Notes from Underground | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Notes from Underground | Part 1, Chapters 7–9 : Underground | Summary



Part 1, Chapter 7

The Underground Man questions whether a person who knows his real interest would automatically stop acting badly and become "good and noble." He says for millennia, people have not acted for profit, and sometimes one must act in a way that does not yield any profit. He wonders if taking risks is sometimes warranted or preferable. He also challenges his readers to define profit, and he argues sometimes acting for profit is bad for the actor.

The narrator challenges wealth, success, and peace as the highest forms of profit. The Underground Man asks if a man who acts contrary to these goals should be considered mad. Then he makes his primary point: there is one type of profit that is not part of this profit-driven program and does not fit into any profit-driven classification. This unclassifiable profit is free will, and it is more important and precious to people than anything else.

Free will is valued by the Underground Man precisely because it destroys all classifications of other types of profit. This ultimate profit, he says, is antithetical to reason and logic. Logic and reason may be the foundations of civilization, but the Underground Man demolishes the concept of civilization by listing only a few of the constant wars civilization has caused. In fact, he equates war and bloodshed with civilization, and thus with reason. For him it is the height of being illogical to use reason to justify civilizations' endless bloodbaths. Yet that is exactly what logical, civilized societies do. The narrator uses verbal irony in noting, "the most refined blood-shedders have almost all been the most civilized gentlemen." He thinks it's ridiculous to believe once people are taught logic, they will voluntarily give up their illogical bad habits (such as warmongering or cruelty) and no longer make violent mistakes.

The Underground Man constructs an argument proposing man must only discover the "laws of nature" to explain all human actions. Science and math will seek to create a system in which all action is calculated and controlled by inhuman logic. New economic relations will follow, and "the crystal palace will get built." But then he points out the error in this argument: "Man really is stupid." Humankind is not reasonable, and has always acted "as he wants" and not "as reason and profit dictate."

In short there will always be people who refuse to be constrained by logic and profit—people who want to act freely. The Underground Man calls this "voluntary wanting," which people will always value more than any logical system because people desire caprice and adventure. What people really need, the Underground Man says, is "independent wanting"—acting according to free will.

Part 1, Chapter 8

Speaking for his imagined reading audience, the Underground Man invites them to laugh at the idea "wanting" exists at all. Science, they say, has destroyed free will.

To explore this topic—and of course, to ultimately undermine it—the Underground Man imagines a time when science has reduced all wanting to a table of mathematical formulas. His response to this possibility is "Who wants to want according to a little table?" If such a formula is ever created, the Underground Man is certain those who act according to its preordained stipulations will no longer be human but only cogs in a machine. Again speaking in the voice of his readers, the Underground Man supposes they're saying only human stupidity would prevent people from acting according to mathematical formulas. Educated, enlightened people would be glad to submit to scientific predestination because then, the men of reason believe, wanting will no longer exist—it will have become reason. People will be glad to consult this table of formulas to know how to act logically. The Underground Man asserts if this ever comes about then his (and others') life will be predictable for decades into the future. Nothing new or surprising will ever happen.

The Underground Man then argues reason is only reason. It neither represents nor satisfies the whole of the human being and human life. Even if their life is "a bit of trash," people would prefer to live that real life rather than submit to a formulaic life. Reason is limited, he says, because it's what a person learns. In contrast, human nature is holistic; it encompasses everything in the conscious and unconscious mind. He insists reason may have its place, but it is intrinsically human to demand the right "to wish for things [your]self," even if they're stupid things. It's the freedom that matters. Living by pure reason goes against the human personality—that with which people identify themselves and by which they engage with the world. Personality and individuality are the essence of being human.

The Underground Man lampoons the outcome of a formulaic world. He derides the formulaic life reason would create and demolishes notions such a civilized life would be "majestic" or "colorful." One thing it would not be, he says, is sensible. The Underground Man insists even the best-behaved people would, in the end, rebel against eternal happiness to do something silly or nasty. He mockingly calls this their "ingratitude" for all the supposed blessings the logical world has bestowed on them. Why does the well-behaved man do these awful things? To show his full humanity; to prove he's not a cog—not a piano key—but an individual. It is the essence of human nature to do contrary and chaotic things.

