Notes from Underground

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One word that has come to represent the mid-18th century Enlightenment movement is “Reason”. The French philosophes believed that reason could provide critical, informed, scientific solutions to social issues and problems, and essentially improve the human condition. Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground is one of the most famous anti-Enlightenment novels for its rejection of these very notions. Through this novel he showed what he believed were gaps in the idea that the mind could be freed from ignorance through the application of reason, and the rejection of the idea that humankind could achieve a utopian existence as a result. The story revolves around the thoughts and rants of an unnamed character that we shall refer to as “The Underground Man.” In Dostoevsky’s time, the term "man" or "men" referred to all humankind, and the Underground Man seems symbolic of what could happen to mankind should the endless application of reason take over. Dostoevsky seems to be making the statement that rationality is indeed useful for analyzing situations but is ultimately damaging to the self if focused on constantly. Reason does not, as many Enlightenment thinkers believed, free man but instead takes something away from the essential human existence. It reduces us to something that can be scientifically explained, forcing us to lose a fundamental piece of what makes us human in the process: “All human actions will then, of course, be classified according to these laws – mathematically, like a logarithm table, up to 108,000 – and entered in a special almanac…with such precision that there will no longer be any actions or adventures in the world” (24). The Underground Man suggests that the one “most advantageous advant... ... middle of paper ... .... This complexity causes him to doubt every single decision and make any type of action impossible, which is why he believes only narrow-minded people who are not able to question their actions are the only ones who can act with confidence. Taking all this into consideration, it seems impossible that excessive reason and consciousness will eventually lead to progress – it will do just the opposite, when using the Underground Man as an example. One can find much anecdotal support in Notes from Underground that this is an anti-Enlightenment novel – far too much to be included in this short book review. Even from the few examples listed here and through the Underground Man’s discourse throughout, it is easy to see the explicit rejection of the Enlightenment notion that reason would free man’s mind of ignorance and set humankind on a path to a utopian existence.
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