What is Enlightenment?

Posted on December 8, 2010 by


By Humayun Nosheerwan

They say that there is no such thing as ideal in this world, and to look for one is an unavailing pursuit. But contrary to this popular notion, ideals do exist and they sustain their existence in the minds of the “idealists”. For some it must be quite surprising to know that in fact, idealists with their carefully crafted “ideals” played remarkable roles in moving and shaping modern human history and in the development of today’s dynamic civilization. They were set of ideals in form of great visions, thoughts, and theories which evidently helped transformed the Old-fashioned world into the New modern world. The special breed of Idealists such as Plato, Hegel, Marx, Kant and Ibn Rushd were the wave of the future and their wisdom was the key driving force behind a universal intellectual transformation. Modern advancement in all areas of human activity  such as: politics, Research & Development, Art, culturescience and technology find their common roots in  some splendid philosophical thoughts and are inspired by visionary ideals.

The development of modern inviolable societies based on primary values of freedomdemocracy, civil liberties, reason, human and animal rights took up hundreds of years to evolve and prosper. As they famously put it: Rome was not built in a day. Today same can be said about the miracles of London, Tokyo, New York, Moscow, or Istanbul. The directing force of visionary ideals provided “preconditions” necessary to make it all happen. When we objectively sift into the history, we come to know that initially the modern ideals gave birth to numerous Free-thought movements. This radical change of thought marked the beginning of a heavy strife in the most conservative and fundamentalist societies. At that time idealist were regarded as “dreamers” and deemed hostile against over-the-hill fabric of social harmony. But after the period of Renaissance (14th to the 17th century), these movements efficaciously influenced the cradle of European intellectual reformation, which profoundly affected modernistic progress in all fields.

Now if we take to heart the present scenario in our part of the world, then we come to know that due to the skeptical associations with some particular terms in our society, one could fairly expect the unwitting general public in Pakistan to show lack of keen interest in great thoughts and theories. But as a matter of realness and disgust, the ruling elites in collaboration with religious orthodoxy in our county have been willfully mutilating the spirit of some of the very epoch-making ideals, such as: Modernization, Secularism, Free-thought, Self-autonomy and most notably the Liberalism. The concept of Modernization has been malignly mingled with Westernization, Secularism with apostasy, and Free-thought with “blasphemy” and so on. This vicious project of undermining the intellectual capacity of people, which is practiced not just in Pakistan but in entire Muslim world, is in my view, the greatest crime against humanity. Without a doubt, one fact is crystal clear that we are passing through a very difficult and testing phase of history. Gigantic challenges such as Religious extremism, terrorism, corruption, injustice, ignorance and poverty are the hallmark of Pakistan and Muslim world.

But to the despair of all, in our part of world there is an acute dearth of rational and logical idealists to provide a modern ideal. There is a want of an ideal in form of new dream for future, a beacon of light which could work as a rallying point for baffled masses. There isn’t a single state in Muslim world with pure and viable democracy. Instead the bygone age of sacred Kings and high Elitism still linger here to subjugate people’s fundamental rights, civil liberties and freedom. Due to this sadistic approach by rulers, the helpless people of these counties have embraced the mentality of attributing every infliction to kismet or destiny.  There is a widespread stance of Defeatism among Muslim countries when it comes to international

politics and global strategic affairs. Pakistan with an atomic power is no exception in this case. And this is just a tip of the iceberg. Despite having all the immense riches and massive amount of natural resources, in the Muslim world (57 countries) there are more or less 500 universities. While in USA alone, there are 5,758 universities. Leading the way in the same abyss of incompetency and ignorance, Muslim majority countries have 230 scientists per one million, compared to alone United States 5000 scientists per million.

Seeing this grim picture of harsh realities, there can never be a second opinion regarding the fact that something isn’t working right here and we are not moving in the right direction. There are some underneath fundamental flaws in our intellectual, cultural and social structures which are ruining any prospect of future, and are hampering the wheel of progress and advancement. And there can also be no other opinion that in fact, it is the lack of “modern ideals” in the form of new visions, values and critical theories to help resolve contemporary issues of today’s world. Having no genuine ideals to guide, there is an absence in our society of all those “preconditions” necessary for convincing the masses to tread on the path of reformation and progress. The construction of a modern ethical civilization based on concept of welfare of all will remain a dream forever. Due to this fatal shortcoming, one confused generation give way to another confused generation, often having failed completely or stumbled along from one crisis to another. And heinous part of this scenario is that it is repeated again and again in country after country, because we learn nothing from history. One way or the other we are trapped in the same fix which handicapped Europe in the Dark Ages.

If current situation persists, then Muslim world will learn its lesson the hard way (as it’s already doing). And pragmatically thinking there is no escape possible, its either “fly” or “die” situation for all of us. It is time when we must understand our duties and responsibilities as being part of present generation, to save the future of coming generations against the demons of terrorism, religious extremism, fundamentalism, ignorance and backwardness. As it is the responsibility of every individual to work and put efforts for the betterment of coming generations, everyone must think, reflect and respond. Everyone must see a dream and everyone must construct ideals to make it real. We must put faith in dictum that deep down under an ordinary mind, there sleeps an idealist in all of us. All we need right now is some “courage” to think and think differently, putting aside the ultra-conservative and traditional viewpoint on life and world. Because it is impossible to create or follow an ideal unless we break free from the bondage of biasness and conservatism. Never turn back on future. First and foremost principle of this new struggle should be based on Enlightenment of minds and self autonomy, as Immanuel Kant described in his famous essay what is Enlightenment? “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.” He argues that the immaturity is self-inflicted not from a lack of understanding, but from the lack of “courage” to use one’s reason, intellect, and wisdom i.e. our fear of thinking for ourselves. He exclaims that the motto of enlightenment is “Sapere aude”! Dare to know!

Kant, whose moral philosophy is centered around the concept of self- autonomy, here distinguishes between a person who is intellectually autonomous and one who keeps him/herself in an intellectually dependent and immature status. Kant understands the majority of people to be content to follow the guiding institutions of society, such as the Church, Mosque and the Monarchy, and unable to throw off the yoke of their immaturity due to a lack of resolution to be autonomous. It is difficult for individuals to work their way out of this immature cowardly life, because we are so uncomfortable with the idea of thinking for ourselves. Kant says that even if we did throw off the spoon-fed dogma and formulas we have absorbed all life, we would still be stuck, because we have never “cultivated our minds.” The key to throwing off these chains of mental immaturity is to follow reason and judgment without solely depending on blind faith.

(The author is student of Business Administration in IIUI)