Enlightenment

In my western literature class we are discussing the Age of Enlightenment. This took place roughly between 1650 and 1850, though it was chiefly focused during the 18th century. For those of us who have never been clear what this Age of Enlightenment entailed, Immanuel Kant offers a good description:

Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority [i.e. “The legal status of not being able to speak for oneself” n.1].  Minority is inability to make use of one’s own understanding without direction from another.  This minority is self-incurred when its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another.  Sapere aude! [Latin for “Dare to know,” from Horace, Epistles 1.2.40; n. 2]  “Have courage to make use of your own understanding!” is thus the motto of enlightenment.

I don’t know about you but I never realized how much freedom was tied up with enlightenment (which may explain why the French and American revolutions both happened during this time). I can also understand why this Age occurred. Europe was just coming out of the Dark Ages in which “the church” reigned supreme–and a terrible reign it was! It would have been an evolutionary necessity for mankind to have banded together and broken the tie of religious fanaticism.

One of our required reads was by Denis Diderot (French, 1713-1784). He was most widely known for a series of encyclopedia’s he and a colleague attempted to write enumerating all new knowledge produced since the Renaissance [i.e. since the 15th century]. He tells a tale of a man from a Christian nation who visits a Tahitian village. This man gets offered the sexual favors of the chiefs wife and daughters as a form of hospitality. The Christian refuses. The Chief tries to convince him that he would be doing his family a favor as his youngest daughter has not yet bore a child and is disrespected within her community. This young girl kneels before the Christian and begs him to save her from her humiliation. He relents.

The next day he talks with her father, the chief, and explains the morality of the Christian faith. The chief, Orou, gives his opinion:

I find these singular precepts opposed to nature and contrary to reason, made to multiply crimes and to plague at every moment this old maker, who has made everything, without help of hands, or head, or tools, who is everywhere and is not seen anywhere, who exists today and tomorrow and yet is not a day older, who commands and is not obeyed, who can prevent and yet does not do so. Contrary to nature because these precepts suppose that a free, thinking, and sentient being can be the property of a being like himself. On what is this law founded? Don’t you see that in your country they have confused the thing which has neither consciousness nor thought, nor desire, nor will; which one picks up, puts down, keeps or exchanges, without injury to it, or without its complaining, have confused this with the thing which cannot be exchanged or acquired, which has liberty, will, desire, which can give or refuse itself for a moment or for ever, which laments and suffers, and which cannot become an article of commerce, without its character being forgotten and violence done to its nature; contrary to the general law of existence? In fact, nothing could appear to you more senseless than precept which refuses to admit that change which is a part of us, which commands a constancy which cannot be found there and which violates the liberty of the male and female by chaining them for ever to each other; more senseless than a fidelity which limits the most capricious of enjoyments to one individual; than an oath of the immutability of two beings made of flesh; and all that in the face of a sky which never for a moment remains the same, in caverns which threaten destruction, below a rock which falls to powder, at the foot of a tree which cracks, on a stone which rocks? Believe me, you have made the condition of man worse than that of animals. I do not know what your great maker may be; but I rejoice that he has never spoken to our forefather, and I wish that he may never speak to our children; for he might tell them the same foolishness, and they commit the folly of believing it. Yesterday, at supper, you mentioned “magistrates” and “priests”, whose authority regulates your conduct; but, tell me, are they the masters of good and evil? Can they make what is just to be unjust, and unjust, just? Does it rest with them to attribute good to harmful actions, and evil to innocent or useful actions? You could not think it, for, at that rate, there would be neither true nor false, good nor bad, beautiful nor ugly; or at any rate only what pleased your great maker, your magistrates and your priests to pronounce so. And from one moment to another you would be obliged to change your ideas and your conduct. One day someone would tell you, on behalf of one of your three masters, to kill, and you would be obliged by your conscience to kill; another day, “steal,” and you would have to steal; or “do not eat this fruit” and you would not dare to eat it; “I forbid you this vegetable or animal” and you would take care not to touch them. There is no good thing that could not be forbidden you, and no wickedness that you could not be ordered to do. And what would you be reduced to, if your three masters, disagreeing among themselves, should at once permit, enjoin, and forbid you the same thing, as I believe must often happen. Then, to please the priest you must become embroiled with the magistrate; to satisfy the magistrate you must displease the great maker; and to make yourself agreeable to the great maker you must renounce nature. And do you know what will happen then? You will neglect all of them, and you will be neither man, nor citizen, nor pious; you will be nothing; you will be out of favour with all kinds of authorities, at odds even with yourself, tormented by your heart, persecuted by your enraged masters; and wretched as a I saw you yesterday evening when I offered my wife and daughters to you, and you cried out, “But my religion, my office!”

Do you want to know what is good and what is bad in all times and in all places? Hold fast to the nature of things and of actions; to your relations with your fellows; to the influence of your conduct on your individual usefulness and the general good. You are mad if you believe that there is anything, high or low in the universe, which can add to or subtract  from the laws of nature. Her eternal will is that good should be preferred to evil, and the general good to the individual good. You may ordain the opposite but you will not be obeyed. You will multiply the number of malefactors and the wretched by fear, punishment, and remorse. You will deprave consciences; you will corrupt minds. They will not know what to do or what to avoid. Disturbed in their state of innocence, at ease with crime, they will have lost their guiding star...(Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville)

I found this short story interesting for it broke down religion, and especially Christianity, into its basic tenets of strict and unquestionable obedience. There is no reason and very little accountability with some of the “moral” requirements among Christians. Diderot says such “laws” make the condition of man worse than that of animals–simply following commands with little to no reasoning or questions. This “pagan chieftain” breaks down the whole obligation of man into basic tenets such as being good to ones fellow-man and following the natural laws within and without. The heavy burdens religion binds upon our shoulders does not make us better people, only creatures awaiting the first sign of freedom. We are not intelligent and conscientious but controlled and manipulated by guilt. The first time that control is lifted can be seen in the riots and looting this Christian country succumbs to whenever things go wrong. Yes, laws are good, but micro-managing is not. Mankind would be a better place without the burden of religion.

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