An Immodest Proposal (or two) (7/6/11)

In their own distinctive way the classical Greek myths—in their totality—probably did a better job of intelligibly representing ‘the whole’ (and man’s place within the whole) than any single rational philosopher, including the inimitable Plato, was able to do. I would support this assertion by pointing to the greater tolerance (in the mythological materials) for archetypal diversity, for unresolved—and ultimately irresolvable—complexities, tensions, paradoxes, and contradictions. While the struggle to approach and to depict the whole in a rational manner may rightly deserve to be called commendable, it is a struggle that is doomed to end again and again in failure and defeat—like the task of Sisyphus. The basic reason for this failure on the part of rational systems of philosophical thought—in their dogged attempts to comprehensively account for the whole—rests in their inherent limitations vis-à-vis the dynamic and protean whole that they strive to tackle and capture within their faulty nets.

We might ask: ‘What is rationality and why does it—why must it—fail to do justice to the whole?’ The whole is essentially baffling and mysterious, while rationality is not. In fact, rationality (as a method of approaching reality) aims at dispelling mystery. But this is just a flattering way of saying that it strives to reduce the mysterious to its unmysterious terms. Rationality’s terms are no longer quite as fixed and inflexible as most of us are encouraged to believe. Like an accomplished and subtle whore (or lawyer), rationality can adapt to the diverse needs (and budgets) of its various clients in order to provide them with what they all want: justification, or at least the momentary illusion that they have a real leg to stand on.

The ineffable mysteriousness of the whole, however, continues to slip right through the most fine-meshed nets provided by the sought-after whore, reason, and this can be bad for business. And bad business for that lovely trollop usually indicates a resurgence of the mysterious whole from which many of us have been pleasantly distracted while we were ‘thrusting and parrying’ down in reason’s seductive and much-coveted hole. And when the mysterious whole catches us with our pants down, embarrassment and panic typically follow.

It is only natural for little men with short swords to purchase those full-length ‘magnifying’ mirrors that make them look bigger and more dangerous (more ‘justee-fied’) than they really are—and reason can function as just this sort of flattering mirror. Such a mirror both reflects and distorts, but after we grow accustomed to seeing such a reflection each morning as we crawl out of bed, we begin to mistake the strapping image for the stripped-down, actual man. Respectful belief in the authority of reason may someday be recognized as one of the greatest curses to befall mankind—and not, as some would have us believe, the noble attribute that distinguishes us from the beasts. It may in fact distinguish us from the other animals, but not necessarily in a manner that does us a whole lot of credit. It may be seen someday (today is far too soon) that the whore enslaved her noble client and began to rule the kingdom from the boudoir and the back rooms of the bordello—and whores of every stripe, let us remember, are notoriously single-minded.

As a man presently employing reason to explain reason itself, I would first direct the reader’s attention to its distinctive virtues as a method of ordering and making some kind of coherent sense of our perceptions and our concepts, the principle materials that reason deals with.

It is the rules of reason (just like the rules of a game such as chess, or those of mathematics and logic) that enable it to give birth to coherent and self-consistent statements about our conceptions and perceptions of reality, about ‘God,’ about natural processes, human behavior, and so forth—whether these statements happen to bear any legitimate truth-content or not. Following or adhering to the rules, then, is a crucial part of reasoning coherently about anything. Without these rules—and a more or less strict adherence to them—our statements lose whatever respectability and dignity they owe to staying within the authorized parameters. To ‘insiders,’ those who utter arbitrary and merely conjectural statements are often privately regarded with a measure of disdain or contempt—the slight regard reserved for the ‘uninitiated’ by fully approved guild members. Or, perhaps they are regarded with the patronizing indulgence some persons feel when they see children trying to bend or re-invent the rules of a game they’re playing in order to stay in the game. One is not allowed to succeed, let alone win, by cheating.

Perhaps I should point out the fact that none of the foregoing has anything whatsoever to do with the whole—the mystery-cloaked ‘big picture’ of which we (and our reason) constitute but a very small and insignificant part. Rules have everything to do with maintaining order—with staying ‘on point’ or ‘on track.’ But what kind of order? What is the point the rule-follower insists on staying on? Where are the ‘tracks’ heading towards? Or perhaps it might be just as worth our while to ask ‘Where do the tracks lead back to?’

Rules, alone, are not enough to bestow upon reason the power and authority it has traditionally enjoyed. That power and authority are under greater suspicion and mistrust in many quarters nowadays than they have been in a long time, but despite all this mistrust and suspicion, nothing has been created that commands the general respect that rationality is steadily having bled from out of itself in today’s skeptical climate.

But, to return to my argument, or my attempt at a rational account of unmysterious reason and of its fundamental incapacity to provide a comprehensive account of the mysterious whole: If we may liken a rational scheme—any rational scheme—to an organism, the rules are analogous to the digestive system of this organism, and to a somewhat lesser extent, the circulatory system that delivers fresh blood to all its tissues and organs. But what keeps this organism alive? Upon what food does it batten and fatten itself? This food—whatever it turns out to be—serves as the analogy for the ground or founding principle of our rational scheme. Some grand rational systems aim at complete transparency. They make their ‘ground’ explicit. Thus, we hear some rational persons tell us, up front, that matter, or material phenomena and processes, constitute the arch-principle of their system. A rational theologian would declare that revealed scripture is his starting place and that all his arguments and positions ultimately refer back and connect to scriptural sources. For Thales, the arch-principle from which all emerges was ‘water’; for Anaximenes, air. For Heraclitus it was fire, while for Anaximander it was ‘the indefinite.’ A Platonist would point to the Ideas and a Pythagorean to integers and numerical proportions. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche speak of the ‘Will’ as the ground—the fons et origo of all that is.

