There are few concepts more muddled and misunderstood than that of Enlightenment. And this should hardly surprise us. For as we edge towards the question of Enlightenment, we inch towards the possibility of liberation – a possibility almost as unsettling to ourselves as it is unwelcome to those who benefit from our continued obedience. We expend enormous energy and effort to persuade ourselves that Enlightenment is compatible with what we are, that it implies no transformation, no risk, no danger. A vast industry is on hand, to tell us this story we are so avid to hear, over and over.
So, Enlightenment is pasteurised. It becomes a matter of correct opinions about a narrowly defined set of subjects – most notably religion, superstition and the political sublime. We are enlightened if we don’t believe in God, if we are properly sceptical about the claims of alternative medicine, and if we steer clear of conspiracy theories. We have managed to misunderstand Enlightenment in ways that would have delighted and excited the Marquis de Sade. Enlightenment, in the ordinary, everyday sense, is the name we give to a certain kind of incuriosity and deference to authority.
Enlightenment properly understood concerns itself with the tension between truth and other kinds of power. To describe things as they are is what Enlightenment is. And true description currently carries with it the risk of alienation and defeat. Therefore the central task of those committed to Enlightenment is the creation of a society where accurate description does not threaten the established order, because the established order is subject to a permanent regime of general inquiry. Truth becomes tolerable to power, because power no longer rests on untruth. Truth is no longer a threat to our own wellbeing, as it is in the current order of fantasy, deceit and self-delusion. Enlightenment is a project of transformation – of the self as public actor, and of the public world.
At present, we organize our lives around myths – myths about the nature of finance and capital, political agency, the sufficiency of the media in their current form, myths about the complexity of administration and popular incompetence. For relief we celebrate our freedom from myth. And we react with fury when it is suggested that perhaps atheism and Enlightenment are not identical, that the conspiracy theorist is often better informed than we are, that science is still caught in the coils of secret and illegitimate power.
Enlightenment is only possible if we are able to debate matters openly as reasoning beings, without risk of retaliation, and with some reasonable expectation of being heard. When did you last see a debate conducted on such terms? When did you last participate in such a debate? We are still very far from being enlightened, in any substantial sense, since government still depends on the dissemination of untrue claims. A notion of Enlightenment that does not recognise this, that does not situate itself as a critique of the existing political settlement is, very precisely, a symptom of the illness that it claims to cure. Wittering on about the villainies of a non-existent God is not Enlightenment. Insofar as it bills itself as Enlightenment, it is a lie. And, as such, it is the enemy of Enlightenment.
This is what I have argued in two books. In the first I focused on the question of an enlightened identity, what it means for an individual to be enlightened. In the second I asked how we might make our public realm safe for Enlightenment, how we might achieve an enlightened public sphere. I only hope that a public desirous of freedom arrives and finds them. Those that flourish in the world as it is are in no hurry to make these books better known. For that I can hardly complain, since I have set out to describe a programme of reform that is also, by necessity, an assault on secret privilege.