Dostoyevsky and Human Depravity

In his Notes from Underground, Dostoyevsky directly challenges the enlightenment thinkers of his day (the late 19th Century). He does so through the testimony of the underground man, who has sought to live their ideology to its logical ends. To those who believed that man’s freedom and happiness was to be found in becoming an awakened or enlightened—or we might say educated—individual, he offers the underground man. This man’s new consciousness opened his eyes to his own wickedness. This man’s quest for personal enlightenment, made him isolated and inactive. He was awakened to a war within himself, and he was at war with everyone around him (precisely because he thought himself more intelligent and more conscious). He is miserable. He lives in a world of ideas unable to “live life” and unable to love. He is presented as enlightened individualism at its logical end.

Even today, enlightenment is presented as our answer. How many times have you heard education as the answer to the problems plaguing our world? The assumption is that when we become conscious of what is good for us, we will stop doing destructive things. The underground man offers the following rant:

“Oh, tell me, who first announced, who as the first to proclaim that man does dirty only because he doesn’t know his real interests; and that were he to be enlightened, were his eyes to be opened to his real, normal interests, man would immediately stop doing dirty, would immediately become good and noble, because, being enlightened and understanding his real profit, he would see his real profit precisely in the good, and it’s common knowledge that no man can act knowingly against his own profit, consequently, out of necessity, so to speak, he would start doing good? Oh, the babe! Oh, the pure, innocent child! And when was it, to begin with, in all these thousands of years, that man acted solely for his own profit? What is to be done with the millions of facts testifying to how people knowingly, that is, fully understanding their real profit, 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 designed path, and stubbornly, willfully pushed off onto another one, difficult, absurd, searching for it all but in the dark. So, then, this stubbornness and willfulness were really more agreeable to them than any profit…Profit!”

According to the introduction of this book, Fyodor wrote to his brother lamenting the fact that the editors of Epoch (the magazine in which it was originally published) had censured the parts where he deduced “the need for faith and Christ.” As it stands, the book is an effective defense of the first half of the Gospel—there is no one who is good, not one. The book begins with the words: “I am a sick man…I am a wicked man.” And like the tax-collector in the Temple, that is the place where we must begin as well. “Have mercy on me a sinner!”


Rob Oliverio said...

I've been wanting to read more Dostoevsky ever since I read Crime and Punishment for a World Literature class.

From what you're saying here, Notes from the Underground sounds like a critique of Plato's view that moral evil is due to ignorance. (The Enlightenment revived this view, with the thought that humans, by using reason, could overcome moral evil.) Plato's Dialogues imply that knowing what virtue is can help us be virtuous, as Socrates often asks for definitions of particular virtues, as well as virtue itself.

I've sometimes found myself slipping thinking like Plato; my years in higher learning have made it natural to think that we could rid the world of much moral evil, if only we would educate people (especially the lower classes). It's very tempting to think so. But so often we talk about people who do wrong even though they "know better."

This leads to a question:

Do we really "know better" than to do a certain (wrong) action, or do we sometimes mistakenly think that a certain (wrong) action is actually right, or at least permissible?

Brett Berger said...

Two categories from Scripture came to mind - deceit and slavery. The sinner can be spoken of as deceived. They were tricked - tempted - led to believe something was good for them. The sinner can also be spoken of as a slave. They know what is right but they cannot do it.

Perhaps education does what Dostoy. described - opens our eyes to the truth of our condition - but it does not save.