The Appeal to Reason

I have written, and then thrown away, several endings to this book. Over all of them there hung that fatality of last chapters, in which every idea seems to find its place, and all the mysteries, that the writer has not forgotten, are unravelled. In politics the hero does not live happily ever after, or end his life perfectly. There is no concluding chapter, because the hero in politics has more future before him than there is recorded history behind him. The last chapter is merely a place where the writer imagines that the polite reader has begun to look furtively at his watch.

When Plato came to the point where it was fitting that he should sum up, his assurance turned into stage-fright as he thought how absurd it would sound to say what was in him about the place of reason in politics. Those sentences in book five of the Republic were hard even for Plato to speak; they are so sheer and so stark that men can neither forget them nor live by them. So he makes Socrates say to Glaucon that he will be broken and drowned in laughter for telling "what is the least change which will enable a state to pass into the truer form," 1 because the thought he "would fain have uttered if it had not seemed too extravagant" was that "until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one... cities will never cease from ill,--no, nor the human race..."

Hardly had he said these awful words, when he realized they were a counsel of perfection, and felt embarrassed at the unapproachable grandeur of his idea. So he hastens to add that, of course, "the true pilot" will be called "a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing." 2 But this wistful admission, though it protects him against whatever was the Greek equivalent for the charge that he lacked a sense of humor, furnished a humiliating tailpiece to a solemn thought. He becomes defiant and warns Adeimantus that he must "attribute the uselessness" of philosophers "to the fault of those who will not use them, and not to themselves. The pilot should not humbly beg the sailors to be commanded by him--that is not the order of nature." And with this haughty gesture, he hurriedly picked up the tools of reason, and disappeared into the Academy, leaving the world to Machiavelli.

Thus, in the first great encounter between reason and politics, the strategy of reason was to retire in anger. But meanwhile, as Plato tells us, the ship is at sea. There have been many ships on the sea, since Plato wrote, and to-day, whether we are wise or foolish in our belief, we could no longer call a man a true pilot, simply because he knows how to "pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art." 3 He can dismiss nothing which is necessary to make that ship sail prosperously. Because there are mutineers aboard, he cannot say: so much the worse for us all... it is not in the order of nature that I should handle a mutiny... it is not in the order of philosophy that I should consider mutiny... I know how to navigate... I do not know how to navigate a ship full of sailors... and if they do not see that I am the man to steer, I cannot help it. We shall all go on the rocks, they to be punished for their sins; I, with the assurance that I knew better....

Whenever we make an appeal to reason in politics, the difficulty in this parable recurs. For there is an inherent difficulty about using the method of reason to deal with an unreasoning world. Even if you assume with Plato that the true pilot knows what is best for the ship, you have to recall that he is not so easy to recognize, and that this uncertainty leaves a large part of the crew unconvinced. By definition the crew does not know what he knows, and the pilot, fascinated by the stars and winds, does not know how to make the crew realize the importance of what he knows. There is no time during mutiny at sea to make each sailor an expert judge of experts. There is no time for the pilot to consult his crew and find out whether he is really as wise as he thinks he is. For education is a matter of years, the emergency a matter of hours. It would be altogether academic, then, to tell the pilot that the true remedy is, for example, an education that will endow sailors with a better sense of evidence. You can tell that only to shipmasters on dry land. In the crisis, the only advice is to use a gun, or make a speech, utter a stirring slogan, offer a compromise, employ any quick means available to quell the mutiny, the sense of evidence being what it is. It is only on shore where men plan for many voyages, that they can afford to, and must for their own salvation, deal with those causes that take a long time to remove. They will be dealing in years and generations, not in emergencies alone. And nothing will put a greater strain upon their wisdom than the necessity of distinguishing false crises from real ones. For when there is panic in the air, with one crisis tripping over the heels of another, actual dangers mixed with imaginary scares, there is no chance at all for the constructive use of reason, and any order soon seems preferable to any disorder.

It is only on the premise of a certain stability over a long run of time that men can hope to follow the method of reason. This is not because mankind is inept, or because the appeal to reason is visionary, but because the evolution of reason on political subjects is only in its beginnings. Our rational ideas in politics are still large, thin generalities, much too abstract and unrefined for practical guidance, except where the aggregates are large enough to cancel out individual peculiarity and exhibit large uniformities. Reason in politics is especially immature in predicting the behavior of individual men, because in human conduct the smallest initial variation often works out into the most elaborate differences. That, perhaps, is why when we try to insist solely upon an appeal to reason in dealing with sudden situations, we are broken and drowned in laughter.

