A neoBuddhist interpretation of Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, part 1.
I know it must seem odd at times, that in 2011 when originally thinking about AI ethics, It was decided to found the OpenSource Temple, rather than something like a research institute, for developing a system of ethics, for AI, which would hopefully not recreate the same problems and internal contradictions which we currently have.
Dostoevsky wrote Notes from Underground in 1864. That same year, he lost his wife,
Maria and his brother, Mikhail. Despite those personal tragedies, Dostoevsky managed to create
a novel that’s incredibly profound, funny and tragic, all at the same time. I have a feeling that in some way, notes from underground was more about exploring the various ways his brother, Mikhail, dealt with his alcoholism. Though it seems more likely that he was killed rather than “died of tuberculosis” like the wife, Maria. However the main character, the “man from the underground” is not simply an insertion of Dostoevsky’s’ brother Mikhail, mostly made obvious by the man being a civil servant.
It was in many ways about how “Rational Materialism” became Nihilism, and the kind of world view that imposes on it’s adherents who these days, would call themselves Atheists but also includes many rational egoists on the conservative side, who consider themselves to be more like radical materialist and rationalist.
The man from the underground, henceforth to be referred to as ‘The Man’ is clearly a composite character which was representing several different, but entirely common, personalities and beliefs of that time (1860’s) and the dynamics are surprisingly similar to those of today. (and Germany in the 1910’s. Petty assholery is quite the constant. ) Mired in Materialism and Rationalism as “the answer” which is ultimately embodied in capitalism. But much like capitalism, ignores and pretends doesn’t exist, all the things they cannot explain, which also happens to be the bulk of human behaviors and pursuits. Thus is equally incapable of resolving the externalizes of it’s beliefs, the transitioning from religious and philosophical ideals, to replacing everything with “market ideals” that are have ultimately caused the problem we call climate change, as well as the source of the inability to address it meaningfully, despite being more dangerous than a world war.
Materialism relies on science and rational thinking, Which makes it so attractive and functional in the short term, however at the same time, serves things it cannot describe, selfishness and greed, pretending they are the highest ideals. Which ostensibly entrenches caste systems, because it entrenches the economic inequalities of the society as those with the most materials, try to control every one else, and relegates humanity to a material thing with no intrinsic value. Something materialists would never say out loud and atheists unwittingly agree to. For various reasons, but chief among them that consciousness can not be measured empirically via science, and thus, does not exist.
Because the west is so preoccupied with itself, they totally failed to note that the USSR was at it’s core a communist state with rational materialism at its core ideology, while also being responsible for some of the worst atrocities in history. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have repeated all the same mistakes of rational materialism in modern libertarianism. Ironic? Well, after reading this, it did give me a different view of “burning the man” who, I had previously assumed, was simply an anti-government thing, now I can see it’s something else, and some Russian oligarch I am sure was trying to see if anyone in the west had read Dostoevsky, though to be fair, this time around, much like in the 1930’s as opposed to the 1860’s, is that the language used to get across the same ideas, originated from a much older caste system, while it’s participants pretended to be Buddhist. At least, that is the excuse I think they will use.
As “Notes from underground” also seemed to be a lot about the personalities and problems which often prevent activism from being effective in the first place, as embodied by The Man. Most importantly from my perspective, The Man, is a coward. This is actually the most dangerous kind of person for activism, as they are the most likely to become traitors, spies, or provocateurs. The coping of cowardice that is regular throughout “Notes from underground” also demonstrate a lack of intellectual development as I will point out. The Man, is maybe more like the modern day MAGA cult.
Because in the story is suggests that he is actually well educated, but I think that simply means attended higher education like college or university, the thoughts and actions are not those of a particularly smart person. There is also the flip side of that coin which is often embodied by Liza the unfortunate woman, who also despite her wishes, is more like a “government assigned girlfriend” for she has a slave mentality. Those treated badly, and unintelligent, become biter for the rest of their lives and they try to enact their resentment onto others. Wherein the seeds of tyranny are fomented in the form of populism.
