A trinity of concepts appears in western thought and civilisation: freedom, slavery and rationality. Very little attention has been paid to the last in considering the others.
The denial of irrationality begins with Socrates and finds its culmination in the Enlightenment. For Socrates, virtue and knowledge were identical: therefore, it was impossible for a well-informed person to act against reason.
Aristotle held a similar view. "That he can so fail when knowing - in the strict sense -what is right some say is impossible: for it is a strange thing, as Socrates thought, that while Knowledge is present in his mind something else should master him and drag him about like a slave. Socrates in fact contended generally against the theory, maintaining there is no such state as that of Imperfect Self-Control, for that no one acts contrary to what is best conceiving it to be best but by reason of ignorance of what is best." For Aristotle, the rational animal reasons out his actions from general principles. He admits that the Socratic view is wrong – in fact, people do go against their knowledge of the best thing to do. However, he too finds it well nigh impossible to make room for human fallibility.
It was Plato who debunked the notion of the rational individual. The three parts of the soul – only one of which was rational – were in perpetual conflict. The tripartite division of the soul was to reemerge centuries later, in modified form, in Freud. Pavlov, with the aid of his famous dog, also demonstrated the irrationality of not only dogs but also humans. Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002 for 'proving' that people are in fact irrational. "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." These famous words by Adam Smith – so beloved of neoclassical economic theorists – have finally been demystified. Neither the butcher, nor the brewer, nor the baker knows his own self-interest – pace Socrates, Aristotle and Smith. Interestingly, Kahneman is a psychologist.
He – and behaviouralists like him – have demonstrated that individuals cannot choose rationally between alternatives, or assess risks properly. The 'individual' values the security of the herd: all this explains the recent stock market 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.
For neo-classical economic theory holds that as a person's income increases, he achieves greater utility or satisfaction. In technical jargon, his 'budget line' moves outward toward a higher 'indifference curve'. Empirical studies have revealed that this is not so: one's satisfaction does not rest on one's own income, but on one's income relative to that of others higher up the scale. Therefore, in reality, individuals do not try to maximize their own income, but to earn more than the Joneses.
Before continuing reading this essay, please answer the following question. Which should one choose: $50,000 per year while others earned $25,000, or $100,000 while others earned $200,000? Give it a moment's thought, then read on.
If you chose the former option, well, you are all too human – and like the group of Harvard students who were asked the same question. So, if you work harder and earn more, you won't be very happy if others around you earn more also – only by making sure that they earn less than you, can you ensure your own psychic satisfaction.
Individuals, therefore, would rather be worse off to make somebody else worse off than themselves.1
In this essay, however, we will be concerned not so much with debunking the rational individual, but in trying to understand why western civilisation has tried to deny the irrational. (In does not help the western cause that the Romantics, including the German nationalists, denied the rational: the question remains as to why western culture has oscillated between these two extremes at all.)
In most cultures, it is assumed that individuals are irrational. The bogeyman of the Egyptian was "the passionate man", a source of danger to himself as well as others. Against him stood "the silent man".
As for the passionate man in the temple, he is like a tree growing in the open. Suddenly [comes] its loss of foliage, and its end is reached in the shipyards; [or] it is floated far from its place, and a flame is its burial shroud.
[But] the truly silent man holds himself apart. He is like a tree growing in a garden. It flourishes; it doubles its fruit; it [stands] before its lord. Its fruit is sweet; its shade is pleasant; and its end is reached in the garden.2
Henri Frankfort observes: "The Egyptian way of life, signposted by the wisdom of the ages, appears as one not of struggle but of harmony".
Such a culture of self-restraint must inevitably arise in a palace-type government. In Egypt, the value that dominated all others was that of 'maat' - order, justice, harmony. Where democratic society is horizontal, palace-societies are vertical. Thus we have the Yin-Yang dichotomy of Confucius: he applied the idea to human relationships, especially those of the ruler-ruled, father-son, husband-wife, the first in each pair being superior to the second. "This hierarchical theory of human relationships was pervasive in Confucian China," notes Ninian Smart. Indeed, throughout non-western civilization, hierarchies have existed to restrain individuals.
