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Something truly momentous happened in the 19th century, something which changed every aspect of life on the planet, something which unleashed wonderful and terrible powers.
These powers have allowed humans to touch other worlds, and yet are capable of driving the next mass extinction or ending life as we know it.
If you look at any metric of human activity, from population to economic, scientific, artistic, or literary output over time, you can’t miss the massive inflection point that occurred in the 19th century. Every aspect of human society was upended – from race, class, and gender roles to technology to scientific understanding to political structures.
Baha’is believe that this momentous, pivotal point came about, both directly and indirectly, as a result of the regenerative power of the revelation of Baha’u’llah. This kind of regeneration occurs, the Baha’i teachings point out, when a universal divine messenger appears, proclaiming a new day:
It has been promised and recorded in all the Sacred Books and Scriptures that in this Day of God His divine call and spiritual sovereignty will be established, the world will be renewed, a fresh spirit will be breathed into the body of creation, the divine springtime will be ushered in, the clouds of mercy will rain down, the Sun of Truth will shine forth, the life-giving breezes will blow: The world of humanity will be educated; war, dissension, strife, and contention will vanish; truthfulness, uprightness, peace, and godliness will prevail; love, concord, and union will encompass the world …
… when raised, breathed a new life into the body of mankind, and infused a new spirit into the whole creation. It is for this reason that the world hath been moved to its depths, and the hearts and consciences of men been quickened. Erelong the evidences of this regeneration will be revealed, and the fast asleep will be awakened.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, humanity passed through what we now call “the Age of Enlightenment” – but we’re obviously not as enlightened as we need to be, when war, dissension, strife, and contention still dominate our modern reality.
So what is enlightenment? Does it mean reaching a heightened but solely individual and personal consciousness of the human spirit, or can humanity ever collectively achieve it?
Our failure to adequately address this question now manifests itself in the form of the Anthropocene, the next great planetary extinction event caused by human destruction of the global ecosystem.
Beginning with the philosopher Emanual Kant’s answer, through the German Marxist philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno’s warnings of the consequences of the Enlightenment, to Michael Foucault’s deathbed meditation on this question, all attempts to address and re-dress the subject of enlightenment have only led humanity down ever darker pathways.
Why? Because shorn of any reference to humanity’s spiritual transcendence, addressing the question of enlightenment remains meaningless, since it ignores all that is implied by the word. Indeed, devoid of this essentially spiritual recognition, the pursuit of purely rational “enlightenment” becomes a pathway to tyranny and destruction, as Horkheimer and Adorno observed, and as the world witnessed in the 20th century.
After all, how can one have enlightenment without light? Enlightenment presupposes illumination. But what of the nature of this illumination? While the algorithmic workings of the rational machine can explode and explore the logical trajectories of a set of assumptions, they cannot supply the core assumptions themselves, the initial conditions which only conscious perception can provide.
Enlightenment implies that this perception is more than just the unbiased collection of sensory data – that it embraces faculties beyond the physical senses and the rational deductions they perceive. To deny this is to deny the very definition of our humanity. Indeed, it is from this well of perception which the bulk of humanity’s collective assumptions arise, informing our culture, language, and importantly our systems of belief.
Yet the trajectory of Western European thought since Kant involved an increasing rejection of this aspect of our humanity in the name of “enlightenment” – with terrible consequences. In the 20th century, the disasters in the form of two world wars, Fascist- and Soviet-style totalitarianism, and genocidal loss of life in multiple nations had destroyed the idea that the Enlightenment, the so-called “Age of Reason,” had positively changed the trajectory of human history.
Many philosophers have, by this point, come to believe that these disasters were a direct consequence of the type of thinking which underpinned the Western Enlightenment tradition. They believe that something has gone very wrong in Western thought, including traditional liberalism and Marxism – both rooted in the rationalist philosophy of the Enlightenment. This theme now dominates much of modern philosophy, being embodied in the general term “post-modernism.” This view was expressed in the opening paragraph The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno’s seminal work:
Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth radiates under the sign of disaster triumphant.
The inception of the Age of Enlightenment – with the works of philosophers like Rousseau, Hume, and Locke, culminating with works of Immanuel Kant near the close of the 18th century – entailed a pivot away from religion and tradition towards the use of pure rationality as the best means for arriving at truth. The capstone of this philosophical turn was captured by Kant’s response to a question posed by the German philosophical periodical, Berlinische Monatschrift, “What is Enlightenment?” In 1784 they published Kant’s response, which cast enlightenment as:
… man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) “Have the courage to use your own understanding,” is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.
Kant’s premise entailed a call for individual detachment from the norms and understanding of others to attain knowledge: to reach objectivity.
Baha’u’llah and The Enlightenment
More than 70 years later, Baha’u’llah, while in exile in Baghdad, would open his seminal work on theology The Book of Certitude with a seemingly very similar call for the independent investigation of the truth, writing: “No man shall attain the shores of the ocean of true understanding except he be detached from all that is in heaven and on earth.”
In another work Baha’u’llah implored humanity to “see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor.”
Baha’u’llah’s teachings address the central questions the Enlightenment raised in the modern age – yet in the Baha’i Faith, Kant’s detachment from tradition and dogma represents just the first step in the process of enlightenment, and not its final goal.
Baha’u’llah taught that only through detachment could the veils which obscure the transcendent faculties of human perception be removed. The next step involves the use of this perception to achieve recognition, delineated in his central text of laws The Most Holy Book, which he opened by writing “The first duty prescribed by God for His servants is the recognition of Him Who is the Dayspring of His Revelation.”