In his collection of folklore from Ireland W.B.Yeats quoted the Irish proverb that, Those who travel much have little faith.” He quoted this with seeming ambivalence, which reflects something of Yeats himself. He certainly had many markings of the worldly man, yet he wrote the magnificent poem “The Second Coming,” with the immortal line that tells of the centre no longer holding, the widening gyre of the falcon.
I have traveled very little, but this very small amount of travel has confirmed its enormous educational benefits. One sees new things from new perspectives “in the flesh.” Certainly one should always wish to grow, learn, and so on, but the proverb holds at least a kernel of truth: those who travel without a secure base may find themselves more “enlightened,” but also more confused then before. These new perspectives can completely undo one’s world. Whether this disruption be good or bad . . . it is unquestionably a disruption.
The great Gilbert Murray made his mark in the early 20th century as one of the great scholars of classical antiquity. For many he modeled the calm, rational confidence of pre-W.W. I Europe and the blessings of “free inquiry. His analysis of the history of Greek religion confirmed his rationalism. Greece turned to irrationalism, he argued, and therefore decline, only when they lost their “nerve,” their sense of themselves.
But one particular comment of his caused his followers some consternation. He admitted that every civilization has an “inherited conglomerate” of thoughts and ideas that should not really be questioned, even though they cannot be “proven” in the usual sense of the world. When society starts to question them, when they lose confidence in the conglomerate, they lose a common language and purpose and begin to fracture. He defended, for example, the teaching of Christianity in Britain’s state schools because
the religious–and what is more–the ethical emotions of the English people are rooted in the Christian writings, especially the Gospels, some of the epistles, and books like the Imitation and Pilgrim’s Progress. The situation must be accepted.
It was that “must” that particularly bothered people. What did he truly believe, and was rationality a religion in itself, or not?*
Murray saw the emancipatory movements of the 19th century and often supported them. But, he remained apparently torn about this in his later years, for he saw that the collapse of traditional Europe after W.W. I did not lead to more freedom as expected, but much less freedom for millions due to the rise of totalitarianism in Italy, Germany, and Russia.
In a recent podcast with Ezra Klein, he and Tyler Cowen exchanged thoughts on the emerging “rationality community.”
What are your thoughts on the rationality community?
Well, tell me a little more what you mean. You mean Eliezer Yudkowsky?
Yeah, I mean Less Wrong, Slate Star Codex, Julia Galef, Robin Hanson. Sometimes Bryan Caplan is grouped in here. The community of people who are frontloading ideas like signaling, cognitive biases, etc.
Well, I enjoy all those sources, and I read them. That’s obviously a kind of endorsement. But I would approve of them much more if they called themselves the irrationality community. Because it is just another kind of religion. A different set of ethoses. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but the notion that this is, like, the true, objective vantage point I find highly objectionable. And that pops up in some of those people more than others. But I think it needs to be realized it’s an extremely culturally specific way of viewing the world, and that’s one of the main things travel can teach you.
All of this came to mind as I read E.R. Dodds’ provocative classic, The Greeks and the Irrational. We assume, he argues, two main things about the Greeks:
- Their main contribution to the western world was their spirit of free, rational inquiry, and
- It was this spirit of free inquiry that led to the greatness of their civilization
Dodds pushes us to see the Greeks on their own terms. They had, perhaps more than other civilizations, a “rational” tradition, but even this rationalism sometimes came cloaked in religious guise.**
For example, the Pythagoreans developed a variety of useful and progressive ideas about math. But their obsession with ratio/rationalism clearly had strong religious overtones, which shows when they (supposedly) drowned the “heretic” Hipassus for discovering irrational numbers. The foundation of their mathematical advances had strong irrational overtones. Socrates, whom many assume to be an arch-rationalist, declared in the Phaedrus that, “Our greatest blessings come to us in the form of madness.” The whole of Greek literary and dramatic culture arose out of Dionysian worship. Xenophon, Aristotle, and even Cicero accepted the idea that dreams could have spiritual import. The list could continue.
But as in the case of all civilizations, eventually elites, followed by others, began dismantling the irrational foundations.
Though fragments of Greece’s “inherited conglomerate” survived past the 4th century B.C., by the 3rd century little if anything survived. At that point, Dodds argues that Greece experienced a time when society was more “open” than at any other point. Dodds writes,
A completely “open” society would be, as I understand the term, a society whose modes of behavior were entirely determined by rational choice between possible alternatives and whose adaptations were all conscious and deliberate–all “rational.”
This sounds like the dream of many a modern man, but of course, no one could argue that Greek civilization had any large degree of health at this point. Very few, if any, of Greece’s storehouse of cultural contributions came from this era, and this era paved the way for their final takeover by Rome ca. 146 B.C. Once you ditch the conglomerate, you might have little less than sand on which to build. You simply have too many decisions to make and no way to make them coherently as a group.
It seems to me that today we have two groups that argue strong for a rational, open society.
On the conservative side we have those who believe in entirely unfettered markets and expanding choice. The best society is one where everyone can choose for themselves how to maximize their welfare. Empowered by education and multiplicity of options, the conglomerate of free choices will create a happy society. This group favors globalization, open borders, and so on.
On the more liberal side we have those who emphasize the power of choice in more personal, intimate ways, especially in terms of gender and sexual identity, family makeup, birth control (which includes abortion), and so on.
These two sides overlap at points. They often sit across the political aisle from each other, but they have much more in common than what divides them, for they share a common foundation of devotion to the idea of an open society described by Dodds.
Other groups still believe in some way in the inherited conglomerate. You have the more conservative, middle-America, white picket fence group that adheres to small town values, and you have more liberal leaning who might balk at small town values a bit, but still desire a “decent America.” The more conservative side sees culture and community holding things together, the more liberal look to government with greater frequency to manage outcomes. Yet both sides fear markets and morality running wild and free–and both have more faith in America’s “conglomerate” than either of the aforementioned groups. Both could be described as irrational, for there is nothing objectively verifiable about “America.” Their commitment lies on a gut-level, formed by a variety of experiences, emotions, and so on.
This looks like a clash between the rational and the irrational, but Dodds’ book helps illumine this divide. The irrational have an unprovable gut-level attachment to something called “America.” But the rational have something akin to religious commitments as well. Those devoted to the market and to personal identity need to believe that the expansion of choice ad infinitum is always a good thing. Neither party may believe much in “America,” or they may reduce America to the mere idea of choice. Their faith lies elsewhere, and they take on the missional mindset of some of the world’s universal religions.
Our political divides often mask religious divides. As Cowen argued, even the rational have irrational commitments.
*Murray’s daughter asserted that he came back to the Catholicism of his youth in the last weeks of his life, though other family members dispute this.
**By “irrational” Dodds does not mean “wrong,” or “foolish” but unprovable, or a mysterious a priori, or “psychic,” i.e., related to the soul.