The New Enlightenment

The purpose of a foreword is to put the rest of a book in a particular context. But the context of this book is no secret: the relationship between the self-proclaimed champion-states of civilization and the rest of the world; and the placidly divided societies inside these ‘perfect democracies’. Though these issues are mirrored in many other countries, nowhere are they clearer than in America, and at no time they have been clearer than now.

Even the least critical thinker will have seen problems regarding America’s policy and action in the last century. These problems have been amplified in the last five years with the invasion of Iraq. It is an undemocratic war in which a few leaders usurp control of vital American institutions and ignore the will of the people, all for a purpose which is anything but clear. It is sloppily executed with devastating disregard for anything and everything including Americans, Iraqis and world public opinion. This extreme minority is empowered by the corporate media which many still assume to be impartial, allowing the contradictions even as the suffering becomes more and more obvious and tragic.

I am not an expert in these areas, leading me to wonder why Beverly has given me the honor of opening her book. It must be that like me she sees a more important theme running subtly through current affairs, a theme that starts with each of us, but will resolve future outcomes for our entire civilization.

This theme is based on the need to understand the cooperative and ‘spiritual’ capacity of human beings and how this understanding or lack of it is reflected in our societies. Or we could say it regards the evolution of our collective paradigms and society. I say ’spiritual’ for lack of a better term. What I refer to is actually: the recognition of the virtues inherent in humankind; individual introspection and respect leading to heightened empathy and sympathy; measurement of success disjoined from material measures, and; something that exists independently of religious traditions.

This presence or absence of such spirituality determines the state of affairs within a nation and the world. As has been said in China since the time of Confucius (perhaps recently put to one side, temporarily):

To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must cultivate our personal life; and to cultivate our personal life, we must first set our hearts right (Michael Garofalo, 2003:

This progression, a gem of common sense, leads to peace and harmony. However we see the opposite in institutionalised practice. The consequences are clear. If only we had a functioning world to compare with ours, we could start going forwards instead of backwards. But where does this misdirection start from really?

Materialism and the old Enlightenment

Capitalist-friendly liberal assumptions dominate decision making in the largest industrialised economies, notably America, Britain and Japan, and also in international institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. These assumptions are less ‘liberal’ in the classical sense and more ‘realist’ in a utilitarian sense: going under the guise of an egalitarian liberalism. These assumptions that turn our economic world result in the ignoring of the human being except as an economic unit. Wellbeing is measured by a state’s success, which is measured by economic indicators, e.g. GDP and FDI, rather than actual human benefit or satisfaction, or even a standard of material living. Where did this ridiculous idea come from?

The ideas that built modern age evolved, more recently, from the concept of ‘rationalism’ that took over in the ‘Age of Reason’, roughly the 1600s. The idea was taken further in the European Enlightenment of the 1700s, becoming ‘empiricism’. The ultimate implication of rationalism and empiricism was a rejection of things deemed unreasonable and not testable. What was ‘empirical’ to the men who brought about the further scientific and philosophical revolution of the Enlightenment, was that if a thing could not be objectively and repeatedly proven by physical tests and examinations then that thing would not exist and not factor in the intelligent person’s thinking. Such a ‘thing’ was a metaphysical, spiritual or divine aspect to a person.

The empiricism of the Enlightenment was a reaction to the dogmatism and abuse of religious and political power. It was a reaction against the traditionalist culture which was perceived as enabling the oppression of the population of Europe. It was seen that if an institution’s claim to power was discredited, any ‘enlightened’ man would lose faith in the traditional mechanisms of the old world. The popular acceptability of independent reasoning and self-determination in society led to the spreading of not only an intellectual trend but also of a means for liberation. It was indeed an ‘enlightenment’ of sorts for humanity leading to great scientific and social advances. Thus we hold liberalism to be the champion philosophy of the modern age. But it has limitations which are becoming clear as our world changes exponentially quickly. Like any ideology, it bundles concepts and skips over issues.

The scientific method, enthusiasm and freedom finally birthed in the enlightenment were the major contributors to new technologies and the force that brought on a speedy industrialization. After this came new trends in modernisation, imperialism and finally globalization: interwoven processes that are still changing and evolving together. Notwithstanding change, to this day the idea of empiricism (and the Positivist scientific method) has been at odds with religion. But not only religion: bundled together with religion in the ‘irrational’ category is the concept of spirituality. This bundling is a mistake necessarily made, due to the enthusiasm of the time, but one that is contributing to the crisis of the age.

In the post industrialised and ‘intellectually evolved’ nations, it is very unfashionable today for an intellectual person to even imply the possibility of a metaphysical aspect of life. Such thinking is deemed to be extremely unproductive: given voice and audience, it would supposedly direct civilization backwards to the dark ages when the Church and state oppressed the people of Europe for ends of their own.

