Rethinking the Enlightenment

You know things have gotten out of hand bad when people start referring to a historical event as “The Enlightenment.” That’s the old monkey trick in action — by praising one thing too much, you’re implying something nasty about everything that came before.

Oh, you mean before The Enlightenment? Well, judging by the name — and who has time to look this stuff up in dusty books that use big words? — everyone was dirty, ignorant, stupid, violent, cruel and illiterate. Glad that’s over!

The Enlightenment was a time in European history when old notions were reversed:

  • Democracy replaced the divine right of kings and monarchy/aristocracy. The divine right of kings rested on the idea of a natural order, as symbolized in religion, which demanded that the best and brightest rule by hereditary order over the rest. This culminated in the 1789 revolution in France.
  • Individualism replaced the idea of a social order in which individuals had sacred roles. Where in the past you acted to fulfill your part in the drama of humanity, such as being the blacksmith to a local town and caring if their horses were correctly shod, now you did exactly as you wanted, so long as you could pay for your lifestyle.
  • Equality the biggest change was the insistence that we are all the same, which is a way of pacifying other people by granting them a reward before they prove fitness for it. At first it was political equality, but that rapidly decayed into the idea of absolutely equality of ability, potential and validity of thoughts and opinions in the 20th century, creating vast instability and horrific wars.
  • Rationalism replacing a desire for harmony with the order of nature. In rational thought, we use abstract reason to conjure up potentially true things that are true in and of themselves; in naturalistic thought, we try to find a coherence based on internal order and similarity to the patterns found in nature.
  • Materialism replacing religiosity. While I’m no fan of dualism, as found in Christianity and Judaism, I like religiosity because it gives people a reason to be reverent to their world, to approach the world as sacred and life as a spiritual role instead of an appetite of desires. Materialism denies all of this, saying in effect that we are only bodies and there is no higher significance, so we must employ an ethic of convenience to ensure our comfort and safety.

From those came all of our modern ideals, like consumerism, democracy, utilitarianism, liberalism, progressivism, liberty and freedom. These are all non-goals, or rather, negative goals. Freedom is the removal of some oppressive threat, safety is the removal of threats, liberty is the removal of obligations and rules, utilitarianism is the removal of design logic and replacement with a “good enough” vote from the broadest section of a population.

In other words, the Enlightenment took us from being a society directed toward a view of life as important and sacred, and converted us into a society of individuals pleasing themselves and ignoring the consequences of their actions. It is no wonder that ever since we have been increasing in technology and wealth on paper, but our human infrastructure — our spirits, the quality of our people, the wisdom we retain as a culture, the insightfulness of our art — has been spiraling downward like a burning bullet-perforated plane.

Now, slowly, ever-so-slowly, people are waking up — obliquely, as is the norm for humans:

But what all these technicians of exclusion fail to see is that you cannot cast away the very thing that Sarrazin embodies: the anger of people who are sick and tired — after putting a long and arduous process of Enlightenment behind them — of being confronted with pre-Enlightenment elements that are returning to the center of our society. They are sick of being cursed or laughed at when they offer assistance with integration. And they are tired about reading about Islamist associations that have one degree of separation from terrorism, of honor killings, of death threats against cartoonists and filmmakers. – Spiegel Online

The writer of this piece in Der Spiegel is hoping for two things. First, he wants to alert us to how silly and precarious our position is as the wealthy West inviting in the other cultures and then being shocked — shocked, I tell you! — that they don’t share our Enlightenment values. Second, he’s trying to con us into thinking that the “clash of civilizations” is just skin-deep, meaning that if we con these Muslims into learning Enlightenment values, they’ll be just like us!

But he brings up an excellent point, even if he can’t articulate it, which is that the West is now having to reconsider its Enlightenment values. If we’re the only people on earth who play by these rules, then we’re self-sacrificing and self-destructing when we encounter others who have a more earthy, more realistic view of the task of survival.

In fact, one might point to two thousand years of “noble savage” and “magic minority” symbols in our culture, from the wise old Lapp to the shaman or Morgan Freeman as God in our movies, as the West’s desire to get past its Enlightenment pretense and the hopeless contradictions to reality that it presents, and find instead a simpler, more natural, less “moral” but more sane way of life. We know we’re decadent, but no one wants to point out that our decadence is caused by things we consider universal goods, like equality, freedom, liberty, consumerism, etc.

