“Notes from Underground” is a novel by F. M. Dostoyevsky published in 1864. The book hero is the author of the notes. He is a forty years old petty clerk, recently retired after receiving a small inheritance. He lives in a poor room on the edge of St. Petersburg. His “underground” is first of all psychological: being almost always alone the protagonist spends most of his time on dreaming and reflecting on images from the books he reads. In addition, the nameless hero explores his own mind and soul showing extraordinary intelligence. He believes that an intelligent man of the 19th century should be a thinker, whose only task is contemplation. Activity is a sphere of stupid, narrow-minded people. However, it is a common norm, while heightened consciousness is a real disease. The hero of the “underground” does not agree with obvious reality and feels guilty for an imperfect world order hurting him. Once in the restaurant, watching a billiards game, he accidentally blocked the road to an officer. Tall and strong, he silently moved the short and weak protagonist to another place. The hero of the book was about to start a quarrel, but chose to yield because of fear that he would not be taken seriously. For several years he dreamed of revenge; he tried not to turn off the road meeting the officer many times. Still, he did not notice the protagonist’s attempts. When the Underground Man finally walked straight at the officer he did not pay any attention to it. This internal struggle of the hero can be examined from different perspectives. The paper analyzes it from two dialectically related points of view: in the context of Plato’s social ideas expressed in his “The Republic” and according to Nietzsche’s theory of human motivation.
According to Plato, the greatest punishment is obedience to a man, who is worse than you. A good person never strives for power since this wish is shameful, but at the same time he/she suffers from the thought that he/she has to obey less clever and capable people. This is the main tragedy of Dostoyevsky’s hero. He represents a group of people, which Plato called “philosophers”: intelligent, but uncompetitive. They must exclusively rule an ideal state since they are motivated by pure prudence and reason (Baird 6). Plato’s philosophers provide welfare and justice to the state because their power is based on honesty, strong opposition to any kind of lie and love for truth. The problem of such a person is a conflict of two internal features: an aspiration to use his/her wisdom for the benefit of others and disability to obtain social position, which would make this wish come true. This is an answer to the question why Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man cannot realize his dreams. His mind is strong, but his will is weak. The Underground Man pays attention to many trifles such as buying new clothes to be treated more seriously, but they only distract him from his main goal. Plato considered this conflict as a division of people into men of thinking (philosophers) and men of action (guardians and workers). However, Plato’s ideal state is very different from the real society of the 19th century Russian empire. He described the whole system of bringing the philosophers to power. Largely, the rest of people are supposed to help the thinker to come to power in Plato’s ideal system instead of struggling against him/her as it is in reality. Thus, imperfection of social system creates obstacles for self-realization of people like the Underground Man.
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Nietzsche in his “Beyond Good and Evil” continued studying issues of humanity development. He followed Dostoyevsky with the description of civilization dangers for the soul of a person, but his motivation of human actions is different. Nietzsche exposes the shortcomings of Plato’s philosophers and describes the properties of “new philosophers”: imagination, perseverance, originality and “values creation”. Then he challenges some of the basic premises of the old philosophical tradition like identity, knowledge, truth and free will. Instead, he offers a concept of will to power as an explanation for any person’s behavior. Nietzsche emphasizes personal morale properties of the individual unlike Plato, who focused on the social system and its functioning. According to Nietzsche, the main sickness of modern society is slave morality and he calls new philosophers to step over it, to go beyond good and evil as the title of his book says. One can contradict that the word “modern” shouldn’t be used here since Nietzsche lived in the second half of the 19th century. However, his book has a subtitle “Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future”. He tried to predict future development of civilization and largely his forecasts came true.
Nietzsche rates the philosopher’s will higher than his intelligence. The lack of will is the primary disadvantage of the Underground Man. He is too much immersed in his contemplations and hesitation; he lacks Nietzsche’s will to power. An indirect evidence of this shortage is his career or rather its absence. By the age of forty, the Underground Man is a collegiate assessor – one of the lowest ranks in Russian empire of that time. Moreover, he has just retired from service and lives for a small received inheritance. It shows his absolute absence of ambitions, disability to struggle for his goal. In Nietzsche’s opinion, people like the Underground Man have no right for power no matter how clever they are. Their slave spirit is an anchor, which always makes them concentrate on other people and thus depend on them. A superman (Nietzsche’s term defining a perfect human) must be all-sufficient, self-reliant and independent (Safranski 262). Dostoyevsky’s hero has none of these features and therefore he is doomed to repeat his failures.
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Out of the two explanations of the Underground Man’s behavior based on Plato’s and Nietzsche’s theories the second one looks more plausible. Intelligence is not the only feature needed for climbing the social stairs. The Underground Man’s aim is not just to revenge, but to show his social status to the officer, to himself and to everyone around. So, this wish is closely related to the will to power, the central category of Nietzsche’s theory of human motivation (Deleuze 46). Besides, in the original book by Nietzsche written in German this category is named “der Wille zur Macht”. The German noun “Macht” meaning power is similar to a German verb “macht”, which means “acts” or “does”. Thus, Nietzsche’s concept of will to power is not an abstract dreaming of it, but particular actions aimed at its achieving. The Underground Man underestimates the importance of acting; he appreciates the power of the mind. Such a misbalance of thoughts and actions causes his deep psychological depression making the hero passively yearn for ideal society. This approach leads him to the underground in all senses: physical, psychological and social. Broadly, in the “Notes from Underground” Dostoyevsky described an eternal philosophical conflict of idealists and materialists started by Socrates and Plato, the first idealistic philosophers. The debate was continued by German philosophy of the 19th century (Kant, Hegel, Fichte defending idealism vs. Feuerbach, Marx et al. advocating materialism). Nietzsche’s theory of motivation is an attempt to solve this opposition correlating the spiritual world of the person with the surrounding. Consequently, this theory explains the internal conflict of the Underground Man better than Plato’s approach.
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In conclusion, Dostoyevsky novel “Notes from Underground” is a deep philosophical work. It does not only describe the society of the 19th century Russia but touches many philosophical ideas making the reader contemplate them. The main hero is a typical Plato’s philosopher who cannot reach the power due to lack of will. Nietzsche described similar situations in his philosophy stating that will to power is one more crucial feature together with intelligence for the “new philosophers”.
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