It has become fashionable to loathe the Age of Enlightenment, and that’s a normal and right reaction as humans strive to explain a world they don’t understand in a way they will. Philosophies come and go; the ones too ridiculous to maintain reason fade with age. But ultimately, history builds on itself, and the Age of Enlightenment, far from being a temporary glitch in humanity’s normal course of reasoning and rationalizing who they are, was an important building block in their development. And to be a bit circular, everything happens for a reason. This was a main tenet of classical mechanics, but it also dates to Aristotle and teleological thought and the intrinsic purpose of things.
Despite what others might say, the Age of Enlightenment was all about teleology. In fact, the modern day sciences have not managed to dispose of teleological language from their descriptions of the world. They obtusely call this language “metaphor”, which is disingenuous. If purpose and reasons for being aren’t necessary to the understanding of science, scientists ought to develop a language without it. To be fair, Kant’s influence gave the impetus for some to try, albeit not successfully.
Rather than an age that departed from teleology, the Enlightenment was rather an age of experimentation that attempted to prove causes and essential functions. That is, they attempted to prove or disprove teleological functions. Did this create an environment where men could look outside traditions, even accepted truths, for the answers? Yes, it absolutely did, but it also created an environment for peering into an unseen world, both micro and macro. Humans have always desired to do this — they’ve been, for example, gazing into the heavens forever — but it wasn’t until this epoch of human history that seeing the unseeable became possible.
Experimentation being the zeitgeist of the age, it’s no surprise that this was done at the government level, e.g. the French and American Revolutions. The modern antipathy towards the Enlightenment is largely based on our propensity to look back and claim that these Revolutions were failures because we don’t like the results of them in our day-to-day lives. On the other hand, we’re all too happy to accept that the germ theory was a huge human success that helped to save countless lives. We also appreciate, whether we admit it or not, the prosperity we have. Who cares that there a few men who’ve hoarded billions of dollars? The otherwise equalization of wealth in western societies is a boon not to be taken lightly. However, instead of joyous we’re extremely cynical people with far too much wealth and knowledge at our fingertips … thanks to the Enlightenment.
My question is, were these “democratic” revolutions that have made us so cynical actually failures? Let me get more specific: was the American Revolution a mistake? I’m going to be my typical iconoclastic self and say absolutely not. For the sake of time, I’m going to make this as simplistic as I possibly can. (I started out this blog post meaning to make one simple point, not delve into the history of human thought development.)
(And here I go again.) Aristotelean philosophy created one of the biggest shifts in human thought. It’s difficult to imagine a world prior to this; we often paint ancient history with our post-Aristotelean thought processes. Even the New Testament demonstrates the shift in thinking with its emphasis on eye-witness testimonies and debates (see Acts) on how Christians are to live their lives. Therefore, it’s not surprising that, after the churches had more or less formed a cohesive structure under the Bishop of Rome, the Reformation occurred. Debates on how Christians ought to live their lives, down to what they’re to believe, were still occurring, only the cohesive authority structure didn’t accept these debates any longer.
Okay, so Luther gave more of an ultimatum than a debate. That was his personality. But he and others like him didn’t depart from the Aristotelean worldview that had long influenced the western church; rather, their ultimate teleology referred to Jesus and the books of Scripture instead of the Bishop of Rome. It’s really this questioning of teleology that eventually led to what we know of as the Age of Enlightenment.
Humans have a simultaneous desire to be under the thumb of a king and to rebel against the oppressive authority of a king. In a sense, the Bishop of Rome is a king — indeed, he wears a type of crown and robe; Catholics beg to kiss the ring on his hand. And at times in history, the man calling himself Pope has been heretical. Catholics don’t deny this. What they don’t acknowledge is the similarity in the way God scattered the Israelite people due to their king’s heresy and the way the Christian people were scattered due to the Pope’s heresy.
Protestants and Catholics have been intermittently in exile, depending on where they lived, what regime they lived under. This is where I believe the American Revolution wasn’t a mistake. For a long time now, America has given refuge to Christians of all stripes. Including Catholics. This has created an environment where Christians could thrive and spread the gospel around the globe. And as far as I’m concerned, this is a direct result of Enlightenment philosophy, of the willingness to examine what the actual root teleology ought to be.
However, Enlightenment philosophy must have a teleology, an intrinsic purpose. The flip side of the Enlightenment coin, the Counter-Enlightenment, was to ditch objective truth and rationalism for a more organic thought process. To modern man, an “organic” thought process turns to chaos because he’s no longer under a cohesive authority structure. He’s sitting by the river in Babylon weeping, as it were, for what he’s lost. He knows so much, and yet he’s discovered he knows nothing. And the enemies of Christianity are at the gates — no, they’ve entered the gates and are threatening the very refuge he’s managed to create.
***As a short aside, I’m listening to Harry Connick Jr’s She, the album that played constantly in the background when I wrote my first detective novel — the one in which the main protag is a young stoic tapdancing pickpocket named Jael (of course, yes, she does inflict a head wound to the murderer), who teams up with an older male hardboiled detective (he unironically carries around flasks of whisky and seduces every woman but Jael. This album fit the dreary, yet goofy mood of the book. Most beta-readers found the story depressing, and I ditched it and its sequels years ago. When one’s tongue is planted so far in one’s cheek it would take surgery to extract the sense of humor, it becomes obvious one is writing only to amuse oneself.***