The Dark Shadows of The Enlightenment
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by Oriana P.
The Enlightenment has been heralded as the triumph of reason and serves as a reaction against the dogmatism of the Church.
Western civilization was based on faith, tradition and authority, the thinkers of that time argued, and after the terrible religious oppression from the Spanish Inquisition Europe needed to heal and nurse its hangover from Catholic intolerance and repression. Religion altogether was replaced by reason and science became the object of worship but what should have been replaced were the mechanisms of oppression. Instead, The Enlightenment gave us the scientific justification for oppression.
People like Francis Bacon, John Locke, Voltaire, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Charles Darwin and Montesquieu are considered to be the greatest minds of the West. They are taught in nearly all universities and they influenced the entire sociopolitical structure of Europe and the English-American colonists. Although many of their ideas are of value they also dabbled in pseudo-science and because of their status and prestige in society all of their concepts were left unchallenged and accepted as fact. One of their more damaging theories was the ‘classification system’ of race, which led to a racial hierarchy of superiority and inferiority. Case in point the perceived inferiority of African people that then legitimized the slaughter, exploitation and oppression of a whole group of people.
White people were considered far superior to any other race in this system and since white people lived in the West the West had to be the summit of civilization and the ideal of man. We just couldn’t get enough of ourselves now could we?
The Age of Reason became the measuring stick for Westcentric supremacy and something other cultures should strive for. If they didn’t share these values then surely this would mean they were backwards and hadn’t reached that level yet. It was only a matter of time before they would see the light. Ironically this position completely ignores one of the basic tenets of The Enlightenment, which is cultural relativism, the concept that other cultures and belief systems have equal merit.
In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack for example, we watched this Western narcissism play out in all of its glory. The whole set of Western enlightened values such as absolute freedom of speech, democracy and secularism was waved around like a gigantic penis with demands to worship and suck it. Look how much bigger and better we are. Voltaire was quoted ad nauseam, ironically with a quote that wasn’t even his. Liberals just love to drop names don't they?
We are so full of ourselves we splash around happily in our progressive little bubble and anybody who threatens to pierce it will be demonized. We are the Enlightened Ones, our society is Enlightened, which obviously means we have conquered all those icky things such as racism and sexism once and for all. Exactly for that reason it was impossible to perceive the magazine as being racist. Satirical maybe yes, but certainly not racist. We were tripping over ourselves to prove that it wasn’t. This is what dogmatism does. Even in the face of undeniable evidence the opposite will be defended because it fits the worldview. Self-reflection is not necessary as we are superior and we are always right.
We built our whole modern society on the ideas of The Enlightenment without ever questioning it. The philosophers of that age shaped our ideas, our attitudes and the way we see “others”. Never mind many of these thinkers were blatant racists and sexists. As a result of uncritical thinking those values seeped deep into our collective consciousness and still influence our modern world and the way we position ourselves towards other cultures and belief systems.
Let’s go back to Voltaire, the man who was so vehemently quoted for his position on freedom of speech and tolerance during a discussion on racism.
Voltaire on black people:
“And one could say that if their intelligence is not of another species than ours, then it is greatly inferior. They are not capable of paying much attention; they mingle very little, and they do not appear to be made either for the advantages or the abuses of our philosophy.” »: Essai sur les moeurs, κεφ. CXLI.
“And it is a big question whether among them they are descendants of monkeys, or if monkeys come from them. Our wise men have said that man is the image of God: behold a pleasant image of the eternal Being with a flat black nose, with little or no intelligence! A time will come, without a doubt, when these animals will know how to cultivate the earth well, to embellish it with houses and gardens, and to know the routes of the stars. Time is a must, for everything.” »: Lettres d’Amabed, Septième lettre. D'Amabed
"Africans are a separate species, inferior to the Europeans" Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire, Volume 7, Page 184
Voltaire on Jews:
''They are, all of them, born with raging fanaticism in their hearts, just as the Bretons and the Germans are born with blond hair. I would not be in the least bit surprised if these people would not some day become deadly to the human race.'' ''Letter of Memmius to Cicero'' (1771)
Jacobins such as Jean Francois Rewbell in the 1790's and the socialist Pierre Proudhon in the next generation are among the many figures, especially of the left, who justified their arguments against the Jews by quoting Voltaire. Such figures were not quarreling with Judaism; they were attributing innate wickedness to the Jewish character.
''You have surpassed all nations in impertinent fables, in bad conduct and in barbarism. You deserve to be punished, for this is your destiny.'' From the essay ''One Must Take Sides'' - introduced as ''the last word by Voltaire on metaphysics''
Voltaire also dedicated a whole play just to trash the prophet Mohammed. “Mahomet” is a five-act tragedy written in 1736. In a letter to Letter to Benedict XIV written in Paris on August 17, 1745 AD Voltaire writes:
"Your holiness will pardon the liberty taken by one of the lowest of the faithful, though a zealous admirer of virtue, of submitting to the head of the true religion this performance, written in opposition to the founder of a false and barbarous sect. To whom could I with more propriety inscribe a satire on the cruelty and errors of a false prophet, than to the vicar and representative of a God of truth and mercy? Your holiness will therefore give me leave to lay at your feet both the piece and the author of it, and humbly to request your protection of the one, and your benediction upon the other; in hopes of which, with the profoundest reverence, I kiss your sacred feet.”
