Notes on Our Fifth Meeting — THE ENLIGHTENMENT


We gathered at 8 as usual. For my birthday, Florence brought me what she called a “vine,” in a giant pot. Upon reading the card I realized that it was a grapevine — “Grenache blanc.” Thank you, Florence!

So all I need is a vineyard now. Everything has a beginning, right? What did Voltaire say about how we need to “cultivate your garden”?

Anyway, at 8:30 we moved into the living room to begin the Old New Way.

1. Tom’s Presentation: the Counter Counter-Enlightenment

I started us off by stating that I’m just going to come out with it: I agree wholeheartedly with the ideals of the Enlightenment.

I accept the claims of Enlightenment thinkers as to the universality of human aspirations and values — even across disparate cultures and ethnicities. With Voltaire, Diderot, et al., I encourage the questioning of authority and tradition. I’m all for using reason, whenever we can (or rather, to the extent we can, cognitively limited primates that we are), and relying on evidence wherever possible. I really don’t have any problem with these ideals at all.

It’s true that in the centuries that followed the Enlightenment, all the way up to the present, the brute facts of European domination and exploitation of the rest of the world should give us pause. This history alone, understandably, raises the question of whether the Enlightenment has a shadow side.

But I would argue that this troubling history is more the result of the inevitable power dynamic unleashed by the discovery of the scientific method in the West, which provided untold opportunities for mendacity and greed to Europeans. I think it is a mistake to see in it a some deep flaw in Enlightenment values.

I would even go so far as to say it is the corruption of Enlightenment ideals — largely through recidivistic tendencies towards ethnic and racial and religious solidarity — that fostered the terrible litany of horrors we ascribe to European and American power: the slave trade, Colonialism, imperialism, enforced segregation systems like apartheid, and so on and so on. Rationalizations and pseudo-scientific language were (and still are) used to prop up these horrors, but they are misused in this way.

In a word, I concluded, the history of European and American exploitation of people all over the world is ugly, but it is unfair to use this history to condemn Enlightenment values.

Nobody said anything. So I added a little more…

Furthermore, I told our group, someone espousing Enlightenment values does not lose touch with the beauty and mystery of life, as so many Romantics and no-nothings and New Agers insist!

In Isaiah Berlin’s article we read how Vico, Hamann, Herder and others (associated with the Counter-Enlightenment) offered up contasting values, which they argued were overlooked by Voltaire and his ilk: self-expression, individuality, emotional engagement, passion, mystery, ritual, folkways.

“But I don’t think these are mutually exclusive!” I exclaimed. “We can hold fast to the values of reason and evidence and the scientific method, while also celebrating more emotional, subjective, idiosyncratic experiences of all kinds! Moreover, those of us who subscribe to the ideals of the Enlightenment can surely still condemn the abuses of one sub-group over another (White over Black, men over women, Afrikaners over Africans), even while we continue to cherish those unique cultural traditions which do not oppress or violate universal human aspirations and values. Nothing wrong with hanging stockings at Christmas, lighting the Menorah, lighting some sage and going on a Shamanic journey! We can take the best of the Enlightenment and still live weirdly and wildly, can’t we?

Kristen pushed back a little. She suggested that is very easy for those of us in power to embrace the “rightness” of our approach, while picking and choosing which local customs to honor or reject. But what if other cultures and communities, outside the purview of the Enlightenment, have truly incompatible aspirations and values? People in those communities might care less for, say, the rule of law, equally applied, when compared to their concern for the preservation of honor of the family or tribe as a whole. Who are we to insist that the Enlightenment is better as a guide to their lives than their own customs?

I answered Kristen that although I agree this is a challenging question and humility is in order, I always come back to the bedrock conviction that in fact there are universal aspirations for human beings, at least on a basic level. For we are all animals with similar neurobiology, right? Good health, the absence of violence, predictable social relations, the availability of adequate resources to learn — I believe that any customs or traditions that impinge on these basic aspirations for a given group of human beings are problematic. Some members of a given community may resist Enlightenment values, of course — e.g. some men in Afghanistan may want to keep their wives and daughters out of school (and will throw acid on their faces if they insist) — but despite their wishes, the community as a whole would experience a net increase in well-being if these women were treated equally.

Jenna spoke up to say that the usefulness of Enlightenment aspirations is indeed measurable, to some extent. And supported by science. When a U.N. agency develops a program for a country or region, it does so explicitly on the basis of studies showing quantifiable facts, such as frequency of childhood death, average lifespan, infection rate, incidents of violence, levels of education, etc. These are understood to be of interest to all human beings, universally.

