Notes from Underground

Notes from Underground Summary and Analysis of Part I, Chapters 7-9

Chapter 7 Summary:

The narrator asks who was the first to claim that people do not do what is good only because they are not aware of where their true interests lie. If their true interests were disclosed to them, they would see that it is always in their best interest to do good things and would necessarily do only good deeds since no one acts against their best interest. The Underground Man criticizes whoever voiced such a theory for being overly naïve.

History contradicts the assumption that human beings always act to their greatest advantage. Many have taken great risks and chances despite the fact that their advantage lay in not doing so. It seems that those who proposed the theory base their definition of advantage on scientific formulas. These advantages are: peace, prosperity, freedom, etc. There seems to be, however, another advantage that seems more important than any of these though it doesn't seem to fit into any of these categories.

The Underground Man cites the example of a person who speaks of following natural law and criticizes those who don't see their real advantage, but then does something that seems completely opposed to his interests. It seems that there is some advantage that is even stronger than any of the advantages already named and one that may cause someone to abandon reason so as to gain something even more important. This advantage destroys all the theories created to make human beings happy. In fact, all these theories are just logical exercises. The claim that human beings can be made to act better by telling them their advantages is as silly at Buckle's theory that civilization has made human beings kinder and less likely to wage wars. This theory seems logically correct, but is obviously wrong. Here the Underground Man lists a number of wars taking place at the time he was writing the novel. Civilization has only expanded the range of human sensation so that it is now possible to take pleasure in killing. As a result, while in the past bloodshed was carried out for justice, now it is carried out in a much nastier way.

In response, one may argue that human beings have not yet learned to act according to reason and science. Eventually, however, human beings can be taught to stop opposing their will to their normal interests. Moreover, science will show human beings that they do not have a will of their own; they are like piano keys or organ stops in that their actions are carried out in accordance with the laws of nature and not their own desire. Human action will then be calculated mathematically and classified in dictionaries and tables; since all actions would be reduced to laws of nature, there will no longer be any actions. At this point the answers to all questions will be known and the crystal palace can be built.

The Underground Man responds that such a world will be very rational, but it may be very boring. Since human beings are stupid and ungrateful, someone would probably propose to destroy the whole rational system that provides for happiness. Human beings often oppose their normal interests and advantages and sometimes must do so. This is because what human beings need is not virtuous desire but independent desire. Exercising one's personal will is the advantage that is greater than all other advantages, and it is the reason that systems and theories aimed at improving human existence are always destroyed.

Chapter 7 Analysis:

In this chapter we see the real target of Dostoevsky's polemic in Part I of the novel. Radical liberals of the 1860s were fond of the idea of "rational egoism," expressed by N. G. Chernyshevsky's novel What is to be Done? Chernyshevsky borrowed and developed and idea that had been around at least since Socrates: doing good is always in our interest, and were human beings enlightened as to their true interests, they would always do what is good. The final conclusion is that enlightenment and rationality are necessary for the creation of a utopia.

The narrator ridicules the liberal search for a utopia by arguing that history has shown us that human beings do not always do what is in their best interests. Instead they often risk their lives and search for something different from the simple path of one's own interest. There must then be an urge that opposes all human interests. The Underground Man lists the human advantages usually referred to by the liberals: peace, prosperity, wealth, and freedom. It is clear, however, that human beings have in the past often taken action that seems to go contrary to all these interests. Even if all human advantages were put together in a table of advantages, there would be something that could not be placed into this table because it opposes all the other interests in it.

This one advantage that opposes all other human advantages is free will. If one acts always in accord with reason and towards the achievement of specific goals, then one never has a chance to exercise one's free will. In the utopian ideal, everyone always knows exactly what action they should take that would be in their best interest. There is never a real choice of actions since, given two actions, there is only one that can rationally be taken. In this way, being enlightened as to one's real interests and being rational deprives one of choice. The only way to be really free is to exercise the option that is not rational, to do something contrary to one's own interest. Though it seems like it would be stupid to do something that isn't advantageous, this is the only way that one can exercise one's individuality.

We can usefully contrast this view with that of Immanuel Kant. Roughly, Kant argued that reason is the only thing that can make us free. When we act on our whims alone, we are subject to the laws of nature in the same way that the animals are. In order to be free, we must exercise our reason and thus free ourselves from the laws of nature. The Underground Man's view is exactly the opposite. For him, reason is associated with the laws of nature. The laws of nature determine what actions will lead to the best results, so that by following reason we become enslaved by the laws of nature. The only way to have freedom, then, is to act irrationally and based only on our whim. There are two main differences between Kant's view and Dostoevsky's view. Kant believes that reason frees us from the laws of nature and that freedom also makes us human, since only human beings are rational. Dostoevsky believes that reason enslaves us to the laws of nature and also that freedom means being an individual, able to make a choice at every point instead of having one's actions already decided on ahead of time according to a table of advantages.

