You are old, and failing, and the forces of Schwärmerei which are yearning to take your place are waiting at the door. Your record is limited, to say the least. Lessing wrote that you rule over the most enslaved land in Europe, and pointed out how much more political critique is permitted in Wien and Paris. Your shameful treatment of Voltaire confirms the depth of his arch-rival Jean-Jacques‘ claim that authorities tolerate only those intellectuals content to weave garlands of flowers around the chains that bind us. Nevertheless: out here in Königsberg we understand the difference between enlightened and unenlightened despotism, and we need only look a little to the East to see how much worse things could get. What you‘ve done isn‘t much, but it opened the door for improvement that any number of forces are longing to shut. For what do you want to be remembered? Playing the flute? Have some guts, I implore you. Leave us a sign.
Mit freundlichen Grüssen
It would have been clearer, and sounded less craven, though it hardly would have accomplished anything. Instead Kant wrote "Was heißt Aufklärung?", the text that generations of German students fell asleep to. To be sure, the text was abused. Its opening describes how the state exploits our desires for comfortable immaturity by taking over our thinking for us. It‘s a message hardly less true today than it was then. What better way to defuse its content than by presenting it as a state-sponsored contribution to education! Forcing youths to memorize lines about thinking for themselves is such a good way to spoil their appetite for doing so that one might suspect whichever bureaucrats put it on the lesson plan of being dizzyingly Macchiavelian.
But Kant‘s text is easy to abuse, for initially it seems to present a mixture of banality and contradiction, with a nauseatingly high dose of flattery thrown in to boot. Our age is on the way to Enlightenment; only Friedrich has arrived. While most of us are clumsy toddlers learning to walk, Friedrich strides ahead as a shining example of the ruler who liberated us from immaturity. All this would be disgusting enough it it were true, but Kant knew as well as Lessing that it wasn‘t. The reader may lose patience, at the latest, when Kant designates Friedrich as the ruler who, fearless before phantoms, provides more freedom than any republic. Proof enough that Kant himself, at the thought of authority, collapsed into Prussian servility and lost his own courage?
That we‘re all human, and subject to failure and limitation, is a point the sage of Königsberg would be the first to admit. But there‘s another way to read the text: not as a piece of popular philosophy with a number of remarks about Friedrich, but as a piece of popular philosophy addresed to Friedrich. Rather than (or at least, along with) crudely flattering his sovereign, Kant took the opportunity to describe an ideal of the ruler as he ought to be, as a way of encouraging him to realize it. Kant was both a shrewd educator and a political thinker, and he knew this was no time for pointless grand stands. The hour was late, the forces of reaction were gathering. As Friedrich‘s death grew nearer, Kant‘s tone in other Berlinische Monatsschrift essays became almost hysterical with worry that all the gains of Enlightenment would be lost. Time confirmed that his worry was not exagerrated. Friedrich Wilhelm‘s closest advisor condemned the publishers of the Berlinische Monatsschrift itself as "apostles of unbelief", after his ascension a significant number of thinkers were forced to resign public positions for expressing views about Enlightenment more provocative than Kant‘s. Supposing we read the injunction Sapere Aude! as addressed to Friedrich himself?
"Was heißt Aufklärung?" was written for a publication more similar to Die Zeit than a scholarly journal, and as such anything but timeless. Or rather: the text became timeless because it uses general philosophical claims to deal with urgent, timebound questions. This way of reading makes it more and not less contemporary. For let us be clear: the hour is late, and we are losing ground daily. Other people control more of the world than we do. Yes, we. If you are reading Die Zeit you belong to what used to be called the party of Enlightenment - however often you‘ve muttered "Enlightenment is totalitarian" over however many glasses of Chardonnay. George W. Bush, let‘s remember, recently announced that he doesn‘t read newspapers at all.
Before thinking about what Enlightenment is, recall what it isn‘t. It‘s amusing to imagine what Bayle or Voltaire would have done with the belief that blowing oneself up with as many possible bystanders will lead straight to the arms of 70 black-eyed virgins; or that a Biblical land title permits a tiny band of settlers to continue an occupation that threatens international peace and justice - had we but time to be amused. These pre-Enlightenment worldviews have received ample attention. Not so information about the world‘s best-selling book, Left Behind, and its successor, the series by Tim LeHaye, that has sold 55 million copies as of this writing. While we are contemplating the effects of Harry Potter (and competing for our own modest Auflagen) millions of evangelical Christians are enthralled by the vision of being lifted straight to heaven in time to avoid the bloodier scenes of the Apocalypse. Bush‘s managers know that 16% of American voters belong to such groups, and believing that Bush senior lost his second term when he lost their support, sprinkle junior‘s speeches with references to hymns that gladden the hearts of the fundamentalists while escaping the attention of the rest of us. His foreign policy analysts know that support for a just peace plan is growing among Jews in Israel and America (where they constitute a mere 2% of the voters in any case, of which the vast majority vote for the Democrats). Uncritical support for Sharon is boosted rather by the evangelicals - who believe a large Jewish state is required to fulfill the prophecies of the Apocalypse, during which most Jews, like other unbelievers, will go down in the flames the Gospels say will precede the world‘s end. - Nor is the growing appeal of fundamentalism confined to monotheists. While fundamentalist Hindu groups are busy killing Muslims in Kashmir, their supporters are throwing eggs at speakers who challenge them in the heart of London.
