Notes from Underground opens with the underground man’s famous assessment of his own character: “I am a sick man. . . . I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man.” He is pessimistic and sees the worst in himself. Moreover, he often generalizes from his own nature and his own ideas about people to speak broadly of human nature. He presents himself not only as one spiteful, sick man, but as an example of how mankind is truly spiteful and sick. He has a very a low opinion of modern man, claiming that anyone of intelligence in the 19th century cannot be a man of action or character. He disagrees with the idea that humans are rational and naturally improve or desire what is good for them, citing examples from history to prove that human society is cruel and bloody in part one.
Additionally, he routinely compares humans to animals. He speaks of people as either bulls or mice in part one, and repeatedly says that people treat him like an insignificant fly. These recurrent animal similes are the underground man’s way of bringing humans down to the level of the animal, suggesting that they are simply one kind of animal among many on this planet, with no special dignity. This tendency to degrade humanity can be related to Darwin’s theory of evolution, which had recently been translated into Russian when Dostoevsky was writing Notes from Underground. In part one, the underground man mentions the scientific discovery that man is descended from apes (an exaggeratedly simplistic version of Darwinism). This idea is a huge blow to the human ego, suggesting that humans are not special creatures, but merely one evolved species out of many.
The underground man thinks of humans as foolish, irrational, cruel, and despicable creatures—including himself. But to what degree does this deluded character speak to a universal human condition or nature? The underground man himself addresses this very question at the end of the novella. Addressing his readers, he says, “I’ve only taken to an extreme that which you haven’t even dared to take halfway.” He claims that his pessimism is simply honesty about true human nature, and that others have similar thoughts or tendencies as he does but suppress them or deceive themselves. Regardless of whether one agrees with the underground man that his pessimistic conception of human nature is the truth, it is hard to disagree that spite, malice, and irrationality don’t form at least part of human nature. The underground man may take these aspects of humanity to an extreme, but his example serves as a corrective to those alluded to in part one, who would naively think that man can be completely good and completely rational. We may not be mere insects, but we are not always noble heroes, either.
Human Nature ThemeTracker
Human Nature Quotes in Notes from Underground
I am a sick man. . . . I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I think my liver is diseased. Then again, I don’t know a thing about my illness; I’m not even sure what hurts. I’m not being treated and never have been, though I respect both medicine and doctors. Besides, I’m extremely superstitious—well at least enough to respect medicine. (I’m sufficiently educated not to be superstitious, but I am, anyway.) No, gentlemen, it’s out of spite that I don’t wish to be treated. . . . My liver hurts? Good, let it hurt even more!
Yes, sir, an intelligent man in the nineteenth century must be, is morally obliged to be, principally a characterless creature; a man possessing character, a man of action, is fundamentally a limited creature.
I swear to you, gentlemen, that being overly conscious is a disease, a genuine, full-fledged disease. Ordinary human consciousness would be more than sufficient for everyday human needs—that is, even half or a quarter of the amount of consciousness that’s available to a cultured man in our unfortunate nineteenth century, especially to one who has the particular misfortune of living in St. Petersburg, the most abstract and premeditated city in the whole world. (Cities can be either premeditated or unpremeditated.) It would have been entirely sufficient, for example, to have the consciousness with which all so-called spontaneous people and men of action are endowed.
“There is some enjoyment even in a toothache,” I reply. I’ve had a toothache for a whole month; I know what’s what. In this case, of course, people don’t rage in silence; they moan. . . . In the first place, these moans express all the aimlessness of the pain which consciousness finds so humiliating, the whole system of natural laws about which you really don’t give a damn, but as a result of which you’re suffering nonetheless, while nature isn’t. . . . I beseech you, gentlemen, to listen to the moans of an educated man of the nineteenth century who’s suffering from a toothache. . . His moans become somehow nasty, despicably spiteful, and they go on for days and nights. Yet he himself knows that his moans do him no good: he knows better than anyone else that he’s merely irritating himself and others in vain. . . Well, it’s precisely in this awareness and shame that the voluptuousness resides.
