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We are Not Enlightened, but we live in an Age of Enlightenment.
As a society, we have grown and stretched out legs. We have developed more efficient ways of achieving tasks and have made an effort to allow all people the ability to learn and reach dreams that would have been impossible in the centuries of the past. But, are we enlightened? This is a question that hangs on the minds of many historians and political thinkers. Though the idea of enlightenment have been there, we as a whole have yet to achieve enlightenment. This can be seen in the history that repeats itself and within the injustices of modern times.
To begin with, what exactly is enlightenment? Immanuel Kant put it best in his Was ist Aufklarung? which was published in 1784 by saying, "Enlightenment is man's release from his self incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self incurred is the tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! 'Have courage to use your own reason!' that is the motto of enlightenment."
Kant, among many other political thinkers of his time noticed the injustices that society had learned to accept. There was a serious inequality between the social classes. There of the lower class were left to struggle relentlessly, while those of nobility were able to do as they pleased with little to no work on their own part, the government was much more focused on making the rich comfortable, while disregarding the poor entirely and the royal families had more power than they should have been allowed.
People of that time had tolerated the inadequacies within society and regarded them as a necessary part of life, rather than fighting against them and creating an equal society. They had grown accustomed to the unfair treatment of life. Most did not think that there was a need for change. Accept the way life is and move on. Thomas Paine put it perfectly in his work titled Common Sense. "A long habit of not thinking a thing is wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom." It is customary for life to be this way, so why would people feel the need to change it?
This idea can be seen throughout history over and over again, within societies that were considered the most advanced of their time. The Romans and Greeks were considered incredibly progressive. They had running water in larger cities and many of the technological and cultural advancements that came about at the peaks of these civilizations still influences societies of today. These societies were seen as very smart. Despite this, slavery had a strong presence in every day life and persecution of the minority faiths were particularly brutal.
The Renaissance was called the 'Golden Age' and is thought of as a major time of growth and enlightenment. The lives of the people of this time were changed with the new found focus on new art forms, literature and architecture. Knowledge and education was starting to become more important and larger amounts of people were putting a focus on learning to read. Even with this advancement of intelligence, there were many very bloody religious wars and witch hunts. The most famous brutal attack on religious faith was the inquisition of the Renaissance.
The Industrial Age brought forth the most advancement in industry. There were technologies and techniques that led to more efficient ways of doing things. Even with all this growth within society, people were working fifteen to twenty hours per day without a minimum wage. Many of these people were being worked to the bone without pay that could sustain their families. Children as young as five were working in dirty factories and dangerous mines. The injustices became so embedded within society that they became perceived as normal.
In all these examples the same situations were repeated. There were obvious and horrible injustices taking place and yest society turned a blind eye to it. Injustice was accepted as a part of life and often those in power even encouraged the injustices. The powerless were left to struggle without the ability or will power to rise up and defend their rights. Most of these people were given no rights at all.
Luckily history also shows us that when people come together and challenge society that changes are possible. Slavery has been abolished, trade unions have come about to fight for fair and equal treatment of workers, child labor laws prevent children from working and women have been given rights equal to men. Women's right to vote would have been laughable several hundred years ago.
In the 21st Century, we are Westerners often consider ourselves much better off than the people of the past. There people of today have heated homes, technologies that were inconceivable even a hundred years ago and the ability to communicate any message or any thought anywhere in the world in an instant. But, are we actually enlightened? This is the question that can be heavily debated.
Kant wrote, "We live in an age of enlightenment, but we are not enlightened.: This can be said even about today's society. He quoted Horace by saying, "Dare to be wise; have the courage to use your own mind; think for yourself." Do we think for ourselves now a days, or do we let the media and those in charge think for us? As a society, we are chained down by the formulas, easy answers, ideas and views that are provided by the so-called experts and those in a position of authority. This is the same tutelage that Kant described more than 200 years ago. Even if there was a chance that these chains could be cut off and the people of today would be let free, they would be so unaccustomed to free thought that they could easily fall into the new prejudices and new unjust views hat would inevitably come about.
There was an ongoing concern of Kant and other free thinkers of the 18th Century that religious authority would try to control and manipulate the thoughts of the people and prevent free thought. Kant insisted that we must be free to think for ourselves to make progress towards the truth. This can still be seen in the Western civilizations of today. Politicians that are Christian and talk about God in their speeches are more likely to be voted into office,. Groups such as the Westboro Baptist Church work to convince people that Christianity and life has very strict rules and that those that do not follow these rules are going to hell. When a national tragedy occurs, the President of the United States will quote Bible verses and asks for prayers to the Christian God. Western civilization is not free when one religion is constantly forced down the throats of its people. This sounds eerily familiar to the societies of the past, the very societies that we believe that we have grown apart from. Are we really any better?
The separation of classes is something that has never been changed. The same injustice that was exposed by the radical thinkers of the 18th Century has yet to be solved. in America, it is common that a person must work two full time jobs in order to make ends meet. This is an obvious sign that the American economy is a broken system. It is yet another example of an injustice that is accepted as a normal part of life. It has been proven time and time again that the minimum wage currently in place is not enough to sustain and acceptable life for even just one person, and yet every time minimum wage raises so does rise the price of groceries and fuel. The rich are given tax breaks while those in the middle class who are barely making it are denied state assistance for making too much money. There are those that must choose whether it is better to work that overtime every week to pay for groceries or to stop working so hard in order to qualify for food stamps. This is a broken system.
Technology has allowed modern Westerners the ability to learn about whatever they wish, gain insight on countless ideas and expand their minds in millions of ways. Modern people can be the smartest and most advanced society that the world has seen, but we are still stuck in many of the ideas of the old. Why? Because people believe what they are told and raised to believe. "Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity," says Kant. Immaturity is when laziness and cowardice take over a person. When people finally learn to overcome these things that hinder them from becoming enlightened, then they will become free thinkers. These independent thinkers can judge and decide everything on their own and express themselves without fear.
Modern technology has allowed our society to be more efficient at achieving tasks and allows people the ability to learn and achieve dreams that would have been impossible in the centuries of the past, but we are not enlightened. Thought the idea of enlightenment have been there, we as a whole have yest to achieve enlightenment. Advanced societies throughout the ages have thought themselves as enlightened, but they have instead been blind to the injustices that were present and were not thinking for themselves. This is much like the current society. People of today are not enlightened, but freedom, the only requirement for enlightenment is definitely there. Will we eventually choose to think for ourselves, or is it too easy to let others do it for us?
Kant, Immanuale. (1784) What is Enlightenment?. Germany; Unknown
Khashaba, D.R. (n.d.) Article from Philosophy Pathways Issue79. PhiloSophos; advice and resources for philosophy students. Retrieved May 26, 2013, from http://www.philosophos.com/philosophy_article_72.html
Paine, Thomas. (1776). Common Sense. Lancaster; PA: Printed by Francis Bailey, in King's Street.