The Man of Reason: Part Eight

Lloyd wrote ‘What is new is the decline in optimism about the eventual victory of reason.’64 An extraordinary statement for a philosopher to make. Why the negativity? Victory over what? ‘Irrationality’? If so, isn’t this the great fear of the Man of Reason?65 Plumwood addressed the issue with pertinent questions – ‘Where does the remarkable set of values enshrined in the Platonic system of thought come from? Why is reason developed in oppositional ways as hostile to nature? The attractions of choosing the shadowy, abstract world of the Forms over the living world of experience are not immediately obvious.’66

A constituent running strongly through the existence of the Man of Reason is his retreat from life. In his Seventh Letter Plato wrote of the experience of his youth:

‘I had much the same experience as many other young men. I expected, when I came of age, to go into politics…When I saw all this (the treatment of Socrates), and other things as bad, I was disgusted and drew back from the wickedness of the times.’67

For Plato and Plotinus, the return of soul to its source is the escape from matter. More than once in his Enneads, Plotinus calls it a flight, an escape. He cited Plato – “ ‘Likeness to God’, he says, ‘is a flight from this world’s ways and things’…”68 Such a proposition, resulting in union with God in solitude is individualist and elitist. It is a doctrine of the salvation of the self from the world. The Enneads conclude:

‘This is the life of gods and of godlike and blessed men, deliverance from the things of this world, a life which takes no delight in the things of this world, escape in solitude to the solitary.’69

Lloyd noted the Man of Reason’s ‘transcendence’ of the feminine,70 Plumwood called it ‘the flight from the feminine’.71

In her essay, Lloyd quotes Descartes from a letter to Princess Elizabeth: “True philosophy teaches that even amid the saddest disasters and most bitter pains a man can always be content, provided that he knows how to use his reason.”, adding ‘His own mastery of reason over the passions, he claims, has cured him of his hereditary dry cough and pale colour and ensured that even his dreams are pleasant.’72 In view of my criticism of the Man of Reason’s flight from the engagement of his complete being in life, Spinoza’s desire to transcend ‘the passions’, hatred, anger, envy, derision, pride, ‘excessive love’, suspicion and enmities can be interpreted as having a more prosaic motive than his Man of Reason would have us believe. This same desire to transcend (escape) ‘the vagaries’ and obligations of life lies at the heart of Neoclassicism, Romanticism and the philosophy of Bergson.

The Man of Reason personifies a rejection of those aspects of ‘mind’ and life which are beyond his control. Poets were to be banned from Plato’s Republic.73 ‘The gravest charge against poetry still remains. It has a terrible power to corrupt even the best characters, with very few exceptions’.74

‘Poetry has the same effect on us when it represents sex and anger, and the other desires and feelings of pleasure and pain which accompany all our actions. It waters them when they ought to be left to wither, and makes them control us when we ought, in the interests of our own greater welfare and happiness, to control them.’75

Yet not only is Plato’s writing, with his notion of eternal Forms and their shadows and his use of simile highly creative, his own writing reveals a rich and idealistic emotional life and a great sensitivity to art  and inspiration:

‘arranged as they are in the plumes of rapid imagination, (poets) speak truth. For a Poet is indeed a thing ethereally light, winged, and sacred, nor can he compose anything worth calling poetry until he becomes inspired, and, as it were, mad, or whilst any reason remains in him…(they compose) from the impulse of the divinity within them’76

His treatment of the ‘divided soul’ is exemplified in the Phaedrus, in which the sexual love of beauty is an inspirational bridge between matter (appearance) and knowledge (of the realm of Ideas):

‘the whole soul of him whose wings begin to grow seethes and throbs with an itching irritation such as is felt in the gums at the forming of the teeth…And as it looks upon the beauty of a boy and particles then come flowing thence upon it, which is called desire, it is warmed and refreshed, it is relieved of its pain and rejoices.’77

Part eight of nine/to be continued…

64 G. Lloyd, ‘The Man of Reason’, in Women, Knowledge, and Reality: Explorations in Feminist Philosophy, Eds., A. Garry and M. Pearsall, Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989, 126

65 Lloyd argues Hegel’s faith in Reason can be taken not only ‘as the expression of an ideal’, but ‘as an affirmation of faith that the irrational will not prevail. Such a faith may well appear naive; but that does not mean it is bad faith.’ G. Lloyd, The Man of Reason, ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ in Western Philosophy, London: Methuen, 1984, 107

66 V. Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, London: Routledge, 1993, 97

67 Plato, The Republic, Trans., D. Lee. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979, 14

68 Plotinus, The Enneads, Third ed. Abridged., Trans., S. MacKenna. London: Penguin, 1991, 18 (I,2,3)

69 Plotinus, Enneads, Trans., A.H. Armstrong. In seven volumes. London: William Heinemann, 1966-1988, Volume VI, 345 (VI,9,11). Armstrong referred to this as ‘the flight of the alone to the Alone’.

70 G. Lloyd, The Man of Reason, ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ in Western Philosophy, op. cit. 104

71 V. Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, op. cit. 74. Also 112 ‘Descartes is plainly the heir of the Platonic and rationalist flight from and devaluation of the body, nature and the feminine.’ 116 For Plato and Descartes, knowledge is not only freedom from doubt, but also ‘freedom from the body and its deceptions, weaknesses and hindrances, its personal and emotional ties…In Cartesianism, as in earlier rationalism, the excluded and inferiorised contrast of ‘pure’ thought includes much more than the feminine. Its contrasts now include not only animality and the body itself, but also material reality, practical activity, change, the emotions, sympathy and subjectivity.’

72 Descartes to Elizabeth, 6 October 1645, in Descartes Philosophical Letters, Ed. and Trans., A. Kenny. Oxford University Press: Oxford. 1970, in G. Lloyd. ‘The Man of Reason’. op.cit. 118

73 Cf. Rousseau’s exclusion of women from citizenship.

74 Plato, The Republic, Trans., D. Lee. op. cit. 436

75 Ibid. 437

76 Plato, ‘Ion’, Five Dialogues of Plato Bearing on Poetic Inspiration, London, 1929, 7

77 Plato, Phaedrus, In S. Mainwaring. ‘Winckelmann and the Platonic Educative Eros’, Fine Arts IV thesis, University of Sydney, 1988, 65

*   *   *

I will soon begin a series on the philosophy of the Neoplatonist Henri Bergson

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