COUNTERCULTURAL POST-MODERN REFLECTIONS ON THE ENLIGHTENMENT: WAS IT REALLY, IN THE FINAL ANALYSIS ALL THAT ‘ENLIGHTENED’ AFTER ALL?
I’m currently re-reading some of my old text books from college and university. There were some courses way back when I was in my late teens and early twenties which I took in college and university which I either failed or abandoned because I was suffering from Depression at the time and was not able to study properly as I would’ve liked to. But, being the bit of a pack rat that I am, I bought and kept the text books from those courses all these years and remember reading bits and pieces of them enough to want to eventually go back to them now that my mental health is a lot more on the up and up in my late forties. That or they were just texts where the prof had assigned just certain parts of the book for required reading and I’d managed to pass the course without ever having delved any further into the book.
In any case, I was lying on the couch alone at home a few days back contemplating divine mysteries, when I all of a sudden said to myself out loud: ‘Are you reading a book these days? Go read a book!!!’ It dawned on me that here I was all alone, with time on my hands in perfect quiet and solitude, and that I DIDN’T have a single book on the go!!! Shame on me!!! I’d recently managed the Herculean feat of ploughing through the Bible (all 1300+ pages of it), the Koran (all 750+ pages) and Mein Kampf (650+ pages, a must read for anybody who wonders where we’ve come from and where we’re at and where we’re going!!!), and now found myself without a shred of reading material currently on the front burner. I found this to be strange, since I have a whole apartment full of books just waiting to be read.
So I had a brain wave and thought of one I’d taken off the shelf for a second time already once before since I’d first read it in college. It’s called ‘The Great Political Theories, Volume 2’, which covers the political philosophy of many Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century. I wanted to know more about the Enlightenment. I only knew this period of philosophical thought mostly by reputation and not really by its actual tenets or proponents’ ideas. I knew that it had something to do with the great changes which occurred around the late 18th century in Revolutionary France and that so many people thought that it was the greatest thing since sliced bread.
But really, what or who was being Enlightened, and in doing so, what or who were we supposedly leaving or casting aside or relegating to the dustbin of history in our great march forward towards being ‘Enlightened?’ As it turns out, I myself was to be greatly enlightened by reading this book, and also somewhat dismayed. I found out that the Enlightenment covered a period of philosophical and political thought ranging from roughly the mid seventeenth century and is generally thought to culminate in the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century. It was centred mostly in France and was espoused by people such as Voltaire, Diderot, D’Alembert, Montesquieu and others. It also had proponents in Scotland such as David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, and Francis Hutcheson. In Germany, the movement was mostly espoused by people such as Immanuel Kant and Moses Mendelssohn.
What I found ever so shocking, when I delved deeper into this book, was the profound hostility that they felt towards organized religion and the Monarchy. Anything which smacked of tradition and which was not ‘scientific’ or ‘rational’ was to be rooted out and summarily discarded. It was as if all of a sudden, humanity had discovered a new ‘God’, which was ‘science’ and ‘reason’ and that anything which was based on faith or belief in anything intangible or metaphysical and which could not be proven beyond the shadow or a reasonable doubt using empirical measurement with the five senses, was complete balderdash and was hence being used by powerful men as superstitious poppycock to enslave and oppress men who should and had the natural right to be ‘free’ and to achieve their full potential as humans, ‘free’ from all of these oppressive institutional, hierarchical, ecclesiastical, monarchical, theological and superstitious constraints.
I was blown away. Now I understood where today’s age of unbelief, non-belief, dis-belief, Atheism, Agnosticism, Communism, and Republicanism all came from. It all has stemmed from our desire to be ‘FREE’, to be ‘LIBERATED’, to be ‘ENLIGHTENED’, to have the light of knowledge and wisdom shed on us and to give us the security within our being that all is well within our personal cosmos as well as the universe at large.
What a pity that such a great bursting forth of knowledge and learning and intellectual ferment should have led us to such a great and utter state of spiritual bereftness. Never before in the history of humanity have I seen, heard and felt such a great need on the part of my compatriots and those in other countries around me, the deep-seated desire and need for answers to the very basic and essential questions such as ‘who am I?’, ‘where do I come from?’ ‘Where am I going when I die?’ ‘Is there a power greater than us guiding the universe?’ ‘Am I able to know and to be in communion with that power?’ ‘What is the meaning of life?’ ‘Why am I here on this earth?’ ‘What’s my mission in life?’
