Excerpt: 'Assault on Reason'

Read an excerpt of Al Gore's book, "Assault on Reason," below.

Chapter One: The Politics of Fear

Fear is the most powerful enemy of reason. Both fear and reason are essential to human survival, but the relationship between them is unbalanced. Reason may sometimes dissipate fear, but fear frequently shuts down reason. As Edmund Burke wrote in England twenty years before the American Revolution, "No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear."

Our Founders had a healthy respect for the threat fear poses to reason. They knew that, under the right circumstances, fear can trigger the temptation to surrender freedom to a demagogue promising strength and security in return. They worried that when fear displaces reason, the result is often irrational hatred and division. As Justice Louis D. Brandeis later wrote: "Men feared witches and burnt women." Understanding this unequal relationship between fear and reason was crucial to the design of American self-government.

Our Founders rejected direct democracy because of concerns that fear might overwhelm reflective thought. But they counted heavily on the ability of a "well-informed citizenry" to reason together in ways that would minimize the destructive impact of illusory, exaggerated, or excessive fears. "When a man seriously reflects on the precariousness of human affairs, he will become convinced that it is infinitely wiser and safer to form a constitution of our own in a cool deliberate manner, while we have it in our power," wrote Thomas Paine in his legendary pamphlet Common Sense, specifically warning that the Founders should not take the risk of waiting until some fear seized the public imagination, in which event their reasoning processes would be hampered.

Nations succeed or fail and define their essential character by the way they challenge the unknown and cope with fear. And much depends on the quality of their leadership. If leaders exploit public fears to herd people in directions they might not otherwise choose, then fear itself can quickly become a self-perpetuating and freewheeling force that drains national will and weakens national character, diverting attention from real threats deserving of healthy and appropriate fear and sowing confusion about the essential choices that every nation must constantly make about its future.

Leadership means inspiring us to manage through our fears. Demagoguery means exploiting our fears for political gain. There is a crucial difference.

Fear and anxiety have always been a part of life and always will be. Fear is ubiquitous and universal in every human society. It is a normal part of the human condition. And it has always been an enemy of reason. The Roman philosopher and rhetoric teacher Lactantius wrote, "Where fear is present, wisdom cannot be." We have always defined progress by our success in managing through our fears. Christopher Columbus, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Susan B. Anthony, and Neil Armstrong all found success by challenging the unknown and overcoming fear with courage and a sense of proportion that helped them overcome legitimate fears without being distracted by distorted and illusory fears.

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