I’m an irrationalist. Not anti-rational: I don’t want to bounce from impulse to impulse, or glorify insanity, or join a sect of painted Druid priests. I expect to apply reason in its proper sphere. The problem is, reason has been misapplied and misunderstood by unreasonable minds, which hold up abstract formulas as the standard reality must meet. But reality itself is irrational.
The physical world owes no obligation to mathematical logic. Human nature and all the moral aspirations of all peoples everywhere are driven by habit, custom, and emotion. That is true even of the extreme rationalist, who lacks the power to create a universe and a culture and a moral code out of the cogitations of his brain.
The question here is whether being an irrationalist has practical consequences. How does one behave on irrationalist principles? In what ways, if any, will my life be different from a rationalist’s?
Let’s begin the search for answers by flipping the question: how should a rationalist live? A popular depiction of the rational life can be found in Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, who was cool, analytic, dispassionate, and a little unearthly. Nothing could be more unlike the rationalists of history. With a few honorable exceptions, these were angry, carping, impatient, and destructive people. Each thought he had found the formula for happiness, and despised his neighbors for clinging to their silly superstitions.
When the rationalist was an unarmed prophet – as with Socrates and Marx – he vilified his own community and mocked its moral ideals. When he was armed – think Robespierre or Mao – millions died.
Socrates, the father of rationalism, proclaimed that the unexamined life was not worth living. The statement is often praised — but what on earth did he mean? If it was that we should examine with some care the choices in our lives, then he offered sane and sensible advice. But I don’t believe this is what Socrates meant. In my opinion, he felt certain that an examination of life must lead to a radical rupture with the customs and beliefs of the community — that’s the inescapable theme of the account Socrates gives of his own life in the Apology.
The most astonishing aspect of this claim is the rationalist’s faith that he knows enough to transform human life by mere abstract reasoning. He thinks, therefore he is. Such powers of transformation make the rationalist into a messianic figure, not least in his own mind: Socrates, for example, held that he had been chosen by God to teach wisdom and virtue to the Athenians.
Because his mental powers dwarfs those of his fellow citizens, the rationalist views democracy with distaste if not disdain, and tends to prefer philosopher kings, dictatorships of the proletariat, and unelected regulatory commissions. Brute power allows his formulas to be imposed on the uncomprehending mob. And because he is innocent of either modesty or doubt, the rationalist feels wholly unconstrained and will, on occasion, resort to terrorism — a term coined by Robespierre and much favored by Lenin.
We may ask what any of this has to do with the practical conduct of life. Let me offer a few suggestions.
One, when the rationalist speaks on private or public questions, he does so from a position of absolute certainty. This has obvious practical implications.
Two, while the “experiments in living” proposed by different rationalists vary substantially, all converge on an unforgiving hostility to conventional behavior and established institutions. Pre-existing social arrangements itch to be rationalized. Sexual scruples, marriage, the raising and education of children, private property, religion, the military, the marketplace — these require drastic redesign, if not abolition. Even when, in practice, individual rationalists lead perfectly conventional lives, they are are internal exiles waiting out the end of days.
Three, the rationalist’s attachment to democracy is wholly contingent, and his opinion of the citizenry abysmally low. With a clear conscience, he will make every effort to reduce the choices – personal, social, political, economic – available to the rest of us. Decision-making must belong to a rational, preferably unelected, elite.
With these practical examples of the rationalist in action, we can now return to the the question posed at the top of this post. How should the irrationalist, his antipodal opposite, live?
The irrationalist speaks on private and public matters from a radical sense of uncertainty. This is the prime directive, the source from which all his practical decisions flow. I can’t really understand the present, the future, or the past: none of us can. We are too subjective, too perspectival, too short-lived: too ignorant. The idea that my daily life can spring fully armed out of my head is a hallucination. Faith in abstractions is the opiate of the intellectual.
Customs and conventions exist precisely to guide my steps through the mine fields of social life and bring me back safe, despite my ignorance. I will criticize customary behavior – that’s an American custom, after all – but quietly, without a pompous noise, from the depths of my uncertainty.
The irrationalist embraces traditional morality because, in a liberal democracy, it is the only possible kind, the only alternative to moral nihilism.
The irrationalist believes in marriage and family, in honor between husband and wife, in duty to one’s children: no calculation of utility will sanction such an illogical attitude.
Marriage and children are the first step to transcendence: human nature demands that we live for something higher than our persons. The irrationalist, in his uncertainty, accepts that there are many paths to salvation which are not his own. He can be a man of faith, active in his church; or civic-minded and engaged in politics; or charitable, a volunteer; or patriotic, serving in the military; or any combination of these and other outward-looking engagements with his fellow citizens.
Transcendence means integrity: the story I tell about myself must lead beyond myself to the past and the future, to my ancestors and my inheritors, in a compact between generations whose massive gravitational pull keeps me whole and embues my life with a measure of dignity. Only then can freedom become a possibility.
Individual freedom is part of our inheritance. It needs no explanation or justification beyond that. Yet the grounds of freedom can be found in human ignorance: in the blindness of oracles, the modesty of scientists, the failure of rationalists and technicians, to none of whom can we delegate personal or political decisions.
To the irrationalist, however, personal freedom isn’t an experiment in living, but the collision of his character with a vast matrix of traditional behavioral ideals: his pursuit of rightness and happiness.
Democracy is the aggregation of individual choices: a fallible system, hemmed by uncertainty, made necessary by the selfishness and inevitable corruption of all ruling elites. The marketplace also is an aggregation of choices: a breeding ground of unpleasant surprises, yet the only possible way to break the tyranny of privilege and naked power over the bread earned in the sweat of our brow.
The irrationalist is a child of time, a student of context, a lover of moments: rightness, for him, belongs to particular places, peoples, and times. Style, manners, and morals are thus different aspects of the same search for right behavior: the same wish to be good rather than evil.
Universal formulas which crush context and break the bond of generations appear, to the irrationalist — to me — a force for dehumanization, barbarism, and moral emptiness.
The irrationalist can never threaten or terrorize. He owns too many doubts to get his way by bullying – and what, in any case, would such a victory achieve?
In optimistic moments, the irrationalist hopes to persuade: that tearing away at convention leaves us closer to the beasts, for example. That those who claim to know can’t know. That power ultimately serves power, not the weak. That you and I must choose, because no one else is better placed to do it. That morality and freedom are two sides of the same coin.
But he will waste few efforts at such persuasion, the irrationalist. He won’t follow Socrates’ example and pester his neighbors, or offer a lawyerly argument on behalf his life. His life isn’t worth it, and the world is a lot more interesting than he is. The irrationalist will thus explain the world as he understands it, and hope for the best.