Monday, January 19, 2009

What is Enlightenment?

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.”

The concept of "enlightenment" is like a grand and gorgeous mansion with a plain yet sturdy concrete foundation. Flowering at the top are the splendid, earth-shattering words and ideas of thinkers such as Kant, Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume, Jefferson, Condorcet, Montesquieu, Locke, and so many others. Although their genius, innovation, and eloquence were rare, their fame rests on a simple potential found in each of us: courage.

Without courage, the inner spirit cries silently and perishes unnoticed with the body, never to impart its wisdom on another. Courage propels the individual to finally run free from tutelage. That is, the obligation to go through life guided not by one's own thought and sense, but by the dogma or doctrine laid out by self-appointed "guardians." Above all, you need courage in order to confront the opposition that independence inevitably draws. Example persuades: others will notice when one has the strength to rise back up when struck down by despotic convention, leaving the harness behind on the ground. The ditch is only wide for that first leap, as the initial break always commands the greatest strength. For control is comfort and thought is a wandering frontier trek. It is difficult to find solid ground there on which to stand firm.

Yet even enlightenment among the guardians themselves is no remedy for tutelage. Prejudice is ultimately unmanageable, spiraling out of the hands of its fathers and taking such stubborn root in the people that any thinking guardians may prefer to keep mum so as not to offend sacred tradition. Therefore, the enlightenment of the general public is a slow process, not the violent burst of a revolution. For any progress to even begin to occur, freedom is needed to marry reason to life. Only then can true debate begin, provided, of course, that society remains stable against external disruption. That is the duty of the civil government: to encourage and protect discussion.

One crucial element of an organized society is the proper functioning of its institutions. To maintain the neat flow of life in an advanced and complex civilization, its individual inhabitants must perform their duties with minimal disturbance. Therefore, in order to accommodate both order and the dynamism inherent to free thought, the individual must divide himself into two parts: the public and the private. The private self operates within the confines of the individual's role or vocation. Thus, it is restricted to the fulfillment of societal obligations. The public self, on the other hand, is a member of a community made up of all the intelligent, thinking citizens. It is an unguarded forum for new ideas where everyone is a scholar: here, the soldier may question the orders of the officer and the tax collector may criticize tax policy.

All religions are based upon inner spirituality, so within his private realm, the minister or priest may continue to conduct services whether he agrees with each ceremonial component or not; these are the responsibilities given by the church to its clergy. He has his public self to express his doubts. One consequence of an open intellectual marketplace, however, is the honest expression of dissent and dissatisfaction, even with regards to religion. An ecclesiastical government may attempt to combat this by adopting permanent, inflexible codes of doctrine. This is impossible: either unhindered progress in other areas of society will render them archaic and subject to future override, or they will be a brick wall against which any new ideas will crash. In the end, all that will be achieved is a violation of the natural right to progress. The best course of action for the religious body is to allow its restless members to peacefully defect and form their own church, as the justification for any law is that the people should wish it.

The basic foundations of a free society are vitality, progress, inquiry, and finally, change. These can neither be avoided nor suppressed; no oath, no treaty, however solemn or dignified, can justifiably stifle them. Again, for a body of guardians to do so would be to trample on the rights of their children by denying them full application of their intellect.

The role of the civil government in all this is merely to continue to maintain order and stability, including the prevention of any severe religious discord from erupting into violence. Adherents to the various and sundry sects in a single nation should all hold at least one common principle: loyalty to the state and its secular leader. For the government to entangle itself in spiritual strife would be an undignified neglect of its duties to its loyal citizens. Furthermore, it has been proven that the melding of the two forms a most destructive tutelage. For that reason, any lay ruler who discards the ancient tradition of interference in theological quarrels is worthy of widest praise.

Indeed, the government should not regulate any facet of intellectual and cultural life: art, music, science, and so on. Still, it has been religion that has been at the root of most unrest down through the centuries as secular leaders have tried to appoint themselves as the spiritual guardians of their subjects.

We are not yet so enlightened that every nation is blessed with such a government. Still, we are fortunate to at least live in an era actively engaged in the struggle to become enlightened, so that our descendants may know true freedom. Still, freedom is a paradoxical thing: the less practical decisions one has to make, the more time one has to exercise thought simply because of lack of other concerns. Just as the inquiring intellect cannot afford to be interrupted by worldly matters, so the free society cannot afford to be threatened by its enemies; public peace must be secure in order for ideas to flow unimpeded. Free thinking and its offspring, enlightenment, are the pearls formed by the hard protective shell that is the state and its military.

Immanuel Kant's essay, "Was ist Äufklarung?" ("What is Enlightenment?") first appeared in the 1784 edition of Berlinische Monatsschrift (Berlin Monthly) in response to a question posted a year earlier by a Prussian government official. No, this is not the essay itself (click the first link). It's just my rewording of it.


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