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Enlightened Darkness

Enlightened Darkness Enlightened Darkness When I am asked to determine if I am a “child of the Enlightenment,” the first thoughts that come to my mind question the characteristics of the Enlightenment. What kind of movement was it? Who else claims to support Enlightenment ideals? What characteristics are associated with the Enlightenment, and do I want to label myself as sharing these? It didn’t take much time for me to happily embrace the fact that I am a “child of the Enlightenment.” The Enlightenment encompasses many ideas concerning knowledge, political theory, science, and economic theory. The Enlightenment worldview stresses reason instead of authority and revelation. Enlightened thinkers believe in the freedom of choice of natural religion instead of more formal and organized church religions (like the strict Roman Catholic Church). Furthermore, the Enlightenment is characterized by the optimistic belief in the improvement of the human condition, knowable laws discovered through the scientific method, and natural rights.

While I agree with much of what Enlightenment thinkers believe concerning these areas of life, I am most interested in Enlightenment aspects concerning the value of the individual, and the subtleties of natural rights such as life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. I want to examine the human in and of itself, without the outside influences of forced government or religion. How do people feel about religion and their rights when they are allowed to reason freely? John Stuart Mill makes a very influential argument for the power of reason and the power of the individual in his work, On Liberty, published in 1859. In it, Mill speaks of the “tyranny of the majority” (Mill, H-3), and how this tyranny represents a contradiction to human improvement. Intellects of the Enlightenment such as Mill, Locke, and Newton make a rather strong point for this. We now know and appreciate these mens’ contributions to society and human improvement (which is a key theme of the Enlightenment), but during each contemporary time period, these men were criticized for their own use of reason and for thinking “outside of the box.” Mill showed the world that traditionalism and authority of the masses isn’t necessarily right.

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He preached to society that every man must be allowed his own liberty at all times only with the exception that man’s liberty does not interfere with the “utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being” (Mill, H-4). Mill further explains that it is unreasonable to shut out the opinion of even a single man out of one hundred because we now know that the “majority of the eminent men of every past generation held many opinions now known to be erroneous, and did or approved numerous things which no one will now justify” (Mill, H-6). Human progression is earned through the rectification of mistakes by discussion and experience. By remaining open to a variety of opinions instead of silencing the remotest minority, mankind will create a more “stable foundation” in which it can exist more efficiently (Mill, H-6). In a sense, John Stuart Mill was enlightened to the fact that “individuals are lost in the crowd” (Mill, H-12), and this crowd is being ruled “by men much like themselves” (Mill, H-12).

The world often exists in a state of regression in which men forget the lessons that thinkers such as Mill have taught us. Humankind will continue to progress if each man uses “observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision” (Mill, H-11). In his book, Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud argues that civilization is the cause of mankind’s problems and misery. Freud attempts to define each human as having two basic instinctive drives: one in the form of aggression, and one in the form of Eros (love). He believes that sexual and aggressive drives are inborn instincts that each person wishes to act on, but that society infringes on these inclinations. According to Freud, our civilization “is largely responsible for our misery, and that we should be much happier if we gave it up and returned to primitive conditions” (Freud, 38).

This thought is contradictory to the Enlightenment ideals of optimism and the belief in human progression. However, if man accepts Freud’s views that human’s have desires that they wish to act on, but can’t due to the consequences that civilization has made, then Freud would be right to suggest a regression into primitive times. If sexual love is the prototype for all happiness, and we cannot act on our desires of sexual love because of civilization, then we will be unhappy people. Freud states that, “It is clearly not easy for men to give up the satisfaction of this inclination to aggression. They simply do not feel comfortable without it” (Freud, 72). Man must have found ways to express their aggression because mankind is evolving to become more and more civilized everyday. Freud may not be correct in his assumptions of man, but it is important to take his opinion into consideration, and examine all aspects of his arguments against the tyranny of society.

While I agree that society does infringe on the individuality of man, I do not agree that Freud is correct in his reasoning that we should return to primitive conditions. Neurosis may originate from civilization, but this cannot be helped. What better system can we come up with for the good of the general population? We cannot abandon cleanliness or structure that society has created because of minor problems. Human progression will not occur without the specialization and structure that can be provided only through civilization. However, while Freud’s point may be exaggerated, it is important to realize that he does have a point.

“World War II and the exposure, during and after the war, of Nazi atrocities seem, from one perspective, like the culmination of trends calling faith in Enlightenment principles into question” (N-1). These events also brought a “renewed dedication” to the concept of human rights central to the Enlightenment. By examining the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we can see this struggle between Enlightenment ideals and contemporary thought that I consider to be caused by, what Mill called, “the tyranny of the majority.” While I believe that the motivations behind the UN Declaration are sincerely and genuinely good, I don’t believe that a declaration of human rights can be effectively standardized for the entire world. Countries are much too diverse in their religious, economic, political, and social beliefs to agree on a standard worldwide view. The UN is representative of an oligarchy in which a few rule over all. Article 3 states that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person,” (N-2).

This article is very general and acceptable, but the UN continues to declare in Article 29, that “These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations” (N-5). This statement is oppressive in every sense. Articles 29 and 30 hold the values learned through the Enlightenment in disregard. The Enlightenment taught people of natural rights, government by the consent of the governed and majority rule, but these principles can all be thrown out the window if the UN has taken the initiative to state that THEIR laws take precedence over any other laws. Does this mean that the UN has the right to tell Tahiti that their practices are wrong because they are exercise “contrary to the purposes” of the UN? Further, we have established that government is to exist by the extent of the governed, not by an elite group of tyrannical delegates from cultures that have nothing to do with our own.

The United Nations may be under the impression that they are acting for the best interests of mankind, but this is not the case. They are only politicians controlled by politics. Maybe the founders of this declaration were sincere in their motives, but what would happen if another Hitler gained power in the UN? Could he persuade other delegates to join him in a quest for world domination acting under the existing approval of the superpowers of the world who control the United Nations? When the articles within the Declaration contradict themselves, how can Article 30 state that, “Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group, or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein” (N-5)? The UN Declaration was adopted without dissent on December 10, 1948, but I would declare that there is at least one with a dissenting opinion because I would argue that the UN Declaration violates my rights as an individual. While I did not live during the Enlightenment movement, I do consider myself to be a “child of the Enlightenment.” I believe in most of what the Enlightenment stands for, and although nothing seems to be perfect now, I am optimistic that the human condition can continue to improve with work. We must not allow government to exist without the will of the governed, and we can’t afford to allow the “tyranny of the majority” to rule because they outnumber the truly enlightened.

My beliefs can be summarized in the famous words of John Stuart Mill: “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it” (Mill, H-4). Political Issues.


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