In a popularity-survey of some of my recent “Thoughts and Ideas,” the winning line said, “One advantage of living alone is that you never have to be reasonable.” Although these words expressed my own feeling, I was surprised how many others also apparently feel the same way. I suppose it means that living with other people inevitably means accepting compromises, sacrificing one’s own preferred ways of doing things. Being reasonable, in other words, means not always insisting on being right. That is how families are run – so are companies, and practically any other human grouping with a common purpose – even universities, and other institutions supposedly based on free thought.
Only within the individual mind need reason not prevail. Indeed, where only one person is concerned, reason has, so to speak, no reason to assert itself at all.
But what do we mean by “reason,” anyway? It has something to do with another equally elusive concept: logic. Believe it or not, logicians actually recognize certain “Laws of Thought.” For example, there is what’s called “the Law of the Excluded Middle,” which simply says that nothing can be, and not be, at the same time. I would question that, right off the bat. Take joy and sadness. But that gets us into emotions, which are notoriously unreasonable and illogical.
Bing Crosby, singing the lyrics of Johnny Mercer, said the same thing in a different way, when he advised us to:
Accentuate the Positive,
Eliminate the Negative
Latch on to the Affirmative –
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between.
George Bernard Shaw was no friend of Reason – at least, not in his famous statement that “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
It may have been the French revolutionaries of several centuries ago who first gave Reason a bad name by declaring theirs to be the “Age of Reason” while at the same time they were cutting off people’s heads. And many of the “rational” changes they did bring in, such as reforming the calendar, didn’t last very long anyway.
Thomas Paine, who had already stirred up the American Revolution with his “Common Sense,” and “The American Crisis,” made the exaltation of Reason even less unanimous with his own 1794 tract, “The Age of Reason,” which was about as anti-religious as you can get without being an out-and-out atheist. The term for such wafflers was “Deists,” and many of our Founding Fathers were seduced by this empty creed, which says, in effect, “OK, there may be a God, but He, She, or It, has nothing to do with us, in any way which would require our worship or devotion.”
It remained for the philosophers, like Kant, with his “Critique of Pure Reason,” and Bertrand Russell, with his castigation of what he called the “Unreason,” of movements like Fascism – to put Reason back on its pedestal.
But I cannot leave this subject without telling you of one of the few occasions in my life when I felt I acted heroically. It occurred in Los Angeles, when for a brief period, I was employed by the City as a substitute teacher. One of the hazards of such work was never knowing in advance, from day to day, just what sort of challenge would be awaiting you. Usually I was sent to a high school or a junior high, where the biggest problem was simply keeping order. But just once, I was sent, for one day, to teach a class in a Junior College – and, to my surprise, it turned out to be a class in LOGIC. I had never studied Logic, and would have been perfectly justified in letting the students devote the hour to “private study.”
But something in me said “this is your chance to learn!” So, I asked, “Where are we in the textbook?” and, when shown the place, I proceeded to read aloud the next paragraph, teaching it to myself as I did so. Then I explained it to the class. And I went on that way, paragraph by paragraph, as far as time allowed. When the bell rang, I had learned a little about Logic – and I don’t think one of those students even suspected that they didn’t have a fully qualified teacher.
Thus did I give conclusive proof that I was capable of teaching a subject I knew nothing about. And what could be more logical than that?