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July 16, 2007

A few years ago a friend of mine brought up a discussion on particular love as opposed to general love. I don’t remember all of his thoughts, and do not assume to represent them. But I recently began reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and came across an interesting dialogue between the elder from the monastery and a wealthy townswoman that reminded me of this issue. The dialogue begins with the woman asking “how can I get back my faith?”

“By the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbour actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul. If you attain to perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of your neighbour, then you will believe without doubt, and no doubt can possibly enter your soul. This has been tried. This is certain.”

“In active love? There’s another question—and such a question! You see, I so love humanity that—would you believe it?—I often dream of forsaking all that I have, leaving Lise, and becoming a sister of mercy. I close my eyes and think and dream, and at that moment I feel full of strength to overcome all obstacles. No wounds, no festering sores could at that moment frighten me. I would bind them up and wash them with my own hands. I would nurse the afflicted. I would be ready to kiss such wounds.”

“It is much, and well that your mind is full of such dreams and not others. Sometime, unawares, you may do a good deed in reality.”

“Yes. But could I endure such a life for long?” the lady went on fervently, almost frantically. “That’s the chief question—that’s my most agonizing question. I shut my eyes and ask myself, ‘Would you persevere long on that path? And if the patient whose wounds you are washing did not meet you with gratitude, but worried you with his whims, without valuing or remarking your charitable services, began abusing you and rudely commanding you, and complaining to the superior authorities of you (which often happens when people are in great suffering)—what then? Would you persevere in your love, or not?’ and do you know, I came with horror to the conclusion that, if anything could dissipate my love to humanity, it would be ingratitude. In short, I am a hired servant, I expect my payment at once—that is, praise, and the repayment of love with love. Otherwise I am incapable of loving any one.”

She was in a paroxysm of self-castigation, and, concluding, she looked with defiant resolution at the elder.

“It’s just the same story as a doctor once told me,” observed the elder. “He was a man getting on in years, and undoubtedly clever. He spoke as frankly as you, though in jest, in bitter jest. ‘I love humanity,’ he said, ‘but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams,’ he said, ‘I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with any one for two days together, as I know by experience. As soon as any one is near me, his personality disturbs my self-complacency and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.’”
(book 2: chapter 4, “A Lady of Little Faith)

There are so many things here, and I am not going to attempt addressing them all. There is and interesting relationship between the general and particular in the two stories told here; on the one hand love for humanity becomes impossible because of the ingratitude of individuals, and on the other a distain for the individual intensifies the love for humanity. It is obvious that the more difficult love is for the individual rather than the general. General love is easy, though the lady supposes that she would loose even that, but the elder tells an opposing story that shows how it only increases with a disdain for the individual. The argument, as I understand it, is that the inability to draw near to the individual leaves one with the option to remain so broad in their love. There is no danger of having to sacrifice anything of one’s self in so broad a love as a love for humanity. At that level one is probably closer to loving an idea and engaging themselves within this ideal relationship, in actuality, a relationship of their own creation. They are in reality loving the self, but wouldn’t this be a form of particular love—a non-sacrificial form of love?

I can see this in the case of the doctor, but in the case of the lady active love will only bring about its total absence and move her further away from any belief in God.

This brief episode also causes me to reflect on my own culture—notice how I am keeping the conversation in the realm of the general! What about the issue of racism? Aren’t we encouraged to a large degree to establish a general love? Terrorism? Now the conversation here does work hard to focus on a particular group of Islamic radicals. But as the cliché goes, “while all Muslims are not terrorists, all terrorists are Muslim.” Yes, I understand the difference, but sometimes—and increasingly so—it is a difficult distinction to make. I think where I am going in this is the tension between racial/religious/political/economic equality and individual freedom. Equality becomes the poster child for a general and broad love for humanity, which eventually conflicts with the freedoms of the individual. A simple example is the eradication of capitalism and redistribution of wealth—stealing from the rich to feed the poor. Taking the money that I have worked for and giving it to someone who has not worked for it (and I am aware of all the social arguments that are packed into this such as the environmental factors that enslave one to social poverty) creates an equalized society, but has simultaneously robbed me of my freedom. This would be the “ingratitude” spoken of earlier, and I can easily see how that would destroy my love for humanity or at least for the poor in general.

Why is this democratic ideal of general love enforced upon our culture? But can I have a particular love for something without the general? It does seem possible to have the general without the particular. But the ultimate reality of this is best displayed, I think, in socialism/communism. Can I truly live without being loved in particular, if I am castigated to the melting pot of humanity and no longer Buck Holler. In fact, Buck Holler becomes an irrelevant and meaningless association of words.



From → Literature, Theology

  1. Buck,

    I think what the elder is trying to communicate is that a theoretical, intellectual love – one rooted in logical thinking -is inadequate to the task. The context is that she fears losing her faith because she is reading these enlightenment books that argue her out of it. How can she be sure that when she dies that doesn’t mark her final end?

    His response is that they don’t know what they are talking about. You don’t come to an apprehension of eternal things (which are by definition outside the realm of the measurable and probably the logical as well) through argumentation. You do it by doing eternal things.

    When we love another particular person (and I think FD might be suggesting that is the only real love possible) then we do something eternal. Doing something eternal strengthens our eternal faculties – our ability to perceive eternal things is an infinite ability, rooted in our own eternity. Philosophy, especially enlightenment philosophy, can’t touch it.

    So genuine acts of actual love for a particular person are what make us able to see the eternal; not strong arguments.

    He’s directing her attention away from mere thought to full love as the foundation of certainty.

  2. Andrew,

    This particular dialogue drew my interest when I began reading the book over a year ago, but then school started and I have not yet returned to finish it. However, my wife is almost finished with it and she likes to remind me of that!

    I suppose one of the important elements in the woman’s speech that I missed was “I close my eyes and think and dream.” Her fears were hypothetical and constructed at a distance with no firm base in reality. This makes me think that she had a fear of drawing too close to others, of giving herself to others, and that is why the elder directs her to active love.

    Continuing in this vein, the doctor’s story also highlights the “safety” of remaining distant though in a more physical manner. Even though the doctor “dreams” of helping humanity he asserts his dislike for individuals with “I know by experience.” The line that really grabs me is, “The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular.”

    I was not in the same place a couple of years ago that I am now, and knew little if nothing of classical education. As I “now” reflect on this thinking of human relationships and how that might relate to education that last line is a prophetic perception of the modern move away from nature. Incredible.

    I think you are right about particular love and how that is doing “something eternal.” Is not that the beauty of the incarnation? It’s eternal because God is love; it’s particular because the Father loves the Son.


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