Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] “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, long after nature has released them from alien guidance…, 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. If I have a book to serve as my understanding, a pastor to serve as my conscience, a physician to determine my diet for me, and so on, I need not exert myself at all.
Kant – An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? (1784)
I found this quote in a book I read recently, “After America” by Paul Starobin. The book looks at several scenarios for an After America world: multi-polar, China becoming the dominant world power, the rise of city-states or chaos (dark or happy). To the author, the fact that we have rarely emerged from our immaturity makes him skeptical about the happy chaos scenario.
I look around and see the level of chaos in America today, see the guardians leading the immature and wonder how we get past this time.
Bill Moyers had Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson, the authors of “Who Turned Out the Lights? Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis” on his show in January. Their perspective – we need to be like the NASA engineer from Houston in the movie Apollo 13 who kept reminding his team “Let’s work the problem people.” The climate and energy problems facing us are not political, but we keep trying to find political solutions to them. In the long run it doesn’t matter what targets we set or what baseline year we use – let’s work on the problem. Now.
We need to have courage to use your own understanding. We need to use the tools we have to move forward to find solutions to the problems of jobs, energy, climate, and more that challenge us. With courage and resolve, we can work the problem not fight each other. This, to me, would be enlightenment.
Kant was an optimist. Near the end of the essay he wrote “If only they refrain from inventing artifices to keep themselves in it, men will gradually raise themselves from barbarism.” I hope we can get there soon.