Reasonableness

On a recent blog post I received a very carefully considered response to a question from a young woman who played tennis for me while I coached and also took a class from me while an honors student. She is bright and well-trained in her area of expertise, which is biology. She is now a mother and active in her community. She refuses to vote for Hillary Clinton and, I suspect (though she never said) she will vote for Donald Trump. This has given me pause and deep concern

To this point I have dismissed the supporters of Donald Trump as mindless minions. And while this may be true on the whole, it is obviously not the case with this young woman, whom I respect and am quite fond of. But I think she is dead wrong when she says that critical thinking has lead her to the conclusions she listed as the reasons she cannot vote for Hillary Clinton. In the end it comes down to what a person will consider “good reasons.” One person’s notion of “reasonableness” is obviously not that of another. I do suspect it is largely a matter of intellectual training (like recognizing good literature), but it is also a result of the fact — noted by David Hume ages ago — that reason is largely a slave of the passions.

The young woman in question lists six reasons why she cannot vote for Clinton, two of which are religious. I cannot dispute those reasons because they do not count, in my view, as reasons. Matters of faith are not subject to philosophical debate and are seldom, if ever, altered by critical reasoning. This is a good thing, by and large, since there are things we humans are simply not equipped to know and things we must simply accept on faith. I have always held to that view. In politics, it comes down to a separation between the state and the church, one of the founding principles protected by the Constitution.

But a couple of the reasons she gives strike me as rather weak and subject to criticism. I will discuss one. She worries that under a progressive president, such as Obama and Clinton (if elected) the defense of this country would be weakened. Indeed, she thinks, it already has been weakened.  Clinton’s own position on defense has been carefully spelled out:

Ensure we are stronger at home. We are strongest overseas when we are strongest at home. That means investing in our infrastructure, education, and innovation—the fundamentals of a strong economy. She will also work to reduce income inequality, because our country can’t lead effectively when so many are struggling to provide the basics for their families

She has not advocated cutting the defense budget despite the fact that this country spends 3 1/2 times as much on defense as China, which is second on the list of countries that spend billions on defense. In the case of the United States, we spend $581,000,000,000 annually on defense. But if cuts were to result from her presidency, surely, a cut of 20% (say) would not cripple the armed forces that defend this country? And Hillary Clinton hardly rates as a dove; indeed, she has shown herself to be rather hawkish.

And there are a couple of other reasons on her list that are subject to question as well, including her personal reflections on the failure of the Affordable Care Act which in large part seems to have been a success; but I won’t go into them. I do not want this young woman to feel as though I am holding her up to ridicule. On the contrary, I applaud her for speaking up and sharing with all of us the reasons she finds compelling for voting against the woman I honestly believe would do an excellent job as president.

What has me most deeply disturbed is the fact, which I shy away from, that reasonableness — which I have taught for over 40 years and which I embrace with both arms — is powerless when it comes to deeply held beliefs and fears. For those who fear terrorism, for example, this country does not spend enough on defense. And for those who believe that life starts with conception the notion that a woman should be the one to choose whether her fetus lives is far from reasonable. No reasons whatever will dislodge those convictions so strongly held. Arguments become mere rationalizations.

Thus, I am doubly disturbed by this young woman’s response to my question because I know she is convinced her position is reasonable whereas I am not, though I know full well that I could not persuade her to my point of view. I find myself having pursued a lifetime of seeking to help my students become more reasonable only to discover that, in the end, conclusions are often, if not always, based on emotion.

Dante’s Relevance

In a most interesting article in a learned journal not known for its interesting articles, author Rod Dreher bemoans the fact that he didn’t read Dante’s Inferno — or the rest of the Divine Comedy — until he was in middle age (as was Dante himself).

     Midway along the journey of our life

      I woke to find myself in some dark woods,

      For I had wandered off from the straight path.

So begins Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and into Paradise, as well as the story about a twenty-first century man who had also lost his way only to pick up Dante’s poem by accident and find himself captivated. What interested Dreher most were the chords struck by Dante that resound in today’s world and which should be heard by all college students, if not all who can read. And while it is sad to note that Dreher hadn’t read Dante’s poem until his mid-forties, it is refreshing to have him echo my conviction that the classics are relevant to today (which, indeed, is why they are regarded as “classics.”) But how can a poem written by a medieval Catholic speak to today’s students whose attention is entirely on themselves? That’s the question this article seeks to answer.

It is precisely the fixation of modern youth on themselves that one finds in the occupants of Dante’s Hell. To begin with, they all tell lies, and Dante is warned not to believe all he hears — which reminds me of Jameis Winston’s press conference where he said, with a straight face, “I’m not a ‘me’ person.” But more important, the nine circles of Dante’s Inferno are filled with thousands of passionate people who do not know how to love. The circles begin with love perverted, the love of a man for a woman that never rises above the level of lust, and ends, eight levels later, with those who either love only themselves or or betray those who love them, buried in ice up to their chins and condemned to remain frozen for eternity — as far from God’s love and warmth as possible. In between Dante finds those whose love degenerates into mere passion and is misdirected (they love money or fame, for example); they sin but fail to repent. And, indeed, it is the unwillingness of the sinners in Hell to repent that places them there instead of in Purgatory. As Dreher points out, “All the damned dwell in eternal punishment because they let their passions overrule their reason and were unrepentant.” Such as it is, their love was twisted and self-involved, and it dwarfed their reason which would, together with love properly felt,  have led them away from themselves and into the world of others who are also in need of love.

