QUARRELING WITH THE ENLIGHTENMENT

My life has been governed by the ideas of the Enlightenment that have framed school, church, marriage, work, patriotism and international development. I realized the depth of this through the Unitarian Universalist focus on principles derived from Enlightenment thought but increasingly threatened. Now that I am trying to struggle free from the assumptions of logic and rational thought, the struggle draws the covers off of much of what I thought I was doing.

The Enlightenment is enmeshed with the idea of the middle class, the demographic of people who have the money and leisure to become “educated” which is an Enlightenment idea, so one becomes educated by accepting and becoming skillful at the concepts of this point of view, which were part of what founded this country and now takes the UUA perilously close to being the Democratic party. The contrasting values and strategies of “embodiment” or autochthony are pushed away as childish, primitive, or irrelevant. This was clear and explicit at the U of Chicago Div School, pejoratively labeled “mere phenomenology.” There was a shift about the time I left, prompted by the French philosophers like Derrida and Foucault.

Enlightenment values to my Scots father (his father was educated in Scotland) was the accumulation of data and a kind of check list of important places as icons. Also, an acceptance of conventional appearances like sentimental classical music and lots of books that never got read. The family attitude handles emotional matters with secrecy or belittling amusement, and prizes IQ measurement and good grades.

I thought my mother’s family was untouched by the Enlightenment, but I was wrong. They were hooked hard on the need to be respected and rising. My maternal grandfather married above himself in class (She was a Cochran, a prominent family in early Oregon.) and planned that his daughters should be teachers, lawyers, and nurses. (They lived on an orchard.)

The Enlightenment and the middle class seem to be entwined. Their combined assumptions have controlled my life opportunities and decisions. “Known as the “working class” or the “bourgeoisie” this class consisted of lawyers, doctors, lower ranking military officers, and merchants. The middle class was “the bridge to nobility”, because it allowed people to convert their wealth into power due to the new ideas introduced during the Enlightenment.”

This is a vast subject and has been attacked from many angles. Another related quarrel is with the division between science and religion that Enlightenment created when they ruled out myth and mysticism. Templeton and now his foundation are seeking reconciliation between those two “categories” but are crippled by their attachment to making “theos” (God) into some kind scientifically perceptible entity. (They won’t give up the Queen, either.)

My approach to this quandary is to ignore the PhD route that supports it, the idea of philosophy as a sequence of papers written by prominent men that one masters by entering the on-going arguments and observing their limits. In rereading my archive of letters from Davidson Loehr, who is totally committed to Enlightment values, I see he tells me repeatedly that unlike himself I could not understand Wittgenstein. True. Nor do I want to.

Another route guided by the Enlightenment is the development of the Rule of Law which supports democracy and is currently threatened by a mafia-like loyalty to a small subgroup that maintains exorbitant wealth by any means necessary, even reinstating the wars for control that were ended by the Enlightenment in Europe. They have NOT been ended in other parts of the world except by autocracy that limits individuals and freezes them in place socially and geographically. Those autocrats are upset by Western Enlightenment values. One of their most violent means of resisting reasonal resistance is to starve their people to death.

Abuses of autocracy, such as diverting a country’s wealth, have become more difficult due to the “endarkenment” force of the Internet, which ironically makes obvious the previous secrecy of laundering and double bookkeeping, even as it provides an illusion of privacy. Politics is changed when the Middle Class can watch videos of provable lying. Trumpies are NOT middle class, but they aspire to that status and beyond. They are not educated to Middle Class values, nor do they even recognize that rational progressive behavior exists.

I’ve said again and again that I was called away from the raw Enlightenment by theatre, the Blackfeet people, and stigmatized men like the gender noncompliant, gay or fluid. My own non-compliance with gender is not about sex but about gender role. I think too much and do too little housework. I avoid children. I do not care about performance sex, but only about human intimacy. Maybe cross-species attachment.

Worse, I’m enamored of where Enlightenment science and math have taken us by creating a technology that redefines everything with its greatly expanded knowledge of DNA, cell structure, cosmic structure, time traces, soil function, quantum mechanics, on and on and on. This far exceeds the Enlightenment and threatens to exceed the capacity of techies to control the same programs and algorithms they earlier wrote. Witness Zuck and my email provider, 3rivers, both of which are out of control.

We no longer think of an individual human being as separate, free-standing and conscious of all decisions. Now we are produced by relationship to everything around us, most of it as unconscious as for any mammal but, sadly, not always preserving the perceptions that a bird or beaver have, like magnetism or some vibrations. We avoid embedding in place, many never achieve attachment. (Not me. I want this “home” feeling.)

When I say theatre, I don’t mean performance. I mean Stanislavski’s awareness of unconscious interior life and its called-up memory to manage identity so as to recreate characters and cultural situations, as illustrated in plays.

When I say Blackfeet, I mean what Ryan Heavy Head (now Ryan First Diver) explores in his Lethbridge Master’s Thesis which is discussion that enters the language-made world on the east slope of the Rockies extending across two watersheds, one that drains to Hudson’s Bay and the other that goes to the Gulf of Mexico. The People occupied the ecosystem of high prairie that is grasslands bisected by deep coulees and valleys created when the last glaciation melted, sending major erosive streams down the watersheds. This ecosystem defines the early people.

When I say noncompliant stigmatized gender definitions, I’m referring to the people like Oscar Wilde who was able to confound the Enlightenment folks with his resourcefulness and elegant performance, but also to people like the great numbers of boys entering puberty with the realization that they do not want sex-based desire for women, which results in fertility and pregnancy, but rather want sex based on desire for men — which is quite a different sort of intimacy and calls into question much that is conventional and even enforced by criminal definition.

The questions raised are at once subtle and sweeping, challenging a movement like Enlightenment to justify individuals without excluding them from community, regardless of wealth or education. (I do not accept race as a defining quality. Just racism.) Survival depends upon eating but access to food is controlled by social approval and used to force behavior. Gay boys are like an internal third world. If they are starving, unsheltered, and without medical care, we need a new world paradigm.

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Mary Strachan Scriver

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.