The Adelaide Bookshelf

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Sunday, August 27, 2006

On Equilibrium (2001), by John Ralston Saul

Saul cuts a swathe through the ‘greats’ of western philosphy in this masterful attempt to address the Big Question: How Are We to Live?

The Canadian author’s major project is to reveal the privileged position Reason is afforded by our civilisation, and to cut it down to size. He doesn’t reject the positive role of Reason in our individual and social lives, but argues that Reason is merely one of six common values, shared by all humanity.

Saul nominates the remaining five as Ethics, Common Sense, Memory, Intuition, and Imagination. Among the points he returns to, again and again, is that we should see each of these six values as equals, instead of privileging Reason, and denying the others, to the detriment of ourselves. Good decisions, he argues, are those that result from a swirling, democratic consensus involving all common human values equally.

The point is that these values are all dependent on each other. Reason can’t exist properly without Ethics and Memory; Intuition without Imagination and Common Sense becomes romantic fantasy. Yet he sees our world – that of the early twentieth century – consumed by a ridiculous ideology that purports to get by with ‘Reason’ alone, flowing from the erroneous assumption that ‘the world is rational’.

Rather, we can be rational (or not), just as we can be ethical, or not. Because Reason, according to Saul, is ‘thought and ideas’. So a tree can’t be rational. Neither, for that matter, can technology, though we often claim that it is. Saul suggests that this mistake comes from our confusion of Reason for ‘Instrumental Reason’, that illusory ‘quality’ that turns universities into vocational training centres, permits technology to lead society, and which allows a lie as great as ‘Iraq has weapons of mass destruction’ through the world’s ‘intelligence’ systems.

Saul notes that it is (purely) rational to order the extermination of people who don’t conform, or who are ‘different’: see Rwanda, Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, and Germany. That was Reason on its own: the problem – Jews; the expedient solution – ethnic cleansing. Reason without conscience. Saul demands we see the Nazi Party not as a problem for Germany’s past: the pure rationality of the processes that led to Nazi Germany is a problem owned by all of Western civilisation, from Athens onward.

Because he must, he assures us he’s not ‘anti-Reason’. Thought and ideas are essential to any proper society. But Reason must be tempered – and enhanced – by our other values, as they must be by it.

He is confident, Saul. He takes on the utilitarians and the instrumentalists – Plato, Bertrand Russell, John Rawls – and the romantics alike. His contempt for the short-sighted managerialism, with its blinkered, instrumentalist focus on immediate cost-cutting, annual profits, ‘efficiency’, ‘growth’ and ‘productivity’, almost assumes an ideological tone. Almost. But he’s right: while utilitarianism has its place (he explains that a toilet is indeed useful), it cannot be the basis for social order. The ideologues who ‘believe’ in free markets (though not in ‘intellectual property’, nor when transnational corporations become monopolistic, it seems), are really just this century’s version of those who claimed God was ‘The Truth’.

And before we criticise Saul of hypocrisy, his book is argument, rather than mere statement of ‘fact’. He lays down no law, unlike the doctrinal churches and economic ‘rationalists’. He brings philosophy to the people (and urges the people to it), rather than reserve it for a privileged, educated few. He is as accessible as Peter Singer, though Saul’s argument makes infinitely more sense than the utilitarian Singer’s ‘practical ethics’. Ethics, Saul reminds us, does not necessarily pay – it is an expression of the social, of friendship, of The Other.

Rather than ‘rationalist’, ‘utilitarian’ or ‘humanist’, Saul calls his approach ‘animist’. This may alarm some readers, given the connotations that word has attracted after centuries of romantic instrumentalism. But fear not: he articulates his position well.

Throughout its 330 pages, I found my pragmatic voice – that of fear, fear of uncertainty – losing its pervasiveness. Saul’s words inspire courage (not romantic fantasy, if read properly). He advocates a ‘responsible individualism’ that requires constant effort for its own sake – a difficult notion in an epoch of unlimited desire, pragmatic politics, and an expectation of puerile ‘happiness’.


At 5:34 pm, Blogger e.gajd said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 5:39 pm, Blogger e.gajd said...

Your review echoed my reaction to this book. I am curious as to why you haven't included a review of Saul's Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West.

If that is because you haven't read it, I highly recommend it as one of the most important books in understanding how Western society is the way it is. I found it significantly more illuminating than On Equilibrium, and I think On Equilibrium to be a very important and beautifully written work.

And from your reaction to On Equilibrium you may also find great value in Morris Berman's The Re-enchantment of the World, which more specifically examines the philosophy of science as it has evolved and made life in the west dead.


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