Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] “Have courage to use your own understanding!”–that is the motto of enlightenment.
- Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”
The Enlightenment. Those two words send a cascade of awe and delight down my spine. They set synapses to firing like chains of fireworks. Names and ideas erupt from the sparks: Newton, Spinoza and Leibniz released science and mathematics from their classical and medieval cages and advanced them by light years in a virtual instant. Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau struck through chains and risked their lives to set human minds free. Locke, Smith and Montesquieu set forth major components of political and economic philosophy that led to democracy and capitalism. Franklin, Jefferson, and Hamilton created a whole new kind of nation from scratch. Beethoven, Mozart, and Goethe elevated music and literature to heights they had never known before.
Men, and not a few women, dared to know, and changed the world.
There had been hints of an awakening for centuries. A few flames burned dimly in the Middle Ages. A few flames flared up brilliantly during the Renaissance. But the Enlightenment was a conflagration, a wildfire beside a candelabra. In less than two centuries, the scientific method arose and began advancing knowledge at an incredible pace; the foundations of democracy and liberalism were laid and thriving nations built on them; education was no longer a prerogative of the fortunate few, but a practical gift offered to a broad swath of the population. The entire Western way of thinking changed virtually beyond recognition. All of those ideas we take for granted – freedom of religion, equality, political and civil rights, and countless more – emerged because of men and women who refused to remain ignorant.
Look at the lives and work of any group of Enlightenment thinkers, and you’ll see similarities. They were desperate to know and understand. They were determined to use rational thought to overcome superstition. They believed in man’s ability to understand the world. They didn’t believe religion had all the answers, or even most. They weren’t afraid to challenge established authority; indeed, they often risked their lives to do so. They found ways to make end-runs around the censors, evaded every attempt to silence them, and believed beyond doubt that what they were doing was right, necessary, and valuable.
They argued with absolutely everyone, each other included. They accepted no limits to their curiosity. There was nowhere to them that Man was forbidden to go.
All is not lost when one puts the people in a condition to see it has intelligence. On the contrary, all is lost when you treat it like a herd of cattle, for sooner or later it will gore you with its horns.
In the salons of Paris, the coffee houses and Gresham College in London, in the dining rooms and halls of power all throughout Europe, intellect raged. Pamphlets, books, magazines, scientific papers all poured into the streets and captured the imaginations of men and women who then used those ideas to create new governments, societies, and values. Knowledge was passed into the hands of ordinary people, and those ordinary people did extraordinary things with it.
The two revolutions of the 18th century, the American and the French, get all of the attention, but neither would have been possible without the revolution in ideas that preceded them. Never before in the history of Western civilization had common people been entrusted to govern. Even Greece, that thriving original democracy, was more of an aristocracy than anything else. But the Enlightenment thinkers believed that all regular people lacked was education and the freedom to use their native intelligence. Given those things, a peasant could rise to rule. Peasants eventually did.
It wasn’t just the aristocracy and absolute monarchy that the Enlightenment thinkers overthrew. They broke the stranglehold religion had over the populace. Religion didn’t escape their scrutiny. The sacred got subjected to the same empirical analysis as the natural world, and where it was found wanting, it suffered the same scathing criticism unleashed on politics, pseudoscience, and ignorance. Some of them treated Christianity with respect and reverence, but they were in a minority. Most Enlightenment thinkers had no use for a Church that sought to keep people in ignorance and servitude, a faith that led to intolerance and claimed miracles it couldn’t prove, and religions rotten with hypocrisy.
“Let’s eat some Jesuit,” Voltaire wrote in Candide. Baron d’Holbach proselytized for atheism, churning out a flood of books and pamphlets proclaiming that there is no God, only nature, and that only a society of atheists has any hope of being truly moral. He often had to publish his books under innocuous titles to evade the censors. But other philosophes left nothing to doubt with theirs: among the books on offer was Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious. Pretty revolutionary for a world in which religion still ruled.
