Life in ancient and medieval times was not enviable. Life was awash with poverty, disease, early death, endless work, crime, cruelty, and war. The ancients talked about virtue and happiness, but they never found a way to achieve it for more than a few aristocrats. The political concern of the Enlightenment was to alter this. Rather than a world of countless suffering serfs, and a few princes living in luxury off of everyone else’s labor, a great humanitarian endeavor was undertaken to lift suffering humanity and provide a good life for all.
To bring about this enormous change there would be a cost, with losses as well as gains. To attain security and prosperity for everyone we would have to stop talking about unattainable virtue and focus instead on accepting, understanding, and caring about human beings as they are. In other words, it was necessary to have a philosophical change as well as a change in material conditions. Instead of thinking about the meaning of life and ways to transcend the mundane realities of life, philosophers would have to become the allies of the day-to-day efforts taking place in the world. The human Mind would have to come down off its lofty perspective and stop seeking after virtue, truth, God and beauty, so that the Body of humanity could be lifted up to a more suitable material state.
The value of this endeavor is undeniable, and we rightly continue to this day to make efforts that will hopefully bring about its fulfillment for all human beings. This is the admirable task of modern commercial society, struggling toward freedom, equality, and prosperity.
But the cost has been enormous. While our human appetites and cravings still persist, the virtues that ruled them have been abandoned, leaving the body and its needs to fend for themselves. About the only remaining truly-respected virtue is self-interest. Everything else has been debunked. Our actions can only be judged according to their utility: do they help preserve and bring comfort to individuals? “Life, Liberty, and Property” were not the concern of ancient philosophers. Their concern was with the perfection of the soul. But as philosophers and political scientists became exclusively concerned with alleviating worldly human suffering, the soul pretty much disappeared.
Life was better, but somehow empty. People needed more. So a new concept was invented in response to the banality of a purely commercial life. It is called Culture – a vague concept that refers to aspects of life that are somehow ‘higher’, more intellectual, or at least different, than the merely physical and economic aspects.
But ‘culture’ is not a commensurate replacement for what has been lost. In the hierarchy of importance, commerce replaced religion, patriotism, art, etc. People are willing to strive and fight and even die for God, for country, or any of several other virtues. In many ways, we are undoubtedly better off as these fanaticisms die down. But the new hierarchy leaves little in life to be passionate about. No one is willing to die for culture.
But ‘enjoying culture’ is how we are now expected to alleviate the meaninglessness of our mechanical, commercial lives. Since it never denies the far greater importance of commerce, however, culture carries no real weight.
As Max Weber noted, we have chosen to stake our lives on solid but low ground. A society dedicated to self-preservation does not provide fertile soil for beauty, nobility, or greatness of spirit. Such things have little place in our world – and if anyone suggests otherwise, the Press will quickly come swarming, looking for titillating bits of dirt to help squelch such notions. So the effect of the Enlightenment has been to raise mankind economically while lowering us intellectually and spiritually.
As a consequence, we have learned to live with coarseness and vulgarity. This is what many people around the world see when they look at America – a veritable circus of consumerism and obscenity, a godless criminal system of unbridled greed, theft, exploitation and vulgarity, a society that is materially strong but morally and intellectually weak, a society that has confused “The Good” with “the goods”. Mass production and advances in technology and communications have only magnified the impact of this horrible impression.
What should we do? Can we, should we, do anything? Please share your ideas!
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