Four Reasonable Men
by Brand Blanshard
In desperately disoriented times such as our own, an intellectual and emotional rudder is badly needed. Perhaps no one has ever lived who has been less confused than American philosopher Brand Blanshard; and few, if any, have had a deeper and broader understanding of the human condition. What this means is that there has probably never been anyone better qualified to provide that kind of rudder.
At times, philosophy can be an abstract and almost purely academic discipline. Too, academic philosophy is often awash in technical vocabulary. So philosophers who are neither lost in abstraction nor unduly abstruse can be supremely valuable.
Standing perhaps first among such philosophers is Blanshard, and Four Reasonable Men provides one of the best introductions to his thought. It is dense with keenly insightful observations on the entire scope of life in a way that is found in very few other writers, if any. Authored while in his 90s, he clearly drew upon decades of reading and reflection to produce this masterpiece.
Books don't always provide a mission statement, but it is characteristic of Blanshard's incredibly well-organized thought that he does provide us with one that is both clear and concise. Speaking of the four men whose names comprise the sub-title of his book, he says:
I have tried to show that they were all great men, which was the easiest part of my task. I have tried to show also - a more precarious task - that they were great for the same reason, the government of their lives by a quiet, habitual reasonableness. I have tried to show finally - and this was the hardest task of all - that reasonableness, so often painted in dull, unattractive gray, is the most desirable of all human virtues. Though it involves discipline and restraint, which are always unpopular, its restraints are tickets of admission to a wider world of happiness, understanding, and effectiveness. It is indeed the great need of mankind.
In terms of the structure of the discipline of ethics that we've offered elsewhere at this site, what Blanshard is up to here is providing an ideal of human character, a truly essential norm that aims at spelling out what sort of person we ought to try to be. (The other key components of a complete ethics are a morality, and a theory of life purpose; and both of these are necessarily grounded in a theory of human nature. Also needed is a general theory of human dysfunction, as well as a general theory of wellness and effectiveness; but this sort of theory would be cross-disciplinary with Humanistic psychology.)
This reviewer is aware of only one other significant recent attempt to frame an ideal of human character, which makes Blanshard's contribution almost uniquely valuable. And the fact that he has convincingly identified the most "desirable of all human virtues" is also essential, particularly in light of the fact that he also devotes due consideration to what would concern many about that particular choice: the complementary need for full development of the emotional and physical sides of our nature.
However, Blanshard's book isn't concerned solely with placing reason firmly in its proper place in the administration of life: along the way he provides a myriad of insights into how a fully adult human being can better go about ordering and understanding his affairs. Cumulatively this leaves the reader with a rather bracing sense of clearly grasping, perhaps for the first time ever, how best to go about living a life.
Blanshard's method in FRM is both interesting and effective: after presenting a brief biography of each of his exemplars, he comments penetratingly on both their strengths and their weaknesses. By the end of the book, what this leaves us with is a kind of corrected, composite portrait of the very essence of human greatness.
No small feat, and one never before so well-accomplished.
Our preference in book reviews is to provide readers with a few characteristic and valuable passages so they can get some sense for themselves of the flavor of the writer's style and concerns, unimpeded by the filters of the reviewer. In the case of FRM this was unusually difficult, as there's such an embarrassment of riches to select from.
Here are just a few.
Pgs. 25 - 28
"What did he [Marcus Aurelius] mean by "reason"? He meant the faculty that chiefly distinguishes man from beast. It was a complex of the higher faculties involved in knowing - the power of looking before and after and laying plans for what is not; the ability to dissect a thing into its attributes, of abstracting and attending to each singly, of grasping its connections with others, of making inferences, and weaving things and characters into systems. He conceived of reason much as did Aristotle, who regarded it as the highest of human endowments . . . .
We are ready for the next step in the Stoic line of thought. If reason is man's highest faculty and a reflection in him of the divine wisdom, it should be made the guide of life. Of course there are other claimants for the position of guide and judge of conduct. Pleasure is perhaps the most powerful one, but our passions for wealth, for power, for fame, for athletic prowess, for commercial success may and do take complete command in the minds of many. None of these will stand examination as the true guide, and in every chapter of his book, Marcus comes back to his emphasis on reason as the sole reliable judge.
. . . it is signifcant that the outstanding moralists of the last hundred years - I mean such men as Sidgwick, Bradley, Rashdall, Prichard, Ross, and Moore - all agreed that moral insight was intellectual. For most of them such insight lay in the weighing against each other of the goods and bads produced by conduct, and though fallible, was an attempt at objective truth. . . . A good man, before keeping a promise or returning a borrowed book or paying a debt, does not calculate what profit there will be in it for himself or others; he chooses honesty not as the best policy, but because he sees it to be right and reasonable. 'What more do you want in return for a service done? Is it not enough to have acted up to nature, without asking wages for it? Does the eye demand a recompense for seeing, or the feet for walking?"
