Not listening to reason is, by definition, unreasonable. So no reasonable person would do that, right? Well, the tricky thing is reason (and truth and morality for that matter) is not fixed by one mind – not C.P. Snow’s, not F.R Leavis’. Very smart, truly virtuous people fight vehemently over important moral matters. Lionel Trilling (1905-1975), a fierce warrior against anti-reason, escorts us across the battlefield.
He begins with the objective fact that thinkers from the two cultures (science and literature) do not communicate with or even like each other. C. P. Snow argues that scientists are generally in the right of things and literary people in the wrong. Why? Because of the human condition – we all suffer and die. He says there is a “moral trap” that ensnares art guys more than science guys. “for it tempts one to sit back, complacent in one’s own unique tragedy, paying no heed to the circumstances of everyday life, which, for the larger number of human beings, are painful”. Scientists, on the other hand, are “inclined to be inpatient to see if something can be done.”
Snow argues that Science brings humans together, whereas Literature separates them and is “self-regarding in its complacent acceptance of tragedy, which is not only indifferent to human suffering but willing to inflict it, which asks rude and impertinent questions about the present and even about the future”. Trilling is sympathetic to Snow’s argument because in “desperate days it always seems wise to throw some thing or someone overboard”. Snow wants to disregard politics and literature as unhelpful and even counterproductive to relieving world suffering – it gets in the way of science. Trilling disagrees, teaching us that “It is very hard to say what will save the world. But we can be perfectly certain that denying the actualities of the world will not work its salvation. Among these actualities, politics is one.” In bad, desperate times, we can conceive of politics as nothing but power. It cannot be disregarded.
The function of critical thought is “to see the object as in itself it really is”. The tragic, overwhelming complexity of the human condition means that it is not always so easy to “to see the object as in itself it really is”. Trilling felt that both Snow and Leavis failed to do that. He knew that genuine understanding takes strain, tenacity and endless grappling with difficult, conflicting ideas. Good thinkers are in the stringency business. The real world has a punishing way with human purpose. “Moral realism”, according to Trilling, gives mind its muscle, its magnanimity, its power to withstand its own weakness and not be put to flight by that which it has yet to master.
We cannot throw art or political discourse overboard unless faced with global obliteration – unless the ship is sinking. We similarly cannot tolerate the wholesale confiscation and redistribution of private wealth (or any other personal blessing) by a tutelary State, unless faced with an existential crisis. The concluding paragraph of the book Science and the Good (2018) makes a good point; loosely quoting:
If we are not to succumb to the dread and darkness of the mind, we have no choice but to continue the hard work of making sense of the complex, confusing and conflicted realm of moral life. Science has an important role. But there is no substitute for history, literature, poetry, philosophy, music and the world’s great religious traditions – no substitute for understanding morality (and artistic expression) on its own terms as we struggle to fully understand our existence.
Next week, we turn to a War Chest defense against attacks on reason that Trilling gave us 10 years after writing about the Leavis-Snow controversy. Mind in the Modern World (1973)