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  • The Case against Rational Egoism in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground*

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 more repulsive and obnoxious he [the Underground Man] portrays himself as being,” Frank writes, “the more he reveals the true meaning of what his self-confident judge [the Rational Egoist] so blindly holds dear.” 6 And yet, if the only evidence of Dostoevsky’s opposition to Rational Egoism is the fact that he subjects it to satirical parody and depicts “intuitive-emotional” responses to it, we might well conclude that Dostoevsky’s own opposition to Rational Egoism, like the opposition Frank attributes to the Underground Man, cannot be considered “intellectual” or “rational.”

This article will offer a reading of Notes from Underground from a different perspective, one that focuses on the philosophical significance of what the Underground Man says and does in opposition to Rational Egoism rather than on the tangled psychological dynamics of his stance or the literary aspects of Dostoevsky’s satire. I am struck by a number of facts about the work that are not adequately accounted for in Frank’s or other existing readings. For one thing, the Underground Man often appears to reject Rational Egoism directly and unambivalently, with no suggestion of violating some prior intellectual commitment. 7 Moreover, discursive arguments are discernible in the Underground Man’s feverish monologue, and they are invariably directed against Rational Egoism, never in favor of it. Again, the “irrational” behavior that the Underground Man engages in, or reports having engaged in (including his fabled inertia and masochism), is often precisely the behavior that someone arguing against Rational Egoism might reasonably adduce as evidence to support his case. On the strength of these facts and others, I shall argue that the Underground Man, for all his supposed “intellectual” acceptance of Rational Egoism, is far more a critic of the theory than its disciple, and that his criticism is logically both well-developed and compelling.

In keeping with this reading, I shall try to show that Part One of Notes from Underground is richer in logical structure than its highly emotive tonality and seemingly rambling form suggest. Let us grant that, as Frank contends, the Underground Man is in some sense committed, inconsistently, to the principles whose consequences he deplores; on the psychological and literary levels such inconsistency certainly provides Dostoevsky with the opportunity for a gripping, dramatic, and wickedly witty portrayal of his protagonist. Yet in the anguished retorts the Underground Man hurls at imagined followers of Cherny-shevsky (the “gentlemen” he repeatedly addresses), as well as in his aberrant behavior itself, he is in fact advancing a consistent, logically judicious, perfectly [End Page 551] reasonable case against Rational Egoism. It is, moreover, a case to which Dostoevsky himself would subscribe—though only up to a point, as we shall see.

Dostoevsky, I am convinced, did not believe that the Rational Egoists had “reason ... on their side” or that only an irrational response could be made to them. Rather, he invested the Underground Man with arguments against it that are logically responsive to its specific claims—arguments that, from a philosophical point of view, add up to a devastating rational critique of Rational Egoism.

Central to this philosophically oriented reading, which draws also on what we know and what we may reasonably assume about Dostoevsky’s intellectual interests at the time of writing Notes from Underground, is an interpretation of the Underground Man as a confirmed egoist but not an egoist of the variety championed by Chernyshevsky and Pisarev.

The Underground Man as an Egoist but Not a Rational Egoist

That Dostoevsky should make egoism the subject of a major work in 1864 comes as no surprise to anyone familiar either with tendencies in Russian literature at the time 8 or with Dostoevsky’s own earlier career, which reflected a continuing interest in the topic. Egoism was a principal theme of one of his three addresses to the radically-minded Petrashevsky circle in the late 1840s (he spoke, as he reported later, “about the person and about human egoism” 9). In his first novel, Poor Folk (1846), he treated “self-love” and the inability to put oneself in another’s place as character defects, and in some of his stories of the 1840s and 1850s he created pointedly egoistic figures, such as Mr. M. in “A Little Hero” (published in 1857 but written in 1849) and Maria Aleksandrovna in “Uncle’s Dream” (1859). In the latter work we find Dostoevsky already grappling with the distinction between egoism and altruism and the dialectic whereby the former is sometimes rationalized as the latter. 10 By 1860, according to a notebook entry, he was considering writing a critical essay on the topic of egoism. 11 [End Page 552]

In the 1860s Dostoevsky’s interest in the phenomenon of egoism was powerfully fed by his conviction that a narrow focus on the ego or self—something he considered endemic in Western civilization—was a plague that increasingly threatened Russia. We know from many sources that he regarded the spread of egoism in his homeland as a direct consequence of the Westernization of Russia and a prime moral, even mortal, danger. A tour through Europe in the summer of 1862 confirmed his negative opinion of the Western character, and in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (published in 1863, one year before Notes from Underground) he gave his most explicit and critical analysis of the egoistic principle, virtually equating it with immorality; it is, he writes,

the personal principle, the principle of isolation, of intense self-preservation, of self-solicitousness, of the self-determination of the I, of opposing this I to all nature and all other people as a separate, autonomous principle entirely equal and equivalent to everything that exists outside itself. 12

Just as such self-absorption was a cardinal moral failing, so the selfless love of others—to the point of self-sacrifice, if need be—was the height of moral nobility. In the same work Dostoevsky stated that a sign of the highest development of personality was “voluntary, fully conscious self-sacrifice ... sacrifice of one’s entire self for the benefit of all.” To be genuine the giving of oneself cannot spring from any calculations of self-interest: “there must be love,” he insisted. 13

