Friday, November 25, 2005

Standing in the Enlightenment Tradition






"Enlightenment is the coming out of Man from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the lack of will to serve one's own understanding without direction from another. This is a self-imposed immaturity; if Reason languishes, it is not for lack of understanding, but only of resolve and courage to serve oneself without direction from another. Sapere aude! Dare to think! Think boldly! Wake up! Take courage, to serve your own understanding. This is the motto of the Enlightenment." - Immanuel Kant
Fundamental progress has to do with the reinterpretation of basic ideas.

--Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947


Some have said that the ideals of the Enlightenment are dead. Some have said that Reason is nothing more than one cultural perspective and that as such it has been used as an agent of imperialism. But for those of us who look at Nature and see unity, beauty, and purpose, nothing could be further from the truth. We who not only see progress as a continuation of the ideals of the Enlightenment, but who even see that progress as growing at an exponential rate toward a near future singularity stand squarely in the tradition of the Enlightenment. But what is this tradition some may ask?

The Enlightenment philosophy grew out of the thought of many thinkers in Europe during the eighteenth century. This thinking rose from a belief that Reason could be applied to all facets of life and that through this continual progress was possible. This philosophy is a philosophy of optimism about the potential of Man. From out of this philosophy came the American and French revolutions, modern medicine, modern science, and a renewed respect for the power and value of the individual over and against conformity, collectivism, and socialism.

However, along with the obvious progresses of the modern age their arose much evil. New and terrible weapons of war, new technologies that enabled the power of tyrants to oppress the many, and a new form of alienation that seemed to cut Man off from the old ways – forcing him to live in a way that was unnatural, surrounded by an ugliness that was of his own making. Was this the dream of the Enlightenment? :Nuclear weapons, Genocide, the masses huddled into ghettos, Gulags and walled cities.

For this reason many turned away from the dream of progress thinking it a chimera and reason a vanity of the human imagination. But now, at the dawn of this new century and millennium, we are able to view history with more clarity. The evils of the twentyth century were the result of a turning away from enlightenment. The Enlightenment stresses the dignity of man, fascism respects only power. The Enlightenment believes in the value of the individual and respects the individual as a hero when he stands alone against the madness of the crowd, but communism will not tolerate the individual because only the collective is important. The Enlightenment says the individual must forge his own destiny and be responsible to his own integrity, but socialism doubts the wisdom of the common man and asserts the necessity of an elite to manage the State.

All of these ideologies plagued the twentyth century and casted a shadow over the prospects of progress. These ideologies all arose from a common source – a rejection of Enlightenment liberalism and Divine providence

I write this as a warning. Let us not forsake Enlightenment. The singularity could bring either great wonders or great terrors. We are the generation responsible at this crucial moment in history. Let us carefully consider what kind of world we create. Let us create a world of human flourishing where the freedom of the human soul is ever brought to a higher place and where the world that Man creates is harmonious and beautiful. This can only be achieved through the spread of Enlightenment.

3 Comments:

All ideologies of the 20th century were fuelled by Romanticism & Ant-Modernity. The Enlightenment = Modernity. In premodern, traditional - and there's still a lot of traditional sentiment and thinking around - religion, science, art & morality are all one. In Modernity they have fallen apart. In traditional society instititutions, such as the state, kingship and the family, are god given, but in modernity they are more 'contractual', read: man-made. If everything is seen this way, modern societies look shiftless, thriftless and in a state of chronic discontent. Even though they're not. The point is that traditional society is, for want of a better word, totalitarian. When polemicists accuse Plato once again of being totalitarian, they are perfectly right: he is totalitarian. But then, so are Augustine and Thomas More.

Uh... before I really wander off: I think you're forgetting the ongoing influence of Romantic thought and the crazy way (not either/or, but not and/and either) the glorious mediaculture radiates values into people. It would be really really bad if anti-modernism is again on the rise. A lot of wouldbe policymakers want to enforce an either/or choice between, say, religion and Darwin, but it feels fake. This is where Fukuyama - especially his End of Ideologies - hit the nail squarely beside the head.

Last but not least: do you read David Brin's blog? It's interesting on Modernity and The Enlightenment...

By Blogger Rik, at 26/11/05 11:26  

Rik, thanks for the insight. Much more could be said on this topic. As a lifelong student of the history of thought the subject of the evolution of society and the philosophies behind those societies never ceases to interest me. I must confess that I have a strong Romantic streak in my thinking. I am infatuated with the culture of nineteenth century Germany. My favorite philosopher is Hegel and my favorite poet is Holderlin. However I think that Hegel is able to balance Rationalism and Romanticism. I have not had the chance to read Fukyama. I know that he is a defender of modernity but the few times I've heard him speak on TV he didn't impress me. But I'll have to give him a read someday soon. I have not heard of David Brin's blog but now that I have I will certainly check it out.

By Blogger Micah J. Glasser, at 26/11/05 22:04  

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