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The Responsibility of Reason: Theory and Practice in a Liberal-Democratic Age
by Ralph C. Hancock
Rowman and Littlefield, 346 pages, $90

Modern societies lack confidence in the moral competence of reason. Americans agree, for example, in deploring a sexually exploitative culture that corrupts the young and the greed that contributed to the financial collapse of 2008. What, though, are the purposes of sexual desire or of the acquisitive impulse? No one can produce a widely persuasive account that provides a rational basis for condemning the ills that most people deplore.

This crisis of confidence in reason’s ability to make a persuasive case for moral norms, Ralph Hancock contends in The Responsibility of Reason: Theory and Practice in a Liberal-Democratic Age, is rooted in democratic modernity’s understanding of reason’s role in seeking truth and guiding human affairs. While promiscuously boasting that it is ruled by reason, democratic modernity drains reason of all positive ethical content. It wants to liberate reason from the authority of inherited moral traditions, but moral reason needs some authoritative ground from which to begin its inquiry.

Pure autonomous reason cannot lead us to the good, so the effort to follow it leads to an amorality from which new kinds of despotism emerge. Modern reason’s conquest of nature is inseparable from man’s subjection to the power of technology; its debunking of tradition goes hand in hand with man’s submission to the tyrannical sway of public opinion.

In his effort to understand and overcome these difficulties, Hancock, who teaches political science at Brigham Young University, takes for his primary guide Alexis de Tocqueville. However, before settling on the Frenchman as the necessary physician for our times, he considers the responses of two of the twentieth century’s great philosophic critics of modern rationalism, both commonly believed to be more profound than Tocqueville: Martin Heidegger and his student and critic Leo Strauss.

Heidegger saw more clearly than most of his contemporaries the dehumanizing effects of modern reason. Seeking to subjugate nature to human mastery through technology, reason drains nature of all inherent meaning, leaving man adrift in a meaningless universe. What’s more, since man is part of nature, he too is deprived of inherent meaning. But without an account of what man is, there is also no account of what he cannot be. Man himself, Heidegger recognized, can thus be rendered mere material for technological manipulation.

Nevertheless, Hancock argues, Heidegger’s diagnosis of these symptoms was wildly erroneous and his prescription dangerous. Like Nietzsche, he erred in attributing this corrosive power not to the modern perversions of reason but to reason itself, leading to a radical renunciation of the role of reason in human affairs. This misstep is inseparable from Heidegger’s redefinition of freedom as submission to the dispensations of fate rather than as taking responsibility for events in light of reason’s ethical perceptions. This philosophical view explains, perhaps, his rather shocking political judgment, specifically his dalliance, never really repudiated, with Nazism.

Turning to Strauss, Hancock finds his a more responsible but still unsatisfactory response to democratic modernity. Strauss saw that modern democratic societies suffer from a moral emptiness that makes them vulnerable to violently irrational ideologies like Nazism. Modern democracy understands reason to be ministerial to, and hence less important than, animal desires for mere life and comfort. Because of its agnosticism about the good and the noble, such a society cannot give a morally compelling defense of itself. Nor, for that matter, can it offer any politically and morally wholesome version of nobility to high-spirited souls otherwise tempted by the romantic allure of fanatical projects of political redemption.

To remedy these vulnerabilities, Strauss turned to the Greek philosophers’ belief that the highest human possibilities are realized outside and above the political realm, in the philosopher’s serene contemplation of the eternal order of the cosmos. Awareness of this path to transcendence, he hoped, would moderate democratic modernity’s restless strivings by establishing a greater good that cannot be attained through endless technological progress or limitless liberation from traditional morality.

