What exactly is the crisis at the heart of the Enlightenment, and how is it political?
The Threefold Crisis Of “The Enlightenment”
To answer this question, it is first necessary to define the terms, both “The Enlightenment” and “Political.” There have been several attempts to define “The Enlightenment,” and each thinker’s take adds to the complexities of the movement. My personal favorite and the one I will use in the following response comes mostly from Kant, but includes some additional elements: The Enlightenment is a social movement in which humanity is told to use courage and exhibit individual reason, something that is claimed to be a component in every human being, to turn away from preexisting truths and find humanity’s real universal truths. For the purposes of this response, I will define “Political” to mean relating to the public affairs of society, necessarily directed by those in power.
The “crisis of the Enlightenment” has three major components in my mind:
- It sends a contradictory message: it demands the public to think freely for itself, but in thinking freely for themselves, the public is thereby submitting to authority and merely obeying the command to think for themselves.
- Human beings naturally do not want to find Enlightenment; they would rather be directed by authority and be relieved of the burden to think for themselves.
- The Enlightenment claims its goal is to seek universal truth, something that — due to the inherent perceptual rather than static nature of truth — is not possible.
The first crisis stems from Kant’s “What Is Enlightenment?” In this essay, Kant suggests that Enlightenment is man’s emergence from immaturity and gaining of courage to challenge previously held ideas. While there is a lot to be said about Kant’s definition, the main crisis I see with it is that it is inherently contradictory. The man is lecturing the general public about free thinking; he is telling everyone how they must think a certain way using reason to be “Enlightened.” Kant goes as far as to say, “If it is now asked whether we at present live in an enlightened age, the answer is: No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment” (Kant). This sentence suggests that Kant’s goal is for everyone to “understand confidently … without outside guidance.” The only problem is that he is giving that very guidance! He expects his work to last as a guidance for people to understand how to think without a guidance.
Dostoevsky’s “The Inquisitor” puts Kant’s fallacies into a concrete example and presents the second crisis of The Enlightenment. In his story, a priest who preaches the word of God and Jesus imprisons Jesus upon his return to Earth. The point illustrated in the story is that humans want to be enslaved and want limited freedom; they want to be told what to do by authority. The priest shows that The Enlightenment, like religion, is merely creating a sanctity out of authority. Once that sanctity is removed, all that is left is raw power, and that is exactly what people need in life. “So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship,” (Dostoevsky). Here, the “crisis of The Enlightenment” becomes a political crisis: that human beings inherently do not want to be enlightened, and would rather be told what to do by those in power. The priest takes this theory a step further and suggests that the Enlightenment is enticing to humans on the surface, but that ultimately humans don’t know what they really want: “Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering” (Dostoevsky). Therefore, good politicians, and by politicians I mean people in power, will give constituents the impression that they have freedom of thought only to really strip that from them in an effort to make their lives better. If humans naturally reject the essential component of The Enlightenment, they can never achieve what it sets out to accomplish.
On to the third crisis: truth is relative and finding a universal truth is not an achievable goal. This is best told through the story of K and the Priest in Kafka’s “Before The Law.” In that segment, the priest tells K a story about a man who denied entry to “The Law” verbally and listens to it. The man does not challenge the guard who is only verbally telling him that he cannot enter, and the guard himself reveals that he has never seen the law. This story reveals that when humans are told something by a perceived authority, they tend to listen and not think for themselves to challenge it. The priest takes this a step further when K challenges him. The priest says that “The right perception of any matter and a misunderstanding of the same matter do not wholly exclude each other” (Kafka). In essence, nothing is “true” because truth is relative. The priest finally reveals this to K after K poses one final challenge: “‘No,’ said the priest. ‘It is not necessary to accept everything as true. Only as necessary.’” The priest is saying that what is true is dependent on who is in control because that person shapes truth. Therefore, The Enlightenment’s logic cannot hold true. There is no truth that will remain universal throughout the passing of time. Truth will necessarily change as time passes.
Foucault seems to be the closest to understanding the idea that The Enlightenment fails to reconcile reason with perception and can therefore never establish a universal truth. Foucault is a big player in the idea of “reification,” which is just a fancy word for understanding that everything is perceived differently by people because of their different attributes. In other words, we are a product of the world around us. By understanding this, Foucault spends time explaining that modernity is more of “an attitude than as a period in history” (Foucault). He says that attitude is “a voluntary choice made by certain people. In the end, a way of thinking and feeling; a way too, of acting and behaving …” Therefore, Foucault comes the closest to understanding that truth depends on time.
In a much darker way of thinking Horkheimer and Adorno’s “The Dialectic Of The Enlightenment” goes as far as to argue that The Enlightenment itself led to the horrors of the Holocaust. Here, it is important to differentiate between capital “E” Enlightenment and “enlightened thought.” The reality is that if everyone is exhibiting enlightened thought, there will never be an Enlightenment, because everyone will constantly be challenging authority. I know Horkheimer and Adorno see the Enlightenment as a negative thing, but my opinion is that the crisis of the Enlightenment that led to the Holocaust is a direct result of failing to understand the message of the Enlightenment, either that or maybe by taking it a step too far. I think that if people merely understood that they will never find a universal truth, and that it is their duty to continue challenging authority and presented truths – including the authority of Kant who tells them how to think, the Holocaust could have been prevented. Had Kant maybe given the caveat that his ideas too must be challenged along with everyone’s ideas always and that the search for truth is a process and never a result, I think that someone would have objected to the Nazi proposal for universal truth.
Taking a step outside this essay response, there is (at least) one necessary caveat to the answer presented above. It is composed of parts of the discussion that we had in class, taking ideas from multiple different people. In essence, I am doing exactly what the Enlightenment directed me to do: “thinking for myself,” yet still agreeing with the powerful leaders and thinkers, i.e. the professor and other students. I am “thinking but obeying” in a sense here.
But the difference between this response and the thinking that the general public took part of years ago is that they were not aware of their simple submission to authority. I’m not saying that I am superior to those who came before me because I am more aware of my submission, but maybe I’m patting myself on the back too much here. I might also be too optimistic in saying this: Perhaps if Kant, for example, in his essay of The Enlightenment, would have made readers aware that if they practice free thinking and exhibit courage, they would merely be listening and obeying his advice. If Kant added a similar caveat that I am describing here, saying that free thinking would require a group of people to challenge his interpretation of the Enlightenment by exhibiting their own lower-case “e” enlightened thinking, perhaps a consensus could have been reached that there is no such thing as universal truth. (But that in it of itself would have been a universal truth, which would create continued debate and too much head spinning).
The bottom line is the following: I don’t subscribe to the belief that it’s good for people to agree on a universal truth or even to agree that one exists. Disagreement is not just a good thing, it is absolutely essential for progress. Progress is something discussed by all the thinkers we read in class. I am a firm believer that the only way for progress to be made is by disagreement. The only way to pick something up is to use forces going in the opposite direction (two hands or two fingers coming together from opposite sides, for example). You can’t pick something up with all forces going in the same direction. Opposition and debate is the way to do it, not by moving only in the same direction, i.e. a universal truth. It is precisely the moment a large majority of humanity agree on a universal truth is the moment where atrocities like the Holocaust are bound to occur. The marketplace of ideas needs to continuously present new ideas and challenge old ones, and re-evaluate its prior evaluations. The “crisis of The Enlightenment” is bound to repeat itself unless we agree that in virtually all cases, we must disagree.