An Enlightenment for grownups
Moral autonomy demands courage, judgement and a recognition that the world is not how we'd like it to be.
If you’re looking for a sport that commands even more international enthusiasm than football, you might try Enlightenment-bashing. Though we live in a world increasingly forged by new bits of technology, its dominant rhetoric is anti-modern. Few who use that rhetoric know that the attacks are as old as the Enlightenment itself. Edmund Burke blamed it for the French Revolution. Karl Marx argued that the Enlightenment furthered the demands of a few clever sons of the bourgeoisie to privileges enjoyed by the aristocracy, thus bringing about not universal liberation but new and subtle forms of domination from which the world has yet to recover. Here Marx was not completely wrong. Never quite as universal as it claimed to be, the Enlightenment did not realise its own ideals. That’s what ideals are all about: they always promise more than mortals who are bound in space and time can deliver. Marx, and those convinced by him, could have strengthened the Enlightenment by showing that, through its tools of self-criticism, it had the power to right its own wrongs. Instead, those who should have extended the Enlightenment have been regularly engaged in extinguishing it.
Left and right critiques of the Enlightenment have differed in tone, but their images of the Enlightenment are remarkably similar, and similarly distorted. Postwar German thinkers were the most explosive. The cosmopolitan refugee Theodor Adorno could not have been more different from the pontificating village Nazi Martin Heidegger. Though they loathed each other profoundly, and disagreed about everything else, both claimed that fascism was the result of the Enlightenment. In short, if you seek to unite contemporary thinkers across nearly every spectrum, you’d do well to invoke the spectre of the Enlightenment monster: a beast filled with icy contempt for the instincts and driven by a blind, dumb optimism or a totalitarian lust for domination. The monster is relentlessly cheerful, stupendously gullible, and inevitably naive. If not quite the mad scientist in the cellar, the Enlightenment is the sorcerer‘s apprentice, a callow fool who releases forces that overpower us all.
These claims are supported by nothing more than shreds of historical evidence, always torn from their contexts. The patchwork creature that results is the rationalist whom the Enlightenment condemned from experience, the fanatic about whom it was sceptical, the optimist it loved to ridicule. This is not a question of nuance: the Enlightenment wasn’t simply more complicated than contemporary caricatures suggest, it was often diametrically opposed to them. Yet the caricatures have persisted despite the masses of work 20th-century historians undertook to undermine them. Nor need you be a scholar to find evidence that the Enlightenment was not the monster we’ve been told about. Forget about the archives; buy a paperback copy of Voltaire’s Candide to remind yourself that these critiques of the Enlightenment came from the heart of the Enlightenment itself. The idea that life is not as good, and the world not as simple, as we’d like to believe, just might have been news to Candide himself, but it was hardly a surprise for his creator. Criticisms of Candide’s sort of worldview – ‘All for the best in this best of all possible worlds’ – was Voltaire‘s whole point, part of the Enlightenment effort to look at the world as it is, not as we wish it to be, in order to assess our possibilities within it. Yet writers like Isaiah Berlin or John Gray proceed as if the historians had laboured in vain.
The Enlightenment has come to stand for modernity – both for those traditionalists whose response to modernity is nostalgia towards what came before it, and those postmodernists whose response is ironic distance towards everything else. There are many troubling things about modernity, but it makes no sense to address them by creating an Enlightenment phantom far scarier than anything that ever really existed. For some time now, I’ve tried to strip the Enlightenment of the clichés that surround it: that it held human nature to be perfect and human progress to be inevitable; that reason is unlimited and science is infallible; that faith is a worn-out answer to the questions of the past; and that technology is the solution to all the problems of the future.
In fact, no era was more aware of the existence of evil; no era took more care in probing human limits and bounds. The Enlightenment took aim not at reverence, but at idolatry and superstition; it never believed progress was inevitable, only that it is possible. You can find some 18th-century quote that expresses the crudest version of these claims; you can find second-rate quotes about anything. But in approaching questions as important as what is right and what is wrong with modernity, we should turn to its best examples.
Looking at the work of Immanuel Kant, for example, should give the lie to the claim that the Enlightenment was Eurocentric. It was the first modern movement to attack Eurocentrism and racism, often at considerable risk. Enlightenment texts were banned, and their authors sent into unemployment and exile, for insisting that European culture and politics be considered from the points of view of Persians or Chinese. However different its authors were, they all threatened established authority in the name of universal principles that are available to anyone, whether Christian or Confucian, Persian or French. It is therefore simply mystifying that every condescending or racist remark that comes from an Enlightenment pen is gleefully quoted today, while Kant’s attack on colonialism is overlooked. (It’s one of the contemporary practices he condemns as evil: check out the ‘third definitive article’ of his Perpetual Peace, where he describes the Chinese and Japanese as wise for refusing entry to colonial Europeans.)