The contrast between one's inclination towards freedom and the utopian ideal of reason as the way to a perfect world leads the narrator to refer to the liberal program as a logical exercise. Here the narrator brings up the example of another logical exercise: that of Henry Thomas Buckle, often cited by the liberals. Buckle's claim is that as civilization progresses, human beings become more peaceful. This is a logical exercise because the argument seems perfectly logical, but, when viewed against the facts of real life, turns out to be entirely false. To demonstrate this, the narrator lists a number of current wars: the wars of Napoleon, the American civil war, and a war between Prussia and Denmark in 1864. Less than ten years before this novel was written, Russia had been involved in a three-year war in the Crimea, a fact of which contemporary readers would have been aware. While the argument about the peaceful effects of civilization appears logical, it does not conform to reality.

The same can be said of the liberals' claim that human beings can be taught to act rationally towards their best interests. The argument seems perfectly logical: it seems reasonable to assume that, once told what they need to do to have what is best for them, human beings would act only so as to achieve this. On the surface, this argument appears correct. Let us take a blackjack player, for example. We can tell him that if he folds, he will win; if, on the other hand, he requests another card, he will lose. We can expect that, unless he is insane, the gambler will fold. The liberals assume that all human beings are like this gambler, and thus their argument is perfectly logical. The problem, according to the Underground Man, is that living life is different from simply winning a game. In life, human beings also try to preserve their individuality by exercising their free will. A card game is exciting not because one knows that one will always win, but because one always has to make a decision, take a risk, and exercise one's choice. When told ahead of time what each choice will lead to, the gambler can no longer take the same pleasure in the game.

Two important images are brought up in this chapter, those of the crystal palace and the organ stop. The crystal palace was built for the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 by the architect Sir Joseph Paxton. This palace became a symbol for the liberals, and is referred to by Chernyshevsky in What is to be Done? as a symbol of the perfect utopia where human beings will all live happily by following only their rational interests. The image of the organ stop is taken from Denis Diderot's Conversation of D'Alembert and Diderot. We find a good deal of musical imagery throughout this chapter and the next, serving as a reference to the work of Fourier. The idea of a table of human actions is derived from the same source. Fourier had gone to the trouble of cataloguing, in the form of a table, all the human passions that must be satisfied in a perfect society. The vision of a liberal utopia, taken from Chernyshevsky and Fourier, is exactly what Dostoevsky attacks here. He argues that in such a perfect utopia human beings would be like organ stops: they would have no control over which action to take, since these will have been predetermined for them.

The narrator mentions three challenges to the creation of Chernyshevsky's utopia: free will, boredom, and ungratefulness. The first of these we have already discussed. If told ahead of time exactly what action is in their best interests, human beings would be deprived of their free will. The only way to exercise that free will would then be to oppose their best interests through their actions. Boredom is the second problem, for the narrator suggests that the crystal palace might be very rational, but it would also be very boring. There would really be no new adventures to undertake, since everything that could be done would already be listed in tables of actions. With nothing to do, boredom would grow, and the narrator states that all sorts of things may be thought of out of pure boredom, He mentions the example of Cleopatra, who stuck golden needles into her servants. We remember also the Underground Man's own recollections of taking action and starting new adventures entirely out of boredom. We can understand the problem of boredom by returning to our example of the gambler, above. The gambler plays for the excitement of the game. If he always knew exactly what would happen as a result of his every action, the game would no longer be interesting. He would, in the end, have to make moves he knows will not help him win, if only to make the game slightly more exciting. Finally, it seems that ungratefulness would present a problem. Human beings are extremely ungrateful and, the narrator suggests, even if they were given a social system in which they could be absolutely happy, they would still destroy it out of ungratefulness.

In this chapter we also see the Underground Man continuing to write with reference to someone reading his work. Not only does he make references to the reader, but he also anticipates arguments that the reader might make, responds to them, and sometimes attempts to justify himself or to spite his reader. The presence of the reader has several very important purposes for the novel. First off, it allows the Underground Man to show in his actual writing that human actions cannot be completely predetermined. What is said in the novel is often said unexpectedly and for no reason, maybe just out of spite or in order to exercise the writer's own need for individuality. The presence of a reader also allows the Underground Man to argue with someone rather than simply present his position. Finally, the reader influences what the Underground Man says, forcing him to justify himself and to explain in more detail than would otherwise seem necessary. This last reason for the presence of a reader in the text is important in that it sets up a distinction between the Underground Man's view of himself and the view of him held by someone else, e.g. the reader. This tension between the Underground Man's view of himself and the view of him held by others is a central theme of the novel.

