Nobody talks, writes or thinks about the “Enlightenment” much any more. In the span of human history, it was short, sweet, geographically confined and relatively recent. But it was a vitally important period of explosive growth in human knowledge and betterment. It led to modern democracy, modern science and technology, and modern politics and social life.
It made our modern world. When it began, it was a “new” way of thinking that revolutionized human life on Earth.
What was it, really? It’s hard to put your finger on it, because it was so many things at once. In 1616, Galileo Galilei was excommunicated for inventing “science” as we know it. He had turned his own, Kepler’s and Copernicus’ meticulous astronomical observations into the heliocentric theory of our Solar System. His theory had challenged the Pope’s still-vast authority over most non-political thought.
Think about that for a moment. At that time, there were no real democracies on Earth. Those of ancient Greece’s city-states and ancient Rome were distant memories. Kings, the occasional queen, czars, emperors and other monarchs still ruled the world, nation by nation, including China. There had been engineering, mostly of structures and weapons, but no science. The Pope, a single man (in all senses of that word), told the Western world what to think about almost everything outside of practical day-to-day politics and waging war. He dictated how to conceive the Universe.
Yet change was afoot. Within ten years of Galileo’s inventing modern science, the English Parliament passed the Statute of Monopolies. That law restricted Queen Elizabeth I’s power to reward her favorites economically with royal orders granting them monopolies. She had discovered, quite by accident, that monopolies of common products like playing cards and soap allowed the monopolists to get very rich, very easily, without her increasing general taxes. Members of Parliament and their constituents had discovered, by hard experience, that artificial monopolies raise prices and cut production, harming the economy and the people it serves. So they outlawed them.
Thus were modern science and modern scientific governance of economies both born nearly simultaneously. Both arose within a ten-year period, in the early seventeenth century, in two very different places, Italy and England.
Democracy was slower to re-evolve. But it, too, began to grow at “Warp Speed,” at least compared to the stagnation of the 1,200-plus years of Dark Ages after the fall of Rome.
Pushed and pulled by a rising Parliament, Elizabeth I became one of the most enlightened monarchs in human history. She fostered peaceful royal succession, to replace an endless chain of assassinations. Under her reign, exploration, trade, commerce, and science flowered in England, and reason began to prevail over tribal and family conflict. Perhaps England’s then-long period of peace helped facilitate this transition: it had suffered no major invasion since the Norman Conquest in 1066, and it had prevailed over its immediate neighbors, Ireland, Wales and Scotland, with relative ease.
Whatever the precise reasons, the flowering of science, commerce, trade and exploration in and from England became something of a Western paradigm. Our own American democracy arose out of it.
When our own Thomas Jefferson wrote “All Men are created equal,” many now say he was showing his hypocrisy. He explicitly excluded women, and he implicitly excluded Black slaves, including his own. But his words were nevertheless revolutionary for the time. What he meant was that smart, well-educated, wealthy white people like himself did not have to kow-tow to a monarch anointed by heredity. They could create their own society in a “new land” (new to white Europeans).
And so they did. Their conception was flawed for being too narrow. The plan of government that they gave us is just now coming apart, due to its inherent inner conflicts, its many cases of minority rule (mostly intended to preserve slavery), and its failure to anticipate that all-powerful Supreme-Court justices, appointed like ancient monarchs for life, would preserve something very like monarchy in the Nuclear Age.
But notwithstanding these flaws, the “New Republic” that Jefferson and the rest of our Founders created was indeed something new under the Sun. From humble and unruly frontier beginnings, enriched by massive immigration, the United States has become the world’s most powerful nation ever. It remains the world’s richest, even as a much more populous China continues its meteoric rise.
Think about that. Recorded human history is less than six millennia long. In the mere four centuries since Galileo and the Statute of Monopolies—about one-sixteenth of recorded human history—modern civilization rose like a rocket. In the time of Galileo and Queen Elizabeth I, there were no cars, trains, planes, non-sailing ships, submarines, electricity, telephones, radio, television, AR-15s, nuclear weapons, surgery, antibiotics, anesthetics, vaccines, MRI or CAT scanning machines, laparoscopes, genomic medicine, artificial satellites, or traces of our species left on the Moon—to name just a few of our everyday modern miracles. Now there are all of these things. And nearly all of these inventions, achievements and novelties arose out of the United States, England and/or continental Europe, the Enlightenment’s primary centers.
So what was the Enlightenment, really? Can we nail down its essence without regurgitating several centuries of history? I think so. The Enlightenment’s essence was a new way of thinking, about ourselves, our species, our conception of reality, our relations among ourselves, and our place in the Universe.
Lots of words and phrases beat around the bush, but few directly hit the mark. We can say “realism,” “empiricism,” “science,” the “scientific method,” “rationalism,” “rationality” and “reason.” All are apt, but none encapsulates the whole.
The essence, I submit, was an understanding of reality, writ large. We live in reality, but we have trouble conceiving it and focusing on it. Our hopes, dreams, wishes, yearnings, loves, hates, prejudices, and tribalism get in the way.
