Friday, May 15, 2015

Friday Novel: Origins of the Society

Fox paused, clearly contemplating how much to say and in what order.

“In 1784, a German philosopher by the name of Immanuel Kant answered a question that had appeared a year previous in a Berlin magazine, ‘What is enlightenment?’ His answer was basically that enlightenment was learning to think for yourself. For him it was an ability in one's mind to critique one's country, one's religion, and those in authority over you. In effect, it is the ability to use reason to evaluate the traditions you have inherited and the culture in which you swim."

Alan sat silent. He had heard of Kant, but didn't know much about him, other than the fact that his theology professor in high school wasn't too keen on him.

"This piece resonated with a controversial figure here in England by the name of Joseph Priestly. In fact, Priestly himself had influenced Kant's thinking on these sorts of things."

Alan finally said something. "I've heard of Kant, but not of Priestly."

"Priestly was the kind of person who tended to cause controversy wherever he went. He supported the American and French Revolutions and in 1791 finally came under so much pressure in England that he left with his family to the newly formed United States. He spent the last part of his life in Pennsylvania.

"But before he left," Fox continued, "he was quite eager to start a society of sorts here in England, a 'society of enlightenment.' He had many friends all over Europe. He was a minister, a scientist, a chemist. He discovered oxygen, for example.

"Priestly wanted to start a very public movement, but after he was forced to leave England, his goals were left to others, most importantly an unlikely person named Henry Cavendish, the chemist who had made major discoveries about hydrogen just a few years before Priestly discovered oxygen.

"Cavendish was a bit of a recluse, a very private and shy man. He probably had Asperger's syndrome. He had no interest in revolution or a public movement. But he did have connections with Peterhouse College at Cambridge. He had the idea of a secret society, one that functioned out of the great universities of Europe with the goal of moving the world toward enlightenment..."

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