The tyranny of reason

We use the term “reason” in two ways.  By one, we mean a formalized system of logical deduction, which embraces mathematics.  This type of reason is empty of facts, experience, and valuation — and, as Bertrand Russell learned to his grief, it can’t completely escape paradox, so in some remote plane becomes self-defeating.  In the practical world, when fed by experience and disciplined by tradition, mathematical reason has delivered the bounty of modern science.

The other use of the term is mystical and moral:  here reason defines a higher faculty, which somehow transcends sensuality and emotion, and is presumed to guide its possessor to superior knowledge, insight, and virtue.  Thus “rational” in common parlance means “good” or “right”:  a term of praise.  Against reason so defined rise animalistic desires regressing to insanity; against the rational stands the irrational, arbirtrary and wild.

I am currently slogging through Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, a cognitive scientist who believes, like most rationalists of the old school, that the mass of men lead hopelessly misguided lives.  Specifically, he maintains our decision-making apparatus is warped and made useless by irrationality, rooted in primitive emotions and desires.

Ariely is really old school:  he invokes Stephenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Freud’s mysterious “superego” and “id” to illustrate the bondage of the civilized self to the lower passions.  (My favorite movie pseudo-psychological line comes from Forbidden Planet, in which subconscious creatures come to life:  “Monsters from the id.”)

What are we to do about this predicament?  Ariely recommends greater government regulation and control, to protect us from our self-destructive irrationality.  That’s the preferred — one might say, predictable — solution of the rationalist, but it only makes sense under special circumstances.

If the decision apparatus of the citizen is flawed beyond hope, democracy must be abolished at once.  If rationality attaches to a few enlightened minds, then the power of government must be handed over to philosophy professors and cognitive scientists.  If they are to succeed in protecting us, their rule, like that of a parent over an infant, must be absolute.

The worship of reason leads to tyranny.  The intellectual template was laid down by Plato in the Republic, but the entire twentieth century stands as a mad scientist’s laboratory demonstrating the truth of this proposition.  With the overthrow of the tsar in 1917, philosophical speculation became murderous reality.  The Bolshevik’s method for realizing Plato was copied by Hitler, Arab nationalist parties, and Asian Communist regimes.  In direct consequence, millions of innocents died:  the high tide of rationalist politics was an age of holocausts.

This was a new thing under the sun.  Across history, tyrants have been either self-interested power-seekers or tribal chieftains.  Latin America has produced a bountiful crop of self-seekers:  we need only recall Papa Doc Duvalier and Castro’s gangster-like predecessor, Fulgencio Batista.  Among the tribalists I would count Milosevich of Serbia and Pinochet of Chile (Pinochet’s “tribe” was the Chilean army).  The horrors perpetrated by these despots were egregious and apparent.  They trampled on human life to advance themselves, their friends, or the groups to which they belonged.

By contrast, rationalist groups invest private and tribal ambitions on abstract theories and ideals.  They come to power armed with a manual for a kind of operating system, which must be applied to every aspect of community life.  The status quo, product of corrupt forces and useless traditions, is crushed without pity or regret.  Life begins anew.  The manual has the mystic power to reestablish society on scientific principles.  To the degree that it is accepted in good faith, the welfare and happiness of the human race will follow.

Such humanitarian dreams gave rise to the most monstrous crimes in history.  For some, the perpetrators remain models to be imitated.  Rationalist politics were best exemplified by the actions of the Marxist-Leninist regimes in Russia, China, Cambodia, North Korea, and elsewhere.  Millions were sacrificed on the altar of theoretical ideals with pretentious names like “collectivization.”

But Hitler and the Nazis also fall in this category.  Often considered irrational or even anti-rational, Hitler betrayed every symptom of the rationalist politician.  He despised the status quo.  He wrote a manual for the purification and renewal of the German people, full of turgid abstractions borrowed third hand from Hegelian philosophy.  He wanted every aspect of society to flow from a ruling principle.

Hitler wasn’t a lunatic, or a reactionary, or a nationalist:  he was a racialist, and for his tests of racial purity he placed his faith on science rather than tradition or myth.  The Nazis glorified the will, but no more so than the Maoists who plunged China into the famine of the Great Leap Forward.  In both cases, it was human will exerted on behalf of abstract formulas.

Whether in or out of power, the rationalist politician lives in a frenzy of disappointment.  The human race, it turns out, can’t be governed by formulas and abstractions alone.  Another element is needed:  the compulsion made possible by absolute power.  But the populace resists.  From the rationalist perspective, it is mired in those superstitions that made enlightened tyranny necessary in the first place.  A little compulsion won’t drive the people fast enough into the glorious future.

At this point, the massacres and holocausts begin.  To the rationalist, not the crazed religious zealot, we owe that most contemporary of problems:  political terror.  The first geniuses of terrorism were Robespierre and Lenin, men deeply devoted to Western philosophy, who ruled over populations they found too corrupt for milder methods of persuasion.  “Terror is nothing but justice,” Robespierre asserted, “prompt, severe, inflexible justice.”  He added:  “it is therefore an emanation of virtue.”

Tens of thousands died in the French Revolution.  Tens of millions died under Lenin and his successors, among whom Hitler must be counted.  Each death was cold-blooded murder.  That’s one astonishing feature of rationalist tyranny.  Deaths occur wholesale and are calculated according to plans.

Equally bizarre is the moral perversion involved.  Like Robespierre “the incorruptible,” every rationalist despot has thought himself a paragon of virtue.  They killed millions but slept soundly at night.  They were, in their own minds, instruments of human progress, and to this day many agree.  One can understand the attraction of the rationalist system to those drawn to untrammelled power:  it allowed them to murder their enemies, exalt themselves, and receive the applause of right-thinkers everywhere.

Now, I’m aware that the prevalent school of thought does not blame the political disasters of the last century on rationalism.  Reason being identical with good, it follows, for most who have reflected on the matter, that the cause of these horrors must have been a primitivistic flight from reason — in Karl Popper’s famous formulation, a “revolt against reason.”

I hope to examine this interpretation in a future post.


3 Responses to The tyranny of reason

  1. Ajay Menon says:

    I just stumbled across your blog recently and I’m loving it. Just out of curiosity, did you ever examine Popper’s formulation?

  2. the simpsons says:


    Wika mentioned this website…

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