Second that day was Philipp Blom, an engaging speaker and what seems to be a very approachable and warm person. His speech was quite long and it was late so unfortunately many people (including me), were too tired to fully participate but the subjects he touched are very important for the shape of today’s society. He inspired me to read more on these topics (and his books are next on my ever-growing list).
What’s more, he mentioned 2 issues that has been tormenting me for a while, so his speech was of special personal importance – but that will be analyzed on the second part of this article. His main topic was the enlightenment and the criticism it faces. We live in difficult times – even though many could argue that they’re not so difficult as other times in the past. Still, what you experience always affects you more than what you read in history books so people are striving with many problems and tend all too easily to turn fingers upon the “guilty”. Which might not always be guilty at all of course, but we need to point our fingers to someone or something. So many people today think the enlightenment is a failure, either because it had potential but didn’t manage to be radical enough to fully reach it or because its values were not good to begin with and they lead us to an immoral society.
The “not radical enough” side
According to Blom enlightenment gave much less than it actually could, only because the people who are considered to be its prominent figures were too “conservative” in their radicalism. Yes, they did have a vision of a better society and valued reason but they were too comfortable or too afraid to fundamentally question the status quo of the time. It was probably a smart thing to do, you have to see when the world is ready to accept such a change and when it has to be slowly introduced. This resulted of course to many other voices who could profoundly shake the world out of its lethargy being overheard, ignored, lost or forgotten. Oh, there was also the penalty of death, that can shut many mouths too. He mentioned an example which combines a bit of both, the lengthy testament of Meslier, a French priest who lived in the 18th century and who grew to despise his religion because he saw what the church – but also blind belief – did to the people of his province. He was a kind man and loved his people, and denied not only the church but also the existence of a naturally good God in a world where evil, injustice and ignorance even exist. He is apparently well educated in theosophical issues and he knows his bible so his arguments are quite good.
It always surprises me when I read thoughts written in centuries long gone with direct application to today’s modern society. Well, Meslier was much more rational, clever and educated than many people today; how sad is that in the age of information?
Anyway, I’m slightly drifting away from my point. Which was Voltaire, maybe the most prominent figure of the enlightenment. As some of you may have already guessed this book is called the testament of Meslier because it’s just that, his testament. He lived his life in fear of revealing his thoughts – and not unjustifiable, he would lose his job and everything he had, possibly including his life. So this book circulated in the circles of scholars of the age after his death and eventually Voltaire, recognizing its value, decided to publish it. A concise edition of it. By doing so he apparently left out an enormous amount of accusations against the church and god himself – he presented Meslier more as a deist than an atheist. The result: many radical ideas were presented in a much more “submissive” way.
We can see that the pioneers of enlightenment chose a more “conservative” radical way, and these are the values of enlightenment we have today in our minds when we speak about these years. We can however re-evaluate these principles and search even further in the works of those who had a brighter vision of the future.
The “way too radical” side
Yet other people accuse the enlightenment to be too radical, too “reasonable” and thus devoid of emotion and morality. Now the fact that some (too many) people seem to think reason and logic are the opposites of emotion and morality is too an important problem to discuss here – it should get its own article. I wonder however, all these people who talk about the immoral society in which enlightenment has led us, how would they define ethics and moral laws if not by logic? They praise tradition and emotion but can you use these to establish an objective map of human rights and dictate moral behavior?
Traditions are regional and it’s all too easy to see they’re often wrong. Human sacrifice was a tradition in many places once, we didn’t get over this by being more conservative and emotional but by being more reasonable. The same goes for slavery, women rights, working conditions etc. Our society sure has its issues but it is much more ethical than it used to be. I think it’s safe to say that at no other time in human history so far were there so many people caring about other people’s rights and welfare. And I don’t mean about people who are in our comfort zone or belong in our group but for people who may live far away or have opinions totally different than we have. Atheists promoting irreligion and “fighting” for the religious rights of minorities could be a good example. Humanistic organizations try to help people in underdeveloped lands in a variety of ways and there were even cases where the international judgment managed to save people from death sentences or provided refugee to people whose lives were in danger. That “immoral” society actually does something no society has ever done before. By defying stagnant traditions and thinking rationally people managed to ascent beyond their own little private worlds and started fighting for a better future for everyone. And all that because we put aside the differences created by traditions and irrational fears (=uncontrolled and unexplained emotions) and we try to use our brains to get to rational conclusions. Being logical doesn’t mean you’re emotionless; you’re just analyzing your emotions and learn from them instead of blindly act without ever stopping to think about it.
All in all, enlightenment did change our world for the better and we shouldn’t discard its ideas so quickly – there were values there that transcend beyond the limits of their age and we should keep looking for, using and developing them.
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