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Donald Trump and Angela Merkel each advocated on behalf of the Enlightenment at the recent G-20 meeting: Trump, the populist, in appealing to the national experiences that form us, and Merkel, the elitist, to the faculty of reason that makes sense of it all.
Trump, in his Warsaw address, spoke to the struggle of the Polish people against oppression through the centuries and during the last century in particular. Merkel, in treating her guests to a rendition of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, to one of the greatest expressions of the keen insight of the Enlightenment, that we, all of mankind, are brothers.
In our Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
In Ode to Joy, a choral symphony, Beethoven, quoting the poet Friedrich Schiller, wrote:
Be embraced, you millions!
This kiss is for the whole world!
Brothers, above the canopy of stars
must dwell a loving father.
Do you bow down before Him, you millions?
Do you sense your Creator, O world?
Seek Him above the canopy of stars!
He must dwell beyond the stars.
The Enlightenment could be said to have emerged from a different struggle than the one referenced by Trump in his Warsaw address. A struggle that involved the separation of church and state, the meaning of human freedom given God’s sovereignty, and the reconciliation of science and faith.
The specifics of this struggle differed from France to England to Germany, although in each there were times of triumph and times of defeat, times of glory and times of ignominy. But, realizing the universal truths that emerged during the Enlightenment, people could look to the future with confidence.
We are obviously not yet at the imagined future of universal brotherhood expressed in Ode to Joy. There are reactionary elements among us, including some who seek to re-establish the theocratic state and others who are willing to express themselves in violence when elections go the other way. During the G-20 meeting, Munich billowed the dark smoke of fires set by extremists of the left.
It is, therefore, for us to continue the advance of liberty in the world. Not to deny the experiences that have formed us. But to affirm the universal truths learned through those experiences.