The Rational and Intuitive Man Underground

The Rational and Intuitive Man Underground


Suffering characterizes itself as man’s greatest adversary. Although misfortune and misery are innate conflicts that arise from the very essence of being human and may be considered a product of human desire, man still strives to conquer it. Both Friedrich Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense” and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground explore the confrontation between humans and their own misfortunes and examine the role of meaning in that conflict. Nietzsche begins by framing this confrontation in context of the emotional spectrum which can then be applied and further examined through characters such as Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. In “On Truth and Lie in A Nonmoral Sense,” Nietzsche begins this experiment by identifying two distinct characters, the intuitive man and the rational man, to characterize how individuals address the issue of suffering. Nietzsche discusses how character employs different styles of dissimulation to overcome misery and displays both sacrifices and achievements in their individual processes.

Nietzsche presents the intuitive man as the “‘over-joyous hero,’” or “regarding life as real only when it feigns semblance and beauty.”1 The intuitive man is artistic; he crafts his concepts with creative ingenuity and focuses on the beauty, deriving meaning through emotional engagement with the world around him. His desires are zealous and passionate, as he connects with the world through his emotions. He lives in the present, solely aware of his immediate state of being and caught up in his own mental fervor. This character reflects immense joy and extreme heights of emotion. It is as though he lives in the beauty of his concepts through which he dissimulates himself in a state of denial of both suffering and any sense of need. He self-dissimulates by hiding all negative emotions from himself and living solely in his dreams. His desires are satisfied by his fantasies. Although the intuitive man reflects ecstatic happiness, there are costs to his way of life as well. To describe the sacrifices the intuitive man makes Nietzsche states, “Of course, when he suffers, he suffers more intensely, he even suffers more often, since he does not know how to learn from his experience.”2 Although his happiness is intense and sublime, the suffering is equally impactful and consuming. The intuitive man not only suffers intensely, he also experiences suffering more frequently because he lacks a sense of foresight. He is so caught up in his emotional dissimulation that he has no perspective of the big picture and suffers the consequences of only being aware of his present circumstances. His sole engagement with the present and ability to think in only immediate terms leads to a lack of foresight which perpetuates more frequent suffering. One may ask then what the point is of pursuing the path of the intuitive man, since he has not made an escape from suffering. The fruition of his labors manifests in the heightened moments of emotional ecstasy he experiences every now and again when engaging in his fantastical world of self-deceit. His deception of himself through the imaginary world he paints, contents him and quenches his emotional thirst. The immense bliss these moments offer, justify his sacrifices and serves as the reward for his way of life.

The rational man is the antithesis of the intuitive man. He is described as, “aspiring only to sincerity, truth, freedom from deception and protection against beguiling attack.”3 The rational man believes in abstraction and detachment from emotion, to seek truth and clarity. He aspires to live a cautious life with foresight and intellectual awareness. He is inartistic but is not afraid to confront his needs and desires. His denial relies less so in desire and but in the repression of emotions entirely. The intuitive man only denies negative emotions, whereas the rational man renounces feelings entirely . Although the rational man reaps less from his abstractions than the intuitive man does from his intuitions, he suffers less and maintains a more stable emotional way of life. He does not fall into the same misfortunes like the intuitive man, but rather uses his foresight to learn from his experiences and appears to possess an unwavering emotional state whether he encounters misfortune or happiness. When describing the rational man’s reaction to suffering, Nietzsche states, “in misfortune, he delivers his masterpiece of dissimulation, just as the man of intuition did in happiness”4 This quote emphasizes that the rational man lives in his own sense of dissimulation much like the intuitive man, but expresses it only in times of misfortune. The cost of the rational man is that he wears a mask in times of emotional turmoil and suffering. It is not that he is numb to pain; it is that he loses the appearance of it by masking it from others and himself in neglecting his emotions. Just as the intuitive man lives in his fantastical concepts during times of joy, the rational man chooses to live in his concepts and abstractions as a means to avoid suffering in times of misery.

