Tuesday, February 19, 2019

On reason

There was a longstanding idea in Western thought that tyranny existed when a man was no longer governed by reason but by his baser animal appetites/passions or by his vices. The solution was to cultivate habits of virtue.

Understood the right way, this idea is likely to have positive effects. But I wonder if, understood the wrong way, it might have contributed to the constellation of ideas that led to modern day liberalism.

Here's how it could go wrong. Let's say I believe that the important thing is that it is my individual reason that holds sway and that this defines my personal liberty. You might then come to believe the following:

1. If I am to be free, then I must be governed by my reason.

2. If I am to be governed by my individual reason then my reason has ultimate authority.

3. Therefore I should resist the external authority of a power hierarchy (bishops, kings etc). To obey or to serve is suspect, perhaps servile. It should be possible to have a society without a power hierarchy or, at least, to "level" a society.

4. If individual reason has authority, then I should not be swayed by custom, feeling, affection, loyalty or mere "prejudice".

5. Tradition is especially bad as it might be merely "imitation" which would mean being governed by "other mind" rather than by my own reason.

6. Nor should I be governed or defined by "non-mind" aspects of self, such as sex or race, which I will come to think of as mere "accidental" attributes of self.

Remember that by the time of the French Revolution there was a deification of reason. This is why a critic of the revolution like Edmund Burke attacked the kind of logic I set out above. Burke argued that the stock of reason in each individual man was too small to be a reliable or practical guide to everyday behaviour and that there was often a collective wisdom to be found in inherited tradition or in "prejudice" (i.e. received social norms or standards).

It's not surprising that the "I am free when governed by individual reason" principle would appeal to secular intellectuals. These intellectuals were no longer employed in the service of an established theological tradition; they were not disciplined to a larger, accumulated body of thought. Nor is it surprising that a bureaucratic class, raised within the new scientific approach, would be supportive of such a principle, as it freely allows society to be governed along technocratic lines.

There's a second problem as well with the idea that we secure our own liberty, and that of our society, when we cultivate the virtues, so that we are governed by reason rather than gratifying impulsively our animal passions or our vices.

The problem is that it suggests that passion, feeling, instinct, emotion and the physical aspects of life are in a lower category than the mental or intellectual aspects. If understood this way, it can fail to integrate the human person and lead to a backlash in which the more primal, directly felt and forceful aspects of life are reasserted (e.g. aspects of the Romantic movement, or more recently writers like D. H. Lawrence). It might even lead to the original idea being turned upside down, with the claim that we are liberated when we throw off the "repression" placed on our sexual or animal natures.

In short, it's important that the original principle is understood clearly, in a way that doesn't drift toward a proto-liberal mindset based on individualism, rationalism or levelling.

To achieve clarity the following might help:

1. The guiding or directing or ordering faculty, commonly called "reason", is not just a logical, intellectual, analytical feature of the mind. Rather, it is the discerning faculty, able to experience, evaluate, order and rank the variety of human experiences and to judge prudentially.

2. Whilst it is true that the animal or biological impulses and appetites will often need to be overruled by higher order moral or spiritual factors, it is also the case that they (the animal/physical/biological impulses) can be the foundations of, or inspire, much that reason will find worthy and sustaining. Sometimes, therefore, it is more the case of guiding or channeling our animal/biological natures to their proper ends rather than suppressing them.

3. Our individual reason is not sufficient an authority for either our own behaviour or for the governance of society. Our prudential reason itself should know this. It is proper for there to be leadership structures in society. In normal circumstances, it is a virtue to be loyal to the natural, organic communities we belong to and to serve them, whether they be our family, our community, our ethny or our nation.

4. Given that our individual reason will be insufficient, it is important that a society establishes a healthy cultural framework for individual behaviour, one that will include social norms and standards. These will not be permanently fixed or unable to be challenged, but ideally will reflect an accumulated understanding of how a society is able to order itself successfully and orient itself toward a common good.

5. It will be helpful also for a society to establish a framework of education in which young people are exposed to the best minds from previous generations, to help them in the process of acquiring wisdom and insight and to benefit from the life experience of those who have gone before them.

One final thought. Liberal rationalism and individualism often go together with a commitment to an abstract, universal love or to a progress toward "higher unities". This makes sense once reason begins to be deified along proto-liberal lines. If I am not a man, but a reasoning mind, then the particular attributes belonging to me become less important in defining my self, my attachments, my loves and my duties. Nor am I placed in time, or connected in lineage in as significant a way. My attachments are more likely to be understood to be universal ones that a reasoning mind might abstractly think its way toward; nor are any distinctions between reasoning minds likely to be thought to hold, and so there will only be the individual mind existing alone and as part of a universal entity, either of humanity or of all things.

This, at least, is one possible path of thought that might be travelled by those who take the reasoning mind itself to be the human person.


  1. The first step was taken by Luther. If I have authority to interpret the Scriptures by following my reason and understanding, everything else has to submit to my understanding of the Scriptures. External authority is unnecessary. The French revolution is a secularization of that.

  2. I hope you will expand upon something you have touched on here (if you have not done so already): the contrast between the liberal tendency to valorize universalism and individualism-- while disregarding (or denying) hierarchies in between-- and the more temporal emphasis by conservatives on the milieu "in between".

    This seems like a diametric psychological schism to me. Such viewpoint differences would naturally occur at a personal level, in any society, yet they have polarized whole cultures today. Is this just the normal give-and-take that we cycle through periodically, or are we now in an historically unique position?

    1. Good query, but I don't have a confident or complete answer to it.

      There are likely to be different sources for the universalist view. For instance, if you believe that every individual is made with some portion of the divine light and that this is the significant and relevant aspect of our created nature to focus on, then you are more likely to think in universalist terms than if you have a sense of a transcendent good as well within particular communities - such as families and nations - that are the settings for the expression of caritas and for piety (as the virtue was understood in classical times) and that are a part of God's design for His creation.

      Why some people are psychologically less receptive to this experience of transcendence I cannot say.

      And then, as I pointed out in the post, if the human subject is simply reason itself (I think therefore I am), and each individual is imbued with this quality and defined by it, then other features of self & identity, such as our embodied sex or our biological relatedness to others, will come to seem to be merely accidental.

      Again, I cannot say why some people would have such a limited experience of their own sexed nature or that of the opposite sex that they would accept such a view.

    2. Thanks, Mark. You've highlighted something interesting here: "if the human subject is simply reason itself". After enjoying your blog for some 10 years I've adopted your idea that autonomy and self-determination are the root of modern liberal philosophy. But I had assumed this was meant to include biological expressions as well as social and psychological ones. If liberals could reduce everything meaningful to reason I think they would, and perhaps this goes some way to explaining the aforementioned "gap" between the universal and the individual.

      Further, many liberals I know seem to have contempt or even hatred for things the way they are, with the historical past being even worse. So the only way they see the potential for existential happiness or satisfaction is in reforming and transforming the world. This of course means the destruction of the now, of what has gone before. This imperative dovetails nicely with the individual-universal dichotomy.