readings> the myth of irrationality
This is the introductory chapter from my 1993 book, The Myth of Irrationality, which traces why we view the human mind the way we do - as a source of mysterious powers that science can't really hope to explain.
Mr Spock: "Really Dr McCoy, you must learn to govern your passions. They will be your undoing. Logic suggests..." Dr McCoy: "Logic! My God, the man's talking about logic!" (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan)
It is the oldest cliche in science fiction. How often do you reach the last page of a book or the final moments of a film to find that the spacemen beat the aliens with a spark of irrational genius? The aliens may be clever and ruthless but the humans win through because they have feelings and intuition - qualities no bug-eyed monster could ever understand.
Mr Spock, the pointy-eared Vulcan from Star Trek, sums it up nicely. Time and time again, the ultra-rational Spock finds himself upstaged by Captain Kirk, Star Trek's rash human commander. Faced with yet another example of Kirk's impulsive behaviour, all Spock can say is: "Most illogical, Captain." Yet you detect in Spock's arched eyebrow and puzzled tones, a grudging admiration. Spock seems to be thinking wishfully: "Oh, if only I could let myself go like these hot-blooded, headstrong humans!" The flattering message of such science fiction parables is always the same: it is that deep streak of irrationality in humans which makes us so special, the mysterious ingredient that marks us out as more than just soulless machines or bloodless aliens.
The belief that man has a deep-rooted irrational, emotional and creative core is not just part of popular culture, it is fundamental to much of psychology. Freud believed in it, as do those humanist psychologists who speak of our need for self-actualisation and personal growth. Even psychologists who do not talk about the supposed irrational powers of the mind are not necessarily disbelievers - they simply find talents like creativity and imagination too awkward to deal with and deliberately stick to "safe" areas of research such as child development and animal behaviour.
The problem with this widespread belief in human irrationality is that it is wrong. It is what we want to believe about ourselves rather than what the evidence tells us. We like the idea that within us we harbour a secret well of power. It makes our lives seem more exciting - like living on the trembling lip of a volcano that might erupt at any minute. For the benefit of the outside world, we present a reassuring facade of sense and reason. But we know that within us rumbles a mad, unpredictable passion. Our irrationality injects a magic and drama into what otherwise might be a rather dull life.
However, despite its undoubted allure, this belief in human irrationality is a myth. The key to understanding the human mind is to see it as a social phenomenon. We arrive in the world with the naked brain of an animal and through the moulding power of speech, we become equipped with the thought habits that make us human. The special aspects of the human mind - self-awareness, memory, higher emotion and imagination - are skills we learn rather than faculties that unfold within us like so many budding flowers. Once this is understood, a quite different kind of tale about the irrational aspects of the mind can be told.
the origins of the myth
The myth of human irrational powers has such a hold on us because it dates back to the dawn of recorded thought. Our view of the mind was shaped by Greek philosophy. Yet, as it happens, the ancient Greeks, were not so much concerned with the irrationality of humans as their rationality. The stunning revelation for Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle, was that despite its chaotic appearance, the world was really a lawful place. What excited them was the thought that through the exercise of their intellects, they might hope to penetrate the world's deepest secrets.
Before the flowering of Greek philosophy, life was shrouded in dark mystery. Humans might make laws to rule their cities but nature seemed lawless. Bad weather, famine and disease could strike at any time. It was impossible to be certain what fate had in store. All people could do was sacrifice to the gods and pray they would be treated kindly. Then the Greeks discovered mathematics. In the clarity of geometry and logic, philosophers found a gorgeous and reassuring certainty. It seemed that man at last had pierced the confused surface of reality to see the clockwork precision that lay beneath. The discovery of mathematics had an immense impact. It set in train an approach to knowledge that was to dominate the next 2,000 years. Where before people had relied on folk- wisdom and legend, Greek philosophers created the belief that the world could be understood through reason alone. In the symmetry of the circle and the elegant lines of the rectangle, there was the promise of perfect knowledge.
But while it was at the altar of reason that the Greeks worshipped, their exaggerated idea of human rationality itself created the need for a counter-balancing theory of human irrationality. It was obvious to the Greeks that not all mental life had the qualities of clarity and rationality that they so valued. This problem of the non-rational side of the mind was tackled by a number of different philosophers. But the two names who had the most lasting influence on Western culture were the two great Athenian thinkers, Plato and Aristotle.