Given this attitude, we can imagine Dostoevsky’s reaction when in the same year of 1863 the leader of Russian radical opinion, Nikolay Chernyshevsky, published his novel What Is to Be Done?, in which he not merely endorsed “egoism” but made it the model of admirable individual behavior and the key to harmonious social relations. 14 Chernyshevsky’s principal characters see themselves as complete egoists, claiming to be guided in their behavior by nothing but informed calculations of their own interests; at the same time, however, they bring great benefit to others and in general behave like paragons of virtue, thus exhibiting the magically benign effects of an “enlightened” or “rational” egoism. To Dostoevsky this picture must have seemed the grossest distortion of reality. These virtuous fictional creations were not the genuine, flesh-and-blood egoists whose growing presence in Russia Dostoevsky feared. Yet the doctrine these pseudo-egoists advanced—Rational Egoism—was a genuine danger, because by glorifying the self it could turn the minds of impressionable young people [End Page 553] away from sound values and push them in the direction of a true, immoral, destructive egoism.

The hypothesis I wish to propose is that Dostoevsky set out in Notes from Underground to create, in contrast to Chernyshevsky’s sham egoists with their contrived goodness, the figure of a genuine, believable Russian egoist—an authentic, non-altruistic, morally repugnant egoist, someone who by his person and his attitudes would show the reality of egoism in Russia as Dostoevsky had described it in the Western context in Winter Notes. We know that, before writing Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky had suggested to his brother Mikhail that, to generate interest in their journal Epokha (Epoch), “[a] discussion of Chernyshevsky’s novel ... would suit our task.” 15 We know, too, from direct echoes of What Is to Be Done? in Notes from Underground, that Dostoevsky had Chernyshevsky’s work in mind at the time he was writing; the most obvious echoes are the Underground Man’s references to the “Crystal Palace” (25, 35–36), the figure of the prostitute Liza in Part Two, and above all the extended episode of bumping the officer on the Nevsky Prospekt (49–56). 16 We know, finally, that Dostoevsky believed novelists should strive to create characters that are both new and typical—characters not previously found in literature but at the same time representative of significant human types in contemporary society. 17 My surmise, then, is that Dostoevsky used Notes from Underground to create such a character as part of an attack on the then-fashionable conception of egoism advanced by the Rational Egoists. This interpretation is consistent with Dostoevsky’s enigmatic annotation at the beginning of his story that people such as his narrator “not only may but even must exist in our society, taking into consideration the circumstances under which our society has generally been formed” (3).

The Underground Man displays all the earmarks of egoism (not Rational Egoism, but the real thing) as Dostoevsky had sketched it in Winter Notes. Unlike Chernyshevsky’s gregarious heroes, the Underground Man isolates himself, festering in his corner with little social connection; he has lost contact with his Russian “soil,” with the Russian people, even by and large with educated society. He carries what Dostoevsky in Winter Notes called “the self-determination of the I “ to the point of obsession. In solitude or in society he is totally “self-solicitous,” constantly preoccupied with his own ailments, concerns, fears, [End Page 554] choices, aims, intentions, and gratification. But perhaps the deepest sign of the Underground Man’s egoism, confirmed with full dramatic force in Part Two at the end of the story, is his inability to love, even when presented with an outpouring of love from another person. “She fully understood,” he says despairingly of Liza, “that I was a loathsome man and, above all, incapable of loving her” (125).

That the Underground Man was not merely egoistic but morally reprehensible in general has not seemed obvious to some readers, who have cited as redeeming features his desire for satisfying relations with others and his apparent search, at one point in Part One, for a moral ideal of community. 18 But he announces himself as bad in the opening lines of the work—“I am a sick man ... I am a wicked man” (zloi chelovek)—a point perhaps obscured for many English readers by the fact that most translators have used not an ethical term but the psychological term “spiteful” to translate the Russian zloi (3). 19 The Underground Man, looking back on his story in its closing pages, remarks that “here there are purposely collected all the features for an anti-hero” (129; Dostoevsky’s emphasis), and the essential truth of that statement can be shown by a catalogue of the moral deficiencies he exhibits: he is self-indulgent, malevolent, envious, vain, imprudent, inconsiderate, boastful, rude, domineering, sadistic, vengeful, cowardly, manipulative, inconsistent, impudent, ungrateful, lazy, stubborn, destructive, capricious, mendacious, tyrannical—and the list could go on, without ever including a single trait of Chernyshevsky’s improbable heroes. It is convincing evidence of Dostoevsky’s artistry that he could create a figure with such a farrago of moral flaws who is yet more credible than the heroes of What Is to Be Done?

But of course the Underground Man is not a melodrama villain; he would not be a believably wicked human being if he were a caricature of evil. Dostoevsky was firmly convinced that no human depravity is so profound that it extinguishes all conscience and all recognition of morality. Yet he portrays the Underground Man as someone who did not follow and could not even adequately conceptualize the promptings of conscience to which he, like all human beings, was subject. He shows a murky awareness of moral ideals in Chapter 10 of Part One, where he speaks of his desire for a social edifice more worthy than the “chicken coop” offered by the radicals. But in the heavily censored text of that chapter (more on this later) there is no indication of what a better structure might consist in, and he does not rise above an egoistic approach to it, calling it “my wanting” (moe khotenie) and “my desire” and insisting on his own right to accept or reject whatever definitions of it are proposed (35–36). He remains to the end a bad man [End Page 555] who would like to be good—but only on his own, egoistic terms. In the last chapter of Part One, as he contemplates the effort of going on to write the narrative that forms Part Two, he muses: “[W]riting things down really seems like work. They say work makes a man good and honest. Well, here’s a chance, at least” (40–41). Though he did not succeed in becoming good, he sometimes saw it as a desideratum and a possibility.

