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A Para-Rational Perspective of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground

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By Edited Aug 6, 2016 0 0

It's Easy to Rationalize Your Feelings: We Can Find a Way to Justify or Rationalize Anything

The narrator of Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky's (1821-1881) "Underground Man" demonstrates perspectives on human kind that attack the basic premises of enlightenment, determinism, and reasoning. He believed in the whole person and the idea of heart over mind. That individual human experience itself was the root of knowledge, and belief in something is the true justification for knowledge, not rationalization. He also rejected the basic assumptions of Enlightenment which included the existence of a single set of laws discernible by intelligent man; that there were laws of nature that governed the world; that mankind was capable of improving as a species; and, that all people strive for certain goals such as "happiness, knowledge, justice, liberty and virtue" while human misery, vice, and folly were the result of ignorance of the laws of nature (HUX 26). As Berlin interprets Hamann's view, the "real role of reason" is the "demonstration of the limits of knowledge" and to expose "man's ignorance and weakness" (27).[1] Otherwise, as Hamann sees it, reasoning is a flawed and foolish basis for knowledge since there are many ways to rationalize and anything can be rationalized.

Portrait of the Writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky's character Underground Man is the narrator of Notes from Underground and for the duration of this paper will be referred to as UM. UM throughout the first part of Dostoevsky's book appears to be a collection of contradictions, a satirical cynical and an egotistical man, or maybe just someone very sure of himself. He understands well the premises of Enlightenment, determinism, reasoning, and yet, he finds flaws in all. As Michael Mahon recommends, imagining Woody Allen playing the role of UM helps to make sense out of the chaos of Notes from Underground (7).[1] The focus of the remainder of this paper will be to draw out some of UM's Hamann like views.

In part one of Notes from Underground, UM attacks Enlightenment, rationalism, melioristic ideas and determinism. UM tries to argue in favor of free will, and though arguing the existence of free will through reasoning seems impossible, it is necessary to challenge and support what UM (and Dostoevsky) believe to be fundamental to the basic nature of humanity, and his argument against the ideas promoted especially by determinism and reasoning.

UM takes his first swipe at his argument against reasoning and the denial of free will by saying, "No sir, I refuse to see a doctor simply out of spite" (Dostoevsky 1). Spite, being an irrational reason for anything, he still makes a choice that is obviously not in the best interest of his physical health. Furthermore, he is well aware that, as UM says' "I will only harm myself this way" (2).[1] He makes a statement against the idea that man strives for virtue by announcing that, he was "a mean official . . . I was rude and found pleasure in it" (2).[1] "I was not at all spiteful, no not even an embittered man. That I was merely frightening sparrows to no purpose, diverting myself" (2-3).[1] He claims he has lied about his meanness "out of sheer spite." His earlier claim of not being spiteful is ironic since he claims spitefulness as a tool to fight reason. He is using the non-rational "spite" as a "reason" for his action. And this is to UM, a conscious act and decision that he is making. He is implying that this is a choice of free will even though he admits his behavior is, as he states it, "contrary." UM does accept that reasoning has a limited role in justifying action when he states, "I worked in order to eat (but solely for that reason) . . . "(4).[1]

UM finds an argument with Enlightenment's own ideas of melioristic justice in that the intelligent man who believes in determinism must also deny justice since determinism and the laws of nature make all ideas of justice, revenge, and forgiveness invalid. The intelligent man "denies all ideas of justice as regards the situation" (10).[1] However, "you are (still) at fault through no fault of your own . . . by natural law" (8).[1]

Old Book

In chapter III of part one, UM compares and ridicules the efforts of those that support the idea of natural laws and the conclusions of science and mathematics as attempts to relegate humanity and life to nothing more than a simple set of mathematical formulas. He even presents the concept of virtue and the idea of personality as based on self-centered survival. He compares the findings or principles set forth by these reason based disciplines to a "stone wall" created by intelligent men, "as though such a stone wall were indeed a soothing element and really contained within itself even the slightest reason for making peace with it solely because it means two-time-two equals four" (13).[1]

UM sarcastically asks, "Can a man of conscious intelligence have any self-respect to speak of?" What value would self-respect have in a deterministic world where all humanity is supposedly striving for the same things; things such as happiness, justice, liberty, virtue as if these were the choices being made by each person. If in fact, according to the intelligent man, these traits are simply a matter of natural law, man has no choice to do otherwise even if he wanted to; he had to follow this course. If mankind has no choice in the path chosen according to natural law and determinism, then what value exists in self-respect? None then, since there is no choice to do otherwise and self-respect then becomes meaningless.

In chapter V, we find more support for Hamann's views on heart-over-mind and that man must be viewed by the "whole person;" when, UM proposes the idea that something other than natural law exists. "It was my heart that somehow got me into the mess," UM announces, " . . . even the laws of nature could not be blamed on those occasions, though, all the same, the laws of nature have mistreated me constantly" (17).[1] He promotes the idea that we are more than what reasoning, deterministic, and the natural law world would imply. He tells us that he created a world in his own mind because of "boredom," which is as lacking in rationale as his use of "spite" as a justification for his actions. He professes that he allowed his heart and mind to deliberately influence his actions even though this may appear to be counter to rational thinking or behavior.