Dostoevsky’s most sustained and spirited attack on the nihilist (materialist) movement is voiced by one of the darkest, least sympathetic of all his characters – the nameless narrator and protagonist known as the Underground Man, revealing the hopeless dilemmas in which he lands as a result. The Man represents the negation of all pre-existing ideals. Rational egoism emerged as the dominant social philosophy of the Russian nihilist movement, proposing that we are only rational if we maximise our own self-interest (selfishness), sharing similarities with utilitarianism, both mostly noted for their failure to address deeper philosophical issues but more importantly, trying to build a philosophy based around selfishness, which is actually not a prosocial behavior, that via some unknown twist, would become the greater good. As if people could not contribute to “The greater good” without financial incentive.
These days we can laugh in their faces and consider things like the Open Source Software movement, which under-girds almost half of the global economy.
Dostoevsky saw the rise of rational egoism as a genuine danger, because by glorifying the self it could turn the minds of impressionable young people away from sound ideals and values and push them in the direction of a “true”, immoral, destructive egoism. True is in quotes there, because ultimately without a grounding in some ideals, it’s all moral relativism of the remarkably overconfident narcissist.
The truth sometimes burns it seems. And there is a very large contrast between that and the western principle of individuality as an ideal, which is also an ideal of neoBuddhism. That is not the same as selfishness. Though I am sure a dumber person wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between these things. This is how conscious self-sacrifice, which cannot spring from any calculations of self-interest, is possible in neoBuddhism, eventhough the west and neoBuddhism, are based around enlightenment ideals. Ideals which are not about selfishness or the self. Clearly through “notes from underground” these issues are hardly unique to the west or capitalism, those simply happen to be the most common and obvious examples. The Man is under the influence of egoistic individualism, considering himself as an “educated man, a modern intellectual” who has lost all capacity for selfless moral feeling.
As for other metaphors in “Notes from the underground” in my opinion, it seems that Dostoevsky tended to try and embody metaphors instead of stating them. The man from underground, The Man, is stated to live in something like a basement, but I think this is the metaphor for the inauthentic mask which is worn for public interactions, whereas the “true self” is under the mask, hidden, seeing the world but seldom interacting with it. This is the alienation of The Man as a reflection of the atomization of society. Where due to what would be today called “concern trolling” and other forms of microaggressions, on top of a very authoritarian government, competition for leadership and resources, even among the activists, is expressed as virtue signaling, as such the only allowed behaviors are those which are passive aggression, while regular low level aggression is literally criminalized. This is how opposition is controlled and potential leaders of opposition are targeted and removed by the banality of the state and those around them, that is why “wokeism” does not seem to be a nativly western phenomena, but an expression of the slave mentality as propagandized through buying ads on social media and supporting those types of creators, who express the most emotional sensitivity, as fragile egos are the easiest to puppet. It’s just another aspect of astro-turfing that was demonstrated by the US “tea party” in the 2010’s as fossil fuel interests took over most of the conservative party and and thus the political system for the US went up for sale under dark money, which was capable of such long and drawn out philosophical “lessons” which have been devastating the US populace ever since.
Those who don’t know history it seems.
That being said, on to the chapter by chapter critique of “notes from underground”
There is an audio version available here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDm0havBnWQ
It starts out with The Man talking to himself and admonishing himself, calling himself wicked (or ), sick (from liver Cirrhosis from alcoholism) and stupid, which is a bit odd but sets the tone for the story. The archetype that follows, that Dostoevsky struggled to articulate, is that of what seems to be a covert narcissist. Though as this is a composite character, and several other archetypes are displayed. He also mentions that he is superstitious, or is prone to magical thinking.
