MY LORD CHIEF ATTORNEY-GENERAL, REASON
Reason, an Advocate.—I have spoken of my Lord Chief Attorney-General, Reason, as a mere colleague of Intellect; but, indeed, he is a person of great importance in the government of Mansoul—so much so, that he not infrequently gets the entire government into his hands. Reason is a personage of admirable powers and of independent character. If you should ever hear a great lawyer advocating a cause in court, bringing forward one argument after another to prove his point, with masterly clearness, until he brings his hearers to what seems in inevitable conclusion (until the other side pleads), you will have some idea of how Reason behaves. Have you ever watched yourself think? It seems as if another person, a K.C. of your own, were bringing forward point after point until you cannot help coming to one conclusion. Do you remember Prospero in Shakespeare’s tale of The Tempest? You know how he neglected his duties as ruler, and how his brother, intending to take his life, was the means of his exile, with his child Miranda, on a desolate island.
How we Reason.—I suppose this is the sort of thing his Reason said to him: “The thinking part
of man is the most important part of him. It is better to live with thinkers than with everyday people. The greatest thinkers are to be found in books, not in my court. Everyday people can manage the affairs of everyday people. My brother Antonio can govern for me quite as well as I could do it myself, but he cannot read for me and think for me, and give his time to the bettering of his mind for me. These things a man must do for himself. Then there is my child; I should like her to grow up a thinker. To that end I must prepare myself further to teach her. It is quite evident concerning these things, that I must give up affairs and devote myself to my books.”
Now, it is not that Prospero said all this to himself, but that his Reason said it to him and for him. Every argument is true, though it is not the whole truth; and Prospero’s Reason would not have taken this line with him, only that he was already a student and a lover of books, and Reason usually begins with a notion which is already in a person’s head.
Let us hear what Antonio’s Reason would say to him: “The way my brother the Duke, neglects his affairs is shameful; the state is going to ruin; everybody does what he likes. He expects me to act for him, but people know I am not the Duke, so I have no power. If he were to die, the dukedom would be mine, and I should do my best to bring things into order again. How his neglected subjects would bless me! Even to tamper with his life would hardly be a crime, because the sufferings of one would be for the good of all. Things get worse and worse every day. It must be done. There is no one to act in this matter but myself. I will do it.” Antonio’s Reason no doubt hastened thus to supply him with
arguments to support the ambitious notion he had already secretly entertained.
The Good Man’s Reason.—The good man’s Reason makes speed to supply him with incontrovertible arguments for the good deed his good heart would incline him to. Thus Howard, the philanthropist, no doubt was convinced by many reasons that the arduous task he set himself was a quite simple, straightforward course. He saw the inside of one prison by chance, and the thought of its horrors worked upon him. Reason would say:—“People do not know that such things take place; someone must tell them. Whoever discovers this shame to the world must first investigate thoroughly. It will not do to speak upon a knowledge of one or two prisons. When the evil is fully known and talked about, and brought before Parliament, no doubt it will be redressed, new laws will be made, and prisoners will be treated like human beings instead of being kept in the state of filth, misery, sickness, and vice in which I find them. Why should not I be the man? The idea has first come to me: that may be my call. I am very delicate, it is true, but a man cannot die better than in doing his duty. I am under a great sorrow, but that sets me free from home ties; and I have money enough for the costs. I will do it. I will give up my life to the task.”
Thus, doubtless, this good man’s Reason argued for him. But if divine compassion had not put this notion of pity into his heart, you will see how very easily Reason could have adopted an opposite line of argument and brought him to the conclusion that this was not an affair for a single man to undertake, but was a matter for the governments of countries.
Reason’s Part in Good Works and Great Inventions.—Every great work of benevolence for the sick and the helpless, the sorrowful and the ignorant, is the outcome of a chain of arguments which some man’s Reason has furnished to him; and his Reason has taken this line because in each case a notion of pity has first come to the man. Every great work, every invention has been reasoned out. Have you ever seen in a museum the trunk of a tree hollowed out by burning, which early man has used for a canoe? It was an immense piece of reasoning, quite as intelligent as that by which Marconi arrived at his great discovery, that led the man, who had never seen a boat of any sort, to work out for himself this means of crossing the waters. You see, he had nothing to go upon: his was the first idea. Where and how he got it we shall consider presently; but his Reason worked the whole thing out for him.