Pgs. 28 - 29
"Having made reason thus the judge and guide of conduct, it was easy for Marcus to take a further step, in which he was following at a distance of six centuies, a far more penetrating thinker than himself. One of the favorite teachings of Socrates had been that virtue is knowledge, and its corollary that vice is ignorance. Both the views at first glance seem absurd. Socrates maintained that if a man looked clearly at a proposed action in the light of its conditions and consequences, and saw plainly that it was right, he would be drawn to it as inevitably as the bee is drawn to the flower. Human nature is essentially good, in the sense that if its highest part is given sway, it will go right automatically. 'But surely,' it will be said 'there are any number of people who know that they cannot afford a new car but buy it nevertheless; many who know that sweets are fattening and have set out to reduce their weight, yet, with a box of chocolates at their elbow, allow the resolution to evaporate in ignominy.' 'Yes, of course,' Socrates (and Marcus) would have answered, 'but that is because they have allowed their vision to be clouded. At the moment of buying the car, the buyer is not seeing the act in the light of what it means to his exchequer, family, and future. The person who reaches out for the chocolates has allowed the connection between sweets and obesity to fall out of focus. He takes a worse course because at the moment of decision he is acting in ignorance.'
Now this is anything but absurd. It covers by far the larger number of cases where, suppposedly knowing the right, we do the wrong. It was clear to Marcus, as it was to Plato, that men are only brokenly and partially rational, that their reason is seated atop a volcano of seething feelings and desires, and that these lower parts of human nature are continually pushing aside the counsels of reflective foresight. Such foresight, as a modern evoutionist would put it, is a recent and fragile addition to the complement of human faculties; and, as Marcus insists, we are cousins of the animals in the nonrational parts of our being. In most men still the animal impulses of hunger, fear, lust, anger, gregariousness, and the emotions that form part of them, dominate conduct and make impartial judgment all but impossible."
"Was life for the Stoic, then, all a matter of grim and military self-control, with no place for spontaneous happiness or pleasure? If these things were taken as ends, after the manner of the fashionable Epicureans, the Stoics did repudiate them. But in order to understand their view, one needs to see that there is a difference between pleasure and happiness; pleasure is the satisfaction of the short-range impulses like hunger, thirst, sex, the seeing of a play, the winning of a game; happiness attends the satisfaction of the long-range endeavors of a life, finding oneself through a vocation, developing a system of thought, raising a family, intercourse with other minds. For a creature endowed with reason, that is, with ability to see what was important and what was not, the deliberate pursuit of the satisfactions of the moment was a prostitution of its powers. Not that one was never to relax in the enjoyment of these things; but man was a being who lived on various levels . . . ."
The conclusion to FRM is found in its last chapter, The Enemy: Prejudice. Here he is concerned to offer us a concise picture of the forces that incline us to act unreasonably, an inclination that has been the bane of human existence from the origins of humanity, and remains its greatest bane today. It is, in our terms, a sketch of a general theory of human dysfunction. Everyone will recognize the dismal litany of dreary human tendencies that he identifies and comments upon, ranging from egotism to nationalism to sexism and beyond.
We offer a few final quotes.
"Being good calls for doing what is right; and doing the right thing in the voting booth or the courtroom, in child-rearing or in business, demands the ability not only to think but to deal with problems of high complexity. And to do what is objectively right calls for at least three rational insights, all of which may be difficult in the extreme. We must forecast the consequences of our proposed act in the way of intrinsic goods and bads in the experiences of those affected by it; we must see the difference between facts and the values of those facts, which alone count morally; and finally we must be able to weigh values, and sets of values, against each other. It is no wonder that John Erskine felt moved to write an urgent essay on 'The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent.'"
"I go so far as to think that without impulses and feelings there would be no values in the world at all, and therefore no point in living. I have admitted that a human being is chiefly a bundle of impulses to love, to fight, to play, to create, to know; and it is those of powerful impulses - the Saint Peters, the Luthers, the Leonardos, the Beethovens - who have the largest potentialities for lives of richness and enjoyment. If men were without these drives and the joy of fulfilling them, if they were mere computers, however errorless, life would have lost its savor. All this I grant
But such freedom will be used differently by those whom the critics call classics and by those they call romantics, and I do not think the advantage is on the romantic's side."
"Confronted again by Arnold's choice between 'culture and anarchy,' we seem to have chosen anarchy. The failure is perhaps temporary and it is in ourselves . . . . What would the quartet we have been studying have said of them? Of course no one can know exactly. But after spending an hour with them, one does draw the line differently between what is tawdry and what is not. They lived up in the hills where one can see farther and think more clearly than we usually do. If our ills are inward, as they largely are, we should do well to listen to what these men say. We should do even better to catch something of the reasonable temper in which they sought with such success to live their lives."
And we would do better still to listen to what Blanshard has to say, for he has surely identified both the roots of our greatest contemporary ills and their only possible cure.
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