Enlightenment is elite cognition, the seeing past collective error and illusion to a hidden reality. But the ancient idea of enlightenment differs greatly from the modern one and there may be a further shift in the postmodern era. I’ll try to shed some light on enlightenment, by pursuing these comparisons.
Ancient Enlightenment: Monism and Personification
Enlightenment in the ancient world was made possible by a falling away from our mythopoeic, nomadic prehistory. In that Paleolithic period, symbolized by the wild Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh and by the biblical Adam in Eden, there was no enlightenment since everything was thoroughly personified and so nothing could have been perceived as unfamiliar or alien to the masses. The world was experienced as a noosphere, filled with mentality. Only after the rise of sedentary civilization in the Neolithic Era, when farming replaced nomadic hunting in 10,000 BCE, which allowed for much larger populations, was there a loss of that enchanted mode of experience which actually depended on a sort of blissful collective ignorance. As a population increases, the so-called Law of Oligarchy takes hold, which means that social power must be concentrated to avoid civilizational collapse. Dominance hierarchies are established and those in the lower classes become envious of the stronger and more privileged members who are sure to display their greater wealth and access to women with symbols of their higher status. By doing so, each social class learns its boundaries so that the social structure won’t be overridden, which would invite anarchy.
As Rousseau argued, civilization was the precondition of what we might call the sin of egoism. Contrary to Rousseau, prehistoric life wasn’t utopian; at least, objectively, human life in the Paleolithic Era was likely quite savage. But the ancients seemed to have an easier time perceiving the world in magical terms, judging from the evidence of their religions and extrapolating from what we know of children’s experience, given their similar dearth of content to occupy their collective memory. Thus, even as they killed each other over trifles, the prehistoric people would have interpreted such horror as profoundly meaningful. In any case, I think Rousseau is right that civilization made possible a falling away from a kind of intrinsic innocence. Specifically, the increased social specialization led to an epistemic inequality. As food was stored and more and more people lived together, there was greater need for practical knowledge in such areas as architecture, medicine, sanitation, and warfare. The elites became decadent and alienated from nature, since they found themselves free to indulge their appetites with artificial diversions, as specialists took care of the necessities of survival such as the harvesting of food or the defense of the borders. These elites codified the myths that expressed the population’s mores, but while the uneducated majority clung to their naïve, anthropocentric traditions, the cynical and self-absorbed elites more likely regarded the folk tales as superstitions.
Here, then, was the origin of enlightenment as the opposite of wholesale ignorance—and this was a normative dichotomy. Enlightenment was good and its opposite, mental darkness, was bad. Whereas prior to civilization everyone was enlightened, in a sense, or at least everyone deferred to the shaman’s interpretation of how the spiritual and material worlds are intermixed, civilized people came to believe there’s a secret perspective which alone imparts the ultimate truth, leaving the majority in relative ignorance. As for the content of the enlightened worldview in the ancient world, this was informed by both the egoism and the cynicism that distinguished the hierarchical civilization from the prehistoric past. The content thus had two elements: monism and personification. On the one hand, reality was thought to be a unity, whereas the world appeared to be a multiplicity. Enlightenment was the ability to see past the illusion of change, to the underlying timeless interconnection between all events. Again, in the mythopoeic world, there was no distinction between reality and appearance, because mental projections were given equal weight with the material unfolding of events. The world was a magical place. But the enlightened person had to recover a distorted memory of that childlike, mythopoeic vision, as it were, by theorizing a unity beyond the disenchanted multiplicity that confronted the civilized ancients.
On the other hand, ultimate reality was generally personified. So the absolute unity was called God, equated with the self, and often compared to the particular human who actually ruled the land. That is, the civilizational structure was projected onto the spirit world and the gods were used as symbols to reassure the ancients that their social order was just. There was such personification even in Buddhism, specifically in the Mahayana variety, according to which Bodhisattvas are worshipped and Buddha nature is thought to take not just the inconceivable and thus impersonal form, but ghostly or celestial as well as physical ones.
Ancient enlightenment thus had to reconcile the urge to personify, which was a remnant of the mythopoeic experience that was exacerbated by the advent of egoism even among the masses, and which the elites came to use for political purposes, with the world’s alien, indifferent oneness. That theoretical oneness expressed especially the elites’ growing alienation from nature and their nostalgia for the presumed innocence of the earlier, nomadic period. Monism made egoism out to be preconditioned by ignorance, since if the world were really an ultimate unity, the apparent self’s independence would be an illusion. But because egoism had numerous social and economic causes, the enlightened worldview retained some anthropomorphic projections onto the unity, to rationalize the nature of the civilized individual. There were degrees of enlightenment, so that one or the other factor, impersonal metaphysical unity or personification, predominated. For example, in the Eastern religions, the anthropomorphisms were stripped away as the enlightened person was thought to experience a transcendent unity, in a purified state of consciousness. Alternatively, the monotheistic Western traditions generally took a personal deity to be the highest principle.
