On Reason, Continued

On Reason, Continued

There is a previous post on “our special talent” for background reading.

Reason is a constant refrain in Seneca’s Stoic writings because it is our special talent. He deduced that we should exploit our reason because it is the attribute that man enjoys over other species. He stated that other animals have swiftness, great strength, endurance, and keenness in tracking. Humans share many traits with other species, usually in an inferior capacity, but they, alone, have reason. “If nothing but reason is peculiarly man’s, then reason is his sole good and balances all the rest,” concluded Seneca.

Reason is also the way to achieve tranquility in our lives. In the old head versus heart struggle, emotion is not only at odds with reason for the most part, but also is detrimental to tranquility. Emotion, not reason, gives us anger, jealousy, anxiety, remorse, and cruel hope. If one can exercise reason and waylay such emotions, and any excessive emotion, from controlling us or even playing a notable part of our lives, we can achieve tranquility, which makes us more bearable to ourselves and to others. Reason fosters tranquility because it tells us which things we can control and which we can’t and to leave off pointlessly thinking about such things. I sometimes phrase the process as giving myself permission not to dwell, lament, regret, or try to control because I understand the pointlessness of all that.
On the personal level, the opportunities for exercising reason over emotion are ever-present. In dealing with our own past and future and in interacting with others, particularly those closest to us, opportunities to question whether emotion is disserving us and defeating reason are rife. Remember even a “good” emotion can be detrimental and painful when it increases to excess. As Seneca stated, “All excesses are injurious.”

Applying reason in the context of social issues, raises the following question: reason according to whom? Reasonable minds can differ, right? I have a few tests for whether reason is at work or emotion, masquerading as reason. First, in justifying an action or opinion can you state the basis? For example, I object to hunting because it inflicts pain and suffering on animals; it is not needed for the provision of food; it involves the use of guns that are in turn used for human violence and death; it reveals a deep lack of compassion and encourages the worst in human nature, that side that enjoys pain, suffering, and death, just as was or is the case with bull fighting, bear baiting, cock fighting and such other activities. On the other side, one might say, hunting is good because it keeps the animal population down, which is needed because otherwise they would be overrunning our human spaces. That is a reason—a very selfish one for our species, granted, but it does not then lead to wearing camouflage and putting heads on walls. What is the reason for that? If we really must cull the herd we might consider the most humane way to accomplish it. But must we have reasons for everything we enjoy? No, but we might question our enjoyment. A lot of people greatly enjoyed gladiatorial shows in ancient Rome. Seneca described the joy of the spectators at the following event: “The men have nothing to protect them; the whole body is exposed and every stroke tells. Why armor? Why skill? Such things delay the kill. The conclusion of every fight is death; no quarter is given. ‘But the fellow was a highwayman; he killed a man!’ So what? Because he killed a man he deserves his fate, but what did you do, poor man, to deserve having to look on?”

If, on the other hand, in stating a justification, the words following “because” are elusive, a person must resort to objecting or promoting something “on principal,” “just because,” “because it has always been that way,” or “because that’s just the way I feel!” Why should your feelings, detrimental to you and others, formed without recourse to your special talent as a human and larded with self-indulgence have any bearing at all? Most importantly there is one touchstone for whether one is offering valid reasons: are the points offered as justification self-serving to the proponent and detrimental to others. If so, then the “reasons” even if stated succinctly probably have sprouted from emotion and of the worst kind.

One last thought—individual liberty. Why should any reasonable justification at all be necessary, given that we should all be free to do as we wish? John Stuart Mill, in his essay “On Liberty” develops that point from start to finish very well, and when it comes to government interfering with our lives, his thoughts are a cornerstone of what we think of as individual freedom in a democratic society. Two limitations: Mill was writing about society rather than individual self-help. He was not giving any advice on a person achieving tranquility and living the good life. Second, he makes no bones about limiting individual liberty when it infringes others. In determining the line between individual liberty and the noxious impact on others, Mill has recourse to Reason, as much as Seneca could have ever wanted.

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