Washington, IL. Parenthood seems as compelling a proof as any that people are not rational agents. It is too plain for dispute that a cost-benefit analysis of parenthood would rationally militate against entering into it. If what counts for man’s sapience is that he is a narrowly self-interested knave bent on maximizing gains and minimizing losses (homo economicus), would not the person who, of his own volition, opted for the severe deprivation of time, freedom, and money that parenthood inevitably entails be an irrational agent, that is, a fool?

To be sure, in a different age, a different logic would have prevailed. In a more precarious day, when life was menaced unremittingly by all sorts of perils—perils that modern man has to an astonishing degree dispelled—children possessed a much greater instrumental value. In such precarious times, it would have been irrational not to procreate. Life enjoined one to increase numbers and strength in it; to multiply kith and kin as a bulwark against oblivion.

But those days are no more. In effect, they have been consigned to oblivion. Still, one might proffer the transparent truism that the preservation of the species presupposes procreation. On this rationale, it would be irrational not to have kids because without them, humanity would cease to exist. Fair enough. But tabling the Socratic riposte that preferring existence to non-existence is not necessarily rational (what can be known about the nature of death to make the preference for life a rational choice?), the procreative argument smacks too much of Kant and his categorical imperative: act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law. Kant’s own infecundity notwithstanding, reason here would oblige people to beget children on the understanding that those who—with an eye to exploiting their advantages to the fullest—forwent doing so would not want everyone to behave in a like manner. But rational choice theory is about individualizing choices, not universalizing them. And even if the survival of the species were a legitimate concern, the fact remains that with eight billion agents—rational or otherwise—(over)populating the planet, the individual choice not to have kids is hardly going to jeopardize the future of the species.

Categorical imperatives and biological necessities aside then, parenthood is, on the rational choice model, a piece of folly. But so too is much of what makes life worth living. What would the history of man qua rational agent look like? Presumably it would be more pragmatic and predictable; less parlous and ephemeral. But what in it would be worth commemorating? What would elicit exaltation? What would posterity be impelled to honor? To the extent that history is celebrated—though in these myopic and narcissistic times, that is a rapidly diminishing extent—the deeds and figures that deserve to be memorialized almost as a rule defy the rational choice model. On the basis of that model, is not a hero, like a parent, definitionally a fool? Someone who, instead of minimizing risks and maximizing rewards for his own benefit, flouts the risks he faces for the benefit of others? Consider Socrates, who brought philosophy down from the heavens to elevate the souls of his fellow Athenians, neglecting his affairs to attend to theirs, always “persuading [them] to care for virtue,” and ultimately forfeiting his life, not merely for the good of Athens, but for the good simply. Or Washington, who risked his life, fortune, and sacred honor for the country he would father, and, for its good, voluntarily relinquished the tremendous power at his disposal, “putting himself at the mercy of politicians over whom he had no control and in whom he had little confidence” so that the cause for which he had fought might be more securely won. Or Martin Luther King, Jr., that modern-day gadfly who “accept[ed] blows without retaliating” and stoically “endur[ed] the ordeals of jail” 29 times over to help his fellow man “rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” Are not all such heroes fools? Are not their deeds but follies?

The real folly, it seems, lies not in those who would “unreasonably” put the interests of others before their own (as heroes and parents do), but rather inheres in a model that would reduce homo sapiens to homo economicus, thereby cashiering the wise man for the economic one. That model not only leaves no room for parenthood and heroism, but also leaves little room for genuine happiness, which is sustained by devotion, not to oneself but to something more than oneself, something beyond oneself. As Bacon remarked, “it is a poor centre of a man’s actions, himself.” The happiness of the self-centered man is always tenuous and fleeting, for the value of life is determined not so much by what one takes from it but by what one puts into it. The sacrifices and commitments people make during their brief sojourn on this earth not only render life worth living but render them more deserving of life, more worthy of living it.

The paucity of the rationalistic approach can be deduced from the discontent that pervades the present. Ostensibly, an age as fractured and frenetic as the present is an age in which there are too few rational agents, not too many. But the unbridled and incessant hysteria that is so indicative of these times is consistent with the rational choice approach, for much of it stems from wildly self-inflated egos that privilege themselves at the expense of others and in so doing tarnish not only the present but the past and future as well. To those intent on securing the most for themselves while denying the least of themselves, what matter the long-dead and yet-to-be born with whom the living contract in every flourishing society? To pay homage to a past one never knew and sacrifice for a future one never will see would be, to put it simply, irrational.

