Indeed, from the very beginning, we have to stop and take breath. And these words, "let me take breath", might serve as the conclusion to every one of the succeeding chapters. Dostoevsky himself, and his readers, have their breath taken away by the tempestuous rush of wild, "new" thoughts which well up from the secret depths of his being. He does not understand what he is feeling, nor why these thoughts come to him. Are they even thoughts, or simply diabolical whisperings? Do they portend good or evil? There is no one to ask, no one can answer these questions. Neither Dostoevsky himself nor any one else can be certain that these questions can be asked, or that they have any meaning whatsoever. But it is not possible to put them on one side, and sometimes it does not even seem necessary to do so.
For instance, re-read this sentence: "The man of the nineteenth century must be a characterless individual; the man of action must be a commonplace person." Is this a serious conviction, or a collection of words without meaning? At first sight there can be no question about it - nothing but words! But let me remind you that Plotinus, "universally recognized" as one of the greatest thinkers of antiquity (of whom I think Dostoevsky never even heard), expresses exactly the same thought, although in another form. He also opines that the man of action is always mediocre, that the essence of action is limitation. The man who cannot, or will not, give himself to thought or contemplation is the man who acts. But Plotinus, who is quite as "distraught" as Dostoevsky, says this very quietly, almost as though it were a thing that goes without saying, that every one knows and every one admits. Perhaps he is right: when one wants to contradict the verdict of every one else the best thing is not to raise one s voice. The problematic, even the inconceivable, is often quite easily admitted to be self-evident if so presented. Later on Dostoevsky himself sometimes made use of this method, but at the moment he was too violently moved by the new "revelations" which assailed him, and was not master of himself. Moreover, Dostoevsky was not sustained by the philosophical tradition on which Plotinus could lean, for Plotinus was the last of a long line of great Greek thinkers; he had behind him nearly a thousand years of intensive philosophic activity: the Stoics, the Academicians, Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Parmenides and all the masters of word and thought whose authority was universally acknowledged.
Plato, too, knew the "underground", but he called it a "cave" and created his splendid and world-famous myth in which men were likened to prisoners in a cave. But he did it in such a way that no one thought of calling Plato's cave "underground" nor calling Plato himself a sickly, abnormal being, one of those for whom normal men have to invent theories, treatments, etc. The same thing happened to Dostoevsky "underground" as to Plato in his cave; his new eyes were opened and found only shades and phantoms where "every one saw reality; and in that which was nonexistent for "the world" he saw the only true reality.
I do not know which of the two better attained his object: Plato, who was the creator of idealism and submitted all humanity to his influence, or Dostoevsky, who expressed his visions in such a form that every one turned from the underground man with horror.
I said "attained his object", but I think I expressed myself badly. It is probable that neither Plato nor Dostoevsky consciously pursued any definite aim when they spoke, the one of his cave and the other of underground, just as one cannot attribute a conscious aim to a being passing for the first time from nothingness into existence. Aims are only horn later, much later; "in the beginning" there is no aim. Man is oppressed by a torturing sense of nothingness, a sense which has not even got a name in our language; the so-called "inexpressible", which is not, however, really inexpressible, but simply as yet unrealized, in process of formation. We can give a certain idea, or at least an indication of this feeling by saying that there is in it a very definite sensation that the state of equilibrium, of perfect achievement, of complete satisfaction considered by common consciousness as the ideal of human thought, is absolutely insupportable (for "common consciousness" read Dostoevsky's "omnitude" or Plato's "many").
Antisthenes, who called himself a pupil of Socrates, declared that he would rather lose his reason than feel pleasure. Diogenes too, whom his contemporaries looked upon as a Socrates gone mad, feared equilibrium and achievement more than anything in the world. It seems that the life of Diogenes reveals the true nature of Socrates in some ways more plainly than Plato's brilliant dialogues. At least, any one who wants to understand Socrates should study the ugly face of Diogenes as well as the more engaging classical features of Plato. Perhaps Socrates gone mad is that Socrates who will speak most honestly about himself. For the matter of that, no sane man, whether foolish or intelligent, will really speak to us about himself, but only about things that can be useful or helpful to every one. His sanity lies in the very fact that he makes statements which are useful to all, and does not even see anything that is not good for all people and for every occasion. One might say that the "sane" man is "man as such". And it is perhaps one of the most curious paradoxes of history, and one which should attract the attention of the philosophers, that Socrates, who was less of a "man as such" than any one else, demanded that people should consider him as the archetype of man as such and nothing else. This thought of Socrates was afterwards taken up and developed by Plato; only the Cynics, those precursors of the Christian saints, tried to expose Socrates' secret to the world. But the Cynics have passed away without leaving any traces in history.
The strange thing about history is that with an admirable, almost human and conscious art, it effaces all signs of anything strange and extraordinary which happens in the world. That is to say, historians, those who interest themselves most in humanity's past, are convinced that everything accomplishes itself in the world "naturally" and "with sufficient reason
The first object of history, as always understood, is to reconstruct the past as an unbroken series of happenings linked together by causality. To historians, Socrates is and can only be a "man as such". Whatever was peculiarly"Socratic" about him "had no future" and consequently did not exist in the eyes of the historian. The historian only attributes significance to things that merge with the stream of time and contribute to it. The rest does not concern him. He is even convinced that the rest disappears without leaving any trace. This residue, which makes Socrates what he is, is in fact neither matter nor energy, which is preserved by the uncreated and therefore eternal laws. The real Socrates is, in the eyes of the historian, that which cannot be preserved. He comes, he goes. He was, he is no longer. That sort of thing cannot figure in the accounts either of earth or of heaven. All that counts is Socrates "the man of action", he who has left traces of his passage on the stream of social life. Even today we find a use for Socratic "thought". We read of certain actions which can serve as examples to us: his courage, his calm in the face of death. But Socrates himself - who needs him? It is just because he is not necessary to any one that he has disappeared and left no trace. If he had been necessary there would have been a "law" to conserve him. Is there not a "law" for the conservation of matter, a law which ordains that not a single atom can go back into non-existence?