Plato and Aristotle were men of quite different stamp. Plato was the purer philosopher of the two in that he attempted to build entire ethical, political and metaphysical systems using reasoned argument as his only tool. By contrast, Aristotle was more practical in his approach. Aristotle preferred observation to conjecture and instinctively sought common-sense answers where Plato would take off on flights of fancy. It was Plato who founded our basic model of the mind, being the first to break it down into a system of interlocking parts.
Before Plato, the Greeks had tended to talk about the mind as if it were a generalised "soul-stuff" that permeated the universe. This soul-stuff had no structure but was a rarefied substance that filled the air and entered the body as people breathed. Associating breathing with life and consciousness, it was thought that with each heave of the lungs, human beings inhaled a fresh supply of thoughts and awareness (hence the origin of the term inspired). Plato believed in this idea of consciousness as an immaterial soul that took up temporary residence in a material body. Where Plato made an advance was to give the soul a structure. For Plato, at one end the soul became entwined with the crude material world of the body, but at the other, it retained a link with the world of divine reason from which it came.
To account for the many faces shown by the mind, Plato divided the soul into three parts, assigning each to a different region of the body. The lowest part of the mind was that of animal desire (epithumetikon) made up of the bodily appetites, such as lust and hunger, and also lowly desires, such as greed and jealousy. This part of the mind was seen as the animal or the childish region of the psyche and was identified with a person's loins and lower abdomen - the areas of the body that it seemed to stir to action. While base desire ruled the lower body, the highest part of the mind was reason (logistikon) the occupant of the head. Plato believed that the human intellect was special because it was connected to a universe of pure ideas.
For Plato, the great puzzle of life was how the mind could conceive of a perfect geometric shape such as a circle or triangle when, in reality, humans only ever see imperfect representations of these objects. Every triangle and circle we come across has different dimensions, and no drawing is ever as exact in outline as its mathematical description. Plato's unnecessarily mystical answer to this problem was that there must be a spirit world of pure form, a sort of bestiary of abstractions, that lies beyond the plane of everyday reality which is visible to our senses. This spirit world of forms is knowable only to the inner eye of the intellect. Extending this argument, Plato believed that every object we have an idea of - even tables and chairs - must have its perfect counterpart in the world of forms. Plato thought that the ultimate form in this ghostly realm was the idea of the Good - a combination of beauty and spirituality towards which the whole soul yearns to be reunited.
Under Plato's scheme, the human mind stands on the threshold of all knowledge. Reason was not a "working out" of ideas but a process of contemplation and insight. The only obstacle stopping humans from stepping right through into this perfect world was that while the body lived, their souls were trapped by the irrationality of the flesh. Standing between the crystalline purity of reason and the murky desires of the lower body, Plato proposed an intermediate region of the mind, occupying the heart and lungs. This was the location of the spirited passions (thumoeides): noble feelings such as courage and strength. Like the base desires, this middle region was irrational and unthinking in its actions. But like the wildness of a lion, it could be a healthy, valiant form of irrationality.
Despite this crisp division of the soul into reason, noble
passion and base appetite, Plato's "tripartite" model of the mind was
troubled by a certain inconsistency. While Plato was in no doubt that
the animal appetites of greed and lust were rooted in the body, there
was some indecision about whether the nobler side of human nature was
also of the body or in some way divine. When Plato was extolling reason
as the highpoint of consciousness, it was human rationality which was
connected to a higher plane of being.
The noble passions came from the heart - which placed them higher than the groin but somewhat lower than the head in the soul's tripartite hierarchy. The passions were of the body and so needed to be guided by the wisdom of reason if they were not to lead us astray. At other times, especially when Plato talked of the idea of the Good, it seemed to be the noble heart that was most in touch with the world of the divine. Plato also occasionally credited the strange visions of dreams, the creative brilliance of the poet, and the torment of the madman, to divine sources. In keeping with traditional Greek mythology, Plato spoke of these "higher" forms of irrationality as being the handiwork of the gods.
In spite of the question-mark hanging over inspired feeling, Plato's tripartite division of the mind was to become the cornerstone of Western psychology. Indeed, we have grown so used to thinking about the mind in Plato's terms that these divisions now seem to be the natural and obvious ones. It is almost impossible to view the mind in any other way, let alone believe that Plato's model might have been deeply flawed.
