When Isaac Newton published his Principia Mathematica in 1687, he not only revolutionized our understanding of physics, but he also set off a chain reaction that would eventually create a new order in the Western world — a new way of thinking, a new way of being.
Most scholars date the Age of Enlightenment as a movement that began in the 18th century, but it’s broadly understood that Newton’s publications were the first cause, the colossal force that began to show cracks in the old ceiling of authority that had previously contained our collective knowledge. These cracks, then, slowly compounded in effect to lead us towards one of the great intellectual leaps in the history of our species. The Churches and the monarchies that previously dictated the rules of knowledge fell to the side, and a new era of consciousness was ushered in.
Many of the social, political, and economic systems that we have in place today were raised out of the ashes of the daring ideas disseminated during this time. Science and reason had found their feet.
There are, of course, many fair criticisms of this period. For one, some argue that this triumph of reason over dogma began to break apart the invisible social fabric that had held our civilization together for millennia. Others also point to the fact that this particular brand of reason has limitations, and it shouldn’t be the only tool in our toolkit. But the core ethos, however, was always humane. When asked what Enlightenment meant to him, one of the great philosophers of the period, Immanuel Kant, said the following:
“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) “Have the courage to use your own understanding,” is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.”
More than anything, the Enlightenment was an exercise in unconstrained collective thinking, with a process in place to give the best ideas their shot at meritocratic victories. Knowledge was no longer chained to the needs of the state or some other authority. The process of thinking and knowing and understanding itself became the authority.
Today, we almost take for granted this whole way of existing. We are born into it, and we trust it by default. We forget that it wasn’t always like this. We broadly understand that science is useful and important and can tell us a lot about how the world works. We also value reason. We know that evidence is better than no evidence, and logic beats most kinds of inconsistencies.
There is, however, an important way in which most of us don’t always apply Kant’s call to action. When it comes to our sense of self, on the personal and the individual level, it seems that we would rather bind ourselves to this nonage that he speaks of rather than working up the courage to know. Perhaps what I’m getting at is just a deeply ingrained aspect of human nature, and we are all bound to it no matter what we do, but perhaps, then, his reminder to know for ourselves is more important than ever.
Much of our learning is done through cultural transmission. Every person we interact with gives a piece of themselves to us. Our families instill values in us. Our teachers and our mentors dish out platitudes. Our society, at large, tells us what is okay to believe and what is not. And for the most part, we don’t even think twice about these things. In fact, we even celebrate them as forms of wisdom. But how, then, is this any different from the world that Kant and Newton hailed from where the authority of the state and the Churches dictated our thoughts and preferences?
The only difference between today and then is that certain kinds of thoughts aren’t a crime. You can’t get in trouble for having them. But culture conditions us all of the time, often on a deeply subconscious level, often without us even realizing that that’s the case. It does so most obviously when we ask for advice, for example, and it does so a little more subtly when we take the results of a scientific study listing averages and try to apply that generalized answer to our non-average life.
Internet culture is a screaming example of this. Everywhere, people are looking for solutions. They want to know this. They want to know that. And the core truth, of course, is that it’s a great place to look for anything. In no small part due to the extended influence of the Enlightenment, the internet contains our collective knowledge, and much of this knowledge is valuable if you learn to filter sense from nonsense. But the problem, it seems, is that most people come looking for prescriptions. They want advice. They want to fill holes. They want to know ten things they should do to become successful. They want to read because, apparently, that’s what other smart people do. In short, they want to know everything without actually thinking about it.
To be clear, the fact that the internet has made knowledge widely accessible or that much of it is prescriptive isn’t the issue. In fact, learning from that knowledge is one of the greatest competitive advantages anyone can give themselves today. The problem is that most people use that knowledge as a shortcut, a prescription, themselves. They ignore their own individuality, its deeply personal experience, and the intuitive judgment their body has developed over time in favor of something that was learned by someone else’s thinking. As a rule, if you apply some sort of knowledge into your own life without understanding the deeper thinking patterns that led to the creation of that knowledge, you are not living your own life. And it might work here and there, but sooner or later, you are going to run into a wall, and nobody is going to be able to save you but your own ability to solve that problem with your own personal thinking patterns.
I have never had a mentor. I can’t even say that I have ever even had a formal teacher who taught me anything useful. For the past few years, I have attributed much of that to the fact that I was perhaps too arrogant in my formative years to listen to the older, wiser folk in my life, folk of experience and knowledge, mistakenly thinking that I had nothing to learn from their advice. But more recently, I’ve begun to realize that while my surface-level arrogance was indeed wrong, the deeper judgment that led to that core distrust of anyone with advice to offer was not.
Almost every living person has some sort of wisdom in them that I lack. I generally believe that. But every single person also occupies a distinct universe shaped by their own mental models of reality, a universe that has different events and people and ideas in it, a universe held together by a different version of language and its interacting patterns. And I might be able to learn something from them by simply observing their actions or even from something they say, but only if that act or that thought inspires some unique thinking patterns in myself. Otherwise, I don’t learn. I only imitate.
Naturally, many of our personal universes interact and intersect, which obviously means that there is shared wisdom that can work for me pretty much in exactly the same way as it did for someone else. Most cliches are generally cliches because they are broadly agreed upon, and many of them fall under this category. But even then, all of us are on distinct timelines. While a general nugget of advice or knowledge might at some point become relevant to my life like it was to someone else’s, the tempo and rhythm of my life are different to that of anyone else’s. Even in such cases, it’s only my own thinking patterns and their discoveries that are going to close that gap.
Sapere aude was Kant’s chant for the Enlightenment. Dare to know. I prefer a slightly edited version: Dare to think. Collectively, we already know a lot, and we have a good system in place to help us know more. Individually, as separate beings, however, many of us still have a long way to go, and just “knowing” things through silent consumption and blind conditioning isn’t enough. We also have to think about them—to understand them in our own language patterns, understand them as if we ourselves discovered them.
I may not have had any personal mentors, but I always thought of books themselves as my mentors. I only read them because I want to, not because of some advantage they give me. Pure curiosity itself is the guide. There is no perceived or imagined hierarchical relationship I have with a book, nor am I ever too attached to the voice of the author. That simple fact lets me choose what I want out of it, ignoring what I don’t. I trust my inner judgment — its thoughts — and that judgment, then, makes me who I am.
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