Tuesday, February 11, 2014
I always enjoy Thomas Sowell's occasional "Random Thoughts" columns. Their short paragraphs invariably are thought-provoking, humorous, or both. For example, in
his most recent
edition, Sowell has this to say about history:
If you think human beings are always rational, it becomes impossible to explain at least half of history.That's the truth, but in what sense? Is man not the rational animal, as Aristotle famously noted long ago? And what, if anything, does this mean about the power of rational persuasion to change the course of history?
Another figure popular among conservatives, Ayn Rand, spent lots of time considering this phenomenon, and has the following to say about why so much of the history of our intelligent species is marred by irrationality -- by men acting contrary to what reason would counsel:
There is only one power that determines the course of history, just as it determines the course of every individual life: the power of man's rational faculty--the power of ideas. If you know a man's convictions, you can predict his actions. If you understand the dominant philosophy of a society, you can predict its course. But convictions and philosophy are matters open to man's choice.Not to put words into Sowell's mouth, but it is too easy to observe the many disgraceful and horrific episodes history has to offer and come to the wrong conclusion about man's nature and, consequently, underestimate the power of rational men to change history's course for the better.
There is no fatalistic, predetermined historical necessity. Atlas Shrugged is not a prophecy of our unavoidable destruction, but a manifesto of our power to avoid it, if we choose to change our course. [bold added]
Time doesn't permit me to elaborate on why Rand has such an encouraging message, but she does a far better job arguing her point than I could, anyway. Suffice it to say for now that, while one cannot assume that men are always rational, one can still understand much of what they do and fight them effectively as a result.
I point this out because, as far as I know, Rand's view of history is novel and underappreciated by many of her fans and sympathizers. It is also something her opponents would probably wish never saw the light of day.