Chapters in Western Civilization - Vol. 1

By Columbia College | Go to book overview

XIV
THE WORLD OF THE ENLIGHTENMENT

Franklin L. Ford

"Enlightenment," wrote Immanuel Kant in 1784, "is man's release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another.... Sapere aude! 'Have courage to use your own reason!' -- that is the motto of enlightenment." Kant's definition has the ring of an intellectual manifesto, a call to battle. One might better say a call to continue the battle, for its author was looking back over a century of European thought, as well as appealing to the future.

In the German original of the above quotation, the key work is Aufklärung. "Enlightenment," its literal equivalent in English, did not come into general use to denote a movement in intellectual history until the nineteenth century, after the term had been popularized by Kant and his compatriots. However, as a common noun referring both to knowledge and to the mental capacity to put such knowledge to good use, "enlightenment" had been familiar in English since the seventeenth century. Unlike its Latinate cousin, "illumination," enlightenment carries no suggestion of the mystical or the super- natural. You may feel that your mind has received illumination through sudden insight, a vision, or a flash of heavenly intuition sent directly from God. But with respect to a given problem you may say to a fellow mortal: "Enlighten me," with the full expectation that he can give you the relevant facts and suggest a conclusion on which you can both agree.

Such an expectation seems at first glance to be prosaic, even humble. It lacks the awesome grandeur of divine radiance bursting upon the soul. Yet enlightenment too has had its own kind of radiance for all who esteem the human mind. Notice the pride that informs Kant's definition. He is speaking of a great liberation. Enlightenment was not just a quality of mind or a happy state of society. To its devotees it seemed an active, almost tangible

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