The Legacy of the Enlightenment

I have a look at Signs of the Times most days. It is one of those alternative news sites to take with a pinch of salt. It doesn’t go to the extremes of David Icke or Alex Jones, but is prepared to be as critical of Mr Trump as of his adversaries. Today, I found How the Enlightenment separated us from nature. SOTT took the article from elsewhere and shoved in a few notes.

The reflection expressed shows many of the patterns of thought of the Romantics of c. 1790 to 1830. The French Revolution destroyed reason in the name of Reason, and we see this reflected in our own times with the mutations now occurring in the west – from mass Islamic immigration to the culture of total control via the use of high technology. The current of Romantic thought is distinctly expressed in the environmentalist movement, though its intellectual basis is not always coherent. Human greed and arrogance have been around us for a very long time.

The Enlightenment movement was a reaction against some of the excesses of religion and superstition. We still have flat-earth movement and stories of shape-shifting reptiles, and only a small proportion of humanity makes the effort to find truth rather than go with the mob and the mass movement, whatever form that might take at a given time. The Enlightenment came out of the Renaissance with the first advances in the natural sciences. One big discrepancy in this movement was the separation between the study of humanity and that of nature. We live with the consequences of the Industrial Revolution, which are no longer Dark Satanic Mills around places like Manchester and London’s East End, but the whole world.

From controlling and killing nature for profit, the Rationalist has now turned to re-creating the human being. Frankenstein remained a nightmare fancy in the stormy imagination of Mary Shelley, but the reality today is that much more frightening. Ideology now states that there will be no difference between men and women, or that people can change gender on a whim. I have always maintained a certain degree of “fluidity” in this question at a spiritual and psychological level, and that we are not bound to gender stereotypes – if we accept our bodies the way God made us through all the biological processes of human procreation. The Rationalist seeks to control everything, to be the master of all, and not to take place in the natural order.

Descartes really began this movement in the seventeenth century by separating human self-consciousness from the blind forces of nature that can be measured, counted and subdued. Descartes was a believing Christian, but very soon, his empiricism would push soul and spirit away from the picture. One thing I notice in France is the legacy of the Cartesian mind, the French garden in which nothing is left to nature. Even trees in forests have to be planted in straight lines in both the x and y axes, so that they line up when you look at them perpendicularly or from 45°. I suppose that is practical if the trees are going to be harvested for timber and processed by machine. I suspect the arrangement is more fundamental than that. That is only an example. There is little room for the Idealist mind here!

I leave the reader to judge on the credibility of this criticism of men like Francis Bacon and Descartes. Our present time with its technology is much more worrying. We face the spectres of artificial intelligence and transhumanism. The first atomic bombs were exploded more than seventy years ago, and we can only imagine how much they have been refined and made more destructive since then. Genetic manipulation and cloning are two other aspects of this manipulation of nature and human beings as belonging to that nature.

Big cities are also a part of that movement to engineer human nature. I work at home, but I have to take my wife to the railway station each day for her commute into Rouen. It erodes the reason why we don’t go and live in a rabbit hutch in the high-rise blocks of flats. We also have the very internet I am using to write this. It can be a tool when subjected to constant criticism, but I read too many accounts of how lives have been ruined by ideological disputes on Facebook and other social media. Perhaps being a Romantic Idealist enables me to keep that necessary distance from the tools of my work. “We are in the world but not of it” – goes the usual Christian cliché.

Many of us fear that payback or blowback time has come. Nature will in different ways wreak revenge. There are apocalyptic fears of asteroids, Yellowstone super volcano, possibilities of prehistoric viruses presently trapped in melting ice. The list is endless, and we humans still think we will get away with it: go to another planet, buy New Zealand and create a billionnaire enclave, whatever. We simply forget that we all die at some point. Transhumanism talks of halting ageing and making incarnate humans immortal. Of course this only applies to the stinking rich, because the little people would have to die to make room for their feudal lords. All of a sudden, Nazi-style genocide becomes acceptable in the name of progress.

Perhaps I am becoming hysterical, but none of this is impossible. It might not come tomorrow but the next day, or in fifty years time. It is plain that the resources of this earth are limited and the oil will one day run out. I read two sides of the climate change and global warming paradigm, and I don’t know which is the most convincing. The ice caps are either freezing over more or melting, not both. I have never been there to see for myself! What is for sure is that mankind is using this planet as if there is no tomorrow.