Aristotle's model of the mind bears many echoes of Plato - not surprisingly, as he was Plato's student - but in important respects it was quite different. The main distinction was that Aristotle did not believe in Plato's dualism of mind and body. Aristotle thought that the mind was an inseparable property of the body. He argued that the soul could no more be separated from the flesh than the shape of a piece of wax could be separated from the wax itself.
Aristotle also rejected Plato's spirit world of forms, saying that the concept of a perfect triangle or of pure goodness was nothing more than an abstraction distilled from real-life experiences of such things. This naturalistic approach to the mind led Aristotle to try to tie down mental events, such as dreams and imagination, to physical causes. Thus dreams were caused by vapours rising from the food being digested in the stomach at night, filling our head with strange visions. Aristotle also argued that people's temperaments were the result of differing balances of the four bodily "humours" - blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. Aristotle claimed, for example, that too much cold black bile made people sluggish while an excess of hot black bile that made them daring, wild and garrulous.
Aristotle's physiology may have been inaccurate, but in his determination to root mental phenomena in physical causes, he was, at times, astonishingly modern. The one area where Aristotle turned mystical in his thinking was when it came to discussing human rationality. While rejecting Plato's mind/body dualism, Aristotle did seem to believe that at least some part of human rationality was eternal and divine - or at least his writings were obscure enough on this point for the many Christian interpreters of his work in the Middle Ages to read him this way.
Leaving Aristotle aside for a moment, the lasting image of human nature bequeathed by Greek philosophy was of a complicated dualism of body and soul. Where earlier civilisations, like the Egyptians, had seen mind and flesh as intimately connected - causing them to go to great lengths to preserve the corpses of the dead for their future in the underworld - the Greeks made a sharp division between the divine rationality of the mind and the fleshly delights of the body. Then overlaying this basic dualism was Plato's tripartite division of the mind. Humans were depicted as rational souls plagued by an irrationality which had two faces: one evil and animal, the other courageous, noble and - quite possibly - divine.
the Christian adoption of the myth
The Platonic model became welded into place at the heart of Western culture when it became part of the theology of the Catholic Church. The Papacy sprang up in the Fith and Sixth Centuries to fill the power vacuum left in Europe by the fall of the Roman Empire. The Catholic Church took its sacred history from its Jewish roots, but to cement its claims to power, it also needed a legal and philosophical foundation. The church took its legal code from the Romans and for its theology, it turned to the mind/body dualism of Plato.
The key figure linking the philosophy of Plato to the theology of the Catholic Church was the Third Century philosopher, Plotinus. Plotinus, a Greek who headed an intellectual circle in Rome, reworked Plato's writings, making them even more mystical. He took Plato's idea of the Good - the ultimate source of beauty and truth towards which the rational soul yearns - and turned it into a god-like essence that "radiated" soul like the sun radiates light. Plotinus believed the philosopher's aim in life should be to turn away from the world of the body and its untrustworthy senses, and to become reunited with this primal essence through a contemplative ecstasy.
In this view can be seen the start of a change in the myth of irrationality. The Greeks had thought of the mind as striving towards a realm of mathematical forms and glittering logic. Once the mind crossed the threshold of this rational paradise, all became understood. But with Plotinus, this ultimate home of the mind became blissful and ethereal - a place that now seemed to lie beyond mere reason. The myth of irrationality had begun to take on its more modern form where instead of reason standing at the head of creation, it became suspended somewhere between the "bad" irrationality of the body and the "wise" irrationality of the divine spirit. As with the super-rational Spock from Star Trek, cold reason was no longer enough. It was some wordless, indefinable, irrational extra that was responsible for making the human race unique.
Plotinus's interpretation of Plato struck a chord with the early Christian church. The Neoplatonist doctrine of turning away from the sins of the flesh to be reunited, in wordless ecstasy, with a divine Good fitted the church's belief in a single god and supernatural revelation. Plotinus's writings were picked up by a number of early Christian thinkers - most notably, St Augustine, a Fourth Century bishop - and used as the philosophic proof that the Bible's teachings must be correct. Once fixed in place as part of Christian theology, the Platonic model of the mind became impossible to challenge. For ten centuries, until the rise of a free-thinking merchant class in Italy and the intellectual Renaissance that followed, the Catholic Church was the only source of learning and education. Any dissent from the teachings of the Church was treated as heresy. Medieval scholars, such as Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas, might debate the finer points of the Neoplatonist model, but they were in no position to challenge its fundamental assumptions.
