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The Irrational

By       Message Iftekhar Sayeed     Permalink
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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.    

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.   

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!    

His pupil, on the other hand, made room for        akrasia. His vivisection of the soul provides the starting point: there's the rational part of the soul, then the passionate or spirited part, which has to do with the emotions, especially anger and also fear, and then the appetitive part which has to do with physical needs, such as hunger and sex. Anticipating Freud, Plato assigns to the last a terrible and independent autonomy. In the Timaeus he observes of both men and women: "Wherefore also in men the organ of generation becoming rebellious and masterful, like an animal disobedient to reason, and maddened with the sting of lust, seeks to gain absolute sway, and the same is the case with the so-called womb or matrix of women." The best cinematic depiction of this state of affairs has been that of Adrian Lyne in his recent film, Unfaithful.  For Socrates, courage is an intellectual achievement: "Courage is wisdom regarding what is and is not fearful". For Plato, courage is an emotional achievement: "And I believe we call a man 'brave' because of this [the passionate] part of the soul, when it preserves through pains and pleasures the injunctions of reason concerning what is and is not fearful." Only the spirited part can guard against cowardice; and – and this is vital – the spirited part is immune to reason. The emotions alone can reach it; therefore, a suitably artistic – 'musical' - education must be used to inculcate virtue.   And this is another point of difference with Socrates. For the master, virtue was a democratic product, open to all; for the pupil, virtue is the exclusive preserve of an elite. The mass of humanity can only achieve a simulacrum of virtue, through the benevolent despotism of an elite. We are on fairly oriental grounds by now.   

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Plato proved more prescient than his teacher. He had anticipated the power of indoctrination, of literature and music to arouse emotions and channel them in whatever directions those in authority wish.   

If any further proof for the irrational man was necessary, they were provided by Sigmund Freud. He channeled the entire western tradition of the irrational into his view of man: a personality constantly at war with the superego and the id. (Another good director, who has caught this tension on camera, is Stanley Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut.) 

Of late, the discipline of economics has been debunked by behaviouralists: Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for demonstrating that individuals cannot choose rationally between alternatives, or assess risks properly. The 'individual' values the security of the herd: all this explains the recent stockmarket bubble and crash when investors – egged on by newspapers and analysts - madly rushed into the technology shares of firms that could never have prospered, and then sold just as suddenly. 

The slaughter of the First World War would have been impossible without the indoctrination of nationalism – a notable product of the French revolution – into each schoolboy and reader of newspapers. Novels, like Manzoni's The Betrothed, were deployed in this effort. 

There was no rational reason for the war: in 1898, Ivan Bloch, a Russian banker, wrote a book that was published in English as Is War Now Impossible? Yes, he answered, because war was too destructive to be sustainable. In 1909, Norman Angell argued that it was a "great illusion" to think that any industrialised nation could benefit from war. A Lloyd's underwriter told the Committee of Imperial Defence that, were a German ship sunk by the Royal Navy, he would have to pay compensation. "Britain, France and Germany were all industrialised countries with highly educated populations and more or less universal male suffrage," observes Richard Vinen. "Why should states that were so well placed to calculate their interests rationally embark on a war that was to bring such destruction?" Answer: precisely because they had educated populations with the vote, and newspapers, for language does not merely inform, but persuades. 

Those who argue that America went to war with Iraq for rational reasons – like oil - are wrong: most wars have been fought for irrational 'reasons' (Yes, Bush sought votes  – but the people?). As Vinen said of the Great War: "The fact that the war proved so long and so destructive was the result of the 'sophistication' of western European societies, not the 'primitive' nature of east European ones." Sophistication permitted indoctrination; indoctrination required sacrifice; and sacrifice demanded that millions lay down their lives for 'la patrie', when it would have been rational to surrender or desert, as the bucolic east Europeans did.   In fact, there has been a great deal written about the 'cause' of the First World War.

A.J.P. Taylor best summed up the anguish of historians in their fruitless search for 'a cause': "Wars are much like road accidents. They have a general and a particular cause. Every road accident is caused in the last resort by the invention of the internal combustion engine...[But] the police and the courts do not weigh profound causes. They seek a specific cause for each accident - driver's error, excessive speed, drunkenness, faulty brakes, bad road surface. So it is with wars."   

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To return to contemporary themes, the London-based journalist, Gwynne Dyer, has frankly proclaimed: "I have written tens of thousands of words on the Bush administration's motives for invading Iraq, but in the end I do not know why they did it. I suspect that they don't, either. It just seemed like a neat idea at the time. ('s%20All%20About%20Oil.txt)" Those who admire the west for its fine universities and huge libraries would do better to turn their gaze in the other direction.  

The 20th century, and the beginning of the 21st, if no other, have proved Socrates wrong and Plato right.  


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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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