Beyond Reason – Part 5 (The Tyranny of Reason)
Updated: Apr 4
Let us consider where we’ve come so far:
In Part 1 we talked about how many people who lived during the Age of Reason were of the opinion that mankind was entering a golden era in which the superstitious dogmas and doctrines of the past would give way to a pure pursuit of reason. Thus, humans would live in harmony as their political leaders relied upon their superior reasoning to chart a prosperous, equitable, and peaceful future.
In Part 2 we discovered how much of a killjoy Edmund Burke could be as he dared to challenge to this newfound faith in human reason. He offered instead an alternative tool: prescription, which put individual reason behind respect for authority, traditions, customs, norms, and institutions. Prescription is one of the biggest reasons conservatives are often unenthusiastic about trying bold innovations in the economy, law, family structure, or ancient institutions. They’d much prefer to take a slow, contemplative path towards progress.
But in Part 3 we saw how prescription is also concerned with where we’re going and not merely how we get there. For prescription, which helps bind us to prior generations and anchor us to the transcendent, offers us the ability to hold to permanent things of value in an ever-changing world. The conservative view of progress does not mean that yesterday’s conservatives eventually will become today’s progressives because conservatives and progressives are ultimately moving in opposite directions.
Finally, in Part 4, we explored the numerous benefits to the individual and society in following prescription. Instead of relying upon a select group of experts to direct complex things such as language, law, and morality, prescription communicates habits and norms through traditions and institutions so effectively and efficiently that even fools can become wise as society benefits from the efforts of all those who have come before.
Burke feared an overreliance on the individual’s ability to reason their way through political problems would lead to all kinds of trouble. He insisted prescription was a safer, more trustworthy alternative because it had stood the test of time. Was he successful in persuading his Enlightenment-era contemporaries? Not exactly.
Enlightenment thinkers from England to France to America scoffed at this antiquated approach to statecraft. Of course prescription was the “safer” bet; that’s all that had ever been tried before. But the Age of Reason was all about taking humanity far beyond where it had been before, which is why everywhere the Enlightenment spread so did the rumblings of revolution. As Yuval Levin put it, “The age of revolutions understood itself as advancing the cause of reason in political life.” And those who participated in this great cause hadn’t patience for oldfangled idealists like Burke. Let’s hear what they had to say:
“Everything that bears the imprint of time must inspire distrust more than respect…[it is] only by meditation that we can arrive at any general truths in the science of man.”
“Reason is the proper instrument, and the sufficient instrument for regulating the actions of mankind…If we employ our rational faculties, we cannot fail of thus conquering our erroneous propensities.”
“The philosophers having no particular interest to defend, can only speak up in favor of reason and the public interest.”
“The best and most natural arrangement [is] for the wisest to govern the multitude.”
“The greatest happiness of a nation is realized when those who govern agree with those who instruct it.”
“It is time that nations should be rational, and not be governed like animals, for the pleasure of their riders.”
The Horrors of Limitless Reason
To be fair, Burke hadn’t minced words in his famous Reflections on the Revolution in France where he strongly criticized the French revolutionaries who had wholeheartedly embraced this new approach to politics. Burke accused their innovations of potentially leading to far greater evils than the abuses of power that existed in the French monarch they intended to smash.
As horrid as abuses of European monarchies were, they paled in comparison to what was to come. “Old-fashioned grievances—moved by local or national loyalties or material necessities—have their natural bounds,” wrote Levin. “Old-fashioned despotism—moved by a naked desire for power on the part of a charismatic tyrant—cannot readily mask its excesses.” In spite of the horror, these old systems possessed some limiting principle upon its leaders from maintaining good relations with local lords to operating within the confines of what was religiously expected.
“But a mob moved by a theory has no natural stopping point and cannot easily be assuaged, and leaders claiming to advance a truth obtained by philosophical speculation do not fit the familiar profile of the tyrant,” continues Levin. “The ancient tyrants could only wish to get away with what the modern speculative revolutionaries can achieve.” Twentieth century political ideologies such as fascism and communism had no such limitations. By demanding everything submit to reason, they gladly destroyed anything perceived as a challenge to the presuppositions their ideology had been built upon.
Levin concludes, “An overreliance on theory may unleash extremism and immoderation by unmooring politics from the polity. Because [radicals] pursue the vindication of a principle, they cannot stop short of total success.” As we’ve seen throughout this series, part of Burke’s objection comes from what he believed to be a misunderstanding of the purpose of politics. Politics were never intended to be the place where intellectuals could work out their (often untested) theories on a hapless population. Rather, politics was intended to provide for the common good, prosperity, and stability of the nation-state so that the population could go about the business of working out higher purposes and pursuits in their own lives.
Inevitably, when people are set free to pursue lives of purpose, some of them are going to do it all wrong. Or, at least, in a manner which you or I may strongly detest. But what happens when they pursue lives of purpose that don’t fall within the guidelines of what can be agreed upon using reason alone? This notion deeply concerned economist Friedrich Hayek:
“The most dangerous stage in the growth of civilization may well be that in which man has come to regard all these beliefs as superstitions and refuses to accept or to submit to anything which he does not rationally understand. The rationalist whose reason is not sufficient to teach him those limitations of the power of conscious reason, and who despises all the institutions and customs which have not been consciously designed, would thus become the destroyer of the civilization built upon them.”
