By Dr. Joseph Chuman
Acting on the entitlements which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God had given to the American people, Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1776 “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
87 years later, between ten and twenty thousand people gathered on the fields of Gettysburg to hear President Abraham Lincoln give a speech that lasted no more than three minutes. Though rumors have persisted that Lincoln wrote the 272 words of the Gettysburg address on the back of an envelope in a momentary flash of inspiration, the truth is that he thought long and hard, not only about the composition of that brief address, but the historic role he intended it to play. For in writing the Gettysburg address Lincoln self-consciously was attempting to fulfill the unfulfilled promises that Jefferson had proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. Whereas the birth of the nation heralded, but left unrealized, the equality of all men, the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves rededicated the nation to “a new birth of freedom” a democratic government “of the people, by the people and for the people.”
And it was almost exactly a hundred years later standing before the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963 that Martin Luther King echoed the words of Jefferson and Lincoln when he said:
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we now stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation…
But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, that life of the Negro is till sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination…
In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check which has come back marked insufficient funds. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check – a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
These three examples of timeless American oratory, coming from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries respectively, all reveal a common thread running through them and share common values.
They address themselves to the sturdy values of equality, justice, freedom and the promises of a progressively unfolding and more bountiful future.
These ideas of justice, equality, freedom and progress, ideas that frame the modern world and our modern consciousness, did not come from nowhere. Jefferson did not himself create them, nor did Lincoln, nor did King. They inherited these ideas from the glorious outpouring of thought, creativity and discovery known as the European Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment was that radical awakening to the power of the human mind. It was a movement that flourished in the century between the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688 and the French Revolution in 1789, but it really extended for a hundred years before and almost a hundred years after that latter date.
What was the Enlightenment? Let’s put it this way. If you had lived in medieval Europe the world around you would essentially be unknowable and unknown. Even if you were among the rare individuals who were educated, you would have little sense of history and almost no grasp on how the world works. The world would confront you, in and of itself, as an inscrutable mystery, and all mysteries would ultimately be explained as an expression of God’s will. Yours would be an authoritarian world governed by the power of God, his church and his monarchs who ruled by divine decree.
That changed in the 17th century, when men such as Galileo, Kepler, and, most of all, Isaac Newton created modern science. With the age of science came the extraordinary discovery that human beings could actually use the power of their minds and their reason to decipher how nature works. The planets, which to the medieval mind were embedded in crystalline spheres and propelled by the power of invisible angels, in the 17th century, saw those angels replaced by the laws of gravitation and celestial mechanics.
The Enlightenment made another remarkable discovery. Not only was nature scrutable to the human mind, but nature could actually be transformed to make life better, perhaps even happier for humankind. Reason could be harnessed to scientific discovery, and scientific discovery led to applied technology.
In the minds of Enlightenment philosophers, reason and inquiry were directed not only to the natural, but to the social world that we inhabit as well.
If there were laws that governed how nature works, perhaps there are analogous laws that determine how human beings function in society. Political philosophers such as Jefferson believed that there were. And just as Newtonian laws are part of nature, so there are basic rights that are inalienable from and natural to human beings, just as a person’s shadow is inalienable from him or her. And according to Jefferson and those of his ilk it is the role, indeed, the very purpose of the state and government, to protect those natural rights.
The period of the Enlightenment gave us modern science, but it also gave us the modern political world we enjoy. It overthrew absolute monarchs and replaced them with the democratic state, where power and legitimacy does not come from the king above but from the people below.
The Enlightenment was a heady and exhilarating time. Its temperament was one of skepticism, secularism and cosmopolitanism. It extended from Edinburgh to Naples, Paris to Berlin, Boston to Philadelphia. It sought to replace ignorance with knowledge, superstition and illusion with reason, authoritarianism with democracy, degradation with dignity, the childhood of humankind with its maturity, traditional religion with secularism, divine will with natural law. But most of all the Enlightenment cherished freedom, – the freedom to inquire, the freedom to know and freedom from political tyranny.
