Category Archives: The Enlightenment

How the Enlightenment Failed Mankind

The scientific and industrial revolutions exploded in the age of conquest and discovery.  This period of conquest and discovery produced both the need and the financing for further scientific investigation.  Increased focus on education and research gave rise to the unintended consequence of advances in moral and cultural studies.  This moral and cultural enlightenment, and the social sciences it created, have been in conflict with capitalism since the development of the concept that certain rights exist in the individual and that these individuals have the right to create laws that control them and their governments.  While the Enlightenment did much to temper the pain, it did little to curb the advancement of imperial and economic conquest.  Capitalistic pursuits have had more influence on international relationships and global interactions than moral values.

The power of this new understanding found expression in the American and French revolutions.  The establishment of governments “by the people” raised new questions such as who is a citizen, who gets to vote, and who deserves equality.  The answers to these questions put the aristocrats and property owners at odds with those trying to achieve their newly imagined rights.  The moneyed interests prevailed, and only white, male, property owners gained suffrage.  This arrangement saw many more of the new ideas ignored and even perverted; ideas such as the immorality of slavery and sovereignty of native peoples.  The utilitarian view of “the greatest good for the greatest number” was twisted to justify conquest and colonialization of other cultures for their own good.  Both Europeans and Americans perverted Darwin’s theory of evolution to “prove” that Africans were lower on the evolutionary chain and it was therefore moral to treat them as animals.  Europeans and Americans continued to enslave Africans while Europeans maintained profitable slave trading networks in the name of economic growth.  Darwin’s ideas were also used the judge cultures and societies.  In addition, the ideas of Manifest Destiny and the belief in the white racial superiority were used to justify the eradication of Native Americans and the military conquest and eviction of the Mexicans from their own lands.

As formal imperialism began to slow, other informal forms of imperialism continued.  In Free Trade Imperialism , countries no longer used their navy and military might to monopolize trade routes and port cities; they now used the navy and military might to protect their interests abroad.  Free Trade Imperialism gains and maintains control through economic influence, dependence, and debt.  A common method of attaining these goals was to finance infrastructure such as railroads to transport goods and to provide markets for those goods.  This tactic placed tremendous pressure on the dependent countries to grant trade and other concessions to the more powerful trading partners and thus freed the conquerors of any responsibility for conquered societies.  This also relieved the citizens of the imperialist countries of the moral difficulties of conquering and controlling sovereign peoples.  Liberal Imperialism uses methods such as civilizing missions.  This involves evaluation of cultures based on economic and religious values.  If a society was not exploiting their resources for profit or they were not worshiping the right gods, they were classified as uncivilized heathens, incapable of ruling or educating themselves.  The only moral thing to do was to provide them with God, civilization, and leadership.

The process of free trade imperialism is very much alive today and spreading Euro-American capitalistic values around the world.  Not only European countries and the U.S. but also other economic powers such as Russia and China are encouraging domestic companies to spread their economic footprints.  Increasing the economic strength of privately owned companies increases the power and influence of the nation so governments provide protections for these companies.  This is illustrated by the military presence protecting Middle Eastern oil supplies and trade routes and economic and military aid to preferred countries in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and others by these same economic powers.

Liberal Imperialism was one aspect of the reasoning for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  The U.S. government removed a ruler that did not meet their standards.  A liberal democratic super-power of the world removed the ruler of a sovereign nation under the pretense of bringing democracy and a better life to the citizens.  Free Trade Imperialism then helped perpetuate the war due to the large number of private contractors employed whose only motive was profit.  This is just one example of the economic powers of the world interfering in the affairs of sovereign nations.

The ideas that developed in the Enlightenment Period alleviated tremendous amounts of suffering around the globe.  These new ideas were key elements to the revolutions and evolutions of democracy, ending slavery, and bringing about a greater awareness of injustice and inequality.  However, these powerful moral concepts have merely been treating the symptoms.  Much more dangerous to humanity are the goals that have been and still are driving economic development.  While the philosophers and social sciences tinker with making the path smoother, other than a few marginalized intellectuals, no serious examination of the direction of the path or of what might lie at its end.  The Enlightenment did so much for the people of the planet but it failed to stop the relentless march of capitalist theocracy to ecological damnation.  Perpetual economic growth requires infinite resources from a finite planet, which makes the very concept of continuous economic growth logically unsound.  The capitalistic system is a Utopian fantasy; the fantasy is that a system based on personal profit over the greater good can continue.  The advancements in moral and ethical philosophy and critical thinking have not enlightened enough people to prevent us from committing suicide by capitalism.


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17th Century Cultural Awakening

A worldwide cultural and philosophical enlightenment accelerated around the globe in the 17th century.  Silver from the new world and people and goods from around the world moved on ever-expanding and complicated trade routes.  Knowledge and culture also traveled these trade routes, which enabled the peoples of the world to share and exchange art, science, music, religion, and philosophical ideas.

In the Americas, the Europeans borrowed art, music, and technical expertise from the aborigines and the African slave populations but this was mostly an uneven exchange.  The newcomers took what they could make use of and the others adapted under extreme coercion.  As European wealth and population grew, European culture soon displaced the cultures of the other inhabitants.

By the middle of the 17th century, European culture was flourishing due to the development of nation-states with more sophisticated administrations, consolidation of state wealth, and state control of military powers.  Its many political and religious struggles, along with the desire to advance its commercial ventures, resulted in advanced information gathering techniques.  This exposure to information inspired a search for knowledge that would fuel the European Enlightenment.  Abandoning Christian beliefs, Enlightenment thinkers searched for universal and objective knowledge that did not depend on religion, political views, class, or gender and would apply to all people and cultures.  Unfortunately, these same political, religious, and commercial ambitions also led to an era of internal and external wars.

The Ottoman Empire (1) avoided these religious wars through a philosophy of tolerance.  This helped create a rich, syncretic culture of diversity with a blend of ethnic, religious, and linguistic elements.  They accommodated Sufi and Sunni Muslims as well as Christians and Jews.  They allowed those of other religions to have their own schools and places of worship.  Ottoman scholars claimed, “An hour of learning is worth more than a year of prayer”.  The Ottomans stressed education based on the Humanities rather than the sciences with the emphasis on law, politics, religion, logic, and theology as well as advances in astronomy, physics, history, and geography.

Like the Ottomans, the Mughal Empire (2) ruled over a large non-Muslim population.  This allowed a broad and open Islamic culture of learning to develop which the Hindus and Muslims shared.  Through aesthetic refinement and philosophical sophistication, they bridged religious differences.  In the field of architecture, the Taj Mahal is an example of blending Persian and Islamic design with Indian materials and motif.  Their philosophical interests included the work of European philosophers as well as Sanskrit treatises.

In the Safavid Empire of Persia (3), Shah Abbas I (4) created a time of great prosperity.  This prosperity and royal patronage of the arts stimulated a cultural revival.  Shah Abbas I moved the capital to Isfahan and hired artists and architects from throughout Persia to build an ornate city that would rival Delhi and Istanbul.  The royal mosque was at the center of the city.  Next to the shah’s palace was a public plaza seven times larger than the Plaza of San Marco in Venice.  Other advancements in the arts included three-dimensional representation, perfection of the illustrated book, and an elaborate calligraphy.  Artisans produced mosaics of brilliantly colored tiles to adorn mosques and other buildings and elaborate silk and carpet products for export.  Intellectuals espoused a culture of ideals, aspirations, and wealth for the court, the property owners, and the commercial elites.  The Shiite version of Islam, which cultivated the more conservative values of Iranian societies found a home in the Safavid Empire.  The Safavids funded long established madrassas and brotherhood schools to educate the people.  This created a political-religious system based on Shiism and loyalty to the royal family.  Almost four hundred years after the end of the empire, Shiism remains the fundamental religion of the Iranian people.

China had a long tradition of learning that saw significant expansion due to a growing population and extensive mercantile networks.  Fueled by improved agricultural techniques and the influx of silver that accompanied increased Chinese exports this exchange of goods brought with it an exchange of ideas that allowed a culture of diversification and expansion that predated that of other cultures.  By the last decades of the Ming Dynasty (5), a publishing industry had developed and collections of books from around the world were housed in “magnificently built” and “finely adorned” libraries.  Connoisseurs of fine arts gathered collections at unprecedented levels and books became increasingly available, especially the study books for the civil service exams.  The Qing Dynasty (6) continued the practice of civil service exams and made the schools available to all.  China escaped the religious warfare suffered by Europe because while they did recognize spiritual entities, they did not consider any of them as a supreme being who favored one faction over another.

In the Tokugawa Shogunate (7) of Japan, there was a renewed interest in European culture.  The long influence of Chinese ways blended with Japanese traditions and European teachings.  Increased trade and wealth and an extended period of peace enabled thriving cultural growth.  Literacy reached as high as one third of the population and popular novels sold as many as 12000 copies.  Booksellers as well as libraries made books readily available.  The fine arts also flourished including Kabuki Theater and elegant tea/contemplation ceremonies.  Chinese Confucianism offered a set of legal teachings and blended with Buddhism, yet did not displace Shinto as a way of worship.

A global cultural awakening occurred in the three centuries surrounding the 17th.  As various cultures were shared and exchanged around the world, the cultures that survived were enriched in ways that cannot be measured.  While the Chinese and Islamic worlds retained their own cultures and systems of knowing, Europeans had more influence on the rest of the world, but traces of all these cultures can still be observed around the world today.

(1)  Ottoman Empire         1301 – 1922

(2)  Mughal Empire            1556 – 1605

(3)  Safavid Empire           1501 – 1722

(4)  Shah Abbas I              ruled 1587 – 1629

(5)  Ming Dynasty             1368–1644

(6)  Qing Dynasty             1644–1912

(7)  Tokugawa Shogunate  1603–1867

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