Dostoevsky was a big influence on Nietzsche, and it’s very interesting to read them in parallel because Dostoevsky is of course a dramatist and Nietzsche is a philosopher, and it’s almost as if Dostoyevsky wrote the drama and Nietzsche provided the philosophical commentary.
They’re very very powerful to read together. This is from notes from underground. It’s a very short book about this character who is a bureaucrat, nasty-sort-of bureaucrat.
He knows he’s a nasty sort of bureaucrat.
All he does he spends his whole life trying to make life more miserable for people because he’s so resentful and and crushed and weak and so he just did nothing but abused his bureaucratic position and used his trivial bit of power to lord it over people.
He gets a little bit of an inheritance and quits.
And this is his confession, Notes From Underground. He’s the Underground man.
It’s viciously funny, and it’s so psychologically alive if you’re interested in psychology it’s a spectacular book and it’s only about a hundred pages long.
Anyways, he’s arrogant and nihilistic and resentful and what he does is he tries to justify his life to himself and does a very poor job of it even though he’s trying to be honest. There’s a lot of honesty in it at one point.
He meets a woman who’s been forced out onto the streets because there weren’t very many options for women in the Victorian period who had fallen a follow of economic necessity and he basically in a fit of false messiah-nism offers to save her.
Which he can’t because he’s completely useless.
He can’t save himself even.
But he offers to save her and she more or less accepts, and then when she shows up having sacrificed a tremendous amount to do so he basically tells her that he was toying with her and joking and makes her situation far worse than it was to begin with.
Because you see he repents and he says what he’s like. He’s this horrible person.
He knows that weak and resentful and then he confesses and then he says: “Well now I’ve confessed!”
“I’m a better person.” Then he tries to do something good.
But he hasn’t changed a bit, not a bit.
The confession was just to make himself feel better and so he offers to help someone and pulls them right into the right under the water where they drown.
In short, one may say anything about the history of the world anything that might enter the most disordered imagination.
The only thing one can’t say is that it’s rational the very word sticks in one’s throat
This is a good example of the existential criticism of the idea of rationality Dostoevsky says well. Lots of things operate according to rational principles.
But let’s think about history for a minute
Especially from the perspective of a thinking and feeling being.
History is a slaughterhouse.
It’s a catastrophe and how would you ever consider that something rational?
Dostoyevsky’s point his rationality fails in its analysis of something as complex and terrible as history.
The only thing one can’t say is that it’s rational the very word sticks in one’s throat. In short one may that is continually happening:
There are continually turning up in life moral and rational persons, sages and lovers of humanity who make it their object to live all their lives as morally and rationally as possible, to be, to be, so to speak a light to their neighbors simply in order to show them that it is possible to live morally and rationally in this world
And yet we all know that those very people sooner or later have been false to themselves,playing some queer trick, often a most unseemly one.
Now I ask you:
What can be expected of man since he is a being endowed with such strange qualities?
This is a criticism of utopianism. That’s what he’s trying to do right?
Because the utopian ideas were starting to emerge in Russia at about this point in the 1880s.
The idea that you could reorganize society so that material privation would disappear and that as a consequence the paradise would be ushered in.
Dostoyevsky was no fool.
He knew perfectly well: a) that that was never going to happen but even more importantly that if you gave people exactly what they wanted, even what they needed, there’s no reason whatsoever to presume that that would make them any more sane than than they already are.
Now and then he takes that further because he says well, you can give people cake and material goods until they are satiated and they’ll still be ungrateful and insane.
And you might think well, that’s pessimistic.
But then he says well–wait a minute. What makes you think that that insanity isn’t EXACTLY what’s valuable about people?
What makes you think you would ever want to take that away?
And that’s the case that he makes.
Shower upon him every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface; give him economic prosperity such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even then out of sheer ingratitude
…man would play you some nasty trick.
He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity simply to introduce into all this positive good sense his fatal fantastic element.
It is just his fantastic dreams his vulgar folly that he will desire to retain, simply in order to prove to himself as though that were so necessary that men are still men and not the keys of a piano which the laws of nature threatened to control so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing, but by the calendar.
And that is not all:
Even if man really were nothing but a piano key, even if this was proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse out of simple ingratitude simply to gain his point. and if he does not find means he will contrive destruction and chaos, will contrive suffering of all sorts just to gain his point.
He will launch a curse upon the world.
As man is the only animal that can curse it’s his privilege the primary distinction between him and other animals may be by his curse alone he will attain his object–that is, to convince himself that he’s a man and not a piano key.
If you say that all of this too, can be calculated and tabulated, chaos and darkness and curses, so that the mere possibility of calculating it all beforehand would stop it all, and reason would reassert itself, then man would purposely go bad in order to be rid of reason and gain his point.
I believe in it, I answer for it, for the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he’s a man and not a piano key.
It might be at the cost of his skin, it might be by cannibalism. This being so can one help being tempted to rejoice that it has not yet come off and that desire still depends on something we don’t know?
You will scream at me…
(that is, if you condescend to do so)
That no one is touching my free will, that all they’re concerned with is that my will should of itself, of its own free will coincide with my own normal interests with the laws of nature and arithmetic.
Good Heavens, gentlemen, what sort of free will is left when we come to tabulation and arithmetic, when it will all be a matter of twice two makes four?
Twice two makes four without my will. As if free will meant that.
It’s brilliant I think.
It’s one of the most remarkable criticisms of utopianism I’ve ever read.
It’s so intelligent. It’s like, what makes you think that if you had everything you asked for that that would satisfy you?
What if being dissatisfied is part of what satisfies you?
What if the fact that you have to have limits and need them and that there’s an element of insanity in the world and that there’s an element of insecurity and vulnerability
What if that’s what you need? What if it’s what you want?
What if that’s, what gives your life meaning?
You’re going to be like a lion after he’s eaten a zebra and do nothing but sleep.
It hardly constitutes the appropriate human paradise.
What makes people think that merely providing economic security would be sufficient? Who wants that?
It’s what you offer a cow in its pen so that it remains calm and fat.
It’s not something for human beings.
And that’s Nietzsche’s fundamental point. He formulated forty years before the damn Soviet Revolution. When that sort of utopianism was put into practice with absolutely catastrophic consequences.
Get Dr Peterson’s book (I prefer the audio version) of 12 Rules For Life