The Sleep of Reason

Thousands of protesters from across the country — including some of the biggest names in the anti-vaccination movement — descended on the nation’s capital Sunday for a rally against vaccine mandates. Almost two years into a coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 860,000 Americans…The Washington Post, Sunday, January 23, 2022

We made a terrible mistake, long ago. At least some of us did, and there are those who still cling to that delusion, defiantly, in the face of all evidence. We thought that Humanity was a rational creature, or could be made so with the right education and nurturing.

Perhaps the error was a noble one, even heroic. But it was also tragic and fatal.

Humanity was never a creature of reason, and will never become one. We are all guided by our appetites, passions, and beliefs, with reason applied, if it all, as a tool to grasp what we wish, or sometimes as a method of rationalizing beliefs and actions others find indefensible. And this applies quite as much to the highly intelligent and the highly educated as to the most superstitious, ignorant, and stupid. Indeed, many of the first group apply much of their ingenuity to the elaborate rationalization of delusions and malignant fantasies.

In certain ways, the revelation of this truth is, or ought to be, a relief. In Ray Bradbury’s haunting short story “The Exiles,” a rocket ship full of rational men from Earth is approaching Mars, on a mission to banish unreason from the human soul forever. Awaiting them on the Red Planet are the defiant exiles of the title, headed up by the three witches from “Macbeth,” who attempt to curse the men and their rocket and make it fall from the sky. Their efforts are in vain, as the astronauts disembark and ceremonially burn the last existing copy of Shakespeare’s plays, along with the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Ambrose Bierce, etc. Exeunt monsters and artists alike. Henceforth, humanity shall be a creature of iron reason alone, hurrah! This is a terrible fantasy, and it should be a comfort to understand that it can never come true.

But as the early Romantic Spanish painter Francisco Goya realized, our reality contains the reverse, horrific truth, that the sleep of reason breeds monsters who laugh at our efforts to contain, much less destroy them.

About one-third (32%) of the American public continues to believe that President Joe Biden won the 2020 election only due to voter fraud a number that has not budged across five polls in which Monmouth asked this question during the past year.—Monmouth University, November 15, 2021

In his magnificent work on the follies of humankind throughout the ages, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, the Scottish poet and journalist Charles Mackay spends a lot of time discussing dueling, a centuries-old violent custom that was still a social problem when he was writing, in mid-nineteenth century Britain. He offers an ingenious solution. Socially prominent men challenged one another to duels because of the concept of honor, so instead of engaging in a potentially fatal struggle, they could appeal to a “court of honor” to decide who was right. Essentially this would have duplicated the process by which the state took over the prosecution of murder, rather than letting families work it out through blood feuds. It was a great idea, but it was never attempted, as far as I know. I believe that what finally put an end to dueling was the inconceivably greater slaughter of World War I, which destroyed the concept of masculine honor in Europe and North America.

Lest you are tempted to laugh at those men of olden times and their absurd ideas, consider this: in their irrationality, they were only putting their own lives in danger, and maybe those of their “seconds” and other bystanders. At least they weren’t taking out their rage on random innocent victims like those all-American entrepreneurs, today’s “mass shooters.” But we should not forget that some immensely talented men were lost to humanity through dueling, such as the Russian poet Pushkin and American founder Alexander Hamilton.

What is important is this: We must not resign ourselves to one type of dangerous irrationality being wiped out by one yet greater, as in the history outlined above. We must fight the good fight against the antivaxxers and the MAGAs who are destroying the American republic, no matter how futile the struggle seems at times. But we can’t do it only or even primarily by offering the deluded truthful facts, because humanity is not a creature of reason. The appeal must be spiritual and emotional, to a God or a set of ethical values that is mightier than the false idols they have set up. We must awaken the muffled voice of Truth itself within them, which is not in the end a job for reason.

And behold, God was passing by, and a great and mighty wind blew, strong enough to break rocks and mountains before God, but God was not in the wind; and after the wind, an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake, a fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire, a still, small voice. (1 Kings 19:11-12)

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