Chapter 8 Summary:

The narrator begins with a possible objection to his reasoning: that desire and free will don't exist because we act in accordance with the laws of nature. The Underground Man says that if one day the natural laws responsible for all human desires are found, then there really would be no more desire; but who would want to desire according to a mathematical table? Once this happens, human beings will no longer be human beings but only organ stops.

To this, one might reply: if science eventually uncovers the natural laws behind our desires, we will no longer have free will regardless of whether we accept the laws of nature or not. If one makes a rude gesture, for example, one will be able to use a table to see that it was impossible not to make that rude gesture at the moment. It will be possible to calculate the actions of one's entire life ahead of time. Also, if people do stupid things only because they don't understand what is in their best interests, they will have to stop doing stupid things once they are shown that reason will guide them to their best advantage. Since reason will always guide us to the best outcome, we will always follow reason instead of desire, and desire will simply cease to exist.

The Underground Man replies that reason can only satisfy one small part of human life. Human beings are constituted with many more characteristics than just reason, and so reason can never satisfy human life as a whole. One may do something that is very stupid, irrational, and contrary to one's advantage, just to have the right to do something stupid: it is an expression of one's individuality and personality. Human beings, even if we imagine them to not be stupid, are still ungrateful, imprudent, and always prone to misbehaving. The Underground Man points out that history is majestic, colorful, and monotonous, but it cannot be said to be rational. There are people who preach reason and enlightened action, but they always betray their own ideals in the end.

The narrator imagines humanity reaching the perfect existence: everyone will have prosperity, peace, and gingerbread and will have nothing to do except eat and sleep. Even then, human beings will do stupid and ungrateful things; they will strive to realize their dreams and fantasies, even if this means risking their gingerbread. People will do stupid things just to prove that they are not piano keys; if they are not given the chance to act stupidly, they will destroy and cause chaos. Even if all these actions were accounted for ahead of time by a table, human beings would go insane in order to lose their reason and be free of this table of reasons.

One may reply: no one is really taking away free will. Instead, the goal is to arrange life so that one will freely choose to will in accordance with reason, arithmetic, and the laws of nature. To this the Underground Man replies that when everything is reduced to two times two makes four, when there is nothing left besides tables, there is no longer any free will.

Chapter 8 Analysis:

In this chapter the narrator mainly rehashes the arguments of the last chapter. In continuing his debate with the imaginary reader, he insists that human beings can never be "enlightened" so that they will always take actions that are for their own best interests. No matter how great a rational world may be, it will deprive human beings of their free will and they will rebel against this even at the risk of losing all the advantages they've gained. As they have always done throughout history, human beings will cause destruction if only to do something that hasn't been planned out ahead of time.

The Underground Man allows for the possibility that even this can be calculated ahead of time. If the table of actions includes this one advantage‹the advantage of exercising one's own individuality‹then it may be possible to compensate for it; it may somehow be possible to channel the desire to act according to one's own free will into some constructive, rather than destructive, activity. The narrator replies, however, that even that won't help. Even if human beings are prevented from wanting destruction, their actions will still be predetermined ahead of time by tables of action calculated according to the laws of nature. Thus, human beings will still be deprived of their free will insofar as all their actions will still be rational. The Underground Man suggests that if it came to this, human beings would intentionally go insane in order not to act rationally. It seems impossible to create a perfectly rational world because human beings will do anything they possibly can to avoid a purely rational existence.

The imaginary reader suggests that a rational utopia would not deprive human beings of free will. It would simply make that free will coincide with one's own normal interests. But even this, the narrator says, is wrong. Free will can never be rationally driven. In the rational utopia, human beings act according to the laws of nature. There is always a predetermined action that they must take to satisfy their normal interests. Free will is excluded from this picture since free will, by definition, involves the ability to choose between actions. When only one action can be chosen, free will no longer exists.

