Sunday, January 03, 2010

American Enlightenment

I'm reading John Adams, by David McCullough. So far, it's a very good read. At the beginning of chapter two, McCullough describes the city of Philadelphia at the time of the Continental Congress. It was "a true eighteenth-century metropolis, the largest, wealthiest city in British America, and the most beautiful" (McCullough 78). Benjamin Franklin was Philadelphia's first citizen and the most famous American alive, and he 'had led the way in establishing the American Philosophical Society, "for the promoting of useful knowledge," with the result that Philadelphia had become the recognized center of American thought and ideas' (McCullough 80).

The goal of promoting "useful knowledge" reminded me of René Descartes' Discourse on Method, where he describes the pursuit of "clear and certain knowledge of all that is useful in life" (Descartes 4). This interest in useful knowledge finds its roots in Descartes' philosophy of the 17th century, but we see it in full bloom in America in the 1770s.

Further correspondence between Descartes and Franklin can be seen in the following quotes. Descartes wants to establish a "practical philosophy" to "thus render ourselves, as it were, masters and possessors of nature. This is desirable not only for the invention of an infinity of devices that would enable one to enjoy trouble-free the fruits of the earth and all the goods found there, but also principally for the maintenance of health" (Descartes 62). Now compare this excerpt from Franklin's proposal for the American Philosophical Society as quoted by McCullough:
all philosophical [scientific] experiments that let light into the nature of things, tend to increase the power of man over matter, and multiply the conveniences or pleasure of life ... all new-discovered plants, herbs, trees, roots, and methods of propagating them.... New methods of curing or preventing diseases.... New mechanical inventions for saving labor.... All new arts, trades, manufacturers, etc. that may be proposed or thought of (McCullough 80).
The emphasis is on knowledge that leads to control of nature, quality of life, and better health. America has pursued these things over the last 200+ years, and now we find ourselves in environmental and health care crises. We have learned many secrets of nature, and are able to build amazing devices and harness large amounts of power, but we often don't have the wisdom to do so in a way that doesn't harm the environment and future generations. We have the technology to improve our health, but we're having trouble justly applying medical technology to the whole population. The "Age of Reason," which broke free from the bonds of religious authority has led to us being masters of nature, but it may be to our own destruction.
I'm not bringing this up to say that we should abandon reason or technology, but that we also need to consult the wisdom of the past, including that which comes from religion, in order to deal with our present problems. I especially recommend we pay attention to those such as Pope Benedict, who advocate the use of faith and reason together in public discourse.

Works Cited
  • Descarte, RenĂ©. Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, 4th ed. Translated by Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998.

  • McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

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