Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A Commonplace Entry

What is Enlightenment?

Enlightenment is 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.

Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large part of mankind gladly remain minors all their lives, long after nature has freed them from external guidance. They are the reasons why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as guardians. It is so comfortable to be a minor. If I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet, and so on--then I have no need to exert myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay; others will take care of that disagreeable business for me. Those guardians who have kindly taken supervision upon themselves see to it that the overwhelming majority of mankind--among them the entire fair sex--should consider the step to maturity, not only as hard, but as extremely dangerous. First, these guardians make their domestic cattle stupid and carefully prevent the docile creatures from taking a single step without the leading-strings to which they have fastened them. Then they show them the danger that would threaten them if they should try to walk by themselves. Now this danger is really not very great; after stumbling a few times they would, at last, learn to walk. However, examples of such failures intimidate and generally discourage all further attempts.

Thus it is very difficult for the individual to work himself out of the nonage which has become almost second nature to him. He has even grown to like it, and is at first really incapable of using his own understanding because he has never been permitted to try it. Dogmas and formulas, these mechanical tools designed for reasonable use--or rather abuse--of his natural gifts, are the fetters of an everlasting nonage. The man who casts them off would make an uncertain leap over the narrowest ditch, because he is not used to such free movement. That is why there are only a few men who walk firmly, and who have emerged from nonage by cultivating their own minds.

It is more nearly possible, however, for the public to enlighten itself; indeed, if it is only given freedom, enlightenment is almost inevitable. There will always be a few independent thinkers, even among the self-appointed guardians of the multitude. Once such men have thrown off the yoke of nonage, they will spread about them the spirit of a reasonable appreciation of man's value and of his duty to think for himself. It is especially to be noted that the public which was earlier brought under the yoke by these men afterwards forces these very guardians to remain in submission, if it is so incited by some of its guardians who are themselves incapable of any enlightenment. That shows how pernicious it is to implant prejudices: they will eventually revenge themselves upon their authors or their authors' descendants. Therefore, a public can achieve enlightenment only slowly. A revolution may bring about the end of a personal despotism or of avaricious tyrannical oppression, but never a true reform of modes of thought. New prejudices will serve, in place of the old, as guide lines for the unthinking multitude.

This enlightenment requires nothing but freedom--and the most innocent of all that may be called "freedom": freedom to make public use of one's reason in all matters. Now I hear the cry from all sides: "Do not argue!" The officer says: "Do not argue--drill!" The tax collector: "Do not argue--pay!" The pastor: "Do not argue--believe!" Only one ruler in the world says: "Argue as much as you please, but obey!" We find restrictions on freedom everywhere. But which restriction is harmful to enlightenment? Which restriction is innocent, and which advances enlightenment? I reply: the public use of one's reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind. . .

"What is Enlightenment?" - Immanuel Kant

Saturday, October 14, 2017

A Good Man

The Idiot 

Part I, Prince Myshkin Returns

The Idiot

“One can't understand everything at once, we can't begin with perfection all at once! In order to reach perfection one must begin by being ignorant of a great deal. And if we understand things too quickly, perhaps we shan't understand them thoroughly.”  ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot

The Idiot is one of Dostoevsky's great novels from the final decade of his life. Narrated in the third person it tells a tale of the fate of a truly good man, an apparently naive innocent. This character, Prince Lef Nicolaievitch Myshkin, is a noble man whose behavior at first is only strange and unconventional. Short, slight, with light hair and mustache, nearly white beard, and searching blue eyes, he arrests the attention of all who see him. His naive, unblemished goodness, in part the result of his life-long bout with epilepsy, causes men to doubt him and women to love him. He is considered by some to be in part a prototype for the character of Aloysha Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov.

After four years spent in Switzerland, where he was treated for his epilepsy at a sanatorium, Prince Myshkin returns to St. Petersburg. On the train, the threadbare shabbiness of his clothing attracts the attention of the other passengers. One of these, Parfen Rogozhin, begins to question him. By the time they reach Petersburg, the prince and Rogozhin are well informed about each other, and Rogozhin offers to take the prince to his home and to give him money.

Myshkin, however, first wants to introduce himself to General Epanchin, whose wife is distantly related to him. At the Epanchin home, he meets the general and his secretary, Ganya, who invites him to become one of his mother’s boarders. The prince interests the general, who gives him some money, and he fascinates the general’s wife and three daughters. His lack of sophistication, his naïveté, and his frankness, charm and amuse the family. Soon they begin to call him “the idiot,” half in jest, half in earnest, but he remains on good terms with them. At one point the narrator relates the Prince's thoughts about being called an idiot: "Everybody also considers me an idiot for some reason, and in fact I was once so ill that I was like an idiot; but what sort of idiot I am now, when I myself understand that I'm considered an idiot? I come in and think: 'They consider me an idiot, but I'm intelligent all the same, and they don't even suspect it . . .' I often have that thought."(p 75)

In this first of four parts of the novel we are introduced to themes of class distinction through the many characters we meet at the Epanchins and elsewhere; while a contrast is developed between Myshkin and those he meets primarily through his indifference to the trappings of society, including their money, dress, and self-serving behavior. Other themes arise such as death, which is emphasized through two stories related by the Prince, and sickness that is endemic to the Prince's physical character. One of the stories about death mirrors an actual experience of Dostoevsky when in his youth he had been imprisoned and taken out to be executed -- an execution that was abrogated at the last moment leaving a permanent scar on Dostoevsky's psyche.

The first part, covers only the first day of the Prince's return to Petersburg, and concludes with several chapters detailing a drinking party given by Nastasya Filippovna, a courtesan. Extremely emotional and neurotic, Nastasya is thought by many to be guilty of  sins of which she is really innocent. Myshkin realizes her helplessness and pities her; and he asks her to marry him, saying that he received an unexpected inheritance. She refuses, declaring that she has no desire to cause his ruin. Instead she goes with Rogozhin, who brings her a hundred thousand rubles.  Will the prince continue to pursue Nastasya?  Perhaps Part Two will tell us.

Friday, October 06, 2017

The Reformation Begins

On Christian Liberty 

On Christian Liberty

"So the Christian who is consecrated by his faith does good works, but the works do not make him holier or more Christian, for that is the work of faith alone."  - Martin Luther

In 1520, three years after posting his famous theses, Luther was still a monk in the Catholic Church. It was then that he wrote this short manifesto regarding the nature of the freedom of a Christian. In it he elucidates some of the principles that would become the foundation of the Protestant Reformation. He opens with a discussion of "man's twofold nature" of the inner spiritual nature or the soul and the outer bodily nature of the flesh. These two natures are in conflict for it is the inner nature or soul that is fed by the preaching of Christ that makes it righteous. He also discusses the seeming contradiction that the Christian is both free and subject to no one while at the same time in bondage and servant to all.

This short but rich text also brings out the importance of each individual being his own priest; thus laying the foundation for the doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers". I was impressed with Luther's style of argument, for he argued from the text of the Bible rather than from his unsupported views. In doing so he was able to rationally support statements that seemed contradictory on the surface. Admittedly the arguments depended on your acceptance of the divinity of the Bible as God's word. However, for Luther and his audience this was not an issue.

Luther had been concerned with edicts by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church that had no biblical support. It is likely that with this in mind on September 6, 1520 he sent this manifesto with a letter to Pope Leo X. However the Catholic hierarchy was not be responsive to Luther's arguments. In the following year he was called to appear before the Diet of Worms and was declared a heretic.