The man struggles with trying to determine if he was wicked or not. While none of his behavior was particularly bad, and by that metric, was good. But he also talks about how much joy he took in the power dynamics with the public as a civil servant. But at least he didn’t take bribes.
Then there is an interesting twist in his logic which is not that dissimilar from the show “Rick and Morty” where he believes that smart people cannot get ahead, and only dumb people get to be sucsessful, which explains his current situation, because in his mind he is smart.
But in reality, that is quite different and ultimately it’s a mixture of both, due to circumstances of inequality, but there are some functioning meritocracies. The point here being, it’s not uncommon for unintelligent people to think they are smart and the people saying things they don’t understand are dumb. This displaces the fault from themselves on to everyone else. Though he wasn’t poor or oppressed either, he was a decently paid and supposedly educated civil servant.
He goes on to say men of action are limited by the system and only willing figureheads and puppets are enabled to effect changes on the world, which is a over generalizing of nepotism and populism, which does not occur everywhere.
He then goes on to describe his apartment as bad, though it’s interesting that he has a servant women, so clearly he is not poor. Though he feels poor and acts poorly, this is the poverty of his intellect, not his bank account.
Then he proceeds to claim that people are in general, smarter than they need to be. That is just regular anti-intellectualism from someone who thinks they are an intellectual. And he claims that he, and everyone else, aand their “sicknesses” are what people take pride in which I think could be translated to vices.
Then he claims that there is not just too much consciousness, but any consciousness at all, is a sickness.
While he is clearly misusing the word consciousness here, I think hr is referring to conscientiousness, caring about social issues. In other words, he is trying to say that activism is some sort of vice and that is what is wrong with the world. A true conformist.
He then suggest the more “conscious” he was, of good, and beauty, the more depressed he got. Probably because his inability to measure up, which is why he felt shame. Then admits that he was conscious that he did some injustice that day, out of deriving pleasure from being a tyrannical civil servant, from the power dynamics of using the system against people for petty reasons, which made him depressed when he went home and became “conscious of it, and thus, the fault lay with heightened consciousness”
He then claims that he got pleasure from despair and then blamelessly to blame. “according to the laws of nature” While mostly talking about futility of changing anything, in true nihilist fashion. Thus even if he was magnanimous to the “higher consciousness”, it wouldn’t change anything. Thus there isn’t really a point to caring about being magnanimous or “being good” like generous or forgiving, especially toward a rival or less powerful person. The opposite of covert narcissism.
So far in the story, up to chapter 3, The Man has actually been a little bit insightful as he He criticizes the idea that rationalism and logic can solve all human problems. The Man suggests that excessive rationalism and the pursuit of utilitarian benefits can lead to a dull and unfulfilling life. He believes that human desires are complex and often contradictory, driven by factors beyond mere rational self-interest. Along with the conflict between reason and human desire, suggesting that people often act against their best interests for the sake of maintaining their freedom and individuality. Which is to say that what he referred to as smart people who are conscientious, are held down, and only those who go along with populism, are successful. This is primarily through his struggle around determining if his own identity is of a good person. Which mostly is an exploration of the irrational aspects of human nature within himself. The Man acknowledges his own contradictions and embraces them. He often uses irony to make his points, critiquing the very notions he seems to advocate for.
The first part of chapter 3 is The Man, describing the “average man” which turns out to be himself, which is like some kind of mouse (or rat …) who is laughed out of activism when his questions became too much, but the fact that he was laughed out instead of yelled out, suggests that he probably often said dumb things, while being unaware of that and assuming it was because he was “asking too many questions” then it becomes apparent he is talking about himself, when he describes the average man, a mouse like thing, sulking back to an apartment much like his own. Here the core of the covert part of covert narcissism is revealed when admits he spent hours of his time spitefully ruminating. It’s a very stereotypical activity of people with fragile egos which is not limited to covert narcissists.
This is where he gets the notion of “thinking too much” which forms the basis of his subconscious anti-intellectualism. After previously basically suggesting that ignorance is bliss and that if he didn’t care about things he wouldn’t suffer, thus nihilism was the obvious answer, to him.
