The time – our time today – is completely new. Unlike Renaissance writers, we cannot harken back to a past age that struggled with similar problems; there is no comparable experience or vocabulary to help us.
It is now that we can look back and calmly say that there was no Enlightenment; Kant’s “An Answer to the Question, what is Enlightenment?” was premature at the least, simply naive at best, and at may be admitted, an impossible fantasy.
Humanity – this species, this experience that is us/ours – has no control over its destiny in the sense that Kant ultimately felt that Europe was achieving. We are swept along with events just the same as a ship captain might attempt to weather a storm, or a medieval city might try to stem the spread of a plague.
Things make more sense when we assume that nobody has the slightest idea what is going on in the world. And I mean this in the widest sense of the word. Conspiracy theorists are wrong -there is no “smoke-filled back room” filled with shady manipulators of human affairs. I would believe in class warfare if I felt that anyone was actually gaining something truly real in our society. Just as slaves presuppose a master and vice versa, I find it hard to see the ultra wealthy, robber-baron, financial speculator as anything other than the human individuals driven, mostly by chance into these positions of wealth and power.
This does not in anyway minimize or negate the agonizing problems in our society. The ‘master,’ though he may ultimately be a just as much as a cog in system as the ‘slave’ bears the moral and mental burden and guilt; at a certain point we all live in a human system and society together and at a certain point, we all have to honestly admit that, so to speak, the Emperor is Naked. (My favorite thing about political systems is how they often come to reflect the ultimate randomness of the universe in how they operate: an absolute monarch, is still just a man, an accident of birth; he is simply the human that must sit on the throne; the system requires this; we crave the legitimacy that cannot exist (I do not discount the advisors whispering in his ear, or his actions in power); US presidential elections are basically just flipping a coin; or rather a poker tournament). Being ‘master’ is the naked emperor: it is ideology, it is belief, a need for order and purpose.
The most hard-nosed, down-to-earth, common-sensical, show-me-the-money, realistic businessman is ultimately just as misty-eyed, just as fantasy-ridden as a geek at a Star Wars convention. He has made just as many fanciful assumptions about existence as the next man. Any Rand is basically a Tolkien or a Rowling. Watching millions of Americans vote again and again against their own self-interest for the sake of neo-liberal, trickle down ideology is a powerful testament to this fantasy.
So is the Enlightenment that Kant hopped for possible? Can we have our cake of material plenty I believe it to be. With a few basic assumptions taken seriously, this ball of yarn which is human existence and society can be made to be more equitable, just, and ultimatly more sane, and more sustainable.
Money is the most real thing in the world thing these days because we all crave it and believe in it. The man in the private jet, the social power, the opportunities – it is very real, because it is normalcy – its a system, the system that we all buy into. What I hate is how people in this system insist on being above it or separate from it; those who think that they are somehow Robin Crusoe, John Galt, John Wayne.
It’s a truism and a cliche to say that money can by anything, but it can’t buy happiness. The obvious response is : “No, but it really, really helps,” is undeniably true. And we need a system, that is clear; there will always be a naked emperor that we bow before and pretend is dressed in the finest finery. But to a certain extent we should choose this emperor. By this I mean that, obviously, there is the fundamental truth of scarcity. And so work must be done. But that is not a problem. People are fundamentally human, not lazy. Many things that we really, really, really want are simply arbitrary and unnecessary. I don’t deny them a role in human happiness and experience, I’m just saying that we place far too much emphasis on them today. If nothing else, remember the Ruff collar worn in the 16th century.
We need to act to protect the environment, limit human population, acknowledge that human life and society is fundamentally inefficient – we will never be happy, efficient. Profit must be seen for what it is – a limited, narrow way of harnessing petty self-interest – a means (and a limited one at that) and not an end unto itself. It presupposes everyone’s greed; which I admit is prudent to a certain extent, but very narrow, and in an absolute sense, not at all true.
I have played with an idea of ‘spontaneous theater’ -each of us indulging seamlessly the tragi-comedy of each other’s lives – though I admit that this is ridiculous. A sense that each of us our the main characters in our own novelistic plot.
We live in a society that no one controls; it is headed somewhere, nobody knows. DNA engineering, artificial intelligence – I have no idea where it will lead. But we must all think about what sort of future society we want to live in and we must do this quickly before environmental damage puts an end to all of this technological magnificence. We can choose -through education, hard mental work, inefficient mentorship – to guide the human society-system. We must seize Enlightenment.