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“The Reasonable Man Adapts Himself to the World” Meaning

 “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

George Bernard Shaw

This quote leaves a powerful impression on people, because it is very counter-intuitive. Progress, if it is at all possible, we are taught, can only come from rational thought. This is how the world is structured.

The economy does not reward irrational behavior, it rewards people who think about the long term, who plan and save, and negotiate deals – all of which requires the application of rational faculties.

But this quote flips this idea on its head, and glorifies the irrational.

The idea of romanticizing the irrational is not new. In fact, Romanticism, the intellectual and cultural movement that came after the Enlightenment, is about devaluing rationality in favor of irrationality.

The rise of Romanticism was marked by a period of economic stagnation. Many young people in Europe were jobless and the future looked bleak.

Poets, philosophers, and artists thought about the distant past, or the distant future. They were removed from the present. They were infatuated with experiences, adventures, and individuality, they revered emotions such as love.

Whether romantic thought is a result of despondent thought and loss of hope for the present, due to the economy or war, is an interesting idea, but we should not be quick to dismiss irrationality.

In recent years, the behavioral economists (people like Daniel Kahneman, Dan Ariely) have popularized the idea that human beings are irrational, contrary to economists who assume that all the people in an economy behave reasonably.

But we have long known that human beings are irrational. Philosophers have known it for thousands of years.

More recently, near the end of the 20th century, Nietzsche spoke about man’s repression of aggressive instincts for the functioning of society, but he thought that our conscience, far from being a result of intellectual or empathetic achievement, was something that was forced upon us.

That is, the conscience is the result of repressed aggressive instincts turned inwards – an idea Sigmund Freud and other psychoanalysts would develop.

But it is more complicated than to say that the rational person is the one who behaves according to the rules, and the irrational person breaks the rules and refuses to control his instincts.

It may be the opposite, that subverting the rules and questioning the social order are the truly rational things to do, while living in mental servitude is the most irrational act imaginable.

This does not entail social revolution, it can be done locally. Some people subscribe to the rules created by their family or their society, and are trapped by them. They do not individuate, they do not go into a profession they find meaning in, or look for relationships that are truly satisfying, precisely because they are trying to act in accordance with explicit and implicit rules of the group.

On the other hand, an excess amount of freedom can drive the individual to irrational behavior that is harmful. Being irrational, depending on your level of analysis, can either be the key to your salvation, or the precursor for your downfall.

2 replies on ““The Reasonable Man Adapts Himself to the World” Meaning”

May I suggest an alternative interpretation of Shaw’s quote? People who adapt to the world are conformists. People who trys to adapt the world to themselves are change-makers. Are the conformists more rational than the change-makers? The American revolutionaries were certainly answer “no” to this question.

For sure Dave, but as I discuss in the article, irrationality can go both ways. It can lead to a revolution that is necessary, but on the other hand, it can lead to chaos. The idea that progress depends on the on the irrational man is true, but regress also depends on the irrational man.

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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