Heirs of the Enlightenment

It is amazing how many ideas seep in from the past that we aren’t fully cognizant of. It is, of course, easy to point out the negative ones: the racist, xenophobic, sexist, and tribalistic habits of the past can dog us when we’re unaware, and a greater understanding of them can help us more readily guard against them. However, not all the Western ideals are mere cautionary tales. Some, in fact, we should seek to understand so that we can better appreciate, embody, and even develop them. Whether one is aware of it or not, we are all heirs to the Enlightenment, and we have a choice between understanding these noble ideals and cultivating them, or in our ignorance, letting them waste away when they could enrich our lives.

It is my firm belief that nearly every American, from the atheist to the Christian, from liberal to conservative, carries within them at least a small fire carried on from the Enlightenment. Enlightenment ideals are so thick in our culture that we can scarcely avoid them. They are enshrined in our founding documents, with Thomas Jefferson, a vital Enlightenment thinker, codifying Enlightenment ideas in the Declaration of Independence. Madison followed suit by incorporating some Enlightenment wisdom into the Constitution. They borrowed these same ideas from another great Enlightenment thinker, John Locke. Our understanding of economics is deeply influenced by Adam Smith, another great Enlightenment mind. I name only a few since the breadth and scope of the Enlightenment defy summary.

And what are these much vaunted Enlightenment ideas? Some of them are so deeply ingrained in American thought that it’s easy to overlook them: Reason is a method of thinking that even critics of Enlightenment thought are no doubt eager to use. Opposition to monarchy is the very genesis of America. Individual liberty is so glorified that it is almost a cliche, though one worthy of repeating. Religious tolerance has been a practical necessity since our early days of neighboring sects of Christianity rubbing elbows and a greatly expanded one in this modern era of extreme religious diversity. Separation of church and state and constitutional government are more American than bald eagles. Progress is a truer American faith than any religion. An Enlightenment proclivity towards the scientific method and skepticism are perhaps where Americans most often fail to cash in on our Enlightenment inheritance, but there are many examples of great scientists, from Einstein to Edison, and great skeptics, like Franklin and Twain, showing that we are far from impoverished.

The beliefs of the Enlightenment harmonize each other and perpetuate a virtuous cycle. The Enlightenment ideals work with and feed off each other to create progress, and it is in this cohesiveness that they truly shine. We must never grow so passionate in our skepticism and admiration for science that we forget our need for religious tolerance, for example, and an attempt at progress should never come at the cost of individual liberty. Just as our government has multiple branches that act as checks on each others’ power, so Enlightenment ideals caution us against dangerous extremism and reinforce another Enlightenment ideal: Fraternity.

The Enlightenment mindset is both a weapon we can wield defensively and a tool we can use to build. The Enlightenment philosophy finds a balance between the sort of rabid autonomy that is unwilling to sympathize with others on one extreme against the other extreme of relinquishing our personal responsibilities and acquiescing to whatever evil a mob asks of us. A sharpened Enlightenment worldview guards us against institutions that would persecute us, embedding superstitious limits into our classrooms, bedrooms, and minds. An Enlightenment mindset also gives us the drive and judiciousness to build up those institutions which feed, cure, and educate us. The two centuries since the Enlightenment have paid back the promise of progress with generous interest. Yet with progress comes comfort, and we could easily turn our inheritance into a burden if we regard this hard-won legacy as a given.

Science, reason, acceptance, and individuality are not innate but must be learned and taught. The ideals that made our longer, healthier, and more entertaining lives possible are devolving into half-remembered platitudes that eventually won’t be remembered at all. We should seek to be worthy heirs. We should recognize the ideas that have guided our civilization from the crown’s tyranny to the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution to our ever-growing expansion of tolerance and liberties. The journey of the Enlightenment is far from concluded, and its unimagined culmination of decimating poverty, sickness, and ignorance is worth continuing. Worthy heirs understand, apply, and develop Enlightenment ideals, thus enabling the next generation to do the same.