Sunday, 21 January 2007

Who's against the Enlightenment?

Although the Enlightenment is usually depicted as an intellectual movement of 18th century Europe, its ideas were embraced and developed by thinkers and reformists across the world throughout the succeeding centuries. Today the Enlightenment ethos of promoting free enquiry – based on empirical reasoning – to improve social, political and technological practices for the benefit of human wellbeing in general, remains a source of inspiration to many in overcoming reactionary forces.

Yet far from being universally welcome as a decent and positive philosophy of life to be widely disseminated, the Enlightenment outlook is fiercely attacked by a mix of people. But what have they really got against the advocacy for rationality, tolerance and progress? There are at least three different camps.

First, there are the romantic tribalists, people on the authoritarian right who look back fondly to a time when they could be in charge and flaunt their primitive passions without having to seek to understand the needs of the ‘others’ – be these women, non-whites, the poor or any other group which was in those days utterly excluded or ignored. They see the Enlightenment as a bringer of soulless reason wiping away the ties and values which bound people (or their particular sub-set) together. They resent being told to engage with others in reasonable and respectful terms when they want to be left to their long held prejudices to view others as inferior or alien. They think this eradicates what stirs their pride and cultural heritage, when all it does is to facilitate the growth of broader and deeper emotional bonds beyond the flawed ties of inherited bigotry.

Secondly, there are the repressed people on the puritanical extremes of both the right and the left. You can spot them easily by their tendency to rant against the 1960s precisely because that decade embodies the modern flowering of the Enlightenment rejection of false self-denial. The leading Enlightenment figures stressed cordiality in relationships and a sensible exercise of self-control to function as an effective human being, but they refused to accept arbitrary limits handed down to stop people exploring new ways of making life more bearable, indeed enjoyable. And what the Enlightenment celebrated – the liberation of natural and harmless human desires for comfort, excitement and fulfillment – is what repressed puritans detest as mindless craving for pleasures which should be locked away lest civilization collapses under the weight of irresponsibility.

Thirdly, we have those, whose perspective is basically of the anarchic left, complaining incessantly that proponents of the Enlightenment philosophy try to impose a narrow Western-centric viewpoint on the rest of the world. But what is being put forward for universalising is a set of practices which have found to be better for human existence – tolerance for differences, respect for the law, equal treatment of citizens, prevention of torture, etc. It is odd that while these strident relativists should oppose the promotion of these practices (from which they themselves benefit) across the world as a kind of objectionable cultural imperialism, they stay silent about the undeniable desirability of the other fruits of Enlightenment thinking – such as experimental-based medical advancement.

Some critics even randomly select a few features of the Enlightenment and link it to Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism as a way to secure condemnation by partial association. But anyone who views the Enlightenment ethos as a whole will see that it is not about cold reason displacing all emotional ties, allowing desires to run wild without any constraint, or forcing strange Western practices on other cultures in a damaging way. Least of all, its central concern for human decency and free enquiry renders it the firmest opponent of any form of totalitarianism. It is supportive of greater liberty for people to pursue happiness, within a framework of cooperative empirical reasoning, so that all can get a better chance for a good life, and none gets victimized for the class, race or gender they were born into.

People who hate what the Enlightenment stands for have serious difficulties in accepting attempts to break down the barriers in every part of organisation hierarchies, every family, every country, every aspect of social and political life, which still block individuals from developing their capacity to reason, love, and build a better life in partnership with others. They may appear in different guises, but they share a common contempt for the mission to secure human progress through continuous and open learning. At every turn, the Enlightenment outlook must be defended against them.

2 comments:

Ian McCormick said...

Thanks for taking the time to offer your views on this topic! You offer a refeshng and robust defence of the core values of enlightened thinking and their significance for the contemporary world. The attack on enlightenment in academia has reached absurd proportions. One 'Reader' recently told me: the path from the enlightenment project to a totalitarian system is now widely accepted. But I sense that the fashion might begin to move in the other direction as more nuanced and balanced histories are published and discussed.

Henry Benedict Tam said...

Blaming the suppression of reason inherent in totalitarianism on Enlightenment thinking is illogical and ahistorical. The Terror in the French Revolution soared as the Enlightenment-minded advocates were shouted down and executed. But Ian, as you say, maybe things are beginning to change.