What is Meant by Common Sense.—Most of the simple things we do every day, like cleaning our teeth and brushing our hair, behaving at table and so on, were reasoned out in the first place—we do not in the least know by whom—and people no longer reason about them, but accept them by what is called Common Sense; that is to say, everybody, or nearly everybody, agrees that certain ways of doing certain things are the best ways. Every now and then a reformer appears who reasons out the old things afresh and comes to a different conclusion, perhaps a right one, perhaps a wrong one. For example, most people’s Common Sense decides that we should wear boots or shoes; but a reformer arises and proves by a long chain of arguments that it is
better to wear sandals; another will say and prove that it is better to go with bare feet; then people have to think again and to use their Reason about things they believed were long ago settled.
Everything we use has been Thought out by Someone.—It is very interesting to look about one in a room or in a street and try to recover for ourselves the chain of reasoning of the man who first made a chair, or a key, or a barrow. Things become much more to us when we remind ourselves that somebody has thought each thing out, and this sort of thinking-out is very delightful. You know this yourself. You say, ‘Oh, I have thought of such a good plan; something uncle said put it into my head, and then the whole plan came out quite clear, one step after another.’ It may be a plan for a new game, or for building a ship, or for getting plenty of house-room for poor people, in towns; but, whatever the notion is, it is joyful and exciting to be quite still and listen, as it were, while Reason does his work and turns out the whole scheme complete before your mind.
It is no wonder many people think that there is nothing greater, in heaven or earth, than human Reason—more surprising in its workings, more searching in its conclusions!
You recollect that revolutionary France deified Reason—set up temples where the Goddess of Reason was worshipped; and the French nation believed that no man was called to do anything but what his own Reason commanded, and that whatever a man’s Reason dictated, that he was bound to do. You remember, too, that things, fearful as a nightmare, were done under this reign of Reason,
which is known in history as the Reign of Terror, though everything that was done was justified by the Reason of the men who did it. There is no longer an acknowledged reign of Reason, but many thoughtful and good people believe that there is no higher authority; that to act according to his own Reason is the best that can be expected of any man.
Good and Sensible Persons come to Opposite Conclusions.—It is quite true that good laws, benevolent enterprises, great inventions, are the outcome of Reason; but you will often be surprised when you hear good people talk and try to convince others of those things of which their own Reason has convinced them. On questions of war and peace and politics, of religion, of education, of public works, of clothing, of food, in fact, upon any and every point, you will find it possible that the Reason of equally good and equally intelligent people will bring them to quite opposite conclusions. That is the cause of all the controversy in the world. People think that they can convince each other by the arguments which their own Reason has accepted. So they could, if the other side were not already convinced by arguments exactly opposite; and upon which side a man is convinced, usually depends upon his own will:—
“Convince a man against his will,
He’s of the same opinion still”;
because we must remember that Reason is each man’s own particular servant, and plays on his side, as it were, and convinces him of that which he is inclined to believe.
Reason is not Infallible.—You know it is said that the Pope is infallible—that is, that he cannot be mistaken, and that every decision he makes must be
a right decision. This is what many people claim for Reason—that it is infallible. But you see at once that if two equally intelligent and equally good persons are intensely convinced by their Reason of two things exactly opposite to one another—as, for example, on the one side that a certain war is the duty of a nation, and, on the other, that this same war is a crime—Reason in both these good men cannot be infallible: one or the other, if not both, must be mistaken. Therefore, seeing that all men, who are not idiots or insane, are endowed with this same power of reasoning, we may conclude that Reason is not infallible, and that certain and fixed conclusions need not be right conclusions, but that all depends upon the notion from which the reasoning begins.
