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An inspiring defence of the Enlightenment, humanity and heroism
on 9 July 2009
Susan Neiman delivers as promised an accessible text and a great read in which she vigorously defends the Enlightenment against all comers including counter-Enlightenment's Isaiah Berlin, post modernism's Michel Foucault (the most amoral man Noam Chomsky ever met!) and evangelical Anglicanism's bishop Tom Wright. According to Neiman, the Enlightenment was holistic in preserving emotion and metaphysics as well as establishing reason. It never claimed human progress was inevitable. Kant is her main Enlightenment hero. Neiman's Enlightenment stood against superstition, torture and inherited privilege, and offered a metaphysic of happiness, reason, reverence and hope. She indulges her passion for Bush-bashing extensively which is OK but sometimes a distraction to her more positive themes.
She succeeds in her mission if measured in terms of conviction writing. Her chapter 9 on Hope is particularly inspiring and deserves selective reading for those who want to cherry pick. Here she trounces the negative view of humanity shared by religion's original sin and evolution's selfish gene and follows primatologist Frans de Waal in claiming altruism as a fundamental human characteristic feeding distributive justice in human society, and neurologist V S Ramachandran in observing `mirror neurons' in the human brain which means we are `wired up for empathy and compassion'.
Two weaknesses are i) that she often states what the Enlightenment said and thought without any specific quotation as though it were a single source rather than an expression spread widely over contributors, ideas and time and ii) that she follows the common assumption that reason establishes virtue which it sadly doesn't - ethics are in fact arbitrary. Reason does not necessarily lead to reasonableness. Reason explains what is and virtue says what ought to be, but these don't converge. Neiman glosses over this crack between the twins of the Enlightenment.
But Neiman raises the potential for humans and humanity. She triumphs the hero from the myth of Odysseus. Generosity is heroic, heroism is an available alternative to resignation. `Progress is possible' she says, `and it is up to individuals to make it happen'. This may overlook the question of whether the institutions help or hinder this pursuit but it is undeniably a refreshing optimism for humanity.