On Hidden Enlightenment
In his assessment on “Enlightenment”, Kant appears to have trouble saying exactly what enlightenment is and what it entails. This becomes very problematic for the student of Kant, because in two different essays he presents various ways of interpreting Enlightenment and his vision of a civic, cosmopolitan society. In “What is Enlightenment” he writes:
One age cannot enter into an alliance on oath to put the next age in a position where it would be impossible for it to extend and correct its knowledge, particularly on such important matters, or to make any progress whatsoever in enlightenment. This would be a crime against human nature, whose original destiny lies precisely in such progress. (4)
This makes it seem as though Enlightenment is something that it transgresses from one epoch to another; just as unenlightened people have trouble obtaining enlightenment, one could reasonable assume from Kant’s essay that it would be just as hard for an enlightened person to become unenlightened; one could say the same for countries and periods of history as well. The problem is that Kant states that an individual must make the choices to become enlightened, and that this will have an effect on others who will follow, etc. First, this is a grand assumption that, other than a few comments on reason and human nature, is largely hypothetical. But the relationship to the state is even more problematic – the Enlightened can influence government, but in order to become enlightened, one must be willing to turn their back on the government and openly oppose such policies which are not enlightened. However, he declares that Fredrick is an enlightened monarch and that this historical period is a period of enlightenment. The problem, then is this – that which is giveth, can be taketh. Should a monarch support enlightened policies, Kant appears to believe that more will follow, and that there will be a sort of snowball effect whereby the legislator(s) must give in to adopting enlightened policies.
History here poses a problem for Kant. Indeed, governments have become more democratic, transparent, and civil over the course of the last 200 years. However, this is not, especially according to Kant’s criteria, enlightenment. In order to be enlightened, people must become “mature”. People are less mature, if anything, than they were in Kant’s time. Laziness, which he names as the apex of immaturity, is at an all time high. Guardians, those willing to do the work that others don’t care for or refuse to do, are everywhere – the United States economic ideology is a circle that Kant would find appalling – people are encourage and praised for profiting off the laziness of others; these men are called entrepreneurs, innovators, and exemplars. At the same time, laziness is encouraged, often by these “Guardians” – through advertising and marketing, using technology and invention not for the betterment of mankind, but for pleasure, or even simply to stay chic and trendy. It is a circle not of enlightenment, but of unenlightenment.
So how did we fall from enlightenment? If once we were in an age of enlightenment, as Kant has claimed, how are we now in an age of unenlightenment? In other words, where once enlightenment was lucid and present, it now is hidden from us. Where and how is enlightenment hiding from us, and whence and where will find it?
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