This post is well off the normal topic for this blog (and some of you may think it has fallen off the twig too). If you think it is just self-indulgent, then I ask that you will indulge me. It is one of those things that get in your head and you can’t get rid of. It feels like this is a post I ‘must’ write.
The project of the Western Enlightenment has been played out. This must be one of the most exciting times to be alive intellectually. We have, at once, a blank slate and incredible experience to draw on. I couldn’t imagine a more stimulating time to be a thinker. It is also one of the most frightening times to be alive – we are looking at a global ecological castastrophe of our own making and this is unique in human history (until now the catastrophes have either been local or not of our making).
The Western Enlightenment.
The Renaissance was the re-discovery and assimilation of classical learning (especially Aristotle). The Enlightenment (and Reformation and Counter-Reformation – which in some places preceded the Reformation) was the West’s creative response to this re-discovery. The Enlightenment was accompanied by the Romantic movement.
The Valuable Parts of the Enlightenment.
1. The discovery of the ethical subject. Freedom of conscience is a precious gift that is worth defending.
2. Another way of saying this is the value of each individual. Eg. there is no longer a law code in the West where slaves are of less value than citizens. In terms of world history, this is quite new.
3. A huge number of inventions. Life – for those with access to the technology – can be healthier and easier than at any other time in earth’s history. It can be healthier too: due to public health women can realistically look forward to having all their children live to adulthood.
The Problems With The Enlightenment.
1. Emphasis on the intellect. This has led to the denigration of the physical, emotional, spiritual and social dimensions of our lives . This has led to huge ethical problems. That the statement, “It will be done, because it can be done” is taken seriously, says it all about the poverty of our ethics.
2. Said another way – person’s are reduced to something abstract: an intellect without a body. Kant remarked that how an individual’s thought could move their arm was a mystery to him. Carl Jung remarked that the West’s development would not be complete until it developed it’s own yoga (ie until it could integrate our physicality). My own attempt was to write a christian physical spirituality. (It is waiting on illustrations.)
3. Eliminating community. The individual is not seen as part of a group – which is necessary for any sense of individuality. And so cultures and relationships are ignored – and we all suffer. The arrogance of the West presuming that everyone’s culture is/should be the same as their’s is often remarked on. (This is yet to change.)
4. The devaluing of Nature. Reduction of our planet to the status of a resource has had appalling consequences, which seem to be accelerating. This led to the counter-movement of idolising Nature (giving it a capital letter). In both these movements people are excluded from Nature (in one they are meant to dominate it, in the other to serve it; but in both they are separated from it).
The Current Response.
The movement at the moment seems to be to some kind of ecological essentialism. This is something of a development of the Romantic movement. People are asked to live in accord with and serve the biosphere (“Nature” re-branded). As remarked above, people are excluded from the picture and then asked to work their way back in. This leads to hopeless intellectual tangles: if it is natural for elephants to eat so much that their habitat is denuded, then it is natural for people to destroy their environment too. This doesn’t really help us face our ecological challenges.
It can also lead to the viciousness of Social Darwinism. This possibility is rarely faced by those who advocate this approach. There are scientists saying that authoritarian regimes have a better chance of dealing with the ecological crisis than the democracies. (I’m not saying that they are wrong.)
What Is Needed.
We need a sense of what is people’s distinctive contribution to the biosphere. For me this has to do with our symbolic life (people use abstract symbols in a far more complex way than any other species) and our ability to plan.
I don’t mean that these are what are most important – they are what is distinctive. It may be that what is the same about us as other creatures is most important: our ability to share feeling, our dependence on the planet. But planning and communication are what make people quite different – and it looks like these will be vital if we are to avoid ecological catastrophe for our own, and the rest of the, species.
What Is Involved.
1. A re-assessment of the Christian heritage. This doesn’t mean a simple minded return to medievalism but a genuine encounter (allowing ourselves to question and be questioned by this particular religious tradition). I don’t mean that it is better than other religions, only that it has shaped us – and to ignore this doesn’t help.
2. An inclusive vision of people. The intellect is essential and important, but it is not always dominant. I think we need a vision of people that is multi-dimensional (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual and social).
3. A new understanding of our place in the biosphere. One with a notion of our distinct role as a species.
Thanks for Your Indulgence
If you are still with me, thanks. I really think that this is important. And I think the situation is urgent.
I am well aware that every sentence I have written in this post could be challenged – and in many ways too: this is a very opinionated piece. I wanted to put down how I see things and what I think we need to do. Please feel free to respond in the comments. If you want to respond at length you could perhaps do a guest post or I can link to a post of yours if you have a blog. I am looking for responses and dialogue about this. I am especially interested in proposals for the way(s) forward. Looking forward to hearing from you.
No related posts.