[Rescued from old files and
partly edited 11/10/09]
Notes from Underground
I made the generalization that most 19th century thinkers,
artists, and writers were believers in progress, but that it is not
clear that what these men called progress is such a good thing after
all. Question: we can clearly see problems with these men's
ideas, but couldn't anyone in 19th century see the consequences of
these teachings, predicting the harm they would do? The answer is
yes. Several important thinkers even in the 19th century realized that
the wide-spread belief in inevitable progress was misplaced. One
of these was Pope Pius IX who, in his Syllabus of errors, warned
Catholics against the evils 19th century philosophies were likely to
Another man who saw clearly the dangers was Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Dostoyevsky’s criticisms are particularly insightful because of his own
deep familiarity with the ideas of the believers in progress. He
was himself a radical in his youth, immersed in the ideas of Darwin,
Marx, and, especially the realists. For a time, he embraced these ideas
fully—until he realized that these ideas were poisoning his own life,
the lives of those around him, and society as a
Dostoyevsky deals with these problems in all his books, exploring the
dark side of the 19th century intellectual world.
There used to be a radio program, The Shadow, that began with the
question: Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? And the
answer would come: The Shadow. I think there’s an even better
answer: Dostoyevsky. Notes from Underground particularly well
shows some of the evils that lie in the hearts of men.
As he does in the Dream of a Ridiculous Man, Dostoyevsky creates an
unnamed character, the Underground Man, and tells the story from his
point of view. The Underground Man admits that he is an
unattractive character, a sick man. He doesn’t know exactly
what’s wrong with him, but the reader does: it’s clear that he has been
poisoned, poisoned by ideas.
The underground man would like to believe himself capable of nobility,
love, and selflessness, but the Darwinists have assured him that these
things are only illusions, that he is, inevitably, as selfish as any
jungle beast. He would reject this notion if he could, but he finds
trying to resist this idea like butting his head into a stone
wall. Note what he says on pg. 92:
[What stone wall? etc.]
Many people would suggest that he shouldn't let such things bother him.
We're all selfish: so what? There's nothing to be done about
it. Some people even find this idea a relief. I can look out for
number one, everyone else is. But the underground man finds it
painful. (pg. 93, just before section IV).
Why does he feel so bad? Consider the consequences of ideas for
yourself. How many of you have an ancestor you are proud of:
parents, grandparents, etc.? Now suppose I tell you that all
these ancestors are nothing but a bunch of monkeys. And you too
are only a monkey. A highly evolved monkey, perhaps, but only a
monkey nevertheless. And contrast this with the earlier notion
that man was made in the image of God. What a slap in the face to
be told you are only a monkey!
But it’s much worse than that. How many of you have ever loved
someone? How many of you love someone now? All of
you? No you don't. If Darwin and the Realists are right,
there's no such thing as love. All your relationships are purely
selfish. Is that a comforting idea? Hardly.
The Underground Man also has a great deal of trouble with the realist
solution to human problems, enlightened self-interest. Note his
criticism on p. 99-100.
Is this a valid criticism? I think it's obvious that Dostoyevsky
is right. Consider modern society. We constantly think
education is the answer to our social problems. Show people the ill
effects of their behavior and they will stop doing bad things.
Drunken driving. Adultery. Gambling. Drugs. Spousal abuse.
Off to the counselors. Off to the classroom.
Much of the time, it just doesn't work. We do things knowing full
well they will hurt us and that we will regret it later.
Dostoyevsky also criticizes modern notion that with civilization men
become better (pp. 101-102). Dostoyevsky predicted that civilized
men would be more bloodthirsty than ever because justified by
science/modern realist philosophy. Prophetic here: he knew what
next century would be like.
Now suppose science really could do the things people of the 19th
century thought, set up a society with no hunger or poverty, where
everything was done efficiently. Would people be happy and good
then? Dostoyevsky says, no way. (pp. 102, first sentences
of last paragraph).
Is this the way we are? Sticking gold pins into people to avoid
boredom? Sure! Look at movies we watch just to get some
sensation. And look at the history professor who enjoy giving
these lectures! And are there people who enjoy the pins?
I'm afraid we are just that sick. And what would we do with
perfect society? (Finish 102, top of 103, and p. 108).
I think something like this is happening to America. Not so long
ago, we really did have it all and are throwing it away out of sheer
spite and ingratitude.
But back to Dostoyevsky. Some of Dostoyevsky's keenest insights
into what's wrong with the modern world are clear in his description of
the Underground Man himself. The 2nd part of the book flashes
back to earlier episodes in his life, in each of which adds to
Dostoyevsky's picture of what really makes us tick.
First, there’s the officer incident. He’s shoved aside by an
officer and feels humiliated. How long does this feeling
last? Years! His head is full of dreams about vindication,
until he finally hits on plan and carries it out. He winds up
physically hurt again-but feeling somehow sort of triumphant.
Absurd? Maybe. But this is the way our minds work. We carry in
our minds vivid remembrances of the past humiliations, and our
minds often are filled with plans of making up for these humiliations.
