So what would Aristotle think?

If there’s one word that is used to describe the world we live in, that word is ‘rational.’  Rationality is a highly prized commodity, particularly in the Western world.  We are generally expected to behave rationally.  When I did my economics degree, all talk was of the rational consumer, buyer or seller.  At work, rationality tends to be rewarded as a behaviour, and people who make decisions on more emotional grounds are often derided as ‘weak.’

Of course, none of this is new.  After all, we follow the Greek and Roman traditions to a considerable degree in the West.  Ancient philosophers like Plato, Aristotle and Seneca to name but three, all prized the role of thinking.  Behind ancient philosophy was the idea that thinking was the way we could move forward as a species.  The attainment of wisdom depended critically on thinking, and on thinking critically.

But is this emphasis on the importance of rational behaviour all it’s cracked up to be?  I would argue that it isn’t.  One key reason for this is the way that thinking, like much else (TV, entertainment, politics, etc) has been dumbed down to the point that instead of helping us lead better lives, it’s more often used to justify where we are.

How has this happened?

It has happened because increasingly, we have confused thinking with rationalising – and this is a bad move.  Thinking as an approach will often get us out of a hole, while rationalising usually ends up with us justifying why we’re in that hole in the first place. Thinking is present and future focused, rationalising is about the past.  Thinking leads to decision and action.  Rationalisation leads to neither.  This confusion has given thinking a bad name.

The trend in personal development has been to focus on the importance of our feelings, noticing what they are, and acting on them.  This is clearly important, and even I bang on about this point a lot.  Emotion gives life much of its meaning, and most of us want to feel in some way ‘good.’  In some circles, the mantra has become a bit like ‘feelings are good, thinking is bad.’  However, this is to throw a very healthy baby out with some admittedly dodgy bathwater.

We need to be clear.  Thinking and rationalising are not the same.  There are no ancient philosophers I know of who advocated that we rationalise things better.  But thinking was seen as a crucial engine to bettering ourselves, and our condition – and if that isn’t what personal development is about, then I’ve joined the wrong profession!

The conclusion is obvious.  Not only is it important to connect with our emotions if we want to find ways to improve our lives.  We also need to seriously sharpen up on our thinking if we are to develop our potential and live the kind of life we want. Rationalising, by contrast, we can do without.