Kant's "What is Enlightenment? (1784) 
& Early Modern Rationality

"It is so easy not to be of age. If I have a book which understands for me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a physician who decides my diet, and so forth, I need not trouble myself. I need not think, if I can only pay - others will easily undertake the irksome work for me."

Immanuel's Kant's "What is Enlightenment" was one of his popular essays, written when he was sixty, and it comes at the end of the eighteenth century--what is sometimes regarded as the end of the Enlightenment. In many ways it functions as a good summary of the period's attitudes towards knowledge, the divine, authority, tradition, the individual, education, and the state. Not, of course, the attitudes of all or even most, but the attitudes of a certain intellectual and cultural elite are reflected therein. 

For Kant, reliance upon any authority, other than the human mind, is to be kept an intellectual child, dependent on the paternalism of civil, religious, or academic authorities. In Kant's view an unthinking acceptance of what the state or church leadership tells you can only lead to oppression and a cattle-like state for the masses. Thus, political freedom is absolutely necessary for mental and emotional enlightenment. Public doubt must be possible for both the state and the church. Therefore, the monarch should not meddle in matters of the people's religion.

Aufklärung, faith in reason

Erleuchtung, spiritual awakening


  1. How does Kant contrast the role of a soldier or clergy from the scholar? Why does he see it as an important difference?
  2. Why does Kant make a distinction between "an enlightened age" and "an age of enlightenment"? What's the difference?
  3. Is Kant right that the government should stay out of religion? Why or why not?
  4. Can authority ever be trusted without question? Under what conditions?
  5. What does Kant trust in? What does he not trust in?
  6. How does Kant see the individual in relation to the divine, to the state, to education?
  7. Kant uses the term Aufklärung not Erleuchtung. What is the difference in the two ideas?
  8. Read over the passage by Roger Lundin below. What might it suggest about Kant's view of authority and originality? What makes the older view different?

"Descartes and [other Enlightenment figures] began the slow transformation of Western culture from the model of authority (from the Latin auctor, meaning 'author' or 'originator') to that of originality. Before Descartes, originality had meant the creative appropriation of the thought of one's immediate predecessors; after him, it involved the adoption of an unprecedented point of view. Descartes's break with the past had established a compelling pattern for the future; it legitimated the desire at the heart of modernity: the urge to become one's own origin, author, and father" (13).
--Roger Lundin

[Lundin, Roger. et al. The Promise of Hermeneutics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.]


"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding