Catching up with the Enlightenment
The Enlightenment, Kant wrote in a popular text, is our “emergence from self-imposed nonage”. He then goes on to explain that by “nonage” (Unmündigkeit) – which some translate as “immaturity” – he means “the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance”. His definition goes on as follows: “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.”
You may recall that the last time we met on this page, on the last Monday before the referendum of May 28, I shared with you what one of the intellectually sharper media personalities intimately associated with the Nationalist Party told me several months ago. The problem with Eddie Fenech Adami, he said, is that he never came to terms with the Enlightenment.
What an extraordinarily candid and profound admission from someone who, in the first 10 years or so of Dr Fenech Adami’s premiership, had worked to present the PN as the political party that was triumphantly leading Malta towards an epoch beyond “mere” modernity, to nothing less than the age of post-modernity. I have often referred to PN publications in the first half of the 1990s carrying contributions by respected Maltese academics announcing the failure of what Lyotard had over 10 years earlier characterised as the meta-narratives of modernity.
The divorce referendum campaign confirmed that not only are the leaders of the post-Borg Olivier PN not the post-modern vanguard they were presented as – in contrast to Labour leaders depicted by PN apologists in the 1990s as intellectual dinosaurs hopelessly trapped in obsolete 18th and 19th century projects – but, rather, that the PN leaders were themselves desperately defending positions that Kant had already criticised as obsolete in 1784.
The referendum campaign has confirmed that the PN’s leadership has not, as at 2011, emancipated itself from a hopelessly pre-modern and pre-Enlightenment mind-set. By “leadership” I do not refer only to its present leader and to Dr Fenech Adami – who, though no longer formally the PN’s leader, is evidently still its moral leader – but to its members of Parliament and to the majority of the members of the PN executive committee that, on February 12, voted in favour of a motion declaring the party’s position against the introduction of the right to divorce.
Having said this, it must also be said that not all those that identify themselves with the PN are as backwards as the party’s leadership as broadly defined above. There are many thinking Nationalists who are understandably bewildered and confused with what the leaders of the party they consider as their own have said and done on the issue of divorce. Not all of these “thinking Nationalists” – as I referred to them in my previous contribution to this column (www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110523/opinion/Gonzi-and-thinking-Nationalists.366724) – would make use of the right to seek divorce when the right to divorce finally becomes law.
No thinking Nationalist, however, would agree to denying this civil right to those that need it, choose it and qualify for it.
This distinction is an important one and goes beyond the PN. Let’s pause briefly on it. You can be for the passing of a divorce law on grounds that this would enable persons who need it, choose it and qualify for it, to seek it as a right and you can also – at the same time and coherently – assert your personal choice not to make use of this right. This is not a fine distinction. It is a fundamental one. Not to appreciate this distinction is not to have come to terms with the Enlightenment, 227 years after Kant (what better example of the great achievements of European thought?) published his Was ist Aufklärung? (What is Enlightenment?) and, much later, if we take the Enlightenment, as some do, to have its roots in the mid-17th century. (*)
Let us come back to the position of thinking Nationalists today. There are many very fine brains indeed among them. Many of them knew all along that the leadership of the PN was not the best of all possible leaderships. The admission by the media personality I referred to above will not have surprised many of them. Few of them, if any at all, would today – and possibly not since a number of years ago – pretend to be intellectually inspired by anyone in the PN leadership: neither by any of the older ones nor by any of the younger ones, certainly not by the likes of, say, a Fenech Adami fils.
Some will migrate to the Labour Party, most will simply continue to lose interest in Maltese politics and in Malta generally but some others will resist the temptation to despair and will attempt to drag their party to the second decade of the 21st century. Or as close to it as possible. Kant, in the essay I quoted above, also wrote: “One may postpone one’s own enlightenment but only for a limited period of time. And to give up enlightenment altogether, either for oneself or one’s descendants, is to violate and to trample upon the sacred rights of man.”
(*) Read Kant’s text on this site. Click on https://watersbroken.wordpress.com/kants-what-is-enlightenment-the-text/
This article appeared in Dr Vella’s regular column in The Times of Malta on Monday, June 6, 2011 and may be accessed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110606/opinion/Catching-up-with-Enlightenment.369162