What went wrong? All sorts of things, of course, but let‘s begin with one crucial point: many forget that Enlightenment is not opposed to faith but to fundamentalism, not to reverence but to dogma and idolatry. To be sure, some Enlightenment thinkers were passionate atheists, but even more were not. Even Voltaire held gratitude to a Deist God to be self-evident for anyone who isn‘t a base scoundrel. And Kant and Mendelssohn gave us some of the deeper examples of religious thought in modern history. The view that Enlightenment leads straight to soulless, Godless, mechanistic beings owes more to Counterenlightenment propaganda than anything else, designed to confuse the Enlightenment‘s defenders as to frighten those standing on the sidelines. But notwithstanding the messages emanating from the White House, there‘s nothing impossible about reading the Bible, the newspaper, and the Critique of Pure Reason all together. However we prefer to analyse human needs for religion, we cannot deny that they‘ve grown, part of a search for meaning that postmodernity has, if anything, increased. Now anyone who read the testament of Mohammed Atta may long for the wit of David Hume. But Hume himself knew his critique of religion would make no dent in Atta‘s world-views; his conception of human reason as impotent left him no means to do so. Skepticism by itself is nothing but cleverness, the sort of thing that impresses other David Humes. And then, as Hume‘s disciple Burke knew, there is no place to go but the tradition one hoped to undermine. The skepticism that began by this sort of attack on religious tradition ends up by supporting them. Having destroyed everything else we might hope for, it leaves room for nothing but leaps of faith in one direction or another.
This is not a plea for faith per se, but for ways to understand it that could unite believers and unbelievers, whatever their differences, in a commitment to Enlightenment. The urge to transcendence is not a promise but a search for hope. The wish to maintain the distinction between sacred and profane is not a recognition of mystery but of limit - with the profound understanding that humankind is lost if it forgets that Creation, wherever it came from, isn‘t ours to dispose of. These demand standpoints that incorporate doubt, uncertainty, and self-questioning - hallmarks of Enlightenment that are close to skepticism and tolerance but not identical to them. They require of us attitudes and emotions that are enormously hard to maintain. Showing how hard they are can be useful, for it may help reject the stereotypes that lead so many to reject the Enlightenment.
Despite the appeal to courage in the Enlightenment‘s most famous text, standard accounts leave little room for it, or for models of lives we might want to choose. Remember Heine‘s brilliant double portrait of Kant and Robespierre, whose spießbürgerlich, unpoetic natures lead to the Enlightenment monster. The Philistine, punishing and self-punishing aescetic appears again in Adorno and Horkheimer‘s Odysseus, who reduces the magic of the Sirens to mere art, and binds him self fast while forcing his sailors on. Enlightenment figures appear as lifeless abstractions, devoid of dreams that do not turn into nightmare. The options are so unappealing that before answering the abstracter question "What is Enlightenment?" we might turn to the question "What is an Enlightenment hero?"
I‘m well aware that the word "hero" is almost unpronounceable in German, weighed down as it is by images of blood. But abandoning the concept hero to death-troops then or now is as shortsighted as abandoning the concept evil to George W. Bush. Both concepts fulfill deep human needs for moral clarity - not to be confused with simplicity. It is neither sheer misery, nor ignorance, nor nihilism that lead terrorists to throw away their lives, nor others to admire them for it. What‘s at work is also a perversion of the impulse to prove one‘s freedom that Kant said moves us all. For this reason he thought morality should be taught not by proving that it‘s true (for morality is not about what is, but what ought to be) nor by showing that it‘s in our interest (for it often isn‘t). Instead he proposed to teach morality through examples of individual courage. Through stories of people who risk their lives rather than acquiesce in injustice we are moved to awe and wonder at the power of human freedom. I am not proposing a return to moral certainties: an Enlightenment hero is, precisely, someone who can live without them. What‘s needed is moral discourse which leaves room for freedom in the face of free choices - recognizing that if forced to choose between cynicism and madness, many people will reject cynicism.
