Enlightenment for you and me, by Gabor Steingart.
[noun]: the victory of reason and self-determination over God, devil and king. A process that continues to this day.
The term Enlightenment refers to the transformation of societies in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was the era when the bourgeoisie liberated itself from the clutches of church and king, and rejected myths, fairy tales and superstition.
Enlightenment was the necessary precondition for the beginning of the industrial revolution.
To understand the economically stimulating effect of the period, it’s important to understand its predecessor, the feudal age.
In economic terms, the rule of royal dynasties and other powerful families was one of the bleakest periods in human history.
During the 150-year reign of the German Fugger dynasty, for example, the income of ordinary people stagnated at a level that only enabled them to buy basic goods to survive. In the Holy Roman Empire, which lasted 800 years until Napoleon smashed it in 1806, the overwhelming majority of farmers and craftsmen lived hand to mouth. One bad harvest was enough to cause a famine. Historical records also do not suggest any significant rise in income during the reign of France‘s illustrious monarch, King Louis XIV.
Then came the great social upheavals. The French Revolution of 1789, the War of Independence waged by American settlers against the British crown, Germany‘s democratic uprisings in the 1830s and 1840s, and all the other revolts of the Enlightenment catapulted civil society to the fore. The outcome was the civilized human being, the middleclass intellectual and citizen; self-confident individuals no longer willing to be subjugated or addressed as underlings.
Enlightened people no longer looked up in reverence to God or down in fear at the devil. Instead, they looked straight ahead, as Austrian philosopher Egon Friedell wrote in his book “A Cultural History of the Modern Age.” Man no longer saw the world as a God-given reality, but “as a site of possibility for everything that could be useful, charitable and life-promoting, an immense field of operation for the pursuit and enhancement of the forces of pure reason, which dares to do anything, is fearful of nothing and cannot be disappointed by anything.”
This brings us to a common misconception: The Enlightenment is not an historical epoch that ended but a vital process that continues to this day.
Or, to put it another way, the revolutionaries are alive and well, and they look a bit like you and me.
This new type of revolutionary has embarked on a march through his own life. Instead of faith, he wants knowledge. Instead of breaking chains, he takes them off. And instead of demanding, he goes ahead and takes what he needs.
Enlightenment 4.0 is changing the economy and society more than we realize. Banks are not being stormed but regulated. The power plants of the nuclear industry are not threatened by explosives but by the prospect of being shut down. The leaders of political parties are not falling victim to mob law but merely to comatose apathy. The revolt doesn’t hate but ignores. And it doesn’t need a pistol, just a remote control.
Today’s silent revolution, accompanied by terms like “disaffected voter” and “Generation Y,” is no less serious than its predecessors. It is forcing people to confront the last bastions of the establishment, the authoritarian principalities of the corporate world, the arrogance of the party state, the courtly rituals of the media aristocracy, the sovereign territories of an archaically shaped, male-dominated world, and the infantilizing institutions we call schools. They all feel exposed to a silent flood. The revolution of modern-day Enlighteners is powerful, partly because it maintains no center of power. It populates the fluid gaps in a world that has torn down all barriers between the real and the virtual. Those who stand in the way of this revolution will only stand in their own way. In other words, the Enlightenment lives on — mainly in
Gabor Steingart is the publisher of Handelsblatt.