The Enlightenment claimed such geniuses as the Scotsmen David Hume and Adam Smith, the Englishmen John Locke and Jeremy Bentham, the Germans, Gothold Lessing and Immanuel Kant, the Italian Cesare Beccarria, the Frenchmen Montesquieu, Rousseau and Voltaire, and the Americans Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, among dozens of others. These philosophes, as they were called, preached ethics and free trade, tolerance and universalism, democracy and revolution, human dignity and humane punishment for criminals. While most of these figures did not abandon their belief in God, they relegated God to the austere and impersonal role of Grand Architect of the Universe, while they moved to forefront of their concerns the radical and progressive improvement of human society and employed reason, science and political freedom as the vehicles to get us there.
If we enjoy the fruits of science and medicine and a lifespan of 75 years, we if have come to cherish liberty and the concept of rights, if we enjoy a skeptical approach to life and value the free mind, in short if we are willing to defend our modern way of life, with all its pitfalls, challenges and tragedies, then we need to thank the philosophers, scientists, inventors and artists, too, of the era of the European Enlightenment.
An appreciation of the Enlightenment is directly relevant to us as Ethical Culturists also, for Ethical Culture and its humanism is assuredly a child of the Enlightenment. Felix Adler was educated in the best German universities, which in the 19th century were the intellectually freest and most proficient in the world, and resonated with the spirit of such Enlightenment figures as Hegel and Kant. Indeed, Adler was an indirect disciple of Kant, and his Ethical Culture, his primary emphasis on ethics, and his attack on traditional religion was built on broadly Kantian principles. In its commitment to ethics, dignity, democracy, free inquiry, universalism, and reason, Ethical Culture has remained loyal to the legacy and spirit of the Enlightenment.
Despite its glories, the Enlightenment is under deep attack today as it and has been for at least the last twenty years. There are even those who believe that it was a grand historical mistake, and in some unimaginable way argue the world would have been better off had it never occurred. The attack on the Enlightenment is most evident in academia and among intellectual social critics, but as is often the case what goes on in the ivory tower often parallels what transpires in the culture as a whole, and even plays a role in precipitating cultural attitudes.
The attack on the Enlightenment is manifested in the so-called culture wars that have been going on in the universities. Should students study and revere only the classical texts of “dead, white, European, males” who were primarily Enlightenment figures, or should they study in addition, or instead, the texts of writers from the non-Western world. More importantly, which texts are more worth studying, and how would we know whether they are or are not? The attack on the Enlightenment is manifested in a renewed respect given to religion, and to those beliefs which fall short of rational criteria. Fifty years ago, many educated people in the West would have looked at religion as a medieval superstition and a relic of the pre-modern age. Even if they would not have said so, they would have felt a sympathy for Voltaire’s call “ecrasez l’infame” “erase the infamous thing.” Today in the name of tolerance, we feel a need to abide sincerely rendered points of view no matter how counterfactual, or from a rational point of view, preposterous they may be.
In the West, equality, including equality between the sexes, is a salient Enlightenment value. “Equal pay for equal work” easily rolls from our lips. But when we confront women in Muslim countries who wear the veil, and profess that they choose to do so as an authentic expression of their cultural and religious transitions and beliefs, what happens to our commitment to gender equality? Perhaps a confidence that we Westerns would have had 50 years ago is thrown off balance when we encounter deep-rooted cultures that are not Western and never passed through the liberalizing screen of the Enlightenment. The Western Enlightenment project is forced to question its own premises when confronted with what has come to be known as “cultural relativism.”
