Essay Enlightenment

Always use specific historical examples to support your arguments.

Study Questions


In what ways did the writings of Comenius and Grotius foreshadow the themes of the later Enlightenment?

The works of Comenius and Grotius set the stage for Enlightenment thought in a variety of ways. First, the very fact that they were writing in protest of a national event—the Thirty Years’ War—was revolutionary, as most European governments up to that point had looked very unfavorably upon individuals who might be seen as undermining their authority. Moreover, the substance of Comenius’s and Grotius’s arguments contains clear elements that were mirrored in the works of later Enlightenment thinkers. Comenius emphasized the importance of education, claiming that educated citizens would be less likely to go to war. With this suggestion, Comenius made the same argument that the French philosophes would almost a century later—that reason, and the ability to think and analyze a situation, could solve the problems of the world. Both Comenius and Grotius stressed the importance of treating men as individuals, not as commodities—a sentiment that they expressed in different ways. Comenius felt that, physiologically speaking, we are all the same, and it is therefore unnecessary to fight with each other. Grotius wrote that we all have a responsibility to God to use our lives wisely, and thus giving one’s life for war is an irresponsible way to die. In short, although they phrased it different ways, both men set forth the same ideas: individual liberty, humane treatment for citizens, and ultimately a change in the way that nations and rulers viewed their citizens.


Compare and contrast Hobbes’s perspective on man with Locke’s and explain how that perspective affects their respective ideal governments.

Although both hailed from England and both rose to prominence early in the Enlightenment, Hobbes and Locke took diametrically opposite approaches in their political philosophies. Hobbes was steadfast in his belief that all humans are inherently evil or base by nature. As a result, all people are intrinsically motivated to provide themselves with as many resources as possible. Because resources in the world are limited, people thus become selfish and greedy in their competition for these resources. From this belief emerged Hobbes’s ideal government: one in which a single figure oversees a country and rules using fear. Hobbes believed that fear was the most effective way to control the citizenry and prevent the disorder that would result from each individual greedily pursuing his or her wants.

Locke was far more optimistic, stating that all humans were capable and that they strove for the betterment of the world. His one caveat was that humans in a society would all have to compromise on some of their ideals in the interest of forming a government that best served everyone—however, he believed that humans were reasonable enough to do so. Subsequently, Locke was a proponent of a representative democracy. Such a system would allow all of these rational, thinking people in a society to contribute to their governance, but in such a way that found compromise and kept any one individual’s or group’s wants from crowding out the others.


What factors caused the German Enlightenment to lag behind the English and French Enlightenments?

In the late 1600s and early 1700s, when the Enlightenment was well under way in Britain and France, Germany was highly fragmented both politically and culturally. It was technically not a nation at all but rather a multitude of small sovereign states. Furthermore, nearly all of these states were ruled by despots who instituted strict censorship, stifling intellectual development and making the dissemination of new knowledge difficult. German culture and literature were likewise disjointed, with different regions drawing on different influences and no distinct literary style yet in place. Whereas France and other European countries used vernacular languages for literature, the literary language in Germany was still predominantly Latin. As a result, Enlightenment ideas from England and France took a long time to spread to Germany.

Moreover, German intellectual culture had a prominent streak of conservatism that was lacking in England and France. Christianity was still a dominant force in Germany, where there was not nearly the level of popular discontent with religion and the Church that there was in other western European nations. Many German intellectuals still incorporated traditional Christian themes into their thought and therefore rejected the Enlightenment’s “heretical” focus on pure reason and empiricism. Leibniz, for instance, made a number of great discoveries in mathematics and philosophy, but his religious devotion kept him from straying too far from tradition. As a result, when the German Enlightenment finally did begin in the late 1700s, it proceeded in an entirely different direction from the English and French Enlightenments, embracing reason and rationalism but maintaining strong elements of religion and spirituality at the same time.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Explain Immanuel Kant's philosophy in relation to the search for universal truths. In what ways does he contradict mainstream Enlightenment thought?