Other books might have seemed innocent enough until they were opened. Woolston’s Six Discourses on the Miracles of Our Savior proclaimed the Resurrection of Christ “the most notorious and monstrous Imposture, that was ever put upon mankind.” Voltaire, when completing the Philosophical Dictionary, wrote, “Theology amuses me. There we find man’s insanity in all its plenitude.” Jefferson removed all of the miracles from the Bible, a decision which Hume would have applauded.
The only sacred thing was the pursuit of knowledge. Rational thinking, empiricism, science, and intellect reigned supreme. The next world meant very little to them, if anything at all. People had to make a difference in this one. And that was exactly what they set out to do, and succeeded. They brought us the modern age.
A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to Farce, or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
The Enlightenment never truly ended: its results permeate every aspect of our lives. But there hasn’t been another time quite like it since. The passion for knowledge has been eclipsed. We’ve entered an age in which ignorance rather than intelligence is celebrated. As Kant said, it’s easier to be immature, to let others do the thinking. We become habituated to the yoke: we become afraid of freedom. “The guardians who have so benevolently taken over the supervision of men have carefully seen to it that the far greatest part of them (including the entire fair sex) regard taking the step to maturity as very dangerous, not to mention difficult,” Kant wrote. “Having first made their domestic livestock dumb, and having carefully made sure that these docile creatures will not take a single step without the go-cart to which they are harnessed, these guardians then show them the danger that threatens them, should they attempt to walk alone.”
He could have been describing our age.
Fundamentalist religion is attempting to rein us in. Governments want to control, not serve, the governed. This has always been the case. The powerful never relinquish power easily, and they always desire more power. It’s easier for them to take it from people made willfully powerless.
War, poverty, ignorance and despair are rising all around us.
We should be thrilled
After all, the Enlightenment grew out of a desperate age. Europe was torn by war, crushed by despotic governments, ripped apart by religious strife, and it was from this harrowing that the philosophes grew. When I look at the conditions surrounding the Enlightenment, I see clear parallels. Strife can destroy people: it can also galvanize them.
I think we’re standing on the cusp of a new Age of Enlightenment.
Bloggers are the new pamphleteers. What bloggers are saying today about politics and religion, life and learning, show the same spirit as those tracts poured from the pens of subversive thinkers who went on to redefine the foundations of the world.
Comments threads and message boards have become the new salons, where ideas are exchanged and intelligence elevated. Those discussions wouldn’t have been out of place in the most illustrious gatherings of learned people.
All we need is the passion, the commitment, and the courage those revolutionaries displayed. Nothing is beyond us. But we have to step outside of the little boxes we’ve put ourselves in. Scientists need to brush shoulders with artists. Writers need to converse with mathematicians. Political philosophers and musicians should mingle. That cross-fertilization of knowledge is what leads to world-shaking ideas, quantum leaps in human understanding.
Politeness and deference are sweet social ideas, but we can’t defer to those who would impose ignorance and superstition. Contention was the order of the day during the Enlightenment. We should never shy away from it. Conventional thinking will get us nowhere. The world is on the cusp of a crisis: we’re never going to get anything solved if we don’t break away from tradition and habit. We won’t solve a damned thing if we don’t risk capsizing the boat.
The philosophes changed the world not by force of arms, but force of mind. Their ideas, their writings, their experiments, are what changed the world irrevocably.
It can happen again. Ignorance has no power to stand against those who dare to know. And those who dare have the power to change everything.
Here and today begins a new age in the history of the world. Some day you will be able to say – I was present at its birth.”
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
American anti-intellectualism could end up destroying this country within the next decade.
Our decades-long assault on intellect is turning us into a backwater. Just consider these results from a Programme for International Student Assessment study: the United States ranked nearly dead last in math, smack in the middle of the below average column. Search for our educational rankings, and you’ll find article after article talking about our failing grades. We’re becoming a nation of idiots.