Even if there were no good evidence for the spiritual side of life, the belief in it would still make this world a heaven for us and future generations. Spirituality can thrive in a non institutionalised environment. The only temple required is one’s own body.

A Tribal world?

If in the 17th century Descartes’ followers institutionalised the practice of vivisection (live dissection) on the basis that animals had no souls, what could be done if humans too are thought of as mere machinery? Resource wars? Human experimentation? Genocide? We see it all, over and over again. Our problems are directly related to this materialistic idea, which is most popular among an ambitious, ethnocentric, fatalistic and aristocratic elite. Empiricism is still the scientific paradigm that one must display in order to justify to others their worthiness of world-directorship. In contrast, for ordinary people with no need to prove anything there is an unspoken belief in virtues: sympathy, compassion, selflessness etc. Unfortunately ordinary people are not allowed and are incapable to make decisions in our limitedly ‘representative’ ‘democracies’.

Once can see how the hot-headed policies of the day are related to anti-spiritual and materialistic notions about humankind. A lack of faith in the inborn positivity of people governs aggressive ‘revenge’ policy. The assumption that people are purely physical phenomenon – self-aware bags of flesh and bone – allows policy to depart from the precepts of the most popular religions, to which many our leaders profess to belong. These religions all not only hold that the human is divine, but also forbid killing. While outwardly these religions are practiced or even claimed as the source of inspiration, the unspoken materialistic assumption can clearly be observed.

The same materialistic assumptions allow us to divide each other into groups and justify the culture of group behaviour. For example, as we do not recognize a divine identity of any description, we thus identify by default with our material and social aspects: race, class, religion, you name it. This means: ‘defending our group against your group, at the drop of a hat and without much need for forethought. Wars that seem to be caused by unfortunate cultural or religious contradictions, or humanitarian interventions, are often really about resources and having ‘the good life’. The world has adopted this materialistic dream. The habit of firstly identifying with race or culture is through and through a result of the materialistic paradigm.

But if we replace this paradigm with a belief in the commonality of human divinity then what justification is there for this type of tribalist behaviour? In the place of nations and cultures ‘owning’ people and their identity, there would simply be a colourful globe. History and culture would not have such grave implications for our identity and belonging as it does for us today.

Taking away materialistic, racist and tribalistic notions, then an international conflict or an act of terrorism would be understood as a malfunction of the entire system – not the result of the inborn personal deficiencies of individuals. If a group were to attack, it would be acknowledged that the attacked had first been attacked in some way, though perhaps not militarily or obviously. The original problem might come from some unrecognised ignorance on the part of the attacked, in which case and the whole misfortune could even be perceived as a chance to re-examine international relations and search for the fault. Of course this is hypothetical because only in a receptive international world could such a country exist. In a world receptive to such nations, terrorism would be unknown. Otherwise, such a nation would be taken advantage of and brought down to level.

Today we could say not without an element of truth that much of our problems are all because of a few awry leaders, take your pick of examples. To an extent this may be true. Our system of ‘democracy’ operates in such a way that a certain wealthy and well connected demographic selection, can come into positions of government far more easily than any old commoner from the working class. We need only take a glance at America and its dynastic corporate and political families, and their ambitious supporters, to get a good idea of this.

Our responsibility for the little and big pictures

This should not be an excuse to evade responsibility for our world, our nations and ourselves. We ought to look at our own lives and see how closely the actions of our state have reflected the assumptions we make and the way we live. We might then begin to understand that our own mentalities are not as far removed from the exclusivist policies of the state as we would like to believe.

For example, Americans, thought of as the ‘guardians of western civilization’, are known across the world for their consumerist lifestyles and individualistic notions. Likewise, US government policies above all reflect the supreme value of material wealth, irrespective of the policies’ effects on other nations. The righteousness of ‘national interest’ is the justification and motivation. How much of this can we say we represent at the individual level in our own societies? Many of us will likely admit that within our own nations are microcosmic copies of the international world. Perhaps our local societies show less tragically obvious symptoms, but the basic mindsets are the same. We are, in our modern capitalistic societies, more or less forced into a defensive and selfish position: personally, socially and internationally.

There are those of us who realize that there is no such thing as an isolated ‘national interest’ in such a globally connected world. Going against the flow, we see how one nation’s interest is entirely dependent on the interest of all nations, as each depends on the others for their material sustenance and peaceful existence. We look at ourselves and our societies critically, and ask whether such isolation and paranoid defensiveness is necessary or useful in creating a world we can live in and be happy.

Beverly is a part of a new movement in patriotism, which recognizes that a nation is a part of the world and that the world will not function through violence and fear.

Human nature or divine nature?

