What is Enlightenment? – a response to Levi Bryant

Bryant posted recently about how he would define the notion of “Enlightenment.” I agree with part of what he has to say, in that clearly Enlightenment does concern the bursting forth of critique. Where we seem to disagree is on the extent to which critique can ever lift itself entirely above the mythopoietic structure of the cultures to which it belongs and out of which it came. Here is my response to him:

So “mythic” modes of consciousness are “immature” across the board? Are you arguing that the Enlightened are those grown ups who have entirely transcended myth to live in the full light of Reason? Or would you admit that story and narrative are essential and inevitable factors in all human knowledge of self and world?

To my mind, the Enlightenment represents a new awakening to (or remembrance of) a 2,500 year old axial form of mythospeculation that is not only reflexive (as the Greek tragedies and Jewish prophecies were), but now also self-reflexive. Individuals begin to step into their own authority as legitimate grounds for reasons. They need no longer draw explicitly on gods or kings or even kin when they argue for an essential rightness, or goodness, or truth concerning the world. Truth needs no intermediary. Of course, individuals always implicitly draw on ancient traditions of interpretation when they reason, whether they are deriving a mathematical formula in a lab, protesting for their freedom in the streets, or reading the first verses of John’s gospel at their bedside.

The Enlightenment didn’t do away with transcendence or myth. The Enlightenment offered us a new myth, the myth of mythlessness, and a new transcendence, that of Theory and Science. God was killed, but the Mind of Man was crowned in Its place.

I don’t think we need more Enlightenment. We don’t need more myth, either.
We need to integrate theory and story. We are more than merely rational beings. Rational intelligence emerges only within a matrix of culture and symbolism and finds its bearings amidst the stories sustained by this matrix.

Certain passions have haunted and lead us to cruelty, no doubt; but other passions provide the heart’s very reasons for living, “reasons that reason doesn’t know.”

I’m all about the Light.

But let’s not forget that the most brilliant lights casts the darkest shadows.


Update: the discussion continues over at Knowledge-Ecology.

To sum up:

Levi and I seem to be disagreeing about whether myth penetrates to the level of ontology, or whether it is merely an epistemic limit or veil that can be removed and discarded after logical, scientific thought has revealed the pure light of truth hiding behind it. Myth need not be a limit to thought; it can provide a doorway to the infinite if we do not allow it to collapse into narrow literalisms and closed ideologies.

Speculative philosophy is the telling of what Plato called “likely stories,” open-ended accounts of what may be the case, all known things considered.

A New Day on Earth

A new age is being born from the ashes of a corpse consumed in the fire fueled by demonic dreams of animals gone made.

These crazed beasts foresaw the future, and in fear of death, harnessed the rhythms of the stars to grow the seeds that fed empires and sailed ships across continental seas in search of gold–that hallucinated heirloom who’s the reason history is told, its books bought and burned, its wars won and lost at all.

In the age anew, the luster of gold will have returned to its source in the sun, whose generous warmth provides the funds which powers all our lives.

The sickness of the human species is the shame that rises in her soul as the fate of his story is told.

An animal with words is an angel being born.

At first, the creature’s hair is shed, and then, within its head, the tree of life spreads its branches to better receive the light of the world.

This revelation leads man on a quest to slay the dragon whose blood he does not realize pumps also through his own body, and whose fire is the same passion with which his own heart beats.

Man has crucified himself upon the cross of his culture, made the earth in the mechanical image of his own controlling mind.

But he has heard her song again beyond the grave, and the new age resounds with their remarriage.

The earth may be drained, her oceans ravaged, her forests in ruin; but the love of being human after dying as man can save her from his story of conquest.

Out of the pregnant tomb of a race of men is coming a few whose conscience pulls them through the darkness of death to feel the love the light of the sun has for our soul.

Growing toward the light, like the plants of the earth, the humans whose hearts glow with the love of the sun will make heaven out of history and redeem the world of its woes.