Something tells me the neocons are rather counting on that.
Consider this series of columns by John Dean, former Nixon lawyer turned enthusiastic Republican basher. Dean first analyzes Obama’s speech on race and comes to some depressing conclusions, revealed right there in the title: “Barack Obama’s Smart Speech “A More Perfect Union”: Did It Reveal Him To Be Too Intellectual To Be President?”
Computers have made it rather simple to determine the intelligence or grade level of a speech by measuring it with the Flesch-Kincaid test, which is found on the Tools/Options menu of Microsoft Word. This widely-employed measurement device determines the degree of difficulty of the written (and spoken) word.
Enterprising linguists and others have applied the test to a wide variety of material. For instance, the folks at youDictionary have tested the inaugural addresses of presidents. They discovered that no president since Woodrow Wilson has come close to delivering speeches pitched at a 12th grade level. Bush II’s first inaugural address was at a 7.5 grade level, which ranked him near Eisenhower’s second address (7.5), Nixon’s first (7.6), LBJ’s only (7.0), and FDR’s fourth (8.1). Clinton’s two addresses, by contrast, scored at the 9th grade level (9.4 and 8.8 respectively).
I tested Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech and it scores at a 10.5 grade level, which by current standards is in the stratosphere. But maybe he was being too smart to win the presidency.
This, Dean says, is because “Republicans have spent the past half century dumbing-down the American presidency, for it has helped them win the White House .” Apparently, Republicans think it’s a fantastic idea to have only the finest dumbasses in charge of the nuclear weapons.
Obama’s ranking on this scale was one of the things that convinced me to vote for him. I’m sick to death of people talking to Americans like they’re nothing but a bunch of rubes and utter morons. All evidence to the contrary, it would be nice to have a president who believes we can think our way out of a brown paper bag. One of the secrets of creating smart people is to actually expect people to be smart.
Intelligence, however, is anathema to the neocons, because five minutes’ critical thought can blow enormous holes in their “reasoning.” I point you to eight years of miserably failed Bush policies and the overwhelming evidence that McCain’s policies are merely more of the same. Magical thinking abounds in Republican circles. We can still win in Iraq if we stay there 100 years. The tax fairy will pay for all the tax cuts and dramatically increased spending. Drilling for more oil in our pristine national wild areas will lower the price of gas practically instantly. I could go on, but you’ve got the picture: pick at the shiny gold coating Republican policies, and what you find underneath is bullshit.
But this is fine with them. Republicans still have a chance at winning, because Obama’s smart and the electorate wants dumb. Consider Dean’s further evidence on this point:
In recent years, Democrats have nominated presidential candidates who are far more intelligent that their Republican counterparts. Common sense might suggest that high intelligence is necessary to be president,
and conclude that we should applaud such nominations. Election politics, unfortunately, usually punishes the more intelligent nominee.
He points out that the only Democrats to win in the last several decades have been Jimmy Carter (who was super-smart but whose Southern drawl makes him sound like a goober) and Bill Clinton (who played down his smarts, also spoke with a twang, and chased skirts for good measure). When it comes to electing a president, Americans seem to have an irresistible impulse to pull the level for the dumbest-seeming bastard they can find.
If this is truly what elections come down to in this country, Obama has absolutely no chance at the White House. He’s not only smart, he doesn’t hide it. And, horror of horrors, he expects Americans to be smart, too.
I’m afraid this may be too much for a nation of terminal under-achievers to handle.
So is Dean. And he’s got studies to back his pessimism:
Dr. Drew Westen, a clinical and political psychologist who teaches at Emery University, has literally looked inside the mind of partisan voters with MRI scanning equipment, and confirmed that emotions dominate our voting decisions. Westen writes about our emotionally-driven democracy in his recent book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotions In Deciding the Fate of the Nation (Public Affairs, 2007), and his findings are not good news for Democrats, unless they change their ways.
