What Is Enlightenment? – A Breakdown And Interpretation Of Immanuel Kant’s Essay


I recently stumbled upon the writings of Immanuel Kant – The German Philosopher who largely influenced modern philosophy. I stumbled upon in particular, his essay, “What Is Enlightenment?” I was immediately intrigued by the title and read the whole thing twice to understand the religious underpinnings and philosophical ideology or message rather that he was trying to get across to people all over the world at that period of time.

Before you read this post do make sure you read up Kant’s original essay.

Here it is

To me enlightenment is the penultimate stage of self-discovery or self-realization, the final stage of the human mind’s evolution. The transcendental form of consciousness which only a few realised souls have achieved throughout the history of mankind – Gautama Buddha or just Buddha is one of the few who did achieve nirvana or enlightenment. That kind of spiritual enlightenment is for another day.

However the enlightenment Kant refers to in his essay is primarily “Man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage” or as I would put it “Freedom from self-incurred tutelage or subjugation”

It is very different from the realisation of self.

Kant refers to nonage as simply “The inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance.”

Sapere aude is latin for “Dare To Know” as he says ‘”Have the courage to use your own understanding,” is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.’

Kant goes on to list reasons for people not achieving this freedom as primarily laziness and cowardice. He argues that people act in a way by which they like to remain comfortable. They would much rather prefer to act like minors because everything is taken care of for them.

Just as a farmer makes his cattle dependant on him and prevents them from even walking by themselves, in the same way do our guardians make us fearful and dependant on them.
When in actuality the dangers they profess are really not that dangerous.

He says that it is difficult for a person to break free from nonage because he has got accustomed to it. In fact Kant is against this blind obedience of superiors.

This following of decree blindly by people is something Kant opposes and is very vocal about it.

He highlights that dogmas and formulas are age old techniques of suppression. He says that the man who casts away these dogmas is one who can freely think by himself and can cultivate his mind, which only a few (at that time) had done.

The general public feared the use of their own reason because they would tread in uncharted waters. He argues that the public can only become enlightened if they are given freedom to cultivate their own thought. This freedom which he refers to is primarily freedom of speech and expression and of course tolerance to diverse viewpoints.

He goes on to say “A revolution may bring about the end of a personal despotism or of avaricious tyrannical oppression, but never a true reform of modes of thought. ”

Thus saying that a revolution is futile in comparison to citizens being given freedom by their own government because eventually new prejudices will replace old ones and serve as guidelines for the multitude.

Kant further says “We find restrictions on freedom everywhere. But which restriction is harmful to enlightenment? Which restriction is innocent, and which advances enlightenment? I reply: the public use of one’s reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind.”

Kant goes on to say that it is the duty of the enlightened few to reach out and impart their knowledge to the public instead of being a person who uses his knowledge only for “private use”, being all the while in a high civic post obeying orders and commands. That he says is a farce and a waste of knowledge and is of course not performing his duty of educating those around him.

He says that a council such as the church should have no right to subjugate people to the writings of an unalterable doctrine even if it is widely regarded by even the government. That he says is fundamentally flawed and would hamper the progress of humanity. He writes, “Such a contract, concluded to keep all further enlightenment from humanity, is simply null and void” and goes on to say “Therefore, succeeding ages are fully entitled to repudiate such decisions as unauthorized and outrageous.” He means that we have the right to question and reject even religious doctrines and laws that stem out of them, although they are widely regarded.

He goes on to say that although citizens could make the laws of the land, they would require lots of amendments from scholars and that the citizens should be allowed to criticize and find faults with their laws and should be allowed to do so publicly. Thus he says that in order for the people to gain knowledge and enlightenment they must be lead by a monarch or leader who is enlightened himself.

He strongly expresses the need for a government that does not intimidate its citizens, but rather encourages them.

He concludes that nobody is fully free in the brilliant statement “Caesar non est supra grammaticos” which means that “Caesar is not above grammarians” That even the emperor like Caesar must obey some laws, like those of grammar.

Before I get into the political angle, let me tell you what I took away from this. Firstly, gain your own knowledge and understanding of life and things in life, DEVELOP YOUR OWN THINKING. Secondly, Question things and develop your own thought process free from influences. Thirdly,  Practice what you know and develop and enhance the knowledge through writing and reading more. Fourthly once you’re confident enough of putting it out there in the world in whatever way possible(Writing for me) do it! Help people, educate them and help them grow, you never know who will take what away from it. Fifthly, leave behind a legacy in doing so, so that maybe 50-100 years or more more down the line people might come across your stuff and say “Ok there was this unique thinker who thought this way and I relate to it”. Sixthly, break free and do what your soul truly desires, not what you THINK you want or what you are PROGRAMMED to want around you.

Make the most of life and live it to the fullest depending on what you want out of it.

Don’t follow the crowd, create and identity for yourself that is your soul’s and leave your mark in the world in whatever way possible.

Lets not get into the political side of it, on hindsight, that is well documented enough.

Find your meaning of SUCCESS(Not the nowadays buzz word for material, possessions and money unless of course that is what you TRULY want) and a PURPOSE, finding a purpose in life is also extremely important.

Develop, question, read, grow, make a contribution to the world in some way and stay in a good state of mind rather than a prisoner to thought processes.

I hope you are inspired and enjoy this piece as much as I did. Knowledge is the way forward. Nations can be lifted out of poverty and have independent thought processes if all it’s citizens are educated and given the freedom necessary to blossom.

Cheers all!

Have a good week 😀



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