For the first time, Alan began to have a sense of what this organization was. It was a secret society made up of individuals who studied in Europe at places like Cambridge and Bologna. It was born of the Enlightenment and had largely flown under the radar of the world today.
“So what are your goals? What is the purpose of this secret society? Liberty, fraternity, equality, like the French Revolution?”
“Kant’s essay is the place to start,” Fox answered. “I would suggest you read it sometime today. It’s easily available online. Kant quotes the old Roman poet Horace in his essay: sapere aude—‘Dare to know.’ It became the motto of the society.
“But we are not just committed to knowledge. We are committed to dialog. We are committed to dialectic.”
Alan remembered that word from somewhere. “Dialectic.” His subconscious was pulling up Karl Marx, the father of communism.
“Marx?” Alan said.
“Not in this case,” Mr. Fox smiled. “Marx didn’t actually come up with the idea. He was borrowing from G. W. F. Hegel.
“What we mean by dialectic,” Fox continued, “is a discussion back and forth in which each side sharpens and improves its position by debate with the other.”
“So you just talk to each other?” Alan said, not particularly gripped by Mr. Fox’s description.
“The original group was fiercely committed to reason and the avoidance of all superstition and sentimentality,” Fox said. Then he smiled and added: “Of course it was not long before we debated this position as well.”
Alan wasn’t sure what to ask next. Finally, Mr. Fox broke the silence.
“Look. Think this way about what you are considering. You are being offered a unique opportunity to study in the most advanced community of learning in the world. Like any other university, you choose a specialty: math, science, history, religion, philosophy, art, music. Which subject you choose will determine where in Europe you primarily study, but you will spend some time in all of them, if you do well enough to continue in the program.”
“So it’s not just a matter of being admitted at the beginning?”
“If you choose to come, your first few months will be a trial period. You can return to begin as soon as you graduate, if you want. But by the end of your first three months, both you and we will have a decision. Do you want to continue? Do we believe you should continue?”
“Then what?” Alan followed.
“Then you will have the rest of the year to decide what subject and thus what location you wish to pursue. During the first year, you will likely spend a quarter of the year at each of the main four locations here in Europe. At the end of the year. You will need to choose, if you are chosen to continue.”
“Sounds like you all will constantly be evaluating me.”
“In truth, you can be dismissed at any time. There is no eagerness to do so. It is only that one can only proceed if one progresses sufficiently.”
They sat in silence for a moment. Then suddenly, Mr. Fox was done.
“It has been a delight to meet you, Mr. Randolph. You have a good deal about which to think. I have booked you a hotel tonight by Heathrow airport.” Mr. Fox handed him the hotel’s business card.
“Here is also a credit card by which you can purchase a train ticket to London, as well as another plane ticket should you choose to return. A text will arrive this afternoon with your boarding passes for your flight tomorrow,” Mr. Fox said, standing up. “I trust you can find your way,” he said and stretched out to shake Alan’s hand.
“Yes, I think I can,” Alan said, a little unused to so much freedom and power.
“Good day,” Mr. Fox said.
“Wait,” Alan quickly interjected. “When am I supposed to come back? When do I have to decide? How will I contact you?”
“We know where you are. You have six months to decide. Just show up if you choose to begin. We will know you are coming.”
“One more thing,” Alan blurted out. “What is the name of this society?”
“La Société des Lumières,” he said. “The Society of the Enlightenment.”