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                               A C Grayling ~ Reason and Opinion


I  Reason

In the closing years of the eighteenth century Francisco de Goya made a series of etchings illustrating aspects of his contemporary world, and called them Los Caprichos {The (The Caprices, or Follies). He published them in volume form with accompanying texts expressing his liberal Enlightenment con­viction that humanity is held back by chains of superstition and ignorance, and particularly by the religious and political factors that promote both.

Goya’s Los Caprichos quickly became one of the most influential graphic works in the history of Western art. One of the etchings in particular has become a familiar image, both for the striking way it conveys its message and because it captures the dominating theme of Los Caprichos as a whole. It is a picture of a man slumped over his desk in sleep, his unconsciousness permitting a swarm of threatening night-flying creatures to emerge from the shadows around him. On the side of the desk lacing the viewer Goya painted an explanatory inscription which reads: ‘El sueno de la razon produce monstruos’ - ‘The sleep of reason produces monsters.’

It is a commonplace that the world is ruled by unreason. It is easy to see the monsters that stalk abroad, created and fuelled by emotion alone, especially those of anger, resentment, intolerance, greed and fear. The workings of these things cost the human family a great deal, both in pain and money; for they demand armies, police forces, secret agents, guns, equipment, courtrooms, prisons, hospitals and graveyards, all in constantly increasing quantities.

Commonplaces are not guaranteed to be true merely because everyone believes them, but this one has the doubtful distinction of being absolutely so. Still, it is not the whole truth. The evidence that reason also rules is everywhere as ubiquitous, though less obvious, usually because it is taken for granted. Consider any of the hundreds of great cities in the Western world whose water supplies, sewage systems, telephones, electricity, shops, supermarkets and schools function with predictable efficiency almost all the time. That is the outcome of forethought and planning, and of good management and maintenance, all of them offspring of reason.

Moreover, the appurtenances of modern life, highly technologized as they are, show the power of reason concretized as applied science. It is scarcely needful to list the devices which assist every aspect of our lives and work from the moment we rise in the morning until we sleep at night - a reasonable sleep this time, ameliorated and sometimes, if there are obstacles, abetted by the works of reason.

Reason has been constructively at work throughout human history. It can be seen in the archaeologists’ trove of shaped flints and axe heads from before the dawn of memory, in the street plan of the ancient city of Mohenjo Daro, in the irrigation canals, animal husbandry, buildings and jewelry of dynastic Egypt, and supremely in the rational and liberal air of classical Greece, the seed from which the West sprang.

Cynics will say that reason is not intrinsically benign; it has, for example, been at work throughout the development of the spear into the guided missile. And of course they are right. A chilling demonstration of this is to be found in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, or the torture equipment at the Spilberk fortress of Brno, once the chief political prison of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and scene of the autobiographical tales in Silvio Pellico’s My Prisons. The devices there are beautifully engineered, and each comes with a booklet of instructions detailing the results of careful research into their uses.

But it is a mistake to use such facts, as current fashion does, to reject a liberal view of human progress. From dentistry and central heating to human rights and the rule of law, for every backward step caused by malign uses of reason, its benign uses prompt two steps forward. Misuse of reason might yet return the world to pre-technological night; plenty of religious zealots hunger for just such a result, and are happy to use the latest technology to effect it. But, so far, reason’s triumph is that the life of today’s average Westerner is infinitely better than his ancestors’ lives, thanks to its richly various benign endeavours, and despite all that malign reason and unreason have done.

The danger lies in an implication of the word ‘Westerner’. Two thirds of the world still lives under the historic government of unreason - of superstition, ignorance and the associated divisions, hostilities and negative emotions that fuel conflict - and Goya’s etchings would need little modification to illustrate them.

Western reason should not fall asleep when contemplating this fact, for it might never again wake up.


II  Opinion

Antiquity’s greatest gossip was Aulus Gellius, a grammarian and seeker after curiosities who lived in the second century AD. Like a magpie he collected every bright bit of information he could find, and like a magpie he chattered about them endlessly. The result is a fascinating miscellany known to posterity as the Attic Nights. He was indefatigable and indiscriminate in his interests, which ranged from questions about whether certain kinds of flute-playing can cure gout, to why avarice makes people effeminate, and from fine points of Latin grammar to enquiries about the variation in length of pregnancies. But historians have found his hodgepodge useful for the glimpses it gives of life and thought in his day; and in some cases his quotations are our only remaining evidence of lost ancient texts.

One of the snippets in the Attic Nights concerns the great orator Demosthenes. As a young man, Gellius tells us, Demosthenes attended the Academy in Athens to hear Plato’s lectures. But one day he saw a great crowd of people hurrying by, so he followed them out of curiosity. It transpired that they were going to listen to the demagogue Callistratus, a powerful orator skilled at swaying public opinion any way he liked. So impressed was Demosthenes by this manifestation of the suasive arts that he gave up listening to Plato, and followed Callistratus instead.

‘Demagogue’ means ‘leader of the people’, and what enchanted Demosthenes was the power of rhetoric to take people wherever its exponent wished. Oratory was an important piece of political equipment from Demosthenes’ day until fifty years ago. It was, for a signal example, one of Churchill’s chief weapons as a wartime leader. Indeed at one point it was all that stood between Britain and disaster. The intimacy of television interviews soon killed old-fashioned oratory, even though the art’s last practitioners, such as Michael Foot and Tony Benn, used the occasional upturned crate as a platform for its exercise - perhaps an exercise in nostalgia, given how things had changed.

Oratory has gone but demagoguery still exists in politics, advertising and the press. Its aim is not the dissemination of truth, but of opinion; and in the important realm of press commentary on politics its aim is to move attitudes for or against, and thereby to enable or disable policy. In the competition between politicians and press the latter has by far the upper hand: it has more voices, little accountability, and freedom from the difficulties of government.

When the press feels that politicians have done an injury to some part of its collective body, it reacts with ferocity and in concert, for it is jealous of its prerogatives. Opinion and its close cousin sentiment are matters of great importance in politics. Facts of course also matter - but usually, from the press’s point of view, only if they are uncomfortable for the governing party, for in a democracy the natural relation between government and press is usually one of opposition. The press has the important task of keeping a hawk’s eye on government doings, and of informing and educating the public about them. That is why press freedom matters.

But there is so fine a line between freedom and licence that generally speaking everyone ignores it. This is not necessarily a bad thing; except when things go too far, and there is confusion between reportage and opinion, so that under the pretence of telling us what is going on the press tries to make us accept its view of what is going on. It would help if news pages and opinion pages were kept apart in spirit as well as in the geography of pagination.

Had Demosthenes persisted with Plato’s lectures he would have heard him say that opinion concerns what is local, temporary and imperfect, whereas truth concerns what is perfect, eternal and unchanging. On this definition there can be no truth in human affairs. But even if Plato is right, there can still be opinion well formed and strongly supported. Demos­thenes and the demagogues did not care whether opinions were right, only whether they could influence; if that attitude infected our own times too deeply, it would be a crippling attack on the health of society.

                                                       From The Heart of Things [2005]


A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford -  and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker. He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com

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