A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Enlightened Thinking

Recently Gleaner-Of-Possibilities wondered whether 'the transformative ideas of the Enlightenment' were under threat. Commenting on her post, I cast some doubt on certain aspects of Enlightenment thinking, its unquestioned belief in the efficacy of 'progress', and so on. In one of those coincidences quite common to bloggers, I read several days later in The Saturday Guardian a review of a newly published collection of writings by the philosopher John Gray about this very subject. I quote:
It is not too much to say that Gray considers the Enlightenment to have been little short of a catastrophe, for it was the philosophers, unconsciously pining for the certainties of the old religion, who instituted the notion of the human adventure as an ever-ascending journey towards perfection and worldly redemption. For Gray, the Enlightenment idea of the soul progressing in tandem with technological advances is pernicious. Progress in science is real - painless dentistry and the flush lavatory, he concedes, are certain goods - but spiritual progress is a myth. 'Scientific and technological advance had not, and cannot, diminish the realm of mystery and tragedy in which it is our lot to dwell.'
Gray is rightly dismissive of contemporary millenarianism which, until very recently, considered that we had arrived at the 'end of history' and the dawn of a new age of endless expansion - 'the project of promoting maximal economic growth is, perhaps, the most vulgar ideal ever put before suffering humankind' - and sees, in the destructive and exploitative activities of Homo Sapiens, an unwilled urge towards our destruction. He argues for an entirely reformed attitude to the world and our place in it, and above all urges that we relinquish the delusion of progress.
'The idea of progress is detrimental to the life of the spirit, because it encourages us to view our lives, not under the aspect of eternity, but as moments in a universal process of betterment. We do not, therefore, accept our lives for what they are, but instead consider them always for what they might someday become.'
Now, philosophically speaking, I agree with what Gray says. But he raises far more questions than he answers. Sure, you can't confuse spiritual and material progress - the two are entirely different beasts. And yes, the era of 'endless expansion' has imploded suddenly, inevitably, faced with the current global economic meltdown.
But we're still left with the issue of how practically to solve the big, environmental problems of the day - and potentially catastrophic ones at that: climate change, global warming, eco-devastation, the biological ill-health of the planet. It's 'science' - coupled indeed with moral and spiritual thinking - that must clarify and in the end solve these problems. Just as it was 'science' which caused them in the first place.
(John Gray's book, Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings, is published by Allen Lane.)


gleaner said...

I'm probably hopelessly wrong but I don't understand why people link the Enlightenment with endless progress and maximum economic growth? Wouldn't scientific thought understand the concept of FINITE resources? Has science developed at a greater speed to our moral and social reasoning and let greed flourish?

Is it the short-sightedness of highly specialised learning in one field to the detriment of a broader and deeper understanding of moral and ethical philosophy etc?

Maybe I'm taking the great major themes of moral, social and political reform, individual freedom etc. too literally without looking at the details.

Aarh, this topic is too big for a dabbler like me. I'm currently going through a crisis of understanding the vagaries of blogging, probably just a developmental milestone in blog world.

The Solitary Walker said...

I understand the link - but, of course, there's much more to the Enlightenment than that.

Over here in the UK greed flourished in the 1980s under Maggie Thatcher. Things are rather different now.

Yes, this is a big topic - I think I talked a few weeks ago (or perhaps it was in a comment) about how it was sometimes difficult to marry up the difficulty and complexity of a particular subject with the short, sharp, sometimes superficial nature of blogging.

Then again, the necessary brevity of each post causes us to hone our thoughts, and be concise, clear and succinct (with a bit of luck!)