Freedom in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground Essay
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Freedom in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground
In Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, the Underground Man proposes a radically different conception of free action from that of Kant. While Kant thinks that an agent is not acting freely unless he acts for some reason, the Underground Man seems to take the opposite stance: the only way to be truly autonomous is to reject this notion of freedom, and to affirm one's right to act for no reason. I will argue that the Underground Man's notion of freedom builds on Kant's, in that it requires self-consciousness in decision-making. But he breaks from Kant when he makes the claim that acting for a reason is not enough, and only provides an illusion of freedom. When faced with the two options of…show more content…
So far, the Underground Man and Kant are in agreement. However, Kant believes that the endorsement of desires consists of having a reason to act on that desire, a reason based on what we perceive as some good. The type of good is unspecified - it could anything from the satisfaction of egoistic aims to the betterment of the human race. What is important is that we establish for ourselves what type of good on which to base our reasons. Free action is impossible unless we formulate our reasons independently; more specifically, we must decide for ourselves what is a good reason for acting. Although the Underground Man agrees that we must formulate our own reasons, he rejects the notion that reasons based on any concept of a perceived good can ever really be our own.
This rejection of reasons as a basis for autonomy stems from his belief that freedom is virtually impossible in a largely deterministic and evolutionary universe, where everything is determined by the 'laws of nature' to which he constantly refers. The Underground Man believes that the feeling of freedom engendered by acting for a reason as opposed to acting blindly is an illusion. He says of men with limited consciousness that ìthey take immediate and secondary causes for primary ones, and in this way they are more quickly and easily convinced than others that they have discovered an indisputable basis for their activityî (19). In other
1. Some critics see the Underground Man as insane, while others see him as a fairly lucid—if maladjusted—observer of society and his place within it. Evaluate the Underground Man’s sanity, using concrete examples from the text.
2. The city of St. Petersburg is an important presence throughout the novel. Select one passage and explain how St. Petersburg affects the Underground Man. How does the city function as a character in the text?
3. Though the Underground Man is not meant to represent Dostoevsky himself, interesting comparisons can be drawn between the two. What are the most significant similarities and differences between them?
4. Dostoevsky was famously wary of the Roman Catholic church. What evidence for this bias can be found in Part I of Notes from Underground?
5. Dostoevsky had a great talent for showing his readers the world through the confused eyes of his characters. How does he use this ability to heighten, rather than diminish, the sense of realism in the novel?
6. Though elements of Notes from Underground are tragic, the text is not a “tragedy” in the formal sense. How does Dostoevsky create this modern, realist story in a manner very different from the classical literary expectations of tragedy? Which elements from older forms of tragedy does he include, and which does he exclude?
7. The Underground Man abhors the way in which progressive thinkers of his era worship reason, but he does not necessarily totally reject reason outright. Discuss his attitude toward reason and logic. What value does he assign to logical, rational thinking, and how does he make use of it? For a starting point, pick a passage and begin your discussion with a close reading.