Oh, tell me who was first to announce, first to proclaim that man does nasty things simply because he doesn’t know his own true interest; and that if he were to be enlightened, if his eyes were to be opened to his true, normal interests, he would stop doing nasty things at once and would immediately become good and noble, because, being so enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would realize that his own advantage really did lie in the good; and that it’s well known that there’s not a single man capable of acting knowingly against his own interest; consequently, he would, so to speak, begin to do good out of necessity. Oh, the child! Oh, the pure, innocent babe! Well, in the first place, when was it during all these millennia, that man has ever acted only in his own interest? . . . And what if it turns out that man’s advantage sometimes not only may, but even must in certain circumstances, consist precisely in his desiring something harmful to himself instead of something advantageous?
Who would want to desire according to some table? And that’s not all: he would immediately be transformed from a person into an organ stop or something of that sort; because what is man without desire, without will, and without wishes if not a stop in an organ pipe?
But I repeat for the one-hundredth time, there is one case, only one, when a man may intentionally, consciously desire even something harmful to himself, something stupid, even very stupid, namely: in order to have the right to desire something even very stupid and not be bound by an obligation to desire only what’s smart.
In short, anything can be said about world history, anything that might occur to the most disordered imagination. There’s only one thing that can’t possibly be said about it—that it’s rational.
Of course, I hated all my fellow office-workers from the first to the last and despised every one of them; yet, at the same time it was as if I were afraid of them. Sometimes it happened that I would even regard them as superior to me. At this time these changes would suddenly occur: first I would despise them, then I would regard them as superior to me. . . . All others resembled one another as sheep in a flock. Perhaps I was the only one who constantly thought of himself as a coward and a slave; and I thought so precisely because I was so cultured. But not only did I think so, it actually was so: I was a coward and a slave. I say this without any embarrassment. Every decent man of our time is and must be a coward and a slave. This is how he’s made and what he’s meant to be. And not only at the present time, as the result of some accidental circumstance, but in general at all times, a decent man must be a coward and a slave.
Once I even had a friend of sorts. but I was already a despot at heart; I wanted to exercise unlimited power over his soul; I wanted to instill in him contempt for his surroundings; and I demanded from him a disdainful and definitive break with those surroundings. I frightened him with my passionate friendship, and I reduced him to tears and convulsions. He was a naïve and giving soul, but as soon as he’d surrendered himself to me totally, I began to despise him and reject him immediately—as if I only needed to achieve a victory over him, merely to subjugate him.
It’s a different thing altogether; even though I degrade and defile myself, I’m still no one’s slave; if I want to leave, I just get up and go. I shake it all off and I’m a different man. But you must realize right from the start that you’re a slave. Yes, a slave!
I felt particularly reassured and relaxed after nine o’clock in the evening and even began to daydream sweetly at times. For instance: “I save Liza, precisely because she’s come to me, and I talk to her. . . . I develop her mind, educate her. At last I notice that she loves me, loves me passionately. . . “Liza,” I say, “do you really think I haven’t noticed your love? I’ve seen everything. I guessed but dared not be first to make a claim on your heart because I had such influence over you, and because I was afraid you might deliberately force yourself to respond to my love out of gratitude. . . No, I didn’t want that because it would be . . . despotism. . . . It would be indelicate (well, in short, here I launched on some European, George Sandian, inexplicably lofty subtleties. . .) . . . In short, it became crude even to me, and I ended by sticking my tongue out at myself.
I know that I’ll be told this is incredible—that it’s impossible to be as spiteful and stupid as I am; you may even add that it was impossible not to return, or at least to appreciate, this love. But why is this so incredible? In the first place, I could no longer love because, I repeat, for me love meant tyrannizing and demonstrating my moral superiority. All my life I could never conceive of any other kind of love, and I’ve now reached the point that I sometimes think that love consists precisely in a voluntary gift by the beloved person of the right to tyrannize over him.