As the article goes on to state, our Enlightenment insistence on deconstruction — on separating cause from effect, action from context, individual from whole — has resulted in an identity neurosis through the loss of a sense of context, direction and goal:

Debates about identity and cultural dominance are ubiquitous in an increasingly globalized world — in the United States just as in the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands or Denmark. Such a debate doesn’t exclude cosmopolitanism in the slightest. It merely represents an insistence on maintaining traditions and values. Religion is one of them and it is not something that people will let go of lightly.

When we are all Germans, and to be German means having certain ideals, heritage, customs, language and values, then we know what we should do to be good people and have good lives. We have a direction, and a sacred role in upholding German-ness by acting like Germans, so we are free from existential trauma and confusion. We know what should be done. It is an abstraction based on reality, not an arbitrary abstraction based on unproven, untested “theory” and vague political terms that unite us so we can do the bidding of our governments and elites: freedom, liberty, justice, peace.

People are starting to question the value of the Enlightenment. It’s nearly impossible to attack things like freedom and justice, because you walk into an automatic false dichotomy. “What, you hate our freedom?” But more what we’re saying is that we have lost balance, and lost context, of these terms. Yes, we need freedom when it doesn’t cause problems. But freedom isn’t a goal in itself. Freedom is a condition resulting from having the right goals, and so having a society that succeeds. You can’t create “freedom” by making laws and arresting dissidents. You make freedom by creating a society where good people thrive and bad people, who through their crimes destroy freedom, suffer. You cannot achieve freedom by making freedom your goal. You have to aim for the step right before it, much as if you desire crops you have to find seeds.

In the meantime, our societies are helplessly plagued internally. Osama bin Laden must be laughing as he watches America divide itself over the Ground Zero Mosque debate. Half realize that putting an Islamic center near the site of a terror attack by Islamic fundamentalists signals to those fundamentalists that we are submissive; the other half, drugged on self-importance and how magnanimous they feel by insisting on universal freedom, will oppose anything that is not 100% embracing of “diversity” everywhere all the time. The result is a nation that can make no fundamental decisions and will soon fragment because of the incompatible values of its population.

We’re divided because the ideology of the Enlightenment panders to us by offering us a more comforting vision of reality. We need freedom, which means freedom from oppression, which means that we’re oppressed (because we need freedom) and therefore, oppression was our problem all along. Not the drinking, not the disorganization, not the confusion, oh no! We were oppressed. It wasn’t our fault. Someone made us non-equal, and really we’re equal, and so everything went bad. Now that we’ve made this trivial fix by beating back some oppressor, another Hitler or Xerxes, everything is going to be just fine.

This fits into another illusion, what Stephen Pinker calls the “blank slate” and I call the “I can be anything I want to be just by wishing for it hard enough” theory:

The theory fits well with a number of the assumptions that have dominated educational philosophy for years. The movements that took flower in the mid-20th century have argued for the essential sameness of all healthy human beings and for a policy of social justice that treats all people the same. Above all, many educators have adhered to the social construction of reality—the idea that redefining the way we treat children will redefine their abilities and future successes. (Perhaps that’s what leads some parents to put their faith in “Baby Einstein” videos: the hope that a little nurturing television will send their kids to Harvard.) – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Every child is a little genius. Every child can do anything they want to. Think of how empowering that feels! Everyone will be happy now. There will be no more conflict, no more death, and all my neighbors crammed in twenty thousand to the square mile will have no reason to want to kill me. Finally, we’ve ended history — that horrible process rooted in natural selection, where constant wars and violence determined who got to be on top — and replaced it with a progressive Utopia of fairness, equality, justice and peace.

Of course, that view doesn’t make sense mathematically. You don’t solve equations by making sure each side of the equation is happy just how it is. You get in there, put them at war with one another, and find an equivalency of one to the others, which lets you translate into common terms what comes next. The equation for humanity is our ongoing history and evolution, and it’s not over just because we invented the internal combustion engine and the 3D television.

Yet as we want to surge forward into history, something holds us back. An assumption so basic we cannot even speak of it, for fear of violating a taboo, like claiming the sky is green and the grass blue. Increasingly, people are seeing it’s possible that our fatal assumption is the Enlightenment, and it’s good to see it — like all reactionary illusions — fade away.

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