Climbing Mount Reason

Mont blanc 2007 02

Mount Reason has many peaks, and it is really up to each one of us to choose our own track and follow it wherever reason leads.

But Brothers who up Reason’s Hill
Advance with hopeful cheer, —
O! loiter not these heights are chill,
As chill as they are clear;
And still restrain your haughty gaze,
The loftier that ye go,
Remembering distance leaves a haze
On all that lies below

In this stanza from his poem “The Men of Old”, Richard Monckton Milnes (aka Lord Houghton) seems to be warning his early nineteenth century contemporaries of the dangers of climbing “Reason’s Hill”. By doing so, he thought, they would lose sight of the more simple and important view of life, faith and duty that had served their ancestors so well. Milnes was, by all accounts, a thoroughgoing theist and devoted Churchman. As a freethinking deist I do not agree with his sentiment here, but I do think his imagery can teach us something important: that the approach to a reasoned view of reality is neither easy nor lazy.

Reasoning out your own view of God or creation requires courage and your efforts may not always be well received. Galileo, for example, found himself on trial for challenging the official Church view of the earth as the static centre of the universe, and finally recanted. Not that Galileo was by any means the first to be censured for challenging the prevailing worldview of his time. Heraclitus was characterized by Diogenes Laertius as “a complete misanthrope” [1] for challenging the more mainstream views of Pythagoras, Hesiod and Homer. Socrates apparently chose hemlock over capitulation when he was tried for allegedly corrupting the youth of the city by the impious acts of “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and introducing “new divinities or spiritual agencies in their stead.”[2] Galileo was not the last either – John Toland’s first book, Christianity not Mysterious was burned by the public hangman in Dublin because it contained “heretical doctrines” that were “contrary to the Christian religion”. Reportedly, one cleric suggested that Toland himself should have been burned.

So is it worth the effort? Why put yourself “on the rack” when you could easily choose one of the convenient off-the-rack God-models already in existence and settle for that? Why not, as Milnes would have us believe is best, just stick to the ways and thoughts of “the men of old”?

Well, Galileo may have recanted, but as Catherine Faber notes in the lyrics of her song The Words of God, “the earth is moving still” and the view he described has successfully guided the generations of astronomers and physicists that have come after him to even more astonishing discoveries. Heraclitus may have been despised and ignored – styled “the Obscure” by fellow philosophers who failed to grasp the meaning behind his words – but in recent decades, process philosophy and scientific and philosophical studies of the natural processes of emergence have, at least to some degree, vindicated and illuminated his view of ever-changing reality. And how many genuine freethinkers today would seriously question Toland’s rejection of supernatural divine intervention or the absolute authority of the Church? They all resolutely climbed “Reason’s Hill” and saw a view few, if any, others had seen before them. Toland wrote in his own epitaph: “He was an assertor of liberty, a lover of all sorts of learning … but no man’s follower or dependent.” [3] He charted his own course of reason, becoming the first to be labeled a “freethinker” and advanced with justified “hopeful cheer” until he reached the peak of his own understanding.

The view from the top of Mount Reason is probably not as hazy as Milnes would have us believe. The air may be rarefied and chill, but it is fresh and each new breath of understanding can be a delight in itself. And even if you still don’t see with perfect clarity, it is surely better to have seen the view from the top for yourself, than to have sat idly in the valley wondering what it must be like with only someone else’s fleetingly fashionable, but ultimately ill-fitting, hand-me-down descriptions to give you any idea. The view from the top is not the result of an inadequately restrained “haughty gaze”, but the culmination of an honest, personal effort to appreciate and identify with the reality of our own individual experience. Mount Reason has many peaks, and it is really up to each one of us to choose our own track and follow it wherever reason leads. Every now and again, one or other of us will top out at a point few others have ever reached before and describe a view of reality that is as revitalizing and invigorating as a cool draft of clear mountain air.

[1] Diogenes Laertius, The Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, (translated by C.D.Yonge, 1853), p.376
[2]Plato, Apology, (translated by Benjamin Jowett, 1871)
[3] Quoted in J. G. Simms, “John Toland (1670-1722): A Donegal Heretic,” Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 16, Issue 63, March 1969, 318 (available at – quoted from a manuscript (apparently not in Toland’s hand) in the British Museum BM Add. MS 4295 fol.76.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s