Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A Commonplace Entry


What is Enlightenment?


Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. 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.

Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large part of mankind gladly remain minors all their lives, long after nature has freed them from external guidance. They are the reasons why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as guardians. It is so comfortable to be a minor. If I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet, and so on--then I have no need to exert myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay; others will take care of that disagreeable business for me. Those guardians who have kindly taken supervision upon themselves see to it that the overwhelming majority of mankind--among them the entire fair sex--should consider the step to maturity, not only as hard, but as extremely dangerous. First, these guardians make their domestic cattle stupid and carefully prevent the docile creatures from taking a single step without the leading-strings to which they have fastened them. Then they show them the danger that would threaten them if they should try to walk by themselves. Now this danger is really not very great; after stumbling a few times they would, at last, learn to walk. However, examples of such failures intimidate and generally discourage all further attempts.

Thus it is very difficult for the individual to work himself out of the nonage which has become almost second nature to him. He has even grown to like it, and is at first really incapable of using his own understanding because he has never been permitted to try it. Dogmas and formulas, these mechanical tools designed for reasonable use--or rather abuse--of his natural gifts, are the fetters of an everlasting nonage. The man who casts them off would make an uncertain leap over the narrowest ditch, because he is not used to such free movement. That is why there are only a few men who walk firmly, and who have emerged from nonage by cultivating their own minds.

It is more nearly possible, however, for the public to enlighten itself; indeed, if it is only given freedom, enlightenment is almost inevitable. There will always be a few independent thinkers, even among the self-appointed guardians of the multitude. Once such men have thrown off the yoke of nonage, they will spread about them the spirit of a reasonable appreciation of man's value and of his duty to think for himself. It is especially to be noted that the public which was earlier brought under the yoke by these men afterwards forces these very guardians to remain in submission, if it is so incited by some of its guardians who are themselves incapable of any enlightenment. That shows how pernicious it is to implant prejudices: they will eventually revenge themselves upon their authors or their authors' descendants. Therefore, a public can achieve enlightenment only slowly. A revolution may bring about the end of a personal despotism or of avaricious tyrannical oppression, but never a true reform of modes of thought. New prejudices will serve, in place of the old, as guide lines for the unthinking multitude.

This enlightenment requires nothing but freedom--and the most innocent of all that may be called "freedom": freedom to make public use of one's reason in all matters. Now I hear the cry from all sides: "Do not argue!" The officer says: "Do not argue--drill!" The tax collector: "Do not argue--pay!" The pastor: "Do not argue--believe!" Only one ruler in the world says: "Argue as much as you please, but obey!" We find restrictions on freedom everywhere. But which restriction is harmful to enlightenment? Which restriction is innocent, and which advances enlightenment? I reply: the public use of one's reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind. . .

"What is Enlightenment?" - Immanuel Kant

7 comments:

Mudpuddle said...

agree, largely... but there are apparently, sorts of enlightenment... K addresses it in terms of language and social realities... zen looks beyond knowledge and words to the nature of the universe and the basic question of "what is being"... a kind of geological/physical/astronomical view of the cosmos, a greater perspective, if you will... reality seems a will of the wisp. floating in space and battered by the laws of physics and the quantum substrate... a pursuit of nothingness, in which the end result may be nothing, itself... then, when realization has occurred, living in the moment seems the only appropriate practice... but devilishly hard to due, given the construction of the human brain... interesting subject; tx for the post....

Mudpuddle said...

don't know why my comment didn't get there... maybe the net didn't like it... nice para, anyway...

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for posting this. It is intriguing. I have been considering reading Kant for awhile. I am struggling as to how best to approach him. His most worthwhile seeming works seem so long.

Ruth said...

Interesting. I am beginning an introduction to the Enlightenment period in a couple of weeks w/ my children, and I cannot say I know much historically or socially about it. So, what perfect timing. I will read the link to Kant's ideas on Enlightenment, for my own info.

James said...

Ruth,
Sound like an interesting project. I would recommend you consider Enlightening the World by Philipp Blom as background for the Enlightenment project of the Encyclopedie.

James said...

Brian,
A couple of key texts you might consider are The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals and Perpetual Peace and Other Essays. I have read both of these more than once. They are key to aspects of Kant's thought and they are both short.

James said...

Mudpuddle.
Thanks for your observations. Kant was commenting on the European Enlightenment that was promoted by philosophers like Diderot and Rousseau. Zen is fascinating in other ways.