But reality is neither our emotions nor our culture, although they are part of the “reality” we experience. Reality is something objective and untouchable. We can appreciate it, and sometimes bend it to our needs, only with our “slow thinking,” not our instinctive reactions or “fast thinking.” It’s something we must work hard, study, and ponder to appreciate.
Knowing “reality” takes our conscious minds and considerable education and training. Our human brains are limited in size and understanding, so we divide the work among us by specializing in innumerable fields.
Few of us, without special training, would try to program or design our own computers, fly a commercial airplane, operate a nuclear power plant, take out our spouse’s or child’s appendix (one of the simplest of surgical operations), diagnose or attempt to cure a loved one’s cancer, or presume to design food packaging that is safe, robust and biodegradable. But everyone has an opinion on the national debt, how to reduce it, how necessary is “welfare” for the unfortunate, whether doctors and women or the law should control abortion, and whether we have too little or too much “freedom” in our land. (An interesting recent series in the Washington Post reveals how many think they could grab the yoke of a big aircraft in an emergency and land it, and just how wrong they are.)
And so we have an historic impasse, a paradox, if you will. One of the Enlightenment’s key tenets was the concept of “equality.” At the beginning, it was a mere product of “pure reason,” one of Thomas Jefferson’s “self-evident” truths. But science now tells us that all human DNA is 99.9% identical. The genetic differences among us—including those used to justify the wholly artificial construct of “race”—are minor and practically negligible compared to our similarities.
Science also tells us that education and upbringing in our earliest years, perhaps even in the womb, determines what we will become as adults. This knowledge, confirmed now with multiple large-scale studies, imposes a heavy burden on human societies. Now we know that every human child relegated to growing up in poverty, or denied a proper education and upbringing from the earliest years, is not just a loss to that child and family, but a loss to all of us. It is one more human being we may have to nurture, care for and perhaps correct in adulthood, and one less adult who, if properly nourished and educated as a child, might have helped us reach the stars.
Continuing the Enlightenment requires, at a minimum, investing heavily in early-childhood education for every single child in America and the world. That’s why leaders like Wes Moore, the new Governor of Maryland, who is doing precisely that there, can help put us back on track.
But saving the Enlightenment requires much more than investing furiously in every child as part of our common future. It requires successfully fighting the forces that, quite deliberately and consciously, are trying to unwind the Enlightenment for their own personal benefit.
Part of the “reality” to which the Enlightenment draws our attention is what we lightly call human “nature.” Each of us is, to some degree, selfish, greedy, and eager to dominate or use others. This truth is a product of our biological evolution, our survival in primordial competition for territory, food and mates among our primate rivals in field and forest. You have only to consider how team sports have become gigantic and beloved businesses worldwide to know how deeply competition is embedded in us.
In business, greed and competition are not entirely bad things. Henry Ford was a fierce anti-Semite and an industrial tyrant of the first order. But he invented the assembly line and mass production of cars. More important still, by unilaterally deciding to pay his workers a living wage in 1914 (then $5 a day), he also “invented” our consumer economy. Elon Musk appears to be following in Ford’s footsteps, producing a world-changing electric car and a reusable rocket that might take us to Mars, all the while spewing forth a prodigious amount of useless or counterproductive blowhardry.
It’s bad enough when otherwise successful business people produce dangerous nonsense like Ford’s “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (a fictitious anti-Semitic tract) or almost every one of Musk’s Tweets not focusing on his real businesses. But when successful people devote their considerable energies, talent and wealth to undermining the Enlightenment’s foundations, the result can be catastrophic.
Unfortunately, that’s precisely what’s happening today, and has been for decades. We Americans like to tickle our dark sides with stories of old Soviet and present Chinese propaganda. But there never has been, and never again may be, propaganda organs as clever, powerful and effective as American advertising and “public relations.” With ruthless practicality and efficiency, we Americans have created by far the best “hidden persuaders” in human history. Among them is Fox.
Today those persuaders have been put to work not just selling products that may not be quite as good as advertised, but also making the voting public believe things that are just not so. The thrust of this work has been to undermine voters’ confidence in government, expertise, specialized knowledge, and science itself.
Don’t take my word for it. Spend an hour and watch a brilliant TV news show, “Manufacturing Ignorance,” produced in English by Deutsche Welle, Germany’s counterpart to the BBC. It reveals how purely commercial US interests delayed public understanding, and hence public action, on the health hazards of smoking, the global-warming effects of burning fossil fuels, and the disruption of human endocrine systems and other human biology by certain plastics, including BPA and multiple variants of PFAS.
The propagandists’ methods were hardly direct. They did not (because they could not) directly challenge relentlessly emerging science to the contrary. Instead, they created doubt and confusion, with sponsored and sometimes bogus “research.” Then they amplified the doubt persistently with advertising and public relations. Thus they delayed public action and resulting harm to their sponsors’ bottom lines, at the cost of continuing harm to the general public, American society and our species.