Hancock finds Strauss’ solution defective both theoretically and practically. Philosophy cannot attain the complete transcendence of the political realm he desired. Even as it ascends from the political realm, reason remains dependent on pre-philosophic intimations of nobility learned in the political realm. For example, the sense that the philosopher’s pursuit of truth involves a “higher” activity than politics is already a development of the belief, common to the aristocratic context in which philosophy first arose, that the concerns of the ruling gentlemen are higher than those of ordinary men. His solution is practicably inadequate because his exaggerated praise of the transcendence of pure theory tends to foster an elitist indifference to human affairs ill suited to improving politics.

In Tocqueville, Hancock finds what he understands to be the most adequate response to democratic modernity’s destruction of belief in the moral competence of reason. The problem with democratic modernity is the loss of our capacity for what he called “moral analogy,” the sense that our practical, political lives can and should be understood and lived in light of higher spiritual possibilities that reason can clarify and approach by reflecting on the traditions of existing political societies.

This sense of moral analogy imbues the ordinary obligations of our human state with cosmic significance: Our relationships to our children and parents, friends and fellow citizens inform our understanding of the orderly whole of the cosmos. Conversely, our opinions about the cosmos can inform our understanding of our daily moral duties. This understanding is implicit in the inherited beliefs of traditional societies, but it is also capable of philosophic clarification as the human mind seeks rational knowledge of the cosmos.

Aristocracy, according to Tocqueville, naturally sustains a sense of moral analogy by habituating us to the idea that we are under the authority of something higher than ourselves. In contrast, democracy seeks an equality among men that dramatically changes the moral imagination. Reason is no longer deployed to justify and elaborate conceptions of what is “higher” but put to the service of democracy’s ruling class: ordinary men with ordinary concerns for self-preservation and prosperity. Thus democratic reason turns out to be primarily utilitarian, a tool in the service of materialistic ends, devoid of elevated (and elevating) moral content.

Tocqueville regarded this tendency of democratic culture toward the instrumentalization of reason, and the accompanying flattening of human aspiration, as the great threat to human dignity. In response, he exhorted those responsible for democratic societies to do all in their power to sustain the influence of Christianity, which provides a vision of a spiritual aristocracy, as it were, a salutary counterweight to democracy’s naturally materialistic and utilitarian tendencies.

Some might regard this conclusion as pedestrian. After all, countless conservative critics of the modern world have trumpeted the idea that Christianity encourages civic virtues and is a wholesome leaven to democratic culture. Hancock demonstrates, however, that Tocqueville’s grasp of the problem was more sophisticated. Tocqueville was well aware that by teaching the dignity of ordinary men, Christianity first initiated the egalitarian impulse that ultimately made modern democracy possible. It is therefore a cause of the very condition for which it is a remedy.

Christianity nevertheless contains within itself the medicine to treat the democratic pathologies it fosters. For Christians who take seriously the gospel’s admonishment to corporal works of mercy, the development of technology to ease the material conditions of all men will seem a morally compelling project. But the gospel teaches with equal insistence that improving the material conditions we face on earth is not the final purpose to which all else may be subordinated.

Drawing on Augustine, Hancock observes that all men are made for something beyond and above the political communities in which they happen to live. All men, not just philosophers, seek a transcendence that cannot be satisfied by any material goods. In the simple language of the Baltimore Catechism : Men are made to “know, love, and serve” God. This is the foundation of Western civilization’s sense of the dignity and worth of all human beings, and hence the belief that none may rightly be treated as mere tools of society’s purposes. With this understanding of what men are for we can again reason with confidence about moral norms.

Hancock suggests that a humanly responsible reason depends on a renewed respect for Christian morality instead of a continued pursuit of an ultimately destructive autonomy. He echoes (knowingly or unknowingly) a paradoxical theme emphasized by the two most recent popes: Reason achieves its full stature”judging the goodness of the ends we pursue, not merely calculating the means to achieve whatever we happen to want”only when it is united with faith. While those captivated by the secular rationalism that dominates so much of our elite culture will surely resist Hancock’s conclusion, his valuable book shows the only way to overcome democratic modernity’s loss of confidence in moral reason.

Carson Holloway is an associate professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.