Tag Archives: Enlightenment

Looking Back…..

Three years ago, I was asked to deliver what is billed at IUPUI as the “Last Lecture.” The series is so named because it is intended to be a reflection by an older faculty member, sort of a “summing up” of life lessons learned. (Obviously, it wasn’t my last opportunity to pontificate…) At any rate, I recently had occasion to re-read what I’d said, and was struck by fact that–three years down the road– we are even more deeply enmeshed in the world I described in the final few paragraphs.

I decided to share those unfortunately accurate concluding observations. Happy Sunday…..


There’s a credit card commercial that says “Membership has its privileges.” Membership in society should have its privileges as well. That’s not necessarily an argument for massive welfare programs or redistribution of wealth. It is an argument for fundamental fairness, an argument that recognizes that we all benefit when inclusive social structures operate in the interests of all of our members.

From time to time, greed and fear obscure the reality of human interdependence. Unfortunately, we seem to be living in one of those times–an era characterized by an intentional refusal to recognize that there is such a thing as the common good, and a willful ignorance of the importance of mutual social obligation.

Addressing that willful ignorance is what social justice requires, but that is easier said than done.

I’m painfully aware that cultural institutions, folkways and intellectual paradigms influence people far more than logic and reason, and that culture is incredibly difficult to change. Structural barriers and ingrained privilege don’t disappear without significant upheavals or outright revolutions.

We may be approaching such a period of upheaval, not unlike the Sixties. When I look around, I see a depressing revival of tribalism, and widespread expressions of a racism I thought we’d moved beyond. The election of an African-American President was a sign of progress, but it clearly lifted a rock—and what crawled out is unbelievably ugly and destructive. The growth in inequality threatens to exceed the inequities of the gilded age, if it hasn’t already, and it is hard to argue with those who look around and see not a republic, not a democracy, but an oligarchy.

When I look at America’s politics, I’m reminded of a 1999 movie called “The Sixth Sense.” The young boy in that movie saw dead people; I see crazy people. I know that isn’t politically correct, but how else would you characterize some of the voices dominating our public discourse? How else explain the “birthers” and conspiracy theorists, the “Faux News” pundits and the websites peddling nativism, paranoia and propaganda? In what universe is Sarah Palin a potential Vice-President, or Roy Moore a state Supreme Court Justice or James Inhofe Chair of the Senate Committee on the Environment? On what planet do people pay attention to buffoons like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or Louie Gohmert?

If I had to guess why so many of our fellow-citizens appear to have gone off the deep end—why they are trying to stockpile guns, roll back women’s rights, put gays back in the closet, stigmatize African-Americans and stereotype Muslims—I think the answer is fear. Change is creating a very different world from the one most of us grew up in, and the pace of that change continues to accelerate. As a result, we have a lot of bewildered and disoriented people who find themselves in an increasingly ambiguous world; they are frantic for bright lines, clear rules, simple answers to complicated issues, and especially, for someone to blame. People who are confounded by new realities, and especially those who are unhappy or dissatisfied with their lives, evidently need to attribute their problems and disappointments to some nefarious “other.” So the old racist and sexist and homophobic tropes get trotted out.

Unfortunately, the desire for a world where moral and policy choices are clear and simple is at odds with the messy reality of life in our global village, and the more these fearful folks are forced to confront that messy reality, the more frantically they cling to their ideological or theological touchstones.

It may be that this phenomenon is nothing new, that there aren’t really more crazy people than before. Maybe, thanks to the Internet and social media, we are just more aware of them. I hope that’s true, but I don’t know–I only know that a scroll through Facebook elevates my blood pressure.

At the end of the day, what will prevent us from fashioning a social order that promotes and enables human flourishing is continuation of this retreat into anti-intellectualism, bigotry and various kinds of fundamentalism. We villagers only become fully human—we only flourish—through constant learning, by opening ourselves to new perspectives, by reaching out and learning from those who are different.

I do see some welcome signs that the fever is abating, at least in the United States and at least among younger Americans. I would turn this country over to my students in a heartbeat: they may not be the best-informed generation, but they are inclusive and intellectually curious, and they care deeply about the planet and about their communities. For my grandchildren’s sake, I hope they can salvage this “village” we call Earth from the mess my generation is leaving them—and despite the fact that this has been my “Last Lecture,” I hope I hang around long enough to see if they succeed.


