The origin of our concepts of science, politics, and reason. The Enlightenment, a period of 18th and 19th century European history, was by some accounts sparked by the invention of the printing press. Francis Bacon is the quintessential enlightenment scientist, with Rousseau and Kant being the early players on the political/philosophical side of things. The American Revolution was essentially an experiment by a bunch of radical enlightenment philosophers.

Life itself is enlightenment itself and has many aspects but you can only see what your understanding of practice allows. To appreciate the vast expanse of experiences, understand that oceans and mountains may seem round or square but there are details to still be seen and that there are whole world-systems in all directions. Your immediate circles of concern are of no account. What is demonstrates itself right here beneath your feet and in a single drop of water.

from "Genjokoan: The Question of Our Lives"
by Dogen zenji
translated by
Yasuda Joshu Dainen roshi and Anzan Hoshin sensei

Immanuel Kant called enlightenment an Ausgang, or an exit. He felt that it was a release from immaturity; immaturity being when one discards use of one's faculty of reason in favor of the reason of an authority, such as when one chooses to rely on a spiritual middleman. Therefore, enlightenment is reasoning for the sake of reason.. But Kant also felt that enlightenment will be reached when men can reason freely, but still must obey authority -- when we have the freedom to gripe about taxes, but not the freedom to withhold payment. And so what Kant basically proposes is freedom of thought in despotic Prussia, under the condition that the individual must act in accordance with universal reason; that is, obey the state, adapting use of one's reason to present circumstances. (This, being public freedom of reason, but private submission, is different from freedom of conscience.)

This information was culled (and paraphrased) from Michel Foucault's excellent essay, "What Is Enlightenment?". As I've demonstrated, I lack the ability to adequately explain such philosophical concepts; you may want to read the essay yourself. ;-)

Kant's concept is interesting, although I certainly disagree with the requirement of obedience. Yet I wonder if merely the freedom to throw off the conformist straitjacket is maturity, or if the act of doing so is. Perhaps I should re-read Foucault's essay, or check out the work of Kant. For it seems we all have the freedom to exercise reason, but relatively few choose to do so.

Or perhaps the subtle and sophisticated tools of coercion in use in Western society deprive one of one's freedom of reason. That is, will everyone exercise their faculty of reason if indoctrination is removed? Yet, IIRC, Kant was no determinist, arguing that cognitive ability is too advanced to be totally shaped by human nature, life experiences, etc. Plus, I believe he was a Christian, and free will is Christian doctrine. Does the abstract concept of reason imply exercise of free will? (I never wish to stray into the free will vs. determinism debate, but I inevitably do so. It is perhaps the most important question facing us. A question that is, in all probability, never to be answered.)

Geez, sometimes I wish I could articulate myself more clearly.. *my brain exploding*

I realise that 'enlightenment' is one of the most overused words in the entire subject of spirituality. That said, here's my take on the subject:

The state of enlightenment, to me, seems to be when my mind stops trying to break down the universe into little bits...

In a normal state of mind, you see many "objects" in front of you... the mind automatically breaks the visual field up into different objects by looking for shapes and edges. Then it tries to fit a label to each shape or cluster of shapes... this is a pencil, this is my hand.

In a state of 'enlightenment', one diverts the mind from this activity, and focuses on the whole view... the input from all five senses. All recognition disappears, and information seems to come rushing in. The visual field seems to widen, your hearing becomes more acute, you may feel or smell things strongly. I always experience a sort of mental "buzz" at this stage...

That's the first step. Here's the second: After all other objects disappear, all that is left is the universe and you... but even this can be broken down. You let yourself simply experience, without the sub-thought of "I am experiencing"... the "me" then disappears, and only the feeling of consciousness is left. (And the mental buzz disappears with a 'pop', leaving just thought spinning in the void...)

After that, it's just a case of not trying to analyse what's happening... a very hard thing to do. Let me know if you've gotten further than this... 8^)

European Enlightenment Figures:

Samuel Johnson - A Lexicographer who did The Dictionary. This is symbolic of the enlightenment because before now there was no precise spelling of any word, and he represents the coming of standardization to the field of language.

David Hume - A major figure in the Scottish Enlightement. Wrote that miracles cannot exist, because of God's perfection.

Gibbon - Suggested that the fall of the Roman Empire is due to christanity in book: 'Decline and fall of the Roman Empire'

Descartes - "Cogito ergo sum" - "I think therefore I am." Also invented coordinate geometry and is attributed as the Father of modern Mathematics and Philosophy. Identifier of Deductive Logic.