Anarchists.—We have all been saddened by the fact that there are certain men and women in the world who believe it to be their one duty to take the life of some royal person or ruler. These people are called anarchists. Though we all shrink with horror from their crimes, it is not difficult to see the chain of reasoning by which it comes about that they are doing that which is right in their own eyes, however wrong it may be in ours. The word anarchist means without rule; and the object of anarchists is to abolish national rule and government, whether of kingdom or republic. Why? you ask. Because they say, every man is endowed with Reason; therefore, every man is able to rule himself; therefore, no man should have a ruler placed over him. You see, by this example, how an error of thought may lead to the most terror-striking crimes.
Reason in Mathematics.—Never are the operations of Reason more delightful and more perfect
than in mathematics. Here men do not begin to reason with a notion which causes them to learn to this side or to that. By degrees, absolute truth unfolds itself. We are so made that truth, absolute and certain truth, is a perfect joy to us; and that is the joy that mathematics afford. Also, there is great joy in standing by, as it were, and watching our own thought work out an intricate problem. There is on record a case of a mathematician who had gone to bed perplexed by a problem, with pencil and paper beside him. He slept, as he believed, soundly all through the night; but, behold, beside him when awoke, was the problem worked out in the clearest way. He must have done it in his sleep.
Reason must be used to Good Purpose.—There are few things that prove the amazing greatness and power of man so much as this gift of Reason; but, like all gifts, this, of Reason, is also a trust to be used to true purpose, but not to be followed as an infallible guide. We may reason about things worthy and about things unworthy. An ill-tempered person goes through a long train of reasoning to prove to himself that he has been injured and has a right to be cross; so does the burglar, to carry out his designs; so does a mischievous and spiteful boy, to play a practical joke. Reason is so absolutely the servant of each of us that we may use him to what ends we please, noble or ignoble, great or small. Remembering that we have a great gift, let us use it in thinking out great matters; and then, some day, the opportunity to think out some great service for the world will be put in our way. The chance of doing nearly always comes our way when we are ready for it.
Reason works out a Notion received by the Will, and does not begin with it.—“The kettle began it,” Dickens says in one of his Christmas tales. Now, the point to be borne in mind is, that Reason does not begin it. Reason goes on with it, and Reason brings it to an end, but Reason does not begin. The beginning, that which sets Reason in motion, is almost always a notion admitted by the Prime Minister, Will. Once admitted, Reason seizes on the notion and runs it through his mill, and it comes out at the end of his processes a finished product. This, you will see, shifts the responsibility of our conclusions from Reason, who works them out, all the way back to Will, who takes in the first notion.
If Will is persuaded to let in a notion because it is an old one, or because it is a new one; because a man he respects thinks so-and-so, or because a man he dislikes thinks the other thing; because it is for his interest to think thus and thus, or because it is for his pleasure, or because it shows him to be a clever fellow, in advance of the rest of the world, to have such a notion; if, for any of these causes or for a hundred others, good or bad, Will is induced to admit a notion, he may tell in advance what his Reason will prove to him: because the business of Reason is rather to prove for us that what we think is right, than to bring us to conclusions which are right in themselves.
You see, therefore, that Reason has no right to speak the last word on most subjects; because to speak the first word does not rest with him, and the last word follows the lead of the first. Your arrival at a right destination does not depend upon your choice of a good road, or upon your journeying at a good pace, but entirely upon your starting in the right direction.
Why there are Different Schools of Philosophy.—Thinking of these things, and knowing that men cannot help trusting to Reason as one trusts to a skilful and learned advocate, you will not be surprised to know that philosophers, good and earnest men, have proved, conclusively to themselves, that there is no God. Others prove that there is nothing in man that you cannot see or investigate with instruments; in other words, they think that there is nothing but matter in the universe, and that there is no spirit either of God or man. This is less surprising, though perhaps not any more true, than the conclusion which another school of philosophers has worked out; these have been able to prove to themselves that there are no chairs nor tables, no trees, no people; but that what we think we see is really the thought of these things conceived in our minds.
Practice in Reasoning.—Perhaps we shall best use this wonderful power of reasoning, commonly called our Reason, by giving it plenty of work to do, by asking ourselves what is the cause of this and that; why do people and animals do certain things. Reason which is not worked grows sluggish; and there are persons who never wonder nor ask themselves questions about anything they see.