Beauty, reason and the difference between a fanatic and a visionary

There’s a famous quote from Thomas Paine, author of the Age of Reason:

“To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture.”

hitler1A similar thing was said by Friedrich Nietzsche:

“Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies.”

There are however, some seemingly opposing, but equally well quoted passages, expounding on the power of intuition over simple ‘reason’ or analytical thinking.

The most famous, I think, coming from a private letter by the poet John Keats:

“…I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason – Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.”

What Keats is talking about is the unknown, or rather more accurately the unknowable, the essential mystery at the heart of life.

Mystery and superstition are often lumped together, and a false dichotomy is drawn between analytical thinking and intuitive thinking, as if one is hard, real-world mechanical science, and the other is fancy and conjuring.

Superstition, however, is rather the opposite of mysticism, than it is the opposite of science.

David Hume that absolute paragon of sceptical thinking and radical, disciplined analysis said:

‘Reason is, and must only ever be, a slave to the passions.’

What he was referring to of course, was morality, and how we conceive of our ethical values. In a word, he meant how to behave. The process is one based on emotive reasoning, sentiments, in his own words.

The great hero of western analytical thought placed a high value on creative, non-rational thought.

The chain of quotes above does not present an antithesis, and the paradox arises simply because our definition of reason is thoroughly limited.

Keats_aloneFor Aristotle, and equally for Leonardo Da Vinci, REASON was the convergence of logic and beauty, not the separation of them.

Rather than being the opposite of mystical apprehension of the unknown, it was rather the totality of capacities by which human individuals apprehend knowledge and mystery.

In short, reason as a concept refers to something more than just analytical, logical and mathematical thinking.

This was what Keats was referring to when he said ‘truth is beauty and beauty truth.’

Reason must include vision, the ability to see beyond the limitations of the problem at hand, to think laterally and join dots in a way that does not follow linear thinking.

Linear thinking is hugely important from the stand point of strategic action, but when it comes to uncovering our goals, then we must have vision, and vision requires imagination, the ability to create and conjure possibilities as well act logically.

The importance of this when it comes to argumentation and dispute is that a person’s values tend to emerge from their ability to conceive possibilities and their capacity for vision. Our ideas of morality are grounded in ethics, and ethics is essentially the science of what’s possible.

That’s why it was said by Socrates that the fundamental question of all areas of philosophy is ‘how should I act?’ The implication of this is that even questions of metaphysics or logic come down to the question of what’s possible.

It is normal to find oneself in a dispute with a man or woman who regards themselves as the defender of the ‘the facts.’ If you happen to have a conviction that does not correspond to these sacred facts, then you are easily dismissed as fanatical or intransigent.

There’s a difference however, between someone who sees possibilities beyond the evidence, and beyond the reality of historical truths, and someone who is delusional.

The difference lies in a person’s willingness to test out his theory or ideas.

And it is also true that often these ‘defenders of the facts’ happen to be people who will do anything to avoid acting.

These are people who will dismiss a hypothesis before it’s even been acted upon or tested once.

Contrary to what these people tell themselves, such thinking is actually profoundly unscientific, because the mark of true, radical scientific thinking is not a talent for number crunching, but a talent for experimentation, and a willingness to test any dogma, no matter how common sensical or absolute.

What distinguishes the visionary from the fanatical then, is not logic, but flexibility, a willingness to personally live out his theory and test it himself.

This crucially cuts out the intellectual ‘middle man’ who arrogates himself the role of guardian at the gates, a Cerberus monster who defends hell from any wayward poet.

Aldous Huxley once said he struggled with the difference between genuine mystical thought, and superstition. Huxley spent much of the latter half of his writing career attempting to salvage mysticism and religious tradition in the context of science.

It was necessary for Huxley to do so, he believed, because the non-rational, the visionary expansion of imaginative thinking, is essential for moral activity.

If a man acts from a fanaticism for certainty, then he acts in a myopia of selfishness and short-term thinking. And it was this very closed-mindedness, this anxious relationship to the unknown, that for Huxley was the biggest threat to human civilisation.

The unknown is almost always unknowable. That is, the five senses, logical discrimination and the reptilian mind, cannot penetrate it.

The fanatic is no mystic. What Huxley couldn’t see was that the fanatic prefers his imagination to the world. The world of action, impact and moral goodness become irrelevant to him.

The mystic on the other hand, is a kind of Bodhisattva. He is primarily concerned with effective action, change in the world. However outlandish and experimental his visions, however unlikely his ambitions, the Bodhisattva, or the true mystic, is concerned with results – his vision serves a greater end.

The fanatic on the other hand is someone who cares not a dot for results. Fanaticism serves to support a narrow view of the world, but creative vision serves to expand the range of possibilities.

These possibilities are almost always illogical, or paradoxical, or seem senseless in the face of the facts.

Typical arguments between the ‘fact defenders’ and the more creative problem solver, tend almost always to come down to ‘human nature.’

The fact-defender, for instance, probably views the issue of climate change as one of damage limitation. Material scientific solutions must be found, but they won’t solve the fundamental problem of human overconsumption.

A slightly more visionary person will understand that a basic shift in human perspective is needed if the problem of man-made global warming is to be countered. They also have the scope and forward thinking to know that any short term practical solution will be its own worst enemy, because the relationship of man to his environment, or man to man, won’t change.

The fact-defender poo-poos such talk out of hand. Because it just seems too abstract, too high-minded, to talk about ‘shifts in consciousness’ or ‘evolving human nature.’

Again the question is about human possibilities. There is no way for a visionary to prove his conviction in argument. If he does, he is likely to fail. The whole history of the human race is almost always working against him.

Does this make him a fanatic? No, because a fanatic’s convictions are there to defend a weakened ego, a psychic wound. A visionary’s convictions are there to see beyond the limitations in thinking that have created the problem at hand.


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