Yes, Kristen said, but that’s exactly it, isn’t it? The United Nations is a product of the European Enlightenment. We justify our own preference for these values on the basis of reason, evidence, and practices of quantification inspired by… the Enlightenment. It’s circular!

2. The Question of How to Convert People to the Cause of the Enlightenment

Yann said that he believed that we were all, more or less, in agreement that we prefer the values of the Enlightenment. (Even Kristen’s pushback suggests an urge to objectivity and doubt that reflects the Enlightenment; just as Diderot’s dialogue between a Tahitian chief and a European, one of our readings for the month, raises more questions than it resolves.)

The question, Yann suggested, therefore becomes a practical one: how (and when) can we convince people to think our way? Don cited a study he had read that showed that in hundreds of cases, when presenting people who deny the claims of science with irrefutable data proving the very assertions that they deny, these people are seldom convinced (Don — could you send us the link to this?).

Gerry asked whether the solution may lie in early childhood education. Perhaps, he said, this important responsibility should be taken away from parents and given over to the state? (He echoes Plato here, and Thomas More and Lenin, and many utopian thinkers through history). Away from their parents’ prejudices and failings, children could learn habits of science and reasoned debate, peaceful conflict resolution, and all the rest that would lead to a harmonious world.

Yann rebutted him with a single question: What about the love? What about love, Gerry? I think I saw a tear gleaming in the corner of one of Yann’s eyes. The big sap.

Manon, who runs a preschool, said that in her experience a collective setting can be a loving and nurturing environment, so love is present. On the other hand, she agreed with Yann that a sustained connection with the parents is, in her experience, one of the most important factors in bringing up a happy and harmonious child. So this could pose a problem.

Many others in the group, including me, rejected the notion of separating kids from their parents entirely. After all, who would then have the power to write the curriculum and plan standards? we asked. How do we know that they would get it right? You get all the usual problems with centralized planning: someone corruptible and fallible has to make decisions with imperfect knowledge.

3. A Brief Tour of Our Own Private Utopias

We got into a more personal discussion, at this point, about each of our versions of utopia. I offered that if I could change one thing it might be… the abolition of cars. If we had, say, horses instead, we would take more time with each visit to friends or family; we would be more focused and present with each excursion away from our home. Our ties would become more local, and our sense of community as a whole would be enhanced. Yann offered that, counterintuitively, this change might actually increase the carbon problem to have so many horses passing gas. He mentioned a recent study which showed that 18% of the carbon in the atmosphere is currently generated by cows’ digestive processes.

Manon’s utopia was to eliminate the cell phone. This would enable us to be more attentive to the immediate world around us. And even more, it would preserve us from the onslaught of information that threatens to engulf us every day.

Walden said that his utopia would be to improve himself rather than the outside world. He would engage in a project of continual self-correction. I wondered if he had a mistaken idea that human beings are perfectible? In fact, I offered, we will always have psychological and emotional systems that are directly antagonistic to one another (attachment vs. need for independence, self-interest vs. group identity, etc.).

Dean said that he is much more comfortable with talking about dystopias than utopias.

I added that I would like to live in a world where we have more ability to feel. I am already quite an emotional person (I tear up at least once a day, and my family laughs at me), but this actually seems a tiny fraction, to me, of what I would like to feel. Considering the amount of pain and also beauty that we encounter on a given day, shouldn’t we be weeping and, alternately, experiencing joy, almost continuously? Kristin said that, on the contrary, she feels that she is already too emotional most days; she would rather reign herself in more effectively.

Renée insisted that she detests this kind of group question (“What’s your utopia?”). But in the end she offered one as well: she imagines a society that provides ample support for every family to raise their children (as in some Scandinavian countries that provide year-long maternity leave, universal preschool, etc.).

4. The Information Age… on Overdrive

At some point we got into a discussion about our current era of information overload. Manon mentioned that she feels overwhelmed on a daily basis with the amount of Facebook links, texts, news stories, entertainment options, etc. Many of us agreed.

I said that this is, in my view, a direct outgrowth of the Enlightenment. Once we began examining the world from a naturalistic viewpoint, breaking questions down into separate pieces, looking to evidence, collecting data, we lost the simple and clear fables that our former delusions and magical thinking provided. It used to be that we thought our leaders, our heroes — writers, artists, warriors, inventors, taboo-breakers and activists of all kinds — were leading us to glimpse eternal Truths, leading us farther and father towards contact with God or Transcendence. But now we see that there are materialist explanations for almost everything we do. Biology dictates many of our actions, including our impulses to love and war. No matter how closely you pour over the text, Hamlet and Lear won’t point you to any answers, only more doubts. Hemingway’s spare manly language is just that: a pose of efficiency covering over the abyss of meaninglessness. Joan of Arc was probably crazy.

