The Force of Unreason

The Force of Unreason

For us intellectuals, there is something unseemly about the very idea of unreason; confronting it face to face always brings a visceral shock. For example, I can still remember my first job interview for a pastoral position in vivid detail. Things started off well. I was excited about the church’s mission, and they seemed to think I’d serve the needs of their community well. But then one of the committee members tossed me what by all rights ought to have been a softball question: “What do you consider to be your three best qualities?” I answered, “to begin with, I’m intelligent”. That was functionally the end of the interview. As soon as I uttered the word “intelligent”, I was interrupted and harangued for the remainder of the time about how “book smarts” are inferior to “street smarts.” Or, again, I was once a part of a Christian small group for graduate students. We were being pressured by a larger organization to make a particular political alignment. I and others presented a series of biblical, theological, and pragmatic arguments against doing so, but those in favor of politicizing the group provided no response to our arguments. Instead, they merely asked: “We’ve heard from the head, but what do your hearts say?” This was enough to persuade the majority to fundamentally alter the group’s identity (and irreparably fracture the group in the process). These cases still confuse and sadden me, especially given the rich intellectual history of the Christian tradition. Why would a tradition that identified its savior with the divine λογος, turn its back on reason?

I still have no answer to this question, but perhaps headway can be made by examining a more primitive motive for unreason. One of earliest and clearest arguments against reason in the western tradition can be found in Aristophanes’ comedy “The Clouds.” The Clouds prominently features Socrates, the archetypical philosopher. However, it presents a different picture of Socrates than we are accustomed to. We tend to think of Socrates as the great sage of the West and the first martyr of philosophy. The Socrates of Aristophanes, in contrast, is a pompous idiot, greedy for money, and willing to teach students to win arguments regardless whether the conclusions of those arguments are just or unjust. As a result, the death of Socrates is meant to evoke cynical laughter rather than somber reflection.

The story of the Clouds follows Strepsiades, a poor farmer, and his son Pheidippides. Pheidippides, being drawn to the aristocratic lifestyle of the cities, has developed an addiction to horses. To feed this addiction he has squandered all his father’s money and has run up debts his family can’t repay. It is at this point that Strepsiades hatches the plan that unfolds through the rest of the play. He will send Pheidippides to the think-shop (φροντιςτηριον) to learn how to outsmart the creditors who are after the family wealth. For, if the price is right, one can learn at the think-shop how to win an argument even when one’s cause is unjust.

At first Pheidippides rejects this plan, and Strepsaides is forced to enroll in the think-shop himself. Therein, Strepsiades finds a group of students formulating ridiculous empirical hypotheses about the world and is convinced on these grounds to deny the existence of the gods. But Strepsiades proves a poor student and is sent home by Socrates as a hopeless case. Pheidippides is then finally convinced to go and learns the art of rhetoric. He returns and outsmarts his father’s creditors. But his success at sophistry comes with an unexpected cost for Strepsiades when Pheidippides proceeds to argue that it is acceptable for children to beat their fathers and mothers. At this point, aided by a revelation from the Clouds, Strepsiades sees the error of his ways and burns down the think-shop, and fire consumes the philosophers within it. We are meant to laugh when Socrates dies exclaiming “alas I suffocate wretchedly and with suffering (οιμοι ταλας δειλαιος αποπνιγησομαι)!” That, we are told, is the fate of those who dishonor the gods.

The core of Aristophanes’ argument is framed as a debate between personifications of what he calls the superior (δικαιος λογος) and the inferior argument (αδικος λογος). On the one hand, the superior argument advocates for a traditional account of education and morality, yearning for the days in which one “was ashamed of the shameful” and treated others with appropriate respect (990-999).[1] On the other hand, the inferior argument advances a revolutionary view, being the first to dispute “entrenched ideals and ethics” (‘οτι πρωττιστος ’επενοησα τοισιν νομοις και ταις δικαις ταναντι ’αντιλεξαι) (1040). The superior argument ends up losing the debate, but not because he is overwhelmed by the evidence presented by his opponent. Indeed, the inferior argument’s case is laughable. For instance, to prove that lingering in hot baths does not make one effeminate, he notes that hot baths are called “Heraclean baths” and so must make one strong like Hercules. The superior argument concedes not on the strength of argumentation but because he realizes that society is too corrupt to reason with. In the course of the dispute, they note that Athens’ lawyers, tragedians, politicians, and even those watching the play are morally bankrupt. In Greek the term is ευρυπροκτως: wide-assed and ready to be screwed. In such a context, where words are twisted beyond all recognition, argument is impossible. Violence is the only remaining option.

Oswald Spengler made a similar observation in the twentieth century in The Decline of the West. He noted that when all the values of a civilization dissolve save for the accumulation of wealth, that civilization will ultimately collapse and come to be dominated by those who could claim a physical superiority:

The private powers of the economy want free paths for their acquisition of great resources. No legislation must stand in their way. They want to make the laws themselves, in their interests, and to that end they make use of the tool they have made for themselves, democracy, the subsidized party [der bezahlten Partei]. Law needs in order to resist this onslaught, a high tradition and an ambition of strong families that finds its satisfaction not in the heaping up of riches, but in the tasks of the true rulership [in den Aufgaben echten Herrschertums], above and beyond all money advantage. A power can be overthrown only by another power, not by a principle, and no power that can confront money is left but this one. Money is overthrown and abolished only by blood [Das Geld wird nur vom Blut überwältigt und aufgehoben].[2]

On this model, the only way for a society to purge itself of such systemic economic corruption will be for the forces of life to assert themselves again in a new Caesarism. Like Aristophanes, Spengler claims that the only way to resist the rhetorical power wielded by those who can afford to pay for it is to return to the old chthonic powers of blood and soil. Absent the transcendent λογος that Plato’s Socrates strove for, these seem to be our two options: the unreason of money and the unreason of blood and tribe. Kyrie, eleison.

© Peter Yong

[1] Aristophanes, The Clouds, trans. Meineck. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998.

[2] Spengler, The Decline of the West, Vol 2. Trans. Atkinson.

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