Enlightenment as an Attainable Goal

When I lie in bed at night I generally think-over what I have and have not “achieved” during the day past, and what I hope to achieve in the approaching day. I go through a checklist of sorts; “Yes I have completed the WordPress assignment, looked over the next chapter in chemistry and checked the mailbox . No I did not wash clothes,call my mother or practice guitar. I will do that tomorrow.” Though these examples include only physical actions, I also ponder what I can do to improve myself on an internal level. These thoughts occur on a separate stream than checklist style achievements, which are able to be “finished.” I do not believe that I will ever be done with trying to help others, finding out what I am supposed to do with my life, or becoming enlightened. I will never be ultimately selfless, useful or enlightened. I think to proclaim to have achieved the ultimate of anything is to become too comfortable with one’s successes. If someone thinks they have mastered enlightenment, and moves on to never “try” to become more enlightened, then they have, in my opinion, lost what it means to seek enlightenment. One may ask, “Why search for something that cannot be found in its entirety?” to which I would answer with another question, “Why study a subject if you will never know everything about that subject?” The question (hopefully) proves that the journey to answers is more important than the actual answer itself.

To me, the most useful definition of enlightenment is a personal search for truth. I believe that the method for achieving enlightenment varies from person to person. To say that enlightenment can be “learned” by teaching on a mass scale, without being first sought by the individuals being taught is, by my definition of enlightenment, wrong. Enlightenment is not algebra, by which a student can memorize formulas and mechanisms to solve any problem. Enlightenment is a personal experience of individual self-cultivation, not to be governed by a large impersonal system. An individual’s quest for enlightenment may include the study of science and/or philosophy. There is no “one” way to enlightenment.

I have derived my definition and ideas of enlightenment from experience and the works of others. Kant writes “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance” (Kant). The idea of shedding one’s nonage has played a large part in my belief that I will never become fully enlightened. I am capable of no original thought and none of my understanding has been reached without being aided by someone else’s guidance in one way or another. Even crediting Kant as the origin of my belief that using another person’s guidance is “anti-enlightenment” is ridiculously contradictory. The best practice to use in attempting to shed a nonage is to trace how the nonage came about and consider the ideas of people who do not share the nonage. Descartes uses this practice and documents the findings in his Meditations. He writes: “I realized that if I wanted to establish anything in the sciences that was stable and likely to last, I needed—just once in my life—to demolish everything completely and start again from the foundations” (Descartes). In order for the act of seeking enlightenment to be truly personal, I agree that one must do as Kant suggests and Descartes does, question one’s own beliefs. My definition of enlightenment differs from Kant’s in that it includes more than just the shed of nonage Though to seek personal truth one must work at shedding nonage, I believe there is more to the process than the one act. The journey towards enlightenment can include much more depending on who is “on” the journey. In my readings I have not seen Descartes explicitly define enlightenment, but I agree with his process of “finding some reason for doubt” in his opinions (Descartes).

There is evidence that La Mettrie and Locke share the idea that only select individuals have the capacity to seek enlightenment. About children Locke writes, “If their minds are well-dispos’d, and principled with inward civility, a great part of the roughness which sticks to the outside for want of better teaching, time and observation will rub off, as they grow up, if they are bred in good company; but if in ill, all the rules in the world, all the correction imaginable, will not be able to polish them” (Locke). To Locke, once a child/person loses the “want of better teaching” they cannot be corrected. La Mettrie writes: “For a wise man, it is not enough to study nature and the truth; he must be willing to proclaim it for the benefit of the few who are willing and able to think. As for the rest—the willing slaves of prejudice—they can’t reach the truth any more than frogs can fly” (La Mettrie). I agree with both Locke and La Mettrie to an extent. I believe that the desire for truth can be lost in some individuals, however I do not believe that the desire is either entirely present or absent. The suppression of an institution by way of dissuading its members to question their beliefs, and making their journeys to enlightenment personal infringes upon their desire for truth. Therefore, if someone becomes “too comfortable” with ideas they adopt from other people they are less likely to participate in a personal quest for enlightenment.  Where La Mettrie argues that “slaves of prejudice can’ reach truth,” Kant would argue that these “slaves” are victims of having their freedom (that Kant defines as “freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters”) infringed upon, and therefor are not inherently incapable of enlightenment (Kant).

The best “method” for enlightenment in relation to my definition of enlightenment is governed by the questioning of one’s opinions in order to make the journey more personal. As long as opinions are being questioned, the method will then vary from individual to individual. To expect a specific outcome for all individuals seeking enlightenment would be to contradict the idea that enlightenment is personal, and therefore unique to the individual.

La Mettrie


Descartes Meditations

1: http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/pdfbits/dm1.pdf

4: http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/pdfbits/dm2.pdf






One thought on “Enlightenment as an Attainable Goal

  1. I agree. I think those that never actually follow up on their enlightenment are not actually achieving it. Very good.

    Grade: S

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