An Answer to the Question: "What is Enlightenment?"

Immanuel Kant

Konigsberg in Prussia, 30th September, 1784.

Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturityis the inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another.This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, butlack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. Themotto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your ownunderstanding!

Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large proportion of men, evenwhen nature has long emancipated them from alien guidance (naturalitermaiorennes), nevertheless gladly remain immature for life. For the samereasons, it is all too easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians.It is so convenient to be immature! If I have a book to have understanding inplace of me, a spiritual adviser to have a conscience for me, a doctor to judgemy 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.The guardians who have kindly taken upon themselves the work of supervision willsoon see to it that by far the largest part of mankind (including the entirefair sex) should consider the step forward to maturity not only as difficult butalso as highly dangerous. Having first infatuated their domesticated animals,and carefully prevented the docile creatures from daring to take a single stepwithout the leading-strings to which they are tied, they next show them thedanger which threatens them if they try to walk unaided. Now this danger is notin fact so very great, for they would certainly learn to walk eventually after afew falls. But an example of this kind is intimidating, and usually frightensthem off from further attempts.

Thus it is difficult for each separate individual to work his way out of theimmaturity which has become almost second nature to him. He has even grown fondof it and is really incapable for the time being of using his own understanding,because he was never allowed to make the attempt. Dogmas and formulas, thosemechanical instruments for rational use (or rather misuse) of his naturalendowments, are the ball and chain of his permanent immaturity. And if anyonedid throw them off, he would still be uncertain about jumping over even thenarrowest of trenches, for he would be unaccustomed to free movement of thiskind. Thus only a few, by cultivating the;r own minds, have succeeded in freeingthemselves from immaturity and in continuing boldly on their way.

There is more chance of an entire public enlightening itself. This is indeedalmost inevitable, if only the public concerned is left in freedom. For therewill always be a few who think for themselves, even among those appointed asguardians of the common mass. Such guardians, once they have themselves thrownoff the yoke of immaturity, will disseminate the spirit of rational respect forpersonal value and for the duty of all men to think for themselves. Theremarkable thing about this is that if the public, which was previously putunder this yoke by the guardians, is suitably stirred up by some of the latterwho are incapable of enlightenment, it may subsequently compel the guardiansthemselves to remain under the yoke. For it is very harmful to propagateprejudices, because they finally avenge themselves on the very people who firstencouraged them (or whose predecessors did so). Thus a public can only achieveenlightenment slowly. A revolution may well put an end to autocratic despotismand to rapacious or power-seeking oppression, but it will never produce a truereform in ways of thinking. Instead, new prejudices, like the ones theyreplaced, will serve as a leash to control the great unthinking mass.

For enlightenment of this kind, all that is needed is freedom. And the freedomin question is the most innocuous form of all—freedom to make public use ofone's reason in all matters. But I hear on all sides the cry: Don't argue! Theofficer says: Don't argue, get on parade! The tax-official: Don't argue, pay!The clergyman: Don't argue, believe! (Only one ruler in the world says: Argue asmuch as you like and about whatever you like, but obey!). . All this meansrestrictions on freedom everywhere. But which sort of restriction preventsenlightenment, and which, instead of hindering it, can actually promote it ? Ireply: The public use of man's reason must always be free, and it alone canbring about enlightenment among men; the private use of reason may quite oftenbe very narrowly restricted, however, without undue hindrance to the progress ofenlightenment. But by the public use of one's own reason I mean that use whichanyone may make of it as a man of learning addressing the entire reading public.What I term the private use of reason is that which a person may make of it in aparticular civil post or office with which he is entrusted.