Back in the days of the Enlightenment, very powerful men in the nobility, the Monarchy and the Church controlled a disproportionate quantity of money, power, property and prestige and were very large and dominant personalities on the national and local scene in their respective countries. It was only natural that a backlash emerged against abuse of such important spiritual and temporal authority and power. What I think was the fatal error was that, in the mad rush to chop off the heads of kings and queens and to make the ‘furrows of the fields run red with blood’, as the famous line from the French national anthem so chillingly states, and to level the playing field by making property and civil rights available to more people, and by making knowledge and hence power more readily accessible to all, is that people have forgotten about the crucial and essential nature of the faith experience.
Faith, as such, is NOT an empirically-measurable commodity or element. It is intrinsically intangible. It dwells within the realm of the sacred, not the profane. If we were to embrace the so-called ‘enlightenment’ philosophy to its logical extreme or conclusion, we would, as Condorcet put it, ‘…therefore come when the sun will shine only on free men who know no other master but their reason, when tyrants and slaves, priests and their stupid or hypocritical instruments will exist only in works of history and on the stage; and when we shall think of them only to pity their victims and their dupes; to maintain ourselves in a state of vigilance by thinking of their excesses; and to learn how to recognize and so to destroy, by force of reason, the first seeds of tyranny and superstition, should they ever dare to reappear amongst us.’
If one were to think of the French Revolution or of the situation in Europe in general in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, one might easily understand where Condorcet was coming from, in ‘light’, so to speak, of the great poverty and deprivation in which the average person lived in those days, and how the Church, nobility and Crown often were responsible for perpetuating this situation. However, one only has to think of the very violent processes of change which were wrought by science and the Enlightenment to see just how much we have lost in our mad rush towards ‘progress’, ‘freedom’ ‘liberty’, ‘prosperity’, ‘growth’, ‘knowledge’, ‘science and technology’ and all of the other mantras that are now invoked in today’s Post-Modern world which are a result of all of this ‘Enlightenment’.
For example, the Enlightenment brought us the age of Empiricism which not only gave us great strides in science and technology, but many if not all of these discoveries were first applied to the sphere of warfare for the design and deployment of ‘better’ and more ‘efficient’ methods of butchering each other in battle, such as machine guns, artillery, tanks, missiles, nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and so on. In fact, it is common knowledge that virtually all scientific and technological research and development on this planet is first and foremost applied to military use then is ‘trickled down’, to civilian applications thereafter. As Iron Maiden put it in their song ‘Two Minutes to Midnight’ off the ‘Power Slave’ album, ‘we oil the jaw of the war machine and feed it with our babies.’
All of this is a result of our ‘Enlightened’ approach to the acquisition of information, knowledge, reason, science, technology, freedom, liberty, and so on. It’s a pity that the abuses of Condorcet’s era motivated him to throw off the yolk of faith, if he ever had it to begin with and to embrace such an ethereal sort of ‘religion’ as ‘reason’. How can humanity hope to achieve true ‘Enlightenment’ solely through its own power of reason, without the guidance and the true light of faith? In John 20:29 Christ said ‘blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’
The faith experience is inherently one borne of that which is intangible, metaphysical, that which asks us to ‘go out on a limb’, to ‘take that leap of faith’, to fearlessly forge into the unknown, not necessarily to know it fully and completely, for this would only push the frontiers of the profane pursuit of the empirically-measurable and quantitatively verifiable to new levels of desanctification and desacralization, somewhat like a virgin, forested frontier being de-forested and colonized by subdivisions and big box stores: the initial push into the area is relatively small and those who go there feel a sense of wonderment and of pioneering spirit of being ‘trail-blazers’. But then it inevitably gets ‘all built up’ as the suburbanites like to say amongst themselves.
The faith experience is always new and mysterious. The Priest even says at Mass as we rise from our pews, ‘Let us proclaim the MYSTERY of faith’, whereupon the assembly of the faithful reply, ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.’ This is a crucial element of the faith experience. We take it on faith that these sacred mysteries, these events which occurred so many thousands of years ago, and which have been documented in the sacred Scriptures through allegorical, mythological, empirical, and legendary writing handed down to us from the ancients, will one day be fulfilled, if not in our lives, then certainly one day, at the coming of the Kingdom.
