Enlightenment and Social Hope
ANALYSIS, 16 Apr 2018
In his 1784 essay on the nature of Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant declared: “Enlightenment is liberation from self-imposed immaturity.” He also noted that, if I may be so bold as to paraphrase: “We live in an age of enlightenment, but we do not yet live in an enlightened age.” Kant’s observations ought to give us pause. They are worth pondering. They are as relevant today as they were in the late 18th century. To reflect upon them with the seriousness they deserve, we might begin by noting that one hundred years later, another German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, said of the same Prussian country in which Kant wrote his revolutionary Critique of Pure Reason: “This nation has made itself stupid on purpose.”
Nietzsche’s observation applies to America today. So does the maxim by George Santayana: “Those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” Let us then pause a moment to reflect upon the possibility – indeed, the necessity – of what Richard Oxenberg calls “heart-centered rationality.” Heart-centered rationality is a way of referring to The Golden Rule, revived by Martin Buber in the Kantian-based ethics of his book I and Thou. Kant and Buber argue for the innate dignity of every person; a dignity worthy of respect. In order, then, to put an end to what the post-Kantian philosopher Hegel called “the slaughter-bench of history,” we need an ethical, educational, and cultural revolution; one in which cooperation has primacy over competition, and which embraces what the Dalai Lama calls “a common religion of kindness.”
Accordingly, we must recognize that our collective survival now depends upon a global commitment to what might best be called The Enlightenment Project. This, of course, returns us to Kant’s definition of enlightenment, which I would now like to elaborate with reference to other major figures in the history of philosophy and the pursuit social justice. We might begin by noting that during America’s wars on Puerto Rico and the Philippines, Mark Twain declared: “America’s flag should be a skull-and-crossbones.” And when Mahatma Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilization, he replied: “I think it would be a good idea.”
Liberation from self-imposed immaturity is liberation from social conditioning. Liberation from social conditioning is escape from Plato’s cave. Escape from Plato’s cave involves appreciation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s tragic dictum that “man is born free, but is everywhere in chains” – what Eric Fromm calls “chains of illusion.”
To break the chains of illusion is to become what Albert Camus calls a “lucid rebel.” A lucid rebel engages in Promethean protest against the vast ignorance that Buddha recognized as the primary cause of suffering. Ignorance, Buddha said, manifests primarily as greed, hatred, craving, clinging, and delusion. To overcome such ignorance is to embrace the point of Karl Marx’s observation: “The demand to abandon illusions about our condition is a demand to abandon the conditions which require illusion.”
For example, the primary function of the U.S. military is make the world safe for the Fortune 500. The primary function of U.S. education is to ignorate. To awaken people to these nefarious facts, Martin Luther King declared: “Wealth, poverty, racism, and war – these four always go together.” Hence the only way to move from an age of enlightenment to an enlightened age is to recognize that “these four” vices are inextricably entwined with pervasive political sophistry, a lapdog mainstream news media, and jingoistic pseudo-history in what Gore Vidal calls “The United States of Amnesia.” Equally relevant here is Mark Twain’s observation: “It is easier to fool people than to convince them they are being fooled.” Also worth noting is that Emerson, Twain, and William James were members of The Anti-Imperialism League. The point is this: The U.S. will never be the country it ought to be, and will never be at peace – either at home or abroad – until it eliminates Presidential pardons, throws corporate and Presidential criminals in prison, conscientiously repents for America’s Indochina Holocaust (euphemistically called The Vietnam War), dismantles the American empire (the largest and most globally devastating in world history), and transfers most of the Pentagon budget to an educational system in which schools are gardens and palaces of self-actualization, enlightenment, and cooperative creative evolution.
Standing before Michelangelo’s statue of David, the poet Rilke said: “I must change my life.” A Catholic bishop, after reading the Dalai Lama’s autobiography, said in his New York Times book review: “We must change our lives.” Hence we might conclude that Kant implicitly points to a national motto that ought to read: “Treat all people always as ends in themselves, rather than merely as means” to personal gain. Hence also – as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Kant would applaud – we should revise America’s Pledge of Allegiance to read: “I pledge allegiance to the planet and to all the people and creatures on her; one ecosystem, with nourishment and beauty for all.”
During America’s wars on Puerto Rico and the Philippines, Mark Twain declared: “America’s flag should be a skull-and-crossbones.” And when Mahatma Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilization, he replied: “I think it would be a good idea.”
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 16 Apr 2018.
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