In December 1783 Johann Friedrich Zöllner published an article in Berlinische Monatsschrift that stated his opposition to civil marriage, an idea proposed in a previous issue of the journal. Zöllner wrote that the foundations of morality had been shaken in the name of enlightenment and concluded his piece with the question “what is enlightenment?” Zöllner asserted that this question must first be answered before “one begins to enlighten”. Immanuel Kant’s reply to Zöllner’s question is often considered the most famous and most important. In his essay, Kant succinctly outlined his opinion on what enlightenment is, the obstacles to enlightenment and how individuals achieve enlightenment.
Kant defined enlightenment as “ man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage” and the “courage to use your own reason”. Kant believed that “laziness and cowardice” were the prime reasons why many men remained un-enlightened. Kant asserted that people refused to throw off the yoke of “self-imposed tutelage” because it was easier to pay people to think for them and run their lives. As Kant put it a person could pay to buy a book to serve as understanding, a pastor to serve as a conscience and a physician to determine a diet. There was no real need for an individual to exert their own will or their own reason since these “benevolent guardians” would take over an individual’s life for them. The act of enlightenment, therefore, was the act of rejecting this easy form of life and asserting the primacy of your individual reason to reject the conventions of the social guardians who Kant asserted herded society like docile, dumb livestock.
It is necessary to understand Kant’s definition of enlightenment in order to gain some understanding of what Kant thought was an enlightened age and what was an age of enlightenment. Kant argued that...