Reading of Voltaire's tragedy of the Orphan of China in the salon of Marie Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin, by Lemonnier. Circa 1812
"Could anyone find full satisfaction with that?"

The Age of Enlightenment eventually brought many improvements. Previous unspeakables became openly discussed. Rights of individuals came to be held as more sacred than the formerly presumed divine rights of either monarch or church, but at best I might fairly characterize that age as a lurch forward, for none of the resulting improvements came about easily. A couple centuries of brutal warfare has left us still divided, for both liberalism and its dedicated opposition emerged from those discussions, and the arguments continue perhaps in even greater earnest. Like all great movements, The Enlightenment was never advanced by particularly enlightened individuals. Assertions were made with little supporting evidence. Convictions encouraged every variety of pseudo certainty: prejudice, bigotry, misogyny, and racism thrived within The Enlightenment and, indeed, seem to continue thriving today, for The Movement could never produce the sorts of confident certainty divine rights might have bestowed. It represented a second order paradigm shift, trading extreme faith for continuing speculation and experimentation capable of approaching improvement but only by iterating, recognizing and adapting to error. All this performed by mere humans. It was and is quite the continuing speculation that it might succeed, and yet it did and has, though also didn't and has not. The path to anywhere from there seemed paved with the scientist's patient wariness, but few followers qualified as scientists.

We seem an impatient lot. We want what we want when we want it, not later, and enlightenment demands patience above all.
Once we exchanged faith in anyone's divine understanding, we received an apparent handful of magic beans in return, and beans require sprouting and tending, perhaps multi-generational hybridizing, before producing desired results. We might reasonably assert as a fundamental right, the right to PursuingHappiness, but asserting this right does nothing to ensure either the successful achievement of that end or of experiencing any actual satisfaction while in pursuit. PursingHappiness might not always feel that delightful of an occupation. Some suffering might prove necessary to achieve that end, some self-imposed deprivation with no real guarantee of eventual manifestation, requiring an abiding faith more than our native impatience. Enlightenment sometimes seems indistinguishable from delusion, for little might hint at happiness while one becomes dedicated to pursuing it. Curiously, Enlightenment seems to require more faith that ever did the old, once-reliable, now thoroughly discredited divine rights of popes and potentates. Enlightenment's a messy philosophy.

Some now say, as anyone within The Salon carries the Enlightened right to assert, that mandates to wear masks in public violate a basic human right, namely the right to pursue happiness, for mask-wearing for some seems an unhappy occupation. We should properly, as self-described Enlightened beings, engage in this dialogue. Enlightenment cannot provide for simple acceptance of such assertions, for some experimentation seems necessary before concluding that the notion stands in for truth. Such questions seem to need some uncertainty for validation. Why ask a question if the immutable answer's already known? Why bother answering it if the response won't influence anything? If we're not prepared to question any question, to challenge any assertion, we might just as well fall back toward the end of the fabled dark ages, for advancement seems as impossible as it must prove unnecessary. We're just stuck.

Every advancing movement encounters this same dilemma. The new way requires some abandoning. Old ways, largely repeated pre-consciously if religiously, still dominate initial engagement, and might well come to utterly undermine the intended shift. The success of it ultimately depends upon a sort of change impossible to describe, and relies less upon crisp, cogent explanation than personal experience; a subtle form of A-ha! Enlightenment. Some quickly get it while others lag ever further behind, kind of faking it without ever mastering it. An underclass emerges insistent upon satisfying their understanding of the fresh perspective, becoming increasingly impatient and belligerent, even violent. The French Enlightenment produced what we now remember as The Terror, where those continuing to insist upon divine rights lost their heads to those who proudly proclaimed Enlightenment without apparently once actually experiencing what we might recognize as an Enlightenment. Enlightened societies have produced the most violent and self-destructive conflicts ever experienced.

Some simply cannot afford to know or to let go of their reliable old cow, even though they've unwittingly subscribed to a society where cows increasingly became irrelevant. Not even a hill of magic beans seems fair compensation for forfeiting a certainty deemed capable of sustaining any firmly held conviction. Myths too easily become manifest in increasingly violent protests. Even sitting down across from each other only seems to amplify the disconnect, for the underlying meaning of concepts conflict without recognition or resolution, further enflaming each situation. Some terror usually ensues. Humbled once vanquished, combatants sometimes manage to at least begrudgingly accept reasonable accommodations, though they might not even then catch on that they'd never achieved mutual understanding.

I do not know how anyone goes about imposing Enlightenment, or even what Enlightenment might entail beyond a strong stomach for continuing irresolution in pursuit of something better. Resolutions seem reserved for kings and popes, who might reasonably insulate themselves from the grumbling multitude. Dissatisfaction seems instrumental to Enlightenment in a similar way that exhaustion eventually accompanies even the most enlivening work. But we're an impatient lot, grown soft from getting our way yesterday, not tomorrow or the day after, or never, which has been most's lot throughout history. No mask can induce any understanding of its insidious purpose or the many reasoned reasons wearing it might be necessary, for those reasons, reductionist reasons by nature, might well prove themselves wrong in any long run, but we experiment together, acquiescing not because we know for sure, but because we recognize that we could not possibly know for sure yet. Not knowing for certain yet seems the underlying essence of PursuingHappiness as well as enlightened engagement. Could anyone find full satisfaction with that?

©2020 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

blog comments powered by Disqus