There is more to the Underground Man, however, than his egoistic, morally repugnant nature. He is also an exponent of philosophical views and in particular an impassioned debater against various aspects of Rational Egoism. Dostoevsky, I believe, realized that in addition to fashioning a genuine egoist, he could use his new character to demonstrate conceptually, not simply through the example of his attitudes and behavior, what is wrong with the theory of Rational Egoism. By making the Underground Man an egoist but one who has serious doubts about the teaching of Chernyshevsky and company, Dostoevsky was free to use him as a critic of their theory, and in that way he was able to bring together both personal and conceptual refutations in a neat synthesis of image and argument.

The Underground Man, as a child of his time, was of course quite familiar with Rational Egoism. No doubt he was strongly attracted to it in his youth; perhaps even now, as Frank contends, he cannot free himself entirely from the lure of its basic principles. Yet his explicit critique is addressed squarely to the specifics of that particular theory. None of his arguments supports Rational Egoism. Just as significantly, none of them is directed against egoism as such; rather he criticizes the particulars of Rational Egoism from a position that he considers authentically egoist. Let us proceed, then, to an analysis of the Underground Man’s case.

The Two Sides of Rational Egoism

Critics often overlook the logical density and structure of the Underground Man’s argument in Part One, not only because they underestimate Dostoevsky’s philosophical skills but because they fail to analyze what the Underground Man was arguing against. The Rational Egoism of Chernyshevsky and Pisarev was a relatively simple theory, but not quite so simple as critics maintain when they reduce it to a formula such as “people always act to benefit themselves.” It was composed of disparate elements, though even its champions did not always make that clear; indeed, they did not explicitly formulate Rational Egoism as a structured “theory” (in part because of censorship), though their writings presupposed it at every turn. Dostoevsky, to his credit, appears to have understood the composite architecture of the theory, and his understanding is reflected in the complexity of the Underground Man’s response to it. To follow that response, it [End Page 556] is essential to reconstruct the elements of the theory as Chernyshevsky and Pisarev expressed them in the early 1860s. 20

Coexisting somewhat uneasily in the thinking of the Rational Egoists were a descriptive thesis and a normative or prescriptive thesis—a view of how human beings actually behave and a view of how they ought to behave. What is usually meant by the expression “Rational Egoism” is the two theses together, along with the assumptions on which they rest.

The descriptive side of Rational Egoism was a deterministic theory of human motivation that is sometimes called “psychological egoism.” The Rational Egoists, denying free will, contended that human beings are necessitated by their nature to act as they do, and that their choices are always governed by their own interests. Chernyshevsky and Pisarev were sufficiently observant, however, to note that people at least appear to act so as to benefit others, and also that they sometimes obviously do act in a way that is objectively damaging to their own interests (whether at the same time benefiting others or not). Cases of the first kind, the Rational Egoists believed, were easy to explain away: on closer examination, we find that the act that benefited others was “really” undertaken to benefit oneself; I help you, for example, because doing so pleases me and because the personal gratification is my motivating benefit. Chernyshevsky argued that all so-called “altruistic” acts turn out on analysis to be “based on the thought of personal interest, personal gratification, personal benefit; they are based on the feeling that is called egoism.” 21

Cases of the second kind (damaging oneself) are more difficult, and to accommodate them the Rational Egoists were required to qualify the simple formula: they admitted that people do at times harm their own interests, but argued that they never do so in full awareness of better alternatives. They do so, rather, through ignorance of their own best interests or through an uninformed, unthinking, or irrational choice of means to promote those interests, or because of objective circumstances that preclude better alternatives. In any event people always act in the way they think will provide them personally the greatest benefit (or the least harm) under the circumstances. This is the formula that best captures psychological egoism as Chernyshevsky and Pisarev conceived it. They believed that human beings, controlled by causal influences, are constitutionally incapable of acting contrary to their own perception of their self-interest.

Psychological egoism formed the supposedly “scientific” foundation of Rational Egoism—scientific because it expressed the “natural law” that people invariably act in accordance with what they think are their own best interests. [End Page 557] But the Rational Egoists were not content with psychological description. Despite the loudly expressed antipathy to all “morality” and “ideals” that was a hallmark of the “nihilists,” they did not hesitate to make ethical discriminations themselves and urge them on others. The ethical content of works such as Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? was in fact a rich stew of moral imperatives: calculate your real interests, educate yourself, free yourself of encumbering traditions and customs, be active and energetic in pursuing your interests, work for whatever social changes are needed to promote them, beware of distracting emotions, put off immediate gratification for greater future gains—in short, be rational in pursuing your real interests. Chernyshevsky praises his heroine’s conniving mother, Maria Aleksevna, as “[m]orally speaking ... better than most” because she so effectively promoted her own real interests within the limits set by her environment. 22

Thus to their description of human behavior the Rational Egoists added a normative thesis as well, in the form of their own version of what some philosophers have called “ethical egoism”: we may summarize it as the prescription that people ought to act in the way that really will provide them personally with the most benefit (or the least harm)—that is, they should act in accordance with their own real best interests (or their “true needs,” as the Rational Egoists often expressed it).

