Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Three Elements of Democratic Enlightenment

A Rebuttal to Whitman

Sean Ewart


Democratic enlightenment is that process through which the masses are transformed into a democratic society. As Walt Whitman says in Democratic Vistas, “the democratic formula is the only safe and preservative one for coming times. We endow the masses with the suffrage for their own sake, no doubt; then, perhaps still more, from another point of view, for community's sake. Leaving the rest to the sentimentalists, we present freedom as sufficient in its scientific aspect, cold as ice, reasoning, deductive, clear and passionless as crystal.” We are left, thus, to understand the process which makes this enlightenment possible, aided by thinkers like Whitman, but ultimately left on our own in the harsh reality which is our world. Indeed, as will be shown in this essay, there is something lacking in the scope of Whitman's theory, a crucial element (or combination of them) which brings to life the idealized democratic vista he envisions. 

Over the course of this essay, wherein there is a rebuttal to the Whitman hypothesis of democratic enlightenment, it will be shown that the critical error which he makes, is to mistake the results of the enlightenment with its causes. We will take, especially, the image of the marksman as our means to communicate the three essential elements of democratic enlightenment which are here pinpointed: the truth image, the justice image, and the knowledge image. To further our ability to grasp the concepts, periodic references to the Matrix (1999) will be given, a supplement to the marksman analogy. 

A Summary of the Marksman Analogy

  1. The target is the Truth Image
  2. The execution of the shot is the Justice Image
  3. The skill which guides the bullet to its mark is the Knowledge Image

The Truth Image

The truth image is the foundation of democratic enlightenment. Without truth there can be none of the crucial elements which make up a democratic society, and thus no democracy. We can imagine truth, as it relates to democracy, to be the red pill in the Matrix. Unless it is taken, the whole matter is irrelevant. Without that initial step, the rest are impossible. 

Indeed, a society without truth which seeks democracy is like the Utopians to whom Karl Kautsky refers in his essay, 'Democracy and Dictatorship.' “We have all heard of the Utopians who in the first half of the last century tried to make socialism an immediate reality through the establishment of communist colonies. With a backward proletariat, it was inevitable that these efforts should assume the character of a ready-made community plan, brought from above and carried out under the guidance of a dictatorship.” In the same way that the communists he spoke of were unprepared for democracy, so too is a society with restrictions on truth. 

Whitman understood that democracy is a perilous thing. “To him or her within whose thought rages the battle, advancing, retreating, between democracy's convictions, aspirations, and the people's crudeness, vice, caprices, I mainly write this essay.” His essay, Democratic Vistas, is well composed, if not well focused, and I should like to add to his rather verbose creation the concept of truth. What allows contradictions to coexist? In fact, coexistence cannot even be counted as the goal of democracy, but rather oneness. It is the democratic vision that out of many are formed one. How are the many to form such a union? How even is such a union to be envisioned by the multitudes? It is not enough to, as Whitman does, assert the beauty of diversity as a necessity of democracy; there must be an answer to it. Certainly diversity is a wonderful thing, and perhaps a building block of democracy, but diversity is not enough. What allows diversity to become such an intrinsic value? In other words, what allows diversity to work in American democracy, while toppling entire civilizations elsewhere? 

It is important that the constitution of America protects the freedom of the press and speech. That there are protections for criticism, for differing opinions, and for whistle blowers. The anarchy of individualism is sanctioned and protected by the entity which holds a monopoly on violence. Surely there are boundaries (perhaps at times too exclusively regulated), but these boundaries act as guidelines more than actual restrictions. Conversation, discussion, and even criticism is aimed at construction and the roles which govern these facets are there to ensure that destruction is, if not impossible, unlikely. There is a difference, in our discourse and collective ideal, between calling for change, and rallying for revolution. And yet, consider that dialog alone is useless. Even when discussion is directed at construction, at building rather than destroying, it is a fools errand to dwell on vacuous ideals and meaningless philosophies. Protecting speech is important, yet gets us nowhere if it is alone and unsupported. In fact, protecting speech, when it is only the mindless utterances of the ignorant, may be detrimental to the progress of democratic enlightenment – and we here must concur with Whitman that democratic enlightenment is the necessary precondition for democracy.

