Reaching Back for Enlightenment
by Dean Jacques

Much of who we are as a nation, our visionary foundation especially, comes from the 17th and 18th century period known as the Age of Enlightenment. It was during this turning point of history that a radical change was made in the way people think and how they confronted the world in which they lived. It produced what historians recognize as the modern mind. That refers to us - at least those of us who liberate our minds through the use of reason, which is what the idea freedom was all about.

The founders of the United States were enthusiastic proponents of Enlightenment principles. Inspired by this powerful movement, which had already resonated through much of Europe, they used its enthusiasm for truth and freedom to fashion a new form of government.

Unfortunately, with the passage of time, much of the context of their elegant writing, including The Declaration of Independence, has lost some of its deeper meaning.

The idea of freedom, for example, or the pursuit of happiness, or equality, were loaded terms that referenced not only governmental standards, but the potential brilliance of a coming age. A vast, new potential for understanding had been recognized and indelibly enshrined for posterity. Like the fabled Camelot, where an idealized kingdom reached its peak, only to be lost by those who were not ready, now serves as an inspiration for some future time that will be more favorable.

The same goes with the founders' vision of a new society, based on reason and virtue. While their vision gave us a viable structure for government, the sad truth is that most people are so distracted by the crazy labyrinth of their lives to consider what is missing. Too many of them turn to partisan ideologies to do their thinking for them. Others ignore it all, losing themselves in distractions.

The truth is that the American War of Independence was meant to produce a revolution in human nature. That was its most revolutionary aspect. Official documents prove this, along with other source material, such as speeches and correspondences. Deep inside we know this to be true. Unfortunately, we feel it more than understand it. Whereas once, these revolutionary ideals drew inspiration, they now belie a personal frustration that informs us that our lives are incomplete, no matter how successful we are. Like the shadow of some formative memory, it whispers discontent and calls for our return.

It is up to you, and to all of us, to respond. If enough people quench this intellectual and moral thirst, it just might conclude its struggle for fulfillment that started in the 18th century.

Let us examine some of the words we are familiar with for their real message.

Freedom. On the surface, it means a lack of restraint, the ability and right to do as one pleases. We call that negative freedom, because it limits itself to a withdrawal of external prohibitions. Negative freedom is certainly part of what the founders intended, but their radical message had more to do with positive freedom. Human beings were not meant for the amoral freedom of beasts in the field, or in the jungle. We are not cows or giraffes or wild predators. Our rational minds and intuitive conscience demand something more. They demand the kind of freedom that is conducive to the enhancement of human nature.

Such freedom incorporates, indeed requires, the ability to reason, and reason well. Otherwise, we fail to include the most singular aspect of what makes us human to begin with. Free thought is the essence of positive freedom. Its goal is rational self-development. People, responding to human nature, build who they are. They encounter, appreciate and engage life, rather than let it run over them. They resist coercion of the mind and make good decisions that are decidedly their own.

Positive freedom can be likened to an on-going, second birth that constantly takes place in the here and now. The newness of this on-going transformation, which is an authentic response to reality, is a constant fulfillment of consciousness.

Positive freedom activates that singular combination of reason and virtue that make us specifically human. It asks the question: if we fail to develop what makes us human, which includes free thought and a priority of conscience, how can we be free in the human sense of the word? We are enslaved by a more primitive nature that is unworthy of our potential. The value of freedom of speech, for instance, was not to propagate lies or contrived ideologies or hedonism, but to encourage the expression of quality thinking that would elevate us all. Positive freedom sets the stage for human evolution.

Pursuit of Happiness. The Enlightenment philosophers understood that the first aspect of Nature's Law was personal survival. A close second was that human nature moves toward acquiring pleasure and avoiding pain. Subjecting these laws to reason, they concluded that virtue provided the only path to sustained happiness (pleasure) and the reduction of pain. A virtuous society must therefore see to the general welfare of its citizens. It must enact civil laws for their protection, respect human and civil rights, encourage freedom within the confines of those laws, and provide a culture for human advancement.

Today we think of pleasure or happiness as our commercialized world of entertainment would have it. We have replaced the rich contentment of a simple life with a world of flickering images and distractions that constantly disavow what is real and satisfying. We have abandoned Nature's Law for a culture of greed, power and fun. The result? A happiness so shallow that each artificial delight only adds to the undercurrent of serious discontent.

Equality. The founders knew well the obvious fact that people were different from one another. They were divided by skill, talent, opportunity, appearance, wealth, family position, circumstances of birth, education, temperament, and a millions other factors. No two people are exactly alike. How then can we apply a universal idea of equality?

The banner of equality refers to the fact that we are all human and therefore deserving of human rights that are equivalent, despite all the differences listed before. We are all subject to the vicissitudes of life that come our way. We need air to breathe, water to drink, and food to eat. We have inner lives deserving of respect. We all love. We overcome hardships. We can all improve in some way or another. Each of us has the potential to embrace positive freedom and expand our consciousness of living.

In a democracy, we share the equality of the vote and being treated fairly under the law, to speak our minds, to worship God the way we please or deny that God exists. We are all capable of helping one another, or harming them instead. And we can kill.

Our dependency on one another makes us equal as well. Our society, government and civilization work when we, the people, make them work.

Freedom, the Pursuit of Happiness and Equality are ideals worth striving for that are rooted in optimistic fact. They make sense. They lead us where we should go. Ignoring them only holds us back.

It is important that we understand these words and the vision they represent - understand them to the point of being enthusiastically inspired, because they express the best of who we are, and who we can be.






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