Westen and his colleagues found “[t]he political brain is an emotional brain. It is not a dispassionate calculating machine, objectively searching for the right facts, figures, and policies to make a
reasoned decision.” Democrats, however, like to appeal to reason. While this resonates with many key elements of the Democratic Party, it simply does not work across the board with all voters.
In short, voters are going to react to McCain and Obama in the general election this fall with their hearts, not their heads.
If that’s the case, we are so fucked.
This country can’t afford another four years of stupid. Dean has some faint hope that the last eight years of utterly spectacular dumbfuckery has jolted the American electorate enough to realize that voting for the person who seems closest to you in general ignorance is the wrong thing to do. So do I. And yet both of us realize that many of our fellow countrymen are going to go for the man who throws a good barbecue rather than the man who has the intelligence to make the tough decisions and start picking up the shattered fragments of our nation. So what if McCain wants to keep us in a hideously unpopular war for a century, can’t tell the difference between a Sunni and a Shi’ite even if they’re wearing badges, and whose economic policy is guaranteed to bankrupt the nation? He doesn’t talk above the understanding of the average dropout, and his dry rub is to die for.
We just might.
America has to wise up. Somehow, we have to convince our fellow citizens to stop treating elections as popularity contests and start treating them as job interviews. The presidency is the most important job in America: it’s vital it doesn’t go to the dumbest candidate. We need a super-intelligent person in the White House, someone capable of running a complicated, dangerous, and threatened country. We need someone in charge who can think his way out of a brown paper bag.
The problem is, even if we end up with such a man, I’m afraid the below-average idiots who treat elections as an extension of American Idol are going to end up forcing him to tack stupid. We’re beyond a left-leaning politician having to tack right: if what John Dean and his sources are saying is correct, America will accept a left-leaner as long as he’s stupid enough not to threaten their fragile egos. They’ll forgive any number of idiotic mistakes – they’ve proven that time and time again over the last eight years – but they’ll never forgive a man for being smarter than they are.
That’s why we need to work hard to create a smarter America, my darlings. Intelligence needs to be prized again. Americans need to be encouraged to excel in academics, value smarts over personality, and above all learn how the fucking well think again.
This country is not going to survive as a superpower, or even a power, if it doesn’t get smart. If Bush’s idiotic antics have made our electorate realize that, then it’ll be the only good thing he’s ever done.
Let’s don’t vote for stupid this time, okay, America?
by Kaden Darez, Senior Teen Correspondent for En Tequila Es Verdad.
Author’s note: I was going to save this for a Carnival. Looking over it, I don’t really know if it has a point or not. It was something I typed up a while ago. So I’m posting it.
The age of intelligence. Anyone here hoping to find some deep insight on the time of intellect, you may be disappointed. If you are wishing to read about the trials and tribulations of culture, of arrogant ignorants struggling to come to terms with the concept that there is someone smarter than them, then you’re close but not quite on the mark. This is not about the era of intelligence, but rather the age of the individual in question.
What is the age of an intelligent person?
As a few of you might have realized by now, I am young. I am eighteen years old. A teenager. A run-of-the-mill slacker who won’t stay off the lawn and doesn’t value his education and wears his jeans so low that his pockets are held up by his knees. Right?
I dare you to say that to my face. Not for want of intimidation, but so that you can see my eyes, so that you can hear my words. I am not a faceless individual, I am not just another drop of water in a raging storm. I am a unique human being, and I have as many opinions, as shallow or as deep as anyone else. Oh, and I wear my pants correctly.
Why do we assume that those of young age are not intelligent? Why do we assume that hunched over senior citizens are equally blind to the world that surrounds them? Of course, not everyone does, but when was the last time you sat down with someone with a few generations between you and had an insightful conversation, when you were not trying to prove a point, or tell stories about going to school in the snow, barefoot, walking uphill both ways, but rather, when you were trying to actually learn something?