Although Nietzsche describes these characters as oppositions, it is imperative to note that they are inherently connected. Nietzsche claims that man, whether intuitive or rational, is reliant on “concepts to which man clings needily his whole life long to save himself.”5 Nietzsche describes that man is dependent on the formulation of concepts for his own survival. By saying he “clings needily” to concepts, Nietzsche asserts that there is a certain level of universal attachment to self-dissimulation. This need is an inherent part of our nature so long as we strive to save ourselves from suffering. This need to save one’s self from misery is fulfilled in different styles—those of the rational and intuitive man. Both fulfill their desires by engaging in self-dissimulation, only one deceives himself in joy and the other in misery. Despite this denial of emotion they fail to escape misery. They both delude themselves at different points to escape from suffering. One is no better than the other, and both are equal in both their accomplishments and sacrifices. By framing their purpose in terms of an escape from suffering, it is important to analyze whether or not these methods accomplish their initial goal. To an extent both styles are equally unsuccessful at accomplishing the original goal: Neither one escapes suffering in the end, but both find their own means to tolerate it. The highs that the intuitive man experiences balance out the immense lows he feels in times of suffering. The ecstatic moments are enough to pacify his desire to escape from suffering. For the rational man Nietzsche says, “If a dark storm cloud bursts upon him, he wraps himself up in his cloak and slowly walks out from under it.”6 This signifies how the rational man simply accepts his suffering by putting on a mask or “wrapping himself up in a cloak.” He does not pursue any sense of freedom from misery, but rather deludes himself by accepting reality while ignoring the misery he feels. He still living and experiencing misery, but is only eliminating it by appearance. Both the intuitive and rational man are portrayed as extremes on a spectrum, in terms of how humanity emotionally strives to combat suffering, but neither are truly free from it.

If these two styles are representational of the poles of emotion, and neither accomplishes the set goal, then the escape from suffering may be described as a pointless venture, but this is not necessarily true. Both accomplish a sense of acceptance and have their own individual achievements. Freedom from misery may not be possible, but these achievements allow us to accept human suffering and quell our innate desire to escape it thanks to our ability to find meaning in them.  Because the benefits of both the rational and intuitive man justify their losses, these profits define how we live our lives and give ourselves a sense of purpose.

The rational and intuitive man frame the spectrum of emotion that makes us human. It is not one or the other. There is much gray area to be explored in between and we as individuals usually fit somewhere in the middle. This spectrum orients itself in terms of freedom from suffering but also poses that as humans, suffering may be inescapable and, therefore, we must find some means of acceptance in our lives. It does not represent a black and white Cartesian view of the world, but presents a range for us to explore. Nietzsche’s work sets up the investigation for examining how the spectrum between the rational and intuitive man applies to how we confront suffering in our lives. To further understand this spectrum, we can explore how this framework functions in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.

Dostoevsky splits his work into two distinct sections: Part One, Underground and Part Two, Apropos of the Wet Snow. Each part can be characterized to represent a pole in Nietzsche’s version of the spectrum between the rational and intuitive man. The chronology and examination of how these parts work in tandem serve to emphasize the complexity of the spectrum and the depth of its function. Part One of Notes from Underground can be interpreted as a depiction of the rational man. The part mainly consists of “notes,” or abstractions presented by a man speculating on his life experience. His language consists of many metaphors to describe theories, and abstract philosophical phrasing to outline lessons he has learned. The awareness he seems to represent can be perceived as evidence of his search for truth, and caution of deception. The analogy of considering one’s self as a mouse in relation to revenge, is an example of the narrator using descriptions of an analogy to describe his own life, but also separating himself from it by describing a mouse in the style of an abstraction.7 It describes the emotional process of revenge a mouse supposedly undergoes when seeking spite. The analogy is almost paradoxical in that the narrator uses the description of a mouse as an illusion to draw attention away from himself and fool the reader into thinking he is describing a general theory, but at the same time, the narrator uses such specific and intense language to describe the actions of the mouse that it reflects personal experience. After describing the mouse’s pursuit of vengeance, the narrator describes how “our offended, beaten-down, and derided mouse at once immerses itself in cold, venomous, and above all, everlasting spite.”8 This description of “the mouse” is immensely humanistic and specific. It is unrealistic to attribute such complicated emotion to a basic animal. It can only really be understood in terms of human experience. A mouse does not as far as we know experience “everlasting spite,” and its emotions are not typically depicted to the depth of being “cold” or “venomous.” This is a reflection of human experience, and by the events described in Part Two, it can be assumed that it is a description of the narrator’s own personal life experience. However, this comparison also represents the “masterpiece,” of the rational man, by presenting his self-dissimulation. The narrator detaches himself from the experience, by the use of an analogy or metaphor, which can be seen as an abstraction, but then through the humanistic description, we glimpse the truth behind the detached mask. This contradiction between the reality of his experience versus the language he uses to present it is a manifestation of the rational man.