The dominance of Plato's tripartite model can be seen by the way it was reflected not just in the official psychology of the day but also in "underground" schools of medieval thought such as alchemy. The alchemists dabbled in the occult, using Arabic science to concoct potions that they hoped would bring wisdom and eternal life or transmute lead into gold. Naturally, being chemically-minded, the version of Plato's model that the alchemists developed was based on the three elements most important to them: salt, sulphur and mercury.
Salt was seen as the ruler of the head and represented rational thought. This symbolism stemmed from the belief that human thoughts were patterns traced out in the stars overhead. The brain acted merely as a receiving mechanism for heavenly inspiration and when a passing thought entered awareness, it did so by crystalising out as so many fallen stars - or grains of salt - inside the head. While salt represented reason, sulphur was the element representing the lower body. In the foul-smelling flames of sulphur, alchemists saw the volcanic emotions of lust, hunger and greed. The third element in this volatile mixture was mercury. Mercury stood for the heart and lungs - organs capable of the quicksilver changes of spiritual emotions such as love and compassion. Standing as it did between the heavenly inspiration of salt and the lusts of sulphur, the job of mercury was to balance thought against will. If thought got too much of the upper hand in a person and pushed its way down into the rightful home of the feelings, the natural result was salty tears - the salt of thought manifesting itself in physical form. Conversely, if sulphurous will forced its way up into the realm of the gentler emotions, this led to a wild, gasping laughter. Out of this chemical symbolism, the alchemists were able to construct an entire psychology.
the Enlightenment view
Such was the model of the mind that emerged out of medieval times. The mind was seen to dangle above a pit of seething animal passion, a source of wild energy that propelled people into foolhardy action. At the same time - although equally remote and shrouded from consciousness - existed a bright realm of inspiration and beauty. Wonderful thoughts rained down upon the receptive mind like falling stars. As Plotinus put it: "Mankind is poised midway between the gods and the beasts." However a certain confusion persisted about the exact place that the nobler feelings of humans occupied in this scheme. Sometimes these appeared to represent the better part of the body, the quicksilver heart. At other times, the best in humans was thought to come from some realm beyond reason.
With the Renaissance of the 15th and 16th Centuries came the age of scientific discovery. The Church's grip eased enough to allow the flowering of cosmology, physics and physiology. However it was not until the arrival of the Enlightenment late in the 17th Century that scholars felt able to turn the methods of scientific enquiry that were proving so successful in other areas on to the study of human nature and human society. The philosophers of the Enlightenment took a totally new approach to the mind. Inspired by Newtonian physics and the new mechanical contrivances of their day, philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke, Condillac and Leibniz came to see the mind as little more than a complex machine. Like Aristotle, they had little time for mystical explanations of mental events and sought to tie down such abilities as perception, memory, imagination and thought to a physiological explanation.
The Enlightenment philosophers also tended to see the mind as something that was forged out of an experience of life rather than arriving in the body as an already complete rational soul. Thomas Hobbes, for example, explained sensations as being caused by the pressure of sights and sounds on the sense organs. Imagination was nothing more than the memory of sensations recombined in new ways. Rationality was not a supernatural faculty but a skill that was learnt and could be improved with education. Finally - and as shall be seen, most importantly - Hobbes realised that human thought and other mental abilities, such as memory, were intimately bound up in language. Hobbes wrote in Leviathan that the higher faculties of man: "...are acquired and increased by study and industry...and proceed all from the invention of words and speech."
Several other Enlightenment philosophers, such as Gottfried Leibniz, argued a similar case: "Having been created, language serves man also as a tool for reasoning in private with himself both because words help him remember abstract thoughts and because of the benefit he derives by having recourse to signs and silent thoughts while reasoning," Leibniz wrote.
Out of Enlightenment philosophy came a completely new image of mankind. Humans were seen as animals who needed to be tamed and socialised. Without civilisation, humans were not necessarily evil, but they were thoughtless and unrestrained in their actions. Social training instilled not only a moral sense but also taught humans to feel finer feelings and to think in rational fashion. Humans were born into the world as little more than a bundle of animal instincts and then, through education, were made into fit members of society.
This model of human nature sparked many calls for social and political reform. If humans were the product of their society rather than of innate or metaphysical forces, then a better- designed society should lead to better people. In a spirit of optimism, Enlightenment thinkers put forward their plans for rational utopias that would do away with the guilt and unhappiness that had seemed mankind's inevitable lot. Reformers dreamed of a world of upright, industrious citizens ruled by good laws and freed of superstition. A new mood of modesty and restraint was born which gave rise to religious movements such as the Quakers and inspired political movements such as the Benthamites, who believed that society ought to organised on the rationalist principle of creating maximum pleasure for the greatest number.