Copernicus - Teacher of John Kepler. Disputed Ptolemy and stated that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

Issac Newton - Developed calculus and postulated the 'light-particle theory'. Also depicted the universe as a giant mechanism, and unified the theories of Kepler and Galileo into the 'Laws of Gravity'

Sir Francis Bacon - Began usage if Inductive logic, and worked with Leevenhook on the Microscope.

Boyle - Member of 'Royal Society' which is modeled off of the French 'Academy of Science'. This is important because it was the first ever regular meeting of European science. Also publishes quarterly journal, to keep other intellectuals up-to-date.

Christian Huygens - Developed Centrifugal and Centripical forces.

Adam Smith - Proposed a 'laissez-faire' capitalism in 'The Wealth of Nations'. Business took this policy seriously, but ignored his warning about usage of 'business legislation' for power.

Montesqueiu - Born as "Baron D'holbach", he betrayed the upper class and writes 'Spirit of the Laws' which proposes separation of powers for the first time, as well as a system of checks and balances.

Diderot - A champion of 'true democracy' and a critic of the monarchy. Also editor of "L'Encyclopedie" and writer of "Romeau's Nephew".

Jean Jacques Rousseau - Raised a lower class protestant. Began romanticism. The idea that feeling and emotion are equal to 'hard logic'. Wrote 'Emile' and 'Social Contract'. Also father of anarchism.

Voltaire - A champion of free speech and advocate of intellectuals. Claimed to be a 'defender of those who cannot defend themselves'. Voltaire symbolized the raw artificiality of the 18th century.

Priestly and Lavasoir - Pioneered modern Chemistry. Proposed a universal molecule, called 'phlogistan', similar to 'AEther', later. Lavasoir was on the commitee in charge of developing the metric system.

Hobbes - Stated that 'humans are machines in motion'. An enemy of capitalism and an advocate of dictatorship. Hobbes wrote 'Leviathan'

Leevenhooke - Built microscope with Bacon. Also a member of 'Royal Society'.

Richardson and Fielding - Wrote 'Pamela' and 'Shamela' respectively. The former is a novel about a girl named Pamela, and the latter is a spoof. These novels adhere to romanticism, and are comparable to today's typical sappy romance novel.

Kepler - Astronomer, astrologer, and mystic. Concluded that the planets must circle the sun in ellipses, and built the 'Laws of Planetary Motion'. A close friend of Galileo.

Galileo - Finally eradicated 'common sense' physics and replaces them with his more rational experiment-based physics. Later arrested by inquisition for writing "Starry Messenger" and forced to write a book denouncing everything he had ever theorized. Galileo completely contradicts Aristotle.

John Locke - Father of Liberalism. Wrote "Treatises on Government" and "Essay Concerning Human Understanding". Theorized 'tabula rasa' and fought for civil and religious freedom.

Regarding the Societal Ramifications of the Enlightenment

Through all of the lengthy pontificating of the enlightenment philosophers, divergent as their trains of thought might be, there was a single uniting common thread: the desire to better humanity through understanding. The interaction between the different philosophers in regards to the "true" nature of the understanding and the manner in which it would better humanity was almost comic. Bentham insisted happiness was the key, Rousseau insisted on denial of "reality", Locke on direct interaction with reality. The "exchange" of ideas that embodied the period was, in actuality, more like countless strands of individual trains of thought, constantly contradicting each other, and yet they are all lumped together as "Enlightened Thinkers" for a reason. Were it not for them, our current social, educational, philosophical, and political thought simply would not be.

Diversity was perhaps one of the greatest strengths of the enlightenment philosophers. Virtually every form of government that has been conceived since the enlightenment period has its origin in their lengthy discourses on the issue. From Rousseau stems communism (the political system, not the economic system), "enlightened anarchy", and fascism, an array of which the honor of having birthed is somewhat dubious, though not without its redeeming aspects. From Bentham's Principle of Utility, we have the concept of direct democracy, and so by extension all permutations and bastardizations thereof. In Voltaire's work we find the principled underpinnings of the "free world". Though the effectiveness and viability of these governmental forms is subject to heated debate, they are at least something other than absolute monarchy which, along with anarchy, was one of the two primary governmental systems that had existed prior to the political diaspora of the late renaissance.

In the wake of the vast evolution of politics, human social systems in the affected continents were presented with a unique opportunity to restructure themselves. Not to imply a conscious force behind the social restructuring, but many of the concepts that entered into the periphery of the public view at this point had their roots in the philosophies of Rousseau, Diderot, Voltaire, and Bentham. The issues of human rights, particularly of the inalienable sort, became something of a focus at this point in history, and over the last couple centuries have remained the focus of significant speculation. Most notably in contemporary politics in the issue of affirmative action, societies must decide to what extent the interests of the demographic majority should be allowed to supercede or impede the interests and rights of the minority, and to what extent the ideal should be allowed to dictate perceptions.

