Monday, February 18, 2019

What is Enlightenment for?

If enlightenment is the acquiring of profound knowledge, what is enlightenment truly for? There’s an esoteric interpretation based on the literal meaning of the word (the bringing of light), which traces enlightenment to the myth of Prometheus’s gift of fire to early humans. Knowledge is thus intellectual or spiritual illumination, so that we become lights in the greater darkness. Intellectual illumination would amount to our potential for mental power. Specifically, a mind can learn how nature works and can imagine ideals to motivate the creation of artificial alternatives. To that extent, enlightenment is empowerment. In the Greek myth, Prometheus empowered our species in defiance of the gods and was punished for his transgression. Christians demonized the promethean symbol, believing that our role isn’t to defy God out of satanic arrogance, to attempt to rival God’s creation with technoscientific mastery, but to preoccupy ourselves with moral constraints as we await the deus ex machina of the arrival of God’s kingdom. The result of such Christian stultification was the Dark Age in Europe, a time not just of ignorance left after the collapse of the Roman Empire, but one in which ignorance was rationalized and alternative ways of life were feared. Then came the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the American Revolution. Again, were the esoteric interpretation confined to the bringing of intellectual light, the historical point would be that the early-modern Europeans succumbed to the temptation to teach themselves to be independent, to empower themselves as individuals at the expense of the Christian theocracies, to seek to become gods through progress in know-how.

In the wider sense, though, in which the potential for illumination is spiritual rather than intellectual, what’s at issue isn’t just the mind but the existential significance of consciousness. In that case, even the stars are dark, as it were, in that they occupy a lower form of being. Like everything else in nature, stars are absurd without an interpreter to supply them with value and purpose. Consciousness is the light in which all beings are beheld and appreciated. Together with mental illumination, a conscious, knowing creature has the capacity to transform all things, including stars, and to do so according to anti-natural and thus virtually miraculous conceptions of how nature should be.

The Historical Variety of Enlightenments

Either way, the point of acquiring knowledge isn’t obvious. In most societies, there’s an even more esoteric or hidden path for the enlightened, which is to withdraw from society, to suffer in silence or to sacrifice himself or herself for the tragic love of knowledge. In the prehistory of religion, shamans who used entheogens to gain wisdom through a skewed perspective and who acted as mediators between the spiritual and material world were thereby condemned to standing somewhat apart from their tribe. Similarly, in one philosophical form of Hinduism, self-knowledge leads ultimately to the conviction that animal and social interests are delusory, that there’s an underlying reality discovered through intensive self-awareness, which is that consciousness and matter, the inner and the outer worlds are identical. After the student and the householder stages of life, the enlightened Hindu retreats to the forest to endure as an ascetic.

In Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths are triumphs of intellectual wisdom. We learn that the nature of unenlightened life is to suffer, but we discover also why that’s so and how suffering can be alleviated by following the Noble Eightfold Path. The difference between the Four Truths and the Eightfold Path reflects the difference between intellectual and spiritual illumination (betterment). We acquire a theory or a mental map of the main problem in life, but then we’re given a procedure of self-transformation which is supposed to solve that problem. We can perfect our consciousness to end our suffering. Indeed, for Buddhists, perfecting consciousness requires curtailing the personal mind and its intellectual conceits of illumination. Thus, according to that tradition, spiritual betterment, the enhancement of consciousness is antithetical to the intellectual kind, to the ego’s empowerment.