To answer our question, though, we have again to go back to the Greeks. "For generally wherever the ruler and the ruled have nothing in common there is no Friendship because there is no Justice; but the case is as between an artisan and his tool, or between soul and body, and master and slave; all these are benefited by those who use them, but towards things inanimate there is neither Friendship nor Justice: nor even towards a horse or an ox, or a slave – qua - slave, because there is nothing in common: a slave as such is an animate tool, a tool an inanimate slave." These words of Aristotle are telling: in a society where around 30% of all people were slaves (compare China's 1%!), a slave was bound to be regarded as subhuman. The same principle operates in Plato: those lacking rationality, that is, slaves, should be ruled by those possessing it.
"...a being who is endowed with a mind capable of reflection and forethought is by nature the superior and governor, whereas he whose excellence is merely corporeal is formed to be a slave; whence it follows that the different state of master and slave is equally advantageous to both." This is not Plato speaking, but Aristotle! "For which reason the poets say, it is proper for the Greeks to govern the barbarians, as if a barbarian and a slave were by nature one."
Ponder the implications of the last paragraph: the rational should conquer and rule the irrational; barbarians are irrational. This was the basis of Greek democracy, which rested solidly on slavery. The institution was justified by degrading the slave below humanity.
But there's more. The reasoning survived the destruction of the Greek way of life. It is no accident that the Enlightenment saw the apogee of the Atlantic slave trade, as well as overseas colonial expansion. Both had always been justified in terms of some sort of lack of rationality or humanity on the part of the conquered. Thus, slaves were condemned to be slaves by virtue of The Curse of Ham! Later, for John Locke (a shareholder in the Royal African Company), black slaves were justifiably "subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man" because they had abandoned the state of nature – a contract - for a state of war. Since England was not in a state of war with Africa, and most slaves were purchased – a condition explicitly ruled out by Locke – we can only surmise that the Aristotelian logic had been stood on its head: all captives are barbarians, hence slaves.
To be economically and militarily weak was to be uncivilised, irrational. "We used to be a nation of artists," a Japanese diplomat once remarked, "but now...we have learned to kill, you say that we are civilised." When, on 30th January 1902, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was signed, Japan, it was said, had joined Europe: Japan was now free to attack Russia, as she had attacked China in 1895. Her army had been trained by Germans, and soldiers by the British. Compare the treatment meted out to China and the respect accorded to Japan. In 1905, an American scholar wrote in the American Journal of Sociology that the Japanese were the 'peers of western people'3. (In this, he was clearly right: the Japanese had become equally savage.) Implication: others were not their peers. Yet the Japanese were miffed when the League of Nations failed to declare in favour of racial equality in its Covenant.
The Muslim world faces the same dilemma faced by Japan when threatened by the west. Iran, it is said by the west, is 'barbaric' despite her splendid poets: unfortunately, the Robaiyat of Omar Khayyam are poor substitute for enriched uranium. And it is shocking to see how many Muslims actively participate in the making of self-labels such as 'uncivilised'. The number of donor-funded NGOs in Bangladesh, for instance, testifies to how easily Muslim can be set against Muslim. It was Japan's strength, of course, and China's weakness, that the former nation was internally undivided and the latter divided: this, in western eyes, is the true barbarism.
1 Vividly evident during the First World War, when punishing the other at whatever cost to oneself was the goal of the adversaries. It is clear that people find malicious pleasure in the suffering of others (though it took the genius of Schopenhauer to articulate malice as a motive); Madeleine Albright has gone down in history as having claimed that the death of several hundred thousand children in Iraq through sanctions was "worth it". The situation in Iraq today obviously evokes no sympathy from most Americans: in internet chat rooms, one frequently finds the slogan "I hate Arabs!". And Palestinians are in their third generation of misery. The barbarian is worthy of his suffering.
2 Henri Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961), p. 66.
3 Edmund Buckley. "The Japanese as Peers of Western People." The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 11, No. 3 (November 1905), 326-335.
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