Once the ground and source has been designated and established in this way, all roads lead back to it. The various arch-principles I have just named, because they have all played—or continue to play—a ‘nourishing’ and ‘grounding’ role in Western rational thought and education, deserve to be mentioned as momentous instances. These arch-principles provide the nourishing and sustaining ‘food for thought’ in the more familiar or conspicuous rational schemes which, together, form the spiritual and intellectual foundations of Western culture. Because this once-thriving organism appears to be falling apart and decomposing all around and within us (here in the shallow, silty delta and marshlands of that formerly forceful, deep, and unbroken river), few today are directly acquainted with these ‘macro-systems’ and their respective arch-principles. They have either been defaced by the ravages of time and neglect, like the Pyramids and the Sphinx of Egypt or fallen into disrepute and held to be on a par with astrology and alchemy.

At any event, with the decline and decay of the old philosophical, theological, and rational schemes of past centuries—these macro-systems have gradually given way to micro-systems which, being much more compact and narrowly focused, are both more user-friendly and practically effective. This shift from the grand systems of yore to the much less comprehensive and theoretical micro-systems of rationality that are embraced today roughly corresponds to the general collapse of speculative reason and its replacement by instrumental reason, or pragmatism. This enormously important transformation of reason from a largely theoretical faculty that concerned itself with contemplation of ends to a method of calculating the most efficient means to achieve arbitrary practical aims is masterfully treated by Max Horkheimer in his powerful little book, Eclipse of Reason.

This scaling down of rationality and its redirection from the contemplation of grand ethical aims and philosophical ideals to a religious devotion to thoroughly tested diet plans that promise to bring us to our ideal body weight has certainly brought many of us into a much more intimate relationship with narrow, brute facts and with stubborn concrete realities. And perhaps as a corrective against the ‘metaphysical’ excesses of reason’s past, this move was inevitable—and even salutary. But I am not here to promote or endorse one form of rationality or the other. Remember, I am taking issue with reason itself, whether in its metaphysical or instrumental, its contemplative or its prosaically practical moods and modes. And in taking issue with it, I do not seek the wholesale rejection or dismissal of reason. It is an instrument—whether used as wings for flights of spiritual contemplation or as a hammer for smashing obstructive chunks of ignorance that stand in the way of producing a new GMO or of discovering a new form of sustainable energy. And as an instrument or faculty, it is not an end in itself, even if it happens to be pleasurable to exercise it, to run and jump and play with it. Of course, learning how to run and play with reason may involve some initial pain and discomfort, just as training oneself to carry a football at full speed towards the goal-line with a half-dozen handsomely paid professionals bent upon stopping you will almost surely entail some initial pain and discomfort. But pleasure and pain are states. They are not arguments. The rules of reason are indifferent to the pleasure and pain of those who play by them or break them.

And now for a big shift—back to the pressing issue of foundational arch-principles that I likened to the food that fuels and sustains the various grand rational schemes. I want to suggest that these arch-principles (e.g. ‘matter,’ ‘Ideas,’ ‘the Will,’ ‘God,’, etc.) which ground and nourish the various philosophies and theologies that have traditionally served as vital maps and guides in our human journey through the world and existence—I want to argue that they, themselves, are not and cannot be ultimate sources of meaning and value. They are, themselves, doorways that lead into this source, which inevitably remains mysterious, unknowable and ineffable—beyond all of our limited means of conceptualization, imagination, and grasp. As with the sun, we derive our life and our light from it, but our safety and well-being depend upon the measured distance between us and it. Too far away—warmth and light diminish and we freeze to death in the dark. Too close—and we are burnt to a crisp. The various arch-principles which function like food to the different rational and theological systems owe their power, ultimately, to this hidden and mysterious source—but because so few believers are able (or willing) to look beyond their own particular, inherited arch-principle, they naturally attribute this supreme value and status to ‘God,’ to ‘matter,’ to ‘spirit,’ to ‘Love,’ or whatever arch-principle ‘speaks to’ or ‘calls’ them.

Because they cannot see beyond it—and because it appears to be the ultimate source of meaning and nourishment for them—they are not likely to stand idly by when others disparage or ignore their supreme principles, whatever that may consist in. We are apt to feel that our very lives and our basic sense of orientation within the world depend upon our arch-principal, the ‘mask’ that stands between our fleeting little personal existence and the mystery of the whole that lies behind all such masks. We are naturally confined by our limited capacity to conceptualize or represent complex situations and subtle ideas to ourselves. This is one of those psychological truths that is so obvious that it is sometimes difficult or nearly impossible to see. We are naturally more inclined to trust a familiar untruth or half-truth because it is familiar than we are to trust a deeper truth that we have great deal of trouble formulating or imagining. It sounds obvious, of course, when spelled out like this, but what I have just spelled out here is perhaps the single greatest obstacle standing in the way of our liberation from some blinding but consoling generalization or another. It is our lazy comfortableness with the familiar and the ‘known’ that stands chiefly in the way of a sudden acknowledgement of the mystery we are in fact immersed in. But the comfort provided by such blind trust in the familiar is no argument supporting the ‘truth’ of our position. Pleasure and comfort—in this case the pleasure of hiding comfortably from persons and ideas that disturb our stubborn trust in the familiar—has nothing at all to do with the truth or untruth of what we cling to for comfort. And then there is pain. One man plunges from his warm and cozy comfort-zone of familiar dogmas into the ice-cold pool of mystery, and he feels refreshed, liberated, and energized, while another man who is pulled off his perch into the same water suffers cardiac arrest—from fear—and he’s done with. The first man felt the pain occasioned by the cold shock of the waters of mystery that melt and dissolve the comforting dogma-scales that cling to his skin, but he rejoiced in his initiation. The other was not ready for a plunge, and to pull him before he was ripe was wrong and disastrous.




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