The Enlightenment was a time of great intellectual promise. However, the open-minded approach it brought to psychology proved to be only a temporary hiccup in the progress of the myth of irrationality. The attempts by Hobbes and others to root an explanation of the mind in physical processes and social forces soon stumbled on their lack of factual knowledge. Nothing was known of how the brain really worked: of how it mapped out sensations, preserved memory traces or generated the words we speak. Nothing was known of evolution or how the rise of Homo sapiens was tied in with the invention of language. There was no hard evidence to back up the insights that had been the product of little more than common-sense and fresh minds. As a consequence, Enlightenment philosophers failed to exploit the beach-head created by their first assault on the myth of irrationality. For the time being, they did not have the means to go any further forward.
Meanwhile, right in the midst of the Enlightenment, a backlash was taking shape. The wider public had never been too convinced by the Enlightenment's search for unmysterious explanations of the world - especially where it touched on human nature and the human mind. Religion and superstition still dominated most lives and people felt more at home thinking about the mind in spiritual terms. After the Enlightenment's brief challenge, the myth of irrationality swept back into general favour, borne along on the back of an even more influential intellectual movement - Romanticism.
then came Romanticism
Europe of the late 18th Century was ripe for the Romantic movement. The Enlightenment accompanied an era of relative peace and prosperity, particularly in England. Better farming practices had transformed the countryside. In the towns, the new industrial age and the rise of commerce had brought wealth and social mobility. Between 1770 and 1830, Britain's population doubled to 16 million largely as a result of the improvements in daily living conditions. However, many of the privileged members of the middle and aristocratic classes found that the good times brought with them a certain boredom and that the do-gooding restrictions of a hard-working Puritan society made them feel hemmed in. Also, the crowded towns and smoky factories were not to their taste. A backlash against the worthy philosophies of the Enlightenment was brewing.
The first to articulate the romantic reaction was the Swiss writer, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Born in 1712 the son of a poor watchmaker in Geneva, Rousseau spent his first 30 years in a variety of failed jobs, getting by largely through the support of a series of rich women (he later took a plain servant-girl as his mistress and housekeeper, abandoning all five children he had by her to an orphans' home). Rousseau was notorious for his vain, quarrelsome and boorish nature. In his last years, he developed serious mental problems and sank into a world of paranoid delusions, convinced he was being pursued by enemy agents. Yet despite being made of such unpromising material, Rousseau was to become lionised by high society and his writings to become best-sellers all across Europe.
Rousseau's big break came in 1750 when he entered an essay competition. The topic of the competition was on the question of whether the modern arts and sciences had led to an improvement in human nature. Rather than follow the utopian view of most intellectuals of the day and argue that the 18th Century gentleman was a triumph of civilisation, Rousseau - a born controversialist - did the opposite. He wrote that rather than improving humans, modern society and the well- mannered facade it demanded were in fact their ruin. Basing his arguments on popular and rather fanciful accounts of American Indians, Rousseau claimed that man in his natural state was a noble savage; strong, gentle and content in his wild surroundings. Civilisation only managed to spoil him, making him competitive, nasty and alienated.
Rousseau's theme was shocking to those who believed that a just society elevated humans to a higher moral level, but it struck a tremendous chord of sympathy with the public. Overnight, Rousseau became a fashionable figure, invited to dine at the best tables. In keeping with his arguments, Rousseau thrilled his hosts by playing the part of the uncouth barbarian. He took to wearing a kaftan and meeting hospitality with an exaggerated show of bad manners. Rousseau found that the more impossibly he behaved, the more celebrated he became.
Rousseau followed up his sudden fame with a number of best- selling novels and philosophical treatises expanding on the theme of his first essay. After staking a claim for the moral superiority of primitive man, Rousseau developed his argument, claiming that "natural" modes of thought - such as intuition and feeling - were better than the dry rationality of modern scholars. Passion rather than reason became the ultimate path to truth. In Rousseau's novel, La Nouvelle Heloise, one of his characters says: "Whatever I feel to be right is right. Whatever I feel to be wrong is wrong... Reason deceives us only too often and we have acquired the right to reject it only too well, but conscience never deceives." Likewise, in writing on religious belief, Rousseau asserted that intellectual arguments in support of religion were a waste of breath as the sheer intensity of a religious experience should be enough to convince anyone. A person of refined sentiment seeing the beauty of the dawning sun as it scattered the morning mists could not help but believe in God, said Rousseau.