Modern Enlightenment: Objectivity and Artificialization
The next epochal change was the birth of modern civilization in the European Renaissance and Scientific Revolution, followed by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. This transition was marked by profound advances in investigative techniques, which presented the educated upper classes with an altogether impersonal world. Instead of being horrified by this new knowledge, modernists relished the opportunity to conquer a material world that has no prior rights or else they sought refuge in the halfway house of deism. In any case, modernists were forced to reconceptualize the idea of enlightenment. Whereas the ancient kind posited a metaphysical unity that was somehow both transcendent and personal, modernists eventually eliminated personhood altogether, not just in metaphysics but in psychology. And so modern enlightenment is an appreciation of the implications of thoroughgoing metaphysical naturalism. The real world is still a hidden unity and scientists seek to uncover the causal pattern that establishes that unity. Thus, the dichotomy between the reality of the hidden spirit world and the illusion of mundane plurality in the spatiotemporal field of opposites became the split between a rational understanding of nature’s impersonality, as confirmed by the impartiality of cause and effect, and the naïve personification of anything, including ultimate reality or the human self. Enlightened modernists are materialists who think that mind is an illusion and that fundamental reality is bound to be alien to our sensibilities.
However, the conception of enlightenment as a matter of rationality, set off against the darkness of superstition, can’t hold, because rationality is a personal matter which takes for granted the illusion of the personal self. The modern myth of enlightenment as merely the courage to follow the logic and the evidence where they lead can’t be the whole story of the great transition to the modern period. Something else must have happened, not just a rise of rational neutrality, if rationality itself is merely peripheral. Instead of seeing modern enlightenment in terms of the symbol of the Light of Reason, and thus as a mental phenomenon, we should see it as technological: modernists exited the Dark Age through their technological advances which literally made the world brighter in the case of the commercial use of electricity. More broadly, modern enlightenment is the expansion of the “Light” of Artificiality, which makes for a wealth of historical data points. After all, what makes a dark age dark is the lack of lasting evidence of the culture’s identity, due to massive illiteracy and the absence of durable technologies that tell the tale. All of that changed with the printing press and the computer, for example. A Bright Age, then, is bright with cultural information and the light rays should be thought of as being transmitted especially to future historians.
Commercial light bulbs were patented in the late 19th C, although scientists studied electricity as early as 1600 CE. The Age of Enlightenment is primarily an 18th C. period, so the world didn’t literally become much brighter during the modern Enlightenment. However, the paradigmatic rationality of Enlightenment intellectuals, especially that of Isaac Newton, led directly to the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which included the invention of the light bulb. So we should look at modern enlightenment as beginning with the myth of rationality and giving way to wonder at the undeniable reality of recent technological advance. First came the light of Reason, then scientists realized that personhood and thus reason are illusory. But all along, the modern process was set in motion which replaced the darkness of nature with the light of artificiality (with technological incarnations of culture which endure and testify to our historical identity). Thus, modern enlightenment is only inchoately the dichotomy between neutral (non-personifying) reason and ignorance; the real distinction is between natural, pristine reality, which is dark and monstrous precisely because of its impersonality, and the light we bring to the world by impressing our stamp into it—not subjectively through mere theological interpretation or magical supposition, as in the mythopoeic period, but through the inexorable, objective spread of modern technology.
What’s monumental about modernity isn’t that some white male Europeans learned to think more rigorously, thanks to the scientific methods they invented. Of course, there are such methods, but modern enlightenment shouldn’t be personalized. When you characterize the new kind of enlightenment in that way, you’re left with incoherence since naturalism won’t support naïve personification. Instead, modern enlightenment must be thought of as a great widening of perspective, so that instead of projecting our ego onto indifferent nature, we eliminate our ego through existential encounters with nature’s monstrosity which humiliate us, doing away with our pretensions. Left thusly vacated, the real world is free to flow through us, as it were. In this case, the glory goes not to the great scientists, regardless of how exoteric modern history is told; the scientific methods, for example, must be part of nature’s self-overcoming on our planet, due to a shift from biological processes to artificial ones.
Scientific methods of thought are algorithms which presage the functions of high technology, as in the computer. In other words, before mass technology there was massive regimentation of intellectual life, whereas prior to the Scientific Revolution, social regimentation was confined to the army, to government, farming, and the like, while the business of discovering the nature of reality was still a free-wheeling affair. Ancient philosophy was mostly an artistic kind of speculation, although there are protoscientific aspects of ancient Greek and Indian philosophies. The Presocratics, for example, followed the logic of their hypotheses, however counterintuitive those hypotheses may have been. But what made the Scientific Revolution so special, objectively speaking, was a social transformation. Instead of being ruled mainly by biological norms, such as by the instinct of preserving the genes through sexual reproduction, which were thinly rationalized by the art of myth-making, a new dynamic was introduced: what Jacques Ellul called the necessity of efficiency as a matter of technique.
