The End of the Enlightenment

The West, and a broader swath of the world, is in crisis. Everyone knows it. And unless you’re a Steven Pinker fanboy, we do not need “Enlightenment Now!” The Enlightenment is the both the problem and in its final stages of precipitous decline to death. Proponents of “Enlightenment Now!” are doubling down on the dying corpse that is the root of our present discontents.

All organisms have life cycles. Civilization is no different. Look back upon the history of civilization and all civilizations rise and fall. Only those who are deluded enough to detach themselves from this organic reality can hold to the counter position.

Beyond being a great propaganda term, few people who are defenders of the so-called Enlightenment and its contingent liberal philosophical underpinning are read on liberal and Enlightenment philosophical matters. The modern project, not only running into its own terminal decline phase, is, moreover, deeply flawed which expounds the current crisis. Man is not an atomistic individual and rational consumer as the “classical liberal” fathers thought. As anyone with half a brain knows, and as affirmed by the ancient philosophers and theologians, man is an intensely relational creature; a creature of community. As Saint Augustine also got entirely right, man is a creature of desire and, per Leo Tolstoy, the more man attempts to rationally reduce everything to mere cause and effect the more the wise man realizes how foolish such an endeavor is while the foolish man falls in love with his theory which is all but surely incorrect. Man does not come into the world free and detached from place, history, and commitments; rather, he enters a world tied to place, shaped by history, and burdened with commitments.

The “liberal enlightenment,” which sought a cosmopolitan or universal world of peaceful commerce and consumption is the actualization of what Friedrich Nietzsche called the “Last Man.” A man who lives for nothing but sensual pleasures and comforts. In the words of Leo Strauss, liberal man is a permissive and passive hedonistic nihilist. The “radical enlightenment,” which sought a universal world free from the burdens of locale, work, and all institutions and structures of life which bear down one people, is flawed because man is not a benign animal as Rousseau asserted and his misery is not because he finds himself in community but because of his estrangement to the sacred and his very nature.

Moreover, only the most childish and unlearned of person could swallow the core Enlightenment myths, peddled from everyone like Jonah Goldberg to Steven Pinker. The Enlightenment established the rule of law? Perhaps you’ve never read Hammurabi’s Code, the Book of Deuteronomy, or are familiar with the laws of Solon. The Enlightenment achieved religious toleration? The Edict of Milan and the Constitution of Medina certainly beg to differ. The Enlightenment established free commerce? The classical economists may have “discovered” certain laws of economics but the notion that traders couldn’t cross boundaries into other communities until the 1700s would have been new news to ancient traders who traversed seas, entered faraway lands, and routinely traded with neighboring polities and civilizations whether 50 miles away or 4,000 miles away. After all, the Romans were trading with the Chinese long before the Enlightenment ever derived written rules for free commerce. The idea that men, previously, lived in darkness until suddenly discovering light and truth in the 17th century has been so thoroughly debunked that only the grossest and most infantile of New Atheist pedants remain married to this outlook.

The core insight of postmodernism was that the modern metanarrative of enlightened progress was over. The postmodernists subsequently embarked on a deconstruction of the enlightenment narrative to brutal effect; but the postmodernists themselves cannot save us as they cannot offer us anything beyond showing the hollow core of the Enlightenment metanarrative.

Oswald Spengler, in his magisterial two-volume Decline of the West, wrote of the life cycles of civilizations. Ibn Khaldun, the greatest political sociologist in history, also detailed the rise and fall of civilizations and the late middle ages. If the owl of Minerva does, indeed, take flight at the coming of dusk then we must be willing to free ourselves from the shackles of the dying corpse that is the “Enlightenment project.” On this site you will hopefully find a great breadth of reflections and explanations to help you live the Cave of the “Enlightenment” and into the light of the real. From literature to philosophy to biology to politics to history, from personal reflections to exegetical summaries, I hope you will find the content that will amass here to be worthwhile, enlightening—pardon the pun—and stimulating.

The “Enlightenment” is coming to an end. Thank God! What comes next is the excitement that awaits the 21st century. The phenomenon of History is not yet over. And the Owl of Minerva is not yet ready to take flight; but she is ready to take off from the corpse of the Enlightenment and travel over the new horizons of purposive activity and phenomenon.

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