A Fire Burns Within You

Reason turns our obstacles into fuel, but we must use it or lose it

We were born with a light inside of us. Painting: Georges de La Tour, Newborn Infant, 1645–48. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Book Four of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius says everything we should know about reason in the first aphorism. I’ll break it down sentence by sentence.

“Wherever it is in agreement with nature, the ruling power within us takes a flexible approach to circumstances, always adapting itself easily to both practicality and the given event.”

The ruling power within us is the mind. As far as Marcus was concerned, agreement with nature meant “reasoned.”

It is in the human being’s nature to reason, a trait exclusive to us. Reason was defined by the Stoics as a dialogue of the mind or “internal speech”. The ancient Stoics also believed that nature itself was governed by reason — what they called the logos. Reason was a trait that human beings shared with nature itself, but nature only as a whole.

Most animals can surmise or calculate. Many can “speak” in some form. But only one species speaks to itself. As a social animal, we have the ability to internalise different perspectives on a single problem. Aristotle defined human beings as the “rational animal”.

To have a strong faculty of reason is to be flexible to the problems life throws at you. Our rational mind has the capacity to integrate dilemmas and contradictions and to find a way to transcend them.

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it”, Albert Einstein said. The theorist of general relativity and the philosopher king both agree: reason is a ladder to a higher state of mind, a new view on things.

“It has no favoured material for its work, but sets out on its objects in a conditional way, turning any obstacle into fuel for its own use.”

Reason is blind to the matter it deliberates over. Reason abstracts. It has a unique capacity to homogenise the components of concrete problems into formal logic. Whatsmore, those problems only make reason stronger and the reasoner more resilient. Like a muscle, the faculty to reason grows stronger only by virtue of being challenged.

“It is like a fire mastering whatever falls into it. A small flame would be extinguished, but a bright fire rapidly claims as its own all that is heaped onto it, devours it all, and rises up yet higher by means of this material.”

Like a roaring fire, reason has the power to consume anything and burn brighter and higher as a result. The light inside of us brightens as it devours new problems and dilemmas.

If our faculty of reason is not strong enough, it can be diminished by problems. When things don’t go our way we could ignore reason and retreat into delusion or resentment. Our inner fire will burn less brightly.

As social animals, we understand that death waits for us. Painting: Georges de La Tour, The Repentant Magdalen, 1635–40 (detail). (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Reason Cannot Choose Itself

Why is it that reason doesn’t simply avail itself every time? Why are we sometimes — or most of the time — irrational and unreasonable with ourselves and other people?

It’s because reason cannot choose itself. The complexity of our mind — evolved as it has over millions of years, and alive for so many — is such that when confronted with a problem, we have the responsibility to choose how we react.

As social beings, our minds are chock full of memories, emotions, associations, intuitions and instincts, as well as the higher orders of reason.

Research has shown that “gut reactions” have a basis in reality. Psychologists, economists and marketers have demonstrated that many of our decisions are felt before they are really thought. Our instinctive thinking moves fast, frighteningly fast.

Fast thinking was beneficial to our pre-historic ancestors, but not so much for us. The world modernises faster than we can evolve. Gut reactions like “fight or flight” is more a torment to us than a survival tool these days.

A mountain lion is more a danger than a stranger criticising you on Twitter, yet the latter could trigger that same heart-in-the-mouth feeling like you’re on tonight’s menu. Your gut can’t discern one from the other, it feels danger.

It’s up to us to train our deliberative mind to seize hold of our instinctive reactions before they become decisions. It’s not that our gut decisions are never right, it’s that they can be so, so wrong.

In the Service of Love

This is not all to say that emotions are not a positive thing. And it’s not to say that reason stands apart from the emotions.

Emotions make life worth living. Love, we’d all agree, is a good thing. It’s an emotion that binds and strengthens.

But what is “love”? The Greeks had four words for love: Éros, Agápe, Storge, Philia. All these loves are well defined: romantic, spiritual, familial and friendly. Each is compatible with reason. They are “reasonable” emotions to feel.

But there’s also obsession, infatuation and narcissism. Each of these passions come in the guise of “love” too, and they are enemies of reason. These kinds of love can harm us and the people around us.

So reason can be in the service of love, so as long as we “know in our hearts” that the love we feel is right. Reason gives us the power to discern between positive and negative emotions, to foster the former and mitigate the latter.

Reason is the antidote for emotional turmoil. Emotions like anger and terror can cause us to do regrettable things. Well-trained reason can seize these emotions before they can cause any problems. To feel emotions is perfectly natural, to put them into perspective takes some effort.

Self-mastery is a virtuous circle. As we pit reason against the contradictions, convulsions, and complexities of our very selves, our reason simultaneously consumes our fears, uncertainties and doubts and burns brighter as a result.

What is required of us is faith in the fire that burns within us. Faith requires courage. With courage, our fire will burn brightly.

Thank you for reading.

If you enjoyed this article, you may enjoy an article I wrote on Marcus Aurelius: