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Living Underground

by Dan Garro 2 years ago in Humanity
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Lessons from "Notes from Underground"

“I agree that two times two is four is an excellent thing; but if we’re going to start praising everything, then two times two is five is sometimes also a most charming little thing.” - Dostoevsky

The other day, my class and I discussed the first part of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. I highly recommend it if you are unfamiliar with it. It is a truly unique work, one that manages to both challenge and entertain the reader in unexpected ways.

In Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky questions the classical view of the Western Tradition. The classical view puts reason, intellect, on a pedestal and defines humans and their worth solely in terms of it. Dostoevsky takes issue with this view because it defines man only in terms of reason and ignores all other aspects of being human, of being a person.

Through reason we strive to make things regular, comfortable, communicable, and knowable. We apply concepts, we group things, we make judgments, and we classify things in the world so that we feel secure and can grasp what we experience. This causes us to ignore particulars in favor of generalizations.

When we think of a dog, for instance, we think of a generic conception of a dog, not the unique individual dogs that exist. Likewise, when we think of a pine tree, we think of a generic concept of a pine tree not the unique pine trees that exist in the world.

On the one hand, this is an excellent skill and a useful tool. It makes us capable of quickly identifying, classifying, and comparing things in the world. On the other, it is potentially dangerous because in seeking similarities and in making things similar we overlook the particular individuals and unique specimens that actually do exist.

Reason’s drive to conceptualize also has negative implications for us. We employ the same tactics on ourselves and other human beings that we do on everything else in the world. In doing so, we group, classify, and make similar what is, in actuality, unique and different.

During an election year, for instance, many of us group fellow citizens by political party affiliation. We begin to act as if society is comprised only of republicans and democrats rather than individuals who have complex, nuanced views and positions. We strip the world of its uniqueness and diversity in our attempts to make it intelligible. We, in short, generalize.

The main problem is that when we think of ourselves as primarily rational creatures, our generalizations and conceptualizations are, as it were, turned against us. In our attempt to understand ourselves, to make ourselves intelligible and to be part of the world—to live above ground—we apply self-concepts and limit ourselves in the process. We conceive of ourselves as conforming to standards and ideas and in doing so we lose the unique, particular individual we are.

Dostoevsky captures this nicely when he writes: “I agree that two times two is four is an excellent thing; but if we’re going to start praising everything, then two times two is five is sometimes also a most charming little thing.” Rational concepts and perspectives are an “excellent thing.” We can communicate, understand, know, and conceptualize our world. We can make sense of things and find security and comfort in the process.

The problem, however, is that focusing only on reason causes us to ignore our full development as unique individuals. We ignore or deny our emotions, we ignore our physiological responses because these sorts of things are not rational, they are not transferrable, not communicable in the world that reason dominates. The underground man must live underground because he cannot be an individual above ground. Above ground he must be something society understands, he must conform and become a part of the social world. In doing so, he loses himself as a particular.

Society pushes us to conform through socialization, social conditioning, social pressures, norms, and standards. The social is a celebration of the world reason has created, not the individuals we are. When we communicate, for example, we must subsume our particularity under a generic, universal concept in order to be understood.

Consider the seemingly simple act of expressing your love for someone. You find yourself in a situation where you have intense feelings for another person. The other person cannot know what you as a particular individual experience when you feel love for them. To communicate your love, you must take the unique, particular experience that you identify and subsume it under a generic concept that conveys the general idea. The moment we communicate something we strip everything truly unique and particular away to convey some basic, generic idea to the other, to the world.

When Dostoevsky says that “two times two is five is sometimes also a most charming little thing,” he means that rejecting the rationalizations, rejecting the push to conform and expressing one’s unique self is also a most charming thing. As individuals we should find ways to realize our individuality, to realize ourselves.

What we learn from Dostoevsky is that to develop as a whole person, to realize our authentic selves, we must sometimes seek the underground where we can be ourselves and occasionally affirm that “two times two equals five is also a most charming little thing.”

In Notes from Underground, we are reminded that reason is an excellent thing, that our higher cognitive faculties are wonderful and make so much possible, but that, in the end, it is only reason and not in any way representative of the whole person, the individual. To spend time underground is to spend time with oneself, away from the social pressures and demand to be understandable. If we become more self-aware, we might learn how to start doing what will, in the end, result in our full self-expression and self-development.

“reason…is a fine thing, that is unquestionable, but reason is only reason and satisfies only man’s reasoning capacity, while wanting is a manifestation of the whole of life—that is, the whole of human life, including reason and various little itches.” - Dostoevsky

Thanks for reading! Please like and share.

If you like my work, check out my article, Curiosity, Perplexity, and the Wisdom of Socrates

Also, check out my two short stories: Potential – a short tale from Crystal City; Happiness – a short tale from Crystal City


About the author

Dan Garro

Philosopher/Educator/Writer/Podcast Host & Producer

I'm a philosophy professor, avid reader, I love writing, and I co-host/produce The Existential Stoic Podcast.

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