Jewish enlightenment, obtained at the cost of the historical humiliation and persecution of Jews, is the achievement—beginning with the likes of Job, Ecclesiastes, and Gnosticism—of the skeptical, comedic perspective in which even the monotheistic God seems absurd, sinister, or irrelevant. Riding high on their early military triumphs, the formative Muslims lacked the Jewish sense of humour and so took from Judaism only the awesome acknowledgement of God’s supremacy. Islamic enlightenment, then, is the recognition of our duty to submit to Allah’s will. Remember that humour is a defense mechanism for the afflicted or the vanquished. The authoritarian dominator has no interest in making light of her situation, since the dominator is corrupted by his power over others and is loath to see the absurdity, that is, the humour, in any power inequality, since to do so frees the mind to consider alternative ways of being. It’s no accident that Islamic societies are conservative and comparatively humourless. Conservatives hark back to animal norms and worship concentrations of power wherever they may be, in their gods and kings (alpha males)—even though power always monstrifies the powerful. Jews saw the humour in that inevitable monstrification, because Jews were victimized more often than they were historically triumphant. Jews were the downtrodden, so they lifted themselves up by reflecting on the folly and absurdity of all power inequalities, which is why most Jews are secular as opposed to being theological literalists or dogmatists. By contrast, Muslims are locked into celebrating power asymmetries, because their great prophet and reformer, Muhammad, was also a military conqueror.

Western Christianity is distinguished by its emphasis on exotericism, by its cooptation and dumbing-down of any effective path to self-improvement. Thus, for the most part, Western Christianity is anti-enlightenment. The touchstone of this form of Christianity is Paul’s corpus which emphasizes the divinity and sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the promise of salvation and resurrection through faith rather than works. The Christian believer is supposed to be perfected by God’s grace, meaning by an arbitrary decision to spare sinful creatures that don’t and can’t deserve their creator’s respect. Jesus earns our atonement, and because the typical Western Christian literalizes and historicizes the figure of Jesus, she loses the literary, universal Jungian meaning of her scriptures. The believer is saved when she “allows Christ-consciousness to live in her,” as the meme would have it, but this Gnostic idea of self-transformation makes the Pauline and eschatological parts of the Western creed superfluous. If we all have the capacity for spiritual growth and enlightenment, Christ’s sacrifice need be only a metaphor, in which case there’s no need for faith in just one supposed sacrificial act committed two millennia ago. This is precisely the meaning of the Eastern saying that if you meet the Buddha on the road, you should kill him. Moreover, in so far as Christianity allows for this-worldly enlightenment and Christ-like behaviour, there’s no need to wait for God’s kingdom to arrive, since we could work to achieve social progress for ourselves. As I said, Western Christianity therefore distinguishes itself by its churches’ attempt to neutralize progressive ideas, to keep the flock distracted by an anachronism. By contrast and by highlighting the pagan heritage of Christianity’s founding fathers at the expense of Paul, Eastern Christianity has been more open to the humanism implicit in both intellectual and spiritual ideas of enlightenment.

Again, in Europe, the temptation to follow the pagan humanism of ancient Greece and Rome overcame the Western Church’s medieval longing for a womb-like safe space, and so modern rationalism secularized the concept of enlightened progress. Whereas the Church promoted shaky dogmas, science and natural philosophy provided genuine, verifiable knowledge and the prospect of power over nature. But just as the Catholic priests acted as foxes guarding the hen house, Western secular culture lowers the bar in co-opting the religious concept of enlightenment. While the modern metanarrative prizes reason, liberty, and the human dignity of each individual, in practice technoscience-driven societies generate an infantilizing monoculture. For the “enlightened” modern, reason becomes the power of deferring to machines and experts, and thus the avoidance of having to think for yourself; liberty becomes the freedom to select from a wealth of means, as at the supermarket, but only the presupposition of ends; and goals in secular life are prescribed by popular consensus as measured by prices in a capitalistic, “free” market. In short, we serve as consumers, skating along the surface of things, whether by enjoying our mass entertainments or infotainments, by stepping out on vacations in our guided tours that avoid confrontation with otherness, or by confining our discourse to a narrow Overton window of politically acceptable opinions. Despite the fact that free society thereby rests on a fallacious appeal to popularity, what we choose to do as “enlightened,” modern secular individuals is what mass society tells us to do—unless we’re well off, in which case we live in gated communities, are educated in private schools and manage too-big-to-fail companies in a monopoly or an oligopoly to avoid having to compete with the little people.

What is Secular Progress?