The moment when conversation, even constructive, becomes useful is a nuanced thing to find. There is, indeed it is only logical that there must be, a catalyst which provides the transition between empty words and democratic exchange; when the pluralism of society, when the valued individualism, becomes a part of the whole. In as much as democracy is made precious by its diversity, it is made functional – indeed even valuable – by its unity. The paradox of democracy is that it is at once separate and personal, divided and indivisible. But even here we have not stumbled upon what makes this work. Sure, there is room for 'I' and 'we,' the individual and the multitude, but, as with our conversations, the fact that protection is afforded to identity, whether singular or plural, is not what makes democracy tick. Moreover, as with protections on speech, the value of both the unit and the whole could split society without the necessary element which carries with it the essence of democratic enlightenment. 

“The process, so far, is indirect and peculiar, and though it may be suggested, cannot be defined.” It is Whitman's belief that, as water in an expansive sea, the beauty of democracy is in its indefinite attributes. Subjective, changing, unmitigated by tyranny, and bound to personality, not of any one, but of the entire whole. But it must be admitted that even the largest ocean has a shore, and while it may well be that the universe is unending, laws certainly apply even to the free roaming atoms which drift about, commingle, interchange, meld, build, destroy, and dissipate. And while the process may be suggested, can we not also define it? There is, we must admit, more to democracy, even to democratic enlightenment at a more basic level, than anarchic diversity and individual disunity. We are not, as Whitman seems to belief, united solely by our differences, but are held together by – and only by – a catalyst which, out of the plurality of our differences, begets unity. It is nearly as he says, that the image-making faculty almost triumphs over material creation. But surely, in democratic enlightenment, the image actually triumphs over material creation. And isn't it this which allows the many to become one, if not physically, certainly ideologically? There must be a commitment to the image before enlightenment can bring about change in space and time. And without that commitment, are we not just particles without cohesion? 

Before we go further, an objection must be put to rest. Does not the image-making faculty, when it triumphs over material creation, likewise triumph over the diversity which is so valued in democracy? Is the image tyrannical? In a word, no. But the objection is stronger than a word, and so we must press onward with a series of them. As with space, even time, and certainly with matter, so too with democracy and its participants. Indeed, even as the boundaries of speech are defined to empower it, so too must be the essence of democracy. Even as a word without definition is a word without meaning, democracy without a unified image is democracy without purpose. The discord of the democratic masses cannot be merely so, but must be enamored by a single image which, while leaving intact the diversity, at once forges a whole. Yes, the image must take precedence, but not as does the tyrant, rather as a target at which all of society is aimed. It is the mark (pun intended) of a democratic society that it is unified by the image – which we shall define in short order – and that the image is the critical element which empowers it. 

We arrive, finally, at the crux of the argument. Democracy, while being the composition of the many, is yet one, and is unified by a singularity. It is empowered, moreover, not simply by diversity, but by its definition, which allows it to leap from the imagination and into the minds of the masses. Definition, far from being limiting, is the essence of its ability to transform, as indeed definition is with all concepts. Imagine that democracy was a mere coupling of random letters and you will see the merit of this. It is necessary that there be definition, and yet even this cannot be enough to initiate the transformation of the many into the conglomeration of the whole. What there must be, ahead of anything else, is the truth image, which, though it may never mean exactly the same thing to different people, is the only concept capable of uniting the many, while preserving their independence. Conversation, indeed communication as a concept to itself, is futile without the basic assumption of truth behind it. Put boundaries, regulations, rules, and the like upon conversation, or take them all away, and whichever method is set upon, it will certainly fall short of democratic enlightenment without that element of truth which allows conversations to be, more than a vacuous exchange of words, about something. Without the truth image, without the goal of truth which triumphs over material creation, indeed which even unites it, democratic enlightenment is a facade. It is, it must be, that commitment, if not to truth itself, but to the image, the ideal, of truth, which allows the many, while retaining their individual identities, to form a cohesive society. And it is, likewise, this commitment, or lack-thereof, which separates those democratic societies from the undemocratic. It is, in other words, the truth image which creates the whole, and which defines the course of democracy. Truth itself is not the defining mark, but the truth image, in the same way that it is not the target which defines the course of a bullet, but the image of the target. Unless the truth image is accepted, and the target settled upon by, if not the entirety of society, at least the majority, there can be no democratic enlightenment, and thus no democracy. While it should be noted that there is, in the essay, nowhere to be found a definition of truth, it is necessary, for, as the red pill in the Matrix, it is not the specific nature of truth which matters, but that longing for it. As to the nature of democracy, what, really, is more fundamental than a basic quest for truth?

