The Enlightenment. Its the basis of our secular society and ints values underpin much of the consumer economy. Its values have dominated the public sphere since the dawn of the industrial age. This liberal, rational, humanitarian way of thought has enjoyed near hegemonic status and is and has constantly being attacked from within and without. Fascism may even be one of its bastard children. Is the Enlightenment still relevant?
In retrospect, the Enlightenment is more complicated and more reasonable than before. The reforming condition has become our natural reflex whether we admire it or are indifferent it is often a compelling force to be used as an alternative to public hangings of politicians, reigns of terror, heretics pitched into the flames; or has it evolved into ingenious mechanisms for public control, stifling of dissent, and a safety valve against fundamental and profound social change as opposed to half -hearted, tepid and pacifying measures.
Maybe it all comes down to method. The secularism of the philosophes was at last partly a sectarian quarrel with Christianity. The philosophes paid a price for their bellicosity: being at war, they had no perspective on what they persisted in thinking of as the enemy; they could never fairly assess the contours of Christian thought, Christian art, Christian humanitarianism. In short, Christian civilization. Like today’s exposure of the wickedness of priests and the continuing contradictions in Holy Writ, the philosophes back then started this cycle of questioning; reaching the sacred precincts that normally escape scrutiny which is the basis for our own dissent industry and targets of choice of Academia for better and worse: The legitimacy of dominant authorities, the conduct of the ruling business class, and the logic of state religion and ideology.
Gibbon’s cynical observations on the religious policies of the Roman emperors and Voltaire’s sardonic dissection of the apologetic gymnastics of contemporary theologians may have been deficient in humanity, but they point directly to the Enlightenment’s most significant contribution to its time, and if we will only listen, to ours; they are direct assaults on the formidable citadel of untested belief and can be linked, questions of academic merit aside, to the Norman Finkelsteins, Hitchens, Zizeks, Hedges, Naomi Klein’s et al. who parry and jab and who in turn followed the trail of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud who exercised their critical faculties and devloped their critical techniques not for some malicious private pleasure but to penetrate beyond appearances to realities, to see through the cant of theologians, politicians, and historians to expose people’s unconscious self-deceptions for the sake of greater jurisdiction over events.
Today, our self doubt seems as reasonable as the Enlightenment’s self-confidence. The threat and temptation of unreason is everywhere. It is not merely that we have discovered the powers of unreason; reason itself seems to have gone mad. The worst creations of our time such as consumerism and complementary manipulation, trans-global capital flows, mass murder; are all products of invention, of calculation, of experiement of practical reason. The Enlightenment’s Frankenstein in the service of profit, degradation and the killing machine. Science is equally known for its collateral damage, a long and treacherous road from Francis Bacon’s time.
Still, with all our anguish, there are certain elements of soundness that keep things stuck together. Somehow. The implosion of part of Europe, the failures of foreign policy, the Arab revolts, suggest that amidst turmoil, ugliness and suffering, a better global civilization may be approaching. Just as four hundred years ago thinkers advanced the novel and utterly subversive notion that people of different religious persuasions could actually live together in the same land mass, under the same sovereign, so we are witnessing the spread of equally wild ideas that warfare with overarching objectives is impractical and impossible and that corporate power is ample cause for concern in this age where the corporation disposes more wealth and clout than many countries. What we have today is better than Nothing. And the rebellions with Occupy Wall Street and the great political divides are still rich in ambiguous and unexplored possibilities.