All species employ techniques, because they’re adapted to their environment, but the Scientific Revolution was the birth of an impersonal, regimented subculture of cognitive elites, one that’s modeled more and more on the machines made possible by that cognitive labour. In place of personification, mystification, or artistic speculation, there’s surrender to rational technique, to algorithms, and to the other scientific methods (public and repeatable testing of hypotheses, mathematical precision, and so on). It’s as though in depersonalizing ourselves, thanks to skepticism, the disempowerment of the Catholic Church, and so forth, we allowed nature’s impersonality to flow more easily through our social structures. Whereas hitherto, our bodies were governed by evolutionary norms and our minds were consumed by myths and illusions of personhood, which we projected onto nature so that we became doubly deluded, modernists abandoned personification, which freed the mind to mimic what the rest of the universe is doing, namely to flow in what I call an undead (impersonal but not inert) fashion.
We still personify techniques when we think of them teleologically, as having a mentally represented goal. However, even if there’s no divine mind desiring nature to end in some way, natural processes do have ends, which is just to say that there are natural processes, as such, or changes that have initial conditions, transitional periods, and probable points of termination. The more we understand nature, the wider our field of vision until we think of everything as a cosmic whole having a beginning (the Big Bang), a middle (evolution and complexification in space and time), and an end state, such as the universe’s heat death. What we call the scientific methods, then, or the more efficient modern techniques of rational thought, are really—according to the enlightened modernist—an inflowing of some underlying natural process besides biological evolution, one which begins with ultra-rational cognition and continues with the elimination of the noosphere and with the transformation of the biosphere into the technosphere.
Counter-Enlightenment and the Return of Mythopoeic Reverie
As long as we’re depersonalizing enlightenment, we should note the Counter-Enlightenment period which leads from the Romantics and other early critics of modern hyper-rationality to postmodern relativism and general jadedness. I won’t attempt to adjudicate this debate here, but I want to close by reflecting on whether the Counter-Enlightenment should be interpreted as an omen indicating that modern enlightenment will itself be transformed. Again, if we ignore the psychological and social levels of inquiry, since an enlightened modernist must regard them as misleading, we can look at historical developments as stages of some larger process. Natural selection explains the design of living bodies, but not the cultural shifts between elite forms of cognition. From mythopoeic animism, to the middle ground of ancient mystical theism, to modern naturalism, there’s a clear elimination of personhood from grand theories. Moreover, there’s exponential progress in technical innovation, as modernists have come to divorce rationality from artistic interpretation. Rather than seeing herself as similar to a shaman, in being a wise person, healer, or hero for venturing into the unknown, an enlightened modernist is more likely to think of herself as a glorified calculator. Modern cognition is hyper-rational in that logic for us is demythologized, and the sciences are separate from the arts and from the humanities, which means that scientific cognition is inhuman (objective and neutral). Science is thus the indwelling of natural mechanisms, due to a breakdown in resistance from religious delusions, resulting in the perfection of the artificial world. Modern geniuses are distorted mirrors held up to undead nature, the reflected image being a technological bastardization of the monstrous original.
And yet we may be witnessing here a cycle rather than a linear progression. Technology may allow us to recover the mythopoeic union of object and subject, so that modern objectivity overcomes itself through its technological progeny. After all, the artificial world caters to our whims and so exacerbates egoism and the urge to personify. Whereas modern enlightenment began with a vision of a lifeless, mechanical universe, the postmodern kind is much less arid and austere. This is because postmodernists are immersed in an artificial world which turns fantasies into realities on a minute-by-minute basis, thus perhaps fulfilling the promise of mythopoeic speculation. For example, if you’re hungry, you may ask your smartphone where the nearest restaurant is and that phone will speak to you; next, you’ll follow the signs in your car which adjusts to your preferences in a hundred ways, and you’ll arrive at the restaurant and be served without having to hunt or cook the animal yourself. The prehistoric fantasy was that nature is alive. Modernists discovered that everything is at best undead and certainly devoid of purpose or of mental, as opposed to biological, life. But perhaps postmodernists are realizing that the world was undead whereas it’s now being imbued with purpose and brought to nonbiological life by us through technology. Instead of mythologizing the world, we postmodernists artificialize it, and whereas natural mechanisms train us to be animals following evolutionary rhythms, artificial mechanisms may train us to be something else entirely, such as infantilized consumers that recapture the prehistoric sense of being at the world’s all-important center, thanks to our history of taming the hostile wilderness.