The internet has created an “information age on overdrive,” I said. And it is endlessly fascinating, piquing our curiosity (addicting us with its unpredictable dopamine releases), but it is also endlessly horrifying, a vacuum of meaning.

To this extent, I admitted, I do sympathize with counter-Enlightenment thinkers. I took this occasion to read aloud a poem by William Blake:

Mock On Mock On Voltaire Rousseau

Mock on mock on Voltaire Rousseau

Mock on Mock on tis all in vain

You throw the sands against the wind

And the wind blows it back again

And every sand becomes a Gem

Reflected in the beams divine

Blown back they blind the mocking Eye

But still in Israels path they shine

The Atoms of Democritus

And Newtons Particles of light

Are sands upon the Red sea shore

Where Israels tents do shine so bright


We are with Voltaire and Rousseau here, I suggested, throwing our sands against the wind.

While Blake, still enchanted by his illusions of transcendence and ultimate truth (he would say “Vision” and “Imagination”), sees “beams divine” and Israel’s shining tents.

I miss this way of looking at the world!

Yet I would not decline more knowledge either, I added hastily. I would still bite the fruit from the Tree of Good and Evil if given a chance. I have no wish to will myself into ignorance. So where are we left? Does the Enlightenment demystify our experience, after all, despite my protestations at the beginning of the meeting?

Gerry agreed that, in his perception, people seem increasingly lost in a sea of meaningless information, especially the younger generation, raised in the age of iTunes and Twitter. They have no bearings. Even popular music is increasingly devoid of heroes or a coherent narrative. He worries about the glut of information and demystification of everything. He personally holds himself to an identity as a healer or helper of humanity (hence his work as a cardiologist), but this is an act of sheer will.

Jenna emphasized the importance of rituals, in the face of modern technology and information overload. She told us how she lights a candle now, for every meal with her children, and she finds that the little flickering flame has an effect of centering and calming them all during meals.

Others in the group said that they did not feel that there is any problem at all. In effect, they find that they can straddle both sides of Blake’s poem; they stand with Voltaire and Rousseau in their determination to throw “sand” at the wind, seek knowledge and test propositions; and they stand too with Blake in his ability to see the sands thrown back as beams divine, gleaming, translucent, spectacular. Don said that he has no problem waking every morning and reminding himself of whom he loves and how he wants to show up for them, while not needing any absolute meaning beyond this.

5. The Question of ISIS 

At this point we got into a brief discussion about whether the followers of ISIS, or the Islamic State, are aligned with William Blake and Hamman and Herder and other critics of the Enlightenment, i.e. whether they are followers of the Romantic, counter-Enlightenment tradition. Certainly the Muslim teenagers who fly to the Mideast from France and England and the U.S. to join the jihad are choosing a form of ignorance (denying the secular culture of science and the Enlightenment in favor of the certainties of radical Islam). They are, arguably as a direct consequence of this choice, filled with an ecstatic sense of purpose (well, at least until they arrive on the scene in Syria and face the gritty reality).

Dean interjected to caution us from falling into the trap of becoming obsessed with this rag-tag group, who pose no serous threat to our lives. The way that ISIS cropped up in our discussion wearied him.

Fair enough, I said. Though I pointed out that he couldn’t accuse us of invoking them in the usual, fearful way, so as to justify a war-footing or something like that. After all, we were actually admiring them for their enthusiasm! (And for nothing else, let it be said.) At this Dean laughed and agreed, but he wanted to make sure we weren’t overstating their threat or their appeal, for that matter.

6. Something Really Hard to Tackle 

As we ended, I suggested that in the last two meetings (on the Scientific Method and the Enlightenment) it struck me that we had positioned ourselves on the side of… knowing better than others.

We even talked, both months, about the best techniques for converting others to our position!

Nothing wrong with this — part of what we are doing is figuring out what we stand for (and ISIS is wrong, dammit). But still, it stood out to me that we were defining our outlook on the world in a rather confident way so far.

Perhaps, I asked, we should choose a topic for April about which we fully acknowledge our lack of any expertise?

With that in mind I proposed that next month I would like to reflect on the theme of “love.”


The very word, outside of familiar contexts like weddings, Valentine’s day, birthday cards, or bedtime with our kids, makes us squirm uneasily. Despite how pervasive the world is in our culture, we are surprisingly unclear on what love really means to us, and how much we want to prioritize it in our lives. What are the various manifestations of love available to us? How important are they?

So — I will find some readings and perhaps artwork for us to mull over in advance of the meeting. Any suggestions are more than welcome.

Another great discussion. Lots to think about and mediate over.

See you in April!

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