Enlightenment is appealing for all the positive connotations it has. When we think of enlightenment, what comes to mind is the image of a sage or monk. Furthermore, we also believe these individuals are without faults; that they have discovered a certain existentialism that enables them to achieve true happiness. However, we don’t hear often the negative side effects of enlightenment. Two avid thinkers, Plato and Frederick Douglass, are one of the few who do highlight negative aspects of enlightenment that many do not consider.
Such as, the self loathing it may cause or the social divisions it may give rise to. Although at the same time, one can also interpret the benefits of enlightenment, as Plato and Douglass leave their arguments open ended for the reader. Thus when reconciling the byproducts of enlightenment, good or bad, we must remember that this is carried out by opinion, albeit, with key evidence and purposeful reasoning, a general consensus can be reached concerning enlightenment.
In order to make the case for how enlightenment should be reconciled, it is essential that we first understand what it is that must be reconciled. As mentioned previously, the negative connotations of enlightenment aren’t as proliferated as their positive counterparts, and that in part can make it hard for one to realize them at first glance, in the works of Plato and Douglass respectively. The major cost of enlightenment that both Plato and Douglass refer to are based on emotion and perception. For Douglass, learning to read and write, which in this case is a form of enlightenment, caused him to have no hope.
In his own words: “As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing… It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out” (193). Enlightenment made him more aware of who he is, but it also made him feel like he had no power to change his condition. Similarly, the cost, hopelessness, is highlighted by Plato in the “Allegory of the Cave”. This time, however, it isn’t the enlightened who feels hopeless, it is the enlightened who sees no hope for those that are in the cave.
For instance, Plato claims the escaped prisoner would rather “endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner” (658). It is clear from these lines that he prisoner sees no hope for those in the cave, but the converse can be said as well; the prisoners in the cave could just as easily see no hope for the escaped prisoner. And yet Plato seems to hint that the escaped prisoner’s view of hopelessness carries the negative connotation of enlightenment.
Particularly when he claims, “such an one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness? (659) If “eyes full of darkness” were interpreted as a bad thing, then it is safe to reason that when the prisoner comes back into the cave, he will look at the people already in the cave with dark eyes, in a like manner to seeing them as hopeless individuals. In context, if the escaped prisoner was a college professor, he would definitely fail as a teacher because of his negative preconceived opinions of his students. By noting the similarities between Plato and Douglass on the topic on enlightenment, we can get a better picture of where the sentiment sways—either good or bad.
By that same token, by contrasting their opinions, a better distinction between the positive and negative connotations of enlightenment will be more apparent. In the Allegory Plato argues numerous times that enlightenment makes it harder to understand other realities. For instance when the prisoner escaped, he had a hard time adjusting to the light; when he came back into the cave, he had a hard time adjusting to the darkness. This is agreeable as we know that it can be hard to understand someone who comes from a completely different background from us.
For example, Americans would most likely condemn North Korea as the metaphorical cave; on the flip side, North Koreans would also view America as the cave. Despite this, Plato goes further ask “if there was a contest and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady, would he not be ridiculous ? ” (659) From this it can be read that Plato’s claim is that conflicting ideologies, attained by enlightenment, can result in ridiculous behavior.
As an illustration, consider the Cold War (1947-1991) and how it was intrinsically a battle between capitalism and communism. For much of this period, human beings were indeed acting in a ridiculous fashion, as the race was constantly on the brink of destruction. Moreover, both sides felt they were more enlightened than the other and all that led to was disunity. Conversely, Douglass takes up a completely polar position. He points out that enlightenment can spur a progression from ignorance to respect. Recall when he said, “While in this state of mind, I was eager to hear anyone speak of slavery”(193).
Prior to this Douglass was disgusted by the rhetoric of slavery apologists, but now just wanted to hear them out. Even though it was a topic where there were extreme differences in viewpoints, Douglass eschewed a bigger mind in order to prolong the discussion as it was an important issue. From this we can learn much about how enlightenment can bring minds together. For example, if officials from both political parties in America were willing to listen and respect what the other side had to say, then perhaps the country wouldn’t be as polarized as it is today.
In addition, hearing out the other side goes beyond being respectful; it can allow us to keep inflammatory topics in circulation so that they don’t die out. If Douglass decided to never listen to the other side then his argument against slavery would be greatly weakened. Dissidents would consider him to be one way, and, in turn, would not like to continue the discussion with him. Much like the topic today on abortion, if men never heard the female disposition, the topic itself would be written off as “simple” or “decided”.
But when women are involved and men hear their case, the topic is prolonged because they can add different points to the discussion. They might add, for example, there is a strong and even stronger physical connection between the mother and child. Men couldn’t even come close to understanding what this means, as they (I hope) will never be pregnant. Indeed, listening to other sides broadens and elongates discussions essential to the well being of our society. As seen above we can attempt to reconcile enlightenment by noting the benefits, but these benefits are mostly well known.
Instead we can take the an approach where we break down the negative connotations by recognizing possible counter-claims or arguments. As aforementioned, hopelessness is a “cost” of enlightenment, but one could argue that it is a phase necessary to achieving enlightenment. In “Learning to Read” Douglass speaks of how he fell into a state of self loathing, and how that almost pushed him to commit suicide. Although he doesn’t comment on how it was he escaped the suicidal thoughts, the fact that he did lends much to the claim that these emotions made him more passionate in his pursuit for enlightenment.
Past the part concerning suicide, he seems to become more tenacious which is not how you would expect someone to behave after facing depression. He goes as far as to learn to write on timber and to copy all “the Italics in Webster’s Spelling Book, until I [he] could make them all without looking on the book” (194). Definitely this argument greatly supported in the later portions of the book. Additionally, Plato’s claim on hopelessness can be countered with the claim that in order for one who is enlightened to help others see the light, so to speak, they must in a way see them as hopeless individuals or in the very least pity them.
For example in order for the escaped prisoner to take the initiative to persuade the prisoners in the cave he had to pity them first. If he didn’t he would never had returned, as Plato writes “And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them? ” (658) Therefore the feeling of hopelessness and pity can be argued as a good thing for spreading knowledge. With all things considered, reconciling the good and bad of enlightenment is very difficult.
It can cause pains such as self hatred and hopelessness but it can also make people more united. Thus, for every “good” of enlightenment drawn from “Learning to Read” and the “Allegory of the Cave” it can be easily matched with a “bad” thing from enlightenment. However, enlightenment is reconciled by the fact that there is good that stems from it. If we decided to cower from enlightenment because of the knowledge that there can be bad things from it, then we would lose out on a chance to gain the “goods”of enlightenment. Therefore, we must bear the pains and try to succeed in attaining knowledge in hopes of self improvement.