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Susan Neiman is a moral philosopher with an interest in exploring the persistence of Enlightenment thought and reinterpreting past thinkers for contemporary contexts. She is the current Director of the[…]

Susan Neiman on how Enlightenment values are misunderstood, and their importance today.

Neiman:  The enlightenment monster is a being that is created by a whole bunch of caricaturists but it’s interesting that virtually anybody--unless they’re a professional historian writing about the enlightenment--anybody throwing out discussions about the enlightenment, whether it be Robert Kagan on the right or--gee, I don’t know who on the left--Foucault on the left, whoever it is sees the enlightenment as an icily cold being who has sublimated all passion to reason, who believes that reason is instrumental in calculating and a matter of technology, who has a blind faith in progress and thinks that the world is inexorably going forth for the better. What are some other features of the enlightenment monster?  Those are the crucial ones. They don’t actually fit anyone, which is why I called them the enlightenment monster in the book because if you look at the enlightenment itself--  And you don’t need to be a historian and you don’t need to dig in to the archives. All you need to do is read Candide, which was written in 1759--that is in the middle of the enlightenment--by Voltaire. You see a critique of this very simplistic enlightenment attitude, some- the heart of the enlightenment itself. That is the enlightenment itself knew that progress wasn’t necessary; they only thought it was possible. They knew that other things besides reason were important. They spent at least as much time talking about the emotions as they did about reason and they weren’t interested in reason because they were icy or because they were merely technological but because reason was a democratic instrument against superstition and authority. Reason is opposed not to passion but to somebody’s intuition. Right. This is--  Well, “God told me to invade another country so that’s a private intuition and there’s no way that I can explain it to you but I just know it” is one way of not using reason. Another way of not using reason is to simply use rhetoric, to simply use sound bites,
play the same sound bites over and over without looking at an entire speech in context, and to create superstition and fear, and the enlightenment was attempting to use reason, which is a faculty we all have, we can all develop, and we can all debate about, as I gather you’re doing with this program, rather than appealing to authority or superstition. So all of those- all those criticisms of the enlightenment occurred within the enlightenment itself. The idea--  The other feature of the enlightenment of course is that people think it was totally irreverent and anti-religious. It was not irreverent. It--  Most members of the enlightenment--  There are some who were sheer atheists and who I even would call irreverent, lacking a sense of reverence, and I do think it’s terribly important but most of them thought that science would lead to a greater appreciation of the glories of creation and gratitude for the fact that we live in a marvelous world. That was how they saw science, as contributing to human progress, not simply--although these are important enough--helping to eradicate disease and poverty and prejudice but also in creating a sense of wonder and gratitude.

Question: What’s the most important lesson of the enlightenment?

Neiman:  I talk about four enlightenment values because I don’t simply think that there is one. One of the things that when people associated something positive with the enlightenment, which unfortunately is rare enough these days, they talk about tolerance. Tolerance is fine as far as it goes if you already believe in something but it’s deeply wimpy in the sense that you might conceivably get somebody to refrain from doing something in the name of tolerance. You will have a very hard time getting them to do anything for something in the name of tolerance because it’s not a value that has a lot of content. So instead I’ve asked that we look at four different enlightenment values, one I named to you already which is reason. The other is reverence which I also discussed. A third which we’ve come to take for granted is happiness. I think it’s very easy for fundamentalists to look at American consumerist culture, and we’ve seen terrorists do that, and say, “You know what. This is not my idea of the meaning of life, a society that’s consumed with whoever dies with the most toys wins as a bumper sticker in the ‘90s used to say. There is something revolting about that as a sense of value. That’s not what the enlightenment was talking about, about sheer materialism. The enlightenment was talking about a right to happiness as distinguished from whatever fate you got stuck with. I start my chapter on happiness with the Book of Job, which may seem like a counterintuitive place to start, and I start it that way because the Book of Job is the most read book of the Bible but until the enlightenment everyone who read Job read him the way Job’s friends did, that is Job had it coming. Okay. And they went to crazy lengths to try and construct a story such that Job deserved whatever it is that he got. In the enlightenment you suddenly began to have a notion that hey, actually it would be possible for bad things to happen to good people and good things to happen to bad people; this is not what God has ordained. And what that means is if bad things happen to good people the world- people in the world have a right to step up and try to change them. You see, before you have that idea, if people were sick, well, it was probably God’s will. If people were poor, hey, that was certainly God’s will. So until you have the idea that happiness is not something in a lost golden age or something that you might look forward to in heaven but something that if you fundamentally do what you should do you have a right to on earth, until you have that idea you don’t get a sense of justice. So that’s the third enlightenment value and the final one is the value of hope, which is very different from optimism. The people in the enlightenment were not sunny. They knew how bad things could be. If you read some of these pieces, you’ll be amazed. They sound like they could be written in the late twentieth century as far as their understanding of just how dark human beings could be. So they don’t believe that human beings are perfect. They just don’t believe that they’re committed to original sin and interestingly enough I think both- a lot of traditional Christians as well as a lot of secular postmodernists--and this is very interesting--someone like Foucault is actually talking or--  He doesn’t talk about it of course but he’s actually giving us as a foundation a notion of original sin, whatever one tries to do, okay, to improve on the world is doomed to futility because in fact we’re all driven by nothing but power and whatever looks like an alleviation of injustice is in fact going to be a refinement of certain techniques of power. So when the enlightenment does away with those kinds of ideas of original sin--that’s a postmodern return to original sin--they are saying, “You know what. Things can get better,” and I think our own time has seen so many clear ideas- so many clear examples of ways in which the world has been changed by ideals for the better but not necessarily. Torture is a very good example. If you think about the fact that 300 years ago scenes that would turn your stomach to read about are things you would have taken your kids to watch on a Saturday afternoon and you realize well, that was in the heart of civilization. We’ve abolished that now. Of course, as we’ve seen in the last five years, this is not necessary progress. You can turn the clock back and one of the things that has to happen to restore America’s moral authority is for us to take a resounding stand again against torture and for the enlightenment, but it is a kind of progress. It happened. It doesn’t happen necessarily but it can happen if we work towards it.