Historically the Enlightenment refers to a paradigm shift that took place in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was also called the Age of Reason because it emphasised the power of the human mind to liberate the individual and improve society. It argued that knowledge can be derived only from experience, experiment and observation. It encouraged people to use their own critical reasoning to free their minds from prejudice, unexamined authority, and oppression by their religion or the state.
The world made tremendous progress in science and technology because of the Enlightenment ideas. Consequently human life was revolutionised. Religion and the superstitions it generated took a backseat. Priests lost most of their political clout. Secular values spread considerably across the globe. Science and technology gave us more leisure and luxury than we deserved. More gadgets than we could handle with responsibility. More individual liberty. More selfishness too.
The Enlightenment is not merely a set of ideas, however. It is a process. Like all processes it has its dynamics. Of late, we see that many values of Enlightenment are diluted by significant populations. China, for example, is a country which embraced the scientific part of Enlightenment but rejected the individual rights. There are far too many Islamic organisations which seldom accepted any value of the Enlightenment. In the USA today, it would be impossible for any political party to come to power if it goes against the organised Christian religions there.
In spite of all the corruption that had slowly eaten into the polity, India had remained loyal to the Enlightenment values from the time of its independence. However, that’s changing too. Right wing organisations are gaining strength weakening the secular fabric of the nation. Minority rights are being suppressed in ways that are not always very subtle. The history of the country is being rewritten with a view to lend a particular religious shade to the nation’s very foundations.
The paradox is that while the Enlightenment secularism is trampled underfoot, the values related to science and technology are embraced with greater vigour. This is a serious threat. Science without scientific temper will produce technology that can be disastrous to the human race. We are already witnessing the terrifying misuses of technology by people who never cared to understand science and the rational faculty that sustains it.
In a recent book titled The Enlightenment: History of an Idea, author Vincenzo Ferrone argues that Enlightenment must be defended today as a tradition of critical thought rather than as a secular, political idea. Unless we learn once again to use our rational faculty, we are sure to land in a situation far worse than the human history ever witnessed. Because we will have science as a weapon rather than as a way of understanding and enhancing life. Weapons in the hands of people who don’t understand are the real threat we are faced with today. One clear antidote is critical thinking. Learning to question. To question even the most persuasive speakers, the apparently charming ideologies, and even the sanctity portrayed on walls digital or concrete.
PS: I have not read Ferrone’s book. Happened to read about it here. The illustration is also adapted from the same site.