by Naresh Jotwani for the Saker Blog
Almost every adult believes that he or she is rational, because he or she can easily cite many simple but important examples of personal rational behaviour in daily life. Selecting one from several packs of cereal in a store, for example, or making sure that a child is properly dressed and equipped to go to school. Any civilized society in the world rests on the foundation of uncountable such acts of rational behaviour.
But, as we well know, no system of reasoning can be built without underlying premises. The underlying premises in the two examples cited here are self-preservation and nurture, both perfectly valid premises in a civilised society. In a society at peace with itself, the underlying premises – “self-evident truths” – are understood, appreciated and not questioned.
In a time of crisis, of course, the premises of a civilised society begin to crack. Neglect, brutality, deception, mistrust and misery reign. An individual is no longer sure about what he or she should believe – and what strange thoughts the next individual may be carrying in his or her head. This leads to insecure individuals forming smaller clans or groups. Such paranoid clans and groups invariably fear and mistrust each other. Two overlapping groups – “politicians” and “scamsters” – are masters at exploiting mistrust, since “not adding to others’ misery” is not a basic premise in their version of rational behaviour.
[An even sicker, sociopathic group has as its premise “adding consciously to others’ misery”; the author prefers to skirt around the consequences of that sick premise!]
It seems clear that a person is defined by the premises – “self-evident truths” – that he or she lives by. A devoted mother, for example, lives by her self-evident truths of preservation and nurture of the family; similarly a soldier, a teacher … and so on. A scamster has no dictum other than “feeding the insatiable self”, although one does hear, at least in romantic fiction, about some who do care for other individuals.
Given that many different variants of “civilised society” exist around the world, a fascinating topic of interest for any reflective mind becomes the “self-evident truths” binding a society together – or, conversely, the absence of “self-evident truths” leading to disunity.
Let us consider an example.
A certain gentleman once said: “Suffering is a noble truth”. He meant thereby that this particular truth was existential; it holds in any human society. This truth was clearly “self-evident” to the gentleman himself at the time when he asserted it; but of course we must examine it afresh from our own special vantage point.
The name and other historical antecedents of the gentleman do not concern us at all here, since we are considering only this one utterance as a possible premise. Indeed his name and the antecedents may well throw our logical discussion off track.
That suffering is an existential reality should – one would humbly submit – be evident to all but children and the imbecile. If anything, the variants of suffering around the world have grown rather profusely over the last few centuries, as technology has produced almost incredible means to tamper with human life and the planetary ecosystems.
However, in the specific assertion cited, doubt does arise about the word “noble”. How can suffering be called a “noble” truth, given that we so desperately wish to be rid of it?
However, the very fact that we desperately wish to be rid of suffering should give us pause, since we know from experience that desperation leads to irrational behaviour. Desperation to shake off suffering – somehow, anyhow, find a way! – can therefore diminish one’s ability to remain rational and address the real issue.
We agree that, even in the most civilised of societies, one cannot teach philosophy to a hungry man. At least a simple snack, which should not be beyond reach in a civilised society, should be arranged before the philosophy lecture starts. Otherwise, pangs of hunger will interfere adversely in the rational and wholesome process of learning philosophy.
So then how can suffering of any kind – hunger, pain, stress, jealousy, depression … or whatever else! – be called “noble”? Surely that adjective is out of place here? Indeed, at first glance, suffering seems to be a rather “ignoble” aspect of existential reality. The gentleman who made that statement could have made a mistake, after all.
How do we solve this apparent riddle?
Let us agree that “suffering” is any aspect or element of existential reality that we find painful, or at least very unpleasant. A fundamental question then is this: With what attitude do we face and accept this painful or very unpleasant element of existential reality?
Surely a scowl or howl of disgust will not help us in any way. A calm mind might actually come up with a way to lessen the pain. Might “nobility” in this instance be construed to mean that the unpleasant or painful reality compels us to remain calm – to think of a way to deal with it, to alleviate it? “Nobility” in this case would lie in facing the challenge; and any serious challenge does demand a high degree of nobility in facing up to it.
Indeed, the idea of “paradise”, “promised land” or “shining city on the hill”, arises precisely when an individual fails to recognize and face up to this challenge. Such an individual may dream grandly of a “final victory” over suffering – for his or her clan or group, naturally! – and push ahead on that premise, blind to reality. One may even suggest that much of human history has been shaped by a mistaken understanding of the existential reality of suffering, against which there can be no “final victory”, but only a constant struggle.
If suffering is an existential reality, does it really matter whether or not we dub it as “noble”? Of course not! That word, after all, is only an adjective. Use of that word reflects not upon the reality itself but upon our response to it; adjectives are only in our mind.
Consider the worst crimes committed by humans against other humans. When we say suffering is “noble”, we do not imply that the crimes are not ugly, or that the criminals must not be punished. Of course criminals must be punished, and victims must be helped. But we do imply that the reflective person – the philosopher – must examine the whole scene with a clear eye, avoiding both “pie in the sky” non-solutions and political gimmicks.
We may therefore imagine a vantage point from which the question of suffering can be examined with a cool mind, which requires gaining at least some respite from suffering. A doctor must treat patients with a calm, focussed mind – not with pique or desperation.
A discussion about the premises underlying rational behaviour can be compared to two friends sparring at chess. Their aim is not to “win a big prize”, but to explore the various possibilities the game provides to them for creative, logical thinking. While no “prize” is at stake, both players will surely become better at chess as a result of the sparring.
Exactly in that spirit, one can explore the effects on people’s behaviour of the premises they live by – sometimes with happy results, and sometimes with tragic ones.
1. At present, the people and the so-called leaders of a certain “superpower” seem rather at a loss about their fundamental beliefs. Money, sense pleasures and fame seem high on their agenda – but these are the premises one admits to only in private. These must be disguised in fake verbosity, for them to have even a pretence of value. Therefore various self-serving concepts are being tried out, but only to worsen matters. Even those who see themselves as “enlightened” are chasing money, sense pleasures and fame. Insincerity and lack of clarity are running rampant; greed, prejudice and political exigencies are determining actions.
2. In my own country – a large and raucous democracy – debate is intense at present, essentially about which set of premises will determine our political processes in the coming years and decades. Our constitution provides very sound guidelines, but it also comes under the strain of fiercely competing premises. One hopes that our “core values” and democratic processes will eventually resolve matters – in spite of the many so-called “foreign elites” who come hawking their gobbledegook wares.
The key point seems to be this. The premises – “core values”, “self-evident truths” – that a society lives by, or fails to live by, determine its path going forward. Often these core values are bruised or buried by political chicanery and bombast, or by economic pressures; even then, however, the longer term evolution of a society is crucially dependent on them.
If there is truth in this conclusion, then another conclusion also follows. What goes by the fashionable name of “ideology” is only a “smoke and mirror” show of verbosity to disguise the true premises of a clever, vociferous, insistent and insatiable group.