America’s Founding Fathers had faith in the power of reason and rational thought to lead their fellow citizens to create a community wherein equality, justice and tranquility would be available to all. Those ideas written into the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution had been around since the 17th century in the fields of philosophy, science and medicine. This historical movement, which peaked in the 18th century, was called “The Enlightenment.” Has that faith in a new and revolutionary foundation for community-building some 200 years later proven to have been well-founded?
The philosopher Voltaire, himself an enlightenment philosopher did not think so. In his fiction and non-fiction he makes it clear that the Enlightenment philosophy’s propagation of reason as a cure for society’s ills would not bring a halt to the ravages of superstition and fear. Today some of us realize that superstition and fear grow out of a misunderstanding of the nature of reality itself. To begin to eliminate the “ravages of superstition and fear” which proliferate in the global village we will need more profound beliefs, attitudes and values than what the Enlightenment has offered us. Which begs the question: Are we too dumb to comprehend a better choice, too smart (read arrogant) or too lacking in awareness (unconscious) to avail ourselves of an alternative definition of community than the one that most of us opt for each and every day?
Voltaire’s genius was that he saw the chief flaw in the Enlightenment. “[Candide] attacks the school of optimism that contends that rational thought can curtail the evils perpetuated by human beings.” (1) He came close to understanding that the church and aristocracy were symptoms of the deeper human dysfunction not the cause of humanity’s suffering. Human suffering has its genesis in human nature itself. “Enlightenment philosophy’s propagation of reason as a social antidote did not bring a halt to the ravages of superstition and fear.” (1) Superstition and fear grow out of a misunderstanding of the nature of reality itself.
In Candide (1759), Voltaire attacked the Leibnizian idea that all must be for the best as naïve at best. “After suffering through one disaster after another, Candide decides that optimism is merely ‘a mania for insisting that all is well when things are going badly.’” (2) Steven Pinker in his recent book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress has faith that the human intellect will continue to improve our experience on this planet.
In a similar vein, self-described optimist Angus Deaton in a book review of Greg Easterbrook’s book It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear, puts his eggs in the basket of the intellect. “I believe that the revolution in thinking that came with the Enlightenment gives us a good chance that lives will continue to improve today and for our children and grandchildren. Reason and the desire for progress are powerful weapons now, just as they have been for more than 250 years.” (3)
And finally, in keeping with the theme of our title, we have advice from John Leland found in his book entitled Happiness Is A Choice You Make: Lessons From a Year Among the Oldest Old. “Live in the present. Focus on the good things. Find your purpose. Love unconditionally. Accept diversity. Feel gratitude. Acknowledge that ‘problems were only problems if you thought about them that way. Otherwise they were life—and yours for the living.’” (4)
So where are we in American today? Are we on the verge of solving our very serious problems or are we about to enter a dystopian future or indeed have we already entered it? Click on the link below for assistance in making up your mind.
Insight # 25: But your ears thirst for the sound of your heart’s knowledge. –Kahlil Gibran
- See Intuition and Intellect in The ABC’s of Simple Reality, in print and on this blog, by Roy Charles Henry.
- Marie de Arouet, Francois (Voltaire). New York: Spark Publishing, 2002, page 3.
- Bakewell, Sarah. “Put on a Happy Face.” The New York Times Book Review. March 4, 2018, page 14.
- Deaton, Angus. “It’s Better Than It Looks.” The New York Times Book Review. March 4, 2018, page 15.
- Bruder, Jessica. “Good Old Days.” The New York Times Book Review. March 4, 2018, page 20.