TCS Daily

Rage and Reason

By Lee Harris - September 6, 2005 12:00 AM

Like many Americans who watched the scenes of horror unfold in New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina, I found myself feeling a surge of rage and fury against the lack of governmental response to the suffering. Yet, as I soon discovered, this rage and fury was by no means the universal response among Americans. There were many, indeed, who felt no rage at all. Some friends went so far as to scold me for my loss of emotional self-control. Some even accused me of responding irrationally.

Now it is not my concern to provide logical arguments to justify an emotional state that simply overwhelmed me. People who are swept away by their own emotions are ill-advised to use reason in order to persuade others to share in their emotional upheavals. In such cases, the other person is either caught up by the same visceral emotion, or he is not.

If I am driven to the point of madness by seeing a man torturing a cat, but you could care less, what species of argumentation could I use to prevail upon you to seethe with the exact same fury? At best, I can try to make you understand why I am so personally agitated by the sight of tortured cats, but if you do not feel the same rage at the torturing of cats, then the most I can do is to try to shame you into pretending that you share my emotions.

There is a certain commonplace idea of reason that argues that rational people should never permit their own emotions to get out of hand. At all times, this line of thinking goes, men should remain calm and reasonable, refusing to give in to the lower impulses of anger and despair. The Greek and Roman Stoics, for example, took pride in maintaining the state of complete emotional impassivity no matter what was happening in the world around them.

There can be no question that cool heads are better than hot ones when it comes to certain tasks. For example, if a doctor is performing brain surgery on you, then you do not want him to be so emotionally caught up in your fate that he is unable to keep his hands from shaking. Instead, you will wish him to be sufficiently detached to perform the surgery as efficiently as he can.

Yet does anyone really want to live in a world where everyone has become so stoical and self-controlled that no one ever just "loses it" -- a world where no one ever screams with rage or shouts with anger or writhes in indignation?

The German philosopher Hegel once said that no great thing has ever been done without passion, and in this one remark he has made clear what is most objectionable in the approach of those who value cool heads to the exclusion of hot ones. Without hot heads, there would never have been the Protestant Reformation or the American Revolution. It takes a good deal of anger to destroy a bad old world, just as it takes cool heads to create a new and better one.

In James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, there is a scene in which the great Johnson had attacked the institution of slavery in the most violent terms imaginable: he had given a toast to the "next insurrection" of the American blacks then held in slavery. Immediately after recording this outburst in his biography, the cool-headed Boswell takes his reader aside, and apologizes for Johnson's intemperance and his complete loss of emotional control. After all, Boswell assures his readers, we all know that slavery is a permanent fixture of the human condition, as inescapable as death and taxes. Forgive Johnson his irrational explosion of spleen, Boswell says in effect. It is just part of the man himself.

Fortunately for the world, there were other men like Johnson who could not keep a cool head when it came to the unnecessary suffering of other human beings. Fortunately for the world, they ended by overruling the cool heads, like Boswell, who believed that slavery could never be eradicated from the planet.

Those who argue that rage is always irrational must tell us what they would substitute for it, and explain how else the money-changers could have been expelled from the temple, or the slaves freed from their bondage. No doubt someone would have finally gotten around to saving those who survived the onslaught of Katrina -- but how curious it is that the rescue operation only got revved up after millions of ordinary Americans began seething with fury at the images of abandonment and desperation that were beamed into their homes from heroic correspondents like FOX's Shepherd Smith, whose voice often shook with barely controllable outrage at the human misery he saw all around him, in contrast with the bland platitudes uttered, in TV interview after interview, by FEMA's all too calm and collected director.

Think twice before you demean the rage that sometimes simply overwhelms our rational judgment -- it may be one of those tricks by which a higher rationality has managed to make itself manifest in the actual world around us. In short, it may exemplify what Hegel called "the cunning of reason" -- namely reason's ability to use even our most irrational impulses to fulfill its own loftier purposes.

Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies.

For more coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, and to learn how you can help the victims of this disaster, please visit our special section Tragedy on the Gulf Coast.


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