For the rate at which reason, as we possess it, can advance itself is slower than the rate at which action has to be taken. In the present state of political science there is, therefore, a tendency for one situation to change into another, before the first is clearly understood, and so to make much political criticism hindsight and little else. Both in the discovery of what is unknown, and in the propagation of that which has been proved, there is a time-differential, which ought to, in a much greater degree than it ever has, occupy the political philosopher. We have begun, chiefly under the inspiration of Mr. Graham Wallas, to examine the effect of an invisible environment upon our opinions. We do not, as yet, understand, except a little by rule of thumb, the element of time in politics, though it bears most directly upon the practicability of any constructive proposal. 4 We can see, for example, that somehow the relevancy of any plan depends upon the length of time the operation requires. Because on the length of time it will depend whether the data which the plan assumes as given, will in truth remain the same. [Footnote: The better the current analysis in the intelligence work of any institution, the less likely, of course, that men will deal with tomorrow's problems in the light of yesterday's facts.] There is a factor here which realistic and experienced men do take into account, and it helps to mark them off somehow from the opportunist, the visionary, the philistine and the pedant. 5 But just how the calculation of time enters into politics we do not know at present in any systematic way.

Until we understand these matters more clearly, we can at least remember that there is a problem of the utmost theoretical difficulty and practical consequence. It will help us to cherish Plato's ideal, without sharing his hasty conclusion about the perversity of those who do not listen to reason. It is hard to obey reason in politics, because you are trying to make two processes march together, which have as yet a different gait and a different pace. Until reason is subtle and particular, the immediate struggle of politics will continue to require an amount of native wit, force, and unprovable faith, that reason can neither provide nor control, because the facts of life are too undifferentiated for its powers of understanding. The methods of social science are so little perfected that in many of the serious decisions and most of the casual ones, there is as yet no choice but to gamble with fate as intuition prompts.

But we can make a belief in reason one of those intuitions. We can use our wit and our force to make footholds for reason. Behind our pictures of the world, we can try to see the vista of a longer duration of events, and wherever it is possible to escape from the urgent present, allow this longer time to control our decisions. And yet, even when there is this will to let the future count, we find again and again that we do not know for certain how to act according to the dictates of reason. The number of human problems on which reason is prepared to dictate is small.

There is, however, a noble counterfeit in that charity which comes from self-knowledge and an unarguable belief that no one of our gregarious species is alone in his longing for a friendlier world. So many of the grimaces men make at each other go with a flutter of their pulse, that they are not all of them important. And where so much is uncertain, where so many actions have to be carried out on guesses, the demand upon the reserves of mere decency is enormous, and it is necessary to live as if good will would work. We cannot prove in every instance that it will, nor why hatred, intolerance, suspicion, bigotry, secrecy, fear, and lying are the seven deadly sins against public opinion. We can only insist that they have no place in the appeal to reason, that in the longer run they are a poison; and taking our stand upon a view of the world which outlasts our own predicaments, and our own lives, we can cherish a hearty prejudice against them.

We can do this all the better if we do not allow frightfulness and fanaticism to impress us so deeply that we throw up our hands peevishly, and lose interest in the longer run of time because we have lost faith in the future of man. There is no ground for this despair, because all the ifs on which, as James said, our destiny hangs, are as pregnant as they ever were. What we have seen of brutality, we have seen, and because it was strange, it was not conclusive. It was only Berlin, Moscow, Versailles in 1914 to 1919, not Armageddon, as we rhetorically said. The more realistically men have faced out the brutality and the hysteria, the more they have earned the right to say that it is not foolish for men to believe, because another great war took place, that intelligence, courage and effort cannot ever contrive a good life for all men.

Great as was the horror, it was not universal. There were corrupt, and there were incorruptible. There was muddle and there were miracles. There was huge lying. There were men with the will to uncover it. It is no judgment, but only a mood, when men deny that what some men have been, more men, and ultimately enough men, might be. You can despair of what has never been. You can despair of ever having three heads, though Mr. Shaw has declined to despair even of that. But you cannot despair of the possibilities that could exist by virtue of any human quality which a human being has exhibited. And if amidst all the evils of this decade, you have not seen men and women, known moments that you would like to multiply, the Lord himself cannot help you.

1.Republic, Bk. V, 473. Jowett transl.

2. Bk. VI, 488-489.

3. Bk. VI, 488-489.

4. Cf. H. G. Wells in the opening chapters of Mankind in the Making.

5. Not all, but some of the differences between reactionaries, conservatives, liberals, and radicals are due, I think, to a different intuitive estimate of the rate of change in social affairs.

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