Dostoyevsky, the great Russian philosopher and novelist in his novel Notes from Underground, invented a character named the Underground Man to criticize the lifestyle of the people of his epoch. He noticed one unmistakable thing for which every single one has toiled– prosperity. It is in man’s advantage to strive for prosperity. The Underground Man questions this mindset. For him, it is reason that compels people to adopt such an attitude. Reason is viewed as a miraculous pill that can cure every disease. That’s not right. Perhaps, here is the punch line, suffering offers as much benefit as prosperity. Shocked?
By suffering, he does not merely mean, for instance, pain that an athlete gets from playing a football game; he especially means doubting the conventional wisdom handed on to us as if we must accept it without questioning. In his book called the Gay Science (gay means joyful here), Like the Underground Man, Nietzsche sees in suffering something worth desiring. It is the stimulant that inspires thinkers to think, and opens our window into the field of knowledge. It means going into the deep to find what no one before us has ever found, and finally it means disconnecting ourselves from the world in order to fashion a sharper eye to survey life. The kind of suffering that the Underground Man and Nietzsche are speaking about is not just speculatively, but practically; it is born from their own struggle with suffering. So what can be gained from the kind of suffering that the Underground Man and Nietzsche are advocating?
They believe that it allows us to think outside the box and so become independent thinkers. During Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche’s time, reason was the clearest path to knowledge. No one dared to criticize what was found by means of pure reason and logic. Dostoyevsky borrows the Underground Man’s voice to reject this convention. For him, one must be able to question, doubt, and even reject what was found through reason. There is nothing that says that reason is infallible. It is just like the ‘Crystal Palace’; it is invented by humans out of their own stupidity. The Crystal Palace represents, among many things, the rejection of rationalism. We must stick out our tongue at it. It’s just inappropriate to accept whatever reason tells us as if we depend solely on it to acquire knowledge. It is inhuman to not even try to engage and challenge reason. There is nothing that says reason always works in our best interest; we must stop treating it as the surest way to know the truth; it must not be seen as the mean to truth; if we surrender ourselves in the hand of suffering, we will find the truth as well. Nietzsche, to bring about the significance of suffering, compares it to a traveler. Just as a resting traveler knows that the clock counting the hours will wake him up at a particular time, the suffering person knows that something will wake him up too in the decisive moment. Suffering, for Nietzsche, is like sleeping while we remain conscious of what is happening around us.
Suffering is significant and even necessary because it leads to consciousness. It makes us live life actively. It is just impossible to remain passive when suffering is eating our bone. So it reawakens our consciousness to a magnitude that we cannot ignore. Hyper-consciousness distinguishes a great man from the ordinary man and the rest of the world. Although his acute consciousness makes him unable to act, it however makes him stand out. It allows us to immerse ourselves into the ‘sublime and the beautiful’. It allows us to see what no one else can see. Nietzsche does not see eye to eye with the Underground Man on this point about consciousness. It is not consciousness that allows us to stand out, it is instinct. “If the conserving association of the instincts were not much more powerful, and if it did not serve on the whole as a regulator, humanity would have perished of its misjudgments and its fantasies with open eyes, of its lack of thoroughness and its credulity… it would have disappeared”. The latter makes us a noble man and distinguishes us from the common type.
The unmistakable observation here is a craving for attention. In their view, humans would do anything to be noticed. It is true that they strike a cord that drives the nature of man. We all want to feed our ego. We all want to tell people that we are here and we matter, especially when we feel unneeded. That’s part of human nature and there’s no running away from that fact. However, I doubt whether a lucid, normal, rationally functioning human being would go to such length just to be noticed. We spend all our life avoiding pain; we accept it only when we know it will lead to something greater. For instance, we accept the pain of exercising, or the pain of surgery because it brings good health. We accept painful working condition because it brings financial security. It is true that suffering opens door to see life for what it is; It helps us questions, however suffering is not sought for its own sake. We make the best of it when it comes; we don’t run away from it, but we don’t yearn for it. We know sometimes it comes for our own good, but no one craves for it.
They offer suffering as an alternative to reason. Unlike what many believed then, reason of course is not the only mean to truth. Faith leads to truth as well. We need reason in the midst of suffering in order to rise above it. Faith is necessary in order to make sense of suffering. There is something we simply cannot arrive at without the gift of faith. Suffering (when it comes) can enable us to find the meaning and purpose of life, but the meaning of life is not found without the use of reason and faith. So although they are up to something, their thoughts are really too restrictive and incomplete to rally the ordinary man to their side.