Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Latin Root Word Origins of Dostoyevksy's Crime and Punishment

Welcome back fans of Latin roots as they relate to English vocabulary words, and great talks about life-changing books! In this series that I'm offering, I am expounding upon books that have made an impression upon myself and many other readers, and the Latin root words inherent in their English titles. Let's look today at Crime and Punishment, a seminal novel with a very tricky ethical impasse.

The word punishment come from the Latin verb punire: to punish, which is the source of the following SAT vocabulary words:

subpoena: When one is "subpoenaed" to a court of law, one must show up under threat of punishment (if one doesn't go), via the Latin noun poena: punishment, penalty and the preposition sub: under, below, host of a legion of English vocabulary words, such as subterranean and subjugate.

impunity: When one does something with "impunity," one does not fear any "punishment" arising from one's actions.

punitive: A "punitive" action by a judge is one that "punishes" someone for doing something.

repentant: When one is "repentant" one is sorry for what one has done, and is etymologically being "punished" during this time of remorse. Via the Latin paenitens: regretting. One can also be unrepentant, penitent (undergoing penitence, or a punishment for an action), and penitential.

pine: The English word "pain" also comes from the Latin root word for "punish;" pain is a form of bodily punishment that one has to take when one has a malady. To "pine" for someone is to long greatly for them because they are not present; one feels "pain" in one's heart. To "repine" is also to yearn after something one does not have; this is a more difficult GRE vocabulary word.

Now, on to Fyodor Dostoyevksy's great novel, Crime and Punishment.

In this novel, Raskolnikov, a poor but brilliant medical student, has a relative, a fabulously wealthy old woman, who does no good for society at all, but simply hoards her wealth. Raskolnikov, whose potential to become an excellent doctor is vast, reasons to himself that if he had the old woman's money, he would be able to do better things with it because he would be able to become a doctor, and thereby heal many sick people. The old woman is parsimonious and will give him no financial aid, so he resolves to kill her, which he does eventually do, along with a witness that he did not count on having to kill as well. This ethical dilemma seems somewhat reasonable on the surface, that is, why have someone who is worthless to society have all that money who is doing no good at all with it, and have someone who could be immensely valuable to society and save many lives be thwarted because they have no means? At first blush this sounds very reasonable; however, the primary issue here is of identity. Yogic creeds teach us that we are not our mind, feelings, or body, but rather that we are something much vaster, and indeed are not separate from the rest of the people that surround one, and so, from a yogic perspective, Raskolnikov is mistaken in thinking that his obsessive focus on money forms his identity, and in doing away with the old woman he is actually doing away with himself, as he is not separate from her. So, although to our rational minds and maybe even to our humanitarian feelings Raskolnikov is justified in what he does, from a perspective of the "true self," that is, that which is, at essence, undifferentiated and nonindividuated from the rest of humanity, the doing away with the "useless" old woman is ethically wrong (ethical relativism aside here) because she is an incarnated soul just like the rest of us.
     Probably the best pair of translators into Russian these days is Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  Their translations of Russian literature are truly nonpareil.  Take a gander at their Crime and Punishment; even if you've already read this seminal work, it's well worth reading again by such an astounding pair. 

Fascinated with English vocabulary words? Want to pick them apart into their constituent Greek and Latin roots? Want to know even more words that come from the Latin root word punire, and most especially the prolific prefix sub? Studying hard for the SAT or GRE verbal section, and just can't get a handle on all of those vocabulary words? Check out, where you will find the most comprehensive Greek and Latin roots dictionary available today, and also the most's in full color, and artistically designed. There's even a Greek and Latin roots poster available, which nicely illustrates the full power of what Greek and Latin root words can do for you.