By Nick Deiuliis
Fyodor Dostoyevsky is widely recognized as one of the giants of literature.
Of his most noted works, the first and shortest is the novella Notes from the Underground, published in 1864. It’s also his most underrated and most insightful, particularly for modern times.
Some consider Notes from the Underground classic literature.1 Others say it is more political commentary. Social scientists point to it as a study in psychology.
All correct. Yet Notes is first and foremost something else: a basis for philosophy and policy rooted in the freedom of the individual to choose and the individual’s protection from control by the state and wider culture.
I interpret Notes as advocating for triumph of the ‘I’ over the ‘we,’ the ‘self’ over the ‘collective,’ and the ‘individual’ over the ‘public good.’
I read Dostoyevsky’s classic and contemplate a warning of how the Left (whether manifesting through communism, nihilism, or utopianism) presents a danger to the individual; and how the Left cuts against the grain of human nature. In many ways, Notes from the Underground was serving as a foundation for American libertarianism before the movement took root. And it is a decisive refutation of the modern-day nanny state.
A closer look at (or revisit of) Notes from the Underground is worthwhile to anyone who considers himself or herself a classic liberal and defender of the individual.
The first lines of the novella read, “I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man.”
Notes from the Underground is not a story for the meek of heart. No sunshine and happy endings. The book is humorous at times, but it is certainly a dark humor.
The main character narrating the story is the anti-hero Underground Man, a miserable bureaucrat who spent his career abusing his position to make life difficult for other people.2 His directional perspective of being ‘underground’ serves as a metaphor for being separate from, an outcast to, society. He falls into some money, quits his job, and writes the notes as a form of confession.
That’s the focus of the first half of the book, titled “Underground”. The narrator observes that utopian society attempts to remove suffering and pain, but that humans desire both and need both to be happy. The narrator confesses his realization that attempting to remove pain and suffering in society takes away an individual’s freedom.
Underground Man realizes human beings are cursed with consciousness; it is what causes us to suffer. But it also allows for our free will and individuality.
He argues that despite humanity’s attempts throughout history to create a utopia where everyone lives in harmony, anyone can decide to act in a way that might not be in their own self-interest as defined by society or government. Some do so simply to validate their existence as an individual and to protest. And no one knows for sure whether the individual will choose a rational or irrational path.
The second half of the book, “Apropos of the Wet Snow”, consists of a series of adventures and events that occurred in the narrator’s life.
One of those stories is central to the book. The narrator tries to help a prostitute by promising to save her. She finds herself enthralled by the Underground Man’s lectures, his confidence, and ends up looking to join him. He then revokes everything he said to her, telling her he was laughing at her all along, and ridicules her miserable life and reality.
Then he breaks down and admits he was only seeking power over her and desired to humiliate her. He starts to self-loathe and focuses on his own poverty and embarrassing life. He doesn’t save her, she leaves and is never seen again.
The concluding sentences of Notes recall themes explored by the narrator in the first part, and he tells the reader directly, “…I have merely carried to an extreme in my life what you have not dared to carry even halfway…”
The Learnings from Notes
In the arenas of policy and classic liberalism, Notes contains a plethora of key passages that resonate more than ever.
Start with perhaps the underlying key premise of the book:
“What has made them conceive that man must want a rationally advantageous choice? What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.”
Dostoyevsky is making a subtle but crucial point here: human nature yearns for the ability to self-select for oneself and to not be chained to the decisions of others (whether ‘others’ are controlling individuals, religion, or the state). Arguing that the state or a third party is better informed to make decisions for the individual than the individual himself or herself misses a key point (and is a dubious assumption when considering the track record of anything run by bureaucrat): the individual’s innate desire to decide for themself cannot be quelled.
Underground Man uses the analogy of humans serving as glorified organ-stops in oppressive societies to illustrate how the individual instinctively longs to decide their own destiny:3
“For who would want to choose by rule? Besides, he will at once be transformed from a human being into an organ-stop or something of the sort; for what is a man without desires, without free will and without choice, if not a stop in an organ?”
Dostoyevsky freely admits that humans enjoying freedom will often choose paths that are irrational, against their self-interests, and that may lead to misery for society. But that doesn’t mean oppressive forms of government that cripple the individual spirit won’t lead to the same or worse (think of Stalin and Mao and how we measure their ‘transformation’ of society to ‘paradise’ in the tens of millions of murdered innocents).
“In short, one may say anything about the history of the world – anything that might enter the most disordered imagination. The only thing one can’t say is that it’s rational. The very word sticks in one’s throat.”
