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I'm in a perpetual phase of transition which doesn't seem to be phasing out.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Brothers K

I'm currently reading Dostoevsky's the Brothers Karamazov.  My friend Eric refers to it as "The Brothers K," maybe because he's insecure about his pronunciation of "Karamazov," I sure as hell don't know how to say it.  Eric has an amazing way of masking any insecurities he has with a veil of arrogance, he just makes "The Brothers K" sound like a catchy abbreviation of a famous book. If I called it that I'd feel like an idiot, but it might be better than butchering the pronunciation.   Anyway, I got stuck on this one particular short excerpt.  A character by the name of Pyotr Alexandrovich, or Miusov (Russians seem to all have at least 5 interchangeable names) is relaying statements given by Ivan, one of Karamazov brothers, in a previous conversation.  Ivan is an atheist. According to Miusov he had been discussing a post-religion world at a recent local gathering.  Ivan seemed to believe that once people stopped believing in an afterlife there would be no stimulus to make men love one another.

"He solemnly announced in the discussion that there is decidedly nothing in the whole world that would make men love their fellow men; that if there is and has been any love on earth up until now, it has come not from natural law but solely from people's belief in their own immortality"

Considering that Ivan does not believe in immortality, the previous statement seems a little ironic. He goes on to assert that the world might be a better place without this belief.  Which is hard to understand considering his claim that people won't love each other if a belief in immortality does not exist.

I personally think that people may prove to have a greater capacity for loving each other without a belief in immortality.  If there is only one life to live then you might want to hug those close to you a little tighter. Maybe I just analyzed this piece too superficially. Maybe people need the fear of hell and glory of heaven to act lovingly, but then that makes me question the authenticity of love.

"He ended with the assertion that for every separate person, like ourselves for instance, who believes neither in God nor immortality, the moral law of nature ought to change immediately into the exact opposite of former religious law, and that egoism, even to the point of evildoing, should not only be permitted to man but should be acknowledged as the necessary, the most reasonable and all but the noblest result of his situation"

Miusov refers to the above statements as paradoxical.  Maybe Ivan was just trying to be amusing.  Maybe he actually believed that man is capable of defining his own sense of morality and that a post-religion world had the potential to work. Or maybe he felt that some people need religion as a structure for morality.  I just don't think he really meant that humanity would be better off if everyone acted on their own egoism.  Sounds like a Freudian, man-made apocalypse to me. 

I was reading this part of the book while sitting in a coffee shop with my good friend Jared.   He's Ethiopian. He's also a crazy smart mathematician and gets to travel around the world every summer doing math with other geniuses.  He possesses a very clever sense of humor of which I sometimes have trouble catching because of his accent.  Sucks to make people repeat witticisms.  Anyway, I asked him what he thought about the stability of ethics in a post-religious world.  We both came to the agreement that it's idealistic to assume that all men would be able to develop a strong code of morals for themselves.  You just can't trust individuals to be good.  Most people need a structured code of behavior to loosely follow. No repercussions for bad behavior would make for a scary world.  But then I wondered: would the idea of good vs. evil even exist?  Aren't those associations of behavior religiously based? If nobody even defined what we now consider evil-doing as evil, then what would it be? Sounds frightening either way.

Jared thinks that the majority of people are too stupid and foolish to not have an established system of ethics.  He made me laugh when he said "You get a big crowd together without police or laws, then they'll start eating you and there's nothing you can do about idiots like that." 

I still don't have solid opinions about this little mind f*ck riddle of Ivan's, but Jared seems to be right.  If anyone has ever read Cormac McCarthys book or seen the film "The Road" I think they'd have trouble disagreeing with that Ethiopian smarty-pants.