Irrational Rationality

People get upset at Socrates (really, Plato) for disdaining democracy in favor of what today is being called epistocracy. The reason is usually that this disdain harbors an elitism, repudiating equality and thus justice. But there is a further wrinkle. It gradually emerges that equality implies autonomy (I am not free if I am subordinated), and that autonomy requires freedom from necessity (natural or social, for Kant as well as Arendt). So the real problem with Socrates is not that he would subject us to the rule of a select few; it’s that he would subject us to the rule of truth and reason. It’s easy enough to object that no one should be in charge of the truth, but pretty hard to retain a coherent sense of autonomy under the rule of truth. Pretty quickly, it turns out that to be free—and equal—we need to assert our independence from rationality tout court. Only madness is truly free (a fashionable view the 60s). Freedom amounts to a revolt against the “dictatorship of reason,” and the notion that this dictatorship secretly serves some sectional interest is merely a fig leaf. A rational democracy is, on this account, a contradiction in terms. And since autonomy necessarily involves the free pursuit of our own aims, it becomes self-defeating: as Kant knew, the more I follow my bliss, the less free I am—and the more I am (ironically) compelled to rebel against reason.

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