When I think about The Enlightenment I think about rational thinkers making their best attempts to examine the world free from bias. I think of individuals who pursued new knowledge and truth and believed that life should be organized around reason. Many of them probably failed to live up to such goals, but their aspirations were virtuous in the sense that they attempted to live their lives not according to their own desires and pleasures but according to what science could show them was true and accurate about the physical world and man’s place within it.
Today, these Enlightenment values still exist and are with us, but they have dwindled to an extent. Science can tell us what is accurate and what is true. Reason can tell us what is good for ourselves, our society, and our planet. But neither can tell us how we should find enjoyment in our lives, how we should appreciate art and beauty, or what and who we should love. We can use statistical analyses, research surveys, and other tools of science and reason to determine a course of life that is likely to maximize certain values, but science and reason cannot pick the values we chose to maximize. There is something else, some intangible sense of a life worth living, of what we naturally gravitate toward and resonate with that science cannot answer for us. This is part of the heart of the counter-Enlightenment.
“A child of the counter-Enlightenment, then,” writes Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature, “does not pursue a goal because it is objectively true or virtuous, but because it is a unique product of one’s creativity.”
American individualism is in many ways a product of this form of counter-Enlightenment. It is clear that drinking less, not smoking or vaping, driving less expensive vehicles, and exercising daily are good for us. It is clear that doing these things are likely to help us live healthy lives that are not overly financially burdened. But for many people, doing so is boring, hard, and unrewarding at an individual level. We want to be able to enjoy life with a vice or two. We want to have an expensive and unique car, even if it financially pushes us to the brink. We don’t want to spend all our free time exercising when there are such great TV shows and movies to watch and such great desserts out there to try. We are not motivated by what is objectively true, statistically likely to lead to a life that is healthy and financially stable, and what might be considered virtuous. We are motivated by what we can do to set ourselves apart, what we can do to be a uniquely creative individual, by what we can do to live a pleasurable and interesting life. The counter-Enlightenment fuels us to make decisions that rationally seem counterproductive to living a long, healthy, and successful life. But if we consider that our goals is to maximize our unique, entertaining, and creative life choices, then much of what we chose to do begins to make sense. We do not have Enlightenment goals, but rather our own counter-Enlightenment goals for life.