Sunday, February 22, 2015

Retrospective: What is the Enlightenment to you?

"The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!" Immanuel Kant

"Truth is inseperable from the illusory belief that from the figures of the unreal one day, in spite of all, real deliverance will come." Theodor Adorno

We come to the end of our journey through the Enlightenment.We’ve seen how it began, with Newton’s demonstration of the power of reason, and Locke’s eloquent defense of liberty and the social contract. We saw how Montesquieu developed the theory of checks and balances, and Voltaire that of human rights; how David Hume developed the skeptical and relativist approach to reason and morality, and how Kant responded with idealism and universal morality. We saw how Rousseau defended the role of emotion and authenticity, and developed the romantic and Republican traditions; how Adam Smith developed the economics of liberty, and how Gibbon retold the history of the Roman Empire in terms of Enlightenment values.

We saw how these ideals translated into real politics in the French Revolution, and how modern politics is defined by responses to that upheaval: how the reactionary Joseph de Maistre completely rejected the Enlightenment and the Revolution, how the conservative Edmund Burke urged a cautious and gradual approach, how the liberal Alexis de Tocqueville embraced it more enthusiastically, and how the radical Filippo Buonarroti demanded its complete and immediate enforcement. These remain the basic political orientations two centuries later. Last we saw how Foucault and the postmodernists challenged the most basic premises of the Enlightenment, and asked whether it really has made us any freer or more rational than our ancestors.

Perhaps we can gain some perspective on the Enlightenment by returning to the painting we began with: An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, by Joseph Wright (1768). At the center of this painting we see a bird (perhaps a dove, ancient symbol for the nobility of the human spirit) trapped within a glass container. A gentleman, whose long hair, elegant bath robe, and confident expression suggest a successful adventurer, holds the power of life and death over the bird. The central location and soft light which surround the experiment – until recently reserved for the depiction of religious scenes – suggest that the experiment is itself a sacred right. The light, which seems to come from a beaker on the table, outshines the dim moonlight, visible through the window. The light of reason, the painting suggests, outshines that of nature, pointing again to one of the central themes of the Enlightenment.

Starting from (our) right, we can see different reactions to the experiment. The girl and young woman are clearly distraught – one can’t stand to look, the other can’t look away. The boy, who seems to have been the one to take the bird out of the cage, seems worried as well. Their response suggests that we should be disturbed by the needless torture of a small and inoffensive creature. But an older man, perhaps the father of the family, seems to be reassuring them.
One way or another, he is saying, it is for the best. Perhaps the experiment will reveal some new and important insight, which will help relieve human suffering. Perhaps the quest for knowledge provides its own justification, and is worth the momentary suffering of one small animal.

The old man seems to have his mind on other things. Perhaps he is contemplating the frailty of reason, or the transience of all things. What kind of knowledge really benefits us? Knowledge of the world, or knowledge of the human condition? On the left, the two young men are completely absorbed in the experiment. They eagerly await the results of the experiment, and seem confident that it will produce new and valuable insights. Above them, the two young lovers have eyes only for each other. The experiment is no more interesting to them than it is to the old man, thought for different reasons.

Returning to the gentleman experimenter, we cannot help but meet his gaze. He is challenging us to make up our own minds. If an experiment symbolizes the quest for knowledge, and if that is the defining activity of the Enlightenment, then perhaps he is asking us to consider more than just the experiment and the fate of the bird. Perhaps he is asking us to consider the meaning of the Enlightenment itself.

Was it, as the philosophers of the 18th century thought, the triumph of reason over superstition, of freedom over tyranny? If so, what do you think of the results over the last three centuries? Has the Enlightenment largely fulfilled its promises, or is it still a work in progress? Or, then again, did the Enlightenment represent something darker, as Foucault and the postmodernists thought? Beneath all the noise about liberty and reason, do we detect a sinister drive to dehumanize and dominate everything natural? If so, how are we, who are all products of the Enlightenment, to regard its heritage?

What does the Enlightenment mean to you?

The National Gallery, a discussion of the painting.
The Enlightenment: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Part of a series on the Enlightenment (XVII of XVII)

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