Category Archives: enlightenment

Raison d’être

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.***

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The Enlightenment Run Amok: On Fiction and Truth

Arabella, the heroine of Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote, shares similarities, not surprisingly, with Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. She views the world through romantic French novels and fully expects adventures around every corner. Why no villains have yet attempted to kidnap her, nor any heroes fought duels to win her heart is one of her life’s big mysteries. Ultimately, she’s set straight on this; heroes are mythical. Villains, of course, aren’t, but in an enlightened society, maybe, just maybe villains will go the way of their heroic counterparts.

After her disillusionment in romance occurs, she asks this question of her scientifically minded doctor:

“The Fables of Aesop, said Arabella, are among those of which the Absurdity discovers itself, and the Truth is comprised in the Application; but what can be said of those Tales which are told with the solemn Air of historical Truth, and if false convey no Instruction?”

The rational doctor admits that the fiction which has formed Arabella’s thoughts can’t be defended–this fiction being of the untrue rather than the true variety. He, therefore, attempts to reform her mind by gently asking her leading questions, such as this one: “How is any oral, or written Testimony, confuted or confirmed?”

Her response is about as reasonable as you’d expect from a girl intelligent enough to read French romances: “By comparing it . . . with the Testimony of others, or with the natural Effects and standing Evidence of the Facts related, and sometimes by comparing it with itself.”

From this answer, I understand that Arabella has a sound mind, along with enough intellect to make a proper study of the facts outside French romance, rather than inside, because those aren’t facts [which we’ve already established!]. By extension, I also know Arabella will eventually concede the truth. Her romance novels don’t parallel the England of her day and age. She was a fool to believe they did–a wise fool, but a fool nonetheless.

While the setting straight, or healing, of Arabella’s mind might be of some relief to other readers, as well as to Arabella’s honorable suitor, Mr. Glanville, I can’t help feeling let down, as though I, as well as the heroine, has lost something beautiful when she realizes that chivalry, adventure, and the divine art of love are fantasies. Although I’m always disappointed in the end of The Female Quixote, I refuse to conclude that Lennox merely meant to instruct society on the type of novels young women ought to read, favoring Richardson over Madeleine de Scudery.

No, the following exchange doesn’t support this interpretation:

The doctor claims that “[Arabella’s] Writers have instituted a World of their own, and that nothing is more different from a human being, than Heroes or Heroines.” Her writers–and yes, he gives Arabella ownership of them–have created their own worlds. They exist as false worlds within false words, and create false notions within minds–especially the minds of young girls.

Arabella gives a frank reply to the doctor: “I am afraid, Sir, that the Difference is not in Favour of the present World.”

I have to agree with Arabella. Two hundred and sixty years have passed since Lennox first published her novel, and our hyper-rational, post-enlightenment society has not yet eradicated villains, even if the heroes have fled from our collective unconscious.

Oh, heroes, where have you gone? I can hear your horses’ hooves pounding through history, only to come to a clattering halt outside the palace of my modern mind.

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What is Talent: which is a similar question to What is Truth

A. Leon Miler’s Hop Canyon New Mexico 1886

Nathan Bransford posted this blog rant on low literary aspirations yesterday, and it struck a definite chord with me. We are living in an enlightenment-run-amok world where expertise belongs to anyone, as well as the mighty pen, which is mightier than the sword, or so we’ve been told. It’s true. Information is out there. It’s cheap. In many cases, it’s even free. And we can arm ourselves with it, call ourselves experts on anything.

By the same token, almost anyone can be published, even if publishing means forking up the cash to use a vanity press. In school, our access to information and our ability to express ourselves in words have been likened to power (mightier than the sword, and all that). How powerful, though, are billions of voices all ranting different things? And through all the racket, nobody can be heard. Gone is the idolized expert and, in his place, stands the idol of the individual.

Talent is elusive. I know when I don’t have it. For example, I simply have no artistic abilities at all, and I can claim that with a fair amount of certainty. It’s more difficult, however, to pinpoint talent than to witness the extreme lack thereof. I believe that I’m still on firm ground when I claim that my father is a talented painter. For a start, he has well-honed skills. He mixes his own paint, rather than painting straight from the tube, and primes his own boards, rather than buying pre-stretched canvases. In his younger years, he apprenticed with a master painting restorer.

In addition to all of the above, he has style. The combination thereof, craft and style, must be talent. What a relief it is that I can spot talent! But, wait; in walks your aunt Maude, who wants to rent a space next to my dad’s in the gallery. You’ve told me she has talent; she’s always painting. She’s so creative! When I look at her paintings, though, I see right off that her pigments don’t match. Her painting of a mountain looks like a mountain, I suppose, and the other artist are oohing and aahing over a hummingbird she’s painted.

I shrug. I guess I don’t know what talent is, after all. Aunt Maude has more artistic talent than I have. She can paint things and actually make them look like what they’re supposed to, which I certainly can’t. In the style category, her talent points fall to zero in my opinion, but what do I know? Her execution just doesn’t seem to scream talent, either. Then I start wondering whether my dad is as talented as Rembrandt. Rembrandt clearly had talent. If I were to ask his opinion (my dad’s, not Rembrandt’s–I’m not in the habit of talking to dead artists), he would say it doesn’t matter; he has no idea; only time will tell.

But it does matter. Perhaps it doesn’t matter to my dad because he’s too busy painting, but it matters to our society, which is made up of persons who are stars in their own mini universes. Besides, we don’t want to be wrong. We want to hedge our bets, and so we ask the question, what is truth? Sadly, like Pilate, we don’t want to hear the answer.

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