Friday, February 28, 2014

Dark Horse

“And I beheld, and lo a black horse” - Revelation 6:5 

“What’s the right thing to do?”

I asked the question was asked to a group of middle and high schoolers at SPLASH. Hands shot up. Answers were given. But not to the question I asked. They all conspired to, completely without my approval, answer a different question: “Why is it impossible to do the right thing?”

While no doubt an interesting question, it seemed to the students indistinguishable from my first. It seemed no matter how many times I repeated my question or clarified, they obstinately persisted in offering answers to the second question. I heard about studies in moral psychology, sociology, and evolutionary biology. I heard personal anecdotes of students doing what they seemed to think was the wrong thing, defeatedly declaring it inevitable. I was very familiar with relativism, the fashionable (and crazy) idea that all moral truth is relative [1]. I even knew about moral agnosticism, the slightly less fashionable and slightly less crazy idea that there is an objective moral world, but it was unknowable. The majority of the class wasn’t set on relativism, or at least not set on it deeply. But the class did seem to be utterly convinced of the depravity of the human condition: we know the right thing to do, but have no ability to actually do it.

The only philosophical system that I know of that has so low a view of human capacity is the extreme end of Reformed Theology, people like the Puritans. But even that system is optimistic because the solution (Jesus) is provided. The Ancients had ideas that things like tradition, education, religion, wisdom or reason were paths to a virtuous life. But my students had been told of no such paths. But their previous teachers had not been idle; they made sure to pile rocks of explicit doubt on the best paths, and obscure the rest under a light snow of relativism. The tragedy of my poor students was matchless.

“Part of me wants to do what’s right. But part of me just wants to be rich.”

So said my friend in the midst of a career decision. So far so good. We all have unholy desires and impure motives. It’s good that he recognizes it.

“So I don’t know what to choose.”

There are those boldly wicked men like Thrasymachus [2] (about whom much of Plato’s Republic is set out to refute), who actively argue that injustice is better than justice. But my unfortunate friend was in a different place. He wanted to be a good person, and he knew what a good person would do. But there is another part of himself which he could not deny which wanted something else, and he did not know which part of him had the valid claim: the rational, just part; or the greedy, unjust part. It is like his mind is the Manichean cosmos: there are two gods, a good one and a bad one, and neither has the ultimate claim to being Right.

This is a new thing. Humanity throughout the ages was pretty well convinced of how totally awesome Reason was. The question “should I follow reason?” was pretty well taken for granted. In fact, there’s not much of human craft that is possible if the answer turned out to be “no.” In fact, much of my future profession is dedicated to dealing with people who seem to have that question in the negative. To the Greeks and many Christians, Reason (not the Hokey Pokey), was what it was all about. This is Reason in the highest sense (all apprehension of capital T “Truth”), not just what you learned in Geometry. Aristotle says this about the purpose of life: “The function of man is activity of soul in accordance with reason, or at least not without reason.” The consequences of not living out this purpose are described in vivid (believe me, vivid) descriptions of H-E-double-hockey-sticks by Dante; the Inferno is a place for beings who, to varying degrees, abandon or corrupt their Reason. To Dante, Hell is nothing less and nothing more. Previous generations required that vice be concealed as virtue, that the irrational put on the clothes of reason. Today, it seems, vice can walk the streets naked and unashamed.

“I don’t know if I’m in love with him. Should we break up?”

She’d been in a relationship for over a year, but the passion faded and/or wasn’t as strong as it “should be.” This is a classic case. And, as numerous conversations with friends have demonstrated, we have no flipping idea how to make decisions about relationships. Sometimes, we don’t even think we should use “cold” reason in such a fiery thing as love.

“Love” apparently meant, “warm feelings” and these were, apparently, supposed to be really, really strong. And if they weren’t then it meant the many months of dedication and sacrifice were for naught. That person must not be “the one.” This conviction is cemented by the common experience of having a previous lover with whom one did have really, really warm feelings towards. Why that relationship (the one with the feelings) didn’t work out will not be reflected on.

