How is anyone supposed to know what enlightenment truly is? It’s a term that we throw around quite a bit, but no one has a real definition for it. I think that’s because there is no one definition of enlightenment. I suppose it means different things for each individual, depending on what each of us values. Personally, I think that enlightenment is more of a spiritual idea than anything else. La Mettrie argues that the body is simply a machine, that we have no soul; however, since I believe that the definition of enlightenment depends on the individual, I think that the idea of the uniqueness of individuals implies an existence of a soul.
Defining enlightenment as thinking for oneself, as Kant does, does not make much sense to me now that I have had time to really ponder it. I don’t think there is any way we can do that because I don’t think that anyone at this point in time has had a truly original thought. We build our thoughts off of things we’ve seen, heard, or experienced—theoretically, to have a “unique” thought, one would have to live in a vacuum, completely devoid of outside stimulus. Even Descartes’ experiment of stripping away everything he thinks he knows and building his world based on the principle of “I think, therefore I am” is somewhat tainted by the simple fact that he is still being influenced by the world in which he is not sure exists. It is like that psychological concept where if you tell someone not to think about a polar bear, the first thing that pops into their head is a polar bear.
As for defining enlightenment as being educated or knowing the truth, I think both of those definitions are subjective. How much education warrants enlightenment? Is it how we use that education? How do we know when we know the truth? How do we really know anything? These are the kinds of questions Descartes and Mettrie were asking. It seems to me that the argument that enlightenment is dependent on education and the knowledge of truth depends on an audience. Once one reaches that enlightened state, it’s their duty to share it with the public. Milton writes in Areopagitica, “When a man writes to the world, he summons up all his reason and deliberation to assist him; he searches, meditiats, is industrious, and likely consults and conferrs with his judicious friends; afterall which done he takes himself to be inform’d in what he writes, as well as any that writ before him.” What that implies to me is that one cannot be satisfied with their enlightenment unless others know they are enlightened. I disagree.
Most of the authors we’ve read thus far have been concerned with the constructs in our society and how that hinders our enlightenment. For example, Omi and Winant explored how racial stereotypes perpetuate the colonial mindset and prevent us from opening our minds. Kant argued that we are socialized to want to retain our nonage and let others think for us. I think that, like Milton, many of these ideas rely on others recognizing your enlightened state. Because what is the point of being enlightened if no one else knows or cares?
I suppose I agree with la Mettrie in the face that I am not entirely sure if enlightenment is possible to reach. Or, if it is, I don’t know that it is possible to recognize it for what it is. And even if it is possible to reach enlightenment, what then? Is that the highest state of being we can achieve? In his meditations, Descartes says, “If I always saw clearly what was true and good, I should never have to spend time thinking about what to believe or do; and then I would be wholly free although I was never in a state of indifference.” I think it is much more interesting to be constantly striving toward an ideal of enlightenment than to be stuck in an unchanging state of higher understanding.