And speaking of humiliation, when do we suffer worst of these
troubles? At what stage of life? For most of us, it’s
adolescence. We would really like to make up for these
humiliations. Will there be an opportunity, an opportunity to show
those people who thought you were nothing that you were really
something? How about high school reunion? Wouldn’t
you just love to go back to your reunion driving a fancy car, with a
good looking guy or gal on your arm, and obviously successful in every
Well, the Underground man goes to a sort of equivalent of a high school
reunion—and only ends up humiliating himself further.
Now what does someone who feels humiliated do? Often, he takes it
out on others, and that’s what happens with the underground man. At the
end of the party, he begs one of his former classmates for money so he
can visit a house of prostitution with rest of guys. He meets
there a girl named Liza. Liza is young, kind, and sweet—and, as
he goes into her, the Underground Man catches sight of himself in a
mirror. He’s drunken, disheveled, and unattractive. And he says
to himself, good. The more she detests this, the better I will
like it. He has sex with her without even bothering to learn her name.
Totally dehumanizing. But later, he does begin to talk with her,
telling her the problems with her current life and about how much
better marriage is, even when you are poor.
What’s going on here, of course, is clever mockery of the idea of
enlightened self-interest. The Underground Man is enlightening
Liza. Going to do a lot of good, right? Hardly.
At the end, the Underground Man tells Liza that, if she wants out of
her current life, he’ll help her—and gives her the equivalent of his
Bad mistake. Liza takes him up on the offer, and shows up at his
apartment. But one glance tells Liza he can be no help: he’s
worse of f than she is. Again, the underground man is humiliated:
he’s caught pretending to be something he’s not. He bursts into
tears, and Liza tries to comfort him. But after he's cried for a
while, he feels awkward. He doesn’t know quite what to do, so he
grabs her in a passionate embrace. She is surprised, but she complies,
Now at this point, it would have been easy to write a happy ending to
this story. But that’s not what Dostoyevsky does. After
he's finished, the underground man does an incredibly cruel
thing. He takes a 5 ruble note, stuffs it into her hand.
Message: you’re nothing but a whore. Take your money, and get out.
Why does he do this? Because, Dostoyevsky says, he is unable to
love and that's what modern ideas of progress have done to all of us,
made it impossible for us to love. Instead, when humiliated
ourselves, we choose to humiliate others and find some cruel
satisfaction in doing so. And men in particular find pleasure in
using sex, not as an expression of love, but in order to humiliate
Sex a powerful thing, and like all powerful things it has a tremendous
potential for good and a tremendous potential for evil. Because
sex is so powerful, almost all societies in human history have insisted
on a couple of safeguards. One, most societies have, as much as
possible, tried to keep sex within the context of the marriage
relationship. Secondly, most societies have insisted that sex
take place within a loving relationship. With the twin safeguards
of love and marriage, sex generally works out great. But what
happens when those safeguards are gone? Notice that the Romantic
movement undercut one safeguard: we don’t need marriage: that’s an
artificial societal restraint. And the Realist movement undercut
the other safeguard: there’s no such thing as love. And what
happens then? Sex is just fun?
Not a chance. What Dostoyevsky sees is that, very, very quickly,
sex, which should be an expression of love becomes almost automatically
a tool for humiliation.
Again, Dostoyevsky is prophetic. In the past several decades, as
sex has become further and further disconnected from love and marriage,
sex has become for many a tool for humiliation. Unfortunately, it is
unbelievably easy for most men to make this transition—and very hard
for women to know what men are up to here. Notice that Liza
doesn’t know what the Underground Man is doing with her offer of
love. And there’s a good reason for that: the Underground Man
himself doesn’t really know. At the time, the pleasure of
humiliating someone more than he himself has been humiliated wins
out. But years later, he realizes he grieves over the stupidity
of his choice here—not that it does Liza any good.
Now all this is as gloomy as it can be, but Dostoyevsky's pessimistic
tone was necessary in answering the unwarranted optimism of the 19th
century. 20th century events have borne out Dostoyevsky's
pessimism, and twentieth century thinkers exchanged the 19th century
optimism for Dostoyevsky's pessimism.
But such pessimism would have no purpose unless Dostoyevsky has an
answer. And he does. There really is a happy ending to
Notes from Underground. A happy ending? Yes! But not
in your edition. Why? In a letter to his brother,
Dostoyevsky noted that the censors had clipped some important ideas
from his book.
"The Swinish censors left in the passages where I railed at everything
and pretended to blaspheme, but they deleted the passages where I
deduced from all this the necessity of faith and Christ."
Dostoyevsky’s answer is the old answer of men like Paul, Augustine,
Luther, and Pascal: man is a desperately wretched being whose heart can
only be made right by faith and by the love of God.
The modern world has applauded Dostoyevsky's bitterness and ignored his
solution. An ironic circumstance, but not one that would have
surprised Dostoyevsky, a man who truly knew what evil lurked in the
hearts of men.
Well, that’s it for Dostoyevsky. Now on to cheerier
subjects--like World War I.