And the attack on the Enlightenment is manifest in disillusionment with science. Fifty years ago, science was applauded as a Messiah that engined progress and would improve life for all, as it had for three hundred years. But with the piling high of toxic waste, global warming, and nuclear weapons and debris that will be around forever, science has fallen off its pedestal. So little regard is there for the importance of science and its truths, that we even now we have a president of the United States who claims to be a “creationist” and does not believe in the theory of evolution, even though evolution is one of the foundational pillars and principles of modern science on which the scaffolding of virtually all contemporary science is built. Some in this country may applaud it; for most others, it is probably a matter of indifference. Some believe in evolution; others in creationism just as some prefer chocolate ice cream while others favor pistachio. It’s just a matter of taste and opinion all the way down. A blanket of tolerance, or one might argue “false tolerance,” trumps any claim to learned authority, knowledge, scientific or otherwise.
Some see in the attack on the Enlightenment a devaluing of knowledge and learning generally, a devaluation of ideas and facts and their replacement by opinions, the transformation of politics into culture, and learning into a form of entertainment, authority into celebrity and the pursuit of objective knowledge into subjective feelings, with all of these changes blessed by a the mantra of tolerance.
Why the disillusionment with the Enlightenment? Why the attack?
There are two main sources – one historical, demographic and factual; the other intellectual.
Critics make an interesting and important observation. While white, Christian, European men of the 17th and 18th century were professing universalism, equality, tolerance, justice, freedom, humanity, the dignity of human beings, and all those Enlightened values they were at the same time conquering the world, enslaving non-white people, subjugating women, with few exceptions despising Jews, and otherwise engaging in imperialism, colonialism and genocide. Indeed it is true. Virtually all the luminaries the Enlightenment we can evaluate by our standards as racist, male chauvinist, anti-Semitic bigots.
When it came to women, the men of the Enlightenment equated humanity with the capacity for reason, and women, they argued, did quite have enough of it. Hence, the defense of continued patriarchy and male dominance. The amiable David Hume and the ethically obsessed rationalist, Immanuel Kant, in their correspondences had vile things to say about Africans. Voltaire was a polemical anti-Semite, and Thomas Jefferson who penned the immortal words that “all men are created equal” could at the same time own, buy and sell human beings who happened to have come from Africa and have dark skin.
In order to seal their point those who despair of the Enlightenment will pose the question: Which was the most highly educated, rational, enlightened society of the 20th century? The land that cherished Goethe and loved Beethoven? The answer is mid-century Germany. And what were the fruits of this all this rationalism, high culture, education, science and technology. The fruits of all this, they conclude was the creation of a cult of death, wherein science, education, reason, philosophy, technology and bureaucracy were marshaled in the service of creating killing factories dedicated to systematically murdering with greatest efficiency the largest number of people, in the quickest period of time at the least cost. Where does the Enlightenment lead? The Enlightenment leads to and ends at Auschwitz.
But how could this be? How could Thomas Jefferson look into the face of a black man and not quite see a human being? How could this contradiction abide?
Here we need to turn intellectual for a moment. The great mistake of the Enlightenment, so its critics argue, is that it dedicated itself to that belief that there is some kind of objective truth out there that we can, through the dispassionate use of our reason, discover. Moreover, the Enlightenment was hung up on abstract concepts such as universalism, which have no real existence. The Enlightenment preached ideals that don’t exist in the real world, and therefore, was blind to those concrete facts of people’s lives that motivate them. For example, the Enlightenment taught respect for “humanity-in-general”, while overlooking the fact that there is no such thing as a “human being-in-general” or a universal human being, just as there is no such thing as a flower-in-general. There are only French people, Italians, Africans, Jews, etc. By glorifying an abstract ideal, which doesn’t truly exist, the men of the Enlightenment equated that ideal with themselves, the dominant group of white, educated, Christian European men. The ideal standard became their standard for what was excellent, indeed superior. By contrast all other types be they women, blacks, Jews or whatever were deemed by varying degrees to be inferior to those professed standards of excellence. Behind the rationale of universal values, there resides a justification for male dominance, imperialism, the derogation of all people who fall short of European ideals. Despite its stated pretension of universal humanity and equality based on that universal humanity, the high-minded values of the Enlightenment really functions as a mask to hide the power of interests of those putting forward those ideals. Ask a French sculptor in Paris in 1780 to make a bust of a “human being in-general”, an ideal category that is not found in reality, and the chances are that his bust will look very much like a French man. He will simply identify the ideal type with himself, thus setting in motion a hierarchy that implies that all others are lesser and inferior types.