Certainly, there are plenty of examples amongst my peers of minds so dim they couldn’t illuminate a matchbox, but don’t go pointing out examples of stupidity and ignorance in my generation, when our current president is from yours.
My favorite thing to do at family reunions, weddings, holidays, or any formal occasion with a myriad of adults talking amongst themselves, is to simply engage in a conversation. Often, the scene plays out with them asking me a typical opening line, because I’m family and they have to be nice:
Adult: “So, what grade are you in?“
Because of course, admitting that I am still in school, in high school and certainly not the elevated status of a college student, automatically denotes me as inferior, less intelligent, lacking morals and values and appreciation for everything my parents have worked so hard to provide me. So I tell them what year I’m in, which is usually followed by an equally anonymous,
Adult: “What classes are you taking?“
Now right about…. there ^ is where the eyes glaze over. They press pause on their expression, keeping that phony smile on their face so they can feign interest, waiting for me to answer with some usual, “stuff” or “I dunno” that is the typical response of my childhood comrades.
If you look carefully, you can see the cogs in their brain spinning freely, not paying attention, no individual gear connected to another one in the context of this conversation. Whatever you tell them doesn’t even get the liberty of going in one ear, before going out the other. Rather, it simply is batted away by thoughts of their next margarita, and my responses usually go cartwheeling right past their ear, screaming indignantly but with all the efficiency of an autumn leaf in a hurricane. Still, I try, and smile and say,
Teenager: “Oh, just a few classes. Twentieth century History and Literature, Theory of Knowledge, AP Biology II, Japanese IV and AP Calculus.“
That usually gets their attention, if they have enough brain power to light an LED. If not, then they usually pat me on the head with an, “Oh, P.E., that’s nice,” and make their way to the nearest food source. Still, I have some fairly bright people in my family tree, so I have had the wonderful experience of launching into a conversation, not only about what I’m learning but about what the adult knows, and we end up teaching each other. Isn’t that what learning is all about?
Now, in the post by our wonderful friend NP, she stated that,“Students today put no value on their education.”I can only extend my sympathies and sorrows that students don’t realize we have people like NP around, but in rebuttal to her statement, I ask, How are we to be expected to value our education, our intelligence, if adults don’t take us seriously? Sure, our teachers and principals expect us to learn and to thrive in an academic environment, and our parents certainly demand high performance, but when you are taken out of a strictly educational environment, we’re just those damned skateboarders again.
It’s quite a paradox, really, that we are often considered of less intelligence, fewer morals, and wilder behavior given certain trends in society. I will be the first to admit that Myspace and Facebook and YouTube play a part in diluting our gene pool, but those tools can also be used in productive ways. Presidential debates, for example, were posted on Youtube for all to see. Facebook is a wonderful networking tool that has been used to schedule large-scale study groups in preparation for AP and IB tests.
Here’s an example: I have been told by my family how I squander my education, yet if I were to set down my Calculus homework in front of them, none of them would be able to give me a derivative or an integral of a simple binomial equation. If I quiz them about the difference between monocot and dicot plants and how you can tell the difference, I get a blank stare. If I ask them about how the Cuban Missile Crisis was averted, I’d get a few general answers but usually not a whole lot of detail about the role of Kruschev, or why a few missiles in Turkey were important to the concluding negotiations.
Now, I’m just cherry-picking here, but it’s merely demonstrating how most of what we’ve learned in school, our parents have either forgotten or were never taught in the first place. I could go on, but I want to keep this fairly on topic: that youngin’s have the capacity for intelligence, but we’re constantly not taken seriously by the adult community.
We are the future, my friends, whether that is a bright prospect or a looming apocalypse. We are also a product of your opinions, the way you treat us and the way we respond. Give us the chance to prove our worth. You might be surprised what you find.
And everything changes
And nothing is truly lost
(Still open to ideas about a unique sign-off)