Monday, April 19, 2010

Bent Enlightenment

People Without Borders
Yet more material for the fourth draft of 
the introduction to my book-in-progress.

Rectifying a Bent Enlightenment

By John Taylor; 2010 April 19, Jalal 10, 167 BE

After centuries of bloody conflict, persecution and wars motivated by faith and doctrine, Europe's Enlightenment project of the 18th Century rejected religion. For the first time in over a thousand years, human rights were discussed without reference to faith. Many Enlightenment thinkers rejected spirituality altogether and took seriously the idea that progress toward an ideal society could be accomplished with science alone. Some openly abandoned religion and many anti-theists openly proclaimed it to be incorrigibly reactionary, corrupt and likely to encourage fanaticism. At best it is a distraction, at worst, inherently harmful.

For centuries there was no effective ecumenical, much less interfaith movement to belie the early "libertines." What is more, the spectacular advance of scientific research seemed to justify their attitude, especially in physics and medicine. Since the close of the 20th Century, however, it has become clear that in spite of its spectacular benefit, scientific knowledge is no panacea. It has also contributed hundreds of new, potentially lethal threats to human survival. If it were not for science we would not live under the constant threat of, to name only two dangers, nuclear Armageddon and accelerating global warming.

Today most non-believing intellectuals regard the Enlightenment as an essentially atheistic phenomenon, as did I. Then I came across John Amos Comenius. As soon as I read it, it became clear that here is the first enlightenment thinker. Like Bacon before him, Comenius did not regard the goals of the Bible as at all incompatible with reformist science and politics. The idea of enlightenment is the major theme throughout Panorthosia. Comenius calls upon his fellow believers to subject their precious dogma to rational enquiry and to work together with the new science for the general good. At the same time, unlike the Enlightenment thinkers who followed, Comenius did not let politicians or scientists (philosophers) off the hook,

"Let our Philosophy be simplified, provided that it satisfies moderate minds and circumstances. Let our Religion be simplified, provided that it satisfies God, the source of simplicity, and men of upright conscience. Let our Political System be simplified, provided that it serves its purpose of peacefulness in human affairs." (Panorthosia II, Ch. 10, para 3, p. 152)

This project of simplification would permit anybody to enter the inner sanctum of the learned. Everybody would be at least three things, a philosopher, a politician and a theologian. Specialist knowledge would be public property. It would serve liberal ends for the first time in history. This simplification project would give great intellectual power to the people, and would tear down the ivory towers of professional privilege. Comenius calls this philosophical stance towards universalism "pansophy," or universal philosophy and compares its universal abilities to a skeleton key. A specialist has a key to get into one room of a castle, but a universalist thinker can get into any room and feel at home there. Including the room of religious faith.

The cause of human betterment would have been better served had there been no divorce between science and religion, for ultimately the purposes of both are the same, the betterment of humanity. Although they have slightly different purposes and methods, and they tend to deal in vastly different scales of time and space, as long as all sides, scientists, believers and politicians recognize their own bounds and keep within their limitations, all can enrich human experience and conduce to progress and enlightenment.

By the way, scientists were universally called natural philosophers, not scientists, until a hundred and fifty years after Comenius's death. I am auditing a course on the history of science, and I recently learned from the lecturer that this change in nomenclature was originally suggested as a joke, a bit of satire against the arrogance of certain members of the profession. Calling natural phenomena "Scientia," knowledge, implies that other, broader, non-material ways of knowing are not knowledge. They might even be forms of ignorance. This divorces the study of nature not only from religion but art, literature, history, philosophy, and on and on. The fact that the name "science" stuck does not mean that it makes any sense. In my opinion it remains a huge mistake and scientists should make a concession to humility and reality by going back to calling themselves natural philosophers.

The Enlightenment project, as it turned out, had grave flaws. Yes, human rights were openly proclaimed and, to some extent, put into practice. But the Enlightenment also ensconced a bitter rivalry, if not hatred, among the three pursuits that should be the intimate concern of each and all, science, religion and politics.

One of the most noticeable and lamentable effects of this divorce was on ordinary conversation. In polite company today it is considered a grave mistake to bring up religion or politics. To do so is to invite conflict. The result? Most conversations must remain frivolous. The public forum is ineffectual. Sports and celebrity gossip are the best that we have to talk about. Nuclear war and global warming grow with each passing day, and we fritter away our chances for reform in useless banter.


Rather than drawing false dichotomies and bringing the three essential kinds of knowledge into competition, we should heed the latter writings of that great pre-enlightenment genius, Comenius, who in his own life exemplified what he advocated for reform. He straddled all three of the great potential sources of human progress: politics, science and religion. John Amos Comenius was an experienced peace negotiator, a renowned educational reformer, a founding father of the Royal Society, and a leader in his religious community, the Moravian Brotherhood.

His long experience in these three fields inspired his posthumous masterpiece, the Panorthosia, or Universal Reform, a detailed proposal for a comprehensive reform program that works simultaneously on the personal, local and planetary levels. Panorthosia shows in great detail how we might unite science, religion and politics and thereby strike a happy balance for both individual and social progress.

Furthermore, his is by far the most persuasive proposal for a world government ever put forward. The Comenian model of world governance offers the best government conceivable. Properly implemented, it promises a world order far more reliable and efficient than any past ordering of the international system. By nature it stands against the "hard truth" that Barak Obama affirmed will remain unchanged in our lifetimes in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. It refutes all of the objections to a world government that have been brought up. We will discuss that in the next essay.


No comments: