East and West: The Reach of Reason

1.

W.B. Yeats wrote on the margin of his copy of The Genealogy of Morals, “But why does Nietzsche think the night has no stars, nothing but bats and owls and the insane moon?” Nietzsche outlined his skepticism of humanity and presented his chilling vision of the future just before the beginning of the last century—he died in 1900. The events of the century that followed, including world wars, holocausts, genocides, and other atrocities that occurred with systematic brutality, give us reason enough to worry whether Nietzsche’s skeptical view of humanity may not have been right.

Jonathan Glover, an Oxford philosopher, argues in his recent and enormously interesting “moral history of the twentieth century” that we not only must reflect on what has happened in the last century, but also “need to look hard and clearly at some monsters inside us” and to consider ways and means of “caging and taming them.”1 The end of a century—and of a millennium—is certainly a good moment to engage in critical examinations of this kind. Indeed, as the first millennium of the Islamic Hijri calendar came to an end in 1591-1592 (a thousand lunar years—shorter than solar years—after Mohammed’s epic journey from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD), Akbar, the Mughal emperor of India, engaged in just such a far-reaching scrutiny. He paid particular attention to the relations among religious communities and to the need for peaceful coexistence in the already multicultural India.

Taking note of the denominational diversity of Indians (including Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Parsees, Jews, and others), he laid the foundations of the secularism and religious neutrality of the state, which he insisted must ensure that “no man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him.”2 Akbar’s thesis that “the pursuit of reason” rather than “reliance on tradition” is the way to address difficult social problems is a view that has become all the more important for the world today.3

It is striking how little critical assessment of the experience of the millennium took place during its recent worldwide celebration.4 As the century and the second Gregorian millennium came to an end, the memory of the dreadful events that Glover describes with devastating effect did not seem to stir people much; nor was there much detectable interest in the challenging questions that Glover asks. The lights of celebratory glory not only drowned the stars but also the bats and the owls and the insane moon.

Nietzsche’s skepticism about ethical reasoning and his anticipation of difficulties to come were combined with an ambiguous approval of the annihilation of moral authority—“the most terrible, the most questionable, and perhaps also the most hopeful of all spectacles,” he wrote. Glover argues that we must respond to “Nietzsche’s challenge”: “The problem is how to accept [Nietzsche’s] scepticism about a religious authority for morality while escaping from his appalling conclusions.” This issue is related to…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.