The ancient Greeks, it has been said, were too reasonable to ignore the intoxicating power of the unreasonable. They worshiped Dionysus, the god of excess and ecstasy, and they admired tragedy—an art form that shows that human feelings are far too intense and varied to be contained by the narrow strictures of rational selfinterest. Explosions of passion—romantic and destructive, cruel and self-sacrificing, among nations as among individuals—not only are to be expected but are central to the human spirit. Tragedy, as the classicist Edith Hamilton once observed, is the beauty of intolerable truths.
The signal error of the American elite after the end of the Cold War was its trust in rationalism, which, it was assumed, would eventually propel the world's societies toward systems based on individual rights and united by American-style capitalism and technology. Recent explanations for terrorism have themselves been excessively rational. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the United States many commentators and academics asserted that terrorism stemmed from poverty. Then, looking more closely, they said it stemmed from rising expectations and the perception of inequalities. True enough: economic development often leads to upheaval and insurrection, as migration to cities and the rise of the middle class unleash all manner of ambitions and yearnings. But even if poverty and perceived inequality were to vanish, and the rough places in the road of development were smoothed, depravity and outrage would continue. The more advanced a civilization, the more cerebral and subtly conformist it is likely to be—and, consequently, the more extreme the pent-up frustration and the more spectacular the violence it fuels.