Enlightenment!

David Cowles

Aug 16, 2022

“It is often said that victors write history. That is even truer when the war is cultural rather than political.”

Whenever history decides to grade itself…beware! ‘Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment’ – see a pattern here? it all sounds so cheery. And why shouldn’t it? Someone turned European History into a ‘self-graded class’, and like any self-respecting fifth grader (think Bart Simpson), History’s given itself an A.


What about what went before? What happened between Rome and Renaissance? We’re talking religion before it was ‘fixed’ by Martin Luther, art before it was ‘fixed’ by the introduction of perspective, and the feudal system before it was ‘fixed’ by capitalism and the idea of constitutional government.

This year, Sister Martha Mary decided to change again the way students are graded in her class. Instead of students grading themselves, each student is now graded by another member of the class. Guess what? Not an A in sight…but lots of C’s, D’s and, oh so many F’s.


Does it surprise you that 10-year-olds are harder on others than they are on themselves? (Guess you never had siblings!)


Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment: consider the words carefully! Now what would you call periods of history that were none of those things? Why you’d have to call them ‘Dark Ages,’ obviously. And History has obliged.


It is often said that victors write history. That is even truer when the war is cultural rather than political: Our culture is who we are, our politics are what we are. (My apologies to Karl Marx.)


In the June 27, 2022, edition of Thoughts While Shaving (TWS), we explored the difference between Faith (who we are) and Belief (what we are).


We are grandchildren of the Enlightenment. Sir Isaac Newton (c. 1700) flipped a switch, et voila, “Fiat Lux”. At that moment, the clouds were swept away and for the first-time humanity was able to see the world ‘as it is,’ without the camouflage of religion: No God, no Spirit, no Soul…this world is Nietzsche’s sand box.


If you’re into science and technology, the Enlightenment is your era! It was a period of unparalleled invention and discovery, but also a period of war, tyranny, and myriad atrocities.

But I digress. I said earlier that the Enlightenment was a period of invention… Was, not is! The period misnamed ‘Enlightenment’ is mercifully over…though our politicians, generals and terrorist leaders apparently missed the memo.


The Enlightenment turned out to be an ouroboros. Like the Vacuum Monster is the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, it consumed itself. Most often, epochal shifts occur when a ‘better idea’ replaces the current paradigm. That could have happened here…but it didn’t.


Revolutionary discoveries in science (1900 – 1930) were a death sentence for the Enlightenment…but gracelessly, it insisted on exhausting every avenue of appeal. And it’s not done yet! Like President Trump, it’s still looking for 12,000 votes in Georgia.


Enlightenment’s paradigms of materialism and causality were demolished by the discoveries of Planck, Einstein, and the ‘Quantum Mechanics.’ But instead of ‘exiting stage right’ as scripted, Enlightenment has refused to leave, even though its final scene is long since played out.


Unlike the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Enlightenment did not “go gentle into that good night;” it raged against the dying of its imaginary light.


Enlightenment refused to leave the stage before ‘the fat (sic) lady (Brunhilda)’ sang; and boy did she ever sign! Fittingly, Brunhilda’s final aria in Wagner’s “Ring” also heralded the collapse of a civilization preserved now only in Norse Mythology (The Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda)…and Marvel comics.

The demise of the Enlightenment played on two stages. Stage right: Fascism. Stage left: Stalinism. Though mortal enemies on paper, these two ideologies both see the world through the paradigm of mechanization. Human beings are essentially machines and human society is akin to an assembly line: an arrangement of resources designed to maximize the production of goods and services…especially goods.


Think nuclear! An atomic bomb can be understood as the self-annihilation of matter. Now think the self-annihilation of Enlightenment: Auschwitz, Buchenwald and the Gulag archipelago.


Hitler, Stalin and their ‘gangs’ were determined to make the world safe for mechanization, i.e., the transformation of human beings and their social systems into ‘machines.’ To do so, they needed to rid the world, or at least Europe, of competing ideologies: Judaism (especially Hasidism and Kabala), Catholicism, Orthodoxy, tribalism (allegiance to smaller, more culturally focused groups), and individualism (in philosophy, in art and in lifestyle).


 

Image: Reading of Voltaire's tragedy of the Orphan of China in the salon of Marie Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin in 1755, by Lemonnier, c. 1812.


 

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