Crooked Timber and The Enlightenment

“From the crooked timber of humanity,

nothing exactly straight can be built.”

Immanuel Kant

A sobering pronouncement from a renowned philosopher (renowned: famously lauded by some, famously reviled by others).  Humanity is wracked and warped.  Its basic material is wracked and warped.  Neither humanity nor anything humanity creates can be made perfect by man’s efforts, no matter how much energy and time is expended toward that goal, no matter how many “do overs” are attempted.

Depressed yet?  Read on!

The claim of the imperfectability of mankind, only proven historically since, oh, creation, was attacked by the “Age of Enlightenment” philosophers, who proclaimed as a settled fact that modern science and modern intelligence, products of a humanity vastly more advanced than that of the even recent past (at least THEIR cohort of humanity…) would show how to correct that “crooked timber”, provide a new and improved framework, a scientific formula and method that enlightened leaders would apply to the masses to create that more perfect mankind. 

That “breakthrough” gave succor to the enlightened few who would have no qualms “breaking a few eggs to make the human perfection omelet” to exercise that new authority by enslaving and murdering millions of those so stubbornly imperfectable, so obviously sub-human in some way, shape or form, for two centuries and counting.  But of course, the Enlightened reasoned, their approach was not at all similar to any of the failed efforts of the past since they had modern science, modern intelligence, a world view that freed them from repeating that sordid past in form and in substance! 

The results have been greater and greater human tragedies, ever more vast and loathsome than the catastrophes that came before. 

Isaiah Berlin’s discourse on the subject in The Crooked Timber of Humanity (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1998) is difficult and compelling reading.  Berlin recounted the genesis of the “Enlightenment”, its mutation into the nationalism of the 19th and 20th Centuries that had as one underpinning the supposedly “new” Enlightenment formula, and the stories of the people who advocated it.  I urge you to find the book and read it soberly.  As you read, look around the world today, even your own nation and “your people”, even in your own mirror, and carefully consider what you observe —without attempting self-justification.

Without doubt, the “Enlightenment” ideal and its advocacy has not departed from the world, as the harvest of crooked timber and attempts by the anointed to mold it, to force it into perfection no matter the consequences continues ever onward.  Must not one have either megalomaniacal delusions or distorting “Fun House” mirrors to reflect the glory of one’s own self-proclaimed, self-perfected framework, the only means yet discovered for even momentarily straightening them out though the illusion is indelibly tattooed into their self-image, leadership style and on their plans for humanity?  They sound so fatherly, professorial, learned and wise, smarter, when they proclaim the beauty and justness of their plans for you.

Perhaps paradoxically for him, Kant’s conclusion can be seen to arise from and embrace that the Biblical original sin that came through Adam’s fall continues onward until the end of history through genetic transmission and human experience, “nature and nurture”, inescapably present in each being from birth.  Ironically (far too weak a term!!), the actions of the “Enlightenment” disciples, patrons and fellow travelers prove it again and again. 

What has and does humanity do in response to such recurring hubris?  It endures the enslavement of ideas, the perversion of “freedom”, the slavery of types and classes including the slavery of a redefined “diversity”, until each catastrophe occurs, then battles to restore to a perceived more idyllic earlier time paradoxically referred to as a more modern approach.  Narrowly averted catastrophe is apparently unrevealing.  Statis quo is restored, new crooked timber harvested and used to rebuild.

Thus constructed and reconstructed, the new generation of thought leaders and denizens of the invented creative class renew their claims to be able to progress toward perfection. But, that progress is to construct humanity in their own image, so they must narrow the observed evidence and broaden the metrics.  Change the rules!  Change the definitions!  Put someone special in charge of values, metrics, testing and results!  Create and enforce new rules, new packaging for the venture.  Promote the 99.99% pure product pitches, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and other old saws that seek to paper over what some find depressing, or controlling, or insane. 

The physical realization of the old aphorism about insanity is observed in real life at each cycle, “Insanity is where one repeats the same actions again and again, expecting different results.”

Of course, with the newly enlightened, “new improved” perfection plan there would be no need for freedom of will, no personal choices needing to be made, no value to true individuality or diversity of opinion or thought. 

What a marketing dilemma for the humanists!  Well, no!  They can simply redefined “freedom”, “will”, “choice”, “individuality”, “diversity” and “thought” and vastly narrow the field of those who are allowed to participate in the resultant redefined societal values and processes — to those who agree with their dogma.  That participation, however, is also limited.  It does not allow participation in defining society and processes or in leading them, merely in caring out the commands of that more intelligent group who formulated them, without question and with increasingly unrestrained rigor and vigor! 

It’s all relative, they continually tell us, as they insist that their interpretation is the informed, enlightened, brilliantly correct one.  You’ll get it soon enough if you know what’s good for you, like they have proclaimed.  If you don’t, you will be forced to obey since you are obviously incapable of reason. 

The path to perfection?  Do nothing and be in line to be bent on the rack to straighten out your crooked timber.  Paraphrasing what has been attributed to Edmund Burke,

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. “

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About randysrules

From a professional background in architecture, community and regional planning, urban design, leadership, and fine arts, this blog provides insights on ethics, leadership, architecture/planning/urban design, Venice, and whatever intrigues me at the time. Enjoy!
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