Notes from Underground By Fyodor Dostoevsky Summary and Analysis Part 1: Section 7

Summary

The Underground Man wonders who first proposed this theory: that man's evil acts are performed from a mistaken knowledge of his own best interests and that if he were only educated he would at once become good and noble because he would then understand his own advantages. If this were so, the Underground Man wonders what is to be done with the millions of intelligent people who have consciously acted against their own self-interests — who have deliberately chosen a path that is contrary to their best self-interests? Furthermore, who can define "advantage" sufficiently so that it is clearly understood? Some people, he says, do perform acts with the full consciousness that the act is harmful to them because wealth and freedom and peace are not necessarily "advantages" to them.

Men are not all mathematicians and man is made up of more than intellect. A certain friend of the Underground Man has been known to explain why he is about to do something in clear, lucid arguments, and then suddenly turn about and do just the opposite, and therefore illogical, thing. Thus, there must be something more important "to almost every man than his greatest advantages." Whatever it is, it functions to break down classifications. The intellect alone cannot improve man, the narrator tells us, and to prove his point, he compares the barbarous ages to the present time. Obviously man has still not learned "to act as reason and science would dictate." What man really needs is the freedom to choose whatever course he may desire. This independent choice is more advantageous than always, rationally, choosing something because of its "advantage."

Analysis

In Section 7, Dostoevsky broadens his attack against scientific rationalism, utilitarianism, and against all of the assumptions of modern civilization concerning the establishment of utopias. Historically speaking, Dostoevsky is attacking the ideas expressed in a novel by Nikolai Chernyshevsky entitled What To Do? (1863) (sometimes translated as What Shall We Do? and What Is To Be Done?) Chernyshevsky, a radical socialist and revolutionary, had popularized ideas found in Jeremy Bentham's (1748-1832) philosophy of utilitarianism and in (Francois Marie) Charles Fourier's (1772-1837) socialistic doctrines. In his novel, Chernyshevsky had presented a utopian, socialistic society based upon the concept that man, basically good, always searches after his own enlightened self-interest and that through science and rationalism man can arrive at an incontrovertible truth. His conclusion was that if society were reformed along purely scientific lines, an earthly paradise could be achieved.

Using a series of images and employing several paradoxes, the Underground Man attacks and disproves Chernyshevsky's assumptions. First, he exposes the fallacy in the proposition that man always acts in his own best interests. Only an innocent (that is, an ignorant) child could believe such nonsense because throughout history man has consistently and consciously acted in a way contrary to his best interests. "Millions of facts ... bear witness that men, consciously ... have rushed headlong to meet peril and danger," knowing full well that they might be killed. Can such acts be considered "in man's best interests," he wonders.

The Underground Man also investigates the definition of the word "advantage." What type of man in this world is to decide or define exactly what is man's "best advantage" because what is an advantage to one man might be detrimental to another. Furthermore, some men will always, intentionally, break away from their "best advantage" simply to assert their own freedom.

For the Underground Man (and Dostoevsky), freedom to choose one's actions is one of the most prized rights of mankind. If we are provided with a logical and scientific society, man would lose his freedom to choose. Our freedom therefore allows man to often choose that which is not to his best advantage. Consequently, man often performs acts for no reason other than to prove that he is free to perform those acts.

The Underground Man then attacks the proposition that if a man is educated and civilized, he will become an ideal person by using his intellect to choose that which is good and advantageous. To disprove this idea, the Underground Man reminds his audience that civilized man still commits as many blood-thirsty actions as did barbarians. In spite of all the knowledge and science, individual man has not improved; in fact, "civilization has made mankind if not more bloodthirsty, at least more vilely, more loathsomely bloodthirsty." Consequently, merely because a society is organized on a scientific, rationalistic basis, it cannot change the basic nature of man because what man most wants "is simply independent choice."

Throughout his fiction, Dostoevsky constantly asserts the importance of freedom and his greatest expression on the subject is found in The Brothers Karamazov in the legend of the Grand Inquisitor. For Dostoevsky, man can have freedom on the one hand or else he can have security and happiness on the other. It is impossible to have both freedom and happiness. Therefore, Dostoevsky sees that a socialistic, rationalistic society is offering man security and happiness, but at a high price: man would have to relinquish his freedom. Thus, all socialistic utopias are a way of imprisoning man, of taking away his freedom to choose a capricious or illogical course of action.

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