The Thoughtful Years
When young people reach the age of eighteen, they suddenly — or so it may seem — start to sit about in little groups discussing politics, philosophy, religion, the meaning of life, and other abstract subjects — or, alternatively, business trends, or the latest scientific theories and discoveries. This frequently abrupt change in behavior is not due only to a change in the subject matter of their classes. More probably, those very changes in the methods of teaching are due to the perceived need to adjust the subject matter to the changes occurring in the students’ very attitudes.
During these thoughtful years, the young person is likely to begin to appreciate the truth of those famous words of the poet Bulwer-Lytton: “The pen is mightier than the sword.” For with the unfolding of the intellect, youth enters the fascinating world of ideas and discovers there a power greater than material force.
The important thing during this stage is, as we have seen earlier, to teach young people to reason clearly, and not merely cleverly. For the intellect can be used with almost equal skill to clarify situations as to obscure them; to find positive, helpful solutions to problems as to block every hint of a worthwhile solution. The “heavier” the individual’s consciousness, the greater the likelihood that he will tend toward the misuse of reason. Refined feelings alone, ultimately, can guide the reasoning faculty correctly.
Reason is a tool, merely: a path, not a goal. The student should be taught to use it honestly, lest, like a power tool in the hands of an unskilled carpenter, it slip and injure him.
The truth simply exists. It cannot be created; it cannot be distorted; it cannot be denied. One may play with it as shrewdly as one likes; one may put on a superb show and convince many people: Truth always wins in the end. Lies, moreover, sooner or later, are always discredited.
The student needs to be convinced of this truth by every means possible. For it is unalterable. Only by accepting it can he be certain of avoiding the temptation to which many have succumbed, to use reason’s power in seeming justification of wrong ends.
How many times in history has a person, or an entire nation, insisted on a wrong course of action, and offered what seemed at the time the most logical support for their decision. Anyone believing differently was in many cases branded a heretic or a traitor.
And so the kings of Europe, encouraged by the Church, raised great armies to go off and fight in useless crusades. Priests were tortured and killed in God’s name on behalf of the so-called “holy” Inquisition. Thousands invested confidently in such financial fantasies as the “South Sea Bubble” and Holland’s “Tulip Mania.” A whole nation enthusiastically endorsed the Nazi myth of “Aryan supremacy.” And communists everywhere have subscribed to the typical partisan’s definition of justice: “Truth is anything that advances the communist cause, regardless of the immediate consequences.”
All who have ever tried to mold truth to their own liking have failed ingloriously in the end, no matter how many people they have succeeded in converting to their ideas for a time.
Truth alone wins, in the end.
In learning to reason wisely, the student should have emphasized to him the importance of being always willing to reevaluate his first principles. His commitment should be not to any idea about truth, nor to any mere definition of it, but to truth itself.
Thus, the student should be encouraged to develop a quality that is fundamental to clear insight: the willingness at once, and without the slightest attachment to any previous opinion, to change his mind, when confronted with facts that prove his opinion to have been mistaken.
Here is a suggested classroom exercise:
Get the class fully, even emotionally, committed to an idea or to a course of action. Then give them irrefutable proof that that idea or action is, after all, erroneous.
Get them into the habit of changing mental directions, when necessary, at a moment’s notice; of always keeping the needle of their mind’s compass pointed toward the truth, and never toward any personal bias, no matter how attractive that bias in their own eyes.
Few scientists, even, are capable of divorcing reason from their desires so completely. The ability to do so must be classed as one of the ego’s real triumphs in its long journey toward maturity. But although we may expect few students, therefore, to be free enough in their mental processes to reason with perfect clarity, no effort should be spared to make them aware of the advantages of such reasoning.
Take some — take any — belief that is universally held: the more emotional the students’ commitment to it, the better. Many professors do something like this already. They’ll take democracy, for example, and reinforce the students’ commitment to democracy with the usual arguments in democracy’s favor. Then they’ll point out the flaws in this system of government — not, if they are wise, from a wish to undermine the students’ faith in it, but simply to help them to base their faith on reasons that are held honestly, and not on emotionally sustained, a priori assumptions.
A similar exercise: Get the students emotionally committed to some cause célèbre, perhaps some campus issue, or perhaps — to play it safe!—something that was a hot issue several centuries ago. And then see if they can be made to listen fairly to the arguments of the other side.
Again, this exercise: Teach them to listen to opposing points of view on different issues — to hear other people out with respect, and not with emotion; to appreciate other ways of reasoning than their own. Show them that it isn’t enough in any meaningful discussion to convince oneself; that the way to convince others is to try to understand their point of view, to accept the truth whatever it may turn out to be, and to answer others’ arguments in their terms, as much as possible, rather than one’s own.
Students need to learn that the only way to reason clearly is to reason without attachment. The person of clear intellect, in his willingness to accept the truth of a situation whatever it may be, finds himself able also to respect the right of others to hold divergent opinions, no matter how patently fallacious, realizing as he does so that opinions (including his own) count for very little anyway: It is truth alone that matters.
