Human Nature in Dostoevsky’s “Notes from the Underground”

Existentialism has only recently shown me its realistic outlook on the human condition. In life, we’re going through stages. My personal experiences involve nihilism, stoicism, and existentialism – it’s essential to question what is certain, including your own life philosophy. It’s funny how different experiences and books influence us. Together, they create our own individual selves – and Gen Zers are still figuring it out.

One of the first and most prominent existentialist thinkers, the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, expressed his outlook on the human condition in his novella “Notes from the Underground.”

In his work, Dostoevsky criticized the moralistic philosophies for their failure to recognize the true nature of humans. Since the times of Plato, we’d been looking for essence, a meaning in our lives. Many a philosopher called their followers to strive for coming back to the natural state of being.

Examples from the Past

History has seen a fair share of ideological dogmas. In different cultures and places, those stories took the form of religions, philosophies, or other moral codes. Three of them: Christianity, Buddhism, and stoicism have one thing in common. They’re all based on the premise of the good and noble natural state of being to which humans should try to come back.

This claim is widely discussed in the Bible. At the beginning of times, humans were living in Eden, in accord with nature and each other. Their humble souls knew no hatred, no negativity, no ill-will. Through millennia of wars, crusades, and ill-doing, we’d been trying to reach that initial perfection. We tried to imitate Jesus, to express only love. 

Buddhism is yet another religion that speaks of loving thy neighbour, approaching every living being with compassion, and sharing the love within yourself. To become a Buddha and reach the divine state of nirvana, one has to cut oneself off from all emotions, desires, and suffering. To stop the process of rebirths of the spirits, one must get rid of all the pain and all the feelings; become empty in the ultimate – and initial – form of being.

Similarly, stoicism claimed that the true human nature is that of temperance, justice, wisdom, and courage – the four virtues of stoicism. For quite some time, I adored this noble philosophy. Doing my best to keep my temper and control my emotions, I pursued the path of peace and understanding. Especially, having got out of the nihilistic vicious circle to face my demons, stoicism seemed to be the path. Following in the footsteps of Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, I thought I finally understood what this life is about.

How foolish I was. How foolish many of us are.

Existentialist Perspective

Through the lens of existentialism – especially the one of Dostoevsky – all these attitudes are wrong in their preconception of human nature. Christianity, Buddhism, and stoicism (and many others) encourage you not to take any offence, to pursue noble virtues, to strive for perfection – because it is natural. Could you imagine a more naive claim?

Looking at history, at all the people that ever roamed this Earth, and at all the people who surround you – saying that nobility and virtue are human nature is a misconception and a fault in observation.

We, humans, are emotional. Many of us are egoistic, we often hurt other people, we often feel offended. Our decisions are stupid, we act on a whim. In wars, we kill each other; in political disputes, we call each other names; when drunk, politically incorrect jokes entertain us; in discussion, we try to argue our own point of view, not seeking the truth.

So, if that’s what we all do – all the time and throughout human history – with the exception of very few idols , isn’t that human nature? Aren’t we ugly and stupid? Aren’t we – human?

In addition, what would make anybody think that there is but one way to live our lives? Why do we seek purity, chastity, and logic, whence we are the exact opposites?

Finally, isn’t living in itself more important than how we live? Who is there to tell you how to live, what meaning to seek, what values to pursue – if it isn’t you?

Looking at how irrational and egotistic people’s behaviours are on the big scale, it’s irrational and egotistic to claim that the contrary is human nature. Humans are illogical and emotional, hence moderation, temperance, and thoughtfulness are all but natural to humanity. They might be noble goals to pursue, but we need to keep in mind the ambiguity of all intentions behind humans’ actions.

What about ridding oneself from suffering and desire? Removing pain removes freedom from one’s life. The utopian vision of society is unnatural and takes away the freedom of life! Nothing is black or white, and some events may simultaneously destroy and heal us, or make us stronger.

Would you like to live with the awareness of all this suffering, without the ideal vision of the future of equality and happiness? You have to choose whether you wish to have an ignorant, blissful life, or a disillusioned yet realistic outlook on the world.

In “Notes from the Underground,” a book you should read mindfully, Dostoevsky claims that the intelligent (the disillusioned and realistic) one envies the blind mass, who don’t care or understand the motives behind politics, philosophy, or existence; who live their lives careless, just because they do; who fret over petty problems and never question what is certain – their beliefs, identity, actions. The intelligent one envies them, yet they would never like to switch places with them.

Blissful ignorance or painful reality?

Which one do you choose?

Published by Dawid Tysowski


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