Are there models of Enlightenment heros? Why not return to the much-maligned Odysseus? One could do a lot worse. He‘s adventurous and cosmopolitan; restless and torn, to be sure. When confronted with danger he prefers strategem to violence; when arriving home after all his journeys he prefers questions to patriotic hymns. His reflective distance hardly leaves him impervious to passion; this is a man who trades immortality in the arms of a goddess for the chance to live and die with the love of his life. - What about the Sirens? Well, do the Critical Theorists think he should drown? A romantic hero would have done so, leaping in search of depth and wholeness, and rejecting every question about their cost as merely vulgar. A postmodernist would see no dilemma; where every song can be turned into Muzak, Sirens lose the means to seduction. Odysseus could have stopped up his ears; one knows people who do. Why put oneself through the torment of temptation? What makes his stance heroic is his refusal to either deny nature or to yield to it. It‘s a stance that is self-conscious, exhilarating, painful and precarious - the stance of the Enlightenment hero.
The party of Enlightenment has grown jaded and slack in the belief that its battles are won. Heroic language is really only tolerable when one is in the opposition. Seien Sie getrost: we are, or we could be very soon. Those who think the Enlightenment is empty should remember where it isn‘t. The Taliban have given us a glimpse of a world where public execution by torture, the enslavement of women, the institution of total censorship, the destruction of music and art, feudal economic relations and medical treatment without narcotics are ordinary occurrences. That we live in a world where they are not is the achievement of the Enlightenment - achievements that could be lost if we persist in the belief they‘ve all been won. Here certain parts of Afghanistan and Arkansas have more in common with each other than either does with Western Europe, the part of the world closest to realizing Enlightenment ideals. And it is European scruples and self-doubt - both good traits which arose in the process of Enlightenment - which reject concepts like hero as bombastic, even dangerous. But the bare appeal to tolerance and skepticism will rally almost no-one, for the line between them and cynicism is too thin to maintain. Without ideals of reason, Enlightenment destroys itself.
What sort of ideals? Enlightenment heros have courage enough to question themselves, faith enough to reject idolatry, skepticism enough to suspect every form of cant. Their commitment to reason is not a rejection of passion but of blind faith in authority or intuition. This is a commitment to public processes - itself a commitment to democracy, which in turn implies the belief that human beings have the potential to think for themselves. But let‘s not be misled by caricature. That the world is not as good, and life is not as easy, as we would prefer, just might have been news to Candide, but hardly to his creator; this attack on a parody of Enlightenment came from its own heart. Far from being relentlessly optimistic, the Enlightenment could be very dark. Its belief was not that progress is inevitable, but only that it is possible - that the cycle of war and cruelty and envy and injustice is not one to which we are eternally condemned. Above all this belief rests on the belief that the world may come to make sense: that we can devise intellectual and political structures that make the links between virtue and happiness less contingent than they are now.
I‘ve suggested that to regain the ground we‘ve lost we must strike other tones; to meet needs for meaning as well as material, to repossess moral concepts, like heroism, that seem as outdated as the Plutarch on which 18th century children were raised. What in the world leaves room for the idea that any of this might prevail?
Kant once wrote that we can gather strength from historical examples - not of actual events, but of international reactions to them, which give us an index of humankind‘s hopes and dreams. All of us know what we were doing on September 11, whose images have overlaid the ones that were present at the real beginning of the millenium not two years before. Remember the apocalyptic anxiety that global technology would collapse, as computers unable to change centuries might crash the world over? And the celebrations begun with the light in Sydney as people after people grew assured that life would go on? Stuck in Tel Aviv with nowhere to go on Sylvester - Israel being the only country besides Iran to ignore the millenial celebrations for religious reasons - I watched the whole spectacle, glued to the television as never before. It was kitsch on the grandest scale, from the wedding at dawn on the beach in Japan to the fireworks and symphonies streaming over the Acropolis. But it was the right sort of kitsch, and some of the show went beyond it - from the drunken clown Yeltsin finally vacating the Kremlin to Mandela‘s stately return to his prison cell accompanied by dancers driving out evil spirits. Zapped across the globe was a moment of longing to put the blood and the mire and the mockery behind us, to stand in the shadow of what tarnished symbols are left us, and begin once again.
Must we view that moment as negated by the next media event that got global attention? Historically seen, September 11 is only a split second away from January 1; both dates showed impulses, and possibilities, still present everywhere. Realizing the impulses present on January 1 would require, as ever, courage - in this case not the courage to provoke the censors, but to appeal to images dismissed as pure kitsch in a culture whose greatest fear often seems to be the fear of appearing ridiculous. But the skepticism with which it wards off that fear will win few minds, and fewer hearts. The point is not that humankind is fundamentally good, but that the alternative to acting as if it could be is a belief in original sin. If we accept that, then only a miracle can save us. If we don‘t, then we may just manage to save ourselves.