Being Unreasonable

This is, I promise, not another post about books. Just bear with me.

A couple of days ago, I finished reading Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which was – though I won’t go so far as to call it the greatest novel ever written, like Faulkner did – pretty excellent. If you’re in the market for an 818-page 19th century Russian masterpiece, look no further. The one thing I don’t understand about the book, though, is its title. The novel itself is actually concerned with a number of “main” characters, the most interesting of whom is a guy named Konstantin Levin, an introverted farmer who has little interest in the all-important “high society” that rules the social landscape. Anna’s actions may be more salacious, and her arc more dramatic, but Levin’s complex internal struggles were, for me, the highlight of Tolstoy’s masterpiece. The most fascinating of these struggles comes toward the end of the novel when Levin is, for maybe the fourth time, trying to reconcile what he believes about the world with how he should act within it. Levin is, to use his word, an “unbeliever,” which, according to his calculations, places him in a category with approximately one percent of his fellow Russians. After a series of fierce, protracted internal debates, Levin strikes upon an idea, courtesy of a chance overheard line. In the euphoric rush of understanding that follows, Levin says:

“Was it through reason that I arrived at the necessity of loving my neighbor and not throttling him? I was told it as a child, and I joyfully believed it, because they told me what was in my soul. And who discovered it? Not reason. Reason discovered the struggle for existence and the law which demands that everyone who hinders the satisfaction of my desires should be throttled. That is the conclusion of reason. Reason could not discover love for the other, because it’s unreasonable.”

One thing upon which we all can agree: that beard is unreasonab… ly awesome.

This got me thinking. I have always thought of myself as a highly reasonable person. That’s not to say my temper has never bested me or that I remain unfailingly level-headed, just that I think things through and tend to approach most subjects rationally. This is, admittedly, a useful trait in a lot of situations. But Levin here throws kind of a harsh light onto this part of my personality that I have always valued so highly. According to him, if you follow the thread of reason to its logical end, it will lead you to a pretty dark place (I imagine a huge, totally symmetrical mansion atop a high hill where Ayn Rand sits on a cold throne). Pure, untempered reason would lead us to a worldview that draws harsh lines and separates everything we encounter into two categories: the things and people that will add to my personal glory, satisfaction, and achievement, and those things and people that don’t. Anything and anybody in the latter category should, by reason, be, at best, ignored, and, at worst, actively sought out and eliminated.

Being reasonable may sound, in this light, like a horrible quality. Obviously, that isn’t fair. Reason also tells us not to blow every paycheck on objects of desire (say, a new 52-inch LCD flat-panel TV) and instead attend to our less thrilling, but far more necessary obligations (say, food, water, and shelter). Reason, in this way, has much in common with fear, in that we tend to think about both ideas in an imbalanced way. Think about how many times you’ve heard someone praise fearlessness. If you’ve been watching the Olympic gymnastics coverage, you hear such talk during almost every routine. And, in that particular context, nobody would question the word’s usage. We have to “put ourselves out there,” just “go for it,” and be “fearless” if we want to succeed in any arena where outcomes are uncertain. All of this is true, but consider what a truly fearless person would be like. How long would such a person even live? Fear is what makes us look both ways before crossing the street and drive at a reasonable speed and feel uneasy in high places. Fear keeps us alive by regulating our behavior. Too much fear, though? A person racked with constant fear, second-guessing every decision, unable to live with even small amounts of risk? That person is imprisoned. That’s no way to live, we’d say. Fear then, is sometimes necessary and sometimes crippling. If you’re anything like me, this kind of thing frustrates you because life is so much simpler when our theories about the way we should live arrive on the scene as “one size fits all” propositions. X is good, Y is bad, always. Be reasonable always; never be unreasonable. Thinking like that makes our lives so much simpler.

It does not, however, make our lives better.

Levin’s realization about reason comes in the midst of a personal crisis wherein he wrestles with the idea of faith, and whether not he can accept not just God’s existence, but his power as well. He simultaneously understands that destroying everything around him that does not serve his personal interests (i.e. acting purely upon reason) is a majorly flawed proposition and that something is responsible for this feeling. There is a point, he realizes, where his heart and soul simply cannot abide the path upon which reason would lead him. His conclusion? This is, in large part, what faith is: a rejection of the purely rational, exchanged for a totally unreasonable compassion and trust. “Love for the other,” as he puts it.

It’s funny, but I’m not sure how many people think about reason in the way that Konstantin Levin does. Many people probably conflate being reasonable with being level-headed or careful in thinking things through (which I now realize is more or less what I had done), but, really, these are only tangentially related. Not even professed atheists, who often claim to value reason above all else, consider it in the same manner as Levin. Consider “Project Reason,” which boasts some pretty outspoken members of the non-believing community as members of its advisory board, including Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, and the late Christopher Hitchens. The group aims to “…[erode] the influence of dogmatism, superstition, and bigotry in the world.” I’ll admit that eroding the influence of bigotry is a noble aim (I’m just going to accept a broad definition of the word for space’s sake), but my question, in light of Levin’s statements, is why? I mean, what does it benefit Bill Maher to erode bigotry toward a person of color, for example, like Rushdie? If reason is his guide, shouldn’t he actually hope that more people are bigoted towards people of color so that he, as a white male, might benefit?

Of course, Bill Maher doesn’t think this way. Only someone with no regard for human dignity would. But that’s the point. The very idea of human dignity is unreasonable. Valuing the abstract worth of another human to the point that you would wish for something positive to happen to him or her even though that very positive thing benefits you in no way and might actually even harm you in some way is not reasonable. In fact, any action that anyone at “The Reason Project” takes that shows “love for the other” would seem not to fit with their organization’s title. The question then becomes – and this is the very question Levin asked himself while in the throes of doubt and frustration – what is it that causes a vast percentage of the human population to openly acknowledge that, in a great many cases, we are actually better off being unreasonable, that there is some inherent value in submerging our own interest and well-being for the interests and well-being of others?

There is, of course, no easy answer to the question. As a Christian, I would tell you that morality is universal, and that part of being made in God’s image includes an inborn moral barometer, that the person of Jesus, as God incarnate, exemplified this universal morality in his sacrifice, even (and especially) for those like me who deserve none of the grace that His sacrifice has laid in my lap. But, just as assuredly, an atheist might say that whatever altruism exists is only there as an evolutionary response, a definite and even crass reaction to millenia of observing the short term v. long term benefits of pure self-interest v. sacrifice to strengthen the group that, in the end, strengthens the individual as well. Even compassion is selfish, they might argue.

It does not, however, feel that way to me. To me, being unreasonable the way Levin defines it feels like it costs something. In my experience, that’s a pretty sure-fire measure for knowing whether what I’m doing is truly valuable, because reason, ultimately, is the means by which we decide how we can achieve something without cost; it’s trying to have our cake and eat it too, and I gotta tell you, it’s no way to live.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Categories: A First Faint Gleam

Follow TTAF

Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

No comments yet.

We want to hear from you, leave your thoughts below.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: