On The Blindness Of The Supposed Enlightenment

Towards the end of his book Hitler’s Bureaucrats, Holocaust scholar Jaacov Lozowick responds to a quote by Aharon Appelfield with the following observation about the limitations of the enlightenment:  “Enlightenment, rationalism, universality, humanism – all of these failed when faced with the “forces of darkness and evil,” and could not defend the Jews (in fact, faith in them contributed to their destruction) (274).”  The author seems himself as a rationalist, and has sought to understand Hitler and the Nazis, only to find that doing so required a mental category of evil that has no place in enlightenment thinking.  This is a common enlightenment problem, and it is a problem that cuts in at least two directions.  On the one hand, believing that one is enlightened and that one has moved beyond primitive moral views of the world blinds one to the evil that exists in the outside world.  Moreover, it also blinds one to the evil that exists inside of the person who thinks of themselves as being beyond questions of good and evil, thus putting them morally in the same position as the fascists who such enlightenment thinkers hate so much.

Why is it that Antifascists and fascists resemble each other so closely?  It is the tendency of those who are extremists involved in ideology to see evil as belonging to groups of people.  While the fascist thinks that the destruction of Marxists will make the world a better place, the Marxist things that ridding the world of what is labeled as fascist will make the world a better place.  In both cases, the extremist denies the truth that Solzhenitsyn recognized, namely that the line between good and evil cuts through every human heart.  None of us is immune to evil, and some of us cultivate our evil by cultivating hatred and violence towards others.  Some of us willfully blind ourselves to our evil by fancying ourselves to be reasonable people free from the prejudices that other people have.  Such people as consider themselves the most rationalist are blind to their ideological prejudices, the way that they look down on those they consider unintelligent or uneducated or uncultured.  Those who think that they are part of a global and universal cultural elite blind themselves to the fact that they have simply joined themselves to a cosmopolitan tribe in opposition to other tribes who are immensely hostile to them.

It is one of the strange quirks of linguistics that one understands when one studies other languages and cultures that a great many people of the world consider themselves to be “the people” and have somewhat harsher words to refer to those who are not part of their people.  And social experiments conducted in the 20th century demonstrated that it is very easy to get people to develop a group identity that allows them to behave with a great deal of cruelty and hostility against those who are only slightly different then they are.  Even our dystopian fiction is filled with grim reminders of the hostility that people can show based on rather tenuous group identities dispensed by joining ceremonies or sorting hats or the like.  Empathy is not a rational quality, and one of the major areas of blindness that people have is pride in thinking that they have moved beyond problems when they have not.  Nationalism and religious bigotry, such as they exist, are a part of the human tendency to celebrate the in-group and denigrate the out-group.  This occurs also in our political joining practices, as well as our behavior as sports fans or anything else that relates to our identity.  As human beings, we have a tendency to celebrate whatever groups we are a part of because those groups include us, and to cast shade upon those groups that do not include us.  If we do not exactly wish to celebrate or encourage these tendencies, it is important that we recognize them as this tendency greatly shapes our behavior.  Whenever we are no longer included in a group, our opinion of that group will be shaped by our own status more than by the intrinsic worth or lack of worth of that group.

Over and over again, we find ourselves wrestling with the nature of blindness and enlightenment.  Enlightenment depends first on our self-knowledge, and yet when we think ourselves to be enlightened, what we often lack the most is that self-knowledge that would otherwise keep us humble, the knowledge of the evils that lurk inside of us.  We obviously do not want to stare too much into the abyss that is inside of us, but it is for the best if we have a great deal of awareness about our vulnerabilities.  What do we lust after?  What do we resent?  In what things are we most proud?  What aspects of ourselves are the most essential in defining our identity?  How do we take criticism and rebuke?  How long do we hold a grudge against our enemies?  How fiercely do we act towards those who hurt us?  Life presents us with opportunities for us to know ourselves, and if we are observant, we will recognize both the good and the bad tendencies we have to a great degree, and we can cultivate the good and seek to counteract and overcome those negative tendencies that we find in ourselves.  Yet all too often people fancy themselves enlightened because they are trying to shine a light on the problems of others and not because they have first shined a light into their own darkness, which provides the material for empathy and overcoming that allows one to be fit to encourage and provide a suitable example of behavior for others.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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