The difference between perception and reality is the crux of the matter: through ignorance, irrationality, or the constraint of circumstances I may perceive my best interests or needs to be different from what they really are. It is the task of personal and social reform, according to the Rational Egoists, to make perceptions of interests coincide with genuine interests and to arrange society so that the latter can be promoted. Once people have been educated to know what their real best interests are and how best to achieve them, and once society has been restructured to allow their achievement, the “natural law” of psychological egoism guarantees that people will act rationally to promote them.

The predictability of human behavior implicit in the “fact” of causal determinism makes it possible on this basis, the Rational Egoists maintained, to fashion society so that it provides for the full satisfaction of the real needs of everyone. Chernyshevsky and Pisarev were convinced that a society of perfect egoists, all seeking their own best interests, would not be anarchic or torn by conflict. For they assumed—and this was a highly important presupposition of Rational Egoism—that the genuine interests of all people are harmonious and hence jointly satisfiable. In fact a truly “rational” egoism, as Pisarev in particular insisted, is functionally equivalent to altruism: “The personal benefit of new men [i.e., the new, rational egoists] coincides with the benefit of society, and their selfishness contains the broadest love of humanity.” 23 [End Page 558]

The puzzles and questionable assumptions lurking in this effort to combine psychological and normative egoisms into a coherent theory are of course numerous, and the radical writers never adequately addressed them. Psychological egoism, for example, entails that whatever an agent chooses was necessitated by antecedent causes; the agent could not have chosen otherwise. But if that is so, what is the point of offering a normative thesis as well—a thesis concerning what should have been chosen? It might seem that the problem is avoided because the descriptive thesis is phrased in terms of perceived interests and the prescriptive thesis in terms of real interests; but it is still the case that “oughts” are being addressed to human beings who are conceived as governed by universal laws and hence cannot act otherwise. Perhaps the Rational Egoists failed to recognize the problem because they tacitly assumed (unjustifiably, of course) that the revolutionaries who would lead the way in rational action—who would obey the imperatives to act vigorously, educate themselves and others, and remold society—were somehow immune from causal necessitation, just as the Russian Bolsheviks seem to have excluded themselves from the iron necessities of Marx’s economic determinism.

Dostoevsky, on the other hand, appears to have been fully aware of the complexities of Rational Egoism and of the problems created by the exclusion of freedom of the will from its theoretical structure. The Underground Man addresses both the descriptive and the normative theses and rejects them both, along with their supporting assumptions.

The Underground Man and Psychological Egoism

The Underground Man subjects psychological egoism—the descriptive side of Rational Egoism—to a withering critique. He does not counter the arguments purporting to show that “altruistic” acts are really selfish, but we can hardly expect him, as an egoist himself, to object to that point. He is concerned rather to show what egoistic action really consists in, and he is convinced that it is not simply a matter of responding mechanically to perceived interests. True egoism is something quite different from that, he believes, and from the very first lines of Notes from Underground he is engaged in demonstrating that people do not always (or even typically) take action for the sake of promoting what they themselves believe to be their own best interests (except in the case of one very peculiar “interest” not anticipated by the Rational Egoists, as we shall see). The Underground Man’s argument takes two forms, direct and indirect.

In direct refutation of psychological egoism, the Underground Man offers observations of his own and others’ behavior. Although he believes himself to be ill and respects doctors, he does not consult them (3). Although he is convinced that living in Petersburg is both too expensive and damaging to his health, he remains in Petersburg (6). These cases of “inaction” on his part are presented as evidence from his own experience that people do not always act to promote their [End Page 559] own perceived best interests. Lest anyone doubt the generalizability of that personal experience, he proceeds in Chapter 7 of Part One to claim evidence on a far grander scale: “What is to be done with the millions of facts testifying to how people knowingly, that is, fully understanding their real advantage [vygoda], would put it in second place and throw themselves onto another path, a risk, a perchance, not compelled by anyone or anything, but precisely as if they simply did not want the designated path, and stubbornly, willfully pushed off onto another one, difficult, absurd, searching for it all but in the dark[?]” (20–21). 24 It is not unusual, he contends, to see someone who acts “against the laws of reason, against his own advantage; well, in short, against everything” (22). The spirit of rebellion noted in these observations will concern us later; but whatever the ultimate explanation of such conduct, the Underground Man clearly believes that there is an abundance of evidence contradicting psychological egoism.

But he does not limit himself to explicit rejection. Much space in Notes from Underground is taken up with a kind of indirect argument from the example of his own egoistic condition, which does not lend itself to analysis in terms of “best interests” and which thus tacitly calls into question the value of using such terms in the attempt to understand human behavior. In the early stages, at least, of his egoistic self-absorption as described in Part One, he generally has no opinion as to what his “best interests” are; only in a few cases does he suggest having such an opinion—and then, as we saw, he proceeds to violate the supposed interests. In general (until later in Part One!) he simply has no perceived best interests; he does not know what he thinks his best interests are, and that circumstance obviously vitiates the psychological egoist’s claim to trace all behavior to such thoughts.

