The Russian writer Nikolay Chernyshevsky and his followers believed that man only desired what was in is best interest, and that mankind could be improved and taught to listen to reason so that society would progress to a kind of utopian existence, symbolized by the image of a perfect crystal palace (which the underground man derogatively refers to). The underground man can be seen as Dostoevsky’s answer to Chernyshevsky.
In part one, he rambles and rants about numerous topics, but the primary one is a debate over rationality: to what degree are humans rational? Do they really only ever desire what is good for them? The underground man defiantly asserts that man is not rational and insists that human history is irrational. He argues that the perfect existence of the crystal palace, with everyone behaving reasonably, is impossible—and not even desirable. The underground man’s major claim is that man will occasionally desire something not in his best interest, if only to demonstrate his ability and free will to do so. If mankind behaved only according to reason, logic, and scientific fact, he would become an “organ stop,” as the underground man puts it. Life would be nothing but obeying the rules of scientific and mathematic fact, summed up by the simple equation, two times two equals four. If the whole world operates according to logic, facts, and equations, how can there be free will or human choice? The ability to choose actions that are not logical, that are not reasonable or “right” decisions is the very thing that gives humans free will and individuality, argues the underground man. The only way to stand up for humanity is to oppose the bland rationality of two-times-two-equals-four and delight in the irrationality of two-times-two-equals-five.
Not only does the underground man argue for the importance of irrational behavior, but he also provides an example through his own actions. He often contradicts himself and emphasizes his ability to hold multiple viewpoints at once, to change his mind, and even to be hypocritical. His self-contradiction and ability to disagree with himself is a way of championing individuality over reason. Moreover, in part two, we repeatedly see the underground man act illogically and not in his best interest, as he embarrasses himself and gets himself into awkward, even painful situations, such as inviting himself to Zverkov’s party, or going to the brothel, or giving Liza his address. Thus, one can see part two as the proof to the argument of part one. In part one, the underground man argues for the irrationality of human behavior, and in part two he shows examples of his own irrational behavior. Both his arguments and his actions form a powerful counter to the optimism and utopianism of those who would look forward to the perfect rationality of the crystal palace.
Reason and Rationality ThemeTracker
Reason and Rationality 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!
“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.
Two times two makes four—why, in my opinion, it’s mere insolence. Two times two makes four stands there brazenly with its hands on its hips, blocking your path and spitting at you. I agree that two times two makes four is a splendid thing; but if we’re going to lavish praise, then two times two makes five is sometimes also a very charming little thing.
You believe in the crystal palace, eternally indestructible, that is, one at which you can never stick out your tongue furtively nor make a rude gesture, even with your fist hidden away. Well, perhaps I’m so afraid of this building precisely because it’s made of crystal and it’s eternally indestructible, and because it won’t be possible to stick one’s tongue out even furtively.
But in those days I was so embittered by everyone that I decided, heaven knows why or for what reason, to punish Apollon by not paying him his wages for two whole weeks. . . . I resolved to say nothing to him about it and even remain silent on purpose, to conquer his pride and force him to be the first one to mention it. Then I would pull all seven rubles out of a drawer and show him that I actually had the money and had intentionally set it aside, but that “I didn’t want to, didn’t want to, simply didn’t want to pay him his wages, and that I didn’t want to simply because that’s what I wanted,” because such was “my will as his master,” because he was disrespectful and because he was rude.