Is It Reasonable to Believe in Love?

I kind of tricked you with that title.

While this is still an article about love and reason, it’s actually a plea to consider reading The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. 

Why do I want you to read a 900-page book written in 1880 by a Russian author whose name you can’t pronounce?

For one, I want you to read it because no one talks to me at parties anymore and I need others to share in my suffering. 

For two, I want you to read this book because it is one of the greatest books ever written about the internal struggle between faith and doubt. Very rarely does a book seek an honest answer to the question, “If God is so loving, why does he allow suffering."

I want you to read this book because the decision to choose a life of faith and love is not one we should take lightly. In the words of Dostoevsky, "My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt."

So I want to give you a little taste of The Brothers Karamazov in the hopes that you either read the book or—at the least—take a 5-minute break and think through the tormenting question: Is it reasonable to believe in love? (Because it kind of isn’t.)

The Characters

The Brothers K is about four brothers: Ivan, Alyosha, Dmitry, and Smerdyakov.

In a sense, the book is about how the worldviews of Ivan and Alyosha influence their brothers Dmitry and Smerdyakov. Ivan and Alyosha go through their own personal crises of faith, but the book is more of an exploration of how each worldview impacts their small town.

Ivan is a liberal atheist and a successful intellectual. He rejects the idea of right and wrong, but is deeply tormented by his own conscience.

Alyosha is a Christian, living in a monastery under the teachings of the Elder Zosima. Alyosha’s faith is simple and not well suited to the many intellectual discourses of the book. Although his simple faith does not help him in conversation, it creates a ripple effect throughout his family as he engages in the suffering of others.

Dmitry and Smerdyakov are somewhere in the middle. Smerdyakov often engages in the discussions of faith and politics that are all too common in the house of their father Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov. Dmitry often engages in the orgies that are all too common in the house of their father Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov. (Don’t worry. The book is PG-13.)

The Clashing Worldviews

The central chapters of the book are near the middle and take place in the context of a conversation between Ivan and Alyosha. (They are called “Mutiny” and “The Grand Inquisitor” and can easily be read out of context in the comfort of your local library.)

In this conversation, Ivan explains that when God gave mankind the freedom to love, he also gave them the capacity for immeasurable suffering and wickedness. As Ivan wrestles with the question of love and suffering, he can come to no other conclusion than to reject all morality and that “everything is permitted.” He concludes that the freedom to choose between good and evil is a false choice and that the only real choice is to choose happiness and avoid suffering. (The Grand Inquisitor chapter is a poem about a fictional character that Ivan creates to take away the world’s freedom so that mankind can finally be happy.)

With his worldview firmly in place, Ivan finds that "the more [he] love[s] mankind as a whole, the less [he] love[s] man in particular.” This leads him to become distant from the sufferings of his brothers, despite his commitment to love humanity.

Maybe the most frustrating aspect of the book is that Alyosha (and even his mentor Zosima) do not refute Ivan’s conclusion and rarely engage in the intellectual discourses throughout the book.

Alyosha’s worldview, however, leads him to accept the mission of his Elder Zosima: "There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men... it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all.” This simple worldview of connectedness leads Alyosha to engage with the sufferings of his brother Dmitry (and literally every other character in the book). 

In contrast to the calculated, distant “love" of mankind exhibited by Ivan, Alyosha's willingness to suffer alongside individuals is actually shown to alleviate the suffering of many.

Through Ivan and Alyosha, we see that “love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”

And in the end, we aren’t left with a text on apologetics or philosophy to answer the question of Good and Evil. We are left with the same four brothers, changed for better or for worse by love. An unreasonable love, mind you. But changed by love, nonetheless.