamazov

“My friends, God is necessary for me if only because he is the one being who can be loved eternally.”

-The Possessed

“God is necessary, and therefore must exist… But I know that he does not and cannot exist… Don’t you understand that a man with these two thoughts cannot go on living?”

-The Possessed

There is no sin, and there can be no sin on all the earth, which the Lord will not forgive to the truly repentant! Man cannot commit a sin so great as to exhaust the infinite love of God. Can there be a sin which could exceed the love of God?”

-The Brothers Karamazov

“Obedience, fasting, and prayer are laughed at, yet only through them lies the way to real true freedom. I cut off my superfluous and unnecessary desires, I subdue my proud and wanton will and chastise it with obedience, and with God’s help I attain freedom of spirit and with it spiritual joy.”

-The Brothers Karamazov

“If I seem happy to you . . . You could never say anything that would please me more. For men are made for happiness, and anyone who is completely happy has a right to say to himself, ‘I am doing God’s will on earth.’ All the righteous, all the saints, all the holy martyrs were happy.”

-The Brothers Karamazov

Dostoevsky characters represent his own process of dealing with faith. While he was ultimately a believer, and while he felt a special affection for his most devout characters, Dostoevsky admitted that he struggled in his spiritual life: “My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt,” he said. The suffering he witnessed in the world was hard for him to reconcile with God’s omnipotence and love. Yet in his own life and through his characters’ journeys, Dostoevsky saw how love and suffering were deeply connected—the latter of which often gave rise to the former. He observed that true joy was only possible through the practice and realization of active love, which is tested and strengthened through suffering.

While it is impossible to know exactly what was in his mind at the end of his life, his life’s journey mirrors those of his most faithful characters. Biographies show that Dostoevsky’s final years were a period of increasing peace for him, a time when he turned away from former vices and toward the redemptive, loving faith he wrote about in his final work and magnum opus, The Brothers Karamazov. His life and works stand as a testament to a man who took spiritual questions seriously and was ultimately able to reconcile himself with his life and with God.

Dostoevsky Quotes

On Death

“Take a soldier and put him right in front of a cannon in a battle and fire it at him, and he’ll go on hoping, but read out a certain death sentence to that same soldier, and he’ll go mad, or start to weep.”

-The Idiot

“Where is it I’ve read that someone condemned to death says or thinks, an hour before his death, that if he had to live on some high rock, on such a narrow ledge that he’d only room to stand, and the ocean, everlasting darkness, everlasting solitude, everlasting tempest around him, if he had to remain standing on a square yard of space all his life, a thousand years, eternity, it were better to live so than to die at once. Only to live, to live and live! Life, whatever it may be!”

-Crime and Punishment

“He went up to his room like a man who has been condemned to death. His mind was completely empty, and he was quite incapable of filling it with anything; but with his whole being he suddenly felt that he no longer possessed any freedom of thought or of will, and that everything had suddenly been decided once and for all.”

-Crime and Punishment

“But man is a frivolous and incongruous creature, and perhaps, like the chess player, loves only the process of the game, not the end of it. And who knows (one cannot swear to it), perhaps the only goal on earth to which mankind is striving lies in this incessant process of attaining, or in other words, in life itself, and not particularly in the goal which of course must always be two times two makes four, that is a formula, and after all, two times two makes four is no longer life, gentlemen, but is the beginning of death.”

-Notes from Underground

“He spoke of many things, he seemed anxious before the moment of death to say everything he had not said in his life, and not simply for the sake of instructing them, but as though thirsting to share with all men and all creation his joy and ecstasy, and once more in his life to open up his whole heart.”

-The Brothers Karamazov

Dostoevsky was haunted throughout his life by how it felt to face death. After standing in front of a firing squad, believing he was about to die, only to have his execution stayed at the last minute, he wrote to his brother:

“When I look back at the past and think how much time has been wasted in vain, how much time was lost in delusions, in errors, in idleness, in ignorance of how to live, how I did not value time, how often I sinned against my heart and spirit—my heart bleeds. Life is a gift, life is happiness, each minute might have been an age of happiness… not to be downhearted nor to fall in whatever misfortunes may befall me—this is life; this is the task of life.”

His letter overflowed with love and an unwavering conviction in the goodness of life. He was grateful not only to have his life, but to have been startled into a deeper appreciation for it.

To live is not just to enjoy the sensations of being alive, but to be able to love, grow, and change. As his characters affirmed, confronting mortality allows a person to spent less time resisting life and more time accepting it. For those who live a full and spiritually wise life, the final moments before death can be profound and expansive, a final outpouring of life’s goodness, a celebration rather than a moment to lament.

On Life

“Love life more than the meaning of it.”

-The Brothers Karamazov

“But how could you live and have no story to tell?”

-White Nights

Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.”

-Crime and Punishment

“We have all lost touch with life, we all limp, each to a greater or lesser degree.”

-Notes from Underground

“It’s life that matters, nothing but life—the process of discovering, the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself, at all.”

-The Idiot

“I do not wish you much happiness—it would bore you; I do not wish you trouble either; but, following the people’s philosophy, I will simply repeat: ‘Live more,’ and try somehow not to be too bored; this useless wish I am adding on my own.”

-The Possessed

“For the secret of man’s being is not only to live but to have something to live for. Without a stable conception of the object of life, man would not consent to go on living and would rather destroy himself than remain on earth, though he had bread in abundance. “

-The Brothers Karamazov

Dostoevsky’s conception of life is consistent with existentialism, the philosophical school with which he was later associated. To an existentialist, it is important to question life’s meaning, but inauthentic to accept a formulaic answer. The question must be lived; the meaning of life can only be found in the living of it. For someone like Dostoevsky, who was brought to the brink of death and spared, no simple belief could answer to the vast consciousness that experience opened up in him. From the point of his return from exile onward, he never stopped depicting characters who recognized the same thing he did: that life is like a river that bursts the banks of anything that can be thought or said about it. The way to live a meaningful life is to live it as fully as possible, which for Dostoevsky meant embracing the world in an all-encompassing love.

 

Ben Fishel

Ben is a freelance writer and the creator of Project Monkey Mind, a blog that looks at Psychology and Spirituality to find practical wisdom for the digital age.

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