“During the war, we all learned to stop looking for reasons why things happen.”
Those are words from the ending monologue of How I Live Now. The movie is about World War III. The storyline concludes with the conclusion of fighting and the return to living. It is shown through the very personal view of someone still very young. The viewer, like the protagonist, has no understanding of the war. It came and went, as if a force of nature with no human meaning.
My thought, upon hearing that monologue, was that there are always reasons. One may not like or comprehend the reasons, but they exist. She speaks these words in reference to death and violence that is, from her perspective, best forgotten. Completely understandable.
A retreat from reasons or from reason entirely is a natural response to the utter shattering of what had previously seemed like a reasonable world, a society of law and order, of stability and certainty, of family and community. All gone in an instant, as nuclear war begins and martial law is declared.
* * * *
I imagine revolution would feel very similar, maybe even more traumatic than even a nuclear bomb going off in a nearby major city leading to a World War. What is so horrifying about revolution is that it is the enemy from within, the danger lurking among us. Even revolution far away in a foreign country poses the threat that revolution might be contagious.
There is a strange dynamic of reason and unreason. When it comes to what feels like mass chaos, no reason ever seems satisfactory. Yet, in the case of the French Revolution, Reason itself was blamed by the counter-revolutionaries. It’s not as if the counter-revolutionaries lacked reasons of their own or lacked the capacity or desire to reason when it served their purposes. Many of the criticisms of Reason ironically take on the appearance of being reasonable.
The fearful vision of ‘Reason’ is an imagined demon haunting the collective mind. It’s symbolic of or, maybe more accurately, a conflation with something greater. But what is it pointing towards? Also, what makes the reasons of the revolutionary supposedly different and more dangerous than the reasons given by their opponents?
* * * *
The world is full of reasons. What the revolutionary does is question and challenge the reasons that have become unstated assumptions. Most reasons that motivate us go hidden and those in power wish to keep them hidden. That is the secret of power and its Achille’s heel. To question and challenge this is to pull back the curtain and show what is behind. This action, to those with power or aligned with it, is in itself an act of violence, even before a single drop of blood is shed.
Reasons can be scary things. The best and worst within humanity is motivated by reasons of all kinds. There is always a reason, usually many reasons. What revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries both understand is that ideas have power. A reason unleashed can destroy or transform entire societies. And, once unleashed, it is impossible to put it back in Pandora’s box.
It isn’t the violence of revolution that is so horrific. States in non-revolutionary times regularly commit more violence than any revolution. The fear is that reason will lead to unreason, that an ideal will lead to a Reign of Terror where the outcome is uncertain. The fear is the uncertainty. The everyday violence of police and militaries is predictable and known. Most of the time, we humans prefer the familiar, like an abused child who returns home everyday to a parent who both beats them and feeds them. It is all the child knows. To stand up to the abuse would lead to possibly unforeseen consequences.
Still, there are those who do stand up to abuse. In politics, these sometimes become revolutionaries. They have their reasons, of course, but ultimately it is the unknown that excites them or gives them hope. They refuse to accept the status quo, what is established and known.
* * * *
As argued by revolutionaries of centuries past, this world is for the living, not the dead. This is why many revolutionaries believed no social construct (whether property, patent, or law) should outlive the lifetime of a single generation. That is what defines democracy in its only true form. It’s the ideal of establishing revolution itself as the norm, every generation its own self-ruled governance, the future’s unknown made into a familiar element of present society.
No reason is a sacred cow, no matter how long it has been passed on nor how deeply institutionalized. It is easy to attack the other guy’s sacred cow, but to be consistently principled is something entirely else. This principled stance is what made the counter-revolutionaries so fearful of ‘Reason’. They realized that revolutionaries would make no exceptions, that if possible they would follow justice to its inevitable conclusion.
Conservatives and libertarians will judge harshly the views of opponents, even going so far as demonizing them. They say taxation is theft, except for the tax laws they favor and when used to fund their preferred policies and programs. They say that the state is oppressive, except when it’s oppression against their enemies and against convenient scapegoats. They say that government is the problem, except when it supports their agenda and serves their interests.
Liberals can have similar problems, although typically being more subtle in their hypocrisy. Liberals don’t tend to argue for principle, come hell or high water. Liberals at least openly admit that they aren’t against any of these things on principle. Their principle, instead, is moderation. They are less concerned about taxes, governments, and states as general categories, while being more concerned about what purpose these serve, what ends result. The failure of liberalism is within this moderation. The weakness of liberalism is a fear of going too far and so never going far enough. Liberals, pathetic and weak as they can be, often play into the hands of their adversaries. This is taken as excusing them of blame for their own failure.
Conservatives and libertarians might have a point in their complaints, if they were only to act as though they genuinely believed what they said. If conservatives followed their principles without exception, that could be seen as admirable and liberals might then merit the criticisms lodged against them. But, in that case, conservatives and libertarians would then be radicals instead.
Principled consistency is the sole possession of the radical. Only those willing to go to extremes are willing to both acknowledge the unanswered questions and demand they be answered. The answers, the ideals, the reasons they offer may be deemed wrong or undesirable, but it is harder to accuse them of avoiding the difficult problems that afflict both left and right.
* * * *
Those who wish to escape reason often turn to God or Nature. They say that is just the way the world is. They refuse to take responsibility for their own beliefs. Instead, they project their beliefs outward, just as they project their fears. Still, to less extreme degrees, we are all resistant to the demands of reason. Human capacity for reason is imperfect, but it is nonetheless very real. Reason exists within human nature as much as does reason’s failure.
No matter what our response, in this post-Enlightenment age, we all live under the dominion of reason. Revolutionaries won that battle, even as they lost the war. The new order of reason we’ve inherited is battle-scarred and shell-shocked. In the light of reason, even when a mere candle flame in the dark, our collective madness has a hard time hiding its true nature. But what are we to do with this unsavory knowledge? We can reason ourselves literally to the moon. What reason hasn’t achieved is peace and justice. We use reason to build more devastating weapons and yet we can’t find a way to reason ourselves into not using them.
Faced with self-induced horror, our instinct is to deny reason, to escape the sad truth that it would whisper in our ear, to blame the light for what it causes us to see. Yet to say there is no reason leaves us also without hope. There can be no return to Eden’s innocence. Existing without reason is not a choice available to us. But where will reason lead us? What reason, what ideal and hope will we put forth as a guiding light?
Our reasons form the path we take. This is why we should choose our reasons carefully and with awareness. The reasons we give for the past will determine the reasons that shape our future. There are always reasons and maybe that is a reason for hope.