On Dostoyevsky, Human Nature, and Free Will

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Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The works of Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881) rank among the greatest ever produced by the human mind. Dostoyevsky was able to capture the fundamental nature of humankind, with all its conflicts and contradictions, in his vivid stories. Among the most important is actually a shorter work: Notes from Underground. In this text, Fyodor Dostoyevsky centers the plot around an unreliable narrator and his dismal existence. Central to the text is an existential critique of human nature: “Shower him with all earthly blessings, immerse him so completely in happiness that bubbles dance on the surface of his happiness, as though on water; grant him such economic prosperity that he will have absolutely nothing else to do but sleep, eat gingerbread, and concern himself with the continuance of world history — and that man, out of sheer ingratitude, out of sheer devilment, will even then do the dirty on you. He will even put his gingerbread at risk and deliberately set his heart on the most pernicious trash, the most uneconomical nonsense solely in order to alloy all this positive good sense with his pernicious, fantastic element.”[1]

Even from the beginning, Dostoyevsky’s underground man (a retired civil servant) expresses his contradictory and fundamentally irrational nature: “I’m a sick man…I’m a spiteful man. I’m an unattractive man. I think there’s something wrong with my liver. But I understand damn all about my illness…I’m refusing treatment out of spite.”[2] Why adhere to rationality if it means the extinction of free will, the negation of the individual? Scientific notions and ideas of progress were pouring into Russia by the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Utopian socialists were particularly entranced by their own theories of how to improve society. Naturally skeptical of such perspectives, Dostoyevsky was interested in deep analyses of the human condition. “No world order based on reason and rationality could possibly contain this seething chaos of the human psyche; only religion (Eastern Orthodoxy) could aid man to overcome his capricious and destructive propensities.”[3]

Even if a utopia were brought into existence, the first thing people would do is break it. What interests Dostoyevsky in his contrasting rationality and human nature is the significance of a society’s metaphysical substructure. For Russia, he identifies this with the Eastern Orthodox Church. A purely rational, empirical approach does little to nothing with human nature, nor the bottom-up way in which human intelligence evolved over millions of years. The contemporary Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, influenced by Dostoyevsky (as well as Jung and Piaget, among others), traced the development of how humans understand and interact with the world. Frist there is prosocial behavior (how people interact with one another). On top of this, there are symbols — symbolic representations of what prosocial behavior might be like. From this, people can begin to articulate abstract positions and theories (first ritually (religion) then theoretically (philosophy). This is a bottom-up approach to the development of knowledge in an approach centered in human psychology. Thus, the theoretical knowledge is predicated on behavior, symbolic, and religious knowledge. Dostoyevsky understood this at some level in the nineteenth century. Fyodor Dostoyevsky was exploring the depths of the human psyche, concluding that transcendental values are an essential bulwark against an ungrounded purely empirical outlook.


[1] Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground. p.28.

[2] Ibid., p.3.

[3] Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time., p.413–414. As a Classical Humanist, I normally recommend going straight to the primary sources and largely disregarding what came after. However, there are exceptions to every rule. Biographer Joseph Frank is a clear example of this. His master work (whether one reads the abridged biography or the full five volumes) sheds invaluable light on Dostoyevsky and his ideas. Indeed, I would go so far to say the work should be considered mandatory reading for any Dostoyevsky scholar and should be listed among the dozen or so best biographies ever written.

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