We’re faced, then, with a welter of interpretations of what it is to be enlightened or to improve yourself with knowledge. Is knowledge progressive? Is it inherently so? Should those who understand the meaning of life in the real world segregate themselves from the unenlightened herd? Should we submit to a religious institution or to a political tyranny? Should we strive to empower ourselves as individuals or in a humanitarian civilization driven by scientific and technological advances and by profit through innovations in business? Does enlightenment always backfire, humiliating the arrogant creature that attempts to be godlike whether by emulating an idol, as in the Christian worship of Jesus, or by lapsing into the decadence sustained by the power of technoscience? “What is enlightenment for?” we should be asking as we survey the history of intellectual and spiritual or existential betterment.

In secular society especially, where we don’t credit theistic presumptions, we also can’t take for granted any pre-established purpose of human life. If knowledge happens to empower or to backfire, this can be only by accident or by blind natural causality. Enlightenment has no objective purpose, nor does anything else in nature. There is only causality, including natural necessity and accident (universal patterns and local tendencies corresponding to ceteris paribus generalizations), and the emergence of clever, sentient creatures that seem to have the misfortune of understanding their pointlessness. If there’s no objective point to learning the truth or to acquiring godlike power, is there a subjective one? More to the point, is some subjective, human-given purpose better than the others?

Suppose we limit our choice to the secular options, respecting as we should the undeniable power of science and technology to transform the planet. We might, then, adapt conceptions of enlightenment to that situation or dispose of obsolete conceptions. We’re faced, then, with the irony of modern progress that’s led to postmodern cynicism and hyperskepticism, to infantile consumerism and the tyranny of political correctness. Who, then, are the truly enlightened ones in secular, liberal societies? Who has intellectually or spiritually bettered himself or herself, and who has fallen for a degrading con? The late-modern socialist or “progressive” belittles any philosophical assertion by attempting to reduce it to alleged Machiavellian or class-based motives. But what seems undeniable is the difference in the available depths of understanding and experience. This hyper-liberal, for example, thinks everyone should be equal and that we should progress beyond the need for social domination. Thus there’s the supposed obligation to attend to “intersectionality,” to the infinite ways in which we deliberately or unconsciously take advantage of others. But this egalitarian ideal is as fantastic as the theistic ones. If you occupy a bubble of disinformation, whether it’s the leftist’s world of politically correct niceties or the conservative’s realm of irrational conspiracy theories and authoritarian myths spun by American “Christianity” or Fox News and talk radio, your experience will be shallow. This is because you’ll be living in your head or in a world limited by your mental projections. We’re never entirely free from such projections, but clearly science and engineering are freer from them than is the audience of peddlers of fraud for profit who prey on people’s gullibility and cognitive biases. If you respect the power of science and technology enough to naturalize your philosophy or your religion, you have a higher chance of engaging with reality and enriching your experience than if you confine your attention to a random feel-good ideology.
Still, the more alienated you are from that duped herd, the more you withdraw in disgust from modernity’s infantile betrayals of the original humanistic vision, the more your experience, too, is threatened with shallowness, albeit from another direction. Alone and Job-like in your angst and awe, your pity and disgust, you’ll be waist deep in the horrors of natural reality, as it were, and so reality will have its say in your worldview; that is, your beliefs won’t rest primarily on self-serving fictions. However, you’ll lack the maturity that comes from social engagement. You’ll be something of an introvert or an outsider, an omega or perhaps an incel stuck in the teenager’s state of emotional development. To be sure, the psychiatrist has no knock-down argument against such arrested development, since the scientific prescriptions of mental health can only presuppose the merit of social norms against which mental dysfunctions are proscribed. But experience doesn’t magically materialize out of thin air. You have to leave the confines of your fortress of solitude or your academic aerie to engage with others, if you want to acquire social know-how.

