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  • The Case against Rational Egoism in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground*
  • James P. Scanlan

Writing in his own voice, in letters, notebooks, and diaries, Fyodor Dostoevsky frequently attacked the philosophy of the Russian “nihilists,” as he typically called them—Nikolay Chernyshevsky, Dmitry Pisarev, and other representatives of the radical Russian intelligentsia in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. But because Dostoevsky also used fiction to argue against them, if we wish to discern the full contours of his opposition, we must turn to his stories and novels; and there we face the problem of determining to what extent, if any, the statements of his narrators and characters express his own views.

This problem is particularly challenging in regard to the radicals’ “Rational Egoism,” to use the label by which the Russian variant of the theory of enlightened egoism came to be known. 1 Dostoevsky’s most sustained and spirited attack on that aspect of “nihilist” philosophy is found in Part One of Notes from Underground (1864), but it is voiced by one of the darkest, least sympathetic of all his characters—the nameless narrator and protagonist known as the Underground Man. Was this repellent creature speaking for Dostoevsky? The Underground Man, moreover, can easily be viewed as a sheer irrationalist whose rejection of Rational Egoism is a tortured emotional outburst with no logical credentials. Robert L. Jackson, in his groundbreaking study of 1958, describes the Underground Man’s thinking at one point as follows: “It is impossible to argue [End Page 549] with the rationalists: reason is on their side. All that remains is irrationally to negate reason.” 2 If those words were to be taken not simply as a moment in Jackson’s rich analysis but as a comprehensive description of the Underground Man’s attitude, it would be senseless to expect philosophically nuanced arguments from him. And we would have no grounds for thinking that Dostoevsky’s own treatment of Rational Egoism went beyond emotional rejection.

Critics from Vasily Rozanov to Joseph Frank have debated the Underground Man’s stance toward Rational Egoism and its relation to Dostoevsky’s, with no sign yet of a definitive resolution. Frank’s recent treatment, presented in the third volume of his monumental literary biography of Dostoevsky, offers a helpful history of the dispute as well as his own finely elaborated interpretation of the Underground Man as an irrational opponent of Rational Egoism. 3 Frank reads Notes from Underground as satire, and he contends that the Underground Man is caught in an agonizing self-contradiction: intellectually, he accepts the basic premises of the Rational Egoists’ outlook, such as the denial of free will; but he finds that, “despite the convictions of his reason,” he cannot live with the amoral and dehumanizing implications of those premises, which strip human beings of moral responsibility. 4 From a rational point of view, of course, rejection of the implications should force the Underground Man to reject the premises as well (by the hoary logical law of modus tollendo tolens), and indeed he does at times passionately condemn them. But according to Frank, these condemnations simply show the depth of his predicament: his “intellectual acceptance” of Chernyshevsky’s determinism is conjoined with “simultaneous rejection of it with the entire intuitive-emotional level of personality identified with moral conscience,” causing him to respond irrationally in a multitude of instances. 5 Frank’s Underground Man, then, is an intellectual disciple but an emotional critic of Rational Egoism; and he is triply an irrationalist: his thinking is mired in self-contradiction, he acts irrationally as a result, and his opposition to Rational Egoism has not a rational but an “intuitive-emotional” basis.

But where does this leave Dostoevsky? Must we conclude that he, too, is somehow suspended between acceptance and rejection of Rational Egoism and for that reason has created in Notes from Underground a Bakhtinian equilibrium in which neither position is clearly privileged? For Frank, certainly not. It follows from Frank’s analysis that Dostoevsky himself, unlike the Underground [End Page 550] Man, is a fully consistent opponent of Rational Egoism, for that theory is the target of the inverted irony at the core of his satire; “the...

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pp. 549-567
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