Home Deliberation Enlightenment: An Observational Study

Enlightenment: An Observational Study

The book begins with the notion that Enlightenment that is seen as something which was to lift man from myth and religion into the age of reason and intellect, in actuality is a myth itself, for they believe that myth in a big way was a sort of Enlightenment too.


“The curse of irresistible progress is irresistible regression.”

– Dialectic of Enlightenment

Jean Jacques Rousseau, was an important Enlightenment figure who sprung up in France in the 18th century. The brilliance of Rousseau is not just in his critique of Enlightenment, but that he foresaw its inevitable coming and wrote discourses through essays warning of its harming potential and the regression it brings through the facade of progress. Rousseau wrote two famous discourses, one on the arts and sciences also known as the first discourse in 1750, and the second discourse, on inequality in 1755.

In the first discourse, Rousseau points out the fact that the discovery and progress of Arts and Sciences have led to the destruction of morality and induction of vices among the people, he suggests this in the lines, “Before art had moulded our behaviour, our morals were rude but natural; and the different ways in which we behaved proclaimed at the first glance the difference of our dispositions… they could see through one another, and this advantage, of which we no longer feel the value, prevented their having many vices.”

This extremist statement showcases the fact that the act of being civilized, when having shoved down our throats over time, has resulted in the forsaking of our original freedom and has made the people love their slavery. Rousseau doesn’t end his critique just yet, as in the second discourse, he writes, “…And this sentiment must serve as the Praise of your earliest forbears, the criticism of your contemporaries, and the dread of those who will have the misfortune to live after you.”

Rousseau says that the indoctrination of inequality brought into us is not a natural one, but one of amour prope, meaning that we feel pleasure in comparing and feeling superior to others, that civilization of society, is just a delusional concept brought upon by the elite minority to control others politically, gain power over land and maintain an artificial order to keep things in decorum and check.

“Savage man and civilized man differ so much in their inmost heart and inclinations… The first breathes nothing but repose and freedom, he wants only to live and remain idle, and even the Stoic’s ataraxia does not approximate his profound indifference to everything else. By contrast, the Citizen, forever active, sweats and scurries, constantly in search of ever more strenuous occupations: he works to the death, even rushes toward it in order to be in a position to live…”

These lines from the second discourse further push to tell us that man in earlier times was more at peace with his inner and outer self and over time the civilization of man, the advancements reaching out towards Enlightenment has filled us with pointless comparisons with each other, creating social insecurities and the pomp of individual progress which starts to cripple us little by little from the inside, thus the civil man in his expensive flamboyant suits, luxury, comfort, houses, cars starts to feel that they are advancing, but in reality, according to Rousseau, Enlightenment has only made us hollow and incomplete.

Almost two centuries after the second discourse was published, as the age of Enlightenment reached its end, Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno’s book was published, ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’, in 1944. Horkheimer and Adorno were two German Philosophers during the reign of the notorious Hitler, who were living in exile in New York, USA. The book is based on a conversation they had, addressing one major question, ‘Why has or had the Enlightenment, which sought to release man from chains into a freedom of thought gone so terribly wrong?’

The book begins with the notion that Enlightenment that is seen as something which was to lift man from myth and religion into the age of reason and intellect, in actuality is a myth itself, for they believe that myth in a big way was a sort of Enlightenment too. They suggest that myth in the earlier times, with the amount of information discovered and that was available, replaced a chaos of local bodies with a heaven full of meaningful symbols which in the same way today, what science and reason cannot comprehend is termed as supernatural or otherworldly. To explain this concept, Max and Adorno sight the example of Odysseus from Homer’s Odyssey in chapter two of their book.

The renowned epic is famous for its voluminous saga depicting the journey of the witty and cunning Odysseus from Troy to his home, the island Ithaca. Max and Adorno see Odysseus as today’s Bourgeois individual, who fights against the tides, trying to fit in between, striving to become that which is above him and keep afloat from that which is below. Odysseus throughout his journey is seen throwing himself away in many ways, seeking self-preservation, a key trait of a Bourgeois individual.

Next, he is seen outwitting mythic forces and meddling with Gods, to whom instead of offering sacrifice, he cheats and offers bad deals with. In the sacrifice of selfish desires, by not accepting tempting offers of the Gods, Odysseus promotes selfhood but at the same time in the pursuit of upholding selflessness, he has now paradoxically and ironically become a victim of sacrifice. This can be seen in the instance, where Odysseus is confronted by the Cyclops, ‘Polyphemus’, who asks Odysseus for his name to which he responds saying, ‘Udeis’, which when translated from Greek means, ‘Nobody’, so when Polyphemus cries out for help, that “nobody” is attacking him, no one comes to his aid.

In this way Odysseus both loses and gains himself. We see here that the sword of Enlightenment which sought to relinquish and eradicate myth, in turn has become that which it dreaded the most, a myth itself, for as Max and Adorno say, “Enlightenment is mythical fear radicalized.”

The next major theme which shows that Enlightenment has become the reason for our downfall and that progress leads to inevitable regression, is that of, ‘Domination’. The common man looks to find himself in the hope to find Enlightenment in turn to find ‘the self’. He understands that this is a path in which one has to harbour much pain and difficulty and thus hands over the power to rule to certain bodies or individuals and here is when comes in the aspect of Domination.

This becomes the reason that tyrannical leaders start to rule and that we let it happen because our selfish pursuits make it so that we end being so divulged in ourselves that by the time the collective realises the evil that has sprung up and taken root, it becomes too late and the mass which has the power to topple anything or anyone are left as mere sheep being herded as to the rulers liking. It becomes as what Nietzsche remarked that, “While everyone saw Enlightenment as a way of criticizing tyranny. Rulers learned to use it as a weapon to subjugate people’s minds.”

And thus through the views of these three thinkers above, we see how the Age of Enlightenment was not one-sided as many had perceived it to be, that is a universal movement of sovereign minds, but it was also for some a movement which possessed nihilistic and life-denying powers.