Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Definition of the Enlightenment

Terry Castle offers this as the "central insight" of the European Enlightenment:
It's so familiar to us, perhaps, that we have lost sight of its momentousness: that individual human beings are endowed with critical faculties and powers of moral discernment, and as a result, have a right, if not the obligation, to challenge oppressive, unjust, and degrading patterns of authority. Over the course of the 18th century and into the 19th, more and more educated men (and a few brave women) felt intellectually empowered enough to criticize previously sacrosanct "received ideas": traditional religious beliefs, established forms of government, accepted modes of social, legal, and economic organization, the conventional dynamics of family life, relations between men and women, adults and children—all those cognitive grids through which we customarily make sense of the world.

At its most potent, the critique was severe—world-changing. A host of Enlightenment freethinkers—Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Hume, Mary Wollstonecraft, Adam Smith—articulated it in passionate and various ways: that the venerable cognitive models human beings had mobilized over the centuries to explain "the nature of things" were often nothing more than self-reinforcing and barbaric "superstition." Taken for dogma, these man-made belief systems had produced a host of ills: savage religious and political strife, the commercial exploitation of the many by the few, the enslavement and genocidal killing of masses of people, the degradation of women, children, animals, and the natural world—century upon century, in fact, of unfathomable global suffering.
I once found the Enlightenment's great rebellion as stirring as Castle does. (She writes, about Kant's motto Sapere aude, dare to think, "I confess: I first read those words over 25 years ago, and they have never ceased to thrill me.") But the sad truth is that freed from the shackles of tradition we have made great technical advances but done no better than medieval people on the big moral questions. If any century was defined by "unfathomable global suffering" it was the twentieth.

I remain a man of the Enlightenment, and even if it were possible to re-establish the depth of tradition that guided pre-modern societies I would not support it. But the era of total warfare ought to make us more humble about both our own powers of reasoning and the wisdom to be found in traditional social arrangements.


David said...

Castle's essay (on both this and the parental-rejection point) reminds my of a phrase of that I heard Steven Schiff use once: "the exalted turmoil that is the hallmark of great art." Castle is clearly in love with such turmoil (as she confesses), and such turmoil may be useful in both personal and occasionally even social development, but fundamentally it's not a legitimate social form (which is one reason that it's both exalted and in turmoil). Socially and politically its end is conflict and death, whether experienced by one of Castle's heroes or by someone like Savonarola (who was as much a social rebel, defier of heirarchies, and disappointment to his parents as any philosophe or freedom rider).

John said...

Agreed. She, like so many academics of her generation, loves to see things shaken up. Since she is only a literature professor, this will do no harm, and maybe some of her students should be trying to get more distance from their parents. But carried into politics this attitude is what gave us, for example, the Cultural Revolution in China.