What is Enlightenment?

The latest post over at Wild Fox Zen reminded me of a bit of my recent academic work: Kantian ethics.

And before the collective moan resonates around the world, let me share a quote which will begin my chapter on the subject:

Many accept my view that Kant is a more appealing moral philosopher on my reading than on the traditional one. They may even reluctantly admit that it is better supported by the texts than they thought it could be. But they still resist, because they feel their philosophical world deprived of a significant inhabitant – namely, the stiff, inhuman, moralistic Prussian ogre everyone knows by the name Immanuel Kant.

- Allen Wood

Part of studying Kant, it seems, is disabusing oneself (and eventually others) of the many misguided notions that exist about the man and his thought. He was caricatured in his own lifetime and in every subsequent generation. Perhaps it’s just easier to do this than to actually read his works. (Admittedly, it is.) But just as I mentioned recently that getting into Buddhist thought and practice has helped me open up to the many varieties and nuances of other religions, it has done the same regarding philosophies that once seemed so easy to pigeon-hole.

So What is Enlightenment?

In 1784, at the age of 60 and just hitting his proverbial ‘stride’ as a philosopher, Immanuel Kant wrote an essay as a response to a literary journal (think the New Yorker) “Answering the question: What is Enlightenment?” (German: “Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?”)

Of course it has nothing to do with Bodhi, or awakening, which can cause much gnashing of teeth amongst academic-ish Buddhists. Enlightenment instead refers to an age or period of time in Europe when things seemed to be changing and unfolding at an unprecedented rate. After hundreds of years of scholasticism, barbarism, disease and warfare, things seemed to be changing for the better. Science, exploration, colonization, trade, and new technologies were creating an ever-larger middle and educated class. (It should go without saying that this was a pretty horrible time for many people outside of Europe – colonialism brought more warfare, disease, dehumanization, and so on than many area had experienced ever in history). Kant himself came from very humble beginnings as the son of a saddle maker. But this -for Europeans- was an age of upward mobility…

But Kant’s answer seems to resonate (with me at least) even today. And of course, with Buddhist quotes like “be an island (or lamp) onto yourself,” “each person is an heir to his/her own karma (actions),” as well as the whole Kalama Sutta and widely regarded notion that in Buddhism, “it’s up to you – Buddha can’t help you” (Pure Land aside).

Enlightenment is the human being’s emancipation from its self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to make use of one’s intellect without the direction of another. This immaturity is self-incurred when its cause does not lie in a lack of intellect, but rather in a lack of resolve and courage to make use of one’s intellect without the direction of another. ‘‘Sapere aude! Have the courage to make use of your own intellect!’’ is hence the motto of enlightenment.

Idleness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large segment of humankind, even after nature has long since set it free from foreign direction (naturaliter maiorennes), is nonetheless content to remain immature for life; and these are also the reasons why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians. It is so comfortable to be immature. If I have a book that reasons for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who determines my diet for me, etc., then I need not make any effort myself. It is not necessary that I think if I can just pay; others will take such irksome business upon themselves for me. [1]

“Enlightenment is the human being’s emancipation from its self-incurred immaturity.”

Of course I am biased, but I can’t help thinking that the Buddha would have agreed. And another person I think would have agreed, one of the great heroes of the twentieth century, is this guy:

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Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, a book documenting his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp and the power of meaning for keeping prisoners alive.

The thing tying these all together, I think, is Frankl’s airplane analogy. Perhaps the Buddha, Kant, Frankl and others will exhort ideals that seem beyond the reach of ordinary people. But it is exactly that ideal, and the striving we ordinary beings undertake to attain it, that allows us to become fully human. Think a bit about the “cross-winds” of society toward complacency, sensual enjoyment, blame, etc…

I’m always a fan of sitting back and smiling at what is. Whether that’s a toothache (which seems to be my latest malady), or the sun illuminating the froth on a fresh cup of coffee, it just is. And if we cannot stop and find at least some beauty, or something to laugh about in this very moment, we should know that we have more work to do (as I often find out…).

But the ideal of striving should also never be far from one’s mind. The MidWest couch potato sitting in front of the TV, perfectly at ease with what is, isn’t a Zen master. He (or, occasionally she) has lost the balance.


[1] Ak 8:33-42, reprinted in (Kant, Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, 2006, pp. 17-23).

  • http://mumonno.blogspot.com Mumon

    “Enlightenment is the human being’s emancipation from its self-incurred immaturity.”

    Of course I am biased, but I can’t help thinking that the Buddha would have agreed. And another person I think would have agreed, one of the great heroes of the twentieth century, is this guy: Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, a book documenting his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp and the power of meaning for keeping prisoners alive.

