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An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?
Original Article By: Immanuel Kant
Perpetual Peace and Other Essays
Major Topic: Philosophy
Minor Topic: History


         “Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another.”

         Indolence and an ignoble fear are the root causes of why men, even after being liberated from oppression, still run back to immaturity and the guardianship of experts. These guardians of the right or best way regularly frighten the immature with horror stories of what can go wrong if the people choose to make their own way. Even though the danger may not be so great, the small baby steps that lead to a natural fall discourage the immature from further attempts.

         For these reasons, it is difficult to overcome immaturity for the immature individual practically thinks that immaturity is his nature. Rules and formulas are used to control and imprison people into an unnatural state of childish inexperience. Even those who successfully throw off their chains find it difficult to make even the smallest progress.

         However the general people will make progress toward maturity if they are only given freedom. And this progress must not be fast – it must be slow; else there is a huge risk of backlash when new prejudices (which are what forced free thinking will generate) are mistakenly called free thinking. New prejudices will combat against old and no progress will be made because of the distraction faced on the road to enlightenment.

         So nothing but freedom is needed for enlightenment and the freedom that is needed is the least threatening and simplest: the freedom to use one's reason publicly in any discourse. Everywhere in the world there are restrictions on freedom but the author claims that not all are bad. Restrictions on the private use of reason may be justified and will not frustrate the progress toward enlightenment. The public use of reason refers to an individual as a scholar reasoning for the entire literate world. The private use of reason refers to reason on behalf of an institution. Institutions are free to limit their members official words but should never be free to limit their members public words outside and/or unrelated to the institution.

         Any attempt to muzzle the free speech of an organization's members outside of the organization ought to be null an void. Not even the highest power on earth can justly demand that its members hold a certain line from generation to generation. Such an attempt is a conspiracy to enslave future generations in immaturity, to prevent future generations from ridding themselves of error. Such attempts are crimes against humanity – for they stop progress toward human destiny.

         The test, the question to ask, the political categorical imperative is: “Can a people impose such a law on itself?” Some laws may be temporarily passed which restrict public freedom in cases of crisis but never for all time.

         Did Kant live in an enlightened age? No, was his answer but he did live in an age of enlightenment. For he believed that many things were still missing before the people could be said to have overcome immaturity. But at his present, in 1784, under Frederick II (the Great), in Prussia the world was at its highest level of public freedom and progress toward an enlightened age.

         While in other places there may be greater freedom, a strange paradox has become clear: with greater civil freedom comes greater advantages to spiritual freedom but only to a point. Too much civil freedom will increasingly restrict spiritual freedom. Therefore there is a proper amount of civil freedom in which all can fully reach their potential. Once these improper restrictions on civil freedom are removed and no more, then the regular occupation of free public thinking will spread over the people and to government institutions. Finally in an enlightened age all men will be treated as their dignity demands.

Added on: 2009-06-23 01:25:35
Précis by: James Jeff McLaren
© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren