Great Books 102: Renaissance to Modern

Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground: Slavery to Self, Freedom in the Other 


Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground is partly a response to an element of 18th century Western philosophy known as rational egoism, which suggests that people are products of external forces and free will does not exist. In other words, man is a purely self-interested being. Dostoevsky offers a harsh critique of the egoists in the form of the Underground Man, who describes himself as sick and spiteful, though he insists on his free will, even if the only expression of that will is spite. In part two of the work, he describes his youthful interactions with others, which fall short of the romantic notions of the sublime and the beautiful that he deeply desired. Dostoevsky ultimately points to Christ as the model for human interaction.   


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Recommended Readings

Discussion Questions

  • Why does the Underground Man lie and complain about what ails him?
  • How is Notes from Underground a response to rational egoism?
  • What can one learn from the Underground Man’s interaction with Liza?

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Justin A. Jackson is a Professor of English at Hillsdale College, where he has taught since 2004, and where he currently serves as the Director of the Hillsdale College Writing Center. He received both his B.A. and M.A. from California State University, Fresno, and his Ph.D. from Purdue University.