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The Enlightenment and the Transatlantic Link: Common Roots and Today’s Challenges

Spoleto, 21/09/2012 - 23/09/2012, The Aspen Italia Seminar

The third edition of “The Enlightenment and the Transatlantic Link: Common Roots and Today’s Challenges” took place within the setting of Spoleto’s Palazzo Ancaiani. The event was organized in conjunction with The Aspen Institute and was aimed at discussing the continued relevance today of Enlightenment values, through an interpretation of over thirty selected texts by American and European authors, including several from Italy. This modern-day rereading of these fonts of Enlightenment thinking was divided into five sessions structured around the following universal themes:

  • human nature;
  • government and liberty;
  • free market;
  • ethics and religion; and
  • peace.

The seminar called into debate the contradictions of our time, caught between universalist idealism and the need to provide answers to concrete issues that are global in scale. In this regard, revisiting Enlightenment authors was viewed as useful in interpreting the complex relationship between religions and secular states, with specific reference to the new implications that arise for globalized and multicultural societies. Another issue deemed important was that of scientific progress, which raises new ethical questions and demands improved accessibility to sources of knowledge.

The very fact that the principles and values of the liberalist tradition still provide a valuable resource for the recognition of rights and responsibilities of individuals in an open society prompted discussion over the extent of the recognition of human dignity and freedom of expression today. The balance between different branches of government and the limitation of sovereignty were also acknowledged as being very relevant today, with a case in point being the trade-off in the democratic debate between timing and needs, on the one hand, and the quick decisiveness required for government action to be effective on the other. Another aspect focused on in this contemporary reinterpretation of Enlightenment readings was the development of horizontal and vertical subsidiarity, with particular attention paid to the emergence of federal structures (including in key countries such as China). Also highlighted as important in this regard was the complex shift towards Member States attributing greater sovereignty to the European Union, which among other things could facilitate the further simplification of transatlantic and international relations.

The participants also considered the development of free-market theories and trade in the light of post-communism and, conversely, the new limits on these that have been thrown into sharp relief by the recent crisis and the unresolved problems of underdevelopment and environmental sustainability. A further issue examined was the role that States should play in promoting the economy and welfare. Finally, the seminar concluded with an examination (from the perspective of Enlightenment ideals) of current international conflicts, particularly the phenomena of asymmetric warfare and terrorism, and the capacity to deal with these threats through new methods and a rational approach.