The Justice Image

Accepting, as we must, that truth, in the abstract, is the catalyst of democratic enlightenment, we are then left to attempt at actualization, in which the abstraction becomes, perhaps not solidified, but certainly enforceable. It is this, the ability of society to move from a unified ideal to a unified action, which now concerns us. If, as was stated in the proceeding essay, truth, again in its abstraction, is the target at which the democratic (perhaps pre-democratic?) society aims at, we can imagine that justice is the act of pulling the trigger (although, we should be careful not to get hung up on the metaphor). Indeed, taking with us the example provided by the Matrix, truth, the red pill, is followed up by the action (which takes up the rest of the movie) and it is this action which now concerns us. As soon as the red pill is swallowed, there must be action to validate that step. What, really, is truth without action to accompany it?

Judging from the main portions of the history of the world, so far, justice is always in jeopardy, peace walks amid hourly pitfalls, and of slavery, misery, meanness, the craft of tyrants and the credulity of the populace, in some of their protean forms, no voice can at any time say, They are not.” Indeed, we can here agree with Whitman in his discussion of justice. Surely it is not, as some would like to agree, perhaps not out of great thought, but out of ease and intellectual cowardice, a matter to be decided simply with codes and complex books designed to satisfy the discontinuous mind. Categories of crimes and punishments are only so capable of making sense of the vastness of the problem of justice, and the injustice which is the natural result of such incongruities causes some to hope, not that justice will march on, but that it, as embodied by that which we call the justice system, will fall at last.

We are faced, then, with both the overriding need for justice, as the action which brings truth to life, and the desire to see its manifestation destroyed. Could we, perhaps, be satisfied with correction? It seems like, paradoxically, this does not give us the sense of justice we desire. We are, in other words, at once in need of the serum, and upset with its results. And where the injustice is bred, we find not, as we would like to imagine, an evil, but rather a fact of humanity which seeks to box in an attempt to make reality fit with our contrived notion of it. Justice, we must agree, is always in jeopardy, but not merely from external forces, as is certainly the case, it is at risk of imploding upon itself as those beings which dream up the ideal are yet incapable of achieving it.

Must we, therefore, concede defeat before ever reaching our destination? Are we, as was Moses, condemned to observe, from the summit of Mt. Nebo, the land to which we feel entitled, and yet never reach it? Surely this cannot be the case. It is, we would be remiss not to observe, the same essential problem, if not in practice (but perhaps in practice as well), as is to be found in the acquisition of truth as the necessary catalyst for democratic enlightenment. In fact, as the logical continuation of the truth image, the problem of the justice image is perhaps one-in-the-same – and perhaps we are too suffering from the disease of the discontinuous mind when we accept the truth image and the justice image as two distinct, mutually exclusive, compartments. But leaving that aside, and thus pressing forward with the noted pitfalls of our intellect, can we, as was done with the truth image, be content to accept the mere abstraction of the justice image? As truth-enforced, does not the abstract justice image do little to aid us in the quest for democratization? And here we are returned to the initial project, and problem, of implementation. To accept defeat on this point is to accept the defeat of democratic enlightenment generally, and to reject the fundamental usefulness of the truth image.