Non-attachment is necessary to the quest for truth in any matter. The important thing is to remain nonattached, but not indifferent. This “passionate dispassion” can be achieved by heartfelt dedication to the truth itself.
How, then, to develop non-attachment? It can be developed by always separating, mentally, what is from what merely seems to be.
Let’s take a simple example: an imaginary advertisement for an even more fanciful beverage, “Muddies.” The advertisement depicts a crowd of young people laughing happily as they imbibe this deadly brew. Obviously, the advertiser is trying to suggest that these people’s happiness is due entirely to the fact that they are drinking “Muddies.” Underlying that message is the suggestion that drinking “Muddies” is “in,” and will make you acceptable to the “in” crowd: that “muddies” is, to coin a phrase, a happiness-compatible drink.
In fact, the likelihood is that people drink “Muddies” quite as frequently when they feel steeped in a state of solitary gloom. No drink, certainly, ever produces happiness. For happiness rises from within; it is self-generated. It is only subsequently that we project a thought of happiness onto external things and circumstances. Everything, including even — let’s face the deplorable fact—“Muddies,” is always neutral in its effect. It is neither positive nor negative, until we so define it in our own minds.
Consider even a circumstance that would normally be labeled negative: physical pain. Sufficient mental detachment can either minimize the pain, or dismiss it altogether.
Here’s how the process works: There is the sensation itself, which, though one would rather it weren’t there, is itself basically neutral. Then there is our mental definition of it as painful. Further, there is our emotional reaction: “I don’t like this painful sensation!”
Mentally detach yourself from your emotional reaction. Think of the experience as a sensation, simply. Refuse to define it in your mind as painful, or even unpleasant.
Next, tell yourself that, since it is only a sensation, it can be defined in various ways, and not only as painful. The definition you give it, remember, will be your own reactive projection onto the sensation. Try, then, to define it as merely interesting, or noisy, or as giving you an opportunity to practice concentration, but not as something you want to reject.
Next, try not defining the sensation at all. Forget about it, and think about something else. I’ve tried doing so in the dentist’s chair, and have actually been able to work out problems in the composition of music, or in the writing of a book. Absorbed in such questions as the right chord sequence for a musical passage, I hardly noticed what the dentist was doing.
One method for developing clear reasoning is the deliberate, though playful, practice of sophistry. Students may be invited to compete in thinking up arguments to support some stand which they know very well to be absurd. They can have a lot of fun in the process, and will be helped to recognize specious reasoning, when confronted with it in real situations.
Take this example: the comic song from the musical “Oklahoma!” in which the young ingenue sings, “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No.” To justify flirting she sings, “Whatcha gonna do when a feller talks purdy . . . Whatcha gonna do: Spit ‘n his eye?” The point is to persuade other young ladies in the audience that it is uncivil not to flirt — that a girl shows only good breeding if she acts flirtatious with as many “fellers” as possible.
Or take this argument, often advanced by thieves in defense of burglary: “People need to learn to take better care of their property.”
A man I knew once slipped on the steps of a church, and broke his arm. “The moral of this story,” he declared with mock solemnity afterward, “is, never go to church.”
I am not a student of the history of sophistry, but I wonder whether it was devised, originally, not as a method for deluding people with fallacious arguments, but as an amusing technique for helping the philosophy students of ancient Greece to protect themselves against the pitfalls of false reasoning.
Students should be shown the difference between not only true and false reasoning, but also between truth and fact. This is an important distinction, though one not often recognized. Let me italicize the difference, to help it to stick in your mind:
A truth is in harmony with all levels of reality, whereas a fact may be relevant to only one level of reality.
For example: A person lying in bed and desperately ill may look quite as badly as he feels. It would be perfectly in consonance with the facts to tell him, “You look terrible!” This negative statement, however, might devastate the poor fellow’s efforts to recuperate.
Anyone uttering such a statement might justify it with wide-eyed innocence: “But I was only speaking the truth.” This self-justification, however, could only give truth a bad name! In fact, the statement, though factual, would not be true.
For truth, as I said, is in harmony with reality on all levels. It may be a fact that the invalid looks terrible, but that simple fact doesn’t take into account the patient’s chances, for example — with a little encouragement — of recovery; the importance to that recovery of boosting his morale; the therapeutic value of affirming good health; even the somewhat abstract philosophical argument that, on a deeper level of his being, perfection, not imperfection, is the truth.
An important aspect of reasoning correctly is to understand the difference between reason and discrimination.
A line of reasoning will be false if its premise is wrong. Often, however, reason alone is inadequate to the task of evaluating the merits of a premise. Hence, the necessity for discrimination.
Take this example: We grow up in America in the belief that freedom is an “inalienable right.” For many people, this means they have the right to do anything they like. If a person plays his radio full blast at three o’clock in the morning, he may answer his neighbors’ objections with the retort, “It’s a free country, isn’t it?” More than reason is needed to counter his false argument. That is, there must first be the feeling that his reasoning is specious. To test oneself for such a feeling, one must pull back a little, mentally, from every argument and think, “Wait a minute! Is this true?” Discrimination weighs reason against feeling in the heart to see whether the reasoning process has a good “ring” to it; whether it feels right.
