Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters

According to Anthony Pagden, author of The Enlightenment: And why it still matters, we are children of the enlightenment. What were some of the key characteristics that differentiated the age of enlightenment, as it is sometimes called, from proceeding epochs? Proponents of the enlightenment say our decision making should be lead predominantly by solid reasoning rather than appeal to outside “authorities” who demand unflinching adherence to revealed truths or accepted traditions. They also believe that the world is a global community and that science should be pursued as a means to help humans live better in their world rather than as a tool for societies to justify who should have access to the benefits on offer. All of this sounds good, right? Who could possibly be opposed to these ideas you might ask. Read on.

Pagden provides a decent blow-by-blow description of the fight between those upholding a Medieval worldview, with its emphasis on history, tradition and authority versus the enlightenment and its band of free-thinkers. The book is well organized. It begins with Europeans growing increasingly dissatisfied with the limitations of traditional beliefs established during the middle ages. This dissatisfaction eventually leads to open hostility and the breaking apart of the established order—that old-time partnership between Crown and Church with its “You support me and I’ll support you” mentality.  Just why did the medieval worldview crumble? The system came under harsh scrutiny as a result of the seemingly endless wars of religion raging across Europe and the discovery of the New World. If the unending war years gave Europeans reason to pause and wonder why and how humans can be so brutal and vicious to one another all for the sake of true religion (for context read any history book on the long and bloody Thirty Years War), then the second event, the discovery of North America and lands beyond, absolutely rocked them. It is hard to be confident in your beliefs when there is a big, big world out there filled with people who have very different traditions and seemingly different views of right and wrong. The narrative flows briskly and mostly details the struggles of the great enlightenment thinkers to elucidate their principles in juxtaposition to those upheld by the authorities who stood most to lose from a revaluation of the religious outlook on life. The names should be familiar to you: Francis Bacon, Spinoza, Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume, Newton, Diderot, and Kant to name only a few. That last name, Kant, marks the pinnacle of the enlightenment’s unflinching belief in the superiority of reason. After Kant (and with a nod to Hegel) the estimation and appraisal of humankind’s powers of reasoning took a decidedly downward turn.

Where does that leave us? The enlightenment seems so yesterday to us postmoderns, right?

Not so fast. In the final chapter of the book Pagden strikes a cautionary note. Religious intolerance is again raising its ugly head. We all know the headlines. There is a vicious form of extremism  floating around, an uncritical, unthinking, authoritarian beast that would rather shout stock answers than engage in meaningful debate—because shouting is just easier. Postmodernism with its relativistic spirit may be compounding the problem. Postmodern thinking suggests every culture is equal, every person has their own version of truth and we must respect this form of autonomy. There is no privileged viewpoint to any belief under the sun, no bedrock values of good, truth and beauty. You can see where this is headed. If true and honest critique is forced to bend the knee to unquestionable cultural beliefs then we too might repeat the mistakes for which the enlightenment was the solution. The enlightenment spirit, if I can call it that, hands reason the microphone and gives it plenty of space to talk. We may allow its principles to fade into yesterday but only at our peril.

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