And thus we find the message that rings true today when folks are told to “let it all hang out.” As the author notes,

“This is countercultural, for we live in an individualistic, libertine, sensual culture in which satisfying desire is generally thought to be a primary good. . . . We live in a narcissistic, confessional culture in which speaking whatever is on your mind and in your heart is valorized as ‘honest’ and ‘courageous’ — just as calling lust love falsely ennobles it by dressing up egotism with fake moral grandeur. . .  All these damned souls suffer hellfire because they worshipped themselves and their own passions. In Dante egotism is the root of all evil.”

Furthermore, Dante’s sinners are unanimous in finding fault with others, never with themselves. They are very good at pointing fingers elsewhere and refusing to admit that theirs is the fault. The relevance of the ancient poem begins to become apparent.

Dreher takes the reader through several other circles, but in the end he notes, appropriately, that “Dante’s egoists suffering in Hell would be admired and even heroic figures in twenty-first century America” [Cue Jameis Winston, et al]. There is much for each of us to learn from this ancient poem written by a poet in his darkest hours — suffering exile from his family and from his beloved Florence as well. In the end, as Dreher concludes,

Dante shows us that you can just as easily go to Hell by loving good things in the wrong way as you can by loving the wrong things. It’s a subtle lesson, and a difficult lesson, and a lesson that is no less difficult to learn in the twenty-first century than it was in the fourteenth. But it’s still necessary to learn. Happy is the man who embraces this wisdom at any point in his life, but happier is the man who does so in his youth.”

It is sad that Dreher had to wait until his own mid-life crisis to read this remarkable poem. It is even sadder that very few will ever read it at all, though it is a bit of a stretch to think for a moment that even if today’s youth did read it they would see its relevance to their own lives. But it is certain that very few of them will read it at all if it is not required reading, which is even less likely in a culture that insists upon allowing everyone to find his or her own way — even at the risk of getting lost. Like Dante.

(Note: For those of us who don’t read Italian, I have found that John Ciardi’s translation is the most readable. Many are not.)

 

 

Psychology and Literature

I have often thought (and have been known to remark in public) that there is more insight into the human psyche in a good novel than there is in many a psychology text-book. I would modify that somewhat and now remark that there is considerable psychological insight even in the short stories of consummate writers such as Anton Chekhov.

Indeed, in “A Calamity” written by this medical man only about eight years after he started publishing his short stories, Chekhov presents us with a wonderfully understated  study of a young woman who finds herself suddenly at war with herself. His heroine, Sofya Petrovna, is a happily married woman with a husband she loves and a daughter she adores. But she is pursued by a suitor, Ivan Mihailovich, who worships the ground she walk on. Despite her conscious repulsion from the fact that she finds the man’s advances flattering and even desirable, she finds herself drawn toward Ivan and unable to shake herself loose from her fascination with him and his love for her. She attempts to push him away, with little effort and no effect whatever, and begins to look at her husband and even her daughter differently. The husband she has loved now appears dull and insipid. “My God,” she thinks to herself, “I love and respect him, but. . . . why does he chew his food so disgustingly?” Later as she examines him napping after dinner, she notices “his feet, very small, almost feminine, in striped socks; there was a thread sticking up at the tip of each sock.” Even her daughter puts her off; as she picks her up she finds her “heavy and irresponsive.” Clearly, her perspective has altered and as she admonishes herself, calling herself “shameless thing,” and “vile creature,” she leaves her husband and “choking with shame” finds herself “pushed forward” by something “stronger than shame, reason, or fear” away from her husband and daughter and toward a clandestine meeting with Ivan.

There are a number of things that strike the reader about this remarkable story. For all its brevity, it is beautifully written and a subtle study of the battle that is going on inside this young woman as she struggles with her sense of propriety and respectability coupled with her mindless conviction that her respectable marriage is really all she could possibly want — and the compulsion to go to the man who loves her deeply and provides her with the excitement and deep feelings she has never previously allowed herself to feel. We have one of the early suggestions, before Freud, that there are unconscious urges that fight against reason and habit and which compel us in directions we would really rather not take.

David Hume once said that reason is the slave of the passions and Chekhov seems to be presenting us with a test case that demonstrates this profound truth. We might want to think that we can be directed by reason and what we think is the right thing to do — and we may even spend our lives trying to follow that path. But at times there are urges beneath the conscious level that draw us in directions we find repugnant. The struggle was studied in depth by Immanuel Kant who insisted that the right thing is always to follow one’s sense of duty, as dictated by reason, and fight against inclination. But as Chekhov suggests it is sometimes not quite that simple. Fight as we might, the inclinations are often stronger and do not allow reason to rule. Sometimes we do what we really (unconsciously) want to do rather than what we ought to do, despite the fact that we know it is wrong.

Long ago Socrates was convinced that if we knew what was the right thing to do, we would do it. But he had no clear notion of what we now call “will” and he doesn’t seem to have been fully aware of the battle that goes on inside us when we fight against inclinations that we might regard as “vile” and “shameless.” Aristotle faulted Socrates for his simplistic take on this issue. But I don’t think either Aristotle or Kant gave the struggle full measure. Chekhov did, and in this very short story, a mere fifteen pages long,  he makes it clear that at times we simply cannot muster the “willpower” to do the right thing, much as we might think we want to.