The virtues that laid the groundwork for Western civilization's many advances are being eclipsed, it would seem, by an internet-driven rush of irrationality.
PARIS — Prudence, justice, courage and decorum are the four cardinal virtues that define what Cicero called honestum, meaning honor. And it's because of those virtues that Western civilization was able to make such strides in mathematics, law, music and architecture, and develop its systems of democracy, noted German sociologist Max Weber.
But are we now, in 2021, losing these virtues? Are we abandoning reason, as understood by the Greeks? Are we fatally drawn towards the darkness of irrationality, anti-science, emotion, fear, and violence?
The attack on Capitol Hill by supporters of Donald Trump is a demonstration of this. And as pathetic as it may seem, it was only one piece in a larger picture that also includes anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists.
Reason, it appears, is wavering on all fronts, though not for the first time. Humankind frequently allows the wolf that dwells deep within itself to emerge, despite the advances of education. The horrors of the previous century are a case in point.
Are we fatally drawn towards the darkness of irrationality?
So no, this is not the first time. And we must remain optimistic about the strength of our other face, the one that exhibits compassion and reason, and that has always prevailed in the end. Still, there is something new and worrying about our current predicament. Driving this impulse toward irrationality is a technological power that disseminates and seems to legitimize it. We try still to be prudent, but the fight is unequal.
The causes of this outbreak of irrationality are numerous and profound. The first is the sense of blocked horizons. Trade brings with it peace and prosperity that fills bellies and allows humans to set their battles aside. Unfortunately, though, the sharing of the fruits of our labor no longer adheres to the Ciceronian virtue of justice.
Social mobility has been halted. Wages are stagnating. Education no longer necessarily leads to good careers. The rewards of the school system aren't what we had hoped for. Those with the highest incomes stir up jealousy and resentment. And then there's the COVID-19 pandemic, which only reinforces this social bitterness since it accentuates inequalities between generations, income, housing, and education.
Anti-curfew clashes in Eindhoven, Netherlands, on Jan. 24 — Photo: Hollandse-Hoogte/ZUMA
The second cause is globalization, which brings with it global warming, global pandemics, and fosters the emergence of cyber threats and cyber warfare. These challenges wash over us like a flood. Responding to them requires global cooperation, but cooperation between nations is decelerating.
How political systems respond to all this is a third cause. Greek reason knew how to make room for luck and risk. As Aristotle taught, chance is unmanageable. But today, impatience, stirred up by the media, has overthrown "the tragic humanism that invites man to want all that is possible but only what is possible, and to leave the rest to the gods," as French philosopher and Aristotle specialist Pierre Aubenque wrote.
Our leaders are no longer allowed to fumble through, even though it's entirely normal and reasonable that they should. Hence the difficulties and relentless criticism experienced by the recent governments in France, for example.
Social networks, places where nuance goes to die.
For many political leaders, there's a temptation toward populist demagoguery and dogmatism, as seen in the U.S. Republican Party and in Eastern Europe. The same holds true for the other side of the spectrum: on the left, where "identity" radicalism takes hold of the progressive tradition, and where a "sense" of oppression takes precedence over factual analysis.
Add to that the growing number of social networks, which are a formidable tool for the reasonable but, for the unreasonable, places where nuance goes to die.
No nation is immune, and each is affected in its own way. For the United States, it's lies and conspiracy theories. For France, it's a cry-baby psychology and the erasure of individual responsibility behind the guise of the protective state. All mark a loss of confidence in institutions and in the future.
Joe Biden's election and the development of COVID-19 vaccines have brought a glimpse of hope against the evils of the economy, technology, and climate. But to really keep reason alive and well, we'll need to mobilize that other, all-important virtue: courage.