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The Irrational

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Western civilization has rested on the assumption that the individual is rational. The rational individual decides not only what is good for himself, but also – with others - for an entire society. This is the basis of democracy.   

In other societies, it is explicit that the individual is far from rational. In Confucian societies, the bureaucrat knows best; in Muslim society, elders are smarter than younger people, and wisdom comes with age. Furthermore, these societies more or less assume that the individual has to be kept in line: not only is he ignorant of his own good, he is a positive threat to social harmony.   

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Thus Pericles asserts: "The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty." 2,400 years later these words were echoed by J.S.Mill.    

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The first doubts as to individual rationality are raised by Thucydides. This historian was probably the first student of the mob. He noticed that Athens was a congeries of mobs. The individual could easily be swayed into irrational and destructive acts. The demagogue has been a permanent feature of all democracies. George Bush and Tony Blair are merely the latest in a long line stretching beyond Kleon.   

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The coup de grace to the rational individual was delivered by Plato. It is a permanent embarrassment to westerners that their greatest philosopher is the greatest critic of their most cherished belief. For Plato's teacher, Socrates, the individual was not inherently irrational. He was basically ignorant, and through suitable education could be made virtuous and wise. Wisdom and virtue were identical. Therefore, it was impossible for an individual to know what was good and do the opposite. In short, he ruled out akrasia, or incontinence. However, he never explained what sort of education would make people wise and virtuous; his own method of interrogation – the elenchus – was hardly conducive to wisdom. At the end of almost every dialogue, we find his interlocutor hopelessly befuddled or furious or both –and not a whit wiser!    

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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, "ŽBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL "ŽTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. "ŽHe is also a (more...)
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