2. Adam Smith believed that free trade was far superior to mercantilism. In Smith’s view, how does mercantilism inhibit economic growth, and how does free trade solve that problem?

3. In what ways were the discoveries and innovation of the Scientific Revolution instrumental to the beginning of the Enlightenment?

4. Rationalism, skepticism, and romanticism were the three primary philosophical schools of thought during the Enlightenment. Choose one and explain why you feel it’s a better approach to life than the others.

5. Explain the impact that philosophers from countries other than England, France, and Germany had on the growth of the Enlightenment.

6. What evidence is there that the ideas of the Enlightenment continue to be influential in modern times?


Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! "Have courage to use your own reason!" -- that is the motto of enlightenment.

Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a portion of mankind, after nature has long since discharged them from external direction (naturaliter maiorennes [those who come of age by virtue of nature]), nevertheless remains under lifelong tutelage, and why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians. It is so easy not to be of age. If I have a book that understands for me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a physician who decides my diet, and so forth, I need not trouble myself. I need not think, if I can only pay -- others will easily undertake the irksome work for me. That the step to competence is held to be very dangerous by the far greater portion of mankind (and by the entire fair sex) -- quite apart from its being arduous is seen to by those guardians who have so kindly assumed superintendence over them. After the guardians have first made their domestic cattle dumb and have made sure that these placid creatures will not dare take a single step without the harness of the cart to which they are tethered, the guardians then show them the danger which threatens if they try to go alone. Actually, however, this danger is not so great, for by falling a few times they would finally learn to walk alone. But an example of this failure makes them timid and ordinarily frightens them away from all further trials.

Thus it is very difficult for any single individual to work himself out of the life under tutelage which has become almost his nature. He has come to be fond of his state, and he is for the present really incapable of making use of his reason, for no one has ever let him try it out. Statutes and formulas, those mechanical tools of the rational employment or rather misemployment of his natural gifts, are the fetters of an everlasting tutelage. Whoever throws them off makes only an uncertain leap over the narrowest ditch because he is not accustomed to that kind of free motion. Therefore, there are few who have succeeded by their own exercise of mind both in freeing themselves from incompetence and in achieving a steady pace.

But that the public should enlighten itself is more likely; indeed, if only freedom is granted, enlightenment is almost sure to follow. For there will always be some independent thinkers, even among the established guardians of the great masses, who, after throwing off the yoke of tutelage from their own shoulders, will disseminate the spirit of the rational appreciation of both their own worth and every man's vocation for thinking for himself. But be it noted that the public, which has first been brought under this yoke by their guardians, forces the guardians themselves to remain bound when it is incited to do so by some of the guardians who are themselves capable of some enlightenment -- so harmful is it to implant prejudices, for they later take vengeance on their cultivators or on their descendants. Thus the public can only slowly attain enlightenment. Perhaps a fall of personal despotism or of avaricious or tyrannical oppression may be accomplished by revolution, but never a true reform in ways of thinking. Farther, new prejudices will serve as well as old ones to harness the great unthinking masses.