The basic nature of information, particularly in regards to its communication, was radically changed by the thinkers of the enlightenment. Both Diderot and Voltaire were advocates of free speech. Diderot's purpose in the Encyclopédie is now not only shared by virtually every would-be historian and scholar, but it is also the fundamental principle of the internet (particularly this site). Free expression and exchange of ideas is certainly not universal in today's society (John Ashcroft, for example, stands stolidly against it), but it has remained in the social mainstream since their time, and had not really been seen before that except in ancient Greece and Rome, so the Enlightened Thinkers deserve at least some credit for this.

Even the more misguided of these prolific philosophers, such as Locke or Rousseau, have had a lasting impact on philosophical thought. Newer philosophic traditions tend to describe themselves by the older philosophies which they most resemble. Though this may not seem like a very notable influence, one must bear in mind that by serving as something of "component parts" to newer philosophies, they tend to shape to direction in which that philosophy drifts. This concept of gradual shaping very well represents the sum influence of the enlightenment philosophers on today's social, intellectual, and political condition: Aside from the push that spawned the initial products of the enlightenment, their ideas have, by a slow and gradual process influenced by all who came before and after, moved towards the place where we find them today, and will continue to guide us into the unknown realm of the future.

A state where one directly knows the importance of important things and the unimportance of unimportant things. As example, let's imagine two men who test positive for HIV. The enlightened man goes out to his back yard, and enjoys the beautiful sunny day and the smell of the grass. The unenlightened man, on the other hand, weeps... paralyzes himself with fear... and wallows in self-pity.

I remember the Zen story:

A master knew he was dying. He went to the hall where the monks were training and said "I will die this evening."

"Oh no!" said the monks, beginning to weep. "You won't die!"

"Shut up, you fools!" said the master. "Bring me a shovel. I'm going to save you some work."

"Forgive" me for what may be perceived as the morbidity of the tales. Western culture has an obsession with the tragic side of death that has no necessity or objective basis behind it.

Enlightenment: Failure or Defeat?

As an ideologically obstinate communist, when confronted with that system's failures, will often automatically respond that communism hasn't failed because in fact it has never been completely attempted, so we can imagine a partisan of the Enlightenment proposing that Enlightenment hasn't failed, it has merely been stalled or even defeated by other, momentarily stronger, contingencies. Enlightenment thought, while in some cases disparate, tends to postulate certain if/then relationships. To chose just two examples: If people are tolerant, then they will be happy, or If people are free from coercion, then they will think for themselves. It is not enough for a critique of the Enlightenment to observe in opposition to these postulates that in the post-Enlightenment era people are unhappy or herd-like. Such a critique must undermine the causal link between the purported conditions and their supposed results, proving that the conditions involved give rise to results contrary to those desired. The critique cannot merely locate instances in which an Enlightenment view of future circumstances is overly optimistic.

Voltaire's propagandistic essay Traité sur la tolérance (A Treatise on Toleration, 1763) begs a critique. The essay declares, “The less we have of dogma, the less dispute; the less we have of dispute, the less misery. If that is not true, then I am wrong” (Voltaire 209). The understanding of this essay is that the brutal Calas affair, in which the Huguenot Calas family was punished for their son's suicide, came to stain an otherwise enheartening historical progression, a belated but at least clearly visible civilization of Europe, and particularly of barbaric Christendom. The affair is attributed to reactionary fanaticism, which, in the throes of its defeat by reason, becomes all the more ferocious. The first implication in all this is that tolerance is reasonable, that it is Any Thinking Man's conclusion, so that an enlightened, reasonable man will never be intolerant. The second implication is that, while fanaticism can be eradicated, every moment until it is eradicated is perilous, so that partisans and propagandists such as Voltaire are crucial in the intermediate period, as in their writings they are called upon to continue to state the importance of tolerance to an impressionable population.

