En­ligh­ten­ment for you and me, by Ga­bor St­ein­gart.

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[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

our­sel­ves.

Ga­bor St­ein­gart is the pu­blis­her of Han­dels­blatt.

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