His his book, The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent (Selected Essays), Lionel Trilling, the famous literary and cultural critic of a few years past, published an essay entitled “Mind in the Modern World.” In this essay Trilling reflects upon the changing evaluation and status of “western the rational tradition” in the modern world. In Trilling’s view the rational tradition reaches back to philosophical antiquity, passes through the humanistic renaissance, and achieves its zenith in the 18th Century with the scientific and rational enlightenment movement. For Trilling the rational tradition uses abstract and empirical reason to judge the merit of both individual minds and collective societies. It is committed to the mystique of the mind — “its energy, its intentionality, its impulse toward inclusiveness and completeness, its search for completeness, its search for comprehensiveness and coherence, with due respect for the integrity of the elements which it brings into relation with each other, its power of looking before and after.”
Trilling’s concern is that the positive legacy of the rational tradition is being eroded and glibly set aside in our modern age. He illustrates this by examining the various assaults on the rational tradition in the university world by examining what is happening in the teaching of such disciplines of history, philosophy, literature, mathematics and science. His point is that modern man has lost confidence in reason’s powers, and that as a consequence many men are like H.G. Wells who because disillusioned after World War I and wrote about “Man at the end of his tether.” Of course Trilling could have taken this argument about the decline of the rational tradition further by also examining the “philistinism” and “barbarism” of the pop-culture that is propagated through advertizing, marketing, mass-media, entertainment and sports, but that was not his primary “beat.”
Trilling contrasts the rational tradition with several other traditions that have stood either side by side with it in a oppositional, complementary, dialectical or ambiguous relationship. At its best, such luminary and exemplary figures as Plato, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Emerson, Nietzsche and Yates belong to this tradition. “All of them represent the trans-rational as productive of truths not accessible to our habitual and socially countenanced modes of perception and constitute an adverse judgment of it.”
Throughout the ages men have sought “the attainment of an immediacy of experience and perception which is beyond the powers of the rational mind.” This trans-rational impulse reaches back to primordial shamanism and the axial age religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These “higher states” of consciousness include intuition, inspiration, revelation. They may also include the annihilation of selfhood, perhaps through contemplation and mysticism. Trilling points out that it may also be sought through various forms of intoxication, violence, frenzy, delirium and madness. The pursuit of “higher states” beyond the powers of the rational mind is problematic and ambiguous insofar as it tends to conflate all that is non-rational, including the pre-rational, anti-rational, irrational, post-rational and trans-rational into a single incoherent amalgam.
The modern German and English Romantic movements, and the correlating American Transcendentalist movements where critical reactions toward the 18th Century Enlightenment tradition with its confluence of abstract reason, empirical science, mathematical measurement, mechanistic reductionism, industrial society, evolutiohnary competition and economic capitalism.
Throughout American history we have seen various protests toward the perceived shadow side rational enlightenment tradition, whether in the form of Romanticism, Bohemianism, New Thought Movement, Esoteric Spiritualism, the Beatnik movement, the Hippie movement, or the anti-war, feminist, environmental or anti- Wall Street movements.
Lionel Trilling is nothing if not a dialectical moderate who always looks at multiple sides of every question. He is clearly a champion of the rational tradition. He worries that we are losing the rich and proud legacy of the rational tradition in its fullness, and declining into an intellectual stupor of political correctness, group-think, ideological zealotry and irrational fads. He seems to be suggesting that the rational tradition needs to be periodically chastened, but that it would be a tragedy for both the individual and for society if man’s confidence in the powers of reason were to come to an end. Like his historical mentor, Matthew Arnold, Lionel Trilling believed that reason and knowledge, education and culture provide the best hedge against the dehumanizing forces of folly and madness, totalitarianism and anarchy.