Study Guide

Notes from the Underground Part 1, Chapter 8

By Fyodor Dostoevsky

Part 1, Chapter 8

  • The Underground Man again provides a retort on behalf of his readers, who might suppose that science makes that whole idea of "choice" into a contradiction. (In other words, the laws of nature dictate our actions, so "free will" is just a matter of following these laws.)
  • Now we're back to this idea of a big giant formula (our words, not his): if we knew enough about science, we could predict every action, feeling, and event.
  • But, he posits, if such a formula is created to predict man's desires, man will intentionally stop desiring things. (He seems to miss the bit where the formula predicts the absence of desire, but that's a lot like the "would you still have knocked it over if I hadn't said anything?" scene from The Matrix. Besides, Underground Man will get around to addressing this point at the end of the chapter.)
  • Now he speaks on our behalf again: surely, we are thinking that if reason and desire went up against each other in a kind of Mortal Combat-style death match, reason would win. And because choice and reason can be calculated, this big giant formula will someday be determined. And then, the next thirty or however many years of our lives will be figured out before we live them. But as difficult as that might be to accept, surely we have to accept it, because nature is nature and we can't change it.
  • And that's where the Underground Man begs to differ. Reason isn't everything, he says. Reason only satisfies half of man. (And the less fun half, at that, we think.) Human nature, he says, is made of both reason and impulses.
  • So if we want to argue that man will always act advantageously, on the grounds that it can be proven mathematically, that's fine; it CAN be proven – but only mathematically, and that's just not sufficient, since mathematics (and the rest of reason) are only part of man.
  • It follows then, that often times, doing stupid things actually are to our advantage.
  • The advantage of free will, he explains, is that it preserves that which is most important to us: our individuality.
  • What we choose is sometimes in agreement with reason, but very often it is not.
  • Now, says the Underground Man, let's suppose for a moment that man is not stupid.
  • If man isn't stupid, the Underground Man argues, then he is at least ungrateful. In fact, that's how we should define man: the ungrateful biped.
  • But being ungrateful isn't even his worst feature: his "moral obliquity" is.
  • His WHAT? (Moral obliquity = deviation from moral behavior. In other words, man is immoral.)
  • Yes, the Underground Man says, this moral obliquity causes man's second-worst feature: his lack of good sense. And man has been acting this way since, well, forever.
  • He then decides to look briefly at the history of the universe. Really briefly. Thinking about the large bronze statue of Helios in Rhodes, he concludes that the history of mankind is majestic. Thinking about the many different uniforms worn by many different armies of soldiers, he concludes that the world is multi-colored.
  • He continues in this vein, proving that you can say anything you want, really, about the history of the universe and then justify it with some example.
  • There is one description, however, which you cannot justify: you cannot say that the world is rational.
  • Despite this, moral and rational men keep popping up everywhere, like so many whack-a-moles.
  • But the Underground Man maintains his argument: all the moral men will ultimately do something immoral, and all the rational men will eventually do something stupid.
  • So what would happen, asks the Underground Man, if you gave man everything he wanted? Even cake?
  • In that case, he argues, man would risk losing all that yummy cake and seek out misery and act in "vulgar folly" just to prove that he can. (This is just another rendition of the argument we heard earlier.)
  • This is what the Underground Man means when he talks about ingratitude; man is ungrateful for his tasty cake.
  • AND, if he can't easily achieve his misery, he will cause destruction and chaos for the entire universe in order to have it.
  • This, the Underground Man notes, is the main difference between man and animals: only man can launch such a curse and destruction upon the world.
  • But, we might say, the big giant scientific formula would know all this ahead of time by calculating it through reason.
  • In that case, he says, man would just go crazy in order to be rid of reason once and for all.
  • And what if we argue that free will just happens to coincide with the laws of nature, but that the coincidence doesn't make it any less free?
  • Well…that's just not true, says the Underground Man. Twice two makes four whether we will it to or not. So how can our will be free? It can't, at least not when we're living according to the laws of nature.