Notes From Underground

Can you be too conscious?

In his short 1864 book, Notes From Underground, Fyodor Dostoyevsky tells the story of a man who is “too conscious.” The man, whose name we never learn is so aware of his own thoughts and feelings as to cause him to be indecisive and overly self-critical. Add in his belief that societal expectations are shaping his actions and you have quite the memoir.

This acute sense of consciousness, he believes, sets him above his fellow man. The “normal man” is “stupid. . . . but perhaps the normal man should be stupid.” Unlike them, he’s never able to remove all doubt and act; he’s always questioning things whereas others question little and act easily. The “fruit“ of his acute consciousness causes “inertia,” a deliberate refusal to do anything, which he believes is more intelligent than uninformed activity.

The essence of all thinking and self-awareness

And all out of boredom, gentlemen, all out of boredom; I am crushed with tedium. After all, the direct, immediate, legitimate fruit of heightened consciousness is inertia, that is, the deliberate refusal to do anything. … all spontaneous people, men of action, are active because they are stupid and limited.

How is this to be explained? Like this: in consequence of their limitations they take immediate, but secondary, causes for primary ones, and thus they are more quickly and easily convinced than other people that they have found indisputable grounds for their action, and they are easy in their minds; and this, you know, is the main thing. After all, in order to act, one must be absolutely sure of oneself, no doubts must remain anywhere. But how am I, for example, to be sure of myself? Where are the primary causes on which I can take my stand, where are my foundations? Where am I to take them from? I practice thinking, and consequently each of my primary causes pulls along another, even more primary, in its wake, and so on ad infinitum. That is really the essence of all thinking and self-awareness. Perhaps this, once again, is a law of nature.

While the book is clearly intended as a deep literary work and, no doubt, people will spend semesters analyzing it, there are some obvious passages of pure brilliance dealing with a deep understanding of the world.

Like this one on bloodshed.

Have you ever noticed that he most refined shedders of blood have been almost always the most highly civilized gentlemen, to whom all the various Attilas and Stenka Razins could not have held a candle? –and if they are not so outstanding as Attila and Stenka Razin, it is because they are too often met with, too ordinary, too familiar. At least, if civilization has not made man more bloodthirsty, it has certainly made him viler in his thirst for blood than he was before. Before, he saw justice in bloodshed and massacred, if he had to, with quiet conscience; now, although we consider bloodshed an abomination, we engage in it more than ever. Which is worse? Decide for yourselves. They say that Cleopatra (excuse my taking an example from Roman history) liked to stick golden pins into the breasts of her slaves, and took pleasure in their screams and writhings. You will say that that was in barbarous times, comparatively speaking; that even today the times are barbarous because (again speaking comparatively) pins are still being thrust into people; and that even now man, although he has learnt to see more clearly than in the days of barbarism, is still far from having grown accustomed to acting as reason and science direct. but all the same you are quite sure that he will inevitably acquire the habit, when certain bad old habits have altogether passed away, and common sense and science have completely re-educated and normally direct human nature. You are convinced that then men will of their own accord cease to make mistakes and refuse, in spite of themselves, as it were, to make a difference between their volition and their normal interests. Furthermore, you say, science will teach men (although in my opinion a superfluity) that they have not, in fact, and never have had, either will or fancy, and are no more than a sort of piano keyboard or barrel-organ cylinder; and that the laws of nature still exist on the earth, so that whatever man does he does not of his own volition but, as really goes without saying, by the laws of nature. Consequently, these laws of nature have only to be discovered, and man will no longer be responsible for his actions, and it will become extremely easy for him to live his life. All human actions, of course, will then have to be worked out by those laws, mathematically, like a table of logarithms, and entered in the almanac; or better still, there will appear orthodox publications, something like our encyclopedic dictionaries, in which everything will be so accurately calculated and plotted that there will no longer be any individual deeds or adventures left in the world.

