Politics of Eremitism (9)

The word “enlightenment” has two distinct connotations, East and West.

In the Western world, the Enlightenment was an historical era that saw the rise of reason, logic, and science over what it considered authoritarianism and superstition. Hence, the Enlightenment had a profound impact on society and institutions, and it continues to do so today.

In the East, enlightenment refers to the fruit of a religious, spiritual or philosophical pursuit, and has historically had more of an impact on cultural institutions and values rather than political or social institutions.

Traditionally, these two concepts of enlightenment have been diametrically opposed to one another, even within the same cultures. The point of contact, however, is best seen in the fate of the individual. In both schemes, the concern could well be called “consciousness.” In the West, the concern was for individual and social consciousness. This notion of consciousness was intended to bring liberation to the individual, regardless of whether the Enlightenment figure proposing it was Locke, Rousseau, or Marx. In the East, too, the pursuit of enlightenment has been for the individual and social consciousness, as when the Buddha saw enlightenment and the values it involved as bypassing the social and economic caste system, and how “enlightenment” even in the Hindu tradition was a social mechanism for individuals to escape caste, even while the true nature of Eastern thinking about enlightenment was not directly concerned with society.

Today, enlightenment in both senses is more urgent than ever — both spiritual and moral enlightenment, and enlightenment concerning reason and science. And, as in the past, enlightenment begins with the individual, for without individual enlightenment, nothing else changes. And without individuals transforming themselves, power and inimical social and political forces remain as obstacles to both forms of enlightenment. Whether the solitary joins others physically or in spirit in the pursuit of enlightenment, the pursuit is still as pressing.