As usual, a large part of my December holiday was spent reading, thinking and endeavouring to write, in between drinking copious amounts of alcohol, partying like I was some mad teenager and of course spending quality time with family.
I ended up delving into some of the writings and the thinking of Immanuel Kant and it was a particular Kantian quote which got me thinking about the concepts of: development, growth, modernity and progress. Being one of the leading lights of the so-called Age of Enlightenment, which followed the Age of Reason, Kant defined enlightenment as, “man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is the tutelage when its cause lies not in a lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Have courage to use your own reason. That is the motto of enlightenment.”
Upon reading Kant’s definition of Enlightenment, I began to ask myself a whole series of questions. Firstly, is the modern, rational enlightened man any better than men of previous eras? Has humanity actually progressed at all post the Age of Enlightenment and the Age of Reason? Does modernity necessarily imply human progression? Yes, I know we have made major scientific and technological advances which have given us greater control of and dominion over the elements of nature, but does that necessarily equate to progress? I know we are more affluent and enjoy the best standards of living that humanity has ever known, but does that kind of economic development and growth necessarily mean we have progressed?
The primarily belief of the post-Enlightenment man was that man could actually perfect himself through his own effort and by asserting his own autonomy, free of external influences. There was the view that the rational individual could get beyond received opinions, traditions, customs and dogma and attain a supreme understanding through critical reasoning. There was the core belief that man could perfect himself through reason and rationalism. As the German philosopher, Hegel, put it, “education is the art of making men ethical.” In other words, the enlightened, educated, rational, civilised man should be much better than for example the men of the Barbarian era, but is that necessarily so? Are educated people any better as human beings than those who are supposedly uneducated and irrational?
Well, the post-enlightenment era and specifically, the twentieth century that we have just come out of, produced: two World Wars which led to the loss of tens of millions of lives unnecessarily; Stalin and the devastating pogroms in the old Soviet Union; Hitler and the evils of Nazism; Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Mao’s despotism which killed tens of millions in China; Idi Amin and his craziness in Uganda, Rwanda in the 1990s, Pinochet in Chile etc.
At a more general level, despite all our scientific and technological advances, we still have people dying of starvation when there is enough food in the world to feed each individual human being, children dying of curable diseases because some people want to make a profit, we watch as innocent citizens are shot and killed only to be written off as “collateral damage”, despite the many democratic advances and movements toward open societies and freedom, tyranny still reigns in so many parts of the world and economic interests still take greater precedence over the quest for the promotion of human rights and freedom in the conduct of international relations.
We have a global economic system that constantly rewards the strong and powerful, whilst punishing the weak, we have a global economic crisis that was primarily caused by the greed and selfishness of a rich, powerful, educated, rational, enlightened elite. So what is this whole enlightenment about if we are not any better as human beings? What is the purpose of all our learning, scientific discoveries and technological advancements, if we can’t create a world which is more united, peaceful and kind to its peoples?
I was reminded of the words of a few wise sages, whilst I was busy asking myself all these questions. I was reminded of T.S Eliot’s haunting words, “endless invention, endless experiment, brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness…Where is the life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?”
Albert Einstein’s words where ringing in my ear, “the modern age has perfect means but confused ends. “ It dawned on me that some of the greatest thinkers of times past had asked themselves the same questions. Elevated by fellow men as “great thinkers,” they found themselves asking what the purpose of this ‘enlightenment” was. They found themselves wondering if reason and rationalism was all it was cut out to be. Perhaps there is something out there beyond reason, rationalism and the autonomous individual, or as Blaise Pascal put it, perhaps, “the supreme function of reason is to show man that some things are beyond reason.”
Or perhaps we should all be pessimists, like the poet Edgar Allan Poe who said, “I have no faith in human perfectability. I think that human exertion will have no appreciable effect upon humanity. Man is now only more active-not more happy-nor more wise.” Or maybe Phillip Yancey’s words concerning humanity are prophetic, “we know how things work but not why.” Maybe that’s our main issue?
So is the modern, rational, educated, enlightened man any better? Have we, as human beings progressed at all? What is progress anyway? Was Oscar Wilde correct in saying that, “our ambition should be to rule ourselves, the true kingdom for each one of us, and true progress is to know more and be more?”Have we become more just because we know more? Have we mastered ourselves through all our learning or are we just learning to master our external environment more whilst still struggling with the internal? I’ll let you ponder on that a little more, while I leave you with the words of Tom Howard, “modern man is a bleak business. To our chagrin we discover that the declarations of autonomy have issued not in a race of free, masterly men, but rather in a race that can be described by its poets and dramatists only as bored, vexed, frantic, embittered and sniffling.”