And in another letter he writes:
"But that a camel-merchant should stir up insurrection in his village; that in league with some miserable followers he persuades them that he talks with the angel Gabriel; that he boasts of having been carried to heaven, where he received in part this unintelligible book, each page of which makes common sense shudder; that, to pay homage to this book, he delivers his country to iron and flame; that he cuts the throats of fathers and kidnaps daughters; that he gives to the defeated the choice of his religion or death: this is assuredly nothing any man can excuse, at least if he was not born a Turk, or if superstition has not extinguished all natural light in him." Voltaire - Referring to Muhammad, in a letter to Frederick II of Prussia (December 1740), published in Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire, Vol. 7 (1869), edited by Georges Avenel, p. 105
Is it mere coincidence Voltaire is brought up over and over again by the “JeSuisCharlie” badge wearers in defense of a magazine that singled out the prophet Mohammed to spew its “satire”? Or could it be there was a deliberate effort to spread racist attitudes under the guise of enlightened ideals such as tolerance and freedom of speech?'
Another gem of the Enlightenment is David Hume:
"I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men, to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures among them, no arts, no sciences... Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men»: Of national characters, in Essays: Moral, Political and Literary.”
And what about the great philosopher of morality Emmanuel Kant?:
“The Negroes of Africa have not received any intelligence from Nature that rises above foolishness. Mr. Hume challenges anyone to suggest even one example of a negro who has displayed any talent. As he himself verifies, among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who have wandered far away from their homelands, even though many of them have been liberated, not one exists who has succeeded in anything great, either in the arts or the sciences or in any other noteworthy thing. On the contrary, among the whites, people continuously rise above the low point that they were and they evolve through their superior qualifications, attaining worldly fame. The difference therefore between the two races is an essential one: It appears to be equally big, both with regard to the capabilities of the mind, as well as to the color”
The mere fact we can hardly find any works of female thinkers stands as testimony to the sexism of the Age of Enlightenment. Not only were the contributions of women deemed unworthy of printing but furthermore, these “enlightened” men had plenty to say about the so- called inferiority of women.
Let’s take Diderot for example. In articles that dealt with women he often emphasized their physical weakness and inferiority, which he usually attributed to menstruation or childbirth. He thought women were reared to be frivolous and unconcerned with important issues and stated that Motherhood was the most important occupation.
"Friendship, which needs firmness of spirit, right conduct, and discernment of choice, is ill suited to a sex that's weak by nature, frivolous by education, scatter-brained by pretension, coquette by vanity, & inconstant for want of occupation.”
“Always justify the burdens you impose on girls but impose them anyway”
“ Women should be educated to be subordinate to men – there is little else for a woman to do but make herself pleasing to man”
“ Weaker and inferior to men EXCEPT in their capacity for feeling and giving love”
“No political rights”
Montesquieu was another sexist who held traditional beliefs as to a man’s dominance in marriage and family.
And what to think of Descartes? His theories on animals gave him the scientific permission to be cruel without appearing to be cruel. For Descartes animal pain was not true pain because animals are not self-conscious and therefore couldn’t think and you know “I think, therefore I am” and all that.
In “Introduction to Animal Rights”, Gary Francione describes the inevitable results of the Cartesian position:
‘Descartes and his followers performed experiments in which they nailed animals by their paws onto boards and cut them open to reveal their beating hearts. They burned, scalded, and mutilated animals in every conceivable manner. When the animals reacted as though they were suffering pain, Descartes dismissed the reaction as no different from the sound of a machine that was functioning improperly. A crying dog, Descartes maintained, is no different from a whining gear that needs oil.’
360 years later, Rene Descartes still exerts influence. Animal pain is considered different from ours and vivisection continues.
These are the values the Enlightenment passed onto us. This is the philosophy all the liberals, progressives and “lefties” swear by. This protective magic blanket enables them to be as racist and as sexist as they want without being seen as such because, after all, they are the Enlightened girls and boys from the West. The consequences of this are devastating. These days it is considered trendy to liberally use the n-word because it is in an “ironic’ context. We are Enlightened so we can’t be racist, it’s impossible. In countries like Belgium Blackface is still totally accepted such as is the case with the Zwarte Piet celebrations and the tradition of Les Noirauds. All kinds of explanations are offered of why this would not be racist even though the rest of the world looks in absolute horror at these blatant displays of colonial ritual. Even the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Didier Reynders, cheerfully hopped around in Blackface convinced he was doing charity work. Is it any surprise Belgium ranks as one of the top racist countries in Europe?
Belgium may also very well rank as one of the most sexist countries in Europe. A famous politician, Steve Stevaert, committed suicide after accusations of rape. There was enough evidence to go to trial and he knew he would become the next DSK in the media. It is telling for a society when people on social media accused the possible victim of the rape case of fraude and blaiming her for his death. Prof. Willem Elias wrote on his Facebook page:
" We will miss you Steve....you were a nice man and extremely intelligent. The women......a weakness we understand. To the woman who carries this decision on her conscious, I would like to say this. When raped you immediately go to the police, or possibly the day after. Not three years later. And victims who are being dropped off by their driver are also rare"
Only in a society where sexism is mainstream, normal and deeply ingrained can a man feel secure enough and justified to post this kind of mindboggling sexism. Too many are mystified by the concepts of racism and sexism and fail to recognize them. We are brainwashed zombies and in complete denial. The fact that we, the people from the West, could be racist or sexist is truly an inconceivable concept to us because of our Enlightened heritage and the so-called implementation of its noble ideals.
What the “progressives” amongst us seem to forget is that progress and growth happen when we are open to different ideas and we learn from others. Yes, including other cultures. Hanging on to old concepts and sticking to your own isolated beliefs in a multicultural reality is not progressive. It is in fact backwards and conservative. If we would want to save the good ideals of The Enlightenment then we should at least illuminate the long shadows The Enlightenment is still casting over our society to this day and get rid of them altogether. This means we will have to engage in a minimum of self-examination and openness and a lot less arrogance.