Now in some affairs which affect the interests of the commonwealth, we require acertain mechanism whereby some members of the commonwealth must behave purelypassively, so that they may, by an artificial common agreement, be employed bythe government for public ends (or at least deterred from vitiating them). Itis, of course,impermissible to argue in such cases; obedience is imperative. Butin so far as this or that individual who acts as part of the machine alsoconsiders himself as a member of a complete commonwealth or even of cosmopolitansociety, and thence as a man of learning who may through his writings address apublic in the truest sense of the word, he may 'indeed argue without harming theaffairs in which he is employed for some of the time in a passive capacity. Thusit would be very harmful if an officer receiving an order from his superiorswere to quibble openly, while on duty, about the appropriateness or usefulnessof the order in question. He must simply obey. But he cannot reasonably bebanned from making observations as a man of learning on the errors in themilitary service, and from submitting these to his public for judgement. Thecitizen cannot refuse to pay the taxes imposed upon him; presumptuous criticismsof such taxes, where someone is called upon to pay them, may be punished as anoutrage which could lead to general insubordination. Nonetheless, the samecitizen does not contravene his civil obligations if, as a learned individual,he publicly voices his thoughts on the impropriety or even injustice of suchfiscal measures. In the same way, a clergyman is bound to instruct his pupilsand 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 completelyfree as well as obliged to impart to the public all his carefully considered,well-intentioned thoughts on the mistaken aspects of those doctrines, and tooffer suggestions for a better arrangement of religious and ecclesiasticalaffairs. And there is nothing in this which need trouble the conscience. I;orwhat he teaches in pursuit of his duties as an active servant of the church ispresented by him as something which he is not empowered to teach at his owndiscretion, but which he is employed to expound in a prescribed manner and insomeone else's name. He will say: Our church teaches this or that, and these arethe arguments it uses. He then extracts as much practical value as possible forhis congregation from precepts to which he would not himself subscribe with fullconviction, but which he can nevertheless undertake to expound, since it is notin fact wholly impossible that they may contain truth. At all events, nothingopposed to the essence of religion is present in such doctrines. For if theclergyman thought he could find anything of this sort in them, he would not beable to carry out his official duties in good conscience, and would have toresign. Thus the use which someone employed as a teacher makes of his reason inthe presence of his congregation is purely private, since a congregation,however large it is, is never any more than a domestic gathering. In view ofthis, he is not and cannot be free as a priest, sin?he is acting on acommission imposed from outside. Conversely, as a scholar addressing the realpublic (i.e. the world at large) through his writings, the clergyman makingpublic use of his reason enjoys unlimited freedom to use his own reason and tospeak in his own person. For to maintain that the guardians of the people inspiritual matters should themselves be immature, is an absurdity which amountsto making absurdities permanent.

But should not a society of clergymen, for example an ecclesiastical synod or avenerable presbytery (as the Dutch call it), be entitled to commit itself byoath to a certain unalterable set of doctrines, in order to secure for all timea constant guardianship over each of its members, and through them over thepeople ? I reply that this is quite impossible. A contract of thiskind,concluded with a view to preventing all further enlightenment of mankindfor ever, is absolutely null and void, even if it is ratified by the supremepower, by Imperial Diets and the most solemn peace treaties. One age cannotenter into an alliance on oath to put the next age in a position where it wouldbe impossible for it to extend and correct its knowledge, particularly on suchimportant matters, or to make any progress whatsoever in enlightenment. Thiswould be a crime against human nature, whose original destiny lies precisely insuch progress. Later generations are thus perfectly entitled to dismiss theseagreements as unauthorised and criminal. To test whether any particular measurecan be agreed upon as a law for a people, we need only ask whether a peoplecould well impose such a law upon itself. This might well be possible for aspecified short period as a means of introducing a certain order, pending, as itwere, a better solution. This would also mean that each citizen, particularlythe clergyman, would be given a free hand as a scholar to comment publicly, i.e.in his writings, on the inadequacies of current institutions. Meanwhile, thenewly established order would continue to exist, until public insight into thenature of such matters had progressed and proved itself to the point where, bygeneral consent (if not unanimously), a proposal could be submitted to thecrown. This would seek to protect the congregations who had, for instance,agreed to alter their religious establishment in accordance with their ownnotions of what higher insight is, but it would not try to obstruct those whowanted to let things remain as before. But it is absolutely impermissible toagree, even for a single lifetime, to a permanent religious constitution whichno-one might publicly question. For this would virtually nullify a phase inman's upward progress, thus making it fruitless and even detrimental tosubsequent generations. A man may for his own person, and even then only for alimited period, postpone enlightening himself in matters he ought to know about.But to renounce such enlightenment completely, whether for his own person oreven more so for later generations, means violating and trampling underfoot thesacred rights of mankind. But something which a people may not even impose uponitself can still less be imposed upon it by a monarch; for his legislativeauthority depends precisely upon his uniting the collective will of the peoplein his own. So long as he sees to it that all true or imagined improvements arecompatible with the civil order, he can otherwise leave his subjects to dowhatever they find necessary for their salvation, which is none of his business.But it is his business to stop anyone forcibly hindering others from working asbest they can to define and promote their salvation. It indeed detracts from hismajesty if he interferes in these affairs by subjecting the writings in whichhis subjects attempt to clarify their religious ideas to governmentalsupervision. This applies if he does so acting upon his own exalted opinions?inwhich case he exposes himself to the reproach: Caesar non est supraGrammaticos—but much more so if he demeans his high authority so far as tosupport the spiritual despotism of a few tyrants within his state against therest of his subjects.