I’m still hoping…..









The Circle of Political Life

When we study history, it isn’t difficult to see repeating patterns. Not that events or eras actually recur, but–humans being what we are–contending impulses and beliefs about the proper way to construct a society often create situations that look familiar. Sometimes, eerily so.

The other day, I was reading an essay on Spinoza, and I was struck by the following paragraphs:

Much of Spinoza’s philosophy was composed in response to the precarious political situation of the Dutch Republic in the mid-17th century. In the late 1660s, the period of ‘True Freedom’ – with the liberal and laissez-faire regents dominating city and provincial governments – was under threat by the conservative ‘Orangist’ faction (so-called because its partisans favoured a return of centralised power to the Prince of Orange) and its ecclesiastic allies. Spinoza was afraid that the principles of toleration and secularity enshrined in the founding compact of the United Provinces of the Netherlands were being eroded in the name of religious conformity and political and social orthodoxy. In 1668, his friend and fellow radical Adriaan Koerbagh was convicted of blasphemy and subversion. He died in his cell the next year. In response, Spinoza composed his ‘scandalous’ Theological-Political Treatise, published to great alarm in 1670.

Spinoza’s views on God, religion and society have lost none of their relevance. At a time when Americans seem willing to bargain away their freedoms for security, when politicians talk of banning people of a certain faith from our shores, and when religious zealotry exercises greater influence on matters of law and public policy, Spinoza’s philosophy – especially his defence of democracy, liberty, secularity and toleration – has never been more timely. In his distress over the deteriorating political situation in the Dutch Republic, and despite the personal danger he faced, Spinoza did not hesitate to boldly defend the radical Enlightenment values that he, along with many of his compatriots, held dear.

The ability of our own era’s “Prince of Orange” to capture the GOP nomination is evidence that the assault on Enlightenment values is alive and well these many centuries after Spinoza.

Whether enough of us are willing to “boldly defend” those ideals–which lie at the very heart of America’s constitutional system–remains to be seen.

Reason and Its Rejection

The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.

Give to every other human being every right that you claim for yourself–that is my doctrine.

To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead.

Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law.

It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry.


A friend recently sent me these and several other quotes from Thomas Paine, and I was struck–once again– by how far we Americans have come from the insights of the Enlightenment and the basic, foundational principles and values that motivated so many of this country’s founders.

Last night, there was another debate among people aspiring to occupy the Oval Office, and anyone trying to evaluate their fitness for that position had to be appalled.

When did we lose sight of the essential role of reason in human affairs? When did we allow fear to overcome logic, distrust of “the other” to trump recognition of our common humanity? When did expertise and intellect become suspect, nuance and ambiguity a threat, moderation and intellectual modesty evidence of cowardice?

And the million-dollar question: can Americans recapture reason and sanity? Or is our country going to spectacularly self-destruct?

Tilting at the Enlightenment

Some people go through life like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills.

Then there’s Rick Santorum. He wants to repeal the Enlightenment.

I’ve been mulling over Santorum’s recent attack on higher education, part and parcel of his rejection of so many aspects of modernity: evolution, reproductive autonomy for women, separation of church and state, equality for gays and lesbians…There really isn’t much about  the 21st Century (or the 19th or 20th, for that matter) that he seems willing to accept.

I think Santorum’s hostility toward education is very real, despite his own MBA and Law Degrees, and it is at the very heart of his worldview (I hesitate to call it a “philosophy,” a word he would obviously consider “snobby.”) Many people have suggested that his own degrees are evidence that he doesn’t really believe his charges that colleges and universities “indoctrinate” young people, make them lose their religion and become more like the hated Barack Obama–i.e., intellectual. I don’t agree; Santorum’s degrees are professional ones–high order job training. (I”m not throwing rocks; I have a law degree too.)

What Santorum loathes and fears is education. Real education doesn’t “indoctrinate,” of course–it does something more pernicious. It questions.

Education is the arch-enemy of certitude.