Part Two, Apropos of the Wet Snow, portrays the intuitive man through the narrator’s reflection of some of his most intimate early life experiences. Although the experiences themselves seem mundane and potentially trivial, the depth and intensity of the narrator’s descriptions are a testament to his engagement with the extremities of human emotion. Unlike in the first part, the narrator lives in his emotions and feelings in the second part, as he describes each scene, depicted to almost the point of the fantastically absurd. While the narrator is eagerly anticipating Liza, he claims in his delusion, “‘But now, now—you are mine, you are my creation, you are pure, you are beautiful, you are—my beautiful wife.’”9 Much like the “over-joyous hero,” the narrator experiences such extreme bliss and joy in his grandiose dissimulation. These thoughts are merely an absurd fantasy that the narrator has built up in his mind. He has crafted Liza as the ideal by imagining her in his mind as “pure,” “beautiful,” and his “creation.” This description of her as his “creation” is merely a reflection of his desire for control and dominance over her and has been realized through this construction of concepts in his mind’s eye. The sense of possession, shown in the use of “my,” and “mine,” is evidence of his immense desire to own and possess her, which only intensifies the emotions of obsession in this scene. These idealistic descriptions, relay to the reader that the scene is a dream or creation of his own fabrication, if it was not clear enough when he calls the woman he barely interacted with his “wife.” Although this imaginary description is merely a form of self-dissimulation it brings him such immense joy and bliss to dwell in the false fruitions of his desires. In contrast, just a moment before the narrator states, “I would have simply squashed this ‘cursed’ Liza . . . insulted her, spat upon her, driven her out, struck her!”10 This description of emotion toward Liza completely contradicts the fantasy he depicts a moment later. He expresses hostility, spite and anger toward the woman he fantasizes a moment later to be his “wife.” The deeply spiteful anger represented in the contemplation of these antagonistic actions serves to convey the immense pain of the narrator, or character of the intuitive man. Anger and sadness are two sides to the same coin, and either can be perceived here as a source of suffering. This depicts the depth of negative emotion the intuitive man experiences in conjunction to the happiness he receives from his fantasies. By saying he would have “squashed,” “insulted,” “spat,” and “driven” her out, he describes the magnitude of his emotions. It is not simply spite; he backs it up with this violent and offensive fantasy of driving her out with great hostility. Because both the positive and negative thoughts occur in such close proximity, this allows us to experience the severity of the opposition between the two emotions. It also presents to the audience how emotionally involved the narrator is in his stream of consciousness. His voice does not step outside of emotion, he lives in it and courses between different feelings just as though we are personally experiencing them in our own mind. Although this depiction of emotion characterizes Part Two as a representation of the intuitive man, the chronology of events poses complexity to this depiction of the two poles as given in Nietzsche’s framework.

Although part one and part two are characterized distinctly, the complexity presented by the order of events expresses their congruence much like the parallel between the rational and intuitive man. In terms of the life of the narrator, part one occurs only after part two; he writes his notes only after experiencing the events described in part two, but part one is still presented to the audience before part wo in the text. We have established that the narrator lives both the life of the intuitive man and the life of the rational man, but through the distinction of parts there is an emphasis on the separation between these two lives. The initial analysis of the novel’s separation into two parts simply fosters a Cartesian view, suggesting that the narrator can only live one or the other mode, but the chronology of events challenges this idea. If the narrator truly could only live one or the other, part two would be written with the same voice as part one, full of abstractions and theories. Instead, part two dives intensely into the emotional experiences of the moment, while still providing stream of consciousness commentary. The stream of consciousness supports the idea that the narrator has not abandoned the emotions he engages with in part two and still feels them in the moment as he is writing in reflection. He still dwells in the experiences of part two along with the fantastical emotions of the intuitive man, while technically being the rational man in part one.

This order of events perpetuates a cycle: First the narrator experiences the intuitive man, then transforms to the rational man, writes as the rational man, and then reverts to the intuitive man, before changing back to the rational man. These shifts and transformations only prove the intuitive man and the rational man are not separate. The narrator possesses both modes of being or could be interpreted to be somewhere in between the extremes of these characters. The Underground Man represents how elements from both poles work in congruence with each other to create this spectrum. The rational and the intuitive are not neatly divided between parts one and two, either; there are aspects of the opposition in each part. Throughout the piece, we see this contradiction between engagement with emotion versus detached abstraction In part one, we primarily witness the latter, and only find glimpses of the former, and in part two, it is reversed. The description of the mouse in part one can be perceived as an example showing the relation between the two poles as the mouse analogy is abstract, but the emotional descriptions are emotional and humanistic, meaning the narrator experiences an inner conflict as he chooses which side to reveal to the audience. While each part represents the extremities of the rational and intuitive man as individuals they also represent qualities of the opposite expressing how the two ideas are connected. Part two includes glimpses of the rational man, when the narrator claims, “I was putting on a show as they say to preserve decency, though the fit was a real one.” 11 This describes the “masterpiece” of dissimulation described by Nietzsche of the rational man. By “putting on a show,” the narrator claims to be putting on a mask in his time of suffering, much like the rational man. At the same time, he admits that the “fit was a real one,” which is almost direct acknowledgement of his self-dissimulation. He is aware of putting on the mask, and its inability to truly free him of the suffering he experiences in the moment. Now thinking back to chronology, presuming this thought truly happened during the event as described, then the narrator displays that he possesses the philosophy of the rational man while playing the role of the intuitive man. This contradiction is what further perpetuates the idea that there is an in-between, where both identities can coexist.

