The underground man, though, says that becoming such a person is only a dream. He talks about how some people believe humans only do “nasty things” because they don’t know their “true interest,” and that if people knew what was in their best interest, they would only act accordingly. The underground man disagrees and says that “man’s advantage” sometimes consists “precisely in his desiring something harmful to himself.”
The underground man says he is sure his readers are laughing at him, but he insists that he is right. He says that those who think people only behave in their best interests neglect something more important to men than any advantage like wealth or honor. Before naming this thing, the underground man digresses and says that most people think mankind has gotten kinder over time, but he thinks civilization has made men crueler. As examples, he points to recent historical events: the American Civil War, the Napoleonic wars, and other European military conflicts.
The underground man’s writings are not structured like a logical argument. He insists on his point about something more important than wealth or honor, but then digresses to speak of human civilization and history. He pessimistically focuses on violent historical events, supporting his negative estimation of human nature.
The underground man says that most people think that as science advances, more people will live peacefully in accordance with the “laws of nature,” in a perfect crystal palace. But he thinks such an existence would be horribly boring and that people would prefer to live according their “own stupid will,” instead of pure rationality. The underground man says that occasionally one must “desire something opposed to one’s own advantage,” simply to exercise one’s freedom of desire.
This is one of Dostoevsky’s most direct allusions to the views of the Russian writer Nikolay Chernyshevsky, who idealized an existence of rationality symbolized by a crystal palace. The underground man rails against such excessive rationality and the “laws of nature,” pointing out how a place in which everyone acted according to laws of nature is both dull and a kind of slavery to those laws, so that acting contrary to those laws and to one’s own instincts becomes a kind of freedom.