One of the reasons that a rational utopia is not possible is that it will only satisfy the rational side of humanity. Many philosophers, like Kant and John Locke, have expressed the belief that reason is what separates human beings from the animals and is thus our defining feature. According to this view, human beings always can and generally do act rationally. Others, like Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, and later Sigmund Freud, have insisted that other forces are at work within us. Human beings may act on any number of desires or whims, many of which do not conform to reason. The Underground Man thus insists that reason is only a small part of human nature. In addition to reason, human existence also involves "all of life's itches and scratches." This view may not make human life appear particularly appealing, but we cannot ignore the fact that reason does not define the human being. Other urges, which cannot be rationally accounted for, will always exist and will always determine actions.

To illustrate the point, the narrator sarcastically gives a new definition of the human being: "a creature who walks on two legs and is ungrateful." This definition satirizes the traditional Greek definition of the human being. Aristotle's academy defined the human being as a featherless biped (they were unfamiliar with apes, and thus thought that only humans and birds walked on two legs). In response to this definition, the philosopher Diogenes plucked a chicken and claimed that this was another featherless biped. A new definition claimed human beings as rational animals. This concept of the human being as a creature defined by reason was then upheld by philosophers for centuries; it is exactly the definition that the Underground Man is attacking in his monologue. Of course the definition of a human being as ungrateful is not meant to be taken seriously; it is a satire on the original definition of the human being as rational. What is important about this new definition, however, is the presentation of the human being as defined by something that is irrational and, in fact, often opposes reason.

We can note the mention of dreams in this chapter. The narrator claims that human beings will not act rationally because they want to hold on to their dreams regardless of what happens. Even if these dreams are stupid, even if they are entirely out of accord with reality, human beings still insist on holding on to them. The role of dreams and fantasies becomes extremely important in the second part of the novel, where the Underground Man continually has recourse to dreams so as to avoid the facts of his own life.

Finally, we should examine the narrator's utterance in reply to his imagined readers: "Gentlemen, you'll excuse me for all this philosophizingŠ" The narrator always philosophizes. His arguments and his thoughts are always philosophical and rational. Despite his attack on reason, he cannot seem to do without it. In fact, he is far more rational than most human beings, which is precisely what leads him to question so many of the things others take for granted. More importantly, "philosophizing" is as natural to the Underground Man as emotion is to most people. His character in the novel is essentially defined by the fact that he thinks only in philosophical and rational terms. This fusion of philosophy and psychology provides an added attack on the rationalism of the radicals. The Underground Man is someone who lives according to the ideal of these liberals: he rationally examines his actions and his thoughts. The result, however, is far from the positive outcome that the liberals desired.

Chapter 9 Summary:

The narrator begins by saying that he is joking, but quickly goes on to say that he has questions that he wants answered. One such question: why is it necessary to make human beings act according to reason? Why isn't opposing "normal interests" more advantageous? He notes that this is only an assumption made by his opponents; it is a law of logic but not a law of humanity.

The Underground Man agrees that human beings are creative and love to build roads. It seems, however, that building the roads is more important to human beings than making sure the roads actually get somewhere. The most important thing is not to be idle, but to go on building. Yet human beings also have an urge to destroy, and the narrator suggests that this urge occurs because human beings like to build structures, but not to inhabit the structures they build. The built structures may be left behind for domestic animals like sheep, or ants that, unlike human beings, always build the same structure.

Unlike ants, human beings seem to enjoy striving for a goal more than achieving it. The whole goal of human existence may be not reaching the goal but trying to reach it. This process of striving is life. The goal human beings strive for is always two times two equals four, and while searching for it is life, finding it is the beginning of death. While human beings will risk anything to get to the two times two, they are scared of reaching it because afterwards there is nowhere to go. Two times two blocks one's way. The narrator insists that there is nothing special about it: if two times two is four is splendid, then two times two is five is also charming.

The narrator also questions the assumption that the greatest human advantage is well-being. Human beings, he says, often love suffering just as much as well-being and, while he does not believe that either one is better, he believes in the necessity of achieving either one according to one's whim. Human beings will never renounce suffering, chaos, destruction, and doubt. Suffering, he tells us, is the cause of consciousness, and human beings would never give it up. Consciousness is greater than two times two. After two times two, there is nothing left to do at all but sit around in contemplation. Though consciousness may lead to the same outcome, at least one can avoid complete boredom by beating oneself from time to time.

Chapter 9 Analysis:

The narrator says that he is joking, but that perhaps he is gnashing his teeth as he jokes. He then says that he is asking questions that he wants answered. This is a hint that he is not merely attacking the rationalist utopia out of spite. As we have seen, the Underground Man has fully absorbed the ideals of the rationalists. His personal psychology takes reason to the extreme. In his persistent rationality, however, the Underground Man has found no happiness. His questions, then, and his rebellion against the crystal palace, are genuine. He wants to understand how to preserve his humanity within a rationalist framework.

