How to become rational

A student sent me an e-mail yesterday which consisted of one simply-worded, but far from simplistic, question: “How can I be rational?” The question has perennial importance, of course, and may in a sense be the defining concern of the human soul. However, as the obstacles to living in accordance with reason grow more pervasive and pernicious with each generation, the notion of “being rational” may now seem almost impossibly abstract.

Everything in our late modern world conspires against this student’s hope. Our compulsory schooling, our political posturing, and our popular entertainment industry (including its “high art” subsidiaries), are entirely devoted to the premise that rationality is at best a superfluous, somewhat antiquated calculating skill, and at worst an oppressive remnant of the capitalist patriarchy. Reason is seen today, in most contexts, as little more than an obstacle to be overcome in favor of the warm and fuzzy democratic tyranny of “empathy” and “openness.” This new, universal regime is characterized less by the development and expression of ideas (i.e., rational thought and discourse) than by the groundless, fear-induced togetherness of “social communication,” as John Dewey named his (and our) progressive religion of spiritual self-obliteration.

In such a climate, rationality is far from seeming a clearly identifiable path, let alone the default intention of human life. We are living through the tail end of a two-hundred-year campaign to degrade and relativize the mind’s essential activities. Hence, the question “How can I be rational?” indicates a greater degree of fundamental uncertainty and disarray today than that same question might have entailed in the Age of Reason, classical Greece and Rome, ancient Jerusalem, or the Thomistic late medieval period. In all times and places, this question carries the implication, “How can I escape the tyranny of emotion and misdirected desire?” Today, however, as feelings and unguided desires have been all but deified by the vaguely allied vested interests of academic progressivism and corporate cynicism — let’s call this synergy of dark forces the cunning of unreason — the tyranny of emotion and misdirected desire no longer merely describes the natural state of the immature individual soul, but instead represents the intentional political strategy of ideological totalitarianism.

As a result, today’s iteration of the question, “How can I be rational?” carries the deeper implication, “How can I wrest control of my soul away from the demons of imposed immaturity and self-destruction prodding me toward the abyss as a permanent condition of modern life?”

This deepening of the question, caused by the dissipation of rationality as a moral standard, a societal norm, or a practical assumption of human interaction, frames the new kind of answer a modern teacher may offer to a young adult who asks this question in earnest. Rather than a theoretical explanation or clarifying discussion, today’s answer must, it seems to me, begin at the level of a basic reorientation of one’s manner of approaching one’s inclinations and behavior. This reorientation involves a guided intervention into the socially-indoctrinated routines of contemporary moral and intellectual activity, with a view to helping the soul to retrain itself through deliberate self-critique, and to restrain itself by means of a consciously enforced substitute for genuine moderation, the virtue most universally devalued and corrupted by progressive social life.

As a beginning point for answering my student’s question, then, I offer the following practical self-regulation strategies.

Step 1: Ask why

  • Why am I feeling this way?
  • Why do I want this?
  • Why did I say that?
  • Why do I have this opinion? 
  • Why am I uncomfortable about giving up my behavioral or emotional habits?

And don’t stop thinking about those questions at your first or basic answer. Keep digging. Most of our feelings, desires, or casual statements represent things we have learned to feel, want, or say without thinking. The first step to becoming more rational is to take control of your soul’s pre-rational processes by trying to understand where they come from. Don’t assume anything is true just because “everyone says it.” Don’t assume a feeling is natural just because it arose in your mind. Don’t accept any object of desire as good just because you want it. Ask why you want it, why you feel that, why you believe that. And keep asking, until you discover the reasons or motives behind your experience, rather than just accepting that experience without question.

Step 2: Ask what.

  • What would be a sensible way to feel in this situation?
  • What should a human being want in this context?
  • What will happen next, and then further in the future, if I act on my current feeling, follow my immediate desire, or say this thought that popped into my head?
  • What words or ideas do I hear myself expressing for which I have no clear definition or supporting argument in my mind?
  • What would it feel like to develop an opinion of my own, to be able to explain or define every concept I use in my speech, or to form an independent judgment of the things I see and hear around me?

It is immediately obvious that most of these questions cannot be answered in simple or straightforward ways, but rather open out on many subsequent questions, especially questions demanding the clarification of terms or the defining of specific vocabulary. In other words, the initial questions will, if pursued sincerely, initiate a kind of dialectic of self-assessment and self-discovery, one which will finally lead the inquirer beyond all the socially-imposed grounds and emotional attitudes that have conditioned his or her typical feelings or decisions, and into a world of freer thought, by which I mean thought that incorporates ideas and options from outside of the learned responses and emotional training of our constricting and irrational historical context.


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