Home >Opinion >Views >Opinion | Enlightenment values need both revival and adoption

As we witness intolerance to reason, democratic argument and humanism, and see the lines blur between religion and the State, an inevitable question emerges: Do we have moral theories to address these societal challenges? Is it new or something we have also faced in the past? Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker in his book, Enlightenment Now, while acknowledging the rise of passion and emotions in public affairs, argues that the key to human progress is to allay disrupting forces with reason based on a certain set of values—known as Enlightenment values. To deal with today’s three most important challenges—which are, the right to free speech, inclusive development, and the preservation of a secular state—we need to make these values central to our public discourse.

First, though, what are Enlightenment values? They are a set of liberal values that go beyond freedom of speech to include the rejection of bigotry and superstition in favour of reason and tolerance. Rooted in the belief that the core of human progress was intertwined with its social, cultural and psychological progress, these values spread across Europe, stirring its consciousness during the Enlightenment period. An age of reason that lay emphasis on the scientific method, it was led by philosophers Thomas Hobbes, Francis Bacon and René Descartes, as also works on natural sciences by Galileo, Kepler, Newton and Leibniz, and on liberal philosophy by John Locke, Voltaire and Mary Wollstonecraft, who truly turned it into a golden age of intellectual progress.

Today, we see fragmentation along ethnic, religious and caste lines. The Enlightenment thinkers loathed fanaticism—a sharp departure from what is becoming a norm today, with self-proclaimed guardians of these groups going mainstream with their divisive agenda. Pluralism is often looked down upon in public discourse. But see what Voltaire, one of the most important philosophers, had to say in Philosophical Dictionary about religious diversity during his visit to London in 1726. He drew a parallel between religious tolerance and economic prosperity: “Enter into the Royal Exchange of London, a place more respectable than many courts, in which deputies from all nations assemble for the advantage of mankind. There the Jew, the Mohammedan, and the Christian bargain with one another as if they were of the same religion, and bestow the name of infidel on bankrupts only… Was there in London but one religion, despotism might be apprehended; if two only, they would seek to cut each other’s throats; but as there are at least thirty, they live together in peace and happiness." Voltaire’s observation is unequivocal: Competing religious ideologies are harmful and only develop differences among men, while commerce brings them together through the ligature of mutual prosperity. His conclusion, that the plurality of religions in England had led to a more peaceful society, is very relevant to today’s India for the country to become a thriving, rule-based pluralistic society.

Freedom of expression remains another crucial challenge today. An important aspect of Enlightenment has been the mutually respectful contestation of ideas. This Enlightenment value has been a core ideal of Indian society, too, and the lost tradition ought to be rediscovered. As Amartya Sen argues in his book, The Argumentative Indian, it’s the culture of argument and public debate centred around generosity and pluralism that best characterizes India’s societal ethos. These ideals have been underscored as ethics of good government in Aristotle’s philosophy, which favours “the wisdom of the many", or in John Stuart Mill’s road map to good governance, which is based on “discussion". While calling to fight bigotry of all kinds, Voltaire exhorted: “Crush the despicable!" We often see printed a quotation wrongly attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." The expression was first used by an English woman in 1906, actually. Voltaire only made it famous by invoking the term frequently in his writings on multiculturalism.

Keeping religion away from state affairs as a way to preserve the secular state has also been a key principle. David Hume was categorical about the pernicious effects of religion, while Adam Smith, arguably Hume’s best friend, thought somewhat positively about religion and held that a belief in God and the afterlife supports morality. Yet, Smith never argued in favour of bringing religion into matters of the state. Policies based on Smith’s “impartial spectator" or Hume’s “general will" could serve an important role in helping India become inclusive and strengthen its cultural diversity.

Immanuel Kant, in his essay, What is Enlightenment, writes: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s mind without another’s guidance."

Kant reinforces the fact that Enlightenment values are timeless; that they don’t end with the 18th century because people still need to free themselves from their self-imposed nonage to become enlightened. This can only come about if we adopt these values today in a sincere effort to address our existential challenges. There is no better way to promote harmony, peace and development.

Shekhar Chandra is a PhD student in public policy, Massachusetts

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