The Tyranny of Rationality

We live in the long shadow cast by philosophies that have perverted and distorted the perception of the human subject and his experience in the world. The view that man is a rational agent, a Homo Economicus, has reduced the conception of being by bringing forth the possibility that man can fail to be man. This notion of man as a rational agent whose choices are made by rational deliberation, combined with the rational deliberation of all other rational beings is notably pervasive.

Notions of a march of history, exemplified by the use in the popular discourse of phrases such as “the wrong side of history” or “end of history”, represent a deeply subsumed Hegelian Dialectic in which man progresses to some rational ideal, with each age better than the past. That history exhibits no such arc seems to me to be quite intuitive, though it may need some defense considering the view’s popularity.

Steven Pinker in his book Better Angels of Our Nature attempted to lend scientific credence to this view with his analysis of the evolution of violence within human societies. His misunderstanding of statistics in this work has been noted in many commentaries; while violent acts may be less frequent, modern technology has led them to become far more intense, with the death rates by war, man-made famine, or state-instituted tyranny in the 20th Century far surpassing the whole of prior recorded history. This, however, is not the main failing of such a concept. Its main issue is that Pinker finds it possible to reduce human life to a statistical magnitude. That because there are fewer deaths relative to the population somehow makes us more peaceful. A murder among one million people, it seems plain to me, is just as bad as a murder among a billion, rendering the entire endeavor futile.

In a similar vein of the scientification of human phenomena, modern ethicists attempt to systematize ethical systems either through consequentialist or deontological frameworks, neglecting that that very few people outside of their academic breed go through such deliberation in their day-to-day life. I would be hard-pressed to find an individual who when actually faced with the decision of saving a life goes through the utilitarian calculus. These systems may attempt to describe the behaviors exhibited by individuals in certain circumstances, but by no means provide any prescriptive value.

In reality, man first decides whether to act in a situation based on his own beliefs and desires, from this comes the form of his action, and then the acceptance of his action’s consequences. To prescribe him to do any different would reduce man to an automaton, incapable of personal will or desire.

These examples are but a small sample of the elevation of science as a panacea to the ills that befall man. That ideas must be held in high esteem as if they exist in a vacuum independent of their creation. That ideas are formed by men and shaped by the circumstances of their existence, is not often mentioned when discussing an idea’s merit. It is somehow of the view that scientists and philosophers are exempt from the concerns of financial incentive, bias, or pursuit of fame or glory. This is fundamentally inaccurate, as before there were ideas, there were men. Man, being the measure of all things, acts, and by his actions, thinks, and by his thoughts births ideas. Ideas are the slave of man and his failings; men ought not be slaves to ideas and their failings.

Thucydides once recounted the changing fashions following revolutions in Corfu with the banner: “to know everything was to do nothing.” A similar sentiment is apparent regarding our affinity for rationality. The subject who must know before he acts remains catatonic, for he is bound by his search for some elusive knowledge, unable to freely act as he pleases, and form meaning in the process. The subjectivity of personal experience, that same personal experience that is the foundation of all action and thought, is demonized by the ideals of a rational method, a system of rules for guiding one’s beliefs and actions.

There is an eloquent line in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: “There is an indescribable freshness and unconsciousness about an illiterate person that humbles and mocks the powers of the noblest expressive genius.” I interpret this as the proclamation that irrationality takes away the powers of reason itself. This is similar to the refusal of an experienced chess-player to play against someone who does not understand the rules of the game, for one can neither lose nor win against someone who knows not how to play. Not being bound by the shackles of reason, as man is not, means that the very oppressive power of the “rules of the game” can be mocked and humbled before his refusal.

It is from this I seek to say that it is not simply that man is not Homo Economicus, but that he ought not to be. For what would one refer to a man indifferent to his irrational, illogical, and emotive decisions. I would say that simply, he is free. Free from the bounds of rational restriction, free to exist as an agent of his volition.

“Freedom,” as Camus put it, “‘that terrible word inscribed on the chariot of the storm’, is the motivating principle behind all revolutions.” In my view, it is the motivating principle behind life itself. Made in our Creator’s image, we are imbued with an inherent desire to be free from bondage, the chains of rationality, notwithstanding. That our creativity blossoms in a rejection of the limits of our rational mind, but in the absolute freedom of our subjective selves. The moment one begins to analyze into its components and compositions a painting by Caravaggio, its awe-inspiring beauty begins to be lost.

This creativity is dying in our analytic age. The myths that guided man throughout history have been all-but dismissed as irrational. The beauty of medieval churches replaced with the banality of Duchamp’s Fountain. The romanticism of our forefathers replaced with a cynical detachment from the passions of life. Impulses suppressed for the sake of civilization.

Carl Schmitt believed that the great accomplishment of Europe was civilizing war through the development of the nation-state. This European ideal of civilization has been a pervasive feature of thought in the continent’s historical development: the idea that a certain politeness, tolerance, and civic decorum tame the beastly impulses of man. Civilization in this view is the great enlightening mechanism to make man more than man.

I believe this view is one of the reasons why European fascism so horrifies the collective memory in a way that other despotisms do not. Whereas one can explain away the tyrant who slaughters his people out of ineptitude, personal greed, or for his personal enjoyment, it is much harder to do so when someone creates an entire ideological system in the vein of rational thought. That the fascists were so well-educated, well-mannered, and technologically capable goes against the saving ideal of rationality. For they represent a civilization in the full, one committed to certain scientific ideals, yet were simultaneous of a moral depravity and maliciousness impossible to bear.

The endeavor to explain away the beastly tendencies of man, be it that religion or capitalism or poverty inculcates our evil, stems from an elevated view of human nature, of our species as one on a journey to being rational and enlightened. That this is a naive belief I hope I have made perfectly clear. Reason will not save us from who we are, it is but a tool, that can serve our best or worst inclinations. As such, it is best to free ourselves from its tyrannical grasp and set our sights on something far more powerful, inner virtue.

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