Notes From Underground: Rational Egoism, Existentialism, and Christianity

I have just finished reading Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky, along with secondary essays on the book. The novel, composed in two parts, is a satirical piece of Dostoevsky’s writing that paints an image of Chernyshevsky’s views as a rational egoist, and puts those same views through scrutiny by ‘Reductio Ad Absurdum.’ Chernyshevsky, a contemporary was part of a movement called ‘Rational Egoism.’ They held that 1) man acts according to self-interest and that 2) man ought to act according to man’s self-interest. Dostoevsky, in Notes From Underground seeks to negate Rational Egoism, and does so well, in my opinion.

What he does, is first supply a contradicting character painted as a true egoist, not a rational egoist. This ‘Underground Man’ shows the absurdity that goes with rational egoism. The Underground Man introduces something that might trump Rational Egoism, a most profitable profit that outweighs any ‘self-interest’ one might be compelled to satisfy.

…there may well exist something that is dearer for almost every man than his very best profit, or (so as to not violate logic) that there is this one most profitable profit…which is chiefer and more profitable than all other profits, and for which a man is ready, if need be, to go against all laws, that is, against reason, honor, peace, prosperity–in short, against all these beautiful and useful things–only so as to attain this primary, most profitable profit which is dearer to him than anything else. (Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky)

At the conclusion of that same chapter, The Underground Man identifies the most profitable profit as “One’s own free and voluntary wanting.” It is man’s will that is above what is “rational” or for “self-interest.”

It is clear that Dostoevsky disapproves of Rational Egoism. Now, he seems to include another philosophical movement: existentialism. Existentialism, in a minuscule nutshell, is the belief that the expression of free will (free from morality, law, religion, culture, etc…) is what one ought to do. Dostoevsky was, in fact, an existentialist. However, there might as well be an asterisk next to his name among the list of existentialists (as well as Soren Kierkegaard–both are ‘Christian Existentialists’). Dostoevsky did advocate for the expression of free will, but not in the sense as going against morality, law, and religion. Dostoevsky saw the expression of freedom as the expression of responsibility. I believe he strikes a chord of truth in that, all freedom seems to have an aspect of responsibility, which most people would find paradoxical.

From our knowledge of Dostoevsky’s Christian value system…we can be sure that for him man’s “most advantageous advantage’ lies not in free choice as such [i.e. being beyond law and morality] but in free acceptance of Christ and His moral message. (Dostoevsky as Thinker by James P. Scanlan)

Here we more clearly see that Dostoevsky had in mind the freedom to live in Christ, to have unbelievable grace through Jesus Christ. To be forgiven of and freed from the sin that snares us by Jesus Christ (justification) and the Holy Spirit (sanctification).

In Notes From Underground, we see the rejection of Rational Egoism through contradiction of the narrator and the concurring support of existentialism on Dostoevsky’s part.


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