How, then, do we surmount this problem and, as it appears we must, get beyond the paradox which is truth-enforced? The simple answer, and the most direct, is that we simply accept the paradox and move with it. Again, we can fall back to the elementary level of the truth image for explanation, taking the complexity of truth in hand, and the simplicity of aiming at it in the other. Truth, with its variables and levels of complexity, is perhaps the most difficult aspect of democratic enlightenment, and is yet the simplest, for it is not the actual truth which concerns us, but the truth image, which embodies, not truth as a defined concept, truth as an abstraction, as, say, Plato's ideal woman. Pressing the metaphor further, as all of society (or at the very least, most) aims at the target of truth, it is justice which we call the action of pulling the figurative trigger, launching a physical object towards an abstraction by an abstraction. There is much to take away from this, and not least of all is the notion that there are multiple triggers being pulled at once, as each individual separately responds to the abstract truth image, the catalyst in our theory of democratic enlightenment. But, in as much as the truth-enforced is an individual effort, it is the collective will to act which gives credence to the action itself. It is the collective will which allows the vigilante to become the police, and it is the same force which, as noted before in the truth image, bequeaths the monopoly on violence to that entity deemed best fit to wield it – the democratic state.

It is thus true, that while there is not any one ideal, there is an ideal of oneness which pervades, and enables, democratic society. The collective will, the will of the whole, does not need concrete definitions to itself be defined. While it is certainly the case that there will be, in any given population, multiple definitions of truth, the democratic society will find itself awash in the ideal of truth as an abstraction, as with justice. It is, in the end, the justice image which, while not solving the problems of implementation, allows for the desire for implementation. Indeed, returning to our original problem, those who wish for the justice system to collapse, are yet in the culture of justice seekers.

We here find ourselves at the resolution of the initial paradox, with yet another. As the implementation of justice creates, in and of itself, injustice through the false dichotomies fabricated by the discontinuous mind, those who recognize the problems, and thus seek to rectify it, especially through the destruction of the alleged justice system, are themselves seeking justice – and are, by their own power, well within the boundaries of democratic enlightenment. Justice, to be sure, is always in jeopardy, but that the ideal – and its opposite – can be recognized may even be enough for us to be satisfied with. The justice image, truth-enforced, is the execution of the truth image. It is both abstraction and action, embodied in the ideal, justice, and born out of the commitment to, once settling upon the target of truth, do all that it takes to hit it.

The climax of this loftiest range of civilization, rising above all the gorgeous shows and results of wealth, intellect, power, and art, as such -- above even theology and religious fervor -- is to be its development, from the eternal bases, and the fit expression, of absolute Conscience, moral soundness, Justice.” While we can agree that absolute justice is perhaps the climax of society, we can likewise sense the Utopian feel of the statement (and perhaps give pause and reexamine Kautsky's caution to the communists in the essay regarding the truth image?). The absolute justice, of which Whitman speaks, is the absolute which escapes definition, at least, at this point in our dialog. Who's justice does he here speak speak of? And how does he get past the discontinuous mind and succeed in perfect execution? We can, by taking his idea to the extreme, even recognize it as, if not the cause, a cause of those masses which give up hope of ever achieving a truly just system. Are we not to be content with progression? Must we be condemned to ever seek perfection, yet never see progress? If the climax of civilization is absolute justice, is everything else an equity of hellish injustice? It cannot be so. Truth-enforced, as with all forms of social establishments, must go through its phases of development, and while we can easily recognize the flaws in our methods of execution (indeed, perhaps especially so in that we preform executions), we should take heart at understanding that justice, in reality, is still in its infancy. Absolute justice, similar to the total abolition of crime, is, in all likelihood, impossible, and yet it would be foolish to throw in the towel and allow injustice to run rampant.

We are left with an imperfect, and for that reason, perfectly human, view of democratic enlightenment as established thus far. It is the justice image, as truth enforced, which enables the truth image to become more than an abstraction, and become established as the foundation for democracy as a whole. Democratic enlightenment, thus far established, is the result of the truth image as the catalyst for the creation of the whole, and the justice image as that which enables the truth image to become more than a vague abstraction. Indeed, by its very nature, justice defines truth, if not absolutely, certainly in practice, and the rest is left to be sorted out by our conversations which, as we agreed upon before, are bound to the quest for truth, and thus, to the appropriate execution of justice.

