With each year we tick off in the calendar of life, the battle between feelings and reasoning becomes a bang louder. With each year, it becomes tougher for our feelings, once so confident in their invincible powers, to be heard and acknowledged by the voice of reason. It becomes harder to even control the voice of reason as once it was hard to control emotion.
The battle is a lost one it seems, for intellect is on the side of reason while feelings make themselves known as painful and poignant by the bitter gall they’ve made us taste. Isn’t it only a matter of time to surrender feeling altogether to the power of intellect? Isn’t feeling only a hindrance and to give it up is deliverance in the face of reality? Such are the questions all of us pose, at one point or other, to the depths of our suffering being.
Now imagine you could pose the very same questions to someone outside yourself. A great sage, one of the deepest thinkers of all time, the great philosopher, scientist, and polymath Aristotle. (Now, would you even do that? Is that too funny a question, too obvious a question, for someone you had only seen in marble? If such is your thought, hold it for a moment longer!)
Indeed, I wish you in all earnestness to close your eyes, go up to that imaginary marble bust that has almost nothing in common with the real 4th century B.C. philosopher, and blurt out the question, however naive, however childish, as if the Delphi Oracle were listening.
“Aristotle! What is worthier of one’s respect — human feeling or human reason?”
And lo, behold! A distant voice will speak to you through the rustle of marble garments and ancient pages.
“Whereas reasoning leads us to choose what is useful, moral goodness leads us to choose what is noble. […] For the useful is what is good for oneself and the noble is what is good absolutely.”
Hark now! What is it we hear? Can it be true that reasoning, according to one of humankind’s greatest philosophers, is but a utility serving the master of self?
But wait, there’s more. As you lend an ear to the marble voice, you hear that the habit of following utility or convenience is something Aristotle believes to be the mark of the elderly in spirit. And then, in only two sentences, Aristotle weaves a threefold pattern linking human reasoning with utility with weakness of spirit. Comparing the two human ages, that of Youth and Old Age, he elaborates:
“[The young in spirit] would always rather do noble deeds than useful ones: their lives are regulated more by moral feeling than by reasoning; and whereas reasoning leads us to choose what is useful, moral goodness leads us to choose what is noble.”
He contrasts this with the lives of the “elderly in spirit” who are governed by reason.
“They are too fond of themselves; this is one form that small-mindedness takes. Because of this, they guide their lives too much by considerations of what is useful and too little by what is noble — for the useful is what is good for oneself and the noble what is good absolutely.”
Yet what is this “absolute good”, the “noble good” that our wise friend refers to? In this context, we may confidently see that it is good that bears no direct relation to our own convenience or utility. In other words, it is the unselfish good.
The problem with such unselfish good is that the more we address any problematic situation with pure reason, the less detached we become from the situation. For that, there’s ample reason: reason is the servant of our mind, of our subconscious, and when it seems abstract, it only plays pretend. In reality, reason would never suggest something harmful to self-comfort, otherwise, it would lose the very name of “reason”.
Thus, when he says that “reasoning makes us choose what is useful,” Aristotle points out the elegant fact that reason is a slave to the self. But to be able to rise above slavery to the self, we must recognize this servile connection and thus keep reason in check and in service to our real purpose —the truth of any given matter.
To our modern ears, the words “moral feeling” may sound in themselves, a tad moralistic. So does even the word “truth”, ever since Pilate asked Christ the problematic “What is Truth?”, to be echoed across centuries in the human search for answers. Yet Aristotle’s prefix “moral” is only there to separate the tricky word “feeling” from being shrugged off as “emotion”. May the ‘moral’ part not stop us from grasping its true meaning — the ‘feeling’ of intuition and insight, the ‘feeling’ arising in our gut, the ‘feeling’ that will almost always seem embarrassing, silly, or uncomfortable to follow through with, yet deeply, pressingly calling us to action.
Aristotle’s “moral feeling” is the voice existing deep within each one of us. And by this we shall know it: it is no servant to utility — either physical, psychological, or social. That selfless purpose is already what makes such feeling “good” and a step above reasoning.
Don’t take my word for it. Take Aristotle’s.
All quotes from Aristotle — Rhetoric, Book II, 12–13