Asking why humanity needs to be brought into the utopian ideal, the narrator states that this may be "a law of logic, but perhaps not a law of humanity." Here we see a problem with reason. We have already seen that it is possible to have logical arguments that fail to accurately reflect reality. What the narrator is suggesting here is that the entire project of the liberals, the goal of creating a utopia, is flawed from the start by the fact that its intentions cannot be justified. The argument used by liberals like Chernyshevsky is logical, but its foundation is questionable. Here is Dostoevsky's attack on logic: logic can only guide us to a conclusion once we have a valid starting point or basic assumption. Logic cannot, however, provide the starting point itself. The starting point must come from an understanding of humanity, something the rationalists lack. The liberals' ideal, then, may work perfectly from a logical point of view, but it does not work in application to real human beings. Logic cannot resolve conflicts between individuals with radically differing starting points.

The road is an important metaphor in this chapter. The road represents building and striving, the things that make up life. The narrator insists that life consists of striving for something, of attempting to achieve a goal, and not of actually achieving it. The utopia that the liberals dream of would eliminate striving entirely. If every action were predetermined and known in advance, there would no longer be anything left to strive for. Such a utopia would be the end of the striving, the end of the road. Human beings strive to better their lives; if, however, they reached a perfect world, there would be nothing left to strive for. Life itself would come to an end since the striving that constitutes life would end also. The Underground Man insists that though human beings always strive for an end they are afraid of finding that end since finding it means an end to the striving. This end, in effect, is death.

We should not be surprised to learn that the goal of human striving, which is also the end of it, is the two times two equals four. This, also referred to as a wall, is the final destination of action and the only thing that can stop it. In discovering the laws of nature, human beings will know everything and will have nothing left to learn. The two times two equals four is here also a metaphor for the perfect utopian society, a society based on the laws of nature, where everyone is happy but has nothing left to do. As we have already seen previously, once one reaches the wall, one can go no further.

In contrast to human beings, the narrator notes ants and domestic animals, such as sheep. Ants always build the same structure, the anthill, and never strive for anything new. The narrator insists that this rebuilding of the same thing over and over again lacks striving and is thus inherently inhuman. Were we to create the perfect utopia, we too would no longer be human. Human beings build structures, which they are happy to abandon for sheep to live in. While human beings must always search for something new, sheep can be content with living in a structure and not building or creating. We see this mention of sheep again in Part II when the Underground Man encounters his old schoolmate Zverkov.

The end of striving‹the perfect world‹leads to idleness. The narrator points out that "idleness is the mother of all vices." He, of course, is perpetually idle, thus making this remark also a sarcastic comment about himself. At the end of Part I, we see the narrator again bemoaning his own idleness.

The Underground Man notes that while two times two equals four is not a bad thing, two times two equals five is also charming. He is not attacking science as something bad; he agrees that science has some value. The narrator's point, rather, is that science and reason should not be allowed to replace other, irrational aspects of humanity. Being human does not just mean being rational, but also being irrational. Two times two equals five is a metaphor for this irrationality, the dreams and fantasies that, in the previous chapter, the narrator insisted humanity would never give up.

The narrator claims that suffering is the cause of consciousness. In the crystal palace, where all actions are predetermined by reason, no one ever needs to make decisions. Where suffering does not exist and human beings do not need to make choices, they also cannot have consciousness. Consciousness appears from the need to make choices and from the exercise of free will. Without suffering there is no freedom, and without freedom there is no consciousness. This argument is similar to those made both by Hegel and Freud. Hegel saw consciousness as being formed from a series of conflicts and oppositions. Unsatisfied with a situation, one attempts to seek a different one in contradiction to the first. In this way consciousness is created. Freud takes a similar stance. At first, he says, human beings have only desires. If these desires go unsatisfied, there is suffering. In order to end suffering and satisfy desire, one must have consciousness. Only consciousness can help us to avoid suffering by helping us to determine how best to satisfy desire, so it is suffering that makes consciousness necessary.

In the crystal palace there is nothing to do. The narrator says that through consciousness one may reach the same point, but at least one can also beat oneself for it. Speaking of this view, he says that, "although it may be reactionary, it's still better than nothing." In fact, this view was seen as extremely reactionary at the time. The liberals' program involved attempting to achieve a perfect utopia. Dostoevsky argues that this it impossible, and that by striving for it one can achieve nothing. His response is reactionary and was seen as such by the liberals who stopped their support for his writing. He insists, however, that though it may be reactionary, his response is the only response that is better than nothing.