The Office and Limitation of Reason

The Office and Limitations of the Reason


The truth is that upon which we are now insisting, that

reason is in its nature an imperfect light with a large but still

restricted mission and that once it applies itself to life and action

it becomes subject to what it studies and the servant and

counsellor of the forces in whose obscure and ill-understood

struggle it intervenes. It can in its nature be used and has always

been used to justify any idea, theory of life, system of society or

government, ideal of individual or collective action to which the

will of man attaches itself for the moment or through the centuries.

In philosophy it gives equally good reasons for monism

and pluralism or for any halting-place between them, for the

belief in Being or for the belief in Becoming, for optimism and

pessimism, for activism and quietism. It can justify the most

mystic religionism and the most positive atheism, get rid of God

or see nothing else. In aesthetics it supplies the basis equally

for classicism and romanticism, for an idealistic, religious or

mystic theory of art or for the most earthy realism. It can with

equal power base austerely a strict and narrow moralism or

prove triumphantly the thesis of the antinomian. It has been the

sufficient and convincing prophet of every kind of autocracy or

oligarchy and of every species of democracy; it supplies excellent

and satisfying reasons for competitive individualism and equally

excellent and satisfying reasons for communism or against communism

and for State socialism or for one variety of socialism

against another. It can place itself with equal effectivity at the

service of utilitarianism, economism, hedonism, aestheticism,

sensualism, ethicism, idealism or any other essential need or

activity of man and build around it a philosophy, a political and

social system, a theory of conduct and life. Ask it not to lean

to one idea alone, but to make an eclectic combination or a

synthetic harmony and it will satisfy you; only, there being any

number of possible combinations or harmonies, it will equally

well justify the one or the other and set up or throw down any

one of them according as the spirit in man is attracted to or

withdraws from it. For it is really that which decides and the

reason is only a brilliant servant and minister of this veiled and

secret sovereign.

This truth is hidden from the rationalist because he is supported

by two constant articles of faith, first that his own reason

is right and the reason of others who differ from him is wrong,

and secondly that whatever may be the present deficiencies of

the human intellect, the collective human reason will eventually

arrive at purity and be able to found human thought and life

securely on a clear rational basis entirely satisfying to the intelligence.

His first article of faith is no doubt the common

expression of our egoism and arrogant fallibility, but it is also

something more; it expresses this truth that it is the legitimate

function of the reason to justify to man his action and his hope

and the faith that is in him and to give him that idea and knowledge,

however restricted, and that dynamic conviction, however

narrow and intolerant, which he needs in order that he may

live, act and grow in the highest light available to him. The

reason cannot grasp all truth in its embrace because truth is too

infinite for it; but still it does grasp the something of it which we

immediately need, and its insufficiency does not detract from the

value of its work, but is rather the measure of its value. For man

is not intended to grasp the whole truth of his being at once, but

to move towards it through a succession of experiences and a

constant, though not by any means a perfectly continuous self-enlargement.

The first business of reason then is to justify and

enlighten to him his various experiences and to give him faith

and conviction in holding on to his self-enlargings. It justifies

to him now this, now that, the experience of the moment, the

receding light of the past, the half-seen vision of the future. Its

inconstancy, its divisibility against itself, its power of sustaining

opposite views are the whole secret of its value. It would not

do indeed for it to support too conflicting views in the same

individual, except at moments of awakening and transition, but

in the collective body of men and in the successions of Time that

is its whole business. For so man moves towards the infinity of

the Truth by the experience of its variety; so his reason helps

him to build, change, destroy what he has built and prepare a

new construction, in a word, to progress, grow, enlarge himself

in his self-knowledge and world-knowledge and their works.

The second article of faith of the believer in reason is also

an error and yet contains a truth. The reason cannot arrive at

any final truth because it can neither get to the root of things

nor embrace the totality of their secrets; it deals with the finite,

the separate, the limited aggregate, and has no measure for the

all and the infinite. Nor can reason found a perfect life for man

or a perfect society. A purely rational human life would be a

life baulked and deprived of its most powerful dynamic sources;

it would be a substitution of the minister for the sovereign. A

purely rational society could not come into being and, if it could

be born, either could not live or would sterilise and petrify human

existence. The root powers of human life, its intimate causes

are below, irrational, and they are above, suprarational. But this

is true that by constant enlargement, purification, openness the

reason of man is bound to arrive at an intelligent sense even of

that which is hidden from it, a power of passive, yet sympathetic

reflection of the Light that surpasses it. Its limit is reached, its

function is finished when it can say to man, “There is a Soul,

a Self, a God in the world and in man who works concealed

and all is his self-concealing and gradual self-unfolding. His

minister I have been, slowly to unseal your eyes, remove the

thick integuments of your vision until there is only my own

luminous veil between you and him. Remove that and make

the soul of man one in fact and nature with this Divine; then

you will know yourself, discover the highest and widest law of

your being, become the possessors or at least the receivers and

instruments of a higher will and knowledge than mine and lay

hold at last on the true secret and the whole sense of a human

and yet divine living.”




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