Passion is far too weak a glue to bind two people together for any significant time. It certainly does a very adaptive thing for humanity and gets us to commit to each other while intoxicated by love. But that was back when the good king Reason ruled and acknowledged that promises and commitments had force even when feelings faded. Now that the Passions are ruling, this is now a conscience-driven process. “Feelings are the Good, and if they are absent, then I’m out, promises be damned.” All the other things that people considered in their partner are now all but ignored. It is not temptation but Reason-endorsed conviction that causes me to consider breaking my commitment.

To Be or Not to Be?

In The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal tells the story of a girl who had recurrent suicidal thoughts, tried to suppress them, and had even more recurrent suicidal thoughts (a transient obsession that McGonigal attributes to the white bear effect). As a result, she concluded that the recurrence of these thoughts reflected the fact that, deep down, she really wanted to kill herself. Her conscious, rational self has no reasons to offer, but that must mean that the conscious, rational self is ignorant of the true reality.

Why would anyone think all subconscious ideas contained deep and irrefutable truths about us? I suppose it’s partly because of a watered down and corrupted legacy of Freud. But it may also be because that the thoughts and feelings that occur to us outside our conscious control arrive from a mysterious source. They, like visions or prophecies, have the appeal of mystery. And in an environment where we know everything is false, at least with the private idea-generator called the subconscious, we don’t know that it’s false; it stands alone in our minds as not having its epistemological foundations undermined.

The Reign of the Dark Horse

The common theme of all these stories is that many modern people seem to think feelings are inviolable. It’s a bizarre inversion of what has always been the ideal. Classically, when the Passions overpowered the Reason, it was a tragedy. Now the Passions rule, but the Reason is actually complicit. At best, Reason has one vote amongst the Passions. At best, Reason is as impotent as a junior congressman from Idaho. Sometimes, Reason is just an observer, along for the ride like a tick on a dog. Our minds are adequately muddled to permit for a new thing in the history of the world: not forced servitude, but voluntary commitment of Reason to the Passions.

One of Plato’s allegories compared the human soul to a chariot pulled by two horses. The driver is reason, one of the horses (white) represents the good emotions or “spiritedness” and the other horse (black) represents the carnal or base passions. The driver’s job was to bridle and direct the horses; not suppress them, or let them guide the chariot (for a fuller account, check out this Art of Manliness article). Plato called the failure of the rider and the triumph of the Passions, “…the ruthless enslavement of the divinest part of himself to the most despicable and godless part” and submitted that such a man should be “deemed wreched.” All Plato could imagine seemed to be an incompetent driver (which was just “wreched”). Our modern insanity seems to have been unforeseen: he couldn’t imagine a rider so insane he would yoke himself beside the other horses and allow the Dark Horse to lead. I don’t think he could have imagined conscious and intentional mutiny of Reason against Wisdom, not just being enslaved by the Passions, but swearing allegiance to them.

My students seemed as if they were trained from childhood to yoke their Reason beside their passions and to pull with it in whatever direction the Dark Horse was inclined to go. My money-loving friend knew what was right, on some level wanted to do right, but gave his Reason an equal vote. My friend in the relationship thought the Dark Horse’s inclinations were the only reliable guide. The suicidal girl allowed her Passions to persuade her Reason.

After thousands of years of trying by a multitude of means, humanity seems to have finally given up trying to break the Dark Horse. But rather than just enjoying a directionless chariot ride, we have kept our Reason active, pulling the now-empty chariot beside the Dark Horse here and there and everywhere. Plato described the integrated soul, when the rider and two horses worked together: he told of how such a soul could rise up into the heavens with the gods. But such cannot be our fate. Our souls will be scattered across the plains and deserts of the earth, driving madly in a direction we know not.




Unless Reason rules again.

[1] Paul Blume famously opens his book on American universities with this line: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” As for its craziness, the strong defenders of the hypothesis are hard to find.
[2] “injustice, when it comes into being on a sufficient scale, is mightier, freer, and more masterful than justice.”

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