This past year, things got foggy. We were confused by fake news and conspiracy theories. We had a hard time seeing beyond partisan division. A kind of spiritual darkness – racism, hate, greed, and anger – lurked in the shadows. Let’s hope that in 2020, we can see more clearly and spread more light.
The goal of the Western philosophical tradition is enlightenment. Immanuel Kant, the great German thinker, said that we should “dare to be wise.” Enlightenment requires us to have the courage to think for ourselves.
Enlightenment is not simply another word for knowledge. Knowledge grew in amazing ways during the past decade. But it is not clear that we are more enlightened.
We have probed into deep space and into the subatomic realm. We know how to edit DNA and make clones. We have discovered planets orbiting distant suns. Human spacecraft visited Pluto and left the solar system. We have learned more about evolution and the history of life. We also understand the perilous impact of human development on the climate and our planet’s ecosystem.
But what good is all of this knowledge without a moral compass and an engaged wisdom? Wisdom situates knowledge within a larger context. Ethical insight leads us to do good with our knowledge.
Philosophers have long worried about knowledge that lacks ethics and wisdom. Bertrand Russell, one of the great philosophers of the 20th century, warned that knowledge without “comprehensive vision” is dangerous. Knowledge of atomic energy created the threat of nuclear weapons. Knowledge of power and propaganda creates the threat of authoritarian politics.
Russell defined wisdom as emancipation from the tyranny of here and now. This gives us a clue about how wisdom is to be found. To be wise is to look up, look around, and look within.
For two and a half millennia, philosophers have called upon us to seek wisdom by seeing things more clearly. Plato suggested that most people are slaves to darkness. We sit in dark caves, he said, looking at flickering images. These images confuse us about reality. We don’t know how to distinguish right from wrong or how to live well. If we could leave the darkness of the cave and see the light, Plato said, we would be good and happy, just and wise.
Plato knew nothing of television, the internet, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. But what he said about life in the cave of ignorance is appropriate to our century. We passively consume images. Our thumbs move across screens. Our eyes flit across the page. Algorithms collect data about us, generating more images for us to consume. Our minds are washed by waves of infotainment. Our bodies grow soft. Confined within silos of information, the human spirit becomes warped. And the social world grows more divided.
One crucial solution is to clean the lenses of perception by learning to think critically about the images that surround us. But clear vision is useless if we look in the wrong direction. Sharp-sighted sociopaths and keen-eyed kleptocrats are very good at manipulating images and seeing how to hurt and take advantage.
We also need to look in the right direction. We need to look up from our screens and take a look around. Most importantly we need to look within. It is self-knowledge that helps us see how bias, prejudice and self-interest cloud good judgment and narrow our point of view.
JESUS’ PARABLE OF THE GOOD SAMARITAN
Narrowed vision is a common human problem. A hint about this is found in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Several people walked past a needy man. Either they looked at him but did not see him, or they saw him but quickly looked away. The hero of the story saw the man’s need. He did not look away. And he took action to make things better.
That’s what enlightened insight looks like. Clear vision helps us see reality as it is. But wisdom should also lead to action. To be wise is to see things clearly, to see them wholly, and to see what needs to be done.
So let’s seize the new year as an opportunity to gain wisdom and seek enlightenment. This is a challenge for this year, this decade, and for a lifetime.