I read all of our assignments thus far but I am still not convinced that they exist. In case my tone is lost in translation, I write this very sarcastically. I believe the enlightenment period was little more than a way for a bunch of rich white people to sit around, escape into their minds and ignore the horrible realities they were responsible for. But, for the sake of argument, lets suppose that the enlightenment is a real thing. Lest suppose that the articles we have read actually exist. Allow me to systematically disagree with at least four of them. I will begin with some previous assignment, per additional directions provided through our instructor, then I will finally Segway into the readings assigned for this week. The purpose of this is to expose these authors and their works for the facade of enlightenment the pretend to be concerned with. This should illustrate the way most approaches to enlightenment are little more than poorly disguised rouses to achieve personal success within the conventional power structures and do little to benefit the general public.
Lets start with a former slave. I am still at a loss at two why the Equiano piece is considered a work of the Enlightenment. Simply because it was wrapped up in the same time period does not credit this narrative with any relation to this school of thought. More than this, Equiano does not describe any sense of empowerment beyond self-empowerment. Let’s explore.
Equiano may defy the stereotypes of an Afro-British slave but his story fits within the historical narrative all too well. He spends all his time trying to break free from the stereotypes that plagued the 18th century instead of exposing them for their flaws. Equiano can be seen pushing himself away from the ‘lesser blacks’ as he writes about a tribe that he was nothing like, “…I was very much struck by this difference, especially when I cam among a people who did not circumcise, and ate without washing their hands.” He goes through great lengths to showcases his ability to navigate, trade and solve math problems to argue for his freedom. His argument is simple. He is too smart to be a slave. He would rather be known for his brilliance than his humanity. Securing himself in the hierarchy is more important that bringing equality.
Like the majority of politicians before and after, Equiano does very little to dismantle the power structure of slavery once he has risen to the top of it. The abolitionist tones in this text are hard to take seriously when he has adopted the very institution for the sake of profit. He is more concerned with standing out from the slaves than standing up for them.
This is no more a piece of Enlightenment literature than a dress or agricultural tool used in the same era but lets not focus our sole attention on Equiano. Let’s move on to an equally confusing week. Let’s move on to the English Civil war. I suppose we could stretch this exposé into a certain freedom of information that could be conceived through a convoluted lens to resemble some sense of the enlightenment debate. These letters, or their annotations, speak nothing to the power of enlightenment. They simply speak in a shift in the pre-existing power structure. Lets take letter II for example:
King Charles begins letter II the same way he begins all the letters addressed to his wife and Queen. The king opens the letter with ‘Dear Heart,’ and it is this very heart that has raised so many concerns among the parliament and people of England. The king’s heart seems to be more invested with the Queen than the kingdom that he has been entrusted to rule.
These letters are addressed and signed with affection, but filled with highly sensitive national issues. After making a passing comment about some previous correspondents, the king quickly moves into the military and financial strategy of England. The letter goes on to speak of possible treaties, foreign intelligence and matters of religion. Every one of these subjects is a matter of life and death, yet the king treats them as pillow talk with the queen.
More than simple conversation, the king is implicitly asking the Queen for advice. Instead of relying on his own constitution, or the parliament for that matter, he has turned to the proverbial jezebel of the nation. This is something that the editors of the kings cabinet opened are concerned with as they write that the king has “…walked in the councils of the ungodly.” The editor is not concerned that the Queen might provide bad advice, but that her ungodly religion demands that she give it. When you talk to the devil, you don’t wonder what good points he has. You don’t trust anything he says.
The king goes into some detail about a treaty halfway through the letter. He says that he has botched things so bad that he couldn’t possibly sign any kind of peace agreement with the rebels without looking like he was bending over backwards just to please them. His solution is to have the Queen sign the treaty for him. He tells the Queen, “thou art the much fittest person to be the means of so happy and glorious a work as is the peace of this kingdom.” This logic is confusing at best. The king wants the Queen (who is responsible for much of this unrest to begin with) to assume more power to preserve the peace.
More than this, the king was sharing foreign intelligence with (what many considered) the biggest foreign threat of their day. The Queen was a foreign, non-protestant woman and the king was handing her the keys to England with a smile in his pants. Today, this might seem like a minor detail but in 1645, women weren’t even allowed to inherit land from their parents. This woman was inheriting an entire country from her sugar daddy. Giving this Queen the throne was a blatant violation of the law, and this king stopped using his head long before it got chopped off.
By now, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with the Enlightenment.
Hey-that’s what I was thinking.
Like I have already suggested, these articles of ‘enlightenment’ are little more than poorly disguised rouses to achieve personal and political success. The majority of the assignments thus far have led me to believe that the enlightenment can never really be achieved. So, we simply settle for political shifts in its place.
There is, however hope, and I found it in group 4.
Finally, you are groaning, lets talk about something we covered this week. Firstly, I would like to personally thank you for choosing a topic that actually correlates with the Enlightenment. Descartes argues “I think, therefore I am.” In other words, essence precedes existence. One is born into the world through thought and any person without the said agency is not able to exist. The argument is based in logic and excludes any non-logical creature from entering the debate, therefore existence. This is a very ego-central view. The world begins in Descartes brain and everything is an extension. He feels that the human brain is the sun that the rest of the world revolves around. Man is in the center of the universe. Just like earth used to be.
La Mettrie asks, “For if what thinks in my brain is not a part of that organ and thus the whole body…” (Man-Machine 25) why is it such an intricate part of the world around us? Again, we view reality from the inside out. We refuse to accept its existence outside of our own minds. That coffee cup does not exist on the table. It exists in my mind. La Mettrie tries to explore this brain-to-world relationship as he asks several questions. Why are poets inspired by nature? Why does a thought send a chill down our spine? This confusing relationship between the duality of our soul and bodies is not easily answered. In fact, it is not answered at all. These are just questions for us to think about while we sit around drinking coffee and discussing theology to prove that our brains work better than yours. There is no substance behind it. It is only air. Maybe that is where the enlightenment gets its name. Fill our heads with as much intangible thought, as much air, as possible until it grows so light that our feet leave the ground and we take off into the pretentious and pompous realms of space and reach our enlightenment. Think and think and think until we are no longer grounded in reality. Oh, I forgot. There is no reality.