Freedom over Fate: How the Underground Man is Not Free

By Damien Knight

I shall start with a quote from The Underground man himself. “Ha! Ha! Ha! But after all, if you like, in reality, there is such thing as choice.” (Dostoevsky, p.24), In the readings a major theme was free will and morals. Is the good life a free life or are we controlled by fate? To what limits are these freedoms?

In Fear and Trembling freedom is limited by morals or by faith. For Abraham he is both free and bound. He must, due to duty, serve God even if God orders his son’s death. Still this faith left him free. Free of ethics we become bound by faith. “A tragic hero can become a human being by his own strength, but not the knight of faith. When a person sets out on the tragic hero’s admittedly hard path, there are many who can lend him advice; but he who walks the narrow path of faith no one can advise, no one understands.” (K. p.95) This states how even Abraham who seeks freedom from ethics through the duty of faith is not free from being alone. Freedom is fickle.

The Underground Man rants about how he is spiteful but is not so. He does what he does because he can. In the Grand Inquisitor the Grand Inquisitor questions Jesus, telling him that med do not want this kind of freedom. Where Jesus denies the adversary his temptations, the Inquisitor says man could not handle choice, and the Church accepted temptations. They gave miracles to men and bread they may eat. Freedom was not possible for men. In this parable on human freedom the Inquisitor says, “today, people are more persuaded than ever that they are completely free, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet.” For the Inquisitor the temptations are symbolic of the Church’s duty while Jesus was the symbol of free will.

Free will was the thing the Underground Man valued most. Even though he refused to seek medical help out of “spite.” He wanted to do what he wanted because he enjoyed it. Even when he became so miserable with his hyper-consciousness, he found pleasure from it. Freedom leads him to misery; a free life does not mean a happy one. For him he is ‘content’ miserable and expressing his free will of choice instead of being happy but not making his own choices.

Like the Inquisitor and Abraham, the Underground Man is not free. He in fact by force of insisting on being spiteful out of choice is now a life of determinism. A life fated by spite. His choice to choose is not a choice at all. He says himself he was “a coward and a slave. I say this without the slightest bit of embarrassment. Every decent man in our age must be a coward and a slave.” (Dostoevsky, P. 41) He expresses again his “free will” by exclaiming this does not embarrass him. He is once more proving his limitations. He cannot be embarrassed that he is not free as it is not expected he would be.

While the writer wants us to value free will and seems to say we exist on choice, this is not true. It is one prison or the other. You are a prisoner of faith, society or self. You may think you are free its only symbolically so. You can be free from morals but you have duty, or you are free from duty but now serve morals and law. When you are truly free, crash the party and let inhibitions go, even then this could be the expected.

What then is free will? It is the ability to choose your prison. You choose whether to be happy or a miserable slave. The good life it seems does not exist at all. Life is just life, you live it and you die. It is not controlled by fate, but it is not free either. We might become cynical “conscious” sheep or joyous faithful murderers. What we are not is truly free.

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