Nothing is required for this enlightenment, however, except freedom, and indeed the most harmless among all the things to which this term can properly be applied. It is the freedom to make public use of one's reason at every point. But I hear on all sides, "Do not argue!" The Officer says: "Do not argue but drill!" The tax collector: "Do not argue but pay!" The cleric: "Do not argue but believe!" Only one prince in the world [Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia] says, "Argue as much as you will, and about what you will, but obey!" Everywhere there is restriction on freedom. Which restriction is an obstacle to enlightenment, and which is not an obstacle but a promoter of it? I answer: The public use of one's reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men. The privateuse of reason, on the other hand, may often be very narrowly restricted without particularly hindering the progress of enlightenment. By the public use of one's reason I understand the use which a person makes of it as a scholar before the reading public. Private use I call that which one may make of it in a particular civil post or office which is entrusted to him. Many affairs which are conducted in the interest of the community require a certain mechanism through which some members of the community must passively conduct themselves with an artificial unanimity, so that the government may direct them to public ends, or at least prevent them from destroying those ends. Here argument is certainly not allowed -- one must obey. But so far as a part of the mechanism regards himself at the same time as a member of the whole community or of a society of world citizens, and thus in the role of a scholar who addresses the public (in the proper sense of the word) through his writings, he certainly can argue without hurting the affairs for which he is in part responsible as a passive member. Thus it would be ruinous for an officer in service to debate about the suitability or utility of a command given to him by his superior; he must obey. But the right to make remarks on errors in the military service and to lay them before the public for judgment cannot equitably be refused him as a scholar. The citizen cannot refuse to pay the taxes imposed on him; indeed, an impudent complaint at those levied on him can be punished as a scandal (as it could occasion general refractoriness). But the same person nevertheless does not act contrary to his duty as a citizen, when, as a scholar, he publicly expresses his thoughts on the inappropriateness or even the injustices of these levies, Similarly a clergyman is obligated to make his sermon to his pupils in catechism and his congregation conform to the symbol of the church which he serves, for he has been accepted on this condition. But as a scholar he has complete freedom, even the calling, to communicate to the public all his carefully tested and well meaning thoughts on that which is erroneous in the symbol and to make suggestions for the better organization of the religious body and church. In doing this there is nothing that could be laid as a burden on his conscience. For what he teaches as a consequence of his office as a representative of the church, this he considers something about which he has not freedom to teach according to his own lights; it is something which he is appointed to propound at the dictation of and in the name of another. He will say, "Our church teaches this or that; those are the proofs which it adduces." He thus extracts all practical uses for his congregation from statutes to which he himself would not subscribe with full conviction but to the enunciation of which he can very well pledge himself because it is not impossible that truth lies hidden in them, and, in any case, there is at least nothing in them contradictory to inner religion. For if he believed he had found such in them, he could not conscientiously discharge the duties of his office; he would have to give it up. The use, therefore, which an appointed teacher makes of his reason before his congregation is merely private, because this congregation is only a domestic one (even if it be a large gathering); with respect to it, as a priest, he is not free, nor can he be free, because he carries out the orders of another. But as a scholar, whose writings speak to his public, the world, the clergyman in the public use of his reason enjoys an unlimited freedom to use his own reason to speak in his own person. That the guardian of the people (in spiritual things) should themselves be incompetent is an absurdity which amounts to the eternalization of absurdities.

But would not a society of clergymen, perhaps a church conference or a venerable presbytery (as they call themselves among the Dutch), be justified in obligating itself by oath to a certain unchangeable symbol in order to enjoy an unceasing guardianship over each of its numbers and thereby over the people as a whole, and even to make it eternal? I answer that this is altogether impossible. Such contract, made to shut off all further enlightenment from the human race, is absolutely null and void even if confirmed by the supreme power, by parliaments, and by the most ceremonious of peace treaties. An age cannot bind itself and ordain to put the succeeding one into such a condition that it cannot extend its (at best very occasional) knowledge, purify itself of errors, and progress in general enlightenment. That would be a crime against human nature, the proper destination of which lies precisely in this progress and the descendants would be fully justified in rejecting those decrees as having been made in an unwarranted and malicious manner. The touchstone of everything that can be concluded as a law for a people lies in the question whether the people could have imposed such a law on itself. Now such religious compact might be possible for a short and definitely limited time, as it were, in expectation of a better. One might let every citizen, and especially the clergyman, in the role of scholar, make his comments freely and publicly, i.e. through writing, on the erroneous aspects of the present institution. The newly introduced order might last until insight into the nature of these things had become so general and widely approved that through uniting their voices (even if not unanimously) they could bring a proposal to the throne to take those congregations under protection which had united into a changed religious organization according to their better ideas, without, however hindering others who wish to remain in the order. But to unite in a permanent religious institution which is not to be subject to doubt before the public even in the lifetime of one man, and thereby to make a period of time fruitless in the progress of mankind toward improvement, thus working to the disadvantage of posterity -- that is absolutely forbidden. For himself (and only for a short time) a man may postpone enlightenment in what he ought to know, but to renounce it for posterity is to injure and trample on the rights of mankind. And what a people may not decree for itself can even less be decreed for them by a monarch, for his lawgiving authority rests on his uniting the general public will in his own. If he only sees to it that all true or alleged improvement stands together with civil order, he can leave it to his subjects to do what they find necessary for their spiritual welfare. This is not his concern, though it is incumbent on him to prevent one of them from violently hindering another in determining and promoting this welfare to the best of his ability. To meddle in these matters lowers his own majesty, since by the writings in which his own subjects seek to present their views he may evaluate his own governance. He can do this when, with deepest understanding, he lays upon himself the reproach, Caesar non est supra grammaticos  [Ceasar is not above the grammarians]. Far more does he injure his own majesty when he degrades his supreme power by supporting the ecclesiastical despotism of some tyrants in his state over his other subjects.

