One great thing about my job is the feedback I get from Fellows. I particularly enjoy being challenged. One of my fiercest critics has been Australian Fellow John Montgomery who thinks I am a soft headed, jargon spouting, leftie.
John and I have been sparring on and off since I joined the RSA. He has just sent me an essay entitled ‘A New Enlightenment’. It’s a powerful and basically reactionary piece (I say this not to be disparaging but because the central thrust is a call to react against modern ‘isms’ in favour of older certainties).
Sorry, John, but I can’t give you the full response the piece deserves (it’s the pressure of last minute work before my holiday).
However, the starting point for my disagreement is that the old truths haven’t simply been displaced by modern fashion but by more profound changes in the world and our understanding of it.
Globalisation, climate change, complexity, technology and the web, new science from quantum physics to neuroscience; these all challenge aspects of the Enlightenment world view.
Moreover the Enlightenment itself helped to unleash forces which have created a hollowed out sense of the good society and the good life, which would horrify the authors of the Enlightenment.
I wonder why right of centre thinkers like John want to lay so much blame for modern problems at the feet of a few French philosophers whose theories are unknown to the vast majority of citizens, and so little at the door of consumer capitalism and the hubristic myth of the separate autonomous self, all of which are ubiquitous aspects of modern life?
We shouldn’t underestimate how far our societies have pulled apart. Yet there is hope for renewal, says Anthony Painter. The question is not whether we come together – but how.