Because the narrator can simultaneously express the behaviors of both the rational and intuitive man, it serves to validate the idea of the spectrum. It eliminates any speculation that the division is black and white. It further suggests that elements of each mode can mix and match to form new styles in this innate need to conquer suffering. However, we established that neither the rational or intuitive man accomplished what they originally set out to do, which was to free themselves from misfortune. This would naturally conclude that a character in between those extremes would not be any more successful. Nonetheless, as with the rational and intuitive archetypes, is important to consider the sense of achievement this blended character can develop. It is imperative to examine whether the unique character of the Underground Man perceives any achievement in his approach, and if so, explore how it contributes to his sense of acceptance and meaning.

Because the Underground Man possesses components of both the rational and intuitive man, we can apply the role of achievement as Nietzsche describes it for both types. As stated before, the rational man’s sense of achievement is derived from his “masterpiece,” or self-dissimulation in suffering. The self-dissimulation in suffering for the Underground Man is his identity as the rational man, that is, the writer of this book as it is framed that the story itself is written by the Underground Man. When he is self-aware of being the writer and engages us as the rational man, he partakes in this “masterpiece” of dissimulation. This “masterpiece,” can also be interpreted as the book itself. The book was forged from his misfortune. The novel’s conceit is derived from he himself being the narrator. He puts on the mask of the rational man to write this book as a culmination of his suffering, in order to derive meaning from it. While discussing whether or not to end his notes, the Underground Man reveals how writing’s essential purpose is as a guide for meaning in our lives when he states, “without a book, and we’ll immediately get confused, lost—we won’t know what to join, what to hold to, what to love, what to hate, what to respect and what to despise.”12  Writing this book is what gives him direction, and allows him to accept emotions like “love,” and “hate,” which were thought to be a source of suffering. Again he speaks in the abstract, to self-dissimulate and convince the audience that he is referring to humanity, to the general and not himself. But we can clearly see in the specificity of the emotions he describes with words such as “hate,” “love,” “despise,” and “lost,” that these are emotions he has claimed to have experienced during part two. This book allows him to accept these turbulent emotions, the extremities and intensity, and gives him a sense of security that these misfortunes were not suffered for nothing. This “masterpiece,” attributes meaning to his suffering.

Now consider the achievement of the intuitive man, which is his self-dissimulation in emotion. The Underground Man fulfills his own sense of emotional achievement when he states,

I have merely carried to an extreme in my life what you have not dared to carry even halfway, and what’s more, you’ve taken your cowardice for good sense and found comfort in thus deceiving yourselves. So that I, perhaps, come out even more “living” than you.13

His book not only allows him to accept his emotions, but also take pride it by “living.” Even though he has previously criticized people’s indulgence of emotion, he contradicts himself now by claiming that it is “cowardice,” not to experience and relate to your emotions. He expresses pride by arguing that he has done what people won’t “even carry half way.” He acknowledges his own emotional spectrum, his suffering, and his own indulgence of emotion by saying he has “carried it to an extreme.” This is positively reinforced rather than criticized when he states that this is what defines him as “more ‘living.’” His pride reflects a sense of acceptance of his emotions. Again, this sense of pride in achievement is only accomplished by the writing of his book. This book satisfies both the rational and intuitive components of his nature, allowing him to accept himself wholly to some degree, and find meaning in the misfortune he experiences.

The Underground Man is not defined by the rational or intuitive man, established by Nietzsche, but rather offers us a further examination of the “gray” in the spectrum of human emotion in relation to human suffering. It allows us to consider the relationship of self-dissimulation between the two, and affects how we cultivate meaning and acceptance in our lives. The Underground Man exposes a deeper complexity within the relationship of the rational and intuitive man. Through his paradoxical nature we can further explore how these ideas work in congruence, rather than simply acknowledging the individuality of these characters. Although there may not be a true solution or conclusion to the function of this framework, it poses how acceptance and meaning relate to our engagement of the emotional spectrum. Though freedom from misery has yet to be conquered, our innate desire to overcome it is what begins our individual journeys to finding acceptance. Self-dissimulation or not, our creation of meaning may be the very triumph of human suffering.

  1. Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth and Untruth: Selected Writings, translated by Taylor Carman (Harper Perennial, 2010), 47.
  2. Nietzsche, On Truth and Untruth, 48.
  3. Nietzsche, On Truth and Untruth,  49.
  4. Nietzsche, On Truth and Untruth, 49.
  5. Nietzsche, On Truth and Untruth. 46.
  6. Nietzsche, On Truth and Untruth, 49.
  7. Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, 10.
  8. Dostoevsky, On Truth and Untruth, 11.
  9. Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, 111.
  10. Nietzsche, Notes from Underground, 111.
  11. Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, 119.
  12. Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, 130.
  13. Dostoevsky, The Underground Man, 130.
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