His condition is one of perpetual reflection on his own reactions, motives, and behavior. This he calls his “heightened consciousness” (8–10)—a state of obsessive, anguished introspection, quite different from the complacent single-mindedness of Rational Egoists such as Chernyshevsky’s heroes, who were “men of action.” Although this “heightened” consciousness is in one sense pathological, the close and sustained self-examination that it entails is revelatory in that it discloses to him still other faults of Rational Egoism as a theory of human behavior.

Specifically, his “heightened consciousness” brings home to him his freedom as a conscious being—the free choice that Chernyshevsky and Pisarev had rejected. He finds that he cannot be “determined” to act by any particular perception, whether of his own interests or anything else. This leads him into meditations on the indeterminate identity of the conscious being—meditations that twentieth-century existentialist philosophers subsequently took as signs that Dostoevsky was an early champion of their philosophical orientation. Proto-existentialist [End Page 560] or not, for our purposes the Underground Man’s lamentations about his inability to become anything, to have a determinate identity, show that he finds nothing on the basis of which to fix his best interests: if he cannot define himself, how can he determine his best interests? It is in this regard that the Underground Man’s predicament, facing the open field of choice as a free conscious being, makes him a living argument against psychological egoism. His inaction, unlike that of “Buridan’s ass” in medieval philosophy, is not the result of competing deterministic influences that balance each other; it is a result of there being no determining factors at all—no “primary causes,” as he calls them (17–18). Where he does act, it is not to promote any “best interests”: it is simply to express his own will or caprice. His egoism, in other words, is fundamentally an egoism of personal will rather than personal interests, and it is this conception of egoism, I believe, that he is counterposing to the radicals’ thesis of psychological egoism.

But is that the end of the notion of “best interests” in Notes from Underground? No, for the Underground Man puts new life into the notion in the later chapters of Part One as he turns his attention to the normative or ethical side of Rational Egoism—the side that proclaims how people ought to act: namely, that they should act in accordance with what really is in their own best interests, the assumption being that doing so will maximize social as well as individual well-being. The Rational Egoists framed their normative thesis, too, in terms of “best interests,” and by a stunning conceptual shift the Underground Man shows that the Rational Egoists’ use of the concept is inadequate in that context as well, though for a quite different reason.

The Underground Man and Ethical Egoism

The Underground Man’s rejection of the normative thesis does not, of course, stem from any reluctance to entertain ethical prescriptions. He makes it abundantly clear that he views human beings as fit subjects for moral imperatives. But he finds a fundamental flaw in the normative stance of the Rational Egoists.

The shift in the Underground Man’s argumentation beginning in Chapter 7, as he takes up the normative thesis, results from a decision to give psychological egoism the benefit of the doubt. Although he is convinced that human behavior is not accurately described by the thesis that people act in accordance with what they think are their own best interests (for their own “advantage,” as he puts it), he is willing for the sake of argument to adopt the vocabulary of psychological egoism and consider what the implications would be if it were true. Suppose we say that people do always choose to act in accordance with their perceived best interests or advantage—what would be the consequences for them and for social organization? The Underground Man’s answer is an effective use of the logical strategy known as reductio ad absurdum. [End Page 561]

In the Rational Egoist ideology, as we have seen, the consequences of pursuing one’s perceived best interests are wholly benign once people have been educated to know their true interests and to pursue them rationally and once society has been reordered to make that pursuit possible. People’s true interests or needs are set by their biological and social natures; these interests follow laws of nature, and hence they can be known with precision by the sciences. Furthermore, human behavior, because it flows from perceived interests and there is no free will, is predictable in relation to these true interests: we can be sure that people will recognize their own best interests as science reveals them, and we can be sure that they will pursue those interests if permitted to do so by social arrangements. Finally, science reveals that the true interests or needs of everyone are benign, harmonious, and mutually satisfiable, so that a perfect social order can be constructed on their basis. Pisarev, for example, contended that there is a fundamental natural need in all people to engage in socially useful labor; in such a case, surely, a society of harmonious mutual cooperation can flourish. 25

The Underground Man’s reflections, however, have prepared him for a radically different answer to the question of man’s real interests or advantage. He begins by questioning the Rational Egoists’ conviction that they know what this advantage is, at least to the extent of knowing that it is something on which a utopian social order could be founded. “What is advantage?” he asks. “And will you take it upon yourself to define with perfect exactitude precisely what man’s advantage consists in?” (21). Next, he raises the possibility that this advantage, once known, might prove to be something not benign and harmonizing but unmanageable, something that disrupts classifications and predictions and cannot serve as a foundation for social bliss (21–22). Finally, he argues that there is in fact such a disruptive, recalcitrant chief advantage, and that it is what everyone needs more deeply than anything else—namely, the exercise of free choice, action according to one’s own independent will:

[M]an, whoever he might be, has always and everywhere liked to act as he wants, and not at all as reason and advantage dictate; and one can want even against one’s own advantage.... One’s own free and voluntary wanting [khoten’e], one’s own caprice, however wild, one’s own fancy, though chafed sometimes to the point of madness—all this is that same most advantageous advantage, the omitted one, which does not fit into any classification, and because of which all systems and theories are constantly blown to the devil.