Along the same lines as Voltaire, Immanuel Kant articulates the process of Enlightenment as one occurring by gradations, that is, among certain individuals, and then others, until eventually it has overtaken all. The thesis of his essay Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung? (An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?, 1784), namely, that free thought is the natural state to which human beings will individually return when they are not subject to coercion, is formulated such that it depends for its universal actualization on the magnanimity of those precocious individuals who should happen to emancipate themselves from mental slavery before the rest of mankind. Kant does not hold it to be impossible that such enlightened individuals might agree amongst themselves to keep the rest of the population enslaved. Instead, he judges in advance that any such agreement would be void, insofar as it would be a crime against human nature, which is to say that the subjugated immature class would naturally rebel. Unfortunately this premise is unsound. Kant has no basis for his faith in fairness, especially as his essay already includes an emasculation of free thought, which is to be permitted only as long as it does not translate itself into action.

To Voltaire, in opposition to Kant, the defining aspect of an enlightened subject is his toleration of competing subjectivities. To Kant, that same subject is defined by his maturity, that is, his willingness to think for himself. Correspondingly, each author has a unique understanding of what the primary threat to Enlightenment is, so that each essay contains within it the implication of its own radical alternative: Voltaire, in admitting the need for partisan defenders of the Enlightenment, allows that toleration equals weakness. His essay implies the problem of the Democrat, whose extreme toleration for viewpoints in opposition to his own reduces him to passivity and silence and leads to his own annihilation. According to this world-view, fanatical forces are those which are not enlightened but which nonetheless accompany the process of Enlightenment, insofar as they arise in a reactionary fashion precisely when an appreciable portion of society is becoming tolerant. Correspondingly, Voltaire's Enlightenment causality schema cannot be challenged. If people were tolerant, it is not impossible that they would be happy. This tolerance has merely failed to take hold.

Kant's understanding of Enlightenment is a shade more perverse, and therefore, more insightful, than that of Voltaire. To him, an enlightened subject is a free-thinker but not, necessarily, a tolerant one, so that the author's denial of the feasibility of a despotic enlightened cabal comes too late to negate that very possibility. Voltaire's Enlightenment cosmology necessitates a blithe faith in history, a belief that anti-Enlightenment forces will not strangle Enlightenment as it is born. But Kant's understanding of Enlightenment is that it is the source of its own detractors, a flaw that no optimism can efface. Kant's essay foreshadows the debacle of the enlightened despot, who frees himself and enslaves the people.

This despot is a figure who appears and reappears in the canon of the post-Enlightenment pornographer-philosopher the Marquis de Sade. Sade's enlightened protagonists, such as, for example, Dolmancé of La Philosophie dans le boudoir (Philosophy in the Bedroom, 1795), are most importantly despots, seizing upon libertinage as the most subjective and despotic activity available. Sade attributes every sexual whim to Nature, and defines Enlightenment as an obedience to that nature, an obedience newly enabled by the defeat of oppressive religion and monarchism. As a result, there is a terrifying authority behind a sexually domineering attitude that might otherwise be amusing or absurd. Sade's work thematizes the domination of women by men but more importantly for this discussion it thematizes the dominations of objects by a subject. While the defenders of Sade rightly point out that in his writings he is a proponent of fewer laws, not more, and so therefore is not a fascist, their understanding here of the meaning of fascism is incomplete. While Sade does not experience the simple joy of relinquishing all decision-making capacity and submitting to the fascistic impositions of another, he fiercely asserts his own right to similarly impose, to remain willfully blind to the pleasure and pain of others. In Voltaire's terms, sadism is a lack of tolerance. Voltaire gives, as an example of the line of thinking antithetical to the Enlightenment, the dictum, “Believe what I believe, and what thou canst not believe, or thou shalt perish”, while underlying such an unenlightened philosophy is Dolmancé's ultimate justification for his own libertinage, “There is no possible comparison for what others experience and what we sense”.

Any argument attempting to determine whether or not Enlightenment has failed inevitably reduces to a matter of definitions. Sade's hero is an enlightened man according to Kant but not according to Voltaire. And yet, if this hero has been seen to have wreaked havoc upon post-Enlightenment history then it is both Kant and Voltaire who are to blame. These two are guilty of proposing historical trajectories that were either bound to be defeated (Voltaire) or to fail (Kant), leading to mass disillusionment and a post-modern morass. Their Enlightenment philosophies, whether internally contradictory or merely glaringly incomplete, effect a certain jubilant hope while neglecting to account for the opposing forces that arise, whether as or against that hope's fulfillment.

Cletus the Foetus says re Enlightenment: I'd be a little careful about what I attribute to Sade, an ironist, on the basis of what his characters say. He did support the pre-Reign of Terror Revolution, for example.

He's right of course.

En*light"en*ment (?), n.

Act of enlightening, or the state of being enlightened or instructed.


© Webster 1913

En*light"en*ment (?), n.

= AufklÄrung.


© Webster 1913

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