I am reading The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Of course, I cannot read, write or speak Russian, so I am reading a newer translation by Alan Myers.
The main character, Prince Myshkin, get’s into an interesting conversation about capital punishment with a “lackey.” (I infer that this is a butler…) The lackey listen’s intently as “The Idiot”, Prince Myshkin explains his expereince in witnessing an execution while travleing abroad in France.
The lackey is obviously intrigued and respond’s to Myshkin’s horror with this comment: “Still, it’s a good thing the agony’s not prolonged… when the head comes off” (Myshkin’s executionee was the victim of a guillotine) Myshkin replied with the following discourse – that is still (150 years later, and in another country) worth thinking about.
Do you know everybody makes the same point that you have, that’s why the machine, the guillotine was invented. But something occurred to me when I was there: what if that’s actually worse? You may think that’s silly, ludicrous even, but with a little imagination even an idea like that can flash into your mind. Just think: if there was torture, for instance; there’d be suffering and wounds, bodily agony, all of which would distract you from the mental suffering, you would only have the torment of your physical injuries right up to the point of death. After all, the greatest, the most intense pain lies not so much in the injuries perhaps, so much as the fact that you know for certain that in an hour’s time, then in ten minutes, then thirty seconds, then now, at this moment, the soul will take wing from the body and you will cease to be a man, and that this is certain to happen; the main thing being that it is certain. You put your head under the blade and you hear it sliding towards you, it’s that quarter of a second which is the most terrible of all… I am so convinced of this that I will tell you straight out what I think. To kill for murder is an immeasurably greater evil than the actual crime itself. Judicial murder is immeasurably more horrible than one committed by a robber. Someone killed by a robber, knifed at night in a forest somewhere, certainly keeps hoping for rescue right up to the last second. There have been instances of people whose throat’s have been cut still hoping, or running away, or pleading for their lives. But all this final hope, which makes dying ten times easier, is taken away by that certain.… Why this disgusting, pointless, unneccessary mockery? Perhaps there exists a man who has had his sentence read out to him and been allowed to suffer before being told: “Be off, you’ve been pardoned.” That man could tell you perhaps. Christ himself spoke of such agony and terror. No, a man should not be treated so! It is written: “Thou shalt not kill”; because he killed, should he be killed as well? No, that’s wrong.
Well, what do you think?