Friday, May 22, 2015

Enlightenment


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.

20 comments:

  1. I greatly appreciate the way you handle a subject, which sometimes is not tangible but a mere idea or just a shadow thereof!

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    1. One is bound to stick to shadows in a blog, Amit ji. :)
      Such is the nature of blogging up to now, at least. I'm sure it'll change. Changing already, I think.

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  2. As I understand, Enlightenment is neither an idea nor a process but an experience - a state of mindlessness. But I agree with the concept of using critical reasoning to get rid of prejudices, in the form of belief, to experience the present moment. Enlightenment means the understanding of paradoxical reality. It means to understand that you have to initially use thinking in order to get rid of thoughts to enter in no-thought zone later. To remain unattached doesn't mean detachment only but attachment & detachment simultaneously. To experience the unquestionable truth, you have to ask questions initially.

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    1. An experience is also a dynamic process, isn't it? Enlightenment is a state of mind, i'd say. A dynamic openness to new reality.

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    2. I'm not talking about spiritual enlightenment, by the way.

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  3. Enlightenment is a state of mind. What we get enlightened about, and how we put that enlightenment into practical use is what matters. While more people are getting enlightened by the day, whether that is making this world a better place to live in is anyone's guess.

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  4. I agree with you that learning to question leads to the search for convincing answers. I think that Enlightenment, described as a state of mind, has to be a incremental process as the mind forms its thoughts, ideas and perceptions based on experiences, observations as well as the ability to think critically.

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  5. This really makes sense. Use of science without scientific temperament is very dangerous.

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  6. When i heard in the movies 'Enlighten me,' i never thought it could have such deep a meaning and history behind it. Thank you.

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    1. I may have to reiterate that I' m speaking here about the period in history which is known as Enlightenment and about the values it upheld. Not spiritual enlightenment.

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  7. With free thinkers under constant attack from zealots and the state machinery, the path to enlightmebt is fraught with threats.
    But it's a journey one must make despite all odds.

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    1. There have always been people who dared to make the journey. The world is a better place because of them.

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  8. Questioning the persuasive speakers!! well, that looks like really difficult in today's time when channels are instructed not to entertain critics and opposition. But who cares in India when people are happy to be fed with dramas and nonsense..

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    1. There are still people like you left in the country, Roohi. We can make the difference.

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  9. Hi Tomichan,

    I agree, each and every one of us can bring about change. And like you pointed out "Critical thinking" and "Questioning" are the key...I would like to add "the courage" to go forward and ask questions is what most of us need...

    Thanks for sharing another insightful article.

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    1. Yes, without courage nothing will be achieved.

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  10. Science without scientific temper - that's a great way to describe the happenings presently. Your articles always provide the food for thought.... :-)

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