Human beings, on this view, are fundamentally willful creatures who will go against reason, common sense, and the expectations of others in order to express [End Page 562] their own wills. This “most advantageous advantage” cannot be assigned a relative weight in some system of ranked advantages, because it will be pursued, if necessary, contrary to all other advantages. Free human beings will risk everything, face any danger, and knowingly damage themselves in order to assert their freedom.

Obviously this insistence on willful behavior is a fatal obstacle to the creation of a utopian social order such as the Rational Egoists had in mind. Even if provided with all other benefits but free choice, in the most rationally ordered of societies, individuals will insist on asserting their independence, at the cost of destroying the system.

I, for example [the Underground Man states], would not be the least bit surprised if suddenly, out of the blue, amid the universal future reasonableness, some gentleman ... should emerge, set his arms akimbo, and say to us all: “Well, gentlemen, why don’t we reduce all this reasonableness to dust with one good kick, for the sole purpose of sending all these logarithms to the devil and living once more according to our own stupid will!”


And the Underground Man is confident that this rebel would find followers.

Translating the Underground Man’s arguments into the language of Rational Egoism, we can reformulate the normative thesis. If the Rational Egoists wish to say that people should act in accordance with their own real best interest, and we find that this best interest consists in free choice, then they are saying no more than that people should act according to their own free will. But of course the Rational Egoists would not be satisfied with that formulation, because it conflicts with their deterministic notions of human behavior and their dreams of building a well-ordered society for predictably acting human beings; the Rational Egoists’ prescription was based on the hypothetical imperative that people should act in accordance with their real best interests so as to achieve happiness in a properly structured society—but that is far from what the new formulation provides. The implicit conclusion of the Underground Man’s reductio argument, then, is that the Rational Egoists cannot subscribe to the theory they themselves have advocated, once the real content of that theory is clarified.

In effect the Underground Man has set before the Rational Egoists a daunting dilemma. If we exclude free choice from our list of advantages to be considered in explaining human motivation, then Rational Egoism is descriptively false as a theory of behavior; for people often act contrary to all other perceived advantages, simply in order to express their freedom. If on the other hand we include freedom in the list of advantages, then we might consider Rational Egoism descriptively true (people do always seek their perceived advantage—freedom), but it will not be normatively acceptable to its own champions. For free [End Page 563] choice is the greatest advantage, and the Rational Egoists would not be willing to accept the prescription that people should always act in accordance with their own free will. In either case, the Rational Egoists would have to admit that human action is radically unpredictable and that their program is doomed to failure.

To escape this dilemma, a Rational Egoist would be required to modify his stance drastically. He might, for example, admit that free will is a genuine capacity of human beings but deny that its expression is mankind’s “most advantageous advantage,” or what brings the greatest real good to individuals. What people truly need, he might maintain, is to be fed, clothed, housed, and made content. This is, of course, precisely the stance taken later in The Brothers Karamazov by the Grand Inquisitor, who condemns Christ for having burdened humanity with free choice and claims that the greatest benefit to people is to be relieved of this freedom. 26 The Underground Man is not yet the monomaniacal Grand Inquisitor; he is a less self-assured and far less ambitious egoist.

The Underground Man and Dostoevsky

Such is the Underground Man’s reasoned case against Rational Egoism. Simply as a fictional product, it shows the extent of Dostoevsky’s philosophical acumen, which deserves greater respect than it usually receives. But from the point of view of philosophical convictions, the question remains as to whether the Underground Man’s case is also Dostoevsky’s case, in the sense of a set of arguments to which Dostoevsky himself would subscribe. I believe that the interpretation of the Underground Man as an egoist is helpful in answering this question. We cannot answer it, however, by remaining within the world of the novel; the question simply makes no sense in that world, for Dostoevsky is not one of its inhabitants. But, keeping in mind the character and expressed views of the Underground Man, we can approach the question by going outside the novel and drawing on evidence of the writer’s own convictions, as distinguished from the convictions he attributes to others in a fictional setting. This is not the place for a lengthy examination of Dostoevsky’s world view, but a few points may help to situate Notes from Underground in a broader Dostoevskian perspective from a philosophical point of view.

There is no doubt that Dostoevsky shared the Underground Man’s opposition to psychological egoism (the descriptive side of Rational Egoism). Psychological egoism as advanced by Chernyshevsky and Pisarev rested on a denial of free will, whereas Dostoevsky repeatedly voiced his disagreement with the deterministic view of human action; his essay entitled “Environment” in A Writer’s [End Page 564] Diary, for example, makes clear his implacable opposition to any theory that, by stripping individuals of free choice, also relieves them of moral responsibility. 27 Virtually all of his writings, too—his other fiction as well as his non-fiction—contain evidence of action that simply does not fit the mold of “perceived best interests” into which the Rational Egoists sought to force all human behavior. The characters who people Dostoevsky’s stories are notoriously either ignorant of their own interests and motives, or hopelessly ambivalent, or captious, or prone to spiteful and malicious acts from which they expect no benefit to themselves—all situations that cannot be accommodated by psychological egoism. Given that the Underground Man’s case against the theory is entirely consistent with what we know about Dostoevsky’s view of human beings from his other writings, there is no reason to withhold ascription of that case to the artist who conceived it.