The intellectual basis of this argument is that there is no such thing as objective truths or even objective facts that are somehow outside of the interests of those who are proclaiming those facts. All statements of facts, it is maintained, are really made in order to push forward the power interests of those who are making them. There are no universal truths only socially created assertions of power masquerading as universal truths. There is a feminist adage in this regard that says “objectivity is really ‘male subjectivity’.” So when Jefferson proclaimed, “all men are created equal” what he really meant was “men like us – those who share our values, our skin color, our privilege, our habits, and our way of life” and not “the other.”
This unmasking of the pretensions of Enlightenment are propelled by facts on the ground and the experiences of other people and other cultures that we have. We truly live now in a multicultural world in which we bump up against people who not Western. What makes this contact different from the 18th and 19th centuries is that we are confronting non-Western peoples not as subordinates or slaves, but as equals who are challenging the presumptions of the West by claiming that their cultural values are not only different from ourselves but are as authentic as ours. Who in the United States before September 11, 2001 even thought of the Muslim world? But now we can’t help but think of it, and take it very seriously.
This challenge coming from the non-Western world is essentially new, and it is a cause for us in the West to reflect on our basic values, Such reflection has no doubt created a crisis of self-confidence that the West has had in itself and in the Enlightenment.
One response to the challenge coming from the realities of multiculturalism is the growth of tolerance in the face of diversity. To a great extent, this has been a very good thing. Americans, I believe, are really trying hard to overcome their long-standing prejudices, and I think there are really tangible successes. It is no longer in good form to make fun of fat people or people with handicaps, or to have circus freak shows. No longer could a Farther Coughlin spew his gutter anti-Semitism to three million avid radio listeners, and the Ku Klux Klan, once an organization of three million people can today claim barely 3,000. I, for one, believe that the mainstream reaction to Muslims in America after 9/11 could have been much worse had it non been for the work of the so-called “cultural Left” and its often derided commitment to “political correctness.” The noted American philosopher, Richard Rorty, has written that the cultural Left with its emphasis on tolerance for diversity has helped to “reduce sadism” in American life, and I think he is right. To some extent I concede that the attack on the Enlightenment and presumed superiority of its values growing out of the West, have been chastened and softened as a result of our unavoidable encounter with people who are different. And to some extent I admit that that has been a good thing. But only to an extent.
The question I ask is to what extent do we take the value of tolerance? At what point does a commitment to tolerance morph into a position in which you stand for nothing at all? At what point do we conclude that there are no universal values, that all values are really local values, and accede to a cultural relativism in which all things are permissible in its name?
If my Enlightened-derived morality causes me to oppose the death penalty, am I to conclude that it is appropriate for me to oppose it in the West, but ignore it when it is applied to Muslims by Muslims on the grounds that Islamic law allows it and it always been a part of Muslim culture? What about the amputation of limbs for certain crimes? Is this a matter of cruel and degrading punishment when applied in the West, but acceptable in the Muslim world if a case can be made that it part of Muslim practice going back 1,400 years?
When it comes to women’s equality, am I to accept all forms of oppression of women because that oppression has been time honored and sanctioned as an authentic part of a traditional culture, even when women themselves voluntarily accede to it? When it comes to distinctive headgear probably, wearing veils maybe, but barring women from work and assigning them to the home exclusively to be uneducated breeding machines, no, my universalism does not accept that. My commitment to universal values, to Enlightenment values proclaims that all people want and need to have enough autonomy in life to make their own choices, all people want to be free of coercion and free of gratuitous pain inflicted upon them. The arguments for cultural relativism and for tolerance for me do not extend so far as to violate what I believe to be universally true.
