Astute observations and important reflections by James, Will, and Ivan just below nourish my ongoing reflections on the meaning of reason’s responsibility today. The left’s appeals to “scientific” or otherwise purely “rationalist” reason appear more and more febrile and perhaps desperate, as if it is about to dawn on secular rationalists just how thin is the ice on which they are skating.
I am reminded of a remark I overheard a couple of years ago: “All we ask is that decisions be based upon reason.” The speaker was a political scientist, addressing other political scientists. The subject was the role of the American judicial branch. But the frustrated assertion of the authority of simple reason is one that echoes far and wide in contemporary American political discourse.
The assertion is frustrated because “reason” is taken to have a simple meaning. And the meaning of “reason” seems to those who wield it in this way to be simple because it is taken to be simply opposed to mere opinion, to prejudice, and to the mother of all prejudices, revealed religion.
This simplification has roots that go back hundreds of years, to Marsilius of Padua and to Machiavelli, notably. It has served its purpose in checking the real or potential claims of popes and priests to political rule over the souls of men, and in channeling rationalized energies towards the “relief of man’s estate.” But the questions of the soul, including those of what used to be called “the rational soul,” cannot be deferred forever, and it seems that the debt of reflection is falling due.
A recent, as always vigorous and provocative piece by Mark Steyn on “Why the Fascists are Winning in Europe” calls to mind in its themes (if not in its tone and style) Leo Strauss’s immensely challenging address on “German Nihilism” of 1941. Both address societies in which “reason,” or let’s say the progressive sensibility more generally, has taken on an increasingly negative meaning: enlightened people do not affirm their own interests or “values” but proceed by negating what their own kind stand for (proudly and often angrily, as Ivan notes), as if tolerance of “the other” could be, not the exception in normal political life, but the very rule of human association.
What Leo Strauss had already understood in 1941, having worked through his own “German nihilist” (that is fascist or proto-fascist) temptation, is that if reason is to survive as a moderator of prejudices, it must befriend the honorable prejudices or approximate truths of non-intellectuals who are ready to stand for something. And (as too many Straussians fail to see), to accomplish this political function the philosopher must respect the provenance of goods essential to the order of his own soul that “simple reason” cannot create ex nihilo.