On the subject of freedom, moreover, clearly Dostoevsky would agree with the Underground Man that it is not only a fact of human nature but a fact of profound importance. In insisting that a human being is not an organ stop or a piano key, the Underground Man was reflecting Dostoevsky’s own firm belief in the special character of human action as opposed to the law-governed processes of nature; a fundamental idea of Christianity, Dostoevsky wrote in A Writer’s Diary, is “the acknowledgment of the human person and its freedom (and accordingly, its responsibility).” 28 Indeed it is in the words of the Underground Man that Dostoevsky stated his most passionate protest against the deterministic conception of human beings and their potential depersonalization in a mechanistically conceived society.

Furthermore the Underground Man’s awareness of the brute, irrational force of the human drive for free expression was shared by Dostoevsky, as we know from his earlier observations of the behavior of his fellow Siberian prisoners. In The House of the Dead he speaks of the convicts’ efforts to show that they have “more power and freedom than is supposed”; he describes a prisoner’s sudden violent outburst as

simply the poignant hysterical craving for self-expression, the unconscious yearning for himself, the desire to assert himself, to assert his crushed person, a desire which suddenly takes possession of him and reaches the pitch of fury, of spite, of mental aberration, of fits and nervous convulsions.29 [End Page 565]

This description is echoed in the Underground Man’s prediction that under extreme circumstances an individual will “deliberately go mad” in an effort to demonstrate his freedom (31).

Finally, there can be little doubt that the very understanding of egoism personified by the Underground Man—egoism as the glorification of self-will rather than the maximization of personal advantage—is the understanding to which Dostoevsky himself adhered. We saw the central place occupied by “the self-determination of the I “ in his analysis of the egoistic principle in the West. In molding his fictional Russian egoist in Notes from Underground he powerfully emphasized this self-determination by raising it to the level of an absolute. The Underground Man absolutizes freedom of the will: despite an occasional glimmer of conscience he in fact observes no standard other than his own whim—his “own stupid will”—so that for him free choice becomes a value limited by nothing outside the agent. He rhapsodizes over even the most absurd and self-destructive expressions of free choice. The celebration of unbounded willfulness that Dostoevsky assigns to his fictional egoist is a clear indication of his own understanding of the essence of egoism.

Where Dostoevsky parts company with the Underground Man, of course, is in the appraisal of this egoistic insistence on boundless freedom. For all the importance of free choice in Dostoevsky’s world view, when the Underground Man proceeds to the normative dimension of Rational Egoism and characterizes freedom itself as man’s “most advantageous advantage,” we cannot assume that he is still echoing Dostoevsky’s own convictions. From our knowledge of Dostoevsky’s Christian value system, we can be sure that for him man’s “most advantageous advantage,” if that expression must be used, lies not in free choice as such but in the free acceptance of Christ and His moral message. The normative stance of the Underground Man, far from coinciding with Dostoevsky’s, illustrates the evils of a freedom unstructured by higher values; the Underground Man’s egoism is the perversion of a distinctive and precious human capacity by exempting it from all external authority.

For Dostoevsky the human will transcends natural law but not moral law. The universe of human choice is subject to the moral pattern of Christ’s teaching, which centers on love of one’s neighbor and hence prescribes altruistic, not egoistic behavior. Dostoevsky’s description in A Writer’s Diary of what he calls “the Russian solution” to Europe’s (and humanity’s) problems in his day neatly summarizes his rejection of the unruly freedom preached by the Underground Man:

The way the world conceives freedom today is as license, whereas real freedom lies only in overcoming the self and the will so as ultimately to achieve a moral condition in which one at each moment is the real master of himself.... [T]he very highest form of freedom is ... “sharing everything [End Page 566] you have and going off to serve everyone.” If a person is capable of that, if he is capable of overcoming himself to that extent—is he then not free? This is the highest manifestation of the will! 30

Dostoevsky, as we know, had included in Chapter 10 of Part One a Christian disclaimer—he called it “the main idea” of Part One—to the Underground Man’s apotheosis of personal will, but it was unaccountably struck out by the censors. “[W]here I mocked everything and sometimes blasphemed for the sake of effect—it was permitted,” he wrote in astonishment to his brother Mikhail; “and where I deduced from all of that the need for faith and Christ—it was prohibited.” 31 He was distraught because he believed that without explicit presentation of “the main idea” the chapter was left disjointed and self-contradictory. It would have been better, he lamented, not to print it at all than to print it in its mutilated state. He did not explain what he found self-contradictory in it, but we may assume he thought that the Underground Man’s vague moral yearnings in that chapter were unexplained without development of “the need for faith and Christ,” and that they clashed with the immoral character he had given the Underground Man.

Ironically, the “swinish censors,” as he called them in his letter to Mikhail, may have helped him remain true to his artistic vision. In fashioning the Underground Man as a consummate egoist, passionately devoted to his own caprice, Dostoevsky could not at the same time convincingly impute to him developed Christian convictions, and of course he could not insinuate such convictions in his own voice without a jarring authorial intrusion into the Underground Man’s first-person narrative. Dostoevsky made no attempt in subsequent editions of Notes from Underground to restore the excised “main idea”—but neither did he drop the chapter. We may speculate that he came to accept the glimmers of moral conscience attributed to the Underground Man in what remained of Chapter 10 as not really inconsistent with an egoistic character, so long as the Underground Man did not either live up to them or even articulate them clearly. In any event, having used his fictional egoist effectively to discredit the theory of Rational Egoism, Dostoevsky reserved direct attacks on egoism itself for later works.

