Immanuel Kant was one of the influential voices in what we now call the “Enlightenment.”

In that period, mostly during the 18th century, the confluence of scientific discovery and philosophical inquiry ushered in what we now consider to be the modern age. Kant was both a proponent of its possibilities and a critic of its limitations.

His tombstone contains a quote from his “Critique of Practical Reason,” an essay on moral philosophy, that reads: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above … and the moral law within.”

That memorable thought came to mind one day last week as I watched two things on television.

The first was the debut of the first images from the new James Webb Space Telescope, a project many years in conception and implementation. Now poised a million miles above the earth, the telescope is providing stunning images of distant corners of the universe millions of light years away.

The sheer vastness of a universe, only part of which we can see, can “blow one’s mind,” to use a phrase from a much earlier period of discovery. It prompts an awe that is difficult to describe.

Accompanying the presentation of those spectacular images were some video shots of various groups of people – hundreds of them – gathered around the world who had worked on various parts of the project.

Each person brought skills, expertise and commitment to a task that is moving our understanding of our world forward, with future byproducts of discovery that will benefit life on many levels. That community of people, working together for a common good, offered its own version of awe and encouragement.

The second TV broadcast that day was the seventh hearing of the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. Building on previous sessions, the process continued to disclose the events that led up to the attack with repeated images of the actual movements of the thousands of people who participated.

This community of people has created its own kind of amazement, but more a reminder of how vulnerable the human family can be to manipulation and mal-direction into a mob.

But there is another, less well-defined community of people who have become prominent in the disclosures from the committee’s investigations.

These are people from various places in our public life who have taken the risk of offering the truth they have seen and experienced as part of the drama of late 2020 and early 2021. The risk has been underscored by reports of harassment and death threats from agents of the cause under investigation.

Giving higher priority to integrity than to personal security and their place in their previous associations, witnesses have demonstrated Kant’s “moral law within” that has aligned them with truth’s disclosure and that has earned them respect and a kind of “admiration and awe, the more often and steadily … they are reflected upon,” as the philosopher would say.

In a number of ways, the moral law within is flexing its muscle in response to a rather blatant expression of its disregard that has spread over time to affect many parts of our public life.

The thoroughness of the investigative committee’s work and the cooperation of persons who have been forthright with it are analogous to the focused commitment of the scientists and engineers who have brought us a new level of ability to be in awe of Kant’s “starry heavens.”

Both outer space and inner space, it seems, can “fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe” – a refreshing antidote to the daily reminders of the many challenges we face.

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