Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, August 21, 2009

DOSTOEVSKY: Notes from the Underground

I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man. No, I am not a pleasant man at all. So begins Dostoevsky’s tale of woe. This is the guy no one liked in school; or, later in life, at the office. He’s the one you avoided, if you noticed him at all. Dostoevsky paints a literary masterpiece by posing the question: why are people like this? The answer is both simple and complex and may not be pleasant at all.

Here’s the simple answer. There’s an internal life and an external life for everyone. As we mature we find that life isn’t usually what we thought it would be. The external world won’t easily be bent to our wishes and most people learn to accept this. It’s just a law of nature. But there are a few people, like the Underground Man, who refuse to accept it. He says what do I care for the laws of nature…No doubt I shall never be able to break through such a stone wall with my forehead, if I really do not possess the strength to do it, but I shall not reconcile myself to it just because I have to deal with a stone wall and haven’t the strength to knock it down. In other words, why do I have to accept things the way they are? Why can’t I just bend the outer world to satisfy my own inner desires? So the Underground Men of the world try to bend other people to their own way of thinking. Other people don’t usually like being bent, so they avoid the Underground Men. That’s how Underground Men end up alone, and miserably lonely. This is the simple answer.

Here’s the complex answer. Underground Men don’t want to be like this. They know they’re engaged in self-destructive behavior but they do it anyway. Either they do things they shouldn’t do, or else they don’t do things that they should do. Why? Why don’t they just act in their own self-interests, as Aristotle recommends in his Politics? Because, as the Underground Man puts it When, to begin with, in the course of all these thousands of years has man ever acted in accordance with his own interests? What is one to do with the millions of facts that bear witness that man knowingly, that is, fully understanding his own interests, has left them in the background and rushed along a different path to take a risk… History is full of powerful men who threw away everything by their own choices. Mark Antony threw away the Roman Empire for Cleopatra. How was this in his best interest? Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel. How was this in his best interest? Who knows? They had their own motivations and definitely weren’t swayed by “rational” decisions.

So where does that leave us? It may not be pleasant. The Underground Man points out, quite rationally, that reason is an excellent thing. There is no doubt about it. But reason is only reason, and it can only satisfy the reasoning ability of man… This is a direct challenge to Aristotle: why are you relying so heavily on your intellect? What about the rest of me? The Underground Man states explicitly that I quite naturally want to live in order to satisfy all my faculties and not my reasoning faculty alone. I don’t want to sit around thinking all the time. I also want to eat and drink and make love. I want to be respected by men and admired by women. I want…I want…and we find ourselves right back where we started. My inner life is filled with infinite desire and the outer world is finite. Plus, there are other people to deal with and they have inner desires too. If we don’t learn to live together we may become Underground Men. And that’s not pleasant.


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