James P. Scanlan
The Ohio State University


* An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 29th National Convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, Seattle, Washington, 20 November 1997. I am much indebted to Maria Carlson, Caryl Emerson, and George L. Kline for helpful comments.

1. Chernyshevsky is often credited with coining the term “Rational Egoism” (in Russian, razumnyi egoizm); see, for example, V. Prilensky, “Razumnyi egoizm,” in A. I. Aleshin, et al. (eds.), Russkaia filosofiia: Malyi entsiklopedicheskii slovar’ (Russian Philosophy: Short Encyclopedic Dictionary) (Moscow, 1995), 435–36. In fact the term itself does not appear in any of his writings (or in Pisarev’s).

2. Robert Louis Jackson, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man in Russian Literature (The Hague, 1958), 40.

3. Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 1860–1865 (Princeton, 1986), 310–31. The other volumes already published are Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821–1849 (Princeton, 1976); Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850–1859 (Princeton, 1983); and Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865–1871 (Princeton, 1995). A fifth and final volume, covering the years 1872–1881, is in preparation.

4. Frank, Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 320.

5. Ibid., 322.

6. Ibid. (Frank’s emphasis).

7. See, for example, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York, 1994), 20–26. In this portion of the work in particular (Chapter 7 of Part One), there is no evidence that the Underground Man agrees on any level with the premises of Rational Egoism.

8. Caryl Emerson has pointed out to me the extent to which Russian writers from the 1840s to the 1860s were concerned with the problem of “self-love.” The theme is evident, for example, in Herzen’s Who Is to Blame?, Turgenev’s Rudin, and Tolstoy’s Family Happiness and The Cossacks.

9. F. M. Dostoevsky, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh (Complete Collected Works in Thirty Volumes) (Leningrad, 1972–90), XVIII, 120 (Dostoevsky’s emphasis omitted). The activities of the Petrashevsky circle and Dostoevsky’s role in it are examined in J. H. Seddon, The Petrashevtsy: A Study of the Russian Revolutionaries of 1848 (Manchester, 1985).

10. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Poor Folk and The Gambler, trans. C. J. Hogarth (London, 1962), 25, 78; The Short Stories of Dostoevsky, ed. William Phillips, trans. Constance Garnett (New York, 1946), 369–71; The Short Novels of Dostoevsky, intro. Thomas Mann (New York, 1958), 259, 264–65, 289.

11. Carl R. Proffer (ed.), The Unpublished Dostoevsky: Diaries and Notebooks (1860–81) in Three Volumes (Ann Arbor, 1973–76), I, 4.

12. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, tr. R. L. Renfield (New York, 1965), 110. The translation has been modified by reference to the Russian original in Dostoevsky, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, V, 79.

13. Dostoevsky, Winter Notes, 112.

14. Nikolai Chernyshevsky, What Is to Be Done?, trans. Michael R. Katz (Ithaca, 1989).

15. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Complete Letters, ed. and trans. David Lowe and Ronald Meyer (Ann Arbor, 1988–91), II, 78.

16. The numbers in parentheses refer to pages of Notes from Underground, tr. Pevear and Volokhonsky (see n. 7 above). I believe that the Underground Man’s request to the reader to “excuse [an] example from Roman history” (23) is an arch allusion to Chernyshevsky, who used many such examples in his essay “The Anthropological Principle in Philosophy”; see the excerpts from that work in James M. Edie, et al. (eds.), Russian Philosophy (Chicago, 1965), II, 50–51.

17. See, e.g., Dostoevsky, Complete Letters, I, 345–46; II, 32; III, 138, 275; IV, 23; V, 83, 89.

18. See, e.g., Frank, Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 329.

19. See the discussion of this point in Pevear and Volokhonsky’s “Foreword” to their translation of Notes from Underground, xxii–xxiii.

20. See Russian Philosophy, II, 3–108. Although there were significant differences of outlook between Chernyshevsky and Pisarev, both of them endorsed the principles of Rational Egoism as reconstructed here.

21. Ibid., 49.

22. Chernyshevsky, What Is to Be Done?, 169.

23. Dmitry Pisarev, “Thinking Proletariat,” tr. R. Dixon, in Edie, Russian Philosophy, II, 108.

24. Dostoevsky’s emphasis. To translate vygoda in this passage and below, “advantage” has been substituted for Pevear and Volokhonsky’s “profit.”

25. Pisarev, “Thinking Proletariat,” 97.

26. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov: A Novel in Four Parts with Epilogue, tr. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York, 1991), 252–56.

27. Fyodor Dostoevsky, A Writer’s Diary, tr. Kenneth Lantz, intro. Gary Saul Morson (Evanston, 1993–94), I, 132–45.

28. Ibid., 513 (translation emended to render Dostoevsky’s lichnost’ as “person” rather than “personality”).

29. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The House of the Dead, tr. Constance Garnett (New York, 1959), 113 (emended as in note 28 above). See Robert L. Jackson, The Art of Dostoevsky: Deliriums and Nocturnes (Princeton, 1981), 159–70.

30. Dostoevsky, A Writer’s Diary, II, 883 (translation slightly emended by reference to the Russian original in Dostoevsky, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, XXV, 62).

31. Dostoevsky, Complete Letters, II, 100 (Dostoevsky’s emphasis).

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