Then he proceeds to suggest that “revenge” would not work because he would be punished, so microaggressions were the only “revenge” he could take, ostensibly, being passive-aggressive as the acceptable behavior.
Then he seems to claim that he has not experienced any violence, not so much as a slap, though he may have slapped some people. That might be a metaphor for abusing his power as a civil servant.
He then seems to go on a bit of a rant about rationalism and utilitarianism and how, by it’s nature of being based on physics, cannot be refuted. (sort of like some string theorists …) but really, it’s just that he’s not smart and couldn’t come up with arguments, on top of the fact that tons of people lie with numbers and somehow this seems insurmountable and immutable as the laws of physics to “the average man”
While we neoBuddhists also believe that rational materialism is not the answer to building a better society, it’s due to the inability to value immaterial things, such as ideals, not because it’s impossible to challenge intellectually.
I think this is what forms the basis of his “ignorance is bliss” argument. His inability to challenge rationalism while knowing some things were wrong, but he couldn’t articulate what that was, other than to suggest it was the “sickness of a higher consciousness”
Ultimately he settles on his own blamelessness and nihilism, because rational materialism is seen as being like “the laws of nature” Which is simply to fail to understand the limits of those beliefs which makes the “walls” of religious an other dogmas which are irreconcilable with eachother. So his answer is the justification of moral relativism in his own nihilist belief system, which pretends to be rational.
More so, there is nothing and no one to be angry with, and everything is just chaotic randomness which is “the law of nature”
Now on to chapter 4.
He seems to start complaining about communities based around suffering, or what are sometimes called “the oppression Olympics” where people try to one-up eachother as to who suffers the most, while explaining that they are exaggerating but he can’t figure out why they bother to do so, they must take pleasure in their suffering, because he totally fails to note that, those things are also just attention seeking much of the time. I say this because from what I have noticed, people who have truly suffered, rarely want to actually reminisce about the suffering. But I guess this is how The Man justifies his ruminating, as “taking pleasure in suffering”. Wow, that’s quite a bit of mental gymnastics. Possibly Olympic level. I think he also conflates the attention they get from the oppression Olympics, with pleasure in suffering. So entirely paints the desire for attention as both suffering and pleasure, while denying the attention aspects. In this way he can obscure the pain from failing to meet his own ideals, while simultaneously blaming everyone else for failing to meet his own ideals. So the covertness aspect of his narcissism is transformed into a sort of martyr complex which fuels and justifies his spitefulness and rumination.
This chapter seems to be him describing being a concern troll. He talks about how his retreat into his imagination, disconnected from the world, was the only time he was happy. Immediately after which he seems to describe concern trolling. Where he would act offended when he was not, until he actually became offended as the interaction went on. That he would at times, take offense for “just so, for no reason. And even in the moment he knew he didn’t have a reason” in neoBuddhism, we call that petty assholery.
Failing to note that, it was because he wanted attention. This is the core of his inability to see himself from the 3rd person and genuinely introspect, his ruminations are in some ways introspective, but only of his interactions and feelings, somehow his excessive narcissism and why he feels the way he does, often eludes him and he draws incorrect conclusions, mostly this is what confirmation bias looks like in the extreme. He claims that the source of these irrational behaviors within himself, are a result of boredom. You can tell that Dostoevsky is showing his hand here, as The Man “introspects” that the problem is that most people are looking at the secondary or second order effects, while entirely missing the primary ones, like his emotional outbursts and acting out. You can tell this is Dostoevsky giving hints to the reader than something “The Man” himself would think, because if The Man actually knew this things, like being able to find root causes of issues instead of getting lost on some tangential effects, he would be able to notice things like ruminating are not actually useful or pleasurable.
