What is enlightenment?

Enlightenment is the ability to think for yourself instead of being guided by a ruler. It takes courage to step out from complacence and into enlightenment. According to Kant, certain political ramifications are necessary to achieve this. Public use of reason must not be restricted while private use of reason must be restricted. Therefore the people should question why they do what they do, but not necessarily change it. In fact, if changing it would overthrow the government, that is not enlightenment. Overthrowing the current rule leads right back into the chaos of anarchy. However, by thinking for themselves, then suggesting changes in a civil manner, people can better themselves and society thus achieving enlightenment. Kant insists that the leader must say, “Argue as much as you will, and about what you will, but obey!” I believe there is a very fine line between having order and suppressing thought. As long as Kant only wishes to prevent riots, his belief that people must obey is justified. If to obey means to never question the monarch, that cannot be enlightenment. Frederick II ruled Prussia to his people’s and his own enlightenment by encouraging religious tolerance and open thought in general. He lead by example. His enlightenment allowed and even encouraged others to achieve the same. The enlightenment of the people is partly dependent on the on the government.

What is Enlightenment

Kant writes that the motto of enlightenment is “Have the courage to use your own reason!”.  He also states the main detractors to this statement are mans tendencies towards “laziness and cowardice”.  Man has a tendency to fall back on what is easiest, and trying to find enlightenment is certainly not easy.  Instead it is easier to “have a book which understands for me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a physician who decides my diet, and so forth”.  Why would man try to do any of those things for himself if he has people to do it for him?  Why would he go out of his way when the answers are presented to him?  With this strategy man will become stuck, will never “release from his self-incurred tutelage” as Kant states.  Kant writes that only requirement for enlightenment is freedom but he also writes “Everywhere there is restriction on freedom.”  When constantly being told what to do by superiors it becomes easy for man to go back to the “laziness and cowardice”.  To reach enlightenment man must break away from the pack and see the truth.

A man who saw the truth was Frederick II, considered a major advocate for enlightenment absolutism.  In his writing he said “The sovereign is the representative of his State.  He and his people for a single body.”  These were his own ideas, writing “That is my idea of the duties of sovereigns” at the end of his “Essay on Forms of Government”.  In that short sentence Frederick II took Kant’s motto on enlightenment and put it in his own words.  He looked past the laziness and cowardice of man and found, what he thought was, the truth.

Enlightenment Viewpoints of Locke and Frederick II

Amongst other ideas, the Enlightenment focused on the role of developing the individual apart from the structured of society of the past. Not only does this include the leadership, but in addition the ways to implement a civil society. Both John Locke and Frederick II suggested ideas for monarchy reform in order to instate individual freedoms for the people. In the case of Locke, he contradicted the concept of patriarchalism, which defends the absolute power of the monarchy. Similarly along the ideas of reforming leadership, Frederick the Great established the necessity for a ruler to consider himself as “men like the least of their subjects” and to understand “the character of the people” he governs. More than just his writings, he is considered one of the first enlightened absolutists because of his reforms to the Prussian governing system: non- nobles could be judges and tolerance (religiously and in terms of press) was commonplace. His civil society meant a union between the leaders and their subjects, where the sovereign sets the positive, moral example for the state to follow. Locke’s own perspective of civilized society meant focusing on natural rights of people that were undeniable and universal; and protecting those rights through social contract theory by submitting few freedoms to the ruler to protect the rest. In addition he searched for individual rights, and questioned the authority of states over individuals. The Enlightenment proved to be a time for people to question the way that their individual rights were protected, forcing them to simultaneously questioned the powers that governed them.

The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment is the release of individual’s opinions and expressions, or as Immanuel Kant puts it, “man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage.”  Kant states that since most of the population has submitted themselves to “guardians [that] have first made their domestic cattle dumb…” most of the population’s competence is therefore laden with “laziness and cowardice”.  If the masses are given freedom, “enlightenment is almost sure to follow”, in addition to the independent thinkers within an  society.  However, a citizen must still obey the government, and must pay taxes, as being a scholar is “not contrary to his duty as a citizen.”

Frederick II is a great example of an enlightened despot, stating he “must be thoroughly acquainted with its resources, the character of the people.  He also states that a ruler must not “waste the money of the people, the taxes which they have paid, in luxury, pomp, or debauchery.”  The aspects of these duties are largely due to his stance that sovereigns must be civil servants to the people.



Enlightenment: Freedom from Self-Incurred Tutelage

Enlightenment is man’s ability to courageously use his own reason as the guiding force of his understanding without the interference of another. However, Immanuel Kant observes that the majority of the population is restrained from this ability to think rationally and freely as a result of laziness and cowardice. Kant believes that man remains captive by his own self-incurred tutelage and escaping this tutelage is incredibly difficult; only a handful of individuals have successfully broken free. In Kant’s opinion, freedom is the key to achieving enlightenment. He states, “the public use of one’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men.” Kant emphasizes that opportunity for enlightenment must be attainable, namely, freedom must be present; restraint stifles human nature.

Frederick II is an example of an enlightened monarch chiefly because he sought the best for his domain. He also is representative of the age of enlightenment because he permitted freedom of the press. Scholars could freely advocate and even publish their critiques of active laws. In Frederick’s mind, success of an administration is dependent on the actions and character of the sovereign. He viewed himself connected to and representative of his state. Thus, Frederick devoted himself to his state so that progress toward general enlightenment could be achieved.


In short, enlightenment is achieved through the liberation of the imagination. It occurs when one abandons their pre-conceived notions of established truth and distances oneself from foreign influence to attempt to produce entirely original, progressive ideas. In order to do this Kant claims you must, “…have courage to use your own reason”, and be unafraid of failure. Enlightenment is an individualistic movement—It cannot be obtained by relying on others, and according to Kant, one must free themselves of previous impressions and political barriers. Our imaginations are shaped through derived images, thoughts, and memories that we have absorbed and perceived throughout our lives, and enlightenment is a product of transcendence of these aspects that are now deemed as limitations. Pure enlightenment is a difficult concept to grasp and imagine, and Kant believes only a minority will achieve it.

One could argue that Frederick II had an enlightened view on his role as king. Frederick II takes the stance that the king is the servant to the state, and not vice-versa. Many kings throughout history have succumbed to the indulgences that compliment the responsibility, and for his time period, Frederick II had a progressive attitude towards his position in society.