In championing sentiment above reason, Rousseau cast the myth of irrationality in its modern form. The Greeks discovered rationality and for them, it was the certainty of geometry and logic that were invested with an aura of the supernatural. Neoplatonists like Plotinus and St Augustine produced a subtle shift in emphasis, treating the upper levels of the mind as a place of sublime unity rather than analytic rationality. When Enlightenment thinkers then began to treat rationality as a matter of education and culture, rather than divine revelation, reason finally lost its place at the pinnacle of mental life. With reason demoted to being an intellectual habit, the way was clear for "higher feeling" to assume prime position. Led by Rousseau, the romantics brought about a final, conclusive realignment of the parts of the myth of irrationality. Inspiration, imagination, noble passion and sublime feeling became the most important qualities of the human race.
and into modern times
By the time Rousseau died in 1778, the romantic reaction
against rationalism was well under way in England and Germany. In the
first wave of romantics came poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge and
Goethe, gothic novelists like Walpole, and philosophers like Kant and
Fichte. The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars in the 1790s and
early 1800s interrupted for a time - the conflict and political
uncertainty putting the lid on romantic self-expression. But then came
a second burst of romantics led by poets such as Byron, Shelley and
Keats, philosophers such as Schelling and Schopenhauer, painters such
as Constable and Turner, and novelists such as Victor Hugo and Walter
By the 1840s, Romanticism had become such a widespread phenomenon that it could no longer be considered just an intellectual movement - the rarefied preserve of a handful of German philosophers and English poets. It had become the standard theme of popular culture. Where a few generations earlier an author like Jonathan Swift had written cautionary tales that reflected a caustic Enlightenment rationality, now the public taste was for the brooding novels of the Bronte sisters and the dark mysteries of Edgar Allan Poe.
The romantic's vision of the human condition found its
expression in many forms. The mood of Romanticism ranged from the
bucolic dreams of Wordsworth to the storm-tossed canvasses of Turner,
from the tragic poems of Goethe to the mystic philosophy of
Schopenhauer. However, what unified all these different strains of
Romanticism was the feeling that mankind was out of kilter with
It was thought that in some long-lost Garden of Eden, humans had lived a happy life as half-naked jungle savages. But when modern society closed in, people became trapped inside a suffocating armour of social ties and responsibilities. Moved by this realisation, the hero of the romantic myth was pushed to extremes. At first, as with Wordsworth and Rousseau, the reaction was a fairly passive one - a simple yearning for a nobler era. But soon a passionate reaction was demanded of the romantic. Romantics had to smash the shackles of society and liberate their inner selves - or at least die trying. The Enlightenment hero valued classical restraint and practised a mild-mannered acceptance of society's rules, but for the romantic, all-out rebellion was the only possible reaction.
Of course, the Romantic movement was based on shaky foundations. No person could live up to its ideals of action and tragedy. The blood, fear and shattered bodies of war only appear romantic from a safe distance, bleak mountainsides only touch the souls of painters with a warm cottage to return to, heroines dying of consumption only hold their allure for people who do not have to listen all night long to their racking coughs. Romanticism is essentially a spectator sport; a luxury of the privileged onlooker and hardly a recipe for living everyday life. The rebellion of romantic intellectuals usually amounted to little more than a taste for wild talk, quirky dress and stagy shows of bad manners. But more than being just impractical, Romanticism was wrong in its analysis of human nature. The romantics had correctly understood the great discovery of the Enlightenment - that the rules of society are man-made and so, essentially, artificial - but from there, they had jumped to the wrong conclusions.
From the distance of the 20th Century, it is probably difficult to appreciate the shock that 17th Century thinkers felt in recognising that society was a self-made strait jacket. During the Middle Ages, daily life was so steeped in church and tradition that its ways seemed fixed for all time. Classes and customs appeared to be as much a part of the natural order of the world as the way water ran downhill or the sun rose in the morning. Even in the early 1600s, it was unthinkable to most people that a broken-down street beggar could be anything else but what he was. Every person had an allotted place in God's great scheme and there was no thought that schooling and support could transform a tramp into a gentleman; a country bumpkin into a squire. The qualities of each class were seen as being in the person's blood, not the result of upbringing.
