When the subject is Buddhism, “enlightenment” means a spiritual awakening. But the Western Enlightenment has been political and social. It’s about reason, the rights of the individual citizen, and a scientific understanding of the material plane. Because the Enlightenment’s ideas were derived from the speculations of a number of individual philosophers and thinkers, there isn’t absolute agreement on what those rights are. Modern-day progressives, liberals, centrists and many conservatives all base their positions on the ideas of different Enlightenment thinkers, and they take different positions accordingly. People on the more liberal end of the spectrum think of the US as a democracy, whereas more conservative types say we live in a representative republic. There is a kind of “conservative” who rejects the Enlightenment ideals, and I’ll be getting around to him in another post. For the moment I want to focus on those who support it.
The success of the Enlightenment has been dramatic. Today’s secular, corporate world is one of its outcomes. Prior to the Enlightenment, there was a weariness with the constant warfare between kingdoms. There was general agreement among Enlightenment thinkers that a cosmopolitan world, uniform from state to state, would eliminate the causes of war. Today’s corporate monoculture is a direct result of that. Nearly any nation you go to—maybe all of them by now—have the same plastic commercial architecture and sell the same products. When I was in Crete in 1969, the old Mediterranean peasant culture still had a strong presence. When I revisited Crete ten years ago, it had vanished. People are supposedly more free than when the church and the royals ruled, but that often seems illusory to me. You’re free to choose which corporation to go to work for. But the corporations’ real interests are profit and growth. It has become increasingly difficult to find any kind of niche outside that rigid system.
Our insistence on reason as the only trustworthy activity of the mind has led to a darker vision of existence. Few people have any real understanding of what a “visionary” is. To the modern, a visionary is some kind of far-sighted entrepreneur or scientist. But the original meaning of the word is someone who sees through the superficial layers of reality to a deeper and clearer place than the everyday mind can see. We’ve all had visionary experiences as children. But they’ve been buried by scientific understandings of the mind and reality. The Western Enlightenment gave no consideration at all to the idea that one could overcome the ego. It wasn’t even on the agenda. To those who live by the ideas of the Western Enlightenment, we are our egos—entirely separate and distinct. It was thought that through reason we would become more respectful of each other’s ego—that’s all.
The ideas of the Enlightenment have been seen as so obviously true and so successful in creating a world of freedom and prosperity (if inequitably distributed) that it is widely assumed that they have put humanity on the right course for good, that we are really on our way. There are bumps in the road, yes, but it’s just going to take a little more time. But I don’t think that’s the case. The Enlightenment is unraveling and the unraveling can’t be stopped. More in the next post.