‘Then,’ (this is all of you speaking, ‘a new political economy will come into existence, all complete, and also calculated with mathematical accuracy, so that all problems will vanish in the twinkling of an eye, simply because all possible answers to them will have been supplied. Then the Palace of Crystal will arise. Then…’ Well, in short, the golden age will come again. of course it is quite impossible (here I am speaking myself) to guarantee that it won’t be terribly boring then (because what can one do if everything has been plotted out and tabulated?), but on the other hand everything will be eminently sensible. Of course, boredom leads to every possible kind of ingenuity. After all, it is out of boredom that golden pins get stuck into people, but all this would not matter. What is bad (again this is me speaking) is that for all I know people may then find pleasure even in golden pins. Man, after all, is stupid, phenomenally stupid. That is to say, although he is not in the least stupid, he is so ungrateful that it is useless to expect anything else from him. Really I shall not be in the least surprised if, for example, in the midst of the future universal good sense, some gentleman with an ignoble, or rather a derisive and reactionary air, springs up suddenly out of nowhere, puts his arms akimbo and says to all of us, ‘Come on, gentlemen, why shouldn’t we get rid of all this calm reasonableness with one kick, just so as to send all these logarithms to the devil and be able to live our own lives at our own sweet will?’ That wouldn’t matter either, but what is really mortifying is that he would certainly find followers: that’s the way men are made. And all this for the most frivolous of reasons, hardly worth mentioning, one would think: namely that a man, whoever he is, always and everywhere likes to act as he chooses, and not at all according to the dictates of reason and self-interest; it is indeed possible, and sometimes positively imperative (in my view), to act directly contrary to one’s own best interests. One’s own free and unfettered volition, one’s own caprice, however wild, one’s own fancy, inflamed sometimes to the point of madness–that is the one best and greatest good, which is never taken into consideration because it will not fit into any classification, and the omission of which always sends all systems and theories to the devil. Where did all the sages get the idea that a man’s desires must be normal and virtuous? Why did they imagine that he must inevitably will what is reasonable and profitable? What a man needs is simply and solely independent volition, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead. Well, but the devil only knows what volition.

Can you consciously desire something harmful and stupid?

…there is one case, and only one, when a man can consciously and purposely desire for himself what is positively harmful and stupid, even the very height of stupidity, and that is when he claims the right to desire even the height of stupidity and not be bound by the obligation of wanting only what is sensible. After all, this height of stupidity, this whim, may be for us, gentlemen, the greatest benefit on earth, especially in some cases.

And this one on history and reason.

In short, anything can be said of world history, anything conceivable even the most disordered imagination. There is only one thing that you can’t say – that it had anything to do with reason.

The law of humanity

Gentlemen, I am tormented by questions; answer them for me. 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? And to go to the root of the matter, why are you so positively convinced that not to act against his real normal interests guaranteed by the conclusions of reason and arithmetic is certainly always advantageous for man and must always be a law for mankind? So far, you know, this is only your supposition. It may be the law of logic, but not the law of humanity.


And why are you so firmly, so triumphantly, convinced that only the normal and the positive–in other words, only what is conducive to welfare–is for the advantage of man? Is not reason in error as regards advantage? Does not man, perhaps, love something besides well-being? Perhaps he is just as fond of suffering? Perhaps suffering is just as great a benefit to him as well-being? Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with suffering, and that is a fact. There is no need to appeal to universal history to prove that; only ask yourself, if you are a man and have lived at all. As far as my personal opinion is concerned, to care only for well-being seems to me positively ill-bred. Whether it’s good or bad, it is sometimes very pleasant, too, to smash things. I hold no brief for suffering nor for well-being either.

Are you a slave?

… you have to admit that you’ve been a slave from the start. Yes, a slave! You give yourself and your own will up completely. And afterwards, if you want to break those chains, it will be too late; the shackles will get strong and stronger. Those damnable chains.

I prefer the paperback but you can find a free version online.