However, the successive religious, agricultural, scientific and industrial revolutions of the 17th and 18th Centuries shattered all illusion of social permanency. The torrent of change made it clear that society's rules were only a convenient artifice; to be valued when they worked and thrown out when they hindered. More than that, it became recognised that people's outer personalities were, in effect, masks moulded to a social blueprint. Like actors immersing themselves in roles, people had to learn all the correct mannerisms, attitudes and forms of address that went with their social position. Under the weight of society's expectations, every person had to guard their outward appearance and play their part like a willing cog in a giant machine.
Rationalist thinkers were inspired by this understanding to want to engineer a better world. If turning beggars into successful citizens was merely a matter of correct upbringing, then it was time to set up institutions to foster education, health and public order. In France and England, many of the important political and humanitarian reforms followed from the simple realisation that the rules of life could be changed. However the romantics reacted differently. Appalled to find themselves encased in an artificial shell foisted on them by polite society, the romantics wanted to break free - but the romantics' mistake was to believe that the poetic soul they felt beat within was any less artificial than the cultural constraints that appeared to bind them.
Just how artificial this inner self was, will become clear - a look at feral children (children brought up by animals) and aesthetic feeling will show how the whole of the human mind is moulded by society, from the outer mask of good manners to the depths of sublime feeling. But to return for the moment to the story of how our belief in human irrationality developed, it can be seen that the Romantic movement brought about a dramatic reversal in values. Where once to be a person of reasonable nature and good social standing was all an individual could wish for, now such a person was seen as shallow and stunted. Romanticism urged individuals to forsake the safe harbour of reasonable behaviour and venture out onto the wild seas of irrationality where they would encounter the mystery of their own being.
Poets, such as John Keats and Percy Blysshe Shelley, were loud in their condemnation of the shallowness of rationality. In his poem Lamia ‚ Keats wrote: "Do not all charms fly/ at the mere touch of cold philosophy?...Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,/ conquer all mysteries by rule and line,/ empty the haunted air and gnomed mind -/ unweave a rainbow..." Shelley argued in his tract, A Defence of Poetry: "Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the centre and the circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred."
Inspired by the Romantic movement, even philosophers turned against reason. The publication of Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason in 1781 mirrored this change in intellectual climate. Kant was a studious German professor who through exhaustive - and often barely intelligible - argument showed that reason had its limits. To many people's consternation, Kant appeared to prove that there could never be a rational proof of the existence of God or moral absolutes. However, not wishing to abandon belief, Kant - like Rousseau - decided that where reason faltered, human feeling could take over. The ultimate answers could be found in the heart.
This approach was hugely influential, especially among the German academics who were the 19th Century's dominant philosophic voice. In the hands of thinkers like Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, irrationality began to take on superhuman proportions under its new guise as the "will". With the idea of the will, irrationality was no longer just something cluttering up the corners of the mind - an unruly collection of animal urges and an elusive thread of sublime sentiment. Irrationality became something condensed and monstrous - a blind giant crouching behind the barricade of rational consciousness, awaiting a call to action. In The World as Will and Idea Schopenhauer wrote: "Consciousness is the mere surface of our minds, of which, as of the earth, we do not know the inside but only the crust...The intellect may seem at times to lead the will, but only as a guide leads his master; the will is the strong blind man who carries on his shoulders the lame man who can see."
Nietzsche took the idea of the monstrous will even further. In ringing phrases, Nietzsche called on people to unleash the "superman" that lurked within. Nietzsche expressed vividly the belief that human irrationality was a blend of the animal and the divine: "In man, creature and creator are united: in man there is matter, fragment, excess, clay, mud, madness, chaos; but in man there is also creator, sculptor, the hardness of the hammer, the divine spectator and the seventh day..."
For Nietzsche, society was the security blanket of the weak and "authentic" humans would brave any pain, any madness, to express the irrationality beating within their breasts: "...today the petty people have become lord and master: they all preach submission and acquiescence and prudence and diligence and consideration and the long et cetera of petty virtues. What is womanish, what stems from slavishness and especially from the mob hotchpotch: that now wants to become master of mankind's entire destiny - oh disgust! disgust! digust!...Overcome, you higher men, the petty virtues, the petty prudences, the sand-grain discretion, the ant-swarm inanity, miserable ease, the 'happiness of the greatest number'!"