The irony of this mindset is that while it is predicated on the understanding that individual behavior is best understood as an effort to maximize rewards, the result is not an enrichment of the soul but its impoverishment. It is true that materially, the inhabitants of this putatively rational world order are, on the whole, exceedingly wealthy, taking for granted comforts and conveniences of which erstwhile emperors and kings never could have dreamt. But while materially well off, the modern soul is mired in a crippling spiritual poverty that results from a loss of meaning, purpose, and connection. That poverty is made evident by a number of pathologies that acutely and disproportionately afflict the developed world, from the proliferating consumption of antidepressants and anxiolytics to the widespread belief that one’s life is of no moment to the so-called loneliness epidemic that plagues the digital age—an age when people are more interconnected and lonelier than ever before. According to the General Social Survey, the number of Americans with zero close friends has tripled since 1985—the year after Apple released its first mass-market personal computer and five years before the World Wide Web was launched. These are hardly cosmic coincidences.

It would seem that the further modern man progresses, the smaller he becomes. It is a paradox that is unlikely to be embraced by a people who have so triumphantly answered the Cartesian call to become “masters and possessors of nature.” But modern man’s pride belies an inconsequentiality that he veils in vain. The increased frequency with which the word empower is used these days is a telling indication of modern man’s diminution, as is the prevailing shift in its meaning. In its earlier usage, to empower typically meant to authorize, as in empowering an admiralty or municipality to exercise certain functions. In its current usage, to empower typically means to promote the self-actualization of an individual or group of people, as in empowering women to advance their careers or individuals to take charge of their own lives. That need or desire for empowerment bespeaks a lack of power; a sense of fragility that springs from an awareness of one’s triviality in the face of forces and multitudes that must perpetually elude one’s control. Insofar as people belong to something larger than themselves, that feeling of insignificance is kept at bay. But it is precisely that sense of belonging that has been attenuated in the present age and as a result, people often feel small, unmoored, helpless, alone.

Modern man tends to survey the past with condescension. With puffed up pride, he looks down on those who had the misfortune to be born into a world riddled with hardship and misery. But were those antecedents afforded an opportunity to peer into the present, one suspects that they would do so with pity and horror. Yes, life is now lived longer, more comfortably, more securely than it once was, but that life transpires in a cosmic void bereft of meaning and purpose, where man is severed from his fellow man and the eternity to which he once felt himself wed. The exploitative and inegalitarian patriarchal world of yore may rankle all those who stridently rail against whatever patriarchal vestiges remain, but in that lost world, everyone had a “circle of affection,” of which so few can boast today. As for the prolongation of life, “What does it mean to double or triple the life expectancy of one’s physical existence when eternity has been lost? That still amounts to nothing.”

No doubt many still feel themselves wed to eternity, however equivocally, and studies often show that they suffer much less from the pathologies that afflict those without such faith. The belief in a benevolent creator who has granted a privileged place in his divine order to those he has made in his image brings with it an inestimable solace, as does the attachment to a community of fellow-believers that traditionally accompanies this faith.

But faith is not a commodity that can be procured at one’s convenience. For those who accept as gospel that there is no “cardinal distinction between man and animal” and who find themselves cast away on some Lilliputian orb aimlessly adrift in an expanding and unfathomable universe, faith can be difficult to come by. Are such forsaken souls fated to despair?

As a therapeutic of sorts, one might appreciate the veritable impossibility and hence miraculousness of one’s own existence. That miraculousness was nicely illustrated by Fred Hoyle, the iconoclastic twentieth-century cosmologist who often found himself out of favor with the scientific community because he called into question a number of the dogmas jealously guarded by it, including evolution and abiogenesis (the process by which life emerges from non-living matter). As he saw it, “the chance that higher life forms might have emerged in this way is comparable with the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junk-yard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein.”