A while ago, I posted Byron’s Darkness on this blog. In Byron’s mind, did this cataclysm occur though the doings of man or through something like the asteroid hitting the earth or the super volcano blowing? I suspect the latter. The image is (at least for me) more terrifying than the many films like 2012 made with technological special effects.

Finally in the article comes the question of whether we should abandon technology, medicine and the undoubted progress that has been made in modern times? Should we return to a time when children and young people died from tuberculosis because no doctor knew how to cure it? The problem is the way we use our technology. Without it, I wouldn’t be publishing my writings on the internet for you to read. Even the printing press is an element of technology.

The Enlightenment already destroyed itself in the 1790’s and swallowed its own tail. It is now happening again worldwide and not only in France. Perhaps the future is Byron’s Darkness. Perhaps there will be someone to whom I can leave my thoughts and my meagre contribution. I cannot forecast the future. There are too many conflicting speculations and snake-oil prophecies.

Yes, I do believe in environmentalism and doing what we can to limit the damage we are doing to our planet. We can all do little things, but the real damage is caused by big industry and the various Frankenstein sciences going on at this moment. We can become hard-core ecologists and vegans, and look the part! I don’t think that is necessary. We can live according to our means in normal houses, eat the food we can buy preferably directly from farms to cut out the middle man. We can spend time in nature walking, climbing, cycling, boating or whatever, and harmonise our own souls with its beauty and what has survived human greed.

I appeal also to the balance between reason, imagination and emotion. I appreciate science and its rigour appeals to my mind. I like to know why things happen and how things work, both human technology and nature. As with the use of the internet, anything can be used as a tool for good or a weapon for killing and maiming.

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3 Responses to The Legacy of the Enlightenment

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “Descartes was a believing Christian, but very soon, his empiricism would push soul and spirit away from the picture.” I keep meaning to try to find out more about him and this. I once read a fascinating discussion about Descartes and his Meditations by Eric Voegelin, but can’t remember just where. I found this by him online, which sounds familiar: ““The Cartesian meditation is in principle a Christian meditation in the traditional style; it may be even classified more specifically as a meditation of the Augustinian type as it has been undertaken in the history of the Christian spirit hundreds of times since Augustine.” I don’t know enough to evaluate this, but, if it’s true, what happened? How did we end up with the weirdness of ‘Cartesian dualism’ and most living creatures regarded as mere ‘machines’?

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    There is a lovely book first published in Dutch – astonishingly – under Nazi occupation in the autumn of 1941 by Frederi(c)k van der Meer (who later became Professor of Christian Archaeology, Liturgy, and the History of Mediaeval Art at the University of Nijmegen, and a biographer of St. Augustine), a later edition of which was translated into English as The Faith of the Church, in the U.K. (and The Faith of the Catholic Church: Theology for the Layman, in the U.S.) (1966). And it has a vivid little section in its treatment of Baptism where he writes that the Early Church called this new life in Christ ‘light’ and this birth, ‘photismos’, ‘enlightenment’. The Baptistry was called ‘the house of enlightenment’. Reading ‘Die Christenheit oder Europa’ (in the translation you linked), I wondered if this was in Novalis’s mind, in his discussion of both the Church, Christianity, and Christendom and the (so to put it) self-described ‘Enlightenment’. And whether there was indeed deliberate ‘cheek’ in that description, by people aware of that early and traditional Christian usage and refusing to give it due consideration – something then implicitly corrected by Novalis.

  3. J.D. says:

    “I appeal also to the balance between reason, imagination and emotion. I appreciate science and its rigour appeals to my mind. I like to know why things happen and how things work, both human technology and nature. As with the use of the internet, anything can be used as a tool for good or a weapon for killing and maiming.”

    Right on Father Chadwick, right on. I feel similarly. Science and technology are tools, they are not inherently good or evil. I too love looking into how things work. It’s both a blessing and a curse but I have an insatiable desire to learn in detail about almost any topic that I find interesting. The Net makes it possible for me to learn just about any topic in broad brush strokes or graduate level detail.

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