Placing myself ad variance with some academic colleagues, I continue to believe in the Enlightenment project and its values of reason, rights, dignity, equality and justice as universal values that in some sense are binding on all people. Clearly different cultures will express these values differently, but in some sense they remain in principle the same. This is sometimes referred to as “pluralism.” In short, I believe in tolerance and I believe in respect for diversity, but not without limits. Although it is very unpopular to say so these days, I believe that some ways of life are better than others. And ways of life in which people preserve a range of autonomy, in which they have the freedom to remain in a community or leave it, is better than a way of life in which people are the objects of authoritarianism, coercion, and the infliction of unwanted pain –even if these realities are sanctioned by the cultural of which they are a part.
Those who condemn the Enlightenment and its universalism and its abstractions make at least two mistakes. While it is true that the universal values of humanity and equality professed by the men of the Enlightenment may have served in part as a mask to deny those very principles to those who were no like them, this is not all that those principles have done. Jefferson, who proclaimed that all men are created equal, and then as a conflicted hypocrite violated that principle by keeping slaves, did not therefore invalidate the importance and inspirational power of the very principle he proclaimed. For those black people and women whom Jefferson excluded from his democracy were able to use his very own words to agitate for freedom and equality that he himself had denied them. And people everywhere for generations have used that sturdy Enlightenment ideal that “all men are created equal” to argue for their freedom and equality wherever they may be. The principle has a power to transcend its own application in any historical period. Indeed, despite the claims of cultural relativists, when people find themselves oppressed, they will argue against their oppression using terms of freedom, equality and justice which are very much like those first articulated by the creators of the European Enlightenment. For, indeed, I would argue that those values are universal.
The second mistake that those who knock the Enlightenment make is the assumption that cultures are somehow monolithic, that there is a Muslim culture, or an African culture, or a Latino, or Jewish culture. But this is assuredly a naïve, romantic and false understanding of what a culture is. Cultures are not monolithic phenomena. Rather they are a product of what Cornel West calls “radical hybridity.” Culture is a dunamic, not a static reality. There are Muslims to which enlightenment values are foreign, and others who accept and applaud them. In African tribal cultures, there are women who will submit to female genital mutilation as an acceptable initiation rite into their community, and there are other women who will attempt to escape it, and condemn it as a brutal, barbaric expression of patriarchy. In my class at the UN University, there was a Pakistani student who fully supported the program human rights and was particularly upset about the way women are treated in his country. Was he less of a Pakistani, or not a real Muslim because he held these views? We should not be so quick to say so.
My own view is that we in the West may have given away too much in the name of tolerance, and that by holding on to the values of equality, justice and universal dignity and rights as we understand them, we may actually have more allies in other cultures that we initially realize.
We live in a world in which political power in this country and elsewhere is increasingly in the hands of religious literalists, fundamentalists and fanatics, and it isn’t OK. And we should not be afraid to say so. We live in a world in which even educated people believe in alien abductions and astrology over astronomy, and all kinds of related irrational nonsense, and it isn’t OK. And we should not be afraid to say so. We live a society in which the middle class is dwindling, the rich are increasingly privileged and economic justice is in short supply whether one is white or black or Latino, male or female. We live in a world in which two billion people subsist on less than two dollars a day, and it isn’t getting better and it isn’t OK. We live in a world in which millions are infected with AIDS, slavery flourishes in Africa and Asia, women or bought and sold as part of vast economic sex trade, children are condemned to drudgery as life-long indentured servants and barbaric wars rage on. These moral evils remain evil regardless of the cultures that perpetrate them and regardless of the cultures of those who suffer them. In order to create a moral world we need to reclaim a sturdy foundation of universal justice and equality, and the universal dignity of all human beings, and state it out loud without apology and with confidence.
If we are to care about these conditions, and long to see them overcome, then we need to rededicate ourselves to enlightened ideals on which the modern world has been built: to knowledge, to freedom, to basic human rights, to justice, to equality, to dignity, to those universal values that make for human decency, even nobility. Not for some people, but for all.
Dr. Joseph Chuman 2003