this mental infirmity is now more prevalent and hurtful than ever, to such an extent that even after the truth has been as fully demonstrated as man can prove it to man, they hold for the very truth their own unreasonable fancies, either on account of their great blindness, which prevents them from seeing what is plainly set before them, or on account of their opinionative obstinacy, which prevents them from acknowledging the force of what they do see.
— City of God Book II. Ch. 1
Augustine describes the limit of reason and the frustration, if not futility, of attempting to carry out a rational discourse in an irrational world. I laughed in a perverse sort of way when I read it, because I could relate. It seems that what happened in the Roman Empire more than 1600 years ago is happening again in the Western world today, namely, the defeat of reason.
A coworker and friend recently told me that I was too naive in treating everybody as a reasonable person and trying to solve every conflict through civil dialogue. I replied that I knew no other way to live: I treat everyone as a rational being because that is how I’ve been raised, and how I expect to be treated myself.
To Reason is to Be Human
To reason with a person is to respect that person as an autonomous and rational being, having the capacity to think for himself and the freedom to make his own life choices. In other words, to reason with a person is to give him his due, i.e., to do him justice.
The alternative to reason is violence, that is, treating people as subordinates, even slaves, and forcing them to accept our opinions and abide by our will. For example, when people verbally and emotionally insult those who disagree with them, boycott and sanction businesses whose practices they object to, they are resorting to violence to force their will on others. To put it bluntly, they are guilty of attempted slavery, an extreme form of which is terrorism, which is defined as “(threats of) violent action for political purposes”.
The desire to enslave others is one among many symptoms of what Augustine calls “lust of dominion”. A Christian is exhorted to a higher standard of civility, for “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield”.
The word reason is derived from the Latin root “ratio”, literally meaning “to count”. Two things are necessary for counting: the physical objects being counted and the numbers to count with. Reason combines both the abstract and the concrete, the unseen and the seen, the eternal and the temporal.
In Platonic terms, reason is to identify and comprehend abstract principles that are participated in by all the mundane things we experience and observe. In Aristotelian terms, reason is to apply universal principles which transcends our experience to the particulars of our experiences. The former movement of reason is upward, so to speak, whereas the latter is downward, as represented by Raphael’s painting School of Athens.
Early Church Fathers like Augustine firmly believe there is demonstrable harmony between reason and the Judeo-Christian faith. This harmony exists on many levels.
Firstly, to reason is to articulate concretely what is abstract and hitherto unknown. The Christian notions of revelation and incarnation are consistent with reason in this regard, because revelation and incarnation are essentially to make known what has been hitherto unknown about God; Secondly, to be rational is to abide by the law. Lawlessness is the symptom of an irrational soul. Jews and Christians obey the Moral Law divinely revealed to them and prescribed in the Scripture, and apply universal moral principles to the particulars of their daily lives; Thirdly, to be rational is to live according to reason. Because Christ is the Wisdom of God, through which the whole world is created and upheld, a Christian is one who comprehends the same creative and rational principle that governs the universe. This is what Alexandrian Christians, such as Clement and Origen, consider a true “Gnostic”.