Anyone who praises China and Japan for keeping out predatory Europeans cannot fairly be accused of blindly imposing Western ways on the rest of the world. Enlightenment thinkers were men of their time, educated by men of earlier ones, and their struggle to free themselves of prejudice and preconception could never be final. But it is fatal to forget that those thinkers were not only the first to condemn Eurocentrism and racism; they also laid the theoretical foundation for the universalism upon which all struggles against racism must stand.
It’s also common to attack the Enlightenment for its elevation of human reason, approaching it with the sort of uncritical adulation earlier ages had for God. Yet the very first sentence of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is a statement about reason’s limits. Enlightenment thinkers never held reason to be unlimited; they just refused to let church and state be the ones to set the limits on what we can think. They could not have imagined that the market might take over the functions once reserved for church and state, and do so far more efficiently. If you restrict information, people will eventually long for it; if you provide them with a glut they will simply want the noise to stop. This is not, however, an argument against the Enlightenment, but a demand to extend it to help us understand the forces at work in preventing autonomy today.
Among the many things we owe to the Enlightenment is the question: what do you want to be, and do, when you grow up? Before it, the question was unintelligible: you did whatever your parents did, unless pestilence or war came between you and your destiny. Only with the Enlightenment, and its demand that careers be open to talent, did it make sense to consider what it meant to come of age. That demand is far from realised today, and it was only broached in the 18th century, but that was enough to make the son of a barely literate East Prussian saddle-maker focus on the question: what does it mean to grow up?
Kant’s most famous essay, What is Enlightenment?, defines it as reason’s emancipation from its self-imposed immaturity. We choose immaturity because we are lazy and scared: how much more comfortable it is to let someone else make your decisions! ‘If I have a book that takes care of my understanding, a preacher who takes care of my conscience, a doctor who prescribes my diet, I need not make any effort myself. I need not think, so long as I can pay; others will handle the business for me.’ With a familiarity surprising in a man who had no children, Kant discusses the ways in which children learn to walk. In order to do it they must stumble and fall, but to eliminate their bruises by keeping them in baby carriages is a recipe for keeping them infantile. Kant’s target was not overprotective mothers but authoritarian states, which have an interest in keeping their citizens from thinking for themselves.
We’re often unwilling to summon the energy or run the risks – even the risk of embarrassment! – that thinking for ourselves would demand. It’s easy to see why this is the message that teachers emphasise when they teach What is Enlightenment? in highschools. Surely the young should not be led to think there’s anything wrong with society that a little effort on their part can’t fix? Thus Kant’s message became a neoliberal mantra that only strengthened existing orders: any dissatisfaction you may feel with the world around you is your own fault. If only you could get rid of your own laziness and cowardice, you could be enlightened, grownup and free. No wonder Germans of a certain age, who had to memorise the essay in school, roll their eyes and groan at the very mention of ‘self-imposed immaturity’.
Oddly enough, though the essay is one of Kant’s most readable, few people bother to read, or at least to remember, much beyond those first few sentences. If they did they’d discover that Kant did not believe your dissatisfaction is your fault alone. You may tend, as I do, to laziness and cowardice, but Kant says these tendencies are abused. There are guardians who have taken over the task of supervising the rest of us, by convincing us that independent thinking is not only difficult but dangerous. This is a radical and powerful political message. Our inability to grow up is not, or not only, our fault. The social structures within which we live are constructed so as to keep us childish: grownup citizens are more trouble than they’re worth. The state’s desire for control and our own desire for comfort combine to minimise conflict.
Which guardians did Kant have in mind? Kant was living in feudal times when even enlightened rulers were paternalistic, and ‘paternalistic’ was not yet a term of abuse. It’s easy enough to see how feudal structures kept their subjects infantilised. Those who think Western democracies have done away with that sort of thing have forgotten de Toqueville’s warnings about the power of public opinion in market-dominated societies, in which ‘the body is left free, and the soul is enslaved safely at bay’. Without recourse to the paternalistic and authoritarian measures available to the guardians in Kant’s time, how might a modern democratic society work to keep us infantilised?
