From the Desk of Jay Gaskill
Author Page – http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00IRECYG4
The Policy Think Site: http://jaygaskill.com/WhyWorry.pdf
Without a moral foundation, the Enlightenment is a hard sell.
The institutions of modern Western civilization that protect liberty rest on a shaky edifice. To call the Enlightenment an edifice is a stretch these days – it is scarcely reflected in the typically dumbed-down, politically correct American curriculum. The Enlightenment, that grand vision of the 18th century that would dissolve tribalism and royalism in an ocean of equality, has been overtaken by postmodernism.
The Enlightenment promised a new age of flourishing human freedom based on a respect for universal human dignity. The blessings of liberty are fruits of an indivisible principle (embracing freedoms of property ownership as well as speech, religious practice as well as esthetic expression). But the principled support of liberty seems almost beyond our grasp. Why?
Postmodern means post-Enlightenment.
The blessings of ordered liberty in a civilized setting are always at risk because the natural tendency of most people is to yield to control or to seek to impose it; to fear independence and to retreat from responsibility. Too many of us, whatever our protestations to the contrary, are still captivated by the notion of our tribal identity. The Enlightenment only seemed to do away with tribal thinking, but postmodern ideas have opened the door to neo-tribalism (think of identity politics, the self determination of retrograde third world regimes, and so on).
I believe that modern Western Civilization is at grave risk for a number of reasons, but the most prominent of these is the weakening of support for the Enlightenment ideals on which it was founded.
Modern western civilization emerged from its pre-modern medieval period in the mid 1700’s. Twentieth century postmodernism opened the door to neo-tribalism and neo-paganism. Contrast the brutal, decadent, but self-confident ethos of ancient Roman civilization in its prime. Deep tradition, founded in myth and a pagan mindset, propelled a four century run of an ancient civilized order. The architectures of the Roman Imperium (both buildings and bureaucracies) still shape institutions in the West.
If the Enlightenment really is the wave of the future, this poses a question:
On what foundation does our Enlightenment now stand?
There were roughly three branches of the Enlightenment: the intolerant, secular French version (suggesting images of the bloodthirsty Robespierre & the guillotine); the English version (suggesting more images – a boisterous parliament paying respect to their King, in turn the King deferring to God); and the American individualist variant, represented by the Christian deism of Thomas Jefferson (evoking images of the inventor, diplomat Ben Franklin holding a kite in a lightning storm, the philosophical farmer, Thomas Jefferson, with his inventions).
All three versions of the Enlightenment were originally informed by an underlying moral understanding (I note Jefferson’s language in the Declaration of Independence – “We were endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights.”) But by virtue of example and philosophical force, the American branch of the Enlightenment was a true world-changer.
America has altered world history more than any nation in the modern era. I recall images from Normandy, the acres of the white grave markers of the American soldiers who crossed the Atlantic in ships for the sole purpose of rescuing Europeans from their anti-enlightenment demons. One sees row and row of crosses, some holding the Star of David. They are American graves on French soil, a legacy of the colossal American sacrifice in WWII. Is it remotely plausible that European soldiers would have done the same for Americans? I try to imagine a world without the vigorously American version of the Enlightenment. Without our dedication to those ideals, we might not have taken on the task of defending Western civilization at all. Europe would almost certainly have succumbed to its pagan demons.
The American version of the Enlightenment is still a beacon to the world. The revolt in China’s Tiananmen Square (remember the tanks rolling toward a mockup of the American Statue of Liberty?) is among the prominent examples of the moral force of the American ideal. But there are opponents of the American strain of the Enlightenment. They are gaining ascendance in postmodern America. Patriotism and religious conviction among urban Americans have declined. Have you noticed the shaky moral courage of the 21st century defenders of Western civilization? For them, everything of value rests lightly on the shifting sands of consensus, the collective conscience of the “decent” people, the moral intelligentsia. But our new intelligentsia – whatever their moral aspirations – are not morally confident.
Few members of the governing elites now believe in the existence of any secure moral foundations – outside of psychology, anthropology, cultural tradition and myth. Men and women are not willing to fight and die for a mere social construct stripped of any link to the transcendent.
The old religions have lost their grip in the developed West, particularly in Europe. The surviving modern and postmodern religions are weak and unreliable allies of the American branch of the Enlightenment at best. The moral influence of these religious communities has been dramatically weakened because their moral focus has shifted: the pursuit of rightness has given way to the pursuit of comfort; the call to resist evil has given way to conflict resolution. In this new age culture can we realistically imagine whole nations rising up to resist evil? Can we imagine them mobilizing to defend Western civilization?
As the Irish poet Yeats prophesized,
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand…
Russia, China, the Jihad in the Middle East, their proxies and terrorist tools face down an ambivalent President, a toothless NATO and a fragmented Europe. I recall Yeast’ last lines in his Second Coming:
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
..Just one rough beast? How do we count them? The earliest human civilizations gathered to keep the wild beasts at bay. The beasts of the 21st century have modern weapons and come cloaked in mendacious propaganda, masked by postmodern rhetoric. They are tolerated, even welcomed in the name of diversity. We are now witnessing the sorry spectacle of the mature, advanced civilizations, enthralled with the spirit of moral pluralism, allowing the rough beasts to move about the world at will. Great civilizations are unwilling to go to war even when their mortal enemies are pouring through the gates. But there is hope:
When the moral foundations are restored, the Enlightenment will prevail over the darkness, and:
Turning, the falcon suddenly hears the falconer. Things come together. The center holds. Rampant anarchy is tamed and the blood-dimmed tide ebbs. Once again, the ceremony of innocence is celebrated. The best have recovered their courage; and the worst are swallowed up by their own madness.
Hope still comes from America.
JBG: Saturday, August 2, 2014
Copyright © 2014 by Jay B Gaskill, Attorney at Law
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Read more about the author’s latest project – http://www.omnimysterynews.com/2014/08/please-welcome-novelist-jay-b-gaskill-1408020800.html#.U90I__ldVlw and his other published books –https://www.amazon.com/author/jaygaskill .
 Some Enlightenment references include – INTERNET ARTICLES: http://www.iep.utm.edu/amer-enl/ , www.humanities360 , http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/enlightenment/ , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Enlightenment ,
http://www.ushistory.org/gov/2.asp – BOOKS: A Revolution of the Mind by Jonathan Israel; The Society for Useful Knowledge by Jonathan Lyons; Revolutionary Characters by Gordon S Wood.