Reasoning and Absurdity

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates describes the human soul as consisting of three parts, which he describes through allegory: “two horses and a charioteer.” Furthermore, “one of the horses was good and the other bad.”

More precisely, one horse “is a lover of honour and modesty and temperance, and the follower of true glory,” while the other, a “crooked lumbering animal,” is “the mate of insolence and pride, shag-eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur.”

This tripartite image captures an understanding the soul which has continued to permeate Western thought. The good horse is man’s noble spirit (thymos), the other his wild appetites (epithymia). The charioteer, tasked with the difficult task balancing the instincts of these two beasts, has the most crucial role: this is man’s reason (logos) itself.

In this struggle, “if the better elements of the mind which lead to order and philosophy prevail, then they pass their life here in happiness and harmony – masters of themselves and orderly.”

Aristotle seems to invoke a similar argument when he comments in Nicomachean Ethics, “as sight is in the body, so is reason in the soul.”

Reason, it seems, is fundamental to who we are as human people – and, perhaps more importantly, is essential to what it means to be a good person.

As with many things, though, this Greek ideal is complicated by the realities of modernity.

This classical Greek understanding goes beyond finding the act of reasoning to be good. Reason is not merely a process through which unique people may come to unique conclusions, rather it is the tool through which we may ultimately uncover Truth. Singular, universal, Truth.

This is problematic in a pluralistic world.

While there may be some moral stances on which all reasonable people could agree, asserting the existence of Truth – whether or not you claim to have discovered that Truth – amounts to the harsh assertion that some people are right and some people are wrong; that some religions are right and some religions are wrong; that some cultures are right and some cultures are wrong.

Such a position is untenable.

Thus, perhaps, we are plunged into despair. Holding diversity of thought and belief in high esteem means abandoning any pursuit of Truth and relinquishing the reins of reason. There is not one Truth that can be discovered through the scholarly art of reason; rather reason is little more than a mantle to drape around whichever views fit our fancy.

This is the challenge that Nietzsche refers to in On the Genealogy of Morals when he quotes the secret motto of the Order of Assassins: Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.

The destruction of Truth, the dispersion of reason – while so very valuable in our pluralist, modern times – muddies the question of what is right and what is wrong. Where do cultural differences end and moral imperatives begin? How do you balance one person’s religious freedom with another’s personal freedom?

Nietzsche sees this an inescapable cycle, arguing that “all great things bring about their own demise through an act of self-sublimation.”

Thus reason must ultimately destroy itself – as reason will reveal that there is no Truth.

“What meaning does our being have, if it were not that that will to truth has become conscious of itself as a problem in us?” Nietzsche writes. “Without a doubt, from now on, morality will be destroyed by the will to truth’s becoming-conscious-of-itself: that great drama in a hundred acts reserved for Europe in the next two centuries, the most terrible, most questionable drama but perhaps also the one most rich in hope…”

“Rich in hope” is not the expression most people would use for this terrible drama. If nothing is true, everything is permitted. Only anarchy and nihilism can follow.

I myself am more drawn to Camus’ take on things. With his dry, French wit he sees the conflict but dismisses it as conflict. Yes, the world is absurd, he reasons. That’s not license to do as you will.

You are free, perhaps, to be a terrible person, but that doesn’t mean you ought to let yourself follow that path. You still need to steer your horses.

This is the message I get from much of Camus’ work: the world is absurd, life is meaningless, and with that freedom some will permit themselves to fulfill the worst of human nature. But we also have a choice to be good. And without any reasoning, without any truth to justify it, that’s the choice we ought to make.

In The Stranger, Meursault is rightfully punished while others’ every-day callousness goes shamefully unchecked. In The Plague, our heroes – faced with the absurd, seemingly certain result of death, continually choose to fight for life. In The Fall, our unnamed, damned narrator wistfully declares, “But let’s not worry! It’s too late now. It will always be too late. Fortunately!

The absurd is no reason to stop fighting for what’s right.

And yet, in much of his writing Camus is indirect with his moral claims; perhaps he finds little ground to judge the morality of others.

So I was struck this morning by the unwavering moral claims Camus’ makes in his 1946 speech “The Human Crisis:”

Yes, there is a human crisis because in today’s world, we can contemplate the death or the torture of a human being with a feeling of indifference, friendly concern, scientific interest, or simple passivity. Yes, there is a human crisis, since putting a person to death can be regarded with something other the horror and scandal it ought to provoke. Since human suffering is accepted as a somewhat boring obligation, on a par with getting supplies or having to stand in line for an ounce of butter.

There is a human crisis, because in a world where nothing is true, we foolishly assume that everything is permitted. We reason away our responsibilities, occasionally decrying perpetrators only to accept bystanders neutral. It’s not our responsibility, it is not our concern.

But Nietzsche is wrong; there is no death of morality and there is no death of truth. We may not always know what’s best, but Camus’ feels it in his bones: we still have an imperative to do what is right.


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