Uniting the two kinds of enlightenment

Kant clarified

Kant clarified

The English word enlightenment can have two quite different contexts:

  1. The (Western) Enlightenment of the 18th century. You know: Kant, Voltaire, Hume, reason, the American and French Revolutions and all that.
  2. The (Eastern) Enlightenment that the Buddha, Patanjali, and various Zen masters and bodhisattvas have achieved through meditation and Yoga. Samadhi, nirvana, satori and all that.
Buddha illuminated

Buddha illuminated

The two are completely different, of course. The former is largely a collective phenomenon, one in which ideas elevated all of society. The latter is largely an individual phenomenon in which one person, through sudden insight (Zen) or hard and prolonged work (Ashtanga Yoga), achieves inner peace and freedom.

In fact, the same exact difference came up when I talked about freedom: There is:

  1. the (Western) Enlightenment view of freedom: Latin liberLiberalism, Liberty, and
  2. the Existentialist and Eastern views of freedom (moksha in Sanskrit).

Anyway, what this means is mainly that the limitation lies in the English word Enlightenment. German, for instance, has two separate words:

  1. The Western Enlightenment is called Aufklärung. The term was coined by Kant and means literally clarification (Auf-klär-ung = Up-clear-ing, for you fellow linguists. Incidentally, it can also refer to a young person learning about the birds and bees).
  2. The Eastern Enlightenment is called Erleuchtung, which means illumination, often symbolized with the halo (ie, ring of light) on the crown chakra of the Buddha or Jesus.

Why I bring this up

That difference between Aufklärung and Erleuchtung came up in 2007 when I was talking with Michael Murphy, one of the two founders of the New Age retreat Esalen. I was interviewing him for a profile of Esalen in the Christmas Issue of The Economist that year. Murphy is now in his seventies and lives in Sausalito, so I went there to see him. We sat by the waterfront and talked about absolutely everything except what we were supposed to talk about. For instance, he was the first person other than my agent, parents or wife whom I told about my book idea, and that really got him going. It was the best kind of conversation.

Anyway, so Murphy and I talked about the two kinds of Enlightenment, and to my surprise this Irish-American aging Hippie delves into German etymology. But it was appropriate. An oversimplified summary of his life work–at Esalen and in his books–is that he tried to unite Aufklärung and Erleuchtung, West and East, in an effort to liberate our full “human potential”. Hence the Human Potential Movement, which he helped to found at Esalen in the 60s, when folks like Abe Maslow were teaching there.

Instinctively, that is what I also aspire to: Uniting the two kinds of Enlightenment in my life. You see it when I call Diogenes a “Greek Buddha” or Abe Maslow a “Jewish Buddha,” or when I draw parallels between the Second Law of Thermodynamics and Feng Shui.

Somewhere between East and West (though perhaps not in the “middle East”)–somewhere between reflection and science, eternity and progress, mythos and logos–there must be something worth finding. I’m sure of it.

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What’s in a word: “Liberal”

Adam Smith

As you may have noticed by now, I am a lover of words–to the point of pedantry–and it gives me indigestion to hear people abuse my little darlings. Americans are especially prone. For example, they are scandalously liberal with the word … liberal.

Traveling around America, we at The Economist get at least two questions in any gathering. 1) Why don’t we have bylines? 2) Are we liberal or conservative?

Folks, the way you (the Americans) ask that second question, it does not make any sense! You, unique among nations, did something quite uncivilized to this word, liberal. You unilaterally and wantonly changed its meaning, without telling the other 6.3 billion of us. You cannot do that! As The Economist has demanded before, it’s our word and “we want it back.”

Here is what liberal means: It comes from the Latin liber, free, and refers both to a philosophy and worldview that treasures individual freedom (as in Liberalism) and to the habits and learning befitting a free individual (as in Liberal Arts). That’s all.

The origins of liberalism go back to classical Greece (the “left leg” in this analogy of the Western Tradition as a “body”). It thrived during the Enlightenment, especially its Scottish flavor; found a permanent fan group when The Economist was founded; came under undignified attack in the past century; was defended valorously by people like my great-uncle Ludwig Erhard; became a whipping post in France (especially in the phrase “neoliberal”) for people who like to roll tractors through McDonald’s outlets; and now lives this bizarre American double life among barely literate TV-show hosts.

Liberal means: Tolerant, even enthusiastic, about the eccentricities of individuals and the diversity of lifestyles, as long as nobody is harmed. Hence, a modern Liberal is likely to support the right of gays to marry, as The Economist has done far longer than any other major publication that I’m aware of.

It also means being tolerant, even enthusiastic, about the willingness of individuals to take risks for gain, without any sour-grapes Collectivist outbreak of envy after the fact.

It means skepticism about huge efforts to change human nature; about naive faith in governments or companies always being “good”; about any attempt to subordinate the individual to society.

But Liberalism does not mean (as anti-Thatcherites in Britain once tried to imply) denial that there is such a thing as society.

And it does not mean (duh, really!) salivating over “big government”. Whatever that is called, it is not Liberalism.

Finally, is it the same as what Americans call Libertarianism? In theory, it comes close. In practice, not. American Libertarianism tends to attract a lot of loonies.

Liberals are not loonies. They don’t foam at the mouth. If you need an image, it is of a dour Scot like Adam Smith, pictured above. Slightly dull, but excited about the fun that others get up to. Sort of like The Economist.