Without that engagement, the enlightened individual may likewise be trapped by abstract ideas, albeit by truthful, philosophically-sound ones that reflect the real world (as opposed to being committed to transparent frauds). After all, experience can be intellectually rich but emotionally poor. Even if you understand the philosophical meaning of life in natural reality, and even if your character is attuned to that knowledge so that you feel disgust, pity, and awe roughly as called for by the world’s godlessness, your emotional responses may lack depth if you lack the concrete experiences to prove your philosophy’s validity to yourself. Only if you submerge yourself in the morass of popular culture and withstand the inanities of small talk and the pettiness of our tactics of social dominance will your philosophical knowledge be backed by sickening experience. In other words, only then will you have a chance to progress with knowledge in the full (not just intellectual) sense of “knowledge.” You’ll feel the disgust, pity, and awe in your bones, because you’ll encounter the horror, the folly, and the magnificent natural creativity even in the basest or most treacherous interactions.

What is enlightenment for? The superficial answer is that knowledge in the full sense—the bringing of light as mental, intellectual power and as purity of consciousness to the living-dead monstrosity of the wilderness—is for the sake of self-improvement. But there’s no easy answer as to what counts as improvement. Mass society has its say, as do the world’s great religious frauds and insights. Undying nature likewise has its input via our genetic programming which functions as a pseudo-design. In biological terms, we succeed if we’re evolutionarily fit (if we procreate, transmitting our genes to the next generation). But that pseudo-standard is for animals, not for enlightened beings. Enlightenment here is transcendence from animal habits and the envisioning of anti-natural alternatives. Nothing is more subversive that the power of know-how or the clarity of independent omega consciousness (that is, the tragicomic perspective of the downtrodden). With the former, doubt is cast on all of nature as we seek to recreate the world in our image with cultures, machines, cityscapes, and the like. With the latter, doubt is cast on mass failures to live up to our godlike potential. We honour that creative potential when we wrestle with the question of what we should be in the absence of any fact that could dictate the answer.


  1. This one entry is quite unpolished. Many a great thinkers argue that European enlightenment is a construct created by the emerging capitalist class and as such it's loaded and therefore needs quite a bit of unpacking. Furthermore in Hindu tradition jnana yoga is a thing along with bhakti and kryia. Great yogins achieved deep insight into the true nature of reality in ways that are definitely not anti-intellectual, it's just that their ways were way more fine grained and sophisticated than anything considered intellectual today. So the fact that the referent is effectively missing from today discourse does not mean much. The practice existed, was reflected upon and recognized. Still possible today, just talking about it in modern contexts is extremely difficult so much finer concepts and distinctions have been lost in modern languages. Yet ultimately the map is definitely not the territory :)

    1. Well, this article was a little rushed and I mainly meant to be raising questions, not providing answers, especially since the topic touches on lots of articles I've already written.

      I don't talk much specifically about the Enlightenment in this article. I gave just an overview of how the Age of Reason replaced Christian theocracy in Europe and the New World and how that rationalism led in turn to the infantilization of consumers. I'd agree that modern, rational Enlightenment is partly a social construct. Lewis Mumford writes about how rationalism went along with capitalist imperialism.

      I referred here only to one type of Hindu philosophy. Hinduism, of course, is eclectic, systematic, and all-encompassing. I don't claim to be an expert, but I believe there are supposed to be three main paths to liberation (moksha): self-realization (jnana yoga), loving devotion to a god (bhakti yoga), and moral action (karma yoga). My interpretation is that although Hinduism is supposed to be highly inclusive, the concepts of the proper stages and aims of life (ashramas and purusarthas) elevate self-knowledge and freedom through detachment from illusion (Maya) above religious devotion and moral action (practice). In any case, detachment and practice are supposed to lead to samadhi, a state of deep awareness and bliss.

      I don't doubt that religious practice can alter our ways of thinking and even how we perceive the world. The brain is highly malleable.

      I see from the comments that you criticized another of my articles which touches more on Hinduism, "Outer and Inner Gods." Maybe I should write something more directly on Hinduism, to see where that religion fits into the worldview I'm developing here.