Why turn to the Enlightenment? There is no better option. Rejections of the Enlightenment result in premodern nostalgia or postmodern suspicion; where Enlightenment is at issue, modernity is at stake. A defence of the Enlightenment is a defence of the modern world, along with all its possibilities for self-criticism and transformation. If you’re committed to Enlightenment, you are committed to understanding the world in order to improve it. Twenty-first century Enlightenment must extend the work of the 18th by pointing out new dangers to freedom of thought within our own culture as well as without it, and extend social justice by expanding older attacks on injustice. These are crucial commitments, but they are also formal ones, like the tolerance and scepticism often cited as crucial to the Enlightenment core. Scepticism and tolerance will not take us very far; while it’s possible they may prevent harm, it’s unlikely that they can inspire anyone to do good. Reclaiming the Enlightenment must entail reexamining other values that derive from it, and these must include at least four. One of them is the idea that human beings have equal rights to happiness on earth. Earlier ages viewed disease as a sign of divine disfavour, or poverty a condition to be remedied in heaven; only Enlightenment thinking allowed us to view them as things human beings might overcome. A second Enlightenment value is the commitment to reason – not as opposed to passion, which was as riotous during the 18th century as at any other period, but as opposed to blind authority and superstition.
more from Susan Neiman at the New Humanist here.