There are a great many people in the world today who have chosen to reject the enlightenment and its legacies. Many people who do this believe that they are actually still in line with these principles and do not realize that they are rejecting it. Others think they have found the right way forward, past it into a better place. These people are usually wrong but I suppose we would have to go case by case to know for certain. There is a final set that I had believed to only exist in memes and internet legends. These are those people who openly and sincerely believe that the Enlightenment was a mistake, our world is objectively worse for it.
It was this last group that I encountered before going to bed last evening. I am not ashamed to admit that I was so taken by surprise that I couldn’t at the time even respond to the arguments that were presented to me. I also wouldn’t presume to attack the entire body of thought because I know nothing about it and frankly I’m not sure that I want to. I am very open to reading and hearing the cases for schools of thought that I disagree with so ultimately I’m sure I could be talked around into sitting down and listening to them. For now though I would like to present some counter arguments to the case as it was advanced to me.
There were three principle points presented to me. First that individualism is inherently bad and by its nature leads to the societal decay and decadence that we see today. Second that Protestantism broke up wider “Christendom” and that this was an undesirable outcome. Finally, this one may seem unrelated but I am convinced and they seemed similarly persuaded that Martin Luther and his Reformation can be seen as the beginning of the Enlightenment. The individual I was speaking with must be similarly persuaded because they attempted to point out to me that strictly speaking Luther failed to reform “The Church.”
I will take these accusations one by one, starting with the first. The broader time frame of the Enlightenment was the first time in centuries that we had seen thinkers really consider people as individually autonomous units. This is not the default state of human nature. We are collectivist and tribal by instinct. We consciously and unconsciously sort ourselves into groups and give our loyalties to these groups typically without thinking. This is where some of the greatest sins of human nature come from. War is a product of one identity group deciding it needs something from another identity group and being unable or more likely unwilling to barter for it. Genocide also results from this natural group think evolving and dictating that something must be done about the “out-group question.” Individualism however dictates that we are no longer parts of these monolithic groups and have the freedom to consider other individuals’ as not outsiders in an opposed group but rather a fellow autonomous unit or individual. This empathy protects us from the horrors of group conflict.
So it would seem there is a clear benefit to individualism. Are the drawbacks what was actually presented? Do they cancel out these benefits? No and then once again no. Morality and the strength of ethical institutions are not derived from the power of groups that run them but from the individuals that compose the membership. Churches are not good because something about the structure or nature of a given church makes them good. Churches are good because they are composed of individual believers who act on their beliefs by willingly coming together to worship and then returning to their own lives. Finally I remain unpersuaded that any one philosophy must naturally drag a person into another different philosophy. Individualism might have laid the ground work for people to conduct the thought experiments that led to romanticism and post-modernism, but nothing in individualism forces a person to adopt either of these real drivers of civil decay. There is never a compulsion for someone to change the way they think. Being a libertarian does not force me to then become a Anachro-Capitalist.
To the accusation that the shattering of “Christendom” was bad, I would ask people who believe this to examine whether or not it ever truly existed. Augustine through Luther and into our modern world advanced an idea of two kingdoms. One being the individual spiritual church of all believers and the other being the physical political union of believers. This is most often seen through the body of the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Church that founded and supported it. This is a myth and the Reformation demonstrated it. The HRE and the Catholic Church were nothing more than another edition of a “federal” style government for Medieval kingdoms. They were still individual states with individually interested rulers. The Thirty Years Wars and every war before them unfortunately proved that these individual states had first priority over the great union of supposed “Christendom.” A sovereign political union of Christians has never and frankly should never exist.
The final point I may very well be forced to concede. Martin Luther did fail to more broadly reform the church. He won specifically the battle over the sale of indulgences. He didn’t get any other concessions from the Catholic Church, and instead eventually had to form his own congregations that would eventually grow into the “Singing Church” as we know it today. As a final point however I would point out that as a consequence of individualism, we shouldn’t try to say that all reformers are the result of Luther. He may have been the most significant of them but Huss, zwingli, and all the others were their own individual self-determinate men. Thank you for bearing with me.