Study Guide

Notes from the Underground Fate and Free Will

By Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fate and Free Will

The impossible means the stone wall! What stone wall? Why, of course, the laws of nature, the deductions of natural science, mathematics. As soon as they prove to you, for instance, that you are descended from a monkey, then it is no use scowling, accept it for a fact. […] then you have just to accept it, there is no help for it, for twice two is a law of mathematics. Just try refuting it.

"Upon my word, they will shout at you, it is no use protesting: it is a case of twice two makes four! Nature does not ask your permission, she has nothing to do with your wishes, and whether you like her laws or dislike them, you are bound to accept her as she is, and consequently all her conclusions. A wall, you see, is a wall ... and so on, and so on." (1.3.4-5)

Notes presents an interesting take on the classic fate vs. free will debate. Fate is not a question of God, nor divine will, nor some sort of grand cosmic plan – it is simply the fact that nature follows rational laws.

Merciful Heavens! but what do I care for the laws of nature and arithmetic, when, for some reason I dislike those laws and the fact that twice two makes four? Of course I cannot break through the wall by battering my head against it if I really have not the strength to knock it down, but I am not going to be reconciled to it simply because it is a stone wall and I have not the strength. (1.3.6)

This is odd; proving free will lies only in the attempt, not the success, at breaking down the stone wall. Is this really enough to constitute freedom?

The fact is, gentlemen, it seems there must really exist something that is dearer to almost every man than his greatest advantages, or (not to be illogical) there is a most advantageous advantage (the very one omitted of which we spoke just now) which is more important and more advantageous than all other advantages, for the sake of which a man if necessary is ready to act in opposition to all laws; that is, in opposition to reason, honour, peace, prosperity – in fact, in opposition to all those excellent and useful things if only he can attain that fundamental, most advantageous advantage which is dearer to him than all. (1.7.1)

The Underground Man is himself an example of what happens to a man who values free will above reasoning. It follows then, that Notes argues against the radical valuing of freedom – after all, what reader would want to live like the Underground Man, even in the name of individuality?

Man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated. And one may choose what is contrary to one's own interests, and sometimes one positively ought (that is my idea). One's own free unfettered choice, one's own caprice, however wild it may be, one's own fancy worked up at times to frenzy – is that very "most advantageous advantage" which we have overlooked, which comes under no classification and against which all systems and theories are continually being shattered to atoms. […] What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead. And choice, of course, the devil only knows what choice. (1.7.2)

The Underground Man ends this tirade by declaring that man could never be predictable. This is the ultimate consequence of free will: we can never devise a formula to foresee man's thoughts, actions, or desires. The question, then, is this: how predictable is the Underground Man?

Indeed, if there really is some day discovered a formula for all our desires and caprices – that is, an explanation of what they depend upon, by what laws they arise, how they develop, what they are aiming at in one case and in another and so on, that is a real mathematical formula – then, most likely, man will at once cease to feel desire, indeed, he will be certain to. For who would want to choose by rule? Besides, he will at once be transformed from a human being into an organ-stop or something of the sort; for what is a man without desires, without free will and without choice, if not a stop in an organ? (1.8.2)

The Underground Man's concern is with identity. His entire argument is based on the assumption that man is not man without free will. But should the readers be convinced of this?

You see, gentlemen, reason is an excellent thing, there's no disputing that, but reason is nothing but reason and satisfies only the rational side of man's nature, while will is a manifestation of the whole life, that is, of the whole human life including reason and all the impulses. (1.8.4)

Again, we have to look at the way that the Underground Man defines what it means to be human. He creates a conflict between reason and desire; he refuses to believe that desire has a rational basis.

…give [man] economic prosperity, such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even then out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick. He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive good sense his fatal fantastic element. lt is just his fantastic dreams, his vulgar folly that he will desire to retain, simply in order to prove to himself […] that men still are men and not the keys of a piano, which the laws of nature threaten to control so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar. And that is not all: even if man really were nothing but a piano-key, even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse out of simple ingratitude, simply to gain his point. (1.8.4)

Hmm…who is this mysterious and theoretical "man"? Because it sounds to us like the Underground Man is talking about himself. Man "would purposely do something perverse"…like live in a hole underground? Like bang his head against the stone wall of 2+2=4? Exactly.

Good heavens, gentlemen, what sort of free will is left when we come to tabulation and arithmetic, when it will all be a case of twice two make four? Twice two makes four without my will. As if free will meant that! (1.8.5-6)

This is the Underground Man's attempt to prove that reason is incompatible with free will. If all of our actions were based on reason, then we would always want 2+2 to equal 4. But if we were limited to only wanting reasonable things, then the concept "free will" wouldn't have any meaning.

But yet mathematical certainty is after all, something insufferable. Twice two makes four seems to me simply a piece of insolence. Twice two makes four is a pert coxcomb who stands with arms akimbo barring your path and spitting. I admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too. (1.9.2)

This seems purely an issue of ego and pride. It would certainly be simpler for the Underground Man to desire that 2+2=4. In that case, his free will would be satisfied. But he is, alas, both stubborn and principled.

What was I to do? I could not go on there – it was evidently stupid, and I could not leave things as they were, because that would seem as though ... Heavens, how could I leave things! And after such insults! "No!" I cried, throwing myself into the sledge again. "It is ordained! It is fate! Drive on, drive on!" (2.5.19)

Interesting! Mr. "I can make 2+2=5 if I really want to" is suddenly following paths ordained by fate? What!? If his slapping Zverkov is prescribed by anything, it is the world of literature, not fate. Books, after all, are what dictate the way he Underground Man lives. And what kind of freedom does that possibly represent?

And why do we fuss and fume sometimes? Why are we perverse and ask for something else? We don't know what ourselves. It would be the worse for us if our petulant prayers were answered. Come, try, give any one of us, for instance, a little more independence, untie our hands, widen the spheres of our activity, relax the control and we ... yes, I assure you ... we should be begging to be under control again at once. (2.10.23)

After railing against rules, laws, nature, and reason, the Underground Man says that we all actually wish to be under the yoke of control. The big question – and this severely affects how you interpret Notes – is whether the Underground Man includes himself in the "we" at this point. Either he's admitting that he, too, doesn't want the responsibility of freedom, or he is just condemning others for not living the way he does.