Dostoevsky Didn't Say It

Exploring a widely-propagated misattribution

Copyright 1999 David E. Cortesi

Stop Press: New Information (20 Apr 2003)

This essay centers on the fact that the widely quoted phrase "If God does not exist, everything is permitted" does not appear in Dostoevsky's works -- at least, in English, which is the only way I can access them. However, I recently received the following communication from one "Valeria" (surname not given):

Dear Mr. Cortesi,

I was searching myself for this quotation, and I found it. It is, in fact, in The Brothers Karamazov, and Ivan did say it. Your search would not turn it up, because the novel was written in Russian, as I'm sure you always knew.

The phrase, "esli Boga net--znachit, vsio pozvoleno" is subject to many interpretations after the dash: "If there is no God--" is unambiguous. The latter part says, "that means everything is" is also unambiguous. The verb, "pozvolit'" means to allow or permit, and it is used in the past passive participle. It does not, literally mean "lawful." The entire quotation is, "if there is no God, that means everthing is permitted/allowed/permissible." It seems that he is stating that immortality and the belief in God together impose the only real limits on what individuals can do, can permit themselves to do. 

There is also a slightly later conversation with Alyosha in which Ivan refers to his own statement as quoted by Miusin, as "everything is pozvoleno."

If Valeria is correct, then Dostoevsky did say it, or rather,did put it in the mouth of his character Ivan. I would welcome more information, in particular, a citation to a page of a specified edition of the work.Obviously the major point of the following essay is weakened by this information, although the secondary point (that one should not attribute to Dostoevsky the idea expressed by his fictional character) remains correct.

Possibly the best-known quote from the works of Dostoevsky is this:

"If God does not exist, everything is permitted."

You can see it, for example, on the title page of the self-designated "Dostoevsky Resource on the Net" by Christiaan Stange; and again in the Quotes section of Luís Greco's Dostoevsky page; and yet again (possibly lifted intact from Stange's page) on Luba Petersen's Dostoevsky site.

This sound-bite sentence has propagated widely into popular religious debate on the internet. Like any good sound-bite, it neatly encapsulates the fears and hopes of a diverse audience: the believer's fear of, and the nonbeliever's hope for, a secular moral system.

There is only problem with this well-known quote:

Dostoevsky never wrote it!

I say this with confidence (but, see above!) because I have searched the online text of the Constance Garnett translation of The Brothers Karamazov, examining every use of "God" and "exist" and "lawful" ("lawful" is how Garnett translates the word that others translate as "permitted").

The sentence does not appear, nor anything close to it. Nor does it appear in any of the other four Dostoevsky novels whose complete English texts are available online. The fact that a nonexistent text can be widely attributed to a famous author reveals the limitations of pre-computer scholarship. The fact that I could so quickly prove it erroneous highlights the opportunities for modern scholars.

Correct Citation

It is true that "If God does not exist, everything is permitted" is an accurate capsule description of the belief espoused by Ivan Karamazov in the early chapters of The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan has concluded, or pretends to conclude, that there is no God, no immortality. As what he claims is a logical consequence, "everything is lawful." However, Ivan never speaks the sentence in question, and neither does any other character in the novel! The phrase, "everything is lawful," is used frequently by other characters as an idea that they got from Ivan. And once, Ivan says "If there is no immortality, there is no virtue." But the magic sound-bite sentence is not to be found.

Katharena Eiermann, a true scholar, uses the sentence properly in her essay on Existentialism and Dostoevsky, where she writes,

Jean Paul Sartre has said that all of French Existentialism is to be found in Ivan Karamazov's contention that if there is no God, everything is permitted.

This is correct scholarship in two respects:

These two points are essential to prevent misunderstanding. It is wrong to use double-quotes around text that is not an exact quote, because to do so tells an untruth about the cited author, saying he wrote certain words when he didn't.

What Did Dostoevsky Think?

While it is undeniable that Ivan advances this view, that does not mean it is Dostoevsky's view, and it is wrong to imply that it is -- at least, without more support. In this respect, note that the sentence is a logical implication, if A then B. Ivan advances the truth of the implication as a whole, apparently as an intellectual proposition.In common talk, people assume that a claim if A then B automatically implies the contrary claim ...and if not-A then not-B. However, logic is not common-sensical. When the antecedent A is not true, an implication is not automatically false; it becomes null -- the truth of B is simply unknown.

To my rather casual reading, it appears that the whole irony of The Brothers Karamazov is that Ivan advances this logical statement, but later admits to Alyosha that, in fact, he believes in God. Hence Ivan has believed right from the start that the antecedent is false and, therefore, that the implication is null -- it was never more than an intellectual toy. Alas, other characters take the succedent B seriously and act on it, resulting in great evil, for which Ivan must feel indirectly responsible.

In any case, did Dostoevsky himself mean to argue the truth of the logical implication? Or to argue either the antecedent (God does not exist) or the succedent (everything is lawful) separately? Did Dostoevsky believe the inverse statement ("If God does exist, then not everything is lawful")? Or did he only believe mean to show that almost everyone else believes it true, without examination?