So in effect, because these are monologues of The Man, so there is noone there to point out that these are his own behaviors that he somehow can only see in other people, while somehow also correctly noting that those things are the problem in of themselves. So Dostoevsky is trying to put himself in the shoes of this mindset, while commenting on it in a way that, if the person actually had the thoughts those comments represent, they would have the knowledge to break the cycle of ruminating, which just might enable them to develop the self control required, to change himself in the way he wants. But that possibility is dismissed out of hand in the first chapter and is one of the cornerstones of his beliefs, which are related to those of determinism. Which is what happens when rational materialism encounters attempts to describe humans and human behavior through a mechanistic lens, where everything is a foregone conclusion to this idiot, who thinks they are good person for conforming. After all, to an idiot, most things seem unknowable, which is the preferred notion for moral relativism, which justifies all the other assholery. So it’s clear that is Dostoevsky speaking through him, because if he was smart enough to notice those things, he wouldn’t have these problems in the first place. While believing that ignorance is bliss … which is why Dostoevsky referred to it as “slave mentality” which is in many ways, also the basis for the caste system, where everyone “has their place” in life, or the local hierarchy, and nothing changes because “changes” would bring instability and they have all these irreconcilable differences and internal contradictions. So as a spiteful, petty civil servant, he was also the creator and enforcer of that same caste system by pretending its “the law of nature”
I assume that he assumed that most of his readers would not be able to figure out this slight of hand with “The Man” who constantly conflates his own identity with that of the average, intelligent and conscientious (at least externally) person. Switching from first to third person quite fluidly and regularly. Which in many ways, is a loss of individuality, which has been replaced with alienation while simultaneously being conformist and narcissistic. Quite a feat of looking in the mirror.
Back to the story, which continues with The Man, talking about revenge. And conflates self-righteousness as a form of primary cause or basis for justice. Which justified his spiteful and petty behaviors which were quickly forgotten after they occurred, like a fleeting emotion.
He is somehow aware that he is fooling himself, and that is where his self-loathing comes from.
Then for some reason he suggests that “an intelligent man does not start or finish anything” which is what makes himself intelligent. That sounds a lot more like Attention Deficit Disorder, and quite possibly maladaptive daydreaming.
Which he immediately follows with “but of course I am a babbler, a harmless, irksome babbler, as we all are” Which I assume is him politely trying to admit he is a bullshitter.
To summarize, chapter 5 seems to mostly cover The Mans’ own psyche and what he assumes is human nature by generalizing his own behaviors of covert narcissism to be the norm. Through his monologues Dostoevsky enables him to questions the authenticity of the behaviors and moralities imposed by society. He critiques conventional morality, suggesting that societal standards of good and evil are arbitrary, thus creating the basis for moral relativism. The Man expresses his critique of society and his feelings of alienation from it. He sees society as superficial and unable to accommodate the complexities of his nature. During The Man’s struggle with his personal demons. His introspection reveals a deep sense of conflict and dissatisfaction with himself and the world around him. Which he eventually suggests that this is ok because “we all are”
Confusingly, he seems to consider being lazy a job. But it seems to be more of a reflection on alcoholism, and how generous he is, when drunk. Because he loves all that is beautiful and lofty.
For this, he demands to be respected and will persecute anyone who does not respect him. Sounds very much like a cop there. For some reason he associates being fat and having a rosy nose, with his ideal form, I guess because that represents a comfortable life or something, certainly isn’t sexy, he seems to just want to be lazy and agreeable and thinks that would be “the good life”
A short and confusing chapter for sure.
It starts with a long and convoluted explanation that only naive people can be good, because no smart person would ever choose self-sacrifice to others over their own profit.
Then Dostoevsky intervenes here again, pointing out that the commodification of materialism and utilitarianism, cannot really cover intangible values, like the value of a life, or the value of the good life. All monetary value is a distorted and often disconnected from the intrinsic value of things. Even going so far as to suggest that selfishness is the most profitable thing of all which cannot be included in utilitarianism. Which is posed as rhetorical questions.