In the end, a politics of pure reason rejects every thing and every one who cannot be explained or understood through the narrow lens of reason. In overvaluing reason, we undervalue so much that serves society well. Here are three brief examples:
When We Overvalue Reason, We Undervalue Experience
Yuval Levin uses the arguments of Thomas Paine—who was quoted earlier—to contrast Burke’s reliance on prescription: “[Paine] argues that every individual is capable of employing his own reason to discern the truth or falsehood of a political question, so that no reliance on the past or on collective reasoning is required. In this way, again, Paine believes that every individual has the capacity to begin from scratch, rather than beginning where others have left off.” This is the purest form of those who hold that reason alone is the means to truth. If reason is all we need, then anyone is capable of arriving at the “right” answer to a political question all by themselves.
What gets in the way of people getting to the “right” answers then isn’t some limitation on their part so much as the distortions of all those needless cultural traditions that get in the way. What’s more, those who have gained experience in politics and statecraft are the least likely to arrive at the “right” answers because they’ve been marinated in the traditions they’ve inhabited to gain this experience. If all that is required is reason, then what counts isn’t experience but sheer intelligence. For surely those who are smart enough are the most capable of reasoning well.
“Articulated youth, idealistic and trained in the latest and most advanced forms of knowledge, as knowledge is conceived in the [progressive] vision, are a great hope for the future to those with that vision. So are intellectuals,” explains Thomas Sowell, “Neither is viewed in this way in the [conservative] vision. Where knowledge is more expansively defined and consequently more widely distributed, as in the [progressive] vision, intellectuals have no commanding advantage over the common man.” Notice here how this belief can naturally slide into tyranny. If reason can get us to the “right” answers, and if the most intelligent among us are the best at using their reason, then surely the intelligent are best suited to rule everyone else.
When We Overvalue Reason, We Undervalue Tradition
As noted above, the belief that reason is the primary or only means to truth makes cultural traditions—the very thing prescription calls for to aid us in finding the truth—nothing more than cumbersome roadblocks on our journey to societal progression. “In [progressive] vision, where much of the malaise of the world is due to existing institutions and existing beliefs, those least habituated to those institutions and beliefs are readily seen as especially valuable for making needed social change,” writes Thomas Sowell.
Notice here again how the temptation for those who fancy themselves the smartest among us to rule is always lurking. But notice to what stands in the way of “needed social change”: institutions. Those modes of associations from the church to the family to the local bowling league make it difficult to institute societal change because these institutions were built on the very society that needs changing.
Even if it is acknowledged that tradition and institutions are the best means for past generations to instill the wisdom of lessons learned, of what use is that in a world where reason can better guide us than some long-dead sage or prophet? That information may have been useful at some distant point in the past, but if we hope to make much progress we have to find ways to progress past the past.
And since tradition calls us back to the past, it must be torn apart to make way for the superhighway of Reason to bring about Progress.
When We Overvalue Reason, We Undervalue Authority and Revelation
“In the matter of the earth’s circumference, nearly all of us are much better off if we simply accept the ‘traditional’ or ‘authoritative’ calculation,” wrote Russell Kirk. That does not mean that truth becomes whatever an authority says it is. Even in the case of divine revelation we don’t entirely forgo our critical thinking skills in evaluating the truth of a matter. We might ask if we correctly understood what was revealed. Or, in the case of a prophet or religious leader claiming to speak on behalf of God, we might rightly question whether we believe this to be so.
Prescription doesn’t ask us to blindly follow every authoritative answer or religious doctrine. Instead, prescription insists that authoritative answers and religious doctrines stand a far better chance at ascertaining the truth because they are not dependent on our meager ability to reason well.
Those who rely on reason alone soon find themselves turning against all competing authorities and revelations that dare to question their capacity to come by the truth for themselves. “That which is now called natural philosophy, embracing the whole circle of science…is the study of the works of God, and of the power and wisdom of God in His works, and is the true theology,” wrote Thomas Paine. For Paine, no authoritative or revelatory claim had any right to assert itself over his reason. His “religion” then was reduced to his faith in what science could show him through reason, and traditional revelation was at enmity with his modern faith. “The most detestable wickedness, the most horrible cruelties, and the greatest miseries that have afflicted the human race have had their origin in this thing called revelation, or revealed religion.”
Reason without a faith that extends beyond our own capacity to reason is circular nonsense. As G. K. Chesterton pointed out long ago, “Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.”
The Gift of Prescription
Without prescription, humanity undervalues the experience, tradition, authority, and revelation that connects us to the wisdom of generations past and points the way forward toward a better world. Russell Kirk summarized it best: “By trial and error, by revelation, by the insights of men of genius, mankind has acquired, slowly and painfully, over thousands of years, a knowledge of human nature and of the civil social order which no one individual possibly can supplant by private rationality.” Wouldn’t it be a pity if we discarded the precious gift of prescription just to follow the feebleness of our own reasoning?