And it happened to Nekhludoff, as it often happens to men who are living a spiritual life. The thought that seemed strange at first and paradoxical or even to be only a joke, being confirmed more and more often by life’s experience, suddenly appeared as the simplest, truest certainty. In this way the idea that the only certain means of salvation from the terrible evil from which men were suffering was that they should always acknowledge themselves to be sinning against God, and therefore unable to punish or correct others, because they were dear to Him. It became clear to him that all the dreadful evil he had been witnessing in prisons and jails and the quiet self-satisfaction of the perpetrators of this evil were the consequences of men trying to do what was impossible; trying to correct evil while being evil themselves; vicious men were trying to correct other vicious men, and thought they could do it by using mechanical means, and the only consequence of all this was that the needs and the cupidity of some men induced them to take up this so-called punishment and correction as a profession, and have themselves become utterly corrupt, and go on unceasingly depraving those whom they torment. Now he saw clearly what all the terrors he had seen came from, and what ought to be done to put a stop to them. The answer he could not find was the same that Christ gave to Peter. It was that we should forgive always an infinite number of times because there are no men who have not sinned themselves, and therefore none can punish or correct others.
“But surely it cannot be so simple,” thought Nekhludoff, and yet he saw with certainty, strange as it had seemed at first, that it was not only a theoretical but also a practical solution of the question. The usual objection, “What is one to do with the evil doers? Surely not let them go unpunished?” no longer confused him. This objection might have a meaning if it were proved that punishment lessened crime, or improved the criminal, but when the contrary was proved, and it was evident that it was not in people’s power to correct each other, the only reasonable thing to do is to leave off doing the things which are not only useless, but harmful, immoral and cruel.
For many centuries people who were considered criminals have been tortured. Well, and have they ceased to exist? No; their numbers have been increased not alone by the criminals corrupted by punishment but also by those lawful criminals, the judges, procureurs, magistrates and jailers, who judge and punish men. Nekhludoff now understood that society and order in general exists not because of these lawful criminals who judge and punish others, but because in spite of men being thus depraved, they still pity and love one another.