The Western cannon offers many arguments that reason and free will in particular set human beings apart from other species and make politics possible. These powers help explain why other species are not political (save the interesting exception of bees). A perennial political difficulty, however, is that powers need not be exercised. Powers, or faculties, may be exercised or they may not. They may be strong or they may be weak. We may be reasonable, or we may not. We may have penetrating foresight, or we may not. We may be driven along by our passions and our emotions in beast-like fashion, or we may resist these passions and emotions and proceed in a more thoughtful direction. Insofar as this is true, we may be effective members of political society, or we may be incompatible with it. Contemporary psychological and social science literature confirms that,
“most major problems, personal and social, center on failure of self-control: compulsive spending and borrowing, impulsive violence, underachievement in school, procrastination at work, alcohol and drug abuse, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, chronic anxiety, explosive anger. Poor self-control correlates with just about every kind of individual trauma: losing friends, being fired, getting divorced, winding up in prison.” (Baumeister and Tierney 2011, p. 2)
Nor are reason and free will completely independent of each other. To the extent that we think of free will, the triumph of reason over the passions and emotions remains an enduring understanding of this phenomenon. We might think of Plato’s tripartite theory of the soul, who provided the West with classical images of this idea (e.g. Republic, 588b-589b). Even if one disagrees with all or part of this, it seems obvious that we are passionate and emotional in such a way that our actions sometimes appear to follow their own course. We sometimes awaken from a series of actions and wonder at ourselves why we had behaved so and chosen the things that we had chosen. We can discern in others reasonableness and its absence, regardless of whether we can understand the underlying causes.
Living and breathing with this underlying mystery regarding our felt experience of rational control is not always comfortable or choice-worthy, though sometimes it can be. Consider for instance when athletes perform tasks and make decisions so rapidly that most agree such performances to be reflexive. To take time to stop and think in sport for the athlete or in battle for the soldier can be extremely counter-productive, and to act with precision without thinking is a major advantage to those who have trained extensively and conditioned their reactions strategically. On a smaller scale and regarding less interesting matters, everyone acts mindlessly in the performance of small tasks that regularly occur. “Your unconscious brain continuously helps you avoid social disaster, and it operates in so many subtly powerful ways that some psychologists have come to view it as the real boss” (Baumeister and Tierney 2011, p. 15). This is all interesting phenomena. And these matters are not recent discoveries, if we simply recall the emphasis that Aristotle put on the role of habituation in the formation of character and virtue. What is a problem, however, is when we act mindlessly in a manner that is destructive to ourselves and/or others. When this has occurred, passions and/or emotions may be to blame.
I am not, however, simply arguing that passions and/or emotions are bad and reason is good, but rather that they are neutral by themselves. They do not become good or bad until we consider their object and their context and their cause. For instance, being angry at a good person doing good things or experiencing great pleasure from the company of an evil person doing evil things are both considered shameful. But anger can be good and praiseworthy if it is directed at an evil person doing the evil things. Experiencing great pleasure from the company of a good person doing good things can even be characterized as an ideal experience. Anger and joy are thus neutral until we understand their source, their object, and their context. These factors help us to form our judgments as to whether the anger or joy is good or bad.
I would further suggest that context is more important than the degree of intensity in the assessment of passions and emotions. Excessive love is charming when directed at a lover but disturbing when directed at a stranger wanting to be left alone. Excessive love can even be disturbing when directed at a lover, depending on the circumstances. Excessive love can be mysterious and good when directed at a divinity containing all perfections, and it can be deeply disturbing when directed at a god that commands evil.
If we consider as we should what can mediate our angers, joys, loves, then who can disagree with the classical answer: man’s faculty of reason? When an angry person considers a strong set of convincing reasons not to be angry (say, after someone argues to him or her that the anger is misdirected or inappropriate altogether), that person’s anger dissipates. The key word is convincing, and this is where the mysterious nature of reason invites us to consider it. Some considerations are just more convincing than others, and some minds are more convinced by the fact that to be convincible or reasonable is a good thing. To state this fact the other way perhaps is easier to receive, that some minds are convinced that not being convincible or reasonable is the best thing. To be able to close the ears and the mind is an effective way to insulate oneself from the power of the minds of others. It is a way to think “independently,” but what value does it have?
To close off from outside perspectives is to rely exclusively on what can only be shallow opinion, certain to be limited in scope and likely to be false plain and simple. It condemns to a sort of internal slavery the person led by their passions — the addict, the brawler, the slouch. It perpetuates a deep disorder in the soul, one that works out to an inescapable mismatch between the person’s intentions and their actual consequences, leading to constant frustration and disappointment. When people in this condition get political, they are seeking a self-vindicating way out of this tragic situation that in reality doesn’t exist. Rather than finally opening their eyes and ears to the competing claims of their equals about the world as it is, they are left trying to create a new world altogether.