America’s founders moved away from the thinking of the Dark Ages to create a nation based on Enlightenment principles. Today we’re entering a new Dark Age.
Author Morris Berman, alluding to an article by former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, has said, “Our government’s using 9/11 as an excuse to take away our civil liberties is not just the threatening of the rights of a few detainees, but the undermining of the very foundation of democracy. Detention without trial, denial of access to attorneys, years of interrogation in isolation—these are all now standard American practice, and most Americans don’t care. . . . Quite honestly, we might be only one more terrorist attack away from a police state.”
I think people need to see philosophy as practical and visceral, not strictly intellectual. Wittgenstein said, “The object of philosophy is the logical clarification of thought. . . . Everything that can be thought of at all can be thought of clearly. Everything that can be said can be said clearly.”
Today we need clear thinking, speaking and writing, in order to make sense of the current political chaos and certain cultural issues. That’s a very practical reason to study philosophy. I think, in terms of the visceral or spiritual, philosophy can lead people to feel more and find meaning in life. Here’s an example:
The men of the Enlightenment era—Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and others—had studied Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Moliere and other philosophers. That gave them a pragmatic foundation for creating a new form of government, one based on human rights and respect for individual human dignity and liberty. They knew philosophy wasn’t abstract and quixotic, but down-to-earth and functional. Their philosophy was the substructure of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
As Morris Berman says in Dark Ages America, Enlightenment thinking “was an assault on the feudal order of medieval Europe.” The concept of freedom the founders took from the philosophers they read laid the foundation for this country. In today’s America, too few people understand this. Berman contrasts the founders’ thinking with George W. Bush’s “Manicheanism and simple-minded view of the world.”
Berman adds, “Ignorant of historical context, and conditioned by the media to ‘think’ in terms of sound-bites and slogans, the American public comes to regard [Bush’s rhetoric] as ‘sturdy common sense.’ . . . More than anything else, I suppose, torture evokes the culture of the Dark and Middle Ages. We associate those eras with barbarism, with ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’ and use phrases such as ‘medieval torture chamber’ to characterize them. . . . Nothing, for Voltaire, was more representative of pre-Enlightenment regimes. What, then, are the implications of Abu Ghraib, which along with Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay constitutes only ‘part of an American gulag,’ as Al Gore candidly put it?”
We still have certain Dark Ages institutions and practices in place, such as the recent authoritarian crackdown on Occupy Wall Street protesters and violations of their human and constitutional rights. Berman notes that former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis said that our government’s using 9/11 as an excuse to take away our civil liberties “is not just the threatening of the rights of a few detainees, but the undermining of the very foundation of democracy. Detention without trial, denial of access to attorneys, years of interrogation in isolation—these are all now standard American practice, and most Americans don’t care.” Berman adds, “Quite honestly, we might be only one more terrorist attack away from a police state.”
It’s easy to see the connection between the American people’s forgetting our philosophical roots and the slow slide from our Enlightenment underpinnings toward a police state. Jefferson and the others who drafted the documents that founded this country shared the idea that elected leaders should be “disinterested” public servants. What they meant by “disinterested” was, as Joyce Appleby has put it “the capacity of some men to rise above private interests and devote themselves to the public good.”
In fact, Berman points out that the founders thought this non-self-interested public service was the very definition of “virtue.” What would they have made of today’s corporate lobbyist culture, where virtual bribery of “public servants” is the rule?
Berman quotes the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s 1784 essay, “What Is Enlightenment?”: ‘Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage.’ Kant defined this as man’s ‘inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another.’”
He meant people should break free of what other people have taught them and think for themselves. Kant said, “Have the courage to use your own reason! That is the motto of enlightenment.” Kant encouraged skepticism about the dictates of authority figures.
People might think philosophy isn’t relevant to their daily lives, but for the people of the Enlightenment it meant moving away from the medieval torture and tyrannical rule of the Dark Ages toward a daily life that included the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This egalitarianism was never perfect in America. For years those rights didn’t extend to blacks or women, but based on the founders’ initial efforts, those rights were acquired eventually.
The more the American people insisted on the nation’s actually living up to the founders’ purported ideals through protest and other forms of activism, the closer we came to bringing their stated philosophy to fruition. This country has never had a halcyon age with flawless equality and human rights, but there have always been some pockets of thinking citizens striving to make Enlightenment values our reality.
America was founded on clear thought by people motivated by the virtue of selfless public service. If we had treasured that kind of thinking enough to find a way to preserve it, we might not have devolved into the brute “thinking” exemplified by George W. Bush, Rick Perry and many other current political leaders. If there is to be any hope of improvement, it has to start with a change in our thinking and placing a high value on a philosophy that leads toward human and civil rights.
Mortimer J. Adler said: “Every idea is a source of life and light which animates and illuminates the words, facts, examples, and emotions that are dead—or deadly—or dark, without them. Not to engage in the pursuit of ideas is to live like ants instead of like men.” I think appreciating philosophy is a start toward moving from the Dark Ages and back toward the light.