The Age of Reason and the Abuse of Reason
Entering a college classroom in 1950, I noticed some pre-class graffiti on the chalkboard that read: “Damn the Absolute!” This cry of a soul lashing out at evil in the world struck a sympathetic chord. Alas, it also struck a false note. For how do you turn against that from which you are formed, that is larger than every self and points to the Truth that has confounded scores of souls before and since Pilate came face to face with it? How, indeed, does one separate self from the generative power of creation without condemning that self to a private limbo?
(Whoever may wonder why I bring up something out of the “dead-and-done” past, it’s because it plagues a great many in the present.)
Did I misread the chalkboard message? Well, if banishing what is Absolute (capital A) did not mean turning against the source of human existence, what did it mean? I suspected this to be another instance of playing the relativity game, frequently won by players with more muscle than talent, or another instance of mixing constants and variables, a useful way to deceive others (and oneself) with clever falsehood. Failure to keep constants and their associated variables in proper relation to each other prevents what is to be altered from gaining real traction, which is why constants are fixed. This is a detail of reality lost on many so-called progressives who see every rule as a variable, every constraint as a block in one’s path instead of a gate to the real possibilities, while they tear down everything in their way from A to B that can’t be “manipulated.”
But no matter how “the Absolute” is confronted (or dismissed), the principle or foundation or generative power behind our very existence (a philosophical hot potato since B.C.) refuses to be bagged in words and symbols and will escape every purely rational manipulation, no matter how logical, no matter how persuasive the process.
When you put the mind in the driver’s seat, so to speak, in order to pin everything down for ourselves included, you are apt to travel in circles. For purely rational thought provides no exit from the circular lanes of a mind that lays out its own roads to knowledge of the truth. And negotiating the maze of conflicting opinions often requires the application of forceful means to “progress.” And that is where justice frequently ends when morality is abandoned.
It was Age of Reason thinkers that dignified the notion that first things may be tinkered with, evoking the prospect of a brave new world where unshackled brainpower finally rids the world of evil. Numerous disciples of this 18th Century “enlightenment” have been working diligently since then to implement one or another version of their anticipated “golden age.”
Look around. See for yourself what over two centuries of unbridled “reason” have wrought in the mission to make a better world and better people. If you see an approach to utopia, you need better glasses.
The author of “Damn the Absolute!” was evidently locked in the “progressive” bias that the world may be altered to obey every human desire by tweaking the truth, a prime tenet of relativists and materialists who, scoffing at the irrationality of “supernatural” approaches to a knowledge of reality, overlook the irrationality of their own subjective take-off points. They can’t or won’t see that the ultimate Square One for a sound worldview must forever be consistent with being human, and this forever harks back to a valid moral principle.
It is ironic but instructive, I think, that a modern sage who escaped the straitjacket of intellectual conventions, Alan Watts, made light of “the moral principle” except in its role of maintaining civil order, while a modern composer who escaped the straightjacket of musical conventions, Igor Stravinsky, recognized its central importance to human progress in his 1942 Poetics of Music. Our wellbeing, in this saner and broader view of life, is seen not just as dependent on correct responses to infinitely varying circumstances but on the unvarying givens of an overarching “Absolute,” eternally nameless as in the “I Am that I Am” of the Bible, pointing to an essential connection between man and God, being perilously ignored in his generation.
Rule makers with a prejudice against what cannot be changed commonly react to valid restraints on their power by the use of force, ranging from gentle to brutal.
Recognizing the requirement that human action must be grounded in a higher principle than “utility” or “desire” allows one to see that moral restraint is not a lock on human progress but a door that opens to broader and saner prospects for human progress.
A common abuse of reason at this high level of interaction with reality is turning things that don’t change (the constants), such as being human and mortal, into the things that do change (the variables), such as the means of improving one’s health. Sages great and small have pointed out, time and again, that changing everything eventually changes nothing. Revolutionaries that demolish everything – as communists did in China – doom their experiment to failure, usually at a great and terrible cost in human life and suffering.
Recognizing the limited value of reason when it is uncoupled from actual reality liberates the deeply inquiring mind (that of an academic, for example) from the prejudice that people can actually be changed into what they aren’t and do things that are actually not possible. This real enlightenment makes one see that essential human experience does not change, regardless of its socio-political trappings and degree of technological development. It allows one to see that reason per se, even when intended to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number, is quite capable of serving the opposite purpose -- that of bringing about the greatest evil to the greatest number, even when not intended – as demonstrated in recorded history and engraved in human memory.
A mindset that disdains the real world, that can’t stand a world where justice begins with accepting human nature as is, that is, flawed, is plainly the wrong mindset for any human progress. Such is the mindset that must take down “the Absolute.” Professing an attachment to reason, those who possess a contempt for the very nature of things commonly think, speak, and act unreasonably toward the actual world. Those who remain unaffected by this disorder have, in some productive or creative way, accepted the truth that since “I did not invent me” there is no call for such a bungling creature as the human being to “reinvent me and the world.” This intimation of a Creator and acknowledgment of a transcendent Absolute is at the root of sane and fruitful human progress.
In the second decade of the 21st Century A.D., we can see that “canceling” God by “enlightenment,” however “reasoned,” was a very bad idea. It has helped trash everything held most dear to most people, generation after generation, including human life itself. No one in his or her right mind will ever accept a world that violates the laws of nature, the laws of God, and the fundamental right of people to be free and fairly treated − laws that are currently rejected by progressives infected with Marxist ideology and proud of their “wokeness” – in truth, unawake to the world around them.
I dare say that devotees of the Marxist Left despise the Christian religion because its prescription for the major ills of the world is not the reform of the world but the reform of ourselves. By dismissing “the Absolute” or, as Christians might put it, turning away from God in hope of making the world a better place to live in, they set themselves on a course toward inevitable failure.
Anthony J. DeBlasi is a lifelong culture warrior.
Image: Pixabay / Pixabay License
To comment, you can find the MeWe post for this article here.