The great American experiment in democracy owes a lot to the 18th century European Enlightenment.
Progress and enlightenment were possible, Thomas Paine proclaimed. The road to 18th century enlightenment was paved with belief in reason, material science, and secular government, and Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin saw by the same lights.
The forward march of material science has undoubtedly reshaped American life, making us masters of Earth’s resources. Empires have been built, wars fought, and vast wealth created. The ideas of the philosophes propelled American history forward, all in line with our vaunted Manifest Destiny.
But the Enlightenment was also supposed to trend toward liberty (could that have meant unfettered capitalism?), equality (a blatant failure), and brotherly love (really?). The subjective side of enlightenment, what Jefferson called the “pursuit of happiness” was part of the founder’s vision. But the picture from the subjective side is pretty dismal. The nation is depressed and caught up in a killer opioid epidemic.
The counter indications are huge. The American civil war was proof of something quite the opposite of brotherly love. There was nothing humane or enlightened about the North and the South heroically slaughtering each other. And given that racist pathology lives on in America today, Enlightenment tolerance has made some but not that much headway.
Are we in spirit a country of brotherly love? Sometimes, but Americans also like to shoot themselves and each other to death, about 92 times a day or roughly 33 thousand times a year. Brotherly love, sure, but all too many seem to love their guns more than their brothers.
America is not only supposed to be enlightened but also a Christian nation. Would Jesus stand square with the NRA or with the victims of gun violence? Is it Christian to grovel before an idol – the Gun – the most unchristian object imaginable?
The Enlightenment was supposed to lead to a more peaceful world. But reason and material science have not created a peaceful world. On the contrary, reason and material science are repeatedly used with destructive efficiency in fighting wars and building empires. America was the first nation in world history to use atom bombs for the mass annihilation of civilian populations.
Reason, god of the enlightenment, is an efficient servant. The technology of espionage, surveillance, and weapons of enormous destructive power are constantly evolving, consuming the wealth of the nation whose infrastructure is failing, education eroding, the people are deserted by a Congress more loyal to their lobbyists.
America leads the world in arms production and sales. An NBC report states that the U.S. spends more on military technology than all the nations of the world combined. That one country should have become the lone “super” power is counter to the way history should be unfolding, according to Enlightenment ideas.
Reason and the democratic fruits of our labor were supposed to empower the whole of society, not a tiny fraction of money-mad sociopaths. Progress was supposed to be toward justice, not toward the inequities witnessed everywhere today. America is sliding from a once viable democracy and money has a stranglehold on the soul of democracy, which is respect for truth and freedom.
Enlightenment? Look with a clear eye: our leaders have swifted us from the founding holocaust of native America and black slavery to the present state of permanent war. And is it enlightened to create an apocalyptic climate crisis and then deny there’s a problem?
Science and technology have been co-opted by the uncivil and the unenlightened.
The conclusion should be apparent. The European Enlightenment has left us high and dry, or maybe the converse. It meant well but threw us off balance from the start. For all its mighty achievements, it made us smarter and smarter about less and less that is humanly important. Reason, science, technology have become alienated from the common needs of life. We need to deepen and renew our concept of enlightenment. The emphasis has been on material progress for the few. The new emphasis needs to be on human progress for all.