Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment?

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Week 6: Sugar and Slavery; Global Enlightenment



Write a few sentences explaining what Kant is arguing in each of the following passages. Make sure to note if any of quotes remind you perspectives provided by Olaudah Equiano or previous historical actors we’ve encountered in this course.


“Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment?” (1784)


  1. Sapere Aude

“Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a proportion of men, long after nature has released them…..READ UNTIL… freeing themselves from immaturity and pursuing a secure course”.


2.Private and Public Reason


“The public use of one’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among mankind; the private use of reason may, however, be very narrowly restricted, without otherwise hindering the progress of enlightenment”.


“And what a people may not decree for itself may still be imposed on it by a monarch, for his lawgiving authority rests on his unification of the people’s collective will in his own. If he only sees to it that all genuine or purported improvement is consonant with civil order, he can allow his subjects to do what they find necessary to their spiritual well-being, which is not his affair”.


  1. Progress


“A man may put off enlightenment with regard to what he ought to know, though only for a short time and for his own person; but to renounce it for himself, or, even more, for subsequent generations, is to violate and trample man’s divine rights underfoot” (281).


“One age cannot bind itself, and thus conspire, to place a succeeding one in a condition whereby it would be impossible for the later age to expand its knowledge (particularly where it is so very important), to rid itself of errors, and generally to increase its enlightenment” (281).


  1. Route to Enlightenment

“Perhaps a revolution can overthrow autocratic despotism and profiteering or power-grabbing oppression, but it can never truly reform a manner of thinking; instead, new prejudices, just like old ones they replace, will serve as a leash for the great unthinking mass” (279).



Wu Jiangzi, The Scholars (1755)


How do the following passages reflect Jiangzi’s critique of the civil service examinations system? What kind of system is he articulating in its place?


“Listen, son, to my dying wish: Marry, have children and care for my grave; but don’t become an official. Promise me this and I shall die in peace” (251).


“If you use goodness and justice to win the people, you will win them all – not only in Chekiang. But if you try to conquer by force, weak as the people of Chekiang are, I am afraid they will not submit” (252).


“ When she was five or six he had engaged a tutor to teach her the Four Books and the Five Classics so that by the time she was twelve she could expound the classics and read essays, having thoroughly mastered the works of Wang Shou-hsi” (271).


Anybody who buys the rank of scholar of the imperial college can go in for the examination”, said the man who had just spoken. “Since Mr. Chou is so learned, why not buy him a rank so he can take the examination?” (261)

“But after reading it for the third time, I realize it is the most wonderful essay in the world – every word a pearl. This shows how often bad examiners must have suppressed real genius” (264).


“He may be my son-in-law”, he said, “but he’s an official now – one of the stars of heaven. How can you hit the stars in heaven?” (268)

“Why should I go on killing pigs? My worthy son-in-law will be able to support me in style for the rest of my life…”(269)


“Listen mother, do you know of anyone, past or present, who is entitled to be called a brilliant young scholar without having passed the examinations?” (273)





Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment? (1784)

Sapere Aude

  • Kant is analyzing man’s self-imposed inhibitions to reason independently and act according to free will.
  • According to him, these inhibitions limit a great number of people from finding the freedom that comes with independent thought and exercise of free will.
  • The failure to pursue an independent course in life is primarily attributed to laziness and the lack of boldness to defy societal conventions in the form of dogmas and formulas.
  • He posits that there is a false sense of security that accompanies immaturity or the failure to act in accordance with one’s free will.
  • Further, he points out that there will always be individuals who discourage others from the exercise of free will by describing the possible dangers of doing so.
  • This quote reminds me of the threats that Olaudah Equiano faced upon gaining his freedom from slavery.
  • As a free man, Olaudah Equiano should ordinarily be able to act independently. But some white individuals believe that he should still act as a slave.
  • Just as Kant points out, Equiano’s exercise of free will is threatened. As such, it would require boldness on his part to achieve true independence.
  • Kant asserts that true freedom can only be achieved by cultivating one’s own mind and having the courage to exercise free will.



Private and Public Reason

  • Here, Kant argues that the product of an individual’s reasoning should be used for the benefit and advancement of society at no cost.
  • He asserts that private profiteering from an individual’s reasoning can be allowed but only to the extent that it does not hinder social advancement.
  • Kant argues for the legitimacy of a monarch in regard to his powers to make decisions on behalf of his subjects.
  • He posits that any action on the part of the subjects that is consistent with civil order should be allowed by the monarch.


  • Kant points out that an individual ought to expand his knowledge and grow his reasoning with the passage of time.
  • He maintains that trying to resist this growth of knowledge and reasoning or trying to keep future generations from it is akin to violating God-given rights.
  • Further, he argues that each generation has a responsibility to pass on the benefits of enlightenment to the next one.

Route to Enlightenment

  • Kant argues that a revolution, as a means to enlightenment, is severely limited owing to inherent flaws in human nature.

He suggests that a post-revolution human population is not so different from its