Whether atheist, theist, or humanist, it seems that the idea that one should ‘love’ one’s fellow human being is to be considered common ground in terms of an ideological standpoint. Beyond this, and keeping in mind the ambiguities involved with the concept of love, things differ fairly drastically. Nevertheless, to some extent, the idea that other people are inherently valuable to individual life is, at least as far as I can see, standard of every normative ethical system. A theist will say that this idea is necessitated by the command of a divine being, an atheist just that it makes sense and is beneficial to all. Humanists start with this evaluation (it is right to love one’s fellow human) and use this as the foundation for an ideology that places it at its centre. The ideal is the basis for what is called in philosophy ‘the golden rule’, most commonly known in the form of Jesus Christ’s statement; ‘Do unto others what you would have done unto yourself’. Immanuel Kant also came up with a pretty good one involving maxims and universal laws known as the ‘categorical imperative’.
Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law – Immanuel Kant.
While this seems convenient it also bothers me to some extent. This is not because I think that the ideal is wrong - on the contrary, I think that it is a great idea to love others and fundamental to our way of operating in the world, our process of civilisation thus far. It bothers me because it seems that the ideal is far removed from a social reality which places its constituents in constant competition with one another. These conflicting ideologies create a kind of social dissonance between an individual’s beliefs and the social institutions that effect the way we live our lives. A generalised transcendental love seemingly gives rise to apathy and ignorance. The prospect is a pacifier in regards to social and individual change and seems to treat love as a wholly standardised affair – weak and insubstantial. Thou shouldst love. Well, we’d better then. This is proscriptive and antithetical to true growth, a growth that develops out of a love that is unique to every second, every new situation of a person’s life.
I feel like this ‘all inclusive love’ is an ideal that is only applicable when everything else in the immediate world is realised. It is a teleological endpoint, a final goal. It is not something to be relied upon. It is not something to fall back upon. It is not a reason to be passive with your environment, no reason to turn the other cheek, or to look away from the world’s misdeeds. It is the ends for which we strive, not a means to rest in ignorance.
In Chapter 4 (Mutiny) of Book V of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s final novel, The Brothers Karamazov, two of the brothers – Ivan and Alyosha – converse for the first time in many years during which neither had made any kind of contact with the other. Their discussion is hinged around love. Ivan Karamazov, a purely intellectual figure, demands of Alyosha, who is soon to be officiated as a man of God within the church’s institution, an explication of the concept of Christ-like love. He begins with a confession that he has ‘never been able to understand how it is possible to love one’s neighbour’. Through this simple statement, Ivan expresses his disdain for the hypocrisy that he sees in his society in which people use this general love as an ideological blanket whilst behaving in ways that defy any sense of ethical competence. When Ivan describes Alyosha’s Christ-like love as being ‘a miracle that is impossible on Earth' his words force us to question whether the ideal is merely a symbol which has no real implication on the individual in its allusion to conceptual love for the imagined human ideal over and above the actual human beings that one might encounter in one's life. 'In order to love a person’, he concludes ‘it is necessary for him to be concealed from view; the moment he shows his face – love disappears’. Christ’s was the love of a God, but we are not gods. Sometimes we must go against our intuitions to develop a love that is contrary to standards. To become whole, we must work towards social harmony, and this work will be, at times, difficult and frightening.
I can’t help thinking that if the devil doesn’t exist and, therefore, man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness – Ivan Karamazov
The intellectual brother develops an argument against this common ideal based on the suffering of children. He distinguishes here between children and adults by requital to the old mythological adage that adults have eaten of the tree of knowledge and have become aware of good and evil; they are one step closer to the ‘gods’ and have the power to destroy and create, the power to act in full consciousness of the effects of their actions. The innocence of children in the world that Ivan accentuates is not hard to recognise. Through an exposition of absolutely inexcusable acts of cruelty towards children, Ivan declares that he does not have even the slightest hint of love for the individuals that played a hand in orchestrating those atrocities, nor should he wish to. Finally Ivan renounces the idea of transcendental justice; a hell for tortures, a heaven as compensation for those who are wronged. Any amount of suffering of children (by extension his argument is inclusive of all of mankind, though his point is particularly relevant to those who are exemplary to this kind of innocence) is too high a price to pay for a sense of other-worldly justice, and Ivan would rather surrender any sense of cosmic harmony than allow the crimes that cause this suffering to continue. Ivan expresses his love for humankind unconventionally by recognising those parts of humanity that are not to be loved. Ivan does not passively love, he loves through his will to change for the better and embody that which is able to oppose love’s antithesis. This is a love that is tortured, for it is based on an acceptance that there are parts of human nature that are detrimental to the whole, there are actions and modes of transmitting ‘social energy’ so to speak that are not worthy of repetition. Acts of love are to be orchestrated in the human, material world and not left as a hypothetical operative outside the cognitive capabilities of humankind.
The ultimate abyss is not a physical abyss, but the abyss of the depth of another person - Slavoj Zizek, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema
The reader becomes aware throughout the novel that Alyosha, who is a follower of the heart of his beliefs in contrast to many of the other ‘men of God’ with whom he is forced to compete, is capable of a love that harbours this kind of psychical transformation that Ivan alludes to. ‘Yes, shoot them' says Alyosha in regards to the perpetrators of evil towards children. After repenting and calling his own statement absurd, Ivan is quick to reply that 'absurdities are only too necessary on earth’. Alyosha bears a disposition towards the world that is able to dynamically oppose those things which he sees as misdeeds, not through aggressive opposition, but rather through a mode of operation whereby he will only act according to those maxims which he deems appropriate to become universally applicable. The absurdity comes from the relationship humans have with conventions and in the relevant sense, moral conventions. Alyosha, it can be seen, loves humanity in the same way as does Ivan, though both come about this conclusion in different ways. His absurd statement shows that he is willing to say that the perpetrators of cruelty towards children are, in a determinate sense, worthy of repudiation and contempt. Alyosha’s opinion develops however, and we see that he is inclined to separate the act of the person with the person themselves.
Paradoxically, the ability to be alone is the condition for the ability to love - Erich Fromm, The Art of Love, p.88
Both brothers are arguing for a very humanistic ideal. One is inclined slightly towards confusion and relativism, the other is seen as being classically theistic, but I think that Dostoyevsky in fact constructs Alyosha’s character to be one of rebellion in terms of the classical religious sentiments of his time. His ‘God’ is not the dogmatic God of the church as it is described, but is instead a mode of relation with the physical world. Alyosha has faith, but it is his own faith in the power of humankind to transform the repetition of evil actions into something more positive. He believes, not in blind and all-inclusive forgiveness, but rather the willingness to understand the human behind the action.
There is not enough love and kindness in the world to permit us to give away any of it to imaginary beings - Friedrich Nietzsche, Human All Too Human
Our society is in need, I believe, to recognise the common ideas of differing ideologies. Moving away from arguments hinged on semantics can yield a state of society in which we are able to analyse the beneficial and detrimental aspects of social life, and to open up myriad possibilities for change and transformation. When we can all agree that this idealised love is a goal which we are all working towards, then I think we will forget the minor differences, our predispositions towards transcendentalism or the human spirit. Cosmological differentiation is then personalised and our physical worlds can become the community and playground that we might wish it to be.
It is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought – Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism
Let’s all become more accustomed to having sympathy with thought. You might wonder how I aim to appropriate, with any sense of practicality, these ideas into my own way of living. I will start by recognising that I should not take love for granted, making the love I do choose to keep stronger and more able to withstand complications and contradictions as time goes on. Along with this I will question constantly the expectation that I am in competition with my fellow human beings, given that our end goal is fundamentally all the same.