The Knowledge Image

We have so far stolen from the field of marksmanship lessons on democratic enlightenment. Truth has been identified as the target, at which society is aimed; justice is the action of pulling the trigger and acting upon truth thus acquired; and we now come to the final part of the analogy, wherein we determine that force which guides the bullet and allows it to hit its mark. To continue, likewise, with our visualization from the Matrix, this final image can be identified as the moment when Neo, the main protagonist, understands the nature of the Matrix as he is resurrected. No longer is he fighting a cause which he does not truly see, he instead is imbued with knowledge about the conflict, and thus the ability to win. It is this ability, to go beyond recognition of goals, and beyond acting on mere impulse, in other words, the quality of not simply aiming at a target, but of hitting it, which is embodied in the knowledge image.

It is on this final point, especially, though not uniquely, that we can clearly see the difference between the theory of democratic enlightenment here offered, and that of Whitman's. In fact, besides the casual mockery of the idea of 'knowledge,' his treatise on Democratic Vistas has nothing to say on the nature of knowledge, indeed, little to say on the nature of democratization generally. “I say that democracy can never prove itself beyond cavil, until it founds and luxuriantly grows its own forms of art, poems, schools, theology, displacing all that exists, or that has been produced anywhere in the past, under opposite influences.” He here supports his view that democracy is, and should be, a manifestation of the beauty of diversity, and while we can accept this as a 'pretty' ideal, we cannot for a moment entertain the idea that it is merely so. Democratic enlightenment is not simply the substantiation of the arts and philosophies of democracy, it is not simply the acceptance of diversity – how could it be? The downfall of Whitman, if not in sublimity, in actuality, is his failure to understand the deeper essence of democracy. It is as if he observes the tip of an iceberg, without bothering about the rest, indeed, the more consequential. Yes, it is true that democracy cannot be anything more than a nice philosophy without its own particular brand of culture, but what, and this is the crucial element which Whitman seems unable to perceive, births the culture of democracy? Even as we are speaking of democratic enlightenment, what, and let us not forget, how, does the enlightenment even initiate? So without downplaying the beauty of Whitman's theory (can we even call it that?) we must move beyond it to understand the nature of democratic enlightenment. 
Truly, Whitman mistakes for the causes of democratic enlightenment, the results, and we would be remiss to do the same. It is not diversity, as we said, though it is here worth being repetitive for the sake of clarity, which causes the essential enlightenment, indeed it is not culture either, those are results, even, in as much as bubbles alert us to boiling water, indicators. It cannot be accepted, as Whitman apparently does, that democratic culture is the cause of democratic culture. The argument is circular at best, though it seems more to the point to simply say it is irrelevant, not to the description of democratic culture, but to the mechanics of it. 
In the proceeding sections, we have outlined the first two steps in the process of democratic enlightenment, the process which begets the culture of democracy. The truth image, being the catalyst which initiates the entire program. The truth-enforced [justice] image, which is the action taken, or imagined, based on the image of truth. But this is not enough for the theory to be complete, for it is missing the central element which separates blind firing and cultural blundering, from fine tuning and accuracy. There is, in other words, an element of democratic theory which must be defined to bring the divergent actions of society, which, while being united in ideals, is yet to be united in delivery, together. We can imagine that there is a line of marksmen who have acquired the target (truth) and have decided to act on it (justice), and yet have not yet picked the same target, or the same moment to fire. They have, by possessing only the first two elements, become united in theory, but not in delivery. The third element is that which focuses the multitudes and their many truths and many ways to establish justice by the honing of their rationality – as a captain will direct the many guns under his command at a single target. 
All throughout this treatise, there should have been a rising chorus of objection to my initial premise, to the establishment of the truth image as the catalyst to democratic enlightenment. What, the objector asks, is 'truth?' To this we must almost surrender the point, and at such a terrible moment in the argument, as it is just reaching its zenith. But we are saved from having to abandon our theory by a subtle, though meaningful, distinction, perhaps more a play of semantics than anything. There is a difference between 'Truth' – the objective and absolute – and 'truth,' as we have used it thus far, as only the concept of the objective and absolute – the literal image of these ideals. The objection, thankfully, is misplaced, for the separation of 'Truth' and 'truth' is in fact a critical point at the heart of this theory, and is about to come into its own as we explore the final part of this theoretical trilogy. Again, so that nothing is lost in our discussion, 'Truth' is different than 'truth' in the same way that the idea of something is different than the thing itself. Here lies the final gap to be filled in this theory.