This brings UM to one of his main points:

"Evidently, then, this stubbornness and willfulness has really pleased them more that any advantage" (22). He asks then, "What is advantage?" Those that follow the enlightened ideas, as put by UM are basing the notion of human advantage on "average statistical figures and scientific economic formulas . . ." (23).[1]

But UM argues that each man has his own idea of advantage along with his own value system and acts in a way the intelligent enlightened people find "stupid" (27-28).[1] UM's point is clearly stated when he says, " . . . man, whoever he might be, has always and everywhere preferred to act according to his own wishes rather than according to the dictates of reason and advantage. And his wishes may well be contrary to his advantage; indeed, sometimes they positively should be" (28).[1] UM continues his argument with, "but reason is no more than reason, and it gives fulfillment only to man's reasoning capacity, while desires are a manifestation of the whole life - I mean the whole human life, both with its reason and with all its itches and scratches" (31).[1]

Life is life, it is "not merely an extraction of a square root" (31). If all man's actions and thoughts were purely determined and he knew this; then man would go mad. Even if man were proven to be just a "piano key" or a cog-in-the-wheel, he would refuse to "come to his senses deliberately" and "insist on his own way" even if he acted contrary to popular ideas (35).[1] Man's "phenomenally ungrateful." "I'm even inclined," says the UM, "to believe that the best definition of man is - a biped ungrateful" (32).[1] For even if you "shower all the earthly blessings upon him, drown him in happiness, head over ears, so that only bubbles should be visibility on the surface, or bestow such economic prosperity upon him as would leave him with nothing to do but sleep, eat cakes, and only worry about keeping world history going . . . even then he will, man will, out of sheer ingratitude . . . play a dirty trick on you." This "dirty trick" is that he will throw everything out the proverbial window and set his heart on the most uneconomical and positively harmful nonsense, "for the sole purpose of proving to himself (as though that were so necessary) that men are still men and not keys on a piano" (34-35).[1]

All of part two of Notes puts in practice much of what part one of Notes professes, demonstrating that, as Hamann would agree, human experience is the root of knowledge, belief alone is sufficient a basis for knowledge, and reasoning is flawed since anything can be rationalized. This portion of Notes from the Underground shows UM as a product of, as Hamann would say, the whole "self." UM does not follow what is necessarily in his best interest, unless self-loathing, paranoia, a lack of self-confidence and self-respect are to his "advantage." He demonstrates reasoning that is irrational yet, to him perfectly rational and justified. UM goes so far as to refer to "those men" holding to determinism as "coward(s) and a slave(s)" (52).[1]

UM demonstrates irrational and non-rational behavior in his dealings with characters throughout Part Two, but especially interesting is his irrational behavior towards the character Lisa in chapter VI of part two, as he states "and where there is no love there is no reason." For the UM, love is a rational justification (111). UM irrationally blames Lisa for his feelings of guilt and vulnerability, stating that he will make her pay. "It's all her fault, I thought" (141).[1] His description of his acts and words are purely self-serving and yet still not necessarily in his best interest. His actions throughout part two clearly attack the idea of altruism denying one of the ideas that Hamann also finds false, that all people strive for virtue and justice.


 

The Bronze Age by Rodin
Human Burden

In the end, UM proposes that mankind simply finds it "too much of a burden to be" human - humans "with real bodies and real blood" of their own. Instead mankind tries to generalize "to be some possible general humans," . . . as soon as we get a taste for life we try to "invent a way of somehow getting born from an idea" (153).[1] "Man's need to feel himself free and morally independent is precisely the "one most valuable good" for which he is ready to sacrifice all the others" (153).[1]

There is more to mankind than enlightenment, reasoning, and a predetermined future as both Hamann and Dostoevsky's narrator promote. As was stated in the beginning, the objective of this paper was to compare some of the common ideas presented by Hamann with those found in the narrator's attitudes in Notes from Underground. Dostoevsky's UM presented an argument for and against these ideas; and yet, clearly his views were the rejection of these same ideas as seen through his satirical attacks. UM demonstrated that men will exercise free will even if the choice appears to be irrational just to prove he or she can choose. He shows that men were capable of the irrational as well as the rational and that irrational was in many ways one of man's essential elements and that reasoning was often only a weak or foolish creation. As Hamann believed and UM demonstrates, it's easy to rationalize your feelings --- we can find a way to justify or rationalize anything.

Work Cited (beyond Dostoevsky's Notes) Mahon, Michael, Humanities 542, Para-Rational Perspectives. CSUDH 1998 7, 26-27

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Bibliography

  1. Fyodor Dostoevsky Notes from the Underground. New York: Bantam Books, 1992.

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