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How the Enlightenment Has Failed

On American college campuses, speaking one’s mind has become a dangerous act. What happened?

In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment the main protagonist, a law student named Raskolnikov, tests his will to power by challenging himself to attain social superiority by murdering another human being “rationally” without being affected by that pesky thing called conscience.

This—he reasons—is what distinguishes mere mortals from “great individuals” like Napoleon. In Russian the name Raskolnikov comes from the root word meaning “split”.  This is Dostoevsky’s way of signaling to the reader that the main character is attempting to separate his rational mind from his most basic natural feelings.

Being a Slavophile at heart, Dostoevsky was concerned with attempts in 19th century Russia to adopt Western beliefs and values. Following the tenets of the Enlightenment, the Westernizers in Russia –beginning with Peter the Great - believed that following Reason would improve life for everyone in society.  This intellectual movement became fixated on the notion that one can overcome the influence of “disruptive emotions” that prevent clear logical thinking that leads to individual and social progress.

Slavophiles insisted that this was an illusion – that one cannot simply shut off feelings or separate reason from emotion no more than one can decide to simply stop breathing. We are not machines. Being human means having human ideas, i.e. “thought – feelings”. To believe that one can “turn off” emotions or overcome the influence of feelings is not only foolish, but dangerous. We must be ontologically integrated not split in two. Dostoevsky was clear that he considered “division” to be the biggest problem confronting our species going ahead.

But was he right?

One of the hallmarks of the Enlightenment movement has been the notion of separation of church and state. Indeed, it is a sacrosanct principle that modern nations are built upon. It is also the cause of great personal suffering on a spiritual level. What the world needs is not separation, but spiritual community – what the Slavophiles called “sobornost”. We have replaced the upward movement of the inner path with external (socio-political) progress and the results have been disastrous.

The intellectual obsession with socio-political progress begets enmity and violence among men and women. It drives us apart and pits us against each other leading to feelings of hatred rather than love. Socio-political progress is meaningless and ineffective if it is not accompanied by inner transformation and positive emotions.

One only has to log on to Facebook to experience the cultural malaise we now find ourselves in. Or visit an American college campus where speaking one’s mind has become a dangerous act and where black student activists insist on being separated from the white students. Having spent his entire adult life struggling against segregation, i.e. separation, the reverend Martin Luther King Jr would be appalled to see his legacy disrespected in such a way. The deeply religious Christian minister dreamed of a day where black children and white children would live together in a spiritual community based upon love – that most irrational of all feelings.

In fact, it is love that is missing these days, not progress in the area of social justice. Our lives are inundated with conflict and violence from computer games to street crime to horrendous acts of terrorism on a daily basis. So much so that the unspeakable is now accepted as normal.   The progressive left at our universities is not helping humankind to live a in a better world; it is pushing us farther away from each other towards more separation and enmity. Hatred has replaced love and it is eating away at our souls. It is both tragic and ironic that today’s progressive students embrace the militancy of Che Guevara, but ignore his fundamental belief that “the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love”. Will we ever learn?


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