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What is the Age of Enlightenment?


 

Fossils
Enlightenment is the courage to use your own brain. Sapre Aude! Dare to Know!

Enlightenment is the courage to use your own brain. It is the courage to think on your own.

  • What do you do if you want to make your lifestyle healthier? You talk to a doctor. He or she will advise you on what food to eat.
  • You have a financial issue? You talk to the bank. They will advise you how to invest your money.
  • Or maybe you have an emotional problem? Go to a psychologist! He/she will fix it.
  • You have problems making a moral or ethical decision? You talk to a religious authority or a philosopher.
  • You have problems settling a disagreement with somebody? What do you do? You talk to a lawyer, of course.
  • You don’t know what to study at university? You ask your parents or your friends. They know it better.
  • You don’t know the answer to question on an exam? You have look at what the person sitting next to you is writing.


The reason why so many people are not free to make their own decisions, the reason why so many people are dependent on others is not because of a lack of intelligence. People are not dependent on others because they lack knowledge. No. People depend on others and let others be in control and be their guardians because they are simply too lazy and to afraid to think on their own. It’s too comfortable to pay for a service and to let others do the thinking for you. As a consequence you become dependent on them and you will stay in life-long immaturity.

Wow. Now these are strong words. Who said that? No, it is not I, who came up with this idea. It goes to the credit of the philosopher Immanuel Kant. For those of you who don’t know yet, Kant is a central Theory of Knowledge figure and a central figure of the Age of Enlightenment. He has shaped Western Philosophy like few others have. In any case, in the year 1784 Kant wrote an essay where he answered the question “What is Enlightenment?”. He wrote: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.” Self-incurred means that the person is responsible himself for his own immaturity. According to Kant, people themselves are responsible if they are in a state of life-long immaturity because they let other people do the thinking for them.

Of course it’s also easy to misinterpret Kant’s view. I want to give you some alternative examples:

  • What do you do if you want to make your lifestyle healthier? You swallow some vitamin tablets.
  • You have a financial issue? You try gambling.
  • Or maybe you have an emotional problem? You can drown it in alcohol.
  • You have problems making a moral or ethical decision? You ignore all moral and ethical standards.
  • You have problems settling a disagreement with somebody? You take the law into your own hand.
  • You don’t know what to study at university? You keep changing your study over and over or keep on pushing out the decision until it’s too late.
  • You don’t know the answer to question on an exam? You bribe the teacher.

Even here you do not use your own reason, but resort to a “quick-fix solution”, which doesn’t work over the long run and ultimately causes more problems. Maybe a person is mature if he/she is aware of his/her own limitations of knowledge and then consults others for help. Maybe it’s the knowledge of your own lack of knowledge which is also characteristic of an “enlightened person”. I think that Kant would agree.

The Age of Enlightenment is also known as the Age of Reason. It started to emerge in Europe and the United States during the 18th century. It was the time when people started to think critically and rationally about the world. This is the time when people started to think about human rights issues, freedom issues and individual liberty. To give you an example, the abolition of slavery in the United States was made possible due to this change in attitude towards fellow humans. It was also a time when scientific progress started to increase. At that time people started to see the world, and maybe also themselves, differently and more rationally.

Remember, the Middle Age (up to about the 16th century), was characterized by irrational fears. When a person got ill, for example, somebody may have placed an evil spell on the person. During this time many people were burned on the stake because they were considered to be wizards or witches. During this time people also did not question authorities as much, maybe also because they did not possess much education. During the Age of Enlightenment this view changed and people started to think more independently.

Immanuel Kant – one of the key philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment – with his words I would like to close this episode. It starts off in Latin:

Sapere Aude! “Have courage to use your own understanding!” – that is the motto of enlightenment. Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a proportion of men, […] 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.

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