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Summary of Immanuel Kant's Enlightenment

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Picture of Kant

Picture of Kant

According to Immanuel Kant, enlightenment was man’s release from “self-incurred tutelage.” Enlightenment was the process by which the public could rid themselves of intellectual bondage after centuries of slumbering. After providing a careful analysis of the causes why tutelage occurred, he proposes the requirements for enlightenment. He wants the public to think freely, act judiciously and be “treated in accordance with their dignity” (Internet Modern History Sourcebook 4).

Kant says that tutelage occurred because of many reasons. The first was laziness. Men thought it cumbersome to reason and enlarge their knowledge. Simple obedience was less onerous to their simple minds. Kant explains that the second reason, cowardice, supplemented their laziness. The general public feared to use their reason because they were not willing to venture in to uncharted waters. They were afraid to have a few falls in the process of learning how to walk. The third reason he argued, was the select few who were smarter put themselves on top by depriving the general public of knowledge and education. Thus, the so called elites complemented the cowardice and fear of the general public by suppressing them and leading them back to the “harness of the cart to which they were tethered” (Internet Modern History Sourcebook 1).They did this by showing the goodness of the present society they were in, and magnifying the unseen and ghastly dangers that existed in uncharted venues of reason. The final reason Kant gives for tutelage is complacency and blind obedience. The people were smug in their shackles of centuries old serfdom. Like “domestic cattle” they obeyed without bothering to challenge norm or person to alleviate their suffering (Internet Modern History Sourcebook 1).

After discussing the reasons why tutelage occurred, Kant presents the requirements for enlightenment. The foremost requirement is freedom. He believes that freedom to express oneself honestly is paramount for enlightenment. This is important because when a man is allowed to freely express his thoughts and opinions without penalization, he will offer ideas without fear and restriction. Kant is actually promoting freedom of speech and the tolerance of diverse viewpoints. But he also warns that the expression of one’s opinions must not prevent him from discharging his duties to the public. Kant’s second point is the leaders must be enlightened first for the public to be enlightened. Until the monarch is enlightened, he will not grant his subjects the necessary freedom to think without considering opposing viewpoints as an act of insubordination. He makes a bold statement about monarchism when he says “his law giving authority rests on his uniting the general public will in his own” (Internet Modern History Sourcebook 3). He is actually saying the monarch’s commands and wishes should be a representation of the people and their interests. He emphasizes that a republican government should comply with the wishes of its citizens and not forces them into blind and foolish obedience. He strongly expresses the need for a government that does not intimidate its citizens, but rather encourages them.

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While it is true that monarchies abused their authority by depriving the people of education and forcing obedience, Kant blames the general public for tutelage. Kant reiterates that enlightenment is “the escape of men from self-their incurred tutelage” (Internet Modern History Sourcebook 4). Indeed, it is society’s breaking away from the intellectual chains of the dark ages.


Kant, Immanuel. “What is Enlightenment?” Internet Modern History Sourcebook. 7 September 2008.


Saif Harbia on January 19, 2014:

Good analysis, The Arab nations and leaders need to accomplish a lot of his saying about freedom of expression, one's loyalty to his country, and the ruler to accept the different viewpoint of his general public

Howard Schneider from Parsippany, New Jersey on June 21, 2011:

Great analysis of Kant. He along with other great writers of his time helped the populace of Europe throw off their intellectual laziness and slavery. This allowed them to flourish and create an innovative and creative society. All of this after centuries of slumber.

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