“What is Enlightenment?”

Kant’s famous little essay, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” offered a simple method for addressing every realm of human activity, from spiritual to mundane. Although published in 1784 — already anticipating considerable political tumult on the European continent — the essay represented the first foundation for an individualism that was not merely a revolt against something but an assertion for self.

“What is Enlightenment?” is full of memorable sayings.

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. …

Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a proportion of men, long after nature has released them from alien guidance (natura-liter maiorennes), nonetheless gladly remain in lifelong immaturity, and why it is so easy for others to establish themselves as their guardians. It is so easy to be immature. If I have a book to serve as my understanding, a pastor to serve as my conscience, a physician to determine my diet for me, and so on, I need not exert myself at all. I need not think, if only I can pay: others will readily undertake the irksome work for me. …

A public can only attain enlightenment slowly. Perhaps a revolution can overthrow autocratic despotism and profiteering or power-grabbing oppression, but it can never truly reform a manner of thinking; instead, new prejudices, just like the old ones they replace, will serve as a leash for the great unthinking mass. … Nothing is required for this enlightenment, however, except freedom; and the freedom in question is the least harmful of all, namely, the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters. …

If it is now asked, “Do we presently live in an enlightened age?” the answer is, “No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment.”

The weakness here is Kant’s abiding faith in reason and in the ability of people to enlighten themselves if they are given autonomy from contrivance and the tools of reason and discourse. It is a weakness of argument, not of values. One certainly wants his proposal to work, but history — and human psychology — has defeated this aspiration with sobering reality in the ensuing centuries.

Rather, it is for the intellectual that Kant pleads autonomy of thought, for he notes that in one’s business and in the public square, one necessarily conforms to the rules of order and civility, but as a scholar one should be free to explore, reflect, and critique. And that admits of the inevitability of enlightenment failing among the masses.

Not to mention those factors that militate against enlightenment of the masses: the enormous growth and centralization of power in institutions and organizations since Kant’s day, the application of science and technology to ends that further frustrate hoped-for health and well-being, and the discoveries of psychology that show reason to be only a small part of the human psyche.

Kant’s argument is best received as an individual seeking enlightenment. Enlightenment is a process from immaturity to understanding, but as Kant says, the process involves resolve and courage — meaning not merely intellect but will and discipline. These latter factors were incompletely understood in the Age of Enlightenment, awaiting the psychology of the 20th century. But the political individual, from Aristotle to Kant, was much the object of attention as an abstraction, and Kant’s individual here is poised to move from legal individual acting reasonably to selfhood.

The philosophy of solitude will ever point to the necessity of examining not the abstract individual as political entity or social animal, but to the self understood as the unique being with consciousness. Consciousness is not an irrelevant by-product to be downplayed in the construction of society, viewed as the only functional context for an individual. Consciousness, will, and the characteristics that lie below the surface of Kant’s “scholar” are common to everyone, everyone in those unruly and immature masses, with the potential to achieve self-realization. That is the driving ethos of the freedom Kant speaks of, not merely the civility and tolerance for discourse among the learned and powerful.

Given the era, Kant’s works do establish philosophical methods that are prerequisites to social functionality, even if that functionality will ultimately be used to stifle the individual into a conformity designed by the powerful as a norm.

Reason is a first and necessary tool, but more complex tasks require more complex tools, and that is where reason ends. Houses are assembled and disassembled, but in history they are never repaired, never made whole again. The hammer of Nietzsche was to be as equally constructive as the refined tool of reason, for culture and society are always full of violence and power, not mere immaturity. The contradictory tools of swords and plowshares are made of the same metal. Immature humanity has overturned its toolbox, emptied itself of both reason and spirit. If we want to exercise reason, we must walk alone.