Place those words from 1860s Russia into the context of today; with the war in Ukraine, Hamas terrorism, and Uighur genocide. Or with the breakdown of law in our cities and the epidemic of opioid death in our rural communities. There is no guarantee of rational order in the world, and there never was. Whether it be with democracy, colonialism, communism, socialism, or free will. Truer than ever.
Underground Man provides his thoughts on those who argue moral superiority and wish to superimpose their views or ways onto others. Read the following and try to not be instantly reminded of today’s elite and expert classes:
“There is the odd thing that is continually happening: there are continually turning up in life moral and rational persons, sages, and lovers of humanity who make it their object to live all their lives as morally and rationally as possible, to be, so to speak, a light to their neighbors simply in order to show them that it is possible to live morally and rationally in this world. And yet we all know that those very people sooner or later have been false to themselves, playing some queer trick, often a most unseemly one. Now I ask you: what can be expected of man since he is a being endowed with such strange qualities?”
Most experts in the field point to this passage as Dostoyevsky’s criticism of utopianism and, ultimately, communism. The idea that if you eliminate private property and make everyone equal, it not only makes people happy, but it makes the world neatly rational. Nonsense, of course, as shown by the epic misery brought to humanity by the Left.
And today there is a special refinement to the way of the Left. Leaders of the Left no longer bother to live their lives consistent with their preaching to everyone else as to how to live life in a moral and just way. Hypocrisy is paraded in the open, for all to see. That’s why a Hollywood star who is a self-proclaimed climate activist sails around the world on carbon-spewing yachts. And why a self-anointed Climate Czar who looks to impose travel restrictions on society flies private charter jets at will.
If you wish to think of Notes from the Underground as simply great literature and not policy thought-provoking, consider Dostoyevsky’s analysis of human nature:
“Shower upon him every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface; give him economic prosperity, such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even then out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick. He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive good sense his fatal fantastic element. It is just his fantastic dreams, his vulgar folly that he will desire to retain, simply in order to prove to himself–as though that were so necessary–that men still are men and not the keys of a piano, which the laws of nature threaten to control so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar.”
Dostoyevsky concisely summarizes why large government, bureaucratic control, and nanny states ultimately fail to improve the standing of people the state policies were specifically designed to help.
I wonder if Woodrow Wilson, FDR, LBJ, or Barack Obama read Notes from the Underground. If so, did any of them underline that passage? Because it made an impression on them, they agreed with it, or they disagreed with it?
The narrator then addresses head-on what has become an all-too-common rebuttal of the Left, with:
“You will scream at me (that is, if you condescend to do so) that no one is touching my free will, that all they are concerned with is that my will should of itself, of its own free will, coincide with my own normal interests, with the laws of nature and arithmetic. Good heavens, gentlemen, what sort of free will is left when we come to tabulation and arithmetic, when it will all be a case of twice two make four? Twice two makes four without my will. As if free will meant that!”
Save that passage for every time one hears the bureaucrat’s defense of onerous control of the individual by the state with the position that government knows what is best on the topic(s) and that the individual remains largely free. Hogwash, as Dostoyevsky’s narrator articulated.
In the first part of the book, “Underground,” the narrator marks the supremacy of the individual to choose whichever path desired, even if the path is illogical or irrational when compared to the norms of society. Check out:
“You, for instance, want to cure men of their old habits and reform their will in accordance with science and good sense. But how do you know, not only that it is possible, but also that it is desirable to reform man in that way? And what leads you to the conclusion that man’s inclinations need reforming? In short, how do you know that such a reformation will be a benefit to man?”
Humans are inherently driven, albeit to different levels. Being truly satisfied is a state many never reach. What makes one think that providing economic security at the cost of surrendering freedom is desirable? We are not sheep.
Consider this sentence from the book:
“Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately in love with suffering: that is a fact.”
Society cannot be organized in a way that guarantees the happiness of citizens.
And one may argue that being in love with suffering is nothing more than human nature associated with achievement. Someone earns a million dollars, and they immediately desire two million dollars. Someone wins a championship in sports and immediately desires another title. Someone climbs Mount Everest, and they want to start planning to summit K2. The drive to achieve cannot be extinguished by a forced contentment injected by policy.
Notes is a short book, but an incredibly dense one, packed with passages that speak to so many contemporary policy and current events issues. Invest in a highlighter to mark key sentences, and then place Notes from the Underground close by for easy access in the future. It’s something you will pull off the shelf and reference more than you think.
This is one of those books that every college student should read before graduating (I would argue every high school student should read it, but that might be stretching things in this day and age of failing public education). Notes warrants a place on the syllabuses for English Lit, Civics, Psychology, and Philosophy.
There is something for everyone to take away from Dostoyevsky’s first classic. Now more than ever.