Belief vs. Enlightenment


This week, I was required to read “What is Enlightenment”, by Immanuel Kant; “Christianity or Europe” and “Faith and Love, or King and Queen”, by Novalis; a selection from A General Theory of Magic by Marcel Mauss; and a selection of Success through Failure, by Henry Petroski (you can find these readings here: The readings were quite interesting. In my study, I noticed a contrast between four of the five selections, those being the selections from Kant, Novalis, and Mauss. I would say that the contrast is between Kant’s “maturity”, and “belief”, exhibited in Novalis’s writings and the belief in magic described by Mauss.

I see the two concepts as contrasting. Kantian maturity is independent, and regards obedience to social norms almost as a necessary evil, something that is required for social function but not of any merit of its own. I interpret belief, on the other hand, as involving some sort of other party which is believed without question, whereas Kantian maturity would highly accept questioning. One believes in the Church, the priest or pastor, the Bible, or the magician, without questioning them.

Kant’s “maturity” is independent ability to use rational thought. Novalis, on the other hand, refers to Kant’s “maturity” in an ironic manner in “Christianity or Europe”. Granted, what Novalis longed for most in “Christianity or Europe” was the return of the old cosmopolitan culture, but Novalis criticizes the Reformation’s efforts to question Catholocism, and in general did not seem to show much interest in advancing independent thought, and seemed to favor belief in the Church and the clergy more than independent thought and conclusions. This can be seen in his view of the translation of the Bible into the common language; he felt that the priests were the best to interpret the Bible, which would lead to Kantian immaturity. And in “Faith and Love” Novalis frequently refers to the king or queen as characters that should be modeled by all of society. What I conclude from both of these is that independent thought, or Kantian maturity, was secondary in Novalis’ mind. In fact, in “Faith and Love”, Novalis seems to value belief in the king, contrary to Kantian maturity; and in “Christianity or Europe”, Novalis again put Kantian maturity as secondary to belief in the Church. Overall, Novalis appears to value belief over maturity.

Mauss describes magic as similar to religion in that both require belief to function. In many magical or spiritual rituals, unbelievers are not to be present. Belief becomes so strong that even the magician, who performs the slights of hand in his rituals, comes to believe in the power of magic, often seeking anothers’ magical ability. In fact, the belief is so strong, sometimes the nonoccurence of the sought-after event will strengthen rather than diminish the belief in magic and the magician. This also rubs shoulders with Kantian maturity. Questioning is always appreciated in his model fo maturity, whereas there can be no questioning of magic or its rituals.

The final reading, the selection from Petroski, seems to be the odd man out in this conflict between “maturity” and “belief”. It doesn’t pit belief against Kantian maturity. But if it were to be considered, it would likely fit under Kantian maturity. It seems to describe how improvement to a method or innovation can be made only through failure, not success. This is rather empirical; you don’t prove fact with science, but rather disprove nonfact, thus developing models that are only the most true or best, rather than completely true or perfect. This would argue for the sort of independent thought and questioning that is fundamental to Kantian maturity. It would also go against any belief in magic; whereas in magic belief is always maintained even in failure, according to Petroski, failure necessitates seeking a better method (which we certainly hope our doctors and medical technicians would do).

In relation to the Middle Ages, I feel as if we currently live in the era of enlightenment, of Kantian maturity, whereas the Middle Ages fit most in belief. Novalis harkens back to the age of Church dominance, which was the Middle Ages (it should be noted, however, that he did not believe that the Church and state should be reunited). As Mauss says, magic is similar to religion, and I would postulate that the reason why magic and religion in Western culture tend to be at odds is because they both are mystical in nature and both seek to monopolize the human need for the mystic. So when studying the Middle Ages, one must keep in mind that belief was epitomized, and that, as a result, Kantian maturity was discouraged. This was not always true, of course; I feel that St. Augustine would be considered by Kant as enlightened. But usually independent thinking is appreciated only if it coincides with the Church and eventually leads to an acceptance of belief.

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