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Kant: "What Is Enlightenment?"

Vocabulary: Enlightenment, Aufklarung, Neoclassicism

Introduction: none

Lecture or Handouts: Why did Kant write this essay? How old was he when he wrote it?

Reading Questions:

  • How does Kant define the Enlightenment?
  • What is the motto of the Enlightenment?
  • What two reasons or vices keep men from entering an Enlightened state?
  • Explain Kant's logic when he says it is more likely for an entire society to gradually grow enlightened than it is more likely for individual people to grow enlightened.
  • Why can't a military revolution bring about an Enlightenment?
  • What is the one ingredient or requirement to bring about Enlightenment? (hint: It's not education!)
  • How does Kant say hired clergymen should handle conflicts between what reason or free-thinking tells them and what church dogma tells them? What do you make of the distinction between one's identity as a church-worker and one's separate identity as a scholar?
  • What is Kant's reaction to the idea of a church establishing a creed or unalterable set of fixed beliefs?
  • What does Kant mean when he brings up the Latin quotation about Caesar not being above the laws of grammar? How does it connect with his ideas of the appropriate role of government?
  • Why does Kant say he has focused on matters of religion as the center issue in Enlightenment?
  • What strange and unexpected pattern does Kant see in the relationship between a government's military power (or its degree of control over the populace) and the degree to which individuals can exercise their freedom?

Passages for Identification from "What Is Enlightenment?"

A. Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.

B. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!s.

C. 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. . . .

D. 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. . . . For enlightenment of this kind, all that is needed is freedom. And the freedom in question is the most innocuous form of all--freedom to make public use of one's reason in all matters. But I hear on all sides the cry: Don't argue! The officer says: Don't argue, get on parade! The tax-official: Don't argue, pay! The clergyman: Don't argue, believe!

E. In the same way, a clergyman is bound to instruct his pupils and his congregation in accordance with the doctrines of the church he serves, for he was employed by it on that condition. But as a scholar, he is completely free as well as obliged to impart to the public all his carefully considered, well-intentioned thoughts on the mistaken aspects of those doctrines, and to offer suggestions for a better arrangement of religious and ecclesiastical affairs. And there is nothing in this which need trouble the conscience. For what he teaches in pursuit of his duties as an active servant of the church is presented by him as something which he is not empowered to teach at his own discretion, but which he is employed to expound in a prescribed manner and in someone else's name.

F. 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. . . .

G. 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.

H. I have portrayed matters of religion as the focal point of enlightenment, i.e. of man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. This is firstly because our rulers have no interest in assuming the role of guardians over their subjects so far as the arts and sciences are concerned, and secondly, because religious immaturity is the most pernicious and dishonorable variety of all. .



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