    Interestingly, Frankl’s “airplane metaphor” is refuted by the Peter Principle.

    You are correct in asserting the importance of striving in one’s practice. But that’s not because there’s any “ideal” at all out there.

    It’s also interesting – to me at any rate – to juxtapose Frankl’s “search for meaning” in the Nazi experience to that of Sartre’s, where, to paraphrase, every action, no matter how trivial it might be in “normal” times, would take on the weight of a solemn declaration of principles.

    I prefer Jean Paul’s to Viktor’s frankly, and closer to the spirit of Mahayana Zen: “Man’s” condemnation to freedom is a liberation from reification.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Hi Mumon,

      I’d be hesitant to use the word ‘refuted’ in the context of the Peter Principle. It’s like saying Murphy’s Law refutes your hopes for a good first date this Saturday night. It’s humorous or consoling, but not a matter of logic, statistics, or science. But perhaps you meant it in a humorous way, in which case, okay. :)

      I wouldn’t say the “ideal” is ‘out there’, but there are most certainly ideals in Buddhism: the perfections, awakening itself, for many the Buddha as an embodiment of that awakening, and for others the ideal (or various ideals) are instantiated in the Bodhisattvas.

      I’d have to hear more about your thoughts on Frankl and Sartre to say more about them. I studied Sartre in grad school and really like him and I would say there are definitely parallels to be drawn between his work, especially his notion of consciousness as a negatite.

  • Richard Kollmar

    You are most likely already familiar with Owen Flanagan’s writings, in which he brings Kantian & Aristotilian moral perspectives to bear on the problems of selfhood in consciousness studies & Buddhism. I’m just finishing his latest, The Bodhisattva’s Brain, which touches on all of the above. I am, b. t. w., a former Catholic, former resident of Missoula, former monk, & (non-sectarian) priest since 1980. I lead contemplative hikes & pilgrimages in the mountains of California’s central coast. Glad to have discovered your blog. We need more philosophically sophisticated practitioners. All best to you.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Hi Richard,

      I’m somewhat familiar with Flanagan, but I haven’t read much of his work, to be honest. But if he draws on Kantian ethics, I suppose I’d best have a look! Thanks for the heads-up. And wow – you sound like one of the many very interesting and religiously eclectic people that have passed through Missoula, a city I still love and miss very much. I’m glad you made it here, and hope to hear more from you in the future.

  • http://speculativenonbuddhism.com Glenn Wallis

    >>Immaturity is the inability to make use of one’s intellect without the direction of another. <<

    What is being a Buddhist if not taking direction from another?

    • Justin Whitaker

      Hi Glenn,

      I would say it can be, but isn’t necessarily. I don’t think any of us are born fully rational and capable of self-direction. We all need the tools and some direction from the wise who have come before us. Part of our daring to know is indeed the taking and testing of the direction of others. But with time one needs to ‘quit being a Buddhist and start being a Buddha’ (as cliche and often-misunderstood as that saying is). For me, at least, being a student ‘of the Buddha’ is much like being a student of good professors in the academic world – the good professor will always push for creativity and self-direction (within the structures of academia), while a lousy one (no matter how brilliant) will push students to merely imbibe and regurgitate his/her own thoughts.

  • Mark

    Justin,

    Could you recommend a good biography of Kant?

    I teach high school biology and have always felt that reading Kant makes me a better science teacher. Kant seems to be thinking in a time where naturalistic explanation is taking hold and threatening the traditional ways of explanation and understanding. Today, biology shakes up the traditional understandings of self, soul and origins in my students, so I often have discussions with students and parents where I feel that Kant’s time is also my time. Kant avoids the extremes of scientism and dogmatic religion so his thought seems to be incredibly insightful today in the science-religion culture wars. So a good biography might help me understand the social-cultural similarities between Kant’s time and ours and how his project of “limiting science in order to make room for faith” is still playing out today.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Hi Mark,

      I agree that Kant is incredibly relevant today, and it’s interesting to see that the questions of biology would be a focal point for a Kantian discussion. But it does make sense.

      I would recommend Allen W. Wood’s book “Kant” (Blackwell publishing) for a good useful introduction. But if you really want to feel like you are literally in the dining room or lecture hall alongside Kant, you have to read “Kant: A Biography” (Cambridge UP) by Manfred Kuehn. Wood wins on brevity and hitting the key points, but Kuehn is unbeatable for his writing style (it reads like a novel (at least to this very biased Kant student) and breadth.

      If you want to go deeper after that, I’d recommend any of Wood’s books on Kant, his ethics, his anthropology (which look at the difference between man the animal and man the rational being) and more.


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