Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Latest Failure of Nerve

I recently finished reading Sidney Hook's essay The New Failure of Nerve.  It was written during the Second World War, and criticized the tendency of the time, among intellectuals and others, to turn away from reason and scientific thought and accept ideals and modes of "thinking" which have their bases in what we might call (or at least I will call) the lesser angels of our nature.

I confess I was impressed by the fact that he felt it necessary to write such an article during the Second World War, which seems at this date to have been a kind of mad crusade of unreason, in some respects stupider, even, than the First World War.  WWI was in most cases fought stupidly, and can be said to have begun largely due to a combination of stupidity and paranoia, especially among the German General Staff.  WWII was not fought as stupidly as WWI, perhaps, and though stupidity had its place in its commencement, so too did other forms of unreason--weird Blood and Soil mysticism, self-pity, fanaticism, an imagined perpetual conflict between Teutons and Slavs, racism, miltarism, imperialism; name a human failing and it seems to have been present, indeed rampant.

Hook was not referring to what had lead to the war and its continuation, however.  He was referring to the reaction to the war among those who had come to believe that it was, somehow, an indictment of reason, and science, and liberal democracy.  Those things having in some sense failed, there was a movement to look to different things as protection against the ideologies of the Axis nations and their results.  If we accept those ideologies as being irrational, then, the thought was that victory over them required being irrational in different ways--nicer ways, or better ways, if you will.  Hook tried to point out that the use of reason could not be said to have caused WWII, or facisim, or nazism; that, in fact, it had never truly been tried.

Just what it was that lead some at that time to believe that wackiness is required to combat wackiness, I cannot say.  However, I think times haven't changed, much.  There seems to be a renewed conviction that reason just doesn't quite do the trick.  We need God, or rather a particular God, who varies from person to person, country to country, culture to culture, to save us from the madness of others, say some--and that God cannot be understood, or followed, through the application of mere reason.  Or, we cannot understand ourselves or others through reason, but must instead employ some mystic mechanism; or we must encounter and accept some kind of abyss, or horror, or Will, or Power, or Force; reason is, itself, just another expression of prejudice or culture, and must be replaced with something which, reason being untrustworthy, cannot be explained or expressed except, well, unreasonably.  When we abandon reason, there need be no reasons, after all.

I think we still can say as Hook said, that reason has not been given any kind of chance or test.   But one has to wonder whether it ever can be employed with any frequency or in a consistent manner where humans are concerned--perhaps we are simply so stupid, or irrational, that we cannot be reasonable to the extent necessary in the long term to determine whether reason would be of benefit to us.  A cheery thought, and probably one which would delight some. 

But if that is the case it doesn't follow that we should abandon reason as a guide to action.  It may indicate, though, that reason and intelligence are to be applied to problems as they arise, not as some kind of grand strategy.  We may be constitutionally unable to resolve the great evils of our time through reason alone, but we certainly can't do so without reason--that's been tried many times and has been fruitless.   The more ambitious we are, the less reasonable we can be.

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