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From this week, RSA Fellows and observers may start to notice a new strap line appearing on our website, at our events and in our materials: ‘RSA: 21st century enlightenment’.

This has emerged from a pretty extensive conversation involving RSA staff and Trustees and is based on research with Fellows and partners. We wanted something broad enough to reflect our heritage and cover the range of our activities but also bold and interesting. Rather than spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on a face-lift our approach is, as it were, to drop the phrase into conversation and see what people make of it.

The reason I liked 21st century enlightenment (despite having lots of ideas of my own) is that it has two meanings. The ‘soft’ interpretation is simply that the RSA seeks to enlighten people as to the nature of the modern world and the best ideas to make that world better. With an amazing programme of lectures and events, not to mention the website and Journal, we can certainly claim to be meeting this objective.

The ‘hard’ interpretation is an unashamed championing of the values of the Enlightenment, the era in which the RSA itself was established.

If I can be excused a very superficial reading of history, the idea I associate with the Enlightenment is this: There is a good way to live one’s life but this ideal does not rely on rules handed down by kings or bishops but can be derived from an account of the kind of society in which we want to live and the kind of people we are and have the capacity to be. 

In the past I have spoken about a social aspiration gap, defined as separating the kind of future most people say they want for society and the kind of future we are likely to build relying on current patterns of thought and behaviour. This gap can be seen to have three dimensions, three ways in which we the people must develop to close the gap. Collectively we must be more engaged, more self reliant and more pro-social.

Personally, I believe there are many things wrong with modern society including our, as yet, inadequate response to climate change . These challenges help to make the case for us to live differently. But the case for 21st century enlightenment does not rely on these pressures. Being engaged, self reliant and altruistic is the way to live the good life in the good society.

As someone who calls themselves progressive, I worry sometimes that people who share these values feel the best way they can make the case for a different way of living is to say we are in a crisis, whether environmental, social or economic. In this way progressives can sound very much like pessimists. On occasion, for example, environmentalists sound like they would be disappointed if a technology was invented which took carbon from the atmosphere without us all having to stop travelling and shopping.

The point for me is not that human beings have failed to achieve progress (who among us wish to return to a time when the average life expectancy was less than forty?) but that more is required of us and more can be achieved by us.

This can be a century when the human race not only meets the challenges it has created for itself, but when it can aspire to reach a higher level of functioning with more and more of the human race feeling more able to discover and express their full capabilities. This is the ideal of 21st century enlightenment.

I realise this all sounds rather trite. Whether the new strap-line works is more about what the RSA does than what it says about itself. This means our lectures, our research, the feel of our House and most of all the ways we support our Fellows to be a force for good. Of one thing  I am reasonably confident; this is an account of our mission of which our founding fathers (they were all men) would approve.


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