x-posted at orange
I see trend passing, like a dark storm cloud over western civilization. I cloud of immaturity, ignorance, superstition, regressive hatred, and self-loathing in the mind of western man (including women in that statement). In just the last week:
“[Frisco, Texas]…School board members have voted to not renew the contract of a veteran art teacher who was reprimanded after one of her fifth-grade students saw a nude sculpture during a school trip to a museum.”
“A leading German opera house unleashed a furious debate over free speech Tuesday by pulling a production over fears it posed a security risk because of a scene featuring the severed heads of Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad.
The Deutsche Oper said it had decided “with great regret” to cancel a planned production of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” after Berlin security officials warned of an “incalculable risk” because of scenes dealing with Islam, as well as other religions.”
So I ask the question: What is Enlightenment?
Bear with me, in patience, as I build my argument and come back to the above stories at the end of the post.
Immanuel Kant had this answer, which I am inclined to agree with (in a Western sense of the Age of Enlightenment, not the Buddhist sense of Enlightenment).
Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] “Have courage to use your own understanding!”–that is the motto of enlightenment.
Intellectual history shows that in the early and mid-seventeen hundreds, people like Rousseau, Herder, Voltaire, Goethe, Schiller, Kant, etc. started to link philosophy and language into a societal and political movement. The material result is evidenced in the American Revolution and the following French revolution and the birth of the bourgeois nation-state. The Forefathers of the US revolution were heavily influenced by these people and embraced what is known as liberal humanism. These ideas were written down and manifested in 1789 in the US, manifested the US Constitution; in France as the Rights of Man.
It is reported that President Bush once said, “The Constitution is just a piece of paper” – and he is absolutely right. It is only a piece of paper. It is a piece of paper just as those green pieces of paper that come out of the US Treasury and pieces of paper. What is the actual use of those pieces of paper? Well, I could roll one up and sniff white powder up my nose with it, that’s a use; I could take a piece of paper entitled The US Constitution and wipe my ass with it, that’s a use as well. But these documents are significant because of the ideas behind them, their exchange value, in the form of an idea that we place on them that is greater than the use value [see Marx and exchange value vs. use value].
These are ideas, represented by an object, that give value. The people mentioned above had ideas (ideas>ideals>idealism). Thomas Jefferson, a man of Enlightenment ideals of his age, believed that a man should work in the fields all day then go home and read Homer. So how could what we are seeing in the world happen?
The Age of Reason gave in to the Age of Enlightenment and within Enlightenment came the revolt against cold, hard reason with the movement of Romanticism. An idea in which the inner “Geist” or spirit of the human being rebelled against the hard reason of logic. See, philosophers like Kant and Hegel devised metaphysical philosophical systems of absolutes, totality. Total systems. I mentioned that philosophy had a great influence on political thought. These total, absolute systems had influence too [total>totality>totalitarianism]. A good source for the curious reader is Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and Adorno/Horkheimer “The Dialectic of the Enlightenment”. Hegel’s Dialectic in Phenomenology of the Spirit was a total system but it dealt with the metaphysical stages of human consciousness. Marx used Hegel’s system but replaced the “Geist” with materialism, what we can touch and feel, but still his thinking was a total system. See where I am going with this? The Dialectic theory stipulates that we start with a Thesis, it encounters an Antithesis, and they violently clash and merge into a Synthesis. Hegel’s violence was metaphysical in the form of ideas; Marx’s was material in the form of revolution.,
So what is Enlightenment, the beginning of Modernism? It started out as a good idea, the bourgeois rebellion against aristocratic authoritarianism. But how did it produce so many horrors? The evolution of intellectual theory shows a line of cause and effect of how that happened. What we are now locked into is a reaction against further dialectic progress, but humanity cannot stop it. So we see violence, we see a regression to ideas that are pre-Enlightenment: the censure of art as mentioned above, the dismantling of early Enlightenment ideas such as the Rights of Man as witnessed this week with the “Torture” Bill. It is an urged to regress and react to simplelr times in which it is not mandatory to think critically, or as Kant said above, to a self-imposed immaturity. The entertainment industry helps this along greatly with “Survivor”; no farmer is going home to read Homer.
No student is going to an art museum in Frisco, Texas and no one will see Indomeneo in Berlin. The ideals behind the Constitution are under attack; they are the “quaint” ideals of an era of liberal humanism before the industrial revolution. Why? Because the ideals of the humanities teach humanity in all of our strengths and weaknesses. The humanities teach progression forward and the is a worldwide attempt now a days to stifle that. As an old Professor of mine once said “They won’t come and arrest literature professors, they’ll arrest mathematic and science professors because they teach the indisputable truth, in literature, it always represents the national culture and therefore is used to indoctrinate…they need us.
What happened this last week in Frisco, Berlin, and Washington are only symptoms of a greater disease: the disease of reactionary fear to progress in an overdue turning point in history to a new age.