Many people reason speciously. The entertainment industry, as an example, staunchly defends violent, prurient, or otherwise tasteless movies with the argument, “It’s what the people want.” Discrimination, however, replies, “No, it’s what you want. You are conditioning people to accept, and perhaps even in time to enjoy, what you give them, but just look how often movies that are based on beautiful and noble sentiments and ideals have outsold the trash you people are putting out.” Discrimination is not cold and abstract. It results when we consult our inner feelings. Calm inner feeling cuts through the twisted cleverness of sophistry and says, “This I know to be the truth.”
Great scientists employ the faculty of discernment quite as often as people who deal with matters more closely touching the human condition. Without discrimination, no one would ever know which line of reasoning to follow, out of myriad choices. The great scientist would be like thousands of lesser scientists who, perhaps no less intelligent than he, lack that quality of sensing the right direction for their thinking.
This simple fact explains why so many brilliant people, even those with the highest I.Q.s, make drastic mistakes in their lives. They have the reasoning ability: What they lack is discrimination.
Discrimination is based on intuition. It is calm inner feeling, held in a state of reason, but guided from deeper levels of consciousness. Intuition is calm awareness of what feels right inwardly — literally, in the heart. It is the surest basis for making right decisions. Rationalists may — in fact, do — scoff, but intuitive discrimination is a faculty they themselves, like everyone else, use sometimes, albeit often unknowingly. It is a faculty on which great geniuses rely constantly. Without it, mankind would never have invented the wheel, nor known what to do about fire once human beings had discovered how to produce it.
For what is the alternative? If we rely on logic alone, we find ourselves entangled in so many strands of possibility that it becomes almost impossible to move. It is feeling, not logic, that tells us, “This is the right strand to follow.” Nor is it a question of simplifying by random selection. Calm, intuitive feeling points again and again to the right decisions.
Discrimination can only proceed from an awareness of reality on many levels; certainly, it cannot grow in a vacuum. Here is an example of this need for broader awareness:
In a certain university a few years ago there were two groups of aspiring writers. Both groups were talented, perhaps equally so. One group consisted of women students; the other, of men. The purpose of each group was to help its members to develop their writing skills.
The men tried to accomplish this end by critiquing one another’s papers. This in their eyes meant criticizing them. Any paper submitted to the group would be analyzed by the other members for its flaws.
The women, on the other hand, although analytical also, understood the additional value of offering positive suggestions.
Of the men’s group, not one went on after graduation to become a professional writer. Of the women’s group, several achieved fame later on as authors, editors, and reporters.
Both groups used intellectual analysis skillfully. The men, however, used it to address the only level of reality that appeared relevant to them at the time: the manuscripts. The women used it to address other levels as well: the need of each member above all to believe in herself and in her ability. Both groups may have reasoned with equal clarity, but they didn’t do so with equal effectiveness.
A worthwhile exercise in the classroom would be to set up positive encounter groups.
We are familiar with the negative type of encounter group, where people sit about and tear one another to psychological shreds. The tradition is by no means new. Christian monks and nuns have made it a practice for centuries. They would (and, I suppose, still do) gather together and draw one another’s attention — in “Christian charity”—to their spiritual flaws.
Far better, I believe, would be another kind of encounter group altogether: one in which the students offered one another suggestions in true charity: suggestions, for instance, for strengthening their positive qualities. In the process, each member of the group would be assisting, even unwittingly, the development of such qualities in himself.
Young people need to learn how to reason well, but also effectively — that is to say, appropriately. They must learn how to recognize when the time is right for analysis — for separating and distinguishing things and concepts from one another — and when the time has come for putting things together and making them work as a harmonious whole. The intellect must learn when to function on a level of abstraction, and when to shift to a level of encouragement and compassion.
The intellect must join feeling in discerning that there are, in fact, many levels of reality.
Maturity, as I have said, means the ability to relate appropriately to other realities than one’s own. In human affairs, then, it means the ability to relate to other human realities, and not merely to the things in which human beings happen to be involved.
In the above instances, it was the people as writers who needed developing, even more than their manuscripts. The men failed because they treated one another primarily as producers of manuscripts, not as human beings. The women succeeded because, in the modern expression, they got their priorities straight.
Discrimination is the ability to perceive various levels of reality at once, and to sense which among them, in any given situation, are of primary importance.
Discrimination is impossible without humility, for it demands an understanding that truth exists already, that it cannot be created, but only perceived.
As a part of such humility, students should be taught to respect the insights of others, and above all to respect the longer rhythms and traditions of civilization: those accepted verities which, through the ages, have clarified the difference between wisdom and ignorance.
More important even than valid traditions is the possibility of fresh, but valid, discoveries. In freshness lies creativity, and in creativity lies self-expansion. A well-stated definition may help us to rise from one level of understanding to another, but no definition can serve in place of the reality it defines. The student should be encouraged to be always ready to discard old definitions in favor of new, fuller insights into reality.