Nietzsche urged his readers to be ruled by their
irrationality: "The secret of realising the greatest fruitfulness and
the greatest enjoyment of existence is: to live dangerously! Build your
cities on the slopes of Vesuvius! Send your ships out into uncharted
seas! Live in conflict with your equals and with yourselves! Be robbers
and ravagers as long as you cannot be rulers and owners, you men of
knowledge! The time will soon be past when you could be content to live
concealed in the woods like timid deer!" In Nietzsche, the romantic
ideal found its most intoxicating voice. From Nietzsche's vision of
superhuman will, Romanticism moved swiftly towards its 20th Century
incarnation as the cult of the individual.
the cult of the individual
The modern-day cult of the individual is the logical conclusion of the romantic vision. Early romantics, like Rousseau and Wordsworth, had asserted that deep truths such as good and beauty lie buried within, but their writings show that they still saw the individual as a cog in society. Where Enlightenment philosophers had wanted to rebuild society on rational grounds, the early romantics in turn wanted to rebuild it on aesthetic ones. But no-one was yet urging that people should turn completely against society.
However, by the time we reach Nietzsche in the late 19th Century, industrialisation, mechanised warfare and city living had blackened the romantic's outlook. Society was no longer the cheerful country village of Wordsworth or the noble comradeship of Byron's Greek freedom fighters. This cosy world had dissolved and society had become grey and impersonal. The individual had been cut adrift to become a solitary voyager in a lonely universe. The choice that individuals faced was either to let themselves be swallowed up by anonymity of the crowd or, through the transforming power of their irrationality, to turn themselves into Nietzschean supermen.
This dilemma has become the stuff of popular culture. From Captain Ahab to Rambo, an army of clench-jawed heroes have preferred to risk being broken rather than to bend to society's ways. They have felt the suffocating hand of society closing over them and reacted by lashing out with wild irrationality. But sometimes - even in fiction - society's stifling embrace proves too much for the would-be rebel. The most resonant characters of modern imagination have been the anti-heroes - the drifters, drunks and misfits; the outlaw cowboys, renegade cops and broken-down private eyes; the Jack Kerouacs, Humphrey Bogarts and James Deans. These figures may be social losers, but there is a defiance in the self-destructive trail they blaze. Whatever else happens to them, they remain true to that essential spark of irrationality guttering in the human soul.
These images of irrationality that we see on the screen and on
the printed page have become the images we live by. In the 18th and
19th Century, Romanticism was an aesthetic movement with little real
effect on day-to-day life. People may have enjoyed reading romantic
tales but were themselves locked into a world bounded by work, class,
religion and family. Only a tiny minority had the time or the money to
live their lives according to the daunting blueprint laid down by the
Romantic movement. But in the consumer society of the late 20th
Century, many people have the luxury of building a life based on an
ideal of romantic self- expression.
The teenage years have become a stage in our lives when we have the space and freedom to perfect the poses of romantic rebellion. As adolescents, we are given a kaleidoscope of youth cults to chose from, each distinguished by its own dress code, language and musical tastes, but all preaching the same message of social revolt. Through our exposure to magazines, comics, novels, records, television and movies, our lives become saturated with images of love and rage, inspiration and torment.
By the time we are 20, we are well- rehearsed in the matter of
being a passionate and irrational human being. As Nietzsche urged, we
are ready to live dangerously; to build our cities on the slopes of
Vesuvius and send our ships out into uncharted seas. Thrust into the
adult world of jobs, marriages and responsibilities, still trailing
this fuzzy cloud of romantic notions, the effect can be devastating. At
the very least, people are left with the troubling feeling of failing
to live up to the high expectations of their youth.
Stuck in the anonymity of the suburbs with a life that may be safe and comfortable, yet utterly lacking in grandeur or adventure, there is a distinct sense of missing out. Is it too much to claim that the fuzzy dreams of Romanticism have created a darker legacy than just suburban ennui? The belief that we have a precious inner self that must be expressed at all costs appears to be the driving force, the justification, behind modern macho attitudes. Teenage rebellion is spilling over into adult life to produce behaviour that ranges from selfish queue-barging to murder. It would seem that we are in danger of becoming the half-god, half-demented beast whose image we have spent the past 2,000 years inventing.From The Myth of Irrationality - the science of the mind from Plato to Star Trek, by John McCrone, Macmillan London, 1993.