He imagines his readers objecting they are not removing people's free will but just arranging it in such a way it enhances a person's interests. But the Underground Man rebuffs them, denying free will can be expressed through "tables and arithmetic."

Part 1, Chapter 9

The Underground Man seeks to appease his readers by saying that, of course, he's been joking. He pleads with them to answer the questions plaguing him. He asks how they know people must be remade according to logic. And how do they know if such a transformation will be profitable for people? He suggests their ideas may be fine for science but inimical to humanity.

The Underground Man sees humans as creative beings. In the act of creating their "own path" circumstances may sometimes make them swerve aside from this path. What is important, he says, is the movement toward a goal, even if it's not movement in a logical straight line. What matters is the movement, not the goal itself. The Underground Man then wonders why people also love "destruction and chaos." He concludes these emotions may arise from a fear of actually achieving one's creative goal.

The Underground Man uses the metaphor of the anthill to clarify his position. The ant in the anthill lives its whole life focused on the goal of maintaining the hill. A human is more interested in the process of achieving the goal. Living a creative life may, he says, be the key to human nature and life. Being bound to logic is for him a kind of death. The human who lives for the process of creating his own life abhors mathematical formulas and truisms such as two times two is four. To say two times two is five is, for the Underground Man, just as praiseworthy.

It is uncertain, the Underground Man asserts, only well being is profitable for humans. Perhaps, he says, people may find suffering just as profitable. Loving just well being is rather "indecent," because it's often fun to break things. Here the Underground Man defends capriciousness and the will to destroy and wreak chaos in life. Suffering, too, may be a key to consciousness, so perhaps it is to be valued above well being. In the character's opinion consciousness is certainly "higher than two times two." After a person aligns his life with that equation, asks the Underground Man, then what's left for him to do to express his individual humanity?


These chapters are the narrator's—and author's—direct attack on the principles of rational egoism.

The Underground Man challenges the presumption of the rational egoists who determine what will profit people and what is in their self-interest. According to the rational egoists, science and mathematics are to be prized above all things. For their own well being, people must use these rational constructs as a kind of blueprint for life and action. The Underground Man vehemently disagrees, insisting people knowingly "throw themselves onto another path," taking on risk, purely for the sake of expressing free will and choice. For the Underground Man, as always, free will is paramount. He states, "stubbornness and willfulness [are] really more agreeable than any profit."

For the rational egoists, human nature needs only material well being. The actions that lead to it arise from things that profit people and society, such as prosperity and wealth. Yet the Underground Man says people will never dedicate their lives to these so-called profits. He admits there is some profit in well being, but asserts the greatest profit is one that satisfies all human nature, not just the desire for material comfort. And the profit all humans by nature most value, the Underground Man asserts, is one that undermines all the rational egoists' defined profits. That highest profit is the urgent human need to act freely. The rational egoists ignore this core human value because it "destroys all [their] classifications and constantly shatters [their] system" of prescribed, rational human behavior.

The Underground Man reiterates his ideas about human nature when he admits, "reason is only reason and satisfies only man's reasoning capacity." But it is "not the whole of human life ... [with its] various little itches." What rationality cannot encompass is desire and the individual will to action, even if it's "trashy [or] stupid" action. "Reason knows only what it has managed to learn. ... while human nature acts as an entire whole with everything that is in it, consciously and unconsciously." The Underground Man defends the free will of people who "have the right to wish [for] what is stupidest ... and not be bound by an obligation to wish for himself only what is intelligent." This is the freedom human nature demands. It is one's "personality [and] individuality" and is valued far above reason.

In addition to rejecting the principles of rational egoism, the Underground Man's argument here touches on two warring schools of philosophy. The rationalists of the 17th and 18th centuries, such as René Descartes (1596–1650), Benedict de Spinoza (1632–77), and Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716), believed reason to be the source of knowledge. The rival empiricists, such as John Locke (1632–1704) and David Hume (1711–76) attributed the source of knowledge to sensory experience. The Underground Man does not come down on the side of empiricism—he is too emphatic about the role played by the irrational in free will—but he firmly rejects rationalism.