Many a discussion between ideologists comes down to the lowest denominator of all social theories… ‘human nature’. For some it is both the defence of the system and the reason not to hope or strive for better one. For yet others it is the reason not to care at all… seeing as ‘people simply cannot be trusted to forgive and forget’. But how much of is this truth, and how much is it part of a vicious cycle of belief and self-fulfilling prophecy on the behalf of all humankind?

The fortunate truth about ‘human nature’ is that it is nothing in particular. We learn to reflect the dominant paradigms of society as we grow. We scarcely like to recognize this capacity to be ’socialized’. As much as we do not like to think of ourselves as products of a system, we also hesitate to question the societies that gave birth to many of our own ideas, ideals and assumptions. We could probably redefine what many of us call ‘human nature’ as ’social nature’. If there is a ‘human nature’ then it isn’t something we are born with. Conceiving of human nature as a fixed thing, especially as an inbuilt biological impetus to protect one’s life and prosperity, is narrow thinking. This myth, if it allowed to permanently strangulate us, will doom humanity to fulfil it; and will doom the world a permanent state of ‘crisis management’ or worse.

It doesn’t have to be so. Looking in small and unexpected places, one can find infinite exceptions to the dominant assumptions about people. And when the pressure to scrape a material survival is off, our divine nature is given a chance. Our divine nature is constantly struggling with our habitual, socialized selves to break forth in the world and re-create in the image of our inherent goodness. It is always with us: so all that is needed for it to blossom is a little patch of earth and a little rain in the form of truly free thinking.

There is great hope for humanity. Even these ‘dark times’ are far progressed compared with previous centuries. What makes the negative more visible is new technology, used almost exclusively for the purpose of private profit seeking – and otherwise taken full advantage of by forces that wish to create and dominate a social and economic food chain. Yet people have their civil and social rights, to varying but improved degrees, if not yet their economic rights. (Economic rights will only become reality when it is realized that human beings are not inherently selfish entities: when the myth of deserving and undeserving is exposed as a functionary of an oppressive and artificial society).

It is not necessary to identify various ideologies and how the contribute or not to world problems. All of the ideologies: liberalism, socialism, etc., are masks for more important meta-ideologies which exist independently. For example, much of politics today is seen as a tug of war between liberalism and socialism- deemed as opposites. But more importantly there are materialistic liberals or socialists, and spiritually minded liberals or socialists. It is the individuals deeper interpretation of the human being and life that dominates his or her behaviour, not his or her superfluous and transitory ideologies.

Peace starts with us

History, if one cares to look closely and with an open mind, shows that one of the greatest spiritual legacies of recent millennia, Christianity, was hijacked by the Roman Empire for political means. It seemed to Constantine in about 300AD that the best way to deal with this growing threat was to assimilate it. Hence the notable difference in the demeanour of Christians before and after that date.

However through time interest in spirituality survived outside from the religious scene as it always does. More people are turning away from dogma and looking for real spirituality, either within their religions or elsewhere. In recent times this spiritual interest is thriving despite the increased material threat for a growing portion of the world’s people. It could be that the social and environmental problems of the day are heightening our awareness of the need for a broader view. It could be that as the contradictions of the system become more and more obvious we realize more and more that peace starts with us. No one is excused from the responsibility to create a better political, social and environmental world.

We are taking great joy in reinventing ourselves as responsible citizens, world-citizens and self-interested and self-respected individuals. In time this will undoubtedly turn the tables and bring a favourable outcome for humanity, even if only after some calamity. After all, it has been said by more than one authority that ‘we reap what we sow’.

The movement Beverly is a part of is not spiritual in an explicit sense (In fact it is often opposed to the dominant and conservative religious groups in many countries, personified by the American ‘religious right’ and its propaganda outlet Fox News). But the ideas and assumptions that govern the movement make it far more spiritual than the exclusive dogmas and traditions that pit human against human; God against God. The movement has been called the New Enlightenment, or the Second Enlightenment which will replace the materialistic ‘rationality’ of the 18th century Enlightenment with a new, humanistic rationality in which respect is held not only for people as social and political actors, but as beings who are in the world, but not of it. Great tribulation will have gone into the building of this New Enlightenment.

These changes have nothing to do with those who seek to document them and predict them. Theories and ideas might be useful in spreading untruths and abstractions, but they are absolutely useless when it comes to the rediscovery of what is already within us. But, if perchance you are interested in reading more on these topics, a website has been set up called Spirit & Politik: I hope you find the site inspiring. You will find links to the ‘neohumanist’ and ‘futurist’ community around the world, as well as my own articles which expand on the topics raised in this foreword.

Individually, we constantly recreate ourselves… all we need is a little hope, imagination and diligence. Together, we constantly recreate our world, and it could be heaven or hell. We each have to dream harder about the person we want to be, and world we want to live in. Probably, we’ll all be forced to do so anyway. The future is bright!


Posted on April 17, 2007 Modified April 17, 2007