Think about what it means to care for an infant: exhausting as it may be, it’s not conceptually hard. A baby who has just learned that she can act on the world by coordinating hand and eye to grasp an object may grasp the wrong thing: her father’s glasses, her mother’s earrings, the knife they left on the table. But how easy it is to distract her! All you need do is put something else in her way – a bunch of keys will usually do it – and the baby is diverted, the objects you don’t want her to reach now completely forgotten. As she grows, distraction gets more difficult, but the principle remains the same. You have wheeled your three-year-old through the grocery store, telling her that food can’t be eaten before it is paid for, that some things are better to choose than others, that the packages they’re wrapped in often hide more than they reveal, and generally done your best to introduce her to the complex web of social interaction required to obtain nourishment in a 21st-century city. Finally you reach the checkout line where she lights upon brightly gleaming packs of nutritional garbage – whole rows of them, in fact, placed precisely at the eye level of a child in a cart whose capacity for delayed gratification has just been sorely tested for the past half-hour. (The industrial psychologist who designed that deserves a special place in hell.) How to distract your child now? Different things will work with different three-year-olds, and on different days: sometimes a firm ‘no’ and a reminder that she’s about to go to the playground; sometimes a banana and a revision of the lesson that things must be paid for before they’re consumed; on bad days you may throw a little tantrum yourself, or give in and buy the candy. What’s important is that distraction is necessary for all but the most authoritarian parents, who have no qualms about hitting a child who insists on something they don’t want to give her.
Distracting older people from objects of desire is slightly more complicated, but whatever difficulty there may be is compensated for by the fact that the things that can be used to distract us are nearly limitless – since the invention of cyberspace, probably literally limitless. Despite the existence of apps specially designed to make sure your distractions from cyberspace don’t reduce your productivity, millions more Americans took time to stare at Kim Kardashian’s backside than to vote in the last US midterm elections. This factoid shouldn’t make Europeans self-content: websites confirm that an awful lot of them were watching Kim Kardashian, too, when they could have been, for example, reading Thomas Piketty.
Let me be clear: I happened to be reading Thomas Piketty that week, but I was also watching Kim Kardashian, with fascinated horror, but fascination just the same. I’m just as capable of being distracted as anyone else is. For the record, my children say I can’t possibly understand the abysmal nature of contemporary culture since I don’t use social media. They are surely right, but I’m surrounded by distractions enough without it. With ever more spaces invaded by commerce, I only notice the passive distractions when I arrive at a place where they’re absent. The absence of advertising in Havana was a deliciously disorienting experience, made poignant by the knowledge that it will not last for long. But even someone who consumes relatively little, and even littler technology, will bump her head against myriad distraction. My computer had been sputtering – as it’s programmed to do shortly after the guarantee runs out – and I finally ordered a replacement. But new features had been added or changed in the name of improvement, and actions I had learned to do without reflection all had to be unlearned. If one added all the hours we spend on what are cheerfully called upgrades – figuring out how to set the new alarm clock, grill with the new oven, store messages on the new smartphone, save pictures on the new camera – wouldn’t it be enough hours to produce enough food to feed the world’s hungry children, or perhaps a cure for cancer?
These are decisions and choices that distract all of us who have a place in the productive, 21st-century economy, and there are so many to be made that we tend to forget that the truly important decisions and choices are out of our hands. It took the 17-year-old Malala to calculate that all the world’s children could be educated for 12 years on the profits made by the arms industry in… eight days. Most of us will feel outrage on learning this particular statistic, but none of us have the slightest idea of how to translate that outrage into meaningful action. That would be a grownup question. Instead, we are overwhelmed by the business of collecting and fumbling with toys. Naturally, smartphones are never portrayed as toys, but as tools without which no adult life is complete. Yet next to the really difficult questions, deciding which smartphone (and which smartphone plan, and which smartphone case, and so on) to use is child’s play.
Pick your own example if you don’t like mine. No particular trifle – be it good food or the latest hi-tech toy – is an evil in itself. The problem is that they create false needs that make us dependent. The pleasure you get from buying the latest smartphone is briefer than your anxiety and confusion when you forget to charge it: suddenly you are helpless. Even those of us who are slow to take up new technologies hardly remember what life was like before them. Those who rule society promote our dependency, cultivating our taste for luxuries to distract us from thinking about the real conditions of our lives. You can walk into any electronics store and choose from a dizzying number of smartphones. How many choices can you make about the government that represents you, or the corporations to which it is indebted?
Minus the smartphone, this is all in Rousseau, the philosopher who most influenced Kant. Given all the forces arrayed against it, no wonder Kant thought growing up to be more a matter of courage than knowledge: all the information in the world is no substitute for having the guts to use your own judgement. Judgement is important because none of the answers to the questions that really move us can be found by following a rule, though we can learn good judgement through the experience of watching those who have it. Even more importantly, courage is required to live with the rift that will run through our lives, however good they may be: ideals of reason tell us how the world should be; experience tells us that it rarely is. Growing up requires confronting the gap between the two – without giving up on either one. This is a balancing act that is just as hard as it sounds. It’s the key to understanding why growing up is not, contrary to rumour, a matter of resignation – but a subversive ideal of its own.
Susan Neiman is director of the Einstein Forum. She is the author of several books, including The Unity of Reason: Rereading Kant (1994); Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy (2002); Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grownup Idealists (2008); and Why Grow Up? (2014).
Picture by: Jonathan Parker, published under a creative commons license.