Then he goes on a long rant trying to assert determinism is the reason everything is the way it is, and nothing could be any other way, and that at some point, all possible questions will be answered and suddenly everything will be able to be calculated and predictable. The failure of this sort of utopian ideal, is covered in the series “All watched over by machines of loving grace” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_Watched_Over_by_Machines_of_Loving_Grace_(TV_series)
Which was way before AI was really a thing, but it’s based on the the same overconfidence in determinism. It kind of amazing that he was talking about logarithms in 1864. I wonder if he was secretly a time traveler … hey it’s a religion and I can believe what I want.
Ultimately he seems to suggest that “wanting” which may be greed, or selfish desires, is “human nature”.
It seems he is trying to convey that at the time this was written, the popular belief is that selfishness could be overcome with purely rational materialism, or that rational materialists claimed that it was not possible to be selfish under rational materialism, because of the rational parts, and thus anything a rational materialist does, is not out of “wanting” but only because it’s “the rational thing to do”
So he is at least pointing out the large amount of bullshit and word games nihilists like to play while pretending their reasons for things are not petty and selfish when they are, with simple denial via the lack of capability for empirical measurement of selfishness or “wanting” thus rendering it somehow non-existent. That is hardly limited to rational materialists, and is just an aspect of dogma or being dogmatic via a slight of hand with language around anything that is immaterial, despite it’s effects on the world, as non-existent or impossible within whatever dogma they are espousing, what he referred to as “walls” previously.
And suggests that once psychology is figured out as if it were a math, only then “man would stop wanting” Hilarious overconfidence in psychology.
Chapters 9 and 10
Chapter 9 starts with a fairly reasonable questions around why “human nature” needs to be changed at all, through rationalism or otherwise. “How do you know man can be, let alone must be, changed in this way” of course the answer has a lot to do with how humans evolved with a scarcity mindset which isn’t nearly as valid in an urban environment where food is never far away. This scarcity mindset is often considered to be the origin of selfishness, but in reality, people can be selfish even with a mindset of abundance, so the issue has more to do with culture than it does with “human nature” which is also what the rationalists were asserting. It’s true to varying degrees, but at the same time, there is enough variation and irrationality built into the evolved human, that even with a rational framework etc.. some people would still be that way. Which has more to do with being unintelligent in a way that is not just about lack of information, but being literally too dumb to understand the philosophical reasons and consequences even after being informed of them. So it’s more an aspect of being an idiot than human nature, it just so happens that all humans go through a period of being an idiot, often referred to as childhood. Some mature out of that, others never do, so even with a rational framework, would still be irrational and driven only by hedonistic pursuits. But primarily he is raising a claim that that these behaviors are natural and how can they know that rationalism will be any better.
He suggests that “2×2 is 4” as a shorthand for science, though good, if everything was figured out, then man could loose the search for meaning.
He also takes a moment to suggest that not all humans would want only hedonistic pleasure, and some people find meaning in suffering, which is not something that could make sense in materialist rationalism, though he doesn’t say why. It seems Dostoevsky is obscuring that things such as self-development or learning a new skill, necessarily go through a process of suffering during the learning process, and in this way is good for the person, but rationality would try to remove the suffering and thus the value of the development or “search for meaning”
The rest of the chapter seems to be various ways of complaining that the primary problem of “the crystal palace” which is probably a reference to several things, not only rational materialism, but that it also attracts authoritarianism and silences all criticisms, the censorship and conformity associated with the crystal palace, seems to be his primary complaints about it, and rationality in general.
Then he finish with a complaint that, once people come “out of the underground” to change things, all they do is talk, talk, talk.
He starts with claiming that apathy and inaction are better because you can’t change anything and everything is a hassle. Then it gets quite confusing as he lists a bunch of contradictions, such as that he wrote this book out of boredom.
This covers part one of Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.