In the cases of cigarettes and global warming, this approach delayed effective public action for decades, with virtually no cost or penalty to the propagandists or their sponsors. Millions of lives were cut short by cancer and emphysema. Tens of millions more were, or will be, lost to climate change and its vicissitudes.
Welcome to the world of George Orwell, American style! Once upon a time, Orwell’s England had been one of the Enlightenment’s principal centers. Now the deliberate manipulation of public opinion and sentiment that he so vividly described in his dystopian novel 1984 has come to life in the United States. There it is used as a tool by business, not government, for venal purposes. Those purposes include reducing taxes on and regulation of business, and the hobbling of the expert regulatory/administrative apparatus that protects us from unsafe food, drugs, vehicles and workplaces, and polluted air, water and soil.
Besides intrinsic equality among people, the Enlightenment’s most important foundation was clear, practical and realistic thinking. Call it “realism.” Call it identifying “cause and effect.” Call it “science.” Call it “good and valid information.” Call it just “clear thinking.” Whatever you call it, it produced the Declaration of Independence, the United States, the now-waning American Century, and the strongest, richest, happiest and most equal society yet in human history. (You can’t say it produced the structure of our government, which was a dismal compromise carefully calculated from the outset to preserve and perpetuate the abomination of slavery.)
Our current era’s direct assault on the American public’s clear thinking and assessment of risks is as serious an assault on the Enlightenment as anything since Galileo’s excommunication (which ultimately did not stop his research or its ultimate publication). Our nation’s quasi-religious faith in the First Amendment and the so-called “marketplace of ideas” makes it all the more serious. An all-penetrating medium like the Internet, which can magnify lies algorithmically, instantaneously and automatically—and now with the aid and verisimilitude of artificial intelligence—makes the impact of old Soviet, German Nazi and wartime Imperial Japanese propaganda seem child’s play in comparison.
Our own era’s Demagogue vaguely resembles ancient Rome’s great counterpart, Julius Caesar. Caesar was much more talented: he was a successful general and talented writer of history, some of which he made. But just as Caesar’s assassination failed to forestall Rome's eventual division and decay, so the defeat or even the death of our own Demagogue will not preclude our own. For his success is but a byproduct of massive, deliberate, pervasive and highly effective distraction and delusion of our people by rich and powerful people acting in their own self-interest, over most of the last half-century.
Our own Demagogue did not invent the techniques of public delusion. He’s not even a particularly gifted practitioner. More gifted foreign spooks have amplified his false messages, for their own advantage, more skillfully. They continue to do so. The facts of his continued sway over a substantial minority of our people, and of his virtual capture of an entire political party, show just how powerful the technique of rule by manufactured ignorance and deliberate incitement of passions can be.
The underlying problem is our religious faith in the First Amendment and a “free marketplace of ideas.” That marketplace exists only in our abstract imagination. In reality, the Internet and our visual media have become open sewers of lies, falsehoods, distraction, deception and manipulation. They will only grow in power, influence and public persuasion as AI augments the volume of lies, their instantaneous direction to susceptible minds, and their false “realism”.
In identifying this problem, I don’t mean to belittle its magnitude or the difficulty of solving it. Free speech is an important tenet of our democracy and indeed of the Enlightenment. But Enlightenment thinkers never had to contend with “free speech” that is deliberately and systematically false or distracting, intended to confuse the entire public for ulterior venal motives, and directed to susceptible minds with electronic speed and precision. And they had nothing like the Internet, which can propagate the resulting sewage worldwide in milliseconds. Today we have all these things.
If we Americans and our Western and Japanese counterparts cannot solve this problem, the Chinese and Russians will solve it in the age-old way. They will have a supreme leader—a Pope or a Czar or a Xi—telling people what to say and think and media what to report as true. And with the inadvertent cooperation of our own capable propagandists, operating in their own or their sponsors’ venal interests, they could very likely win. The Russians, Chinese and our own, powerful, venal interests have already shown their skill at a common task: dividing, distracting, deluding, deceiving, confusing and inciting the people whom our democracy is supposed to serve.
So let’s be practical, clear thinkers once again. “Free speech” is one of our American sacred cows. It’s dear to us as a people. But does it require giving rich and powerful people carte blanche to promulgate lies, deception and incitement without limit, in their own narrow, personal, venal interest, with all the power, scope and volume of the Internet? Does it do so when the consequence almost certainly will involve destroying popular democracy and our rules-based Republic and replacing them both, eventually, with something like a softer, wealthier and perhaps less brutal version of Vladimir Putin’s incompetent mafia kleptocracy?
If not, then we’d better start thinking and planning like the social-problem solvers that our Founders thought they were, and that we used to be throughout most of the past century. Even Richard Nixon, the relentless demonizer of Communists, tried wage and price controls when he thought that nothing else would curb inflation. We must do whatever works to stem the tide of crazy, lest we end up on the ash heap of history, and at warp speed compared to ancient Rome.