A priest friend of mine once told me the true meaning of the word ‘science.’ I looked it up, and sure enough, the etymology means, ‘to know’ or ‘to discern’, which relates to ‘to cut’ or ‘to separate’, meaning we take the universe in its entirety and try and ‘cut it up’ or to ‘separate’ it into its different components or to ‘discern’ from whence it came and where we fit into it. In Christianity, the First and Second Commandments say in Exodus 20:3-4 ‘Thou shalt not have any other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth.’ Basically these first two Commandments are asking us to, as Christ would later say in Luke 10:27 ‘…love the Lord thy God with all thy heart; and with all thy soul; and with all thy strength; and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.
So basically, the first things that we are asked to ‘know’ in Christianity and to ‘discern’ is God himself and to love him as we should love our neighbour as ourselves. Just how this ‘science’ got lost in the mad rush to be ‘enlightened’ by ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ is quite disconcerting. We seem to have become consumed by the mad pursuit of what we think is ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’, to the point that so many of us are now consumed and enslaved by our so-called ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’, in the form of tobacco addiction, street drugs, alcohol, sexual addictions, including pornography, gambling, compulsive eating, shopping, and so on.
The culmination of over two hundred and fifty years of the pursuit of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’, ‘progress’, ‘growth’ ‘prosperity’ has left us with a society which has culminated with two orgiastically-self-indulgent global bouts of blood letting in the twentieth century alone, which cost us over sixty million lives, only to result in a peace which ushered in an era which we thought was going to bring us a lasting sense of social and economic stability by putting our almost blind faith in the new secular ‘religion’ of technocracy and technocratic forms of government management of government-run programs in the fields of health care, education, social services and so on as well as ‘scientific management’ of our economy. We were also sold on the ‘religion’ of consumerism as a balm for the social ills and deprivations wrought by the two World Wars and the Great Depression, whose effects were felt worldwide and, it was felt, greater and more equitable material prosperity as well as more equitable access to health care, education and social services, would inevitably lead to a more ‘Just Society’ as Pierre Trudeau called it.
Well, what exactly has happened as a result of all of this? What we have now is massive indebtedness at all levels of government, having tried to wage an all out war both on our enemies militarily abroad and on our domestic ills of poverty and inequality here at home. Our obsession with ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ and ‘growth’ has led to a society which is now all-consumed with consumption of all sorts, at the expense of the family unit, marriage, our spiritual well-being, and our physical health. We are exhorted to consume massive amounts of food, clothing and consumer electronics in the lead-up to Christmas, which isn’t even billed as Christmas anymore, then are exhorted in the new year to massively consume diet products and gym memberships because we overdid it during Christmas!!!
We are literally ‘growing’ at an alarming rate in all the wrong ways: Our debt is growing nationally and personally, and so is our waistline, along with the size of the enormous SUVs and trucks which our citizens are exhorted to purchase so as to maintain their status as being ‘Patriotic Americans.’ The size of our homes is growing, yet the number of children we are having is shrinking and the amount of stuff we are filling these huge houses with is growing exponentially and the yards where the fewer children are NOT playing outside is GROWING SMALLER.
Is this what Condorcet envisaged when he wrote what he did those many years ago? I think not. I think the Enlightenment has wrought some very perverse effects in our western world and we are now paying very dearly for them. We’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water. It’s time that we re-discover the true light of faith.
For we are all Children of the Light and we were all born of the Light and we have all come to bear witness to the Light. This, my dear brothers and sisters is true Enlightenment. I’m glad I’m feeling better now that I’m in my late forties and have achieved my own form of ‘Enlightenment’ through the miracle of psychopharmacology, as well as a supportive family, the Twelve Step Program, but also by renewing the practice of my faith and in coming into conscious contact with the God of my understanding, by ‘discerning’ and seeking to ‘know’ His presence in my daily life and in all that I do everyday. As our Lord said in Mathew 6:33 ‘But seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.’
This, I consider to be the true ‘science’ of faith, a science not based on the profane basis of empirical measurement using our five senses, but by our ability to discern the Spirit dwelling in our own being, to be able to become aware of our own spirit consciousness, by being able to partake of moments of quiet communion, of reflection, especially in the morning and in the evening, before our day becomes pre-occupied by temporal worries.
Then and only then will we know the true ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’, of ‘prosperity’ and ‘growth’ of the faith experience. I’d like to thank my old college textbook, my moment of reflection on the couch and the spirit of our dearly departed ‘Enlightenment Luminary’ Condorcet for making this all so much more ‘clear’ and ‘full of light’. Amen.