Western civilization has rested on the assumption that the
individual is rational. The rational individual decides not only what is good
for himself, but also, with others, for an entire society. This is the basis of
In other societies, it is explicit that the individual is
far from rational. In Confucian societies, the bureaucrat knows best; in Muslim
society, elders are smarter than younger people, and wisdom comes with age.
Furthermore, these societies more or less assume that the individual has to be
kept in line: not only is he ignorant of his own good, he is a positive threat
to social harmony.
Thus Pericles asserts: �The freedom which we enjoy in our
government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a
jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry
with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those
injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no
positive penalty.� Twenty-four hundred years later these words were echoed by
The first doubts as to individual rationality are raised by
Thucydides. This historian was probably the first student of the mob. He
noticed that Athens was a congeries of mobs. The individual could easily be
swayed into irrational and destructive acts. The demagogue has been a permanent
feature of all democracies. George Bush and Tony Blair are merely the latest in
a long line stretching beyond Kleon.
The coup de grace
to the rational individual was delivered by Plato. It is a permanent
embarrassment to Westerners that their greatest philosopher is the greatest
critic of their most cherished belief. For Plato�s teacher, Socrates, the
individual was not inherently irrational. He was basically ignorant, and
through suitable education could be made virtuous and wise. Wisdom and virtue
were identical. Therefore, it was impossible for an individual to know what was
good and do the opposite. In short, he ruled out akrasia, or incontinence. However, he never explained what sort of
education would make people wise and virtuous; his own method of interrogation
-- the elenchus -- was hardly
conducive to wisdom. At the end of almost every dialogue, we find his
interlocutor hopelessly befuddled or furious or both and not a whit wiser!
His pupil, on the other hand, made room for akrasia. His vivisection of the soul
provides the starting point: there�s the rational part of the soul, then the
passionate or spirited part, which has to do with the emotions, especially
anger and also fear, and then the appetitive part which has to do with physical
needs, such as hunger and sex. Anticipating Freud, Plato assigns to the last a
terrible and independent autonomy. In the Timaeus
he observes of both men and women: �Wherefore also in men the organ of
generation becoming rebellious and masterful, like an animal disobedient to
reason, and maddened with the sting of lust, seeks to gain absolute sway, and
the same is the case with the so-called womb or matrix of women.� The best
cinematic depiction of this state of affairs has been that of Adrian Lyne in
his recent film, Unfaithful.
For Socrates, courage is an intellectual achievement:
�Courage is wisdom regarding what is and is not fearful.� For Plato, courage is
an emotional achievement: �And I believe we call a man �brave� because of this
[the passionate] part of the soul, when it preserves through pains and
pleasures the injunctions of reason concerning what is and is not fearful.�
Only the spirited part can guard against cowardice; and -- and this is vital --
the spirited part is immune to reason.
The emotions alone can reach it; therefore, a suitably artistic -- �musical� --
education must be used to inculcate virtue.
And this is another point of difference with Socrates. For
the master, virtue was a democratic product, open to all; for the pupil, virtue
is the exclusive preserve of an elite. The mass of humanity can only achieve a
simulacrum of virtue through the benevolent despotism of an elite. We are on
fairly oriental grounds by now.
Plato proved more prescient than his teacher. He had
anticipated the power of indoctrination, of literature and music to arouse
emotions and channel them in whatever directions those in authority wish.
If any further proof for the irrational man was necessary,
they were provided by Sigmund Freud. He channeled the entire western tradition
of the irrational into his view of man: a personality constantly at war with
the superego and the id. (Another good director, who has caught this tension on
camera, is Stanley Kubrick in Eyes Wide
Of late, the discipline of economics has been debunked by
behaviouralists: Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for demonstrating that
individuals cannot choose rationally between alternatives, or assess risks
properly. The �individual� values the security of the herd: all this explains
the recent stock market bubble and crash when investors -- egged on by
newspapers and analysts -- madly rushed into the technology shares of firms
that could never have prospered, and then sold just as suddenly.
The slaughter of the First World War would have been
impossible without the indoctrination of nationalism -- a notable product of
the French revolution -- into each schoolboy and reader of newspapers. Novels,
like Manzoni�s The Betrothed, were
deployed in this effort.
There was no rational reason for the war: in 1898, Ivan
Bloch, a Russian banker, wrote a book that was published in English as Is War Now Impossible? Yes, he answered,
because war was too destructive to be sustainable. In 1909, Norman Angell
argued that it was a �great illusion� to think that any industrialised nation
could benefit from war. A Lloyd�s underwriter told the Committee of Imperial
Defence that were a German ship sunk by the Royal Navy, he would have to pay
compensation. �Britain, France and Germany were all industrialised countries
with highly educated populations and more or less universal male suffrage,�
observes Richard Vinen. �Why should states that were so well placed to
calculate their interests rationally embark on a war that was to bring such
destruction?� Answer: precisely because they had educated populations with the
vote, and newspapers, for language does not merely inform, but persuades.
Consider Israel and America today. Why was it necessary to
found Israel? Because they were infected by the fever of nationalism. If Europe
had not been nationalist, the (assimilated) Jews would not have wanted a state
of their own. And the educated American voter is repeatedly informed by the
so-called free American media that the Jews -- the richest people in the world
-- are victims. Therefore, Israel is built on the bedrock of irrationality and
supported by a fence of paranoia and popular, hysterical support in the United
States and Europe.
Those who argue that America went to war with Iraq for
rational reasons -- like oil -- are wrong; most wars have been fought for
irrational �reasons� (Yes, Bush sought votes, but the people?). As Vinen said
of the Great War: �The fact that the war proved so long and so destructive was
the result of the �sophistication� of western European societies, not the
�primitive� nature of east European ones.� Sophistication permitted
indoctrination; indoctrination required sacrifice; and sacrifice demanded that
millions lay down their lives for 'la patrie,' when it would have been rational
to surrender or desert, as the bucolic east Europeans did.
In fact, there has been a great deal written about the 'cause'
of the First World War. A.J.P. Taylor best summed up the anguish of historians
in their fruitless search for 'a cause': "Wars are much like road
accidents. They have a general and a particular cause. Every road accident is
caused in the last resort by the invention of the internal combustion engine . .
. [But] the police and the courts do not weigh profound causes. They seek a
specific cause for each accident -- driver's error, excessive speed,
drunkenness, faulty brakes, bad road surface. So it is with wars."
To return to contemporary themes, the London-based
journalist Gwynne Dyer has frankly proclaimed: "I have written tens of
thousands of words on the Bush administration's motives for invading Iraq, but
in the end I do not know why they did it. I suspect that they don't, either. It
just seemed like a neat idea at the time."
Those who admire the West for its fine universities and huge
libraries would do better to turn their gaze in the other direction.
The 20th century, and the beginning of the 21st, if no
other, have proved Socrates wrong and Plato right.
Iftekhar Sayeed was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh,
where he currently resides. He teaches English as well as economics. His
poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in Postcolonial Text (on-line); Altar
Magazine, Online Journal, Left Curve (2004,2005) and The Whirligig in the
United States; in Britain: Mouseion, Erbacce, The Journal, Poetry Monthly,
Envoi, Orbis, Acumen and Panurge; and in Asiaweek in Hong Kong; Chandrabhaga
and the Journal OF Indian Writing in English in India; and Himal in Nepal. He
is also a freelance journalist. He and his wife love to tour Bangladesh.