So there I am in a meeting with a senior colleague, moaning about how long it takes to make change happen. She took a deep breath and said ‘Matthew, you expect everyone to go the extra mile, but what about you?’ Having toyed briefly with the idea of sacking her for gross insubordination, I had to admit she was right.
My extra mile is writing. Blog posts and speeches are OK. They are short and painted with broad brush strokes enabling me to cover over the holes in my knowledge and cracks in my argument. But I find it incredibly hard to write something more substantial, say a 10,000 word pamphlet.
The easy excuse is that I’m too busy. But it won’t wash. After all I’m not too busy to make three or four speeches a week or to write a blog post just about every weekday. The real reasons are less easy to admit:
The physiological – I simply find it hard to sit still long enough to do proper research or writing.
The psychological (1) – Writing is a lonely business which requires more self discipline than I appear to have.
The psychological (2) – Fear of failure.
But the time for excuses has passed. The same colleague who drove a spear into my self esteem has commissioned me to write a substantial paper laying out what I mean by 21st century enlightenment (the new RSA strap line). The paper will form the basis for my fourth annual lecture, to be delivered sometime in June or July.
This is where I need the patience and support of my blog readers. Because, in an attempt to reconcile my need for engagement and acknowledgement with fulfilling the commission, I am going to try to write the 21st century enlightenment paper on my blog.
Over the next three months I will dedicate between two and three posts a week to gradually building the argument. For any reader with the interest and patience this is what I ask: keep me up to the mark, if a week has gone by without any post on the topic and instead I am reverting to the immediate and ephemeral remind me of my commitment. Be honest about whether the argument seems to be developing and whether I am doing enough background reading. If there are people you know who you think might be good critical friends encourage them to drop in from time to time.
I am planning to invite all my regular comment contributors to a little private reception after my annual lecture so there is the inducement of a glass of fine wine and cheese straw or two for those who stand at the side of the road shouting encouragement when I hit the intellectual wall.
Of course, you might all think this is self indulgent codswallop. Feel free to say; then at least I will have the motivation of trying to prove you wrong.
So here goes. This is my first attempt – in less than 250 words - to summarise the argument I want to elaborate between now and June. If you are still reading, thank you.
What do we mean by twenty first century enlightenment?
The original enlightenment was in essence about freeing human potential, releasing it from the bounds of religious superstition, tradition and kingly hierarchy so that through science, commerce and individual freedom man could be master of all he surveyed.
The 21st century enlightenment recognises that human fulfilment must be pursued on the foundations set by human nature and within the finite limits of the natural world. Human efficacy is about understanding and adapting to those limits, not accepting less than we are capable of, but neither believing that we can ignore or defy who we are as a species and the world we occupy.
This is not pessimism it is wisdom. For example, the amazing power of our conscious mind can only be fully realised when we recognise that rational choice is only a part of what makes up our nature and drives our behaviour.
At the heart of 21st century enlightenment lies the ideal of sustainable citizenship; the way we must to live to create the future we want. Combining the values of civic republicanism, the fast developing science of social behaviour and an enthusiasm for innovation in the public realm, the central quest of the 21st century enlightenment is for the ways of thinking, the forms of action and the types of institutions that will foster sustainable citizenship.
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