Frankly, I don't know the answers. What I do know is that many, many people have assumed three things that (it seems to me) are not supported by the text of The Brothers Karamazov:

  1. Dostoevsky himself wrote the sentence "If God does not exist, everything is lawful."
  2. Dostoevsky meant by that, that it is impossible to have a moral system without God (in other words, that he himself felt that both the statement and its inverse were true).
  3. Dostoevsky believed in God.

Sloppy Work

Here's an interesting exercise for you. Go to the Alta Vista Advanced Search window and enter this in the boolean expression box:

(Dostoevsky OR Dostoyevsky) NEAR "If God"

The returned pages will give you an idea of how far Dostoevsky's sound-bite has propagated. The search hits you find will vary day by day. When I ran it, I found such items as, in a book review by Richard T. Oakes:

... he felt with Dostoevsky that if God does not exist then all things are permitted.

This attributes the character's view to the author.

On the Penguin Books web site under Author Links appears:

Fyodor Dostoevsky -- "If God does not exist then everything is permitted"

In online lecture notes on Dostoevsky, Prof. Jay Gallagher makes a surprising slip,

Russian Orthodox Christianity was for Dostoevsky the answer to the problem of nihilism he saw growing around him. This problem was succinctly summarized by him through the famous words of Ivan Karamazov: "If God is dead, all is permitted."

While this properly attributes the idea to the character, I don't believe the phrase "If God is dead" appears in the book.

In an essay on the Attributes of God by Jay Rogers, "everything" is changed to "anything," a subtle change of meaning:

Dostoyevsky said, "Anything is permissible if there is no God."

In an essay by Vladimir Moss we find a rather bizarre distortion,

It was in reflecting on the French Revolution that Dostoevsky uttered his famous saying: "If God does not exist, then everything [that is, everything that is evil] is permitted."

Besides the dubious association with the French Revolution (not a featured element of The Brothers Karamazov), this asserts that Dostoevsky "uttered" the sentence that everyone else at least assumes was written. And the insertion of the bracketed gloss "that is, everything that is evil" is entirely unjustified.

In an essay by Jim Leffel we again find "possible" with a conditional "would be."

Dostoevsky said, 'If God didn't exist, everything would be possible.'"

In the Agnostic Bible is found the same conditional verb, but "permissible" in place of "possible."

12. The moral argument from the consequences of atheism (‘If God did not exist, everything would be permissible’ -- Dostoevsky).”

The shotgun approach to citations is shown in the Psychedelic Library: Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and others realized very clearly, "If God is dead, then anything is permitted, anything is possible."

Other pages turn up in the search; explore a few. Some of the misquotes are amusing, as in this, from a site that might as well remain nameless: Ivan Dostoevsky stated, "If God...

Did Sartre Start It?

On a page of the site I found this:

Referring to one of the inspirations of Existentialism, Dostoyevsky, Sartre says: Dostoyevsky wrote: If God does not exist, everything is permitted and for Existentialism this is the starting-point .

Aha! Could it have been Sartre who started all this trouble? On a page of quotes (the number of web pages that are just collections of quotes is truly staggering) we find:

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)

"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,

As with most such collections of quotes, the compiler omits to give the source for the text, which greatly reduces the value of the site. However, if this correctly reflects Sartre's understanding, it would explain a great deal.

To begin with, consider the difficulty, pre-Internet, of verifying a one-sentence quotation in a book of a quarter-million words like The Brothers Karamazov. You come across this very appealing sound-bite in the in the work of a well-known writer like Sartre, and you'd like to use it.

Then suppose that you, like me, get a little tremor of suspicion. "Did Dostoevsky really say exactly that? And did he put it in the mouth of a character, and if so, which character?" Until a very few years ago, the only way you could answer such questions would be to sit down and reread The Brothers Karamazov (or, if you are a full professor, assign that job to a research assistant). Who could justify that amount of time to verify a single well-known quote? You would go with the quote as you have seen it, trusting in that prior writer.

Very possibly Sartre is the "authoritative" source whose mis-attribution is the root source for this widespread mistake. Was he at fault? Perhaps he mis-remembered his reading of Dostoevsky; or perhaps he read a French translation of the novel that did indeed use the sentence. In either case, he was sloppy in attributing the idea to Dostoevsky, not his character.

The Web Makes Honest Scholars of Us All

With the internet, it is no longer necessary to propagate such errors, and writers of honesty should no longer do so. Most "great books" are online in full-text versions (see for example the English Server at CMU; there are also multiple searchable versions of the Bible, Quran, and the Buddhist canon). A search through a book the size of The Brothers Karamazov takes minutes. A search for prior work using Alta Vista or any of the similar engines also takes less than an hour to carry out.

There is really no excuse for guessing at, or simply re-inventing, citations, as so many seem to have done with Dostoevsky.