What Is Enlightenment?

What is enlightenment? Are we even equipped to answer this? Is it arrogant for us to think we could know the answer to such a question?

These are some of the questions we discussed in my History class, when discussing the European Enlightenment. We were talking about how the Europeans used inductive logic and thought they knew the answer to everything. (Keep in mind, my teacher is vocally liberal, and hates to compliment European history).

Is enlightenment the same as having an existential crisis? And do we just choose to ignore such crises because we know that, even if they are true, it’ll just lead to believing nothing you do matters? Maybe leading to suicidal thoughts or detachment?

Who can really say they’re enlightened, anyway? And is it fair for any of us to try and explain enlightenment? Here’s an excerpt from my experiences in history class (okay, so my response didn’t actually happen. In a perfect world, I would have totally said this and maybe even had a standing ovation. But these thoughts and experience is all totally original, I pinkie swear) :

My teacher stood up from his desk and strode across the classroom. Hushed voices. Ceased laughing. The room was his, and the anticipation was snowballing.

“Enlightenment. What is enlightenment?”

My jaw dropped a little, as if opening it would help me grasp some sort of response to the unanswerable question.

“Enlightenment is when you learn something you don’t already know”, said the girl sitting right in front of me.

He nodded, once, twice. “Is that it? Are we enlightened as soon as we learn something new?”

Another girl responded. “When you’re enlightened the search doesn’t stop. You keep trying to find answers. There will always be something that you don’t know.”

Then what’s the point of calling it enlightenment, I thought, if you’re still hidden in the dark?

I murmured, half to myself. “Self-transcendence.

He looked at me. “Sorry, can you repeat that again?”

“Self-transcendence. Realizing it isn’t all about you. That there were eons before us and there will be eons after us. That we aren’t even a chapter in the book known as History. Realizing that our personal lives won’t matter years from now, when the pure fire of death blazes and transforms us into dust and ash, burning away everything worthless (everything we think matters) and leaving what we call our legacy. Knowing that you didn’t put everything in motion, the stars and the earth and the solar system and farther out into the unknown. Knowing that we don’t have all the answers, and will never have the answers, and that’s okay because that isn’t what enlightenment is about. It’s about realizing your place in this world, finding truth even when there is seemingly none.”


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