Rebels to Reason: Dostoevsky and Irrational Free Will

As Walter Lippman once stated, every political and social system has, at its centre, either an implied or explicit assumption relating to the fundamental nature of human beings (Wright, 1922). Generally, this assumption is based on either an optimistic interpretation of human nature which characterises it as malleable and subject to improvement, or a more cynical consideration which labels it as static and tragic. What a certain system believes about human nature will condition not only its general explanation of reality but also its prescription for how society and individuals should behave in the future.

Mucha, A. (1914). Abolition of Serfdom in Russia [Painting].

Human Nature

One of the most famous confrontations regarding human nature and its influence on society took place in the 1860s in Russia, between Fyodor Dostoevsky and Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Following the Russian defeat in the Crimean War (1856) and the death of Tsar Nicolas I (1855), the country would enter a period of reform in an attempt to confront the vast social, financial and industrial issues facing a backwards Russian state and society. Along with the attempted overhaul of the political, educational, and economic systems in Tsarist Russia, Tsar Nicholas II would free 50 million Russian Serfs or 80% of the Russian population. The following period would be one of political tension and tumult, in which the future of Russia was debated widely. This debate primarily took place within the educated intelligentsia class, and primarily through the medium of literature (Pipes, 1960). In Russia at the time, though censorship had been relaxed under the new regime, political avenues to change remained closed, leading to literature acting as the primary forum for political discussion (Murphy, 2016, p. 49). During this period, Chernyshevsky wrote what is widely considered one of the most influential books of all time, What is to be Done? (1863) in three months during his imprisonment in the Peter and Paul fortress in St. Petersburg. Subsequently, Dostoevsky would write his famous work Notes from the Underground (1964) in response.

In What is to be Done? Chernyshevsky sought to inform readers of the new radical movement in Russia at the time, Nihilism, which centred on a complete rejection of traditional moral, cultural, ethical, and religious ideals. Generally viewed as a precursor to Marxist-Leninism, Nihilism and the ”new men” who characterised it espoused rational thought, science, and socialism as a means to bring about radical change to an outdated and backwards Russian society (Murphy, 2016). Additionally, their philosophy was characterised by a social and intellectual iconoclasm which rejected social hierarchies and religion and stressed the equality of all people (McCarthy, 2018). At its essence was an optimistic interpretation of human nature which stressed the perfectibility of human beings and human society; yet for humanity to achieve this perfect society, it must first ”be emancipated from historical encumbrances which still hold it in fetters” and ”become its own god”, relinquishing faith in a transcendent god (Chernyshevsky, 1989, p. 276). 

Russian Information Bureau (1918). N G Chernyshevsky [Illustration].

Dostoevsky, on the other hand, a deeply religious Russian Orthodox, rejected the Nihilists primarily on the grounds that they sought the destruction of traditional Russian ideals of morality, ethics, and religion which he believed held society together, albeit poorly (McCarthy, 2018). In contradiction to Chernyshevsky and the Nihilists, and stemming from his deep religiosity, Dostoevsky believed that humanity needed God, since humanity was fallen and imperfect, and needed “a transcendent figure which could serve as a model to guide it” (McCarthy, 2018, p. 17). In this sense, Dostoevsky posited that “a person’s highest goal [was] to love mankind like oneself” in the example of Christ, and that “what hinders people from achieving this goal […] is their own ego” (McCarthy, 2018, p. 17). Additionally, whereas Dostoevsky believed that earthly life was only transitional, with paradise awaiting in the afterlife, Chernyshevsky and the nihilists argued that paradise was achievable on earth, and its realisation required precisely the rejection of Dostoevsky’s faith in an afterlife. Here, it is already clear that the views on human nature and human society between Dostoevsky and Chernyshevsky diverge considerably, with Dostoevsky believing humanity is fallen and imperfect, while Chernyshevsky posits that it is perfectible (McCarrthy, 2018).

Rational Egoism and Freedom

As is very often the case, the primary disagreement between Dostoevsky and Chernyshevsky’s social systems came down to a basic disagreement over human nature. Chernyshevsky and the Nihilists believed in rational egoism, that human nature was fundamentally rational, and as a result “one could construct a society where each individual would act in ways that would maximize the interest of themselves and the whole” (Hannon, 2006, p. 64). In other words, Chernyshevsky and the Nihilists posited that humans were guided by informed calculations about their own self-interest. According to Chernyshevsky, sin and evil were committed not because human nature was necessarily evil or wicked, but because it was sometimes disadvantageous for people to do good, and advantageous to sin. It follows that if society were organised in a way in which it was not beneficial for people to sometimes do evil, then people would “come to love the good” since they know good is better than evil, and it would be possible to do good without harming oneself (Chernyshevsky, 1989, p. 189). The point is that, according to Chernyshevsky, informed calculations about one’s best interest are what drive human action.  

Perov, V. (1872). Portrait of Fedor Dostoyevsky [Painting].

In Notes From the Underground (1864), Dostoevsky attacked rational egoism for various reasons, foremost of which was that in his view, rational egoism was deterministic and rejected free will as a part of human motivation, since according to Chernyshevsky humans could only ever act in their perceived best interest (Hannon, 2006). Whereas Chernyshevsky and the Nihilists viewed humans as rational and perfectible, Dostoevsky viewed humans as fundamentally irrational and imperfect (Hannon, 2006). According to Dostoevsky, in a quasi-utopian society which the Nihilists aspired to, ordered by logic and reason, individuals would be willing to throw away reason, peace, prosperity and rational interest purely to exercise their free will in an irrational act of self-affirmation. In this sense, Dostoevsky rejects Chernyshevsky’s thesis that the pursuit of rational self-interest is the driving force of individual action, instead positing that it is human freedom which gives life meaning and motivates human beings. 


The disagreement between Chernyshevsky and Dostoevsky, and by extension the new radicals of Russia and old radical intelligentsia regarding human nature is just as relevant today as it was then. Underpinning nearly all modern social systems and personal worldviews is an assumption regarding human nature: what drives us, can we change and improve, can we create a radically new society and the conditions which will allow for the flourishing of humanity, or are we doomed to fail? Is the human soul knowable and rational as Chernyshevsky believed, or is it a black box, profoundly unknowable, as Dostoevsky believed? Formulating a response to this question instead of letting an unconscious assumption guide us and our methods of thinking is critical.

Bibliographical References

Chernyshevsky, Nikolai. (1989). What is to Be Done? Trans. Michael R. Katz. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Hannon, M. (2006). An Analysis of Freedom and Rational Egoism in Notes From Underground. Sophia Journal of Philosophy, 9. McCarthy, M. (2018, June). What is to be Done with the Underground Man: A Comparison of N.G. Chernyshevsky and F.M. Dostoevsky. Pro Rege, 46(4), 15–24. Murphy, S. S. J. (2016). The Debate around Nihilism in 1860s Russian Literature. Slovo, 28(2), 48–68.

Pipes, R. (1960). The Historical Evolution of the Russian Intelligentsia. Daedalus, 89(3), 487–502.

Wright, H. R. (1922, October). Public Opinion. Walter Lippman. Journal of Political Economy, 30(5), 717–720.

Visual Sources

Mucha, A. (1914). Abolition of Serfdom in Russia [Painting]. Scalar.Usc.Edu.

Perov, V. (1872). Portrait of Fedor Dostoyevsky [Illustration]. Wikimedia Commons.

Russian Information Bureau. (1918). N G Chernyshevsky [Painting]. Wikimedia Commons.

Author Photo

Taylor Pace

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