The sleep of reason (1)

A post originally entitled the getting of wisdom. The sleep of reason is better. For more, specifically based on Goya’s etching, see my next post 

My focus here, two pre-eminent men of reason. Or two men of pre-eminent reason. Amartya Sen and Steven Pinker. (And one villain – one of many out there ! – see later.)

Both have signed books for me, after giving talks, and I remember a few words with Steven Pinker. Sen is simply a hero, a man of surpassing wisdom. Pinker likewise is a passionate supporter of reason. He overplays, to my mind, violence in human history in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, but his compassion toward others in our own time is unwavering.

More on Pinker in a few moments. 

Way back I posted on the subject of Sen’s ideas about capability. Compassion and enterprise, justice and capability – they are the four ideas that drive my view of the world. 

Implicit in all four ideas, as I understand them, and as they balance each other, is reason. Exemplified brilliantly by Sen. ‘(Trump) has managed to unleash a kind of thinking which drew more on prejudice than on cool reasoning. And I would apply this to Brexit, where some of the sentiments of hatred of foreigners come into the story in a big way.’ Sen quotes Jefferson: ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.’ (I’m quoting from an interview in the March edition of Prospect.) 

How could reason, a rational man, be other than in the camp which opposes Brexit head on? I’ve found this a contentious position to hold, but should anyone doubt that it is a reasonable statement, listen to Sen in the subject:

‘Public discussion is extremely important both preceding a referendum and, I believe, following a referendum. I take a view of democracy like that of JS Mill: democracy is government by discussion. I’m really quite shocked that one vote on the basis of a campaign in which many factors were distorted …. (by) a small margin victory should be taken to be the end of all argument, no further argument, the rest is just engineering.’

Government by discussion – not by diktat. These are dangerous times. The recent Supreme Court decision saw the impartiality of judges challenged, by those who would wish to ensure that judges were partial – partial toward the views that they hold. Weighting the scales of justice – a game of fools.

Steven Pinker answers questions put to him in Prospect’s ‘Brief encounter’ feature. If given £1m to spend on other people what would he spend it on? His answer: ‘Giving What We Can, a meta-charity inspired by the Effective Altruism movement, which calculates which charitable donations can deliver the greatest human benefit.’ 

Curiously that chimes with David Edmond’s review of Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy: the Case for Rational Compassion. Empathy is defined by Bloom as putting yourself in another’s shoes, and, yes, this can work against reason. But to my mind that’s too rigid a definition. Empathy and reason need to work together. We can then be moved to tears, as Pinker was, by Malala’s 2013 speech to the UN General Assembly, without allowing sentiment to cloud our judgement. Empathy and compassion work best when they work together. 

Heroes… and villains. An altogether lesser character, and I’m sorry to be harsh… but Dominic Lawson writing in the Sunday Times demonstrates what we’re faced with. He imagines Remain supporters being gratified by data analysis showing that Leave support last June correlated strongly with lower educational achievement. Remain supporters he thinks will be gloating – their superior understanding vindicated. So are we gloating? It won’t get us far. But my anger is with his statement that ‘throughout history, the educated middle classes have fallen for, or concocted ideas, that turned out to be misguided’. He quotes Marxism, Nazism, eugenics. Was Marx middle class, Hitler? As for eugenics – well, that’s for another time. This is emotive nonsense, and Lawson as a rational man must know it. Is opposing Brexit, wishing to build with reason and compassion on the status quo, rather than seeking to reinvent the wheel, this time with a dodgy axle, some kind of novel idea?  

Marxism revisited? Have we a Hitler in our midst?  

God help us all. God I’m assuming is a rational being. Maybe not. But we as reasonable people have to hang in there.  

La Gomera – enchanted forest 

We’re in the Canaries, on the magic island of La Gomera. Just five degrees north of the Tropic of Cancer, mid Atlantic Ocean. 

It’s 11th Feb, and we break away from our poolside days on the south coast, and views out over the ocean – nothing between us and the Antarctic ice cap – now there’s a thought, and the full moon, and southern hemisphere stars such as Canopus (sacred to the pre-Conquest Gomerans), and we head for the mountains and the cloud, and the cool and rain and dripping wet – via Alajero, in our hired Corsa, climbing high, right turn at Pajarito then left on CV14 toward Hermigua, and our walk begins, winding down north then south (the contours are wild) through laurel and tree heather forest, trunks thick with moss, to Las Mimbreras, where a rushing stream, fed by the aquifer that the forest feeds, crosses our path, and we join the Alto de Garojonay walk, then north through dripping forest, touch of mist, until we turn east and wind down via a rocky slippery descent to a valley where palm and cacti sit incongruously amid the green and damp, to the El Cedro café restaurant, lunch of watercress soup with green and red pepper sauces, and tuna and salted potatoes – rustic, long tables, fire burning in an old iron stove, mist turns to downpour while we’re there, eases to drizzle before we leave, and head down to river and a rushing water tunnel, then wind round first south then north, climbing all the while to pick up our original path. 

Leaving 11.15, back 4.30, lunch took an hour, so for 5 ½ miles distance it was a slow walk – but atmosphere all the way, with damp drizzle mist drips endless drip drip and streams flowing fully formed which, given the parched landscape only maybe five miles south, is a miracle, a magic meteorological act, driven by the north-east trades and helped not a little by a remarkable geology – a volcanic land which has had two million years to erode and carve deep barrancas radiating out from the laurisilva forest which occupies the centre land. 

Enchanted land, magic misty sweep of forest, trunks and boughs thick on the ground and cross-crossing and intermingling, as dense as a tropical jungle, no place to get lost not just because you wouldn’t want to get lost there – you’d never get in there in the first place.

Amazingly this exotic land is Europe. The hand of Spain, the hand of our European continent – it stretches far.