We have come far indeed. From a diverse assemblage of individuals, to a collective defined, not by their definition of truth, but by their commitment to it. From a society united by the ideal of truth, to one which is, perhaps tentatively, willing to act according to their commitment to truth, in the execution of justice. And we have now arrived at the important moment when the action is guided, not just by commitment, but by reality, when there is a unified movement towards, not separate targets, one exclusively. It is the knowledge image which allows for this transformation, the ideal of knowledge which pulls the other two together and keeps them in check, ever revised by the third element's insatiable gravitation. 
While the truth and truth-enforced images get us at the brink of democratic enlightenment, the knowledge image, the truth-actualized, is what pushes us over the edge. There exists, once the third element is set in place, the necessary bridge between the desire for truth, and the ability to obtain it – the desire to hit the target, and the skill to accurately mark it. So have we satisfied the objector's cry that we have not defined 'Truth?' No, but we have set in motion the method to do so. It is knowledge which establishes Truth as more than the abstract truth, but as a definite something which can be determined. It is as if Plato's woman has sprung from the page and into the real world for us to observe. Democracy, at its most fundamental level, is a search for Truth. Which decision is really best? Who can best lead? Which laws will aid us as we seek to progress? Democratic culture, the indicator of democratic enlightenment, is based on the search for Truth, and the many definitions of it, though it is not, nor should it be, ignorant of Truth established. It is society's downfall for it to, at once understand Truth, and ignore it. Knowledge, we can accept, is an abstraction, but like the irradiation of crime, it is an ideal to be sought after in the pursuit of Truth, springing from the acceptance of the importance of truth as the only possible option for that society seeking to, as we said before, have a conversation about something. 
The knowledge image, truth-actualized, is the final piece of our puzzle, that piece which reveals the image, which brings the whole together, and yet allows the pieces to be individuals nevertheless. Without the knowledge image, truth and justice, indeed as absolutes as much as abstractions, are not even valuable, for they are not capable of making the leap from democratization, to democracy. With truth-actualized, we have the completed analogy: The masses aim at the target of truth, they fire by the execution of justice, and they hit their mark with the guidance of knowledge.


There is, as has been shown, more to democratic enlightenment than what Whitman's theory is capable of explaining. The superstructures of the future will not rest on the results of democratization, but on democratization itself, for that future is itself an end. It has been shown, using the analogy of the marksman, how democracy, at the cultural level, is the result of three fundamental elements. Surely there could be identified others which build a healthy democratic society, but let us borrow another analogy for a moment, and compare these three elements to the most basic of those on the periodic table. Without them, no other elements could arise. These are the indivisible attributes of a democratic society: truth, justice, and knowledge. Everything else is the result of their combination, and where they do not exist, there is no democratic enlightenment, to say nothing of democracy. 
And so the case against Whitman's theory is rested. It has not been an attack on his observations of the indicators of a democratic society, indeed in defining these he is quite adept. Rather, in as much as it is not bubbles and steam which cause water to boil, it is not joy, anti-materialism, art, literature, and the like which promote democracy, but rather the opposite. The three fold elements defined in this essay are those elements which arise separately from democracy, and which, through their combination in society, create it. We can, however, end with a shared prayer:

She [democratic society] will understand herself, live nobly, nobly contribute, emanate, and, swinging, poised safely on herself, illumin'd and illuming, become a full-form'd world, and divine Mother not only of material but spiritual worlds, in ceaseless succession through time...”

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