Somewhere down the line, we lost The Big Idea of the Enlightenment.
Prior to the Enlightenment, academe was all Christ and Aristotle. Christ was there to tell us how to live, Aristotle to tell us why Christ was right, and that was it.
That was fine at a time when the academicians were training for a life in the Church, but with an increasing intrusion into academe of those who did not see their destiny in religious cloisters, philosophers began to say ‘Hang on a bit. We’ve got a lot of hindsight here they never had. Can’t we do any better than that?’
This was the time when intellectuals stopped kneeling at the feet of giants and began to stand on their shoulders. They looked back on the seventeen centuries between themselves and Christ, the two millennia separating them from Aristotle, and saw that time had not stood still. Progress had been made in philosophy, in natural philosophy, in engineering, in agriculture and yes, in metaphysics and moral philosophy. Though kneeling at the feet of giants had proved safe — if we survived the previous century we were likely to survive the next by doing the same thing after all — innovation had come regardless. How much more may come if that were acknowledged and people began to formulate innovative thoughts not as happy accidents, but rather as a way of life?
It’s hard to imagine all these years on how innovative that was. Or then again, perhaps not. Recently, things seem to have slowed down on the innovation front. Academe seems to be increasingly a closed shop in which people prove themselves not through innovation, but by commentary upon their predecessors; where new thoughts need to be backed up with citations from reputable sources to demonstrate their validity; where merit is measured not by ideas never previously formulated, but by the quotation of those old and stale; where the intellectual is measured not by what he or she thinks, but by what he or she knows.
In discussing ideas for the Manifesto project I intend getting down to when time permits, hopefully before year’s end 2014, (money and time permitting), I found myself supporting both Karl Marx and Adam Smith; each of them in part, neither of them wholly. Writing this —
This is not the free-market economy that Smith envisaged. This is the free-market economy Marx envisaged.
Given that we followed the dictums of Smith in getting here, we think he would have approved of it. He would not.
Given that Marx knew this was going to happen, we think he must have had the answer to it. He did not.
We need to use Marx as the analyst for what went wrong with Smith, then use our own [expletive deleted, it was a contentious debate] heads, no one else’s, with 250 years’ more experience than one and 150 years’ more experience than the other, to work out how to get to what Smith envisaged in the first place through the legislation — even a constitution — he never believed would be necessary
– writing this, then, I found myself dismissed as a middle-of-the-road, all-things-to-all-people fence-sitter. I had to take Smith or Marx, alone, and each as an all-or-nothing package deal.
Now, acknowledge as I would the genius of both, eschew as I might any suggestion my own humble intellect is in any way reflective of theirs, I still can’t help feeling that I see the modern world a lot more clearly than either of those gentlemen. For that matter, so does the average ten-year-old. 150 and odd years beyond the one, 250 and odd years beyond the other, we are — after all — living here. That doesn’t mean we dismiss them altogether and start listening to ten-year-old children of course, but we have to approach Marx and Smith both with our eyes open to the present and the past that came after them.
In politics and economics in particular, but in other areas as well, I see questions going begging while people wave old tomes around instead of thinking for themselves a bit more.
We need a New Enlightenment.