In chapter 9 the Underground Man challenges the rational egoists to prove why "man's wanting necessarily needs to be changed" according to the laws of science and logic. He shows the rational egoists cannot prove their mere "supposition[s] ... [though] law[s] of logic, [are also laws] of mankind." Rational egoists value the single-minded goal of having everyone act rationally to achieve a final utopia. But for the Underground Man, human nature most values the process or path that leads toward a goal. It is therefore not a final utopia that's important but the various paths and byways a human being takes to reach any goal. In fact, a final utopia is a kind of hell, for it is the end of all striving and creativity. The process of seeking a goal, of getting distracted and pursuing another (freely chosen) goal, is at the heart of human nature and human life.

Math is a metaphor for the straightjacketed life the rational egoists propose. The Underground Man explains once you know two times two equals four, there's nowhere else to go. Thus humans must reject mathematical certainty as a blueprint for life. He goes further, wondering why the truly free man shouldn't be able to "start praising ... two times two is five" if, in his freedom or fantasy, he so chooses.

In these chapters the narrator famously and sarcastically defines people as "ingrates" because, according to rational egoists, human nature should find its highest contentment in well being. And well being is produced by a rational egoist society. Alas, "man is really stupid," as the Underground Man explains sarcastically. Man must often act from "his own free and voluntary wanting ... [from] caprice, however wild ... to the point of madness." "Independent wanting" (individual free will) is for the narrator, the essence of human nature, and it undermines rationality. The Underground Man satirically defines a human as "a being that goes on two legs and is ungrateful." Why, he asks, are humans "monstrously ungrateful?" Because they have less gratitude for material benefits than for their freedom. In fact, the Underground Man insists, "out of sheer ingratitude ... [humans] will do something nasty" just to express their fantasies and free will.

The narrator uses the symbol of an anthill to represent a society based on scientific principles. Such a society would leave humanity "without desires, without will, and without wantings"—essentially without the freedom that makes them fully human. A being who lacks these attributes is like an ant in an anthill. The ant lacks individuality and will and lives only as an automaton to maintain the anthill. Man, in contrast, is a "frivolous and unseemly being" who must have a goal beyond the maintenance of the social anthill. The anthill symbolizes the (hellish) utopia envisioned by the rational egoists. It is a place where individuality and freedom are completely erased so that everyone might act predictably to maintain the rational society.

The Underground Man asserts the truly conscious person who is alive to his human nature might "love suffering as much as [well-being]." For him suffering is "destruction and chaos," things a true human being "will never renounce." The Underground Man asserts although suffering is "man's greatest misfortune," it is something he "will never exchange for any [material] satisfactions." To live fully in accordance with one's human nature one must be conscious. Consciousness is "infinitely higher than two times two." But to be conscious means one must embrace suffering, along with responsibility for the consequences of one's actions.

Dostoevsky uses the symbol of a piano key to describe how trapped and unfree a rational egoist person is. A piano key is confined to an immovable slot on the keyboard. It can only produce the same single note over and over again. Humans would find such severe limitations unbearable and "invent destruction and chaos" just to express their individuality and freedom. For the Underground Man, the more rigid the constraints, the more stupidly a person will act to rebel against them and "to prove to himself every moment that he is a man" and not a piano key.

The author uses the symbol of the crystal palace to exemplify human society that has been taken over by rational egoism. The real Crystal Palace was a marvel of engineering built in London for a Great Exhibition in 1851. Nikolay Chernyshevsky, the proponent of rational egoism to whom Dostoevsky is responding in the novel, praised the palace for its beauty. So to Dostoevsky it is naturally a fitting symbol for a hellish utopia in which "all possible questions" have been answered by the logic of science and mathematics. The Crystal Palace is an exemplar of uniformity and a celebration of science and logic—all in the pursuit of an idealized future of mechanical and material progress. Such a future necessarily eliminates doubt, for science is factual and doubt-free. It also eliminates suffering; there can be no suffering in the utopian future of mechanical, material wealth. The Underground Man assures the reader the Crystal Palace is "unthinkable" in a world where conscious people suffer. Suffering, he says, "is doubt, it is negation, and what good is a crystal palace in which one can have doubts."

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