David Brooks’s column today offers a reflection on How To Think, a forthcoming book by Alan Jacobs that Brooks describes (quite rightly; I’ve read it) as “absolutely splendid.” Brooks says:

Jacobs’s emphasis on the relational nature of thinking is essential for understanding why there is so much bad thinking in political life right now.

Jacobs makes good use of C. S. Lewis’s concept of the Inner Ring. In every setting — a school, a company or a society — there is an official hierarchy. But there may also be a separate prestige hierarchy, where the cool kids are. They are the Inner Ring.

There are always going to be people who desperately want to get into the Inner Ring and will cut all sorts of intellectual corners to be accepted. As Lewis put it, “The passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

People will, for example, identify and attack what Jacobs calls the Repugnant Cultural Other — the group that is opposed to the Inner Ring, which must be assaulted to establish membership in it.

Other people will resent the Inner Ring, and they will cut all sorts of intellectual corners in order to show their resentment. These people are quick to use combat metaphors when they talk about thinking (he shot down my argument, your claims are indefensible). These people will adopt shared vague slurs like “cuckservative” or “whitesplaining” that signal to the others in the outsider groups that they are attacking the ring, even though these slurs are usually impediments to thought.

There’s a good piece in the new issue of The New Yorker by Andrew Marantz, examining a popular alt-right podcaster, trying to figure out how a kid raised in a liberal middle-class family, and married to a Jewish woman, became an anti-Semitic, racist hatemonger. The thing I noticed about it is that the supposed intellectual conversions this guy went through feel false. What he really seems to have been doing was grasping for rationales to justify his rage at having been a fat, homely kid with terrible eczema, and turning it into a philosophy. The process is invisible to him, but it’s fairly evident when seen from the outside.

We’re all at risk of falling victim to this process, are we not? In France last week, I recounted the story for some friends about how my rage over 9/11 was so overwhelming that it slammed my mind shut on the question of the Iraq War’s advisability. I truly thought that anybody who opposed the war was a coward or a fool. I was perfectly serene in my conviction. I told myself that I was listening to their arguments, and found those arguments unconvincing, but only in retrospect did I grasp that I had made my mind up from the beginning, and only considered as “reasonable” those facts and syllogisms that served the conclusion I had already reached. And I concealed this process from myself unknowingly. 

The recollection of how I did this really does shake me up, even to this day. If it happened to me once, might it happen again? The only protection I have against that possibility is awareness that it happened, and a resolution to be as vigilant as I can against it in the future. But we humans are fallible. For me, one of the great lessons of my life is the fallibility of human reason. It ought to be the lesson everyone learns as they get older. It’s called gaining wisdom.

What’s especially corrupting about this kind of thing is that it turns Reason, which ought to be a tool for discerning truth from falsity, into an instrument of power in an endless struggle with the Enemy. Here’s a passage from Jacobs’s book:

The identification of argument with war is so complete that if you try to suggest some alternative way of thinking about what argument is — It’s an attempt to achieve mutual understanding; It’s a means of clarifying our views — you’re almost certainly going to be denounced as a wishy-washy, namby-pamby sissy-britches.

When I moved to New York and started writing a column for the New York Post, I started getting invited on cable TV a fair amount. I was not a good guest. I tried to listen to what my opponents were saying, and respond in kind. What the producers actually wanted was for me (and all the guests) to be combative, and to double down on our initially stated opinion. The point was not to argue as a means to understand, but rather to inflame one’s own side, and, with luck, humiliate the other. It’s interesting to observe how this idea has been widely absorbed in our society. It’s what drives the Social Justice Warriors on campus who are attempting to silence any dissent, but this approach is more general than we care to consider.

I don’t believe that purely disinterested Reason is possible. We always have to reason from some premises. But surely we should seek to be as broad-minded as possible regarding the possibility that we may be wrong, if only for the sake of strengthening our own convictions by refining them in light of logic and evidence.

Sounds naive, I know. But if we abandon this stance, we ultimately embrace nihilism — the belief that Truth is what serves power — though this nihilism might be cloaked in conviction.

One more thing: I am thinking at this moment of a well-known conservative Christian intellectual. During the Bush years, he was once asked — not by me — how he could support publicly the position of other public intellectuals on the Right (national security hawks, if memory serves) who believed things he opposed. How do you justify that? asked his interlocutor. The Christian intellectual’s response: people like me need to do that to get the things we want, politically, like pro-life legislation.

There is a certain logic to that. The mutual friend of mine and this intellectual’s who repeated the story told it as an account of how political strategizing had corrupted our friend’s thought. And he was right, to a point. But I knew the Christian intellectual well enough to understand that the deepest truth about him was that he was a vain main who considered himself to be part of the Inner Ring — and loved it.

I had a lot of that in me too back then, which is what this post yesterday concerned. Come to think of it, it is no doubt good for my soul that I joined a church — the Orthodox Church — that has no cultural power in the United States, and that I moved out of the centers of power in my world, to Flyover Country. The corrupting power of the Inner Ring is immense. As with the Ring in Tolkien’s universe, we like to tell ourselves that if only we had that power, we would use it for good. But it always ends up using us, and destroying the things that are best in us, including our Reason.

Anyway, pre-order Alan’s book, How To Think. You will be so very glad that you did. I’ll be publishing an interview with him about it on this site soon.