Friday, October 26, 2012

The Impostors of Reason

With its seven-inch wingspan, the owl butterfly is an impressive bug by any standard.  But what is really striking are its fake eyes.  It has eyespots on the underside of its wings, which mimic the eyes of an owl. Since owls prey on the birds that eat butterflies, the sight of those fake eyes is likely to give any would-be predator pause.  The butterfly is able to survive because the bird doesn't take the time to discover the deception. If the bird stopped and watched the butterfly for a while, it would realize how harmless it actually is. 

As for the owls it imitates, they have been symbols of wisdom and reason in western culture ever since the ancient Greeks associated them with Athena.  Owls actually aren't particularly wise or reasonable birds, but owls and reasoning do have one thing in common: they both have impostors.  The imposters of reason are things like anger, hard-heartedness, rudeness, and smugness.  People commonly mistake these things for rationality, when they're really nothing of the sort. They are impostors.  Like owl butterflies, they draw their power from shock and credulity. The more they're mistaken for the real thing, the more powerful they become.