Immanuel Kant – What is Enlightenment? (Revisited)


An Answer to the Question: “What is Enlightenment?”

Konigsberg in Prussia, 30th September, 1784.

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!

Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large proportion of men, even when nature has long emancipated them from alien guidance (naturaliter maiorennes), nevertheless gladly remain immature for life. For the same reasons, it is all too easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians. It is so convenient to be immature! If I have a book to have understanding in place of me, a spiritual adviser to have a conscience for me, a doctor to judge my diet for me, and so on, I need not make any efforts at all. I need not think, so long as I can pay; others will soon enough take the tiresome job over for me. The guardians who have kindly taken upon themselves the work of supervision will soon see to it that by far the largest part of mankind (including the entire fair sex) should consider the step forward to maturity not only as difficult but also as highly dangerous. Having first infatuated their domesticated animals, and carefully prevented the docile creatures from daring to take a single step without the leading-strings to which they are tied, they next show them the danger which threatens them if they try to walk unaided. Now this danger is not in fact so very great, for they would certainly learn to walk eventually after a few falls. But an example of this kind is intimidating, and usually frightens them off from further attempts.

Thus it is difficult for each separate individual to work his way out of the immaturity which has become almost second nature to him. He has even grown fond of it and is really incapable for the time being of using his own understanding, because he was never allowed to make the attempt. Dogmas and formulas, those mechanical instruments for rational use (or rather misuse) of his natural endowments, are the ball and chain of his permanent immaturity. And if anyone did throw them off, he would still be uncertain about jumping over even the narrowest of trenches, for he would be unaccustomed to free movement of this kind. Thus only a few, by cultivating the;r own minds, have succeeded in freeing themselves from immaturity and in continuing boldly on their way.

There is more chance of an entire public enlightening itself. This is indeed almost inevitable, if only the public concerned is left in freedom. For there will always be a few who think for themselves, even among those appointed as guardians of the common mass. Such guardians, once they have themselves thrown off the yoke of immaturity, will disseminate the spirit of rational respect for personal value and for the duty of all men to think for themselves. The remarkable thing about this is that if the public, which was previously put under this yoke by the guardians, is suitably stirred up by some of the latter who are incapable of enlightenment, it may subsequently compel the guardians themselves to remain under the yoke. For it is very harmful to propagate prejudices, because they finally avenge themselves on the very people who first encouraged them (or whose predecessors did so). Thus a public can only achieve enlightenment slowly. A revolution may well put an end to autocratic despotism and to rapacious or power-seeking oppression, but it will never produce a true reform in ways of thinking. Instead, new prejudices, like the ones they replaced, will serve as a leash to control the great unthinking mass.

For enlightenment of this kind, all that is needed is freedom. ..

For to maintain that the guardians of the people in spiritual matters should themselves be immature, is an absurdity which amounts to making absurdities permanent. But should not a society of clergymen, for example an ecclesiastical synod or a venerable presbytery (as the Dutch call it), be entitled to commit itself by oath to a certain unalterable set of doctrines, in order to secure for all time a constant guardianship over each of its members, and through them over the people ? I reply that this is quite impossible. A contract of this kind,concluded with a view to preventing all further enlightenment of mankind for ever, is absolutely null and void, even if it is ratified by the supreme power, by Imperial Diets and the most solemn peace treaties. One age cannot enter into an alliance on oath to put the next age in a position where it would be impossible for it to extend and correct its knowledge, particularly on such important matters, or to make any progress whatsoever in enlightenment. This would be a crime against human nature, whose original destiny lies precisely in such progress. Later generations are thus perfectly entitled to dismiss these agreements as unauthorised and criminal. ..

If it is now asked whether we at present live in an enlightened age, the answer is: No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment. As things are at present, we still have a long way to go before men as a whole can be in a position (or can ever be put into a position) of using their own understanding confidently and well … without outside guidance. But we do have distinct indications that the way is now being cleared for them to work freely in this direction, and that the obstacles to universal enlightenment, to man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity, are gradually becoming fewer. In this respect our age is the age of enlightenment, the century of Frederick.”

Since the age of enlightenment, the century of Frederick, a lot time went by and things have changed. In this respect our age is the age of darkness, the century of Zion. Today the main goal of our “education systems” is to ensure that people do not reach curtain states of mind, do not reach enlightenment, so to keeping them down crawling in ignorance, in darkness. Enlightenment is a strange state of mind and a little more complex than Kant put it; for on the one side, freedom is needed to gain enlightenment, but simultaneously, enlightenment is needed to gain freedom. Humans can simply not reach the required level of self-awareness and self-control to gain freedom from their internal “demons” without reaching a certain state of mind, reaching this state of mind is what is called enlightenment. Therefore without freedom there can be no enlightenment and without enlightenment there can exist no freedom. “How can that be and what does that mean?”, some may ask themselves now. It means that only the enlightened can guide society out of the darkness for only they have seen the light and a guide has to know the destination, to know where he is going. A blind man can not be a guide! It is impossible to drag people out of the cave to enlightenment. Everyone has to reach there on his own account and more than providing guidance to those seeking for the light is impossible.

In the end wars and treachery may change lines on a map, they are certainly not what bring about new ages. True development, true progress, comes from thought!

Optimus magister, bonus liber (The best teacher is a good book)

  • For more works from the fellow Prussian Metaphysician Immanuel Kant

~ by metadave on July 30, 2007.

3 Responses to “Immanuel Kant – What is Enlightenment? (Revisited)”

  1. What will the future bring? Back to the caves or what?

  2. That depends on what we do, currently let’s just say the future does not look very bright. Try to imagine a kind of “Machiavellian idiocracy”, like in the movie, just more evil.

    Have a look at the future:

  3. *shudders and falls into the fetal position*

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