If I do my job properly, my students will leave my classes a bit more confused, a bit less sure they have “the answers” and a lot more aware of the magnitude of the questions. They will encounter the diversity with which we mortals approach the uncertainties and complexities of the world we inhabit. They will have a greater appreciation of what they don’t know. If I do my job well, they will also have some “critical” tools with which to assess the credibility of the information with which they are increasingly bombarded.

That is the education Santorum detests, because he is cut wholly from Puritan cloth.

The Puritans came to America for religious liberty–defined as the right to practice the True Religion, and the even more important right to impose that Truth on their neighbors. They approached education much like TV’s Jeopardy–you started with the correct answer, which the Bible provided, and then you went looking for the explanations that would justify that answer. Usually, in the early colonies, those explanations came from the preachers and biblical scholars who’d preceded you.

The philosophical and scientific movement that came to be called the Enlightenment changed the nature of knowledge. You no longer began with the answer; instead, you examined the world around you, based some initial conclusions on careful empirical observations, and then tested those conclusions, which were always considered conditional and subject to change if new information emerged. The Enlightenment gave us the scientific method–as well as a more scientific approach to questions like “how should governments be constructed.”

The U.S. Constitution was a creation of the Enlightenment. So was ambiguity. If all truth is provisional, if all conclusions are subject to revision based upon new information, how can anyone really, really be sure of anything?

Education–real education, as opposed to job training–prepares students to live with that ambiguity.

Puritans find it intolerable.

Religious Liberty, Contraception and Gay Rights

Amazing—and embarrassing—as it may seem, the American Taliban is once again waging battle against sex. This time, their target is contraception.

Their fig leaf is a definition of “religious liberty” that neither the nation’s Founders nor the courts would recognize—the same definition that they employ in their ongoing war against civil rights for gays and lesbians. Short form: giving rights to women and gays would violate their religious liberties.

A brief recap: When the Obama administration issued regulations for employer-provided health insurance, the regulations required that such coverage include birth control. Churches were exempt from the requirement (an exemption that is required by the First Amendment), but religiously-affiliated institutions like hospitals and universities were not. More than half of the states already had such a requirement, and those employers had been complying for years without any discernable fuss or claim that these rules somehow represented a “war on religion.”

Enter the forces for “religious liberty” aka the Catholic Bishops and the GOP. Their argument was that making religious employers pay for insurance that included birth control was a violation of their freedom of conscience. Under years of Supreme Court precedent, it wasn’t, but the Administration moved to accommodate their sensibilities by requiring the insurance companies to offer the coverage at no cost directly to women, removing the employer from the equation.

As I write this, the Bishops and the (ascendant) Santorum wing of the Republican Party are not mollified, despite the fact that Catholic nuns and a significant majority of American Catholics are fine with it. According to their arguments, simply making birth control available to employees of religiously affiliated employers is itself a violation of their religious liberties.

I know I harp on the public’s lack of civic and constitutional literacy, but this is another perfect example.

When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, they wanted the “liberty” to impose the correct religion on their neighbors. The idea that Church and State could be separated was unknown to the Puritans who first settled in the new country; the freedom they wanted was the freedom to “establish” the True Religion, and form a government that would require their neighbors to live in accordance with that religion.

A hundred and fifty years later, however, the men who crafted the Constitution for the new nation were products of a dramatically different worldview. The philosophical movement we call the Enlightenment had given birth to science, privileged reason over superstition, and reconsidered the proper role of government. Liberty—religious or otherwise—had come to mean the right of individuals to live their lives in accordance with their own consciences, free of the coercion of the state and free of what the founders called “the passions of the majority.”

Our Constitution may have been a product of the Enlightenment, but we still have a significant number of Puritans in America, and what we sometimes call the “culture wars” are yet another conflict between those two very different visions of liberty.

The Rick Santorums of the world aren’t just against equal rights for gays and lesbians, they aren’t just anti-abortion and anti-birth control (Santorum himself has gone on record saying that birth control should not be available because it allows people to engage in “wrong” sexual behavior). They are deeply Puritan: anti-science, anti-reason, anti-diversity. That they are absolutely convinced of their own possession of the Truth is less disconcerting than their even stronger conviction that “liberty” means they should have the right to make everyone else live by their Truth.

These are the same irony-challenged theocrats who are running around proposing legislation to prevent imposition of “Sharia law.”

I’d guess they don’t have mirrors. Or a capacity for self-reflection.