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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Reason and Emotion

The most fundamental conflict in western civilization, in my opinion, is probably between reason and emotion. A year or two ago I purchased a most interesting-looking book, The Closing of the Western Mind by Charles Freeman, dealing with the gradual erosion of reason and the triumph of Christian faith between the fourth century B. C. and the seventh century A. D. I have not yet found time to read it (and hope that this post may indeed encourage me to do so in order to give you all a report), but the very title raises the issue of whether this could happen again—not a frivolous question in an era in which faith is rivaling reason in struggles to establish an orthodox view of how and when the human race came into being. In fact, surveying the last few centuries, I suspect that the empire of reason has passed its peak. On the other hand, that may not be altogether a bad thing either. Human beings may have some capacity for rational thought, but they cannot rid themselves of their feelings, and attempts to proclaim the supremacy of reason in human affairs have repeatedly led to disaster. What we need is that precious and most elusive of modern outcomes, an equilibrium—and it must be found fairly soon.

Personally I cannot help but regret the disfavor into which rational, empirical inquiry has fallen, especially in western university life. The great historians of the nineteenth and twentieth century showed what could be done by accumulating facts and stating them, as Henry Adams put it, in their sequence, and they built monuments of knowledge, some of which, like Albertini’s The Origins of the War of 1914, Nevins’ Ordeal of the Union, or Adams’ own History of the United States under the Administrations Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, qualify as works of art. As I have discovered myself, the combination of the word processor, the spreadsheet, and the web—which is gradually creating on-line archives—has potentially made the production of such works much easier—but meanwhile, during the last forty years the tradition of producing them in American universities has died. History and literary criticism (always a more chancy business) have become three parts ideology and perhaps one part research, and contemporary universities are producing less and less that is likely to stand the test of time, much less interest the general public. Eventually I believe that the earlier tradition will revive, but I cannot predict when or how.

Ironically, however, two other important disciplines—economics and political science—are suffering from an excessively rationalistic approach. Rational economic models based upon the beneficence of free markets began to dominate as soon as the economists who remembered the Great Depression had begun to retire, despite ample evidence that, as John Kenneth Galbraith repeatedly argued, one could predict far more by making irrationality axiomatic. This has had far more important practical effects than the decline of history. The rebirth of the free-market ideology has contributed enormously to the erosion of New Deal regulations, leading in the last thirty years to the rise of a completely unregulated alternative banking system that has been free to repeat the mistakes of the 1920s. The results of that are now all around us.

Perhaps the real problem is this: that the idea of rationality in public life has for three centuries been intermittently connected to the idea of perfectability. Reason, Marx argued prophetically (in every sense), could not only understand the world, but change it, designing and constructing social utopias as easily as model cities or suspension bridges. The results of such projects included both Communism and National Socialism, both of which justified their worst excesses on wholly rational grounds. And there lies the rub—the guise of reason became the excuse for the free exercise of the basest emotions. The European wars of the first half of the twentieth century, I argued in Politics and War, were based upon two simple principles: that countries should be made up of a single ethnic group, and that industrial powers needed empires with which to trade. Neither project made much sense, but tens of millions of Europeans died in attempts to achieve them.

The revival of emotion over the last forty years has had very good effects for individuals. The Boomers of the 1960s, for all their excesses, were re-asserting the right to their own feelings after childhoods of an almost bloodless perfection designed to create new adults in their parents’ image. Unfortunately they challenged everything their parents had done—not only their elders’ repression of their own feelings, which had done enormous harm to everyone involved, but also their substantial political achievements. It is a great thing to recognize how many people need far more emotionally than their parents could give them, and a great deal of denial about family, abuse, and sexual issues has been eroded over the last few decades. Freedom is not, as Orwell put it, simply the freedom to say that 2 + 2 = 4, it is also the freedom to acknowledge and express one’s own feelings. (Oddly, although Winston Smith and especially Julia realize that in 1984, Orwell never got across that last frontier himself. Although he expressed himself bluntly about the couple who ran the school to which he was exiled at the age of 8 in the essay, “Such, Such were the Joys,” , he was too much an Edwardian ever to write anything significant about his own parents at all. Perhaps that barrier stood in the way of overcoming his own self-hate and self-destructive behavior, even though one can easily find that lesson in his books.)

But that, perhaps, is the problem: the best thinking of the last forty years has dealt with individual problems, the worst about broader social and economic issues. Perhaps that is why we are so obsessed with the private lives of politicians and public servants—we no longer pay enough attention to what they are actually supposed to be doing for a living. Because we haven’t paid enough attention to domestic and foreign problems, they have now become inescapable. Abroad a large and critical region is drifting into unfriendly hands, and our military resources are utterly inadequate to do much about it. At home we face once again the need to discipline the market and insure more Americans a decent life. Emotion—the feeling that a certain degree of inequality must in and of itself be unjust, and that society owes us all a chance—can provide the necessary support for new measures, but it cannot decide what they should be. Here the past can be a guide to the present. We shall never create a perfect economic order, but we have proven that we can create a better one. (I do hope that Barack Obama starts to point out, as Hillary Clinton has been doing, that our economy thrived in the 1950s and early 1960s with marginal income tax rates of 90%.) But we need both to give up the idea of perfectability—whether through a totalitarian state or an unbridled free market—and to acknowledge that both reason and emotion must play a role in everything we do. That remains the eternal and most difficult human predicament, both individually and for us all as a whole. Its solution has never been more than intermittent and temporary, but it is a problem from which there is no escape.

At no time, in my opinion, has the western world ever come closer to reconciling the two than in the late eighteenth century (despite the frightening emotional excesses of the French Revolution.) Our Constitution--written by men who had lived through the degradation of what they had believed to be the most perfect government ever devised, the British constitution--was specifically written to restrain emotional excess (and the events of the last eight years show how important that was.) Meanwhile, on the artistic front, who has ever combined reason (as illustrated in classical forms) and emotion (expressed through melody and harmony) better than Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann, Schubert and Chopin? That is why the Constitution and Bill of Rights still deserve the reverence they have traditionally enjoyed. In the crises of the 1860s and the 1930s our leaders repeatedly returned to the Constitution for inspiration. That will, I think, be part of the task for the next President, as well.


Anonymous said...

Dear Professor Kaiser:

I have enjoyed reading your extremely well researched book and have taught history for several years including a travel class to Dallas on the JFK Assassination. I would like to contact you by email or phone. (I cannot find a way to contact you on your blog and figured commenting was my best option.)

Dr. Bruce Getzan, Dean
College of the Canyons
Santa Clarita, CA.
661 362-3144

Anonymous said...

The post on reason and emotion was lucid and, in its way, provocative. Part of the American political experience has always been more ideological than admitted, from the even-tempered, cogent compromises of our Founders who elevated property and individual rights over piety to the great economic and cultural successes of the post-WWII order.

in that context, the 60's drive for inclusiveness marks a confluence of campaigns for individual rights finally breaking through racial and gender barriers. Beneath the public pageantry of say, the civil rights movement, was Niebuhr's and Arendt's painful grappling with the irrational impulses that had unleashed such destructive force in Europe during the war. But your point is well taken -- this past half-century has achieved more by way of expanding the rights of citizens and less in terms of leavening the economic inequities that have only gained in social acceptance since Reagan.

Lisa Townsend said...

Thank you for this insightful article. Indeed, I have found that the guise of reason has been used to justify the baser human emotions. I observe our human evolution is frought with struggle between our perceptions and experiences in time alongside those that seem to be a mystery or that which is beyond our control. You suggest balance as a remedy. I heartily agree.