Enlightenment, to me, is being at the point of truly thinking for yourself—being free of the obstructions of “truth” that society embeds into our brains. As such, I do not believe enlightenment is possible. According to my definition, the only way someone could achieve enlightenment would be if they were born and then plopped down by themselves in the middle of nowhere, never subjected to the influences of other human beings and the teachings of their institutions. They would have to grow up alone from other humans.
However, then someone could make the argument – what’s the point of being “enlightened” if you don’t even know how to read and write? If you can’t share that enlightened thinking with someone? I could go into the argument that language is a socially constructed lie anyway; we can’t even get to the “truth” by using language. Or I could just say that I believe that the ultimate enlightenment is more of a spiritual state where you are entirely able to think for yourself, freely of the institutions man has created in order to create social order. I refrain from calling enlightenment a certain kind of knowledge because knowledge stems from truth and what really is “the truth”??? Can there really be one attainable truth? I don’t think so. The closest thing to truth that I can think of is just that everything in our world is constructed.
By the way, I am not criticizing these institutions – I get that human beings established the family, the school, government, laws, etc. as institutions essentially so that we all wouldn’t just kill each other off – I’m just saying that because we live in a world of institutions, I don’t think we can ever escape their influence. Nothing we do or think or say is ever actually truly original or enlightened.
Kant in some ways comes close to my take on enlightenment: “Enlightenment is a man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage… Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance.” Kant emphasizes the importance of the enlightenment being focused on the self and separated from others. My definition definitely fits in with Kant’s in some ways (though not all) because he believes to be enlightened we must rise above the influence of society. I just am not sure if we are ever able to fully shed our nonage while we live in this world.
Descartes, on the other hand, loses me when he says that the existence of our souls and consciousness means that there must be a God. “I have for many years been sure that there is an all-powerful God who made me to be the sort of creature that I am.” I do not mean to be offensive, but I felt that Descartes’ weakest point is his justification of God in his argument. I am all for people having religious beliefs, but the jump he makes from the existence of our consciousness to the seemingly proven existence of a greater being was a bit much for me. I also think that the mind and body are more interwoven than what Descartes says.
Additionally, Locke’s “Some Thoughts Concerning Education” did not describe any sort of enlightenment that I agree with. Instead, he emphasizes the importance of obedience and adhering to social rules: “If his tender mind be fill’d with a veneration for his parents and teachers, which consists of love and esteem, and a fear to offend them: and with respect and good will to all people; that respect will of itself teach those ways of expressing it, which he observes most acceptable.” Locke is all about teaching kids manners and the proper ways in which they can grow up to be respectable citizens. This purpose is fine for creating a well-behaved and obedient society but it does not push for original or enlightened thought as I have defined above.
I want to conclude with Mettrie because I did agree with some of his points (though I do not believe we are machines/robots). Despite my earlier statement that I don’t believe we can reach full enlightenment (via my definition), I do not necessarily mean this in a depressing way. We can still achieve a certain level of critical thinking within the world that we exist. Though our thoughts may not be entirely original, they are still important because they are a part of our unique and personal experience in life. We may not be truly enlightened, but we can still think and make choices that will shape our lives. La Mettrie writes, “As for the rest—the willing slaves of prejudice—they can’t reach the truth any more than frogs can fly.” Although we cannot reach true enlightenment, we should still fight against becoming the willing slaves of prejudice. We should continue to question our beliefs and horrible prejudices and always reach for that possible original thought that is true to ourselves. Furthermore, it is necessary to strive for enlightenment and that critical thinking in order to keep the institutions that define our society in check and morally sound.