January 05, 2007


Caption: These ugly chickens cherish the Enlightenment. Do you?

El Cabrero is kind of a conservative in that I think one of the most important things we can do is preserve the gains of the past.

That's admittedly a pretty broad subject but one legacy of the past that is under attack today is that of the Enlightenment, that period in history around the 18th century when a number of ideas that have made life worth living for millions of people were articulated and took their first halting steps in the world.

Among the ideas of the Enlightenment are representative government, human rights, religious tolerance, freedom of speech and thought, etc. Of course, the Enlightenment itself was influenced by the legacy of the past, including the Renaissance and the legacy of classical Greece and republican Rome.

And, yes, it was imperfect and incomplete but it gave us the tools with which we can critique it. (Did you guys notice the elegant way I avoided ending the last sentence with a preposition?)

I've been thinking about that embattled legacy a lot lately, most recently on reading Craig Nelson's excellent biography Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations.

Some of the leading thinkers of this period recognized the need for economic justice as well as political reform. Here are a few quotes from the period:

"When in countries that are called civilized, we see age going to the work-house, and youth to the gallows, something must be wrong in the system of government."--Paine

"When it shall be said in any country in the world, 'my poor are happy, neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want; the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am the friend of its happiness'; when these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and its Government."--Paine

While Paine was to the left of many Enlightenment thinkers, his ideas here weren't out of the mainstream:

"A too great disproportion among the citizens weakens any state. Every person, if possible, ought to enjoy the fruits of his labour, in a full possession of all the ecessaries, and many of the conveniences of life. No one can doubt, but such an equality is most suitable to human nature, and diminishes much less from the happiness of the rich than it adds to that of the poor."--David Hume, 1752

You can find similar sentiments even in Adam Smith's 1776 Wealth of Nations:

"They who feed, cloathe [sic] , and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged."

Works for me...


1 comment:

Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

It works for me, too. Through the years I have found myself reflecting on Enlightenment concepts and wondering if our present state of affairs—injustice, oppression, ethnocentricity, etc.—are not a repudiation of those ideas. I realize that, as a nation, we have never truly implemented the ideas of Paine, Jefferson, Franklin, etc. much beyond providing the philosophical basis of the American Revolution. However, as I look back I think of the potential—the “what if”—of an enlightened future.