The Underground Man recalls someone once saying that man only does nasty and wicked things because he doesn't know what's good for him. If he were enlightened, he would only do good things, because he would realize that being good was in his own best interest.
The theory, then, is that no man would ever act against his own best interests.
BUT – the Underground Man begs to differ. (And are we surprised? Not really.) He says that men consciously act against their own best interests and will rush out to meet peril because they dislike the beaten track. And he says it in beautiful, gorgeous language, in one of the most famous passages from this novel.
He knows that people will disagree with him, the counter-argument being that man always acts to his advantage. So the Underground Man asks us to define "advantage." In one specific case, he says, an "advantage" is actually harmful to him. Just this one special case.
Yes, that's right, one specific, special case. One peculiar instance that will make man act not only in opposition to reason, but in opposition to his own benefit. There is one thing more important to man than all the other advantages in the world.
But before he tells us what it is, he takes us on a major digression.
The digression begins. The Underground Man thinks that all these systems we have for talking about man's "best interests" are useless. They are merely "logical exercises."
The popular argument, he says, is that man does indeed follow his best interests. He goes on to talk about Henry Thomas Buckle, who claimed that as man became more and more civilized, wars would cease, since we'd all realize that war was more about producing dead people than about serving our own advantages.
The Underground Man puts forward his argument, using the "take a look around" tactic. (A brief interruption while we bring you a Historical Context Lesson: When Dostoevsky is writing, Russia has been involved in violent conflict in Crimea (near the Black Sea). So the Underground Man's argument holds water in mid-1800s Russia, as well as every other decade up to and including the present. He also points to Napoleon's conquests and the U.S. Civil War as further examples.)
He concludes that civilization has made mankind more bloodthirsty, not less. It used to be that violence was considered a form of justice, so either we still feel that way today, or we know it is abominable but engage in it anyway. He doesn't know which is worse.
And now a historical digression focusing on Cleopatra.
The Underground Man talks about how, supposedly, Cleopatra used to stick gold pins into her slave-girls' breasts because she liked to see them writhe in pain. The Underground Man basically argues that we do the same sort of thing now. We're still just as far away from acting as science dictates we should act.
The common argument, which he presumes we (his readers) agree with, is that science will show that man has no special character – that he is little more than a piano key, because he must follow the laws of nature.
It follows, then, that if we discover all the rules of nature, all human action can be calculated according to these laws. "There will be no more accidents or adventures in the world."
Then, the theory goes, the world will be full of rainbows and bunnies and we can all build our "Palace of Crystal."
(Come again? Yes, that's right, it's time for another Historical Context Lesson. The actual Crystal Palace was built in London for the Great Exhibition of 1851; it was supposed to be a hallmark of the Industrial Revolution. It basically became a symbol of modern technology. Nikolai Chernyshevsky, in his socialist novel What is to Be Done?, thought that a socialist revolution would somehow result in society becoming its own metaphorical crystal palace. Notes from the Underground is mocking Chernyshevsky, so keep an eye out for more Crystal Palace references.)
When that happens, everything will be rational, but terribly boring. This is dangerous, since "it is boredom sets one sticking golden pins into people." But at that point, it will be so dull that everyone will be thankful for the gold pins (meaning people will be happy for pain, whether inflicting or receiving, because it's a break from their boredom – this is not a happy vision).
He wouldn't be surprised if, when this very rational world came about, some gentleman suggested out of the blue something along the lines of, "Hey there chaps, let's throw rationality to the wind so we can actually live again. Whaddya say?"
And that is exactly the big example from which we digressed at the beginning of Chapter Seven. This is the one cause for which man will go against his own interest, the one advantage for which man will shatter all reason and law, system and theory: the fact of his own free will. Man has to think that he has the ability to choose independently, and he will do anything to prove it.
(The Underground Man's Chapter ends there, but here's an example if you're having a hard time wrapping your head around this: let's say someone said to you that under no circumstances were you allowed to jump off a bridge. In fact, they tell you that even if you wanted to, you would not be able to. You don't have the free will to jump, because you know it would kill you, and your own nature won't let that happen. The Underground Man is arguing that man, in order to prove that he really was free, would jump.)