If it is now asked whether we at present live in an enlightened age, the answeris: No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment. As things are at present, westill have a long way to go before men as a whole can be in a position (or canever be put into a position) of using their own understanding confidently andwell in religious matters, without outside guidance. But we do have distinctindications that the way is now being cleared for them to work freely in thisdirection, and that the obstacles to universal enlightenment, to man's emergencefrom his self-incurred immaturity, are gradually becoming fewer. In this respectour age is the age of enlightenment, the century of Frederick.

A prince who does not regard it as beneath him to say that he considers it hisduty, in religious matters, not to prescribe anything to his people, but toallow them complete freedom, a prince who thus even declines to accept thepresumptuous title of tolerant, is himself enlightened. He deserves to bepraised by a grateful present and posterity as the man who first liberatedmankind from immaturity (as far as government is concerned), and who left allmen free to use their own reason in all matters of conscience. Under his rule,ecclesiastical dignitaries, notwithstanding their official duties, may in theircapacity as scholars freely and publicly submit to the judgement of the worldtheir verdicts and opinions, even if these deviate here Ind there from orthodoxdoctrine. This applies even more to all others who are not restricted by anyofficial duties. This spirit of freedom is also spreading abroad, even where ithas to struggle with outward obstacles imposed by governments whichmisunderstand their own function. For such governments an now witness a shiningexample of how freedom may exist without in the least jeopardising publicconcord and the unity of the commonwealth. Men will of their own accordgradually work their way out of barbarism so long as artificial measures are notdeliberately adopted to keep them in it.

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 becauseour rulers have no interest in assuming the role of guardians over theirsubjects so fir as the arts and sciences are concerned, and secondly, becausereligious immaturity is the most pernicious and dishonourable variety of all.But the attitude of mind of a head of state who favours freedom in the arts andsciences extends even further, for he realises that there is no danger even tohis legislation if he allows his subjects to make public use of their own reasonand to put before the public their thoughts on better ways of drawing up laws,even if this entails forthright criticism of the current legislation. We havebefore us a brilliant example of this kind, in which no monarch has yetsurpassed the one to whom we now pay tribute.

But only a ruler who is himself enlightened and has no far of phantoms, yet wholikewise has at hand a well-disciplined and numerous army to guarantee publicsecurity, may say what no republic would dare to say: Argue as much as you likeand about whatever you like, but obey! This reveals to us a strange andunexpected pattern in human affairs (such as we shall always find if we considerthem in the widest sense, in which nearly everything is paradoxical). A highdegree of civil freedom seems advantageous to a people's intellectual freedom,yet it also sets up insuperable barriers to it. Conversely, a lesser degree ofcivil freedom gives intellectual freedom enough room to expand to its fullestextent. Thus once the germ on which nature has lavished most care—man'sinclination and vocation to think freely--has developed within this hard shell,it gradually reacts upon the mentality of the people, who thus gradually becomeincreasingly able to act freely Eventually, it even influences the principles ofgovernments, which find that they can themselves profit by treating man, who ismore than a machine, in a manner appropriate to his dignity.

THE END