Tornadoes and Boeings aside (an obvious objection is that higher life forms do not materialize suddenly, but do so, per the theory of evolution, glacially and incrementally), Hoyle calculated that the chances of creating the simplest organism at random are 1/1040,000. (Consider that all atoms in the known universe are estimated to number no more than 1082.) To give a very small appreciation for the imponderable infinitesimality of those odds: 1/10 is 10%. 1/10² is 1%. 1/1010 is .00000001%. That is inappreciable and not even remotely close to the number that Hoyle posited. And that number was with regard to creating the simplest organism. How much more improbable would it be to create a complex organism and even more improbable still—impossibly improbable—to create you, dear reader. Whatever may be the (in)accuracy of Hoyle’s (mis)calculation, by any reasonable measure, you ought not to be here. And yet you are. And there is something miraculous about that. With that realization, one can revive an ancient piece of wisdom, what Pierre Hadot referred to as “the Epicurean choice of life: ‘Existence must, first of all, be considered as pure chance, in order to be lived completely as a unique wonder. We must realize that inevitably, it occurs only once; not until then can we celebrate it in its irreplaceability and uniqueness.’”

But it is in doing, not just in being, that one should find gratitude. Contrary to voguish and regressive conceits, the measure of a man is determined not by what he is, but by what he does. It is the content of their character (as exemplified by the paths they chose), not the color of their skin (which they did not choose and could not alter) that makes Socrates and Washington and MLK so deserving of reverence. The odds that one ever will rise to such heights are negligible—greater than existing, no doubt, but hardly in one’s favor—yet that is no reason not to rise up. Everyone has the ability to do good, to care for virtue, to leave the world, however small a part of it, in a better state than the one in which he found it. And in many ways, that is what keeps the world going: the minor acts and modest deeds that go unrecorded in the annals of history, unobserved by historians and chroniclers, unsung by poets and dramatists. Without those quotidian endeavors, even the greatest heroes and sages could not forestall the recrudescence of barbarism nor “save the World from suicide.” As George Eliot wrote in those wonderful lines with which she closed Middlemarch, “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

To the tomb, all life hastens. But while death is ineluctable, the growing good of the world is not. There is an intrinsic vulnerability to civilization (and parenthood), in large part because the beings who comprise it have the capacity both to sustain and destroy it; to be “the best of the animals when completed” and “the most unholy and … savage” when divorced from virtue. When civilization buckles, an abyss of terrifying and impenetrable darkness yawns before man. To peer into that abyss—and history, especially recent history, affords ample opportunities to do so—is to perceive the value of civilization, which not only keeps man from being consumed by his own darkness, but orients him away from it toward something more enduring and sublime. May that apprehension, coupled with the knowledge of one’s own instrumentality in ensuring that the endowments of civilization are preserved and passed down, help to curb the growing solipsistic nihilism that parades as happiness and portends perdition.

Image Credit: Gustav Klimt, “Death and Life,” 1910.

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  1. Excellent essay.

    “Rationalism” is the most irrational thing in the world, for it leaves one at the mercy of the Ignorant, the Ephemeral, and the Turbulent. It also leads to Idiocracy (watch the first several minutes as the “rational” people give their selfish reasons not to procreate.)

    But it is not as bad as all that. The Elites have not been doing the job we pay them for, and have devolved into navel-gazing excusers for failure. They will be replaced by the Robust, assuming Spengler/Toynbee are correct. Before that, however, “Alas, Babylon.”

  2. A stirring essay, David, almost a sermon. It seems to me, however, that there is more to the issue of “focus” than the simple dichotomy of individual/society or self/other. What we are increasingly seeing is a balkanization or siloization (for those who prefer farming metaphors) where people trust only “those who think and act like me” which is a slightly abstracted form of the so-called parochial worldview that understands only “those who dress and speak like me”.

    In other words, the evolution of global awareness has taken a step backward from nationalistic orientation to ethnic, gender, or ideological grouping that fragments many societies at present. No doubt fanatical adherents of their own identity tag think of themselves as NOT selfish, “because I am waving this banner for oppressed people”.

    I also think there is a subtler flaw in your argument, specifically this part:

    “Contrary to voguish and regressive conceits, the measure of a man is determined not by what he is, but by what he does. It is the content of their character (as exemplified by the paths they chose), not the color of their skin (which they did not choose and could not alter) that makes Socrates and Washington and MLK so deserving of reverence.”

    Isn’t the notion of atonement based on the concept that the essential you is not determined by something you may have done? Or to put it in less soteriological terms, there isn’t really a clear distinction between doing and being. The second quoted sentence almost seems to contradict the first: after all, the character of the “being” that was MLK is what determined the actions he took.

  3. There are more rationalities than cost-benefit analysis. Moral reasoning , scientific reasoning, for instances.

    To perhaps over simplify. Be nice, gentle, listen. Assume everyone is a member of your family.

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