Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

DOSTOEVSKY: Notes from the Underground (Part 1)

Aristotle presents a world view that not all modern Americans agree with. But one thing Americans do share with Aristotle is an almost unbounded confidence in the power of education to transform people. We saw something of this Aristotelian/modern American confidence in John Dewey’s philosophy of education. If we can only teach people the right things in the right way then they would obviously become better people. No they wouldn’t says Dostoevsky. Why not? Because people aren’t machines. It’s not like you can just plug in the contents of Good Education in one end and Good Person will come out on the other. People aren’t made that way. Dostoevsky thinks our problem comes from the wrongheaded belief that we only act according to our own best interests. Is this true? Dostoevsky thinks not: I believe there is something wrong with my liver. However, I don’t know a damn thing about my liver; neither do I know whether there is anything really wrong with me. I am not under medical treatment, and never have been, though I do respect medicine and doctors. In addition, I am extremely superstitious, at least sufficiently so to respect medicine. (I am well educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious anyway.) The truth is, I refuse medical treatment out of spite. I don’t suppose you will understand that. Well, I do. How can you reason with a man like that? Here’s Dostoevsky’s point: sometimes people do things for the wrong reason but sometimes they do things for no reason at all. They just do it because they want to do it. Someone once said that Europeans think things through and then act on principles; Russians (like Dostoevsky) do what they want to do and then figure out the principles later, if they have time and feel like it. This is not what Aristotle had in mind when he wrote mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good. And Aristotle isn’t the only one who thinks that way. Plato (Socrates) thought that people only choose evil because of ignorance. If they really knew what was good for them they would be good. No they wouldn’t says Dostoevsky. It sounds nice but it’s not true: these are just golden dreams… who was it first proclaimed that the only reason man behaves dishonorably is because he does not know his own interests, and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, he would at once cease behaving dishonorably and would at once become good and honorable because, being enlightened and knowing what is good for him, he would see that his advantage lay in doing good, and of course it is well known that no man ever knowingly acts against his own interests and therefore he would, as it were, willy-nilly start doing good. Oh, the babe! Oh, the pure innocent child! There you have it. Dostoevsky has just undermined the whole foundation of using reason as a guide for life. Or has he? Aristotle might respond that Dostoevsky got it half right. Sometimes people do things for no reason. After all, we’re biological beings with bodies, not just minds floating around in space; and since we’re biological beings we have biological needs. However (in Aristotle’s view) we shouldn’t be guided by biological needs. That’s what our minds are for. When we act against reason we’re actually no different than beasts that don’t have rational minds. Besides, Mr. Dostoevsky gave us a clue at the very beginning of his story when he openly admits that I am a sick man… When studying nature we should use healthy specimens. Clearly this is not a healthy human being. Dostoevsky might respond that he isn’t talking about health. He’s talking about human freedom. What separates man from beasts isn’t rational thought; it’s knowing that we can freely choose how to spend our lives. I may use reason as my guide and live an orderly life; but I may not. I may choose something else. I may choose to follow pleasure, or art, or faith, or just whatever appeals to me on any given day. Why is it better to follow some pre-made plan that pops out of my head? Here’s his great idea: you can’t get life out of a book; so I’m going to write a book on that theme. Dostoevsky may be a sick man but he’s a great writer.


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