If we are asked, "Do we now live in an enlightened age?" the answer is, "No ," but we do live in an age of enlightenment. As things now stand, much is lacking which prevents men from being, or easily becoming, capable of correctly using their own reason in religious matters with assurance and free from outside direction. But on the other hand, we have clear indications that the field has now been opened wherein men may freely deal with these things and that the obstacles to general enlightenment or the release from self-imposed tutelage are gradually being reduced. In this respect, this is the age of enlightenment, or the century of Frederick [the Great].

A prince who does not find it unworthy of himself to say that he holds it to be his duty to prescribe nothing to men in religious matters but to give them complete freedom while renouncing the haughty name of tolerance, is himself enlightened and deserves to be esteemed by the grateful world and posterity as the first, at least from the side of government, who divested the human race of its tutelage and left each man free to make use of his reason in matters of conscience. Under him venerable ecclesiastics are allowed, in the role of scholar, and without infringing on their official duties, freely to submit for public testing their judgments and views which here and there diverge from the established symbol. And an even greater freedom is enjoyed by those who are restricted by no official duties. This spirit of freedom spreads beyond this land, even to those in which it must struggle with external obstacles erected by a government which misunderstands its own interest. For an example gives evidence to such a government that in freedom there is not the least cause for concern about public peace and the stability of the community. Men work themselves gradually out of barbarity if only intentional artifices are not made to hold them in it.

I have placed the main point of enlightenment -- the escape of men from their self-imposed immaturity -- chiefly in matters of religion because our rulers have no interest in playing guardian with respect to the arts and sciences and also because religious incompetence is not only the most harmful but also the most degrading of all. But the manner of thinking of the head of a state who favors religious enlightenment goes further, and he sees that there is no danger to his lawgiving in allowing his subjects to make public use of their reason and to publish their thoughts on a better formulation of his legislation and even their open-minded criticisms of the laws already made. Of this we have a shining example wherein no monarch is superior to him we honor.

But only one who is himself enlightened, is not afraid of shadows, and has a numerous and well-disciplined army to assure public peace, can say: "Argue as much as you will, and about what you will, only obey!" A republic could not dare say such a thing. Here is shown a strange and unexpected trend in human affairs in which almost everything, looked at in the large, is paradoxical. A greater degree of civil freedom appears advantageous to the freedom of mind of the people, and yet it places inescapable limitations upon it. A lower degree of civil freedom, on the contrary, provides the mind with room for each man to extend himself to his full capacity. As nature has uncovered from under this hard shell the seed for which she most tenderly cares -- the propensity and vocation to free thinking -- this gradually works back upon the character of the people, who thereby gradually become capable of acting freely; finally, it affects the principles of government, which finds it to its advantage to treat men, who are now more than machines, in accordance with their dignity.


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