Writing to a correspondent more than ten years after finishing The Idiot, Dostoevsky remarks, “All those who have spoken of it as my best work have something special in their mental formation that has always struck and pleased me.” 1 The Idiot is the most personal of all his major works, the book in which he embodies his most intimate, cherished, and sacred convictions. Readers who took this work to their hearts were, he must have felt, a select group of kindred souls with whom he could truly communicate. It is only in The Idiot that Dostoevsky includes an account of his ordeal before the firing squad—an ordeal that had given him a new apprehension of life, and Prince Myshkin struggles to bring this revelation to a world mired in the sloth of the material and quotidian. Prince Myshkin approximates the extremest incarnation of the Christian ideal of love that humanity can reach in its present form, but he is torn apart by the conflict between the contradictory imperatives of his apocalyptic aspirations and his earthly limitations.
The first part of The Idiot, we know, was written under the inspiration of Dostoevsky's decision to center a major work around the character of a “perfectly beautiful man,” and the singular spiritual fascination of Prince Myshkin derives largely from the image of him projected in these early pages. The moral halo that surrounds the Prince is conveyed in the very first scene, where his behavior is marked by a total absence of vanity or egoism; he does not seem to possess the self-regarding feelings on which such attitudes are nourished. Even more, he displays a unique capacity to take the point of view of his interlocutor. This explains the Prince's failure to take umbrage at his reception by others, and his capacity to transcend himself in this way invariably disarms the first response of amused and superior contempt among those he encounters.
Max Scheler, in his admirable book, The Nature and Form of Sympathy, distinguishes what he calls “vicarious fellow feeling,” which involves experiencing an understanding and sympathy for the feelings of others without being overcome
1PSS, 29/Bk. 2: 139; February 14, 1877.