In Job's Balances \ I \ The Conquest of the Self-Evident|
As a matter of fact, so long as we keep within the bounds of reason, within the limits in which life is set for common consciousness or omnitude, our understanding, our interpretation of what is happening around us is reduced to purely mechanical explanations. In the material world it is balance, in the moral world justice, which is only the same balance under another name. And the philosophy which aims at being a science cares only about solving the equation in which the universe explains itself to our intelligence in such a fashion that when the unknown quantities are found, the result shall work out exactly. No sacrifice is thought too great to achieve this object, which is held to be so indisputable that it is looked upon as the first condition, not only of thought but also of existence. To ensure that the balance be not destroyed, it is put in charge of the immortal and terrible Adrasteia. Verily this is no longer natural; it is the miracle of miracles. While it is only a question of "twice two is four", while we are still only dealing with abstract figures, it is all right. Here the invariability of the halves of the equation is to some extent guaranteed by common consent, by a sort of tacit social contract. But this does not satisfy science. It is not satisfied with reigning in the ideal world created by man. It wants also to rule in the world of reality; as in Pushkin's story, it wants the golden fish himself to be its servant, so it invents an Adrasteia who watches over the balance so dear to our reason. And science succeeds in doing this so inconspicuously, places the goddess at such a distance from the world of phenomena over which she is to rule, that no one suspects anything supernatural about the affair. The extreme of arbitrariness thus passes as natural necessity. Dostoevsky had to escape beyond all limits, to be in "ecstasy", before he dared see that Adrasteia's pretensions were "impudence", just as Plotinus had to be in ecstasy before he could free himself from the grasp of philosophical self-evidence.
Even today we hardly know, when reading Dostoevsky, whether we really have the right to protest against "twice two is four", or whether we should continue to bow the knee before it. Dostoevsky himself was not sure whether he had laid his enemy by the heels or whether he had succumbed again to the power of the law. He did not know it for certain to his last days. Having escaped from common consciousness, he had become involved in a labyrinth of endless intricacy, he could no longer judge for himself and did not even know whether this was a gain or a loss. He was obliged to seek out the most "dangerous absurdities", the most "uneconomic nonsense", simply in order to introduce a "fantastic and pernicious" element into all this wisdom.
A fantastic element! In other words, the problem with which he wrestled was not the natural order, determined once and for all, and therefore presumably intelligible, but Adrasteia herself with her eternal enigmas, her insoluble mysteries. The science created by common consciousness, banishes Adrasteia from sight, with all her caprices, fancies and miracles, and for the sake of a "quiet life", pretends that there is nothing miraculous or fantastic in the world. Dostoevsky hated "quiet" and all the benefits which "order" can procure for mankind. Therefore, neither our theory of knowledge nor our logic were able to impose on him in any way. He makes every effort, not to justify, but to upset all our self-evidence.
As befits a man from underground, he furnishes no proof. He knows quite well that if it comes to proofs, reason will triumph. Who ever heard of such an argument? To put out your tongue, to clench your fist! You revolt against it. How can one call such a proceeding "an argument" and insist that science should take account of it? But the underground man does not ask that account should be taken of him; and perhaps that is the most remarkable aspect of his personality. He realizes that universal recognition will give him nothing, and he has no thought of convincing others. He does not want to inscribe his thought on coming centuries, as on a tablet of stone; he does not try to direct history. His interests are foreign to "omnitude", and consequently foreign to history.
- "You believe in your glass palace, for ever indestructible, an edifice, therefore, at which one cannot so much as put out one's tongue, or clench one's fist even inside one's pocket. As for me, I mistrust this edifice perhaps just because it is of glass, indestructible for all time, and because one cannot put out one's tongue at it. You see, if instead of a glass palace, I possess a chicken-house, and it comes on to rain, perhaps I should slip into this chicken-house not to get wet; but though I might be grateful to it for keeping me dry, I should not look upon my chicken-house as a glass palace. You laugh, you say that in these circumstances palace and chicken-house are of equal value. Yes, I should reply, if you lived for nothing but to escape getting wet. But what if I had taken it into my head that one does not live for this alone, and that if one lives at all, one ought to live in a palace."
The underground man has no clear and definite object. He longs, ardently, passionately, madly, but he does not know, and he will never know, what it is for which he longs. Now he declares that he will never give up the pleasure of putting out his tongue, now he says that he has no particular wish to mock. At one moment he will say that the underworld amply suffices for him, he wants nothing more; the next he will consign it to the devil. Suddenly he launches into this wild tirade.
- "You laugh again", he says. "Laugh if you want to. I will accept all your mockeries, and yet I shall refuse to declare myself satisfied when I am hungry, I know still that I will not be pacified into a compromise. I will not admit that a vast slum tenement is the object of my desire. And although you do not regard me, yet I shall not burst into tears on that account. I have got my underworld, and so long as I exist or have a will of my own, may my hand wither before I carry a single brick to that house. Do not remind me that I have given up the glass palace of my own free will for the sole reason that I could not put out my tongue at it. I did not say that because I have any burning wish to put out my tongue. Perhaps what annoys me is just the fact that of all your buildings, up to now, there has not been one single one at which one needed to put out one's tongue."
What happens to the mind of the underground man has no resemblance at all to thinking, nor even to seeking. He does not think, he excites himself desperately, throws himself about, knocks his head against the wall. He inflames himself the whole time, dashing up to unknown heights of fury, to fling himself into God knows what abysses of despair. He has no control of himself; a force far greater than himself has him completely under its sway.
- "So, long live the underworld! I did indeed say that I envy the normal man with the last drop of my bile; but when I see him as he is, I have no wish to be in his place (though all the while I shall go on envying him). No, no! when all is said and done, underground is better! There one can at least... Ah! but I am lying again. I am lying because I know quite clearly myself, as well as I know that "twice two is four", that it is not underground that is worth so much, but some quite different place which I ardently desire, but shall never find. To the devil with underground!"
He to whom the Angel of Death has given the mysterious gift, does not and cannot any longer possess the certainty which accompanies our ordinary judgments and confers a beautiful solidity on the truths of our common consciousness. Henceforth he must live without certainty and without conviction. He will have to give his mind over into strange keeping, become inert matter, clay of which the potter must shape what he will. This is the only thing of which the underground man can be absolutely certain. He sees that neither the works of reason nor any human works can save him. He has passed under review, with what carefulness, with what superhuman effort, everything that man can accomplish by the use of his reason, all the glass palaces, and has seen that they were not palaces but chicken-houses and ant-heaps; for they were built on the principle of death, on "twice two is four". And the more he feels this, the more violently there wells up from the depth of his soul that more than rational, unknown, that primal chaos, which most of all horrifies our ordinary consciousness. That is why, in his "theory of knowledge", Dostoevsky renounces all certainty, and opposes to it as his supreme goal - uncertainty. That is why he simply puts out his tongue at evidence, why he lauds caprice, unconditional, unforeseen, always irrational, and makes mock of all the human virtues.
- "If only I myself believed a single word of what I have written here! I swear to you, gentlemen, that I do not believe a word, a single word of what I have put down here. That is to say, perhaps I believe it, but at the same time I feel and suspect, I do not know why, that I am lying like a trooper."