In order to proceed properly with this post, we must first define enlightenment. There are several different definitions floating around from a literary period to a philosophical one, but here’s how I feel the best way to define it is: Enlightenment is the ability to use human rationality to determine one’s own “correct” way to think and act as opposed to basing thoughts on superstition and tradition. As a whole, enlightenment may lead to a state of earthly perfection. It is both individual and political, as suggested by both Kant and Milton (whereas Descartes and La Mettrie seem to focus more on the individual aspects of enlightenment). One may examine these scholars’ works to determine how humans can achieve enlightenment.
We look at Descartes, who seems to essentially believe that one who is not enlightened, who still possesses a ‘nonage’ (as Kant would suggest), must start completely from scratch. In his first meditation, he says, “demolish everything completely and start again from the foundations”. The struggle here, according to Descartes, is distinguishing between truth and falsity. Descartes supplements my understanding of the concept of enlightenment by emphasizing the significance of leaning upon your own understanding and experiences rather than social prejudices in order to achieve enlightenment. This seems to match up with Kant and La Mettrie in that they both also focus on the individual to a certain extent. La Mettrie, however, does not seem to believe that one can escape his nonage simply by thinking himself out of it. He says that moral theorists believe that qualities such as cleverness, knowledge, and virtue (which all seem to be assets of an enlightened person) are “talents acquired by reflection and hard work”, but La Mettire disagrees with this while Descartes seems to believe that “reflection and hard work” are the only ways to achieve enlightenment.
La Mettrie, though his views partially disagree with Descartes, seems to have something significant in common with Descartes: he believes that one must “break the chains of your prejudice and arm yourself with the flaming torch of experience” in order to achieve enlightenment. Both scholars are emphasizing the importance of using experience in order to shed one’s nonage. La Mettrie presents a powerful reason as to why enlightenment may be difficult to achieve—“when we put limits on things that don’t have any, that is our pride speaking”. For me, this supplements Descartes belief that one must start from scratch when pursuing enlightenment because it suggests that we have to remove our self-imposed limits.
Kant seems to agree with La Mettrie’s view that we must use our own understanding to achieve enlightenment. In his essay, “What Is Enlightenment?” he defines enlightenment to be: “man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage”, where “nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding wthout another’s guidance”. He presents the motto of the enlightenment as “have the courage to use your own understanding”.
Although Kant’s idea of enlightenment seems to align with both La Mettrie and Descartes, I have to disagree with all three of them to a certain extent. The methods by which enlightenment are achieved (Descartes: demolish previous understanding and build from scratch; La Mettrie: remove the limits set by prejudices; Kant: emerge from one’s nonage) are spot on, in my opinion, but the actual concept of enlightenment is slightly difficult for me to grasp because of my Christian spin on enlightenment. Proverbs 3:5 says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” My faith makes it impossible for me to believe that one can become enlightened using one’s own understanding.
On a larger scale than the individual, it is useful to examine Milton’s “Areopagitica”. Though this speech does not directly address enlightenment, it parallels to Kant’s perspective that the public can only achieve enlightenment through freedom—in fact, according to Kant, “this enlightenment requires nothing but freedom”. Though Milton is only addressing freedom of the written word in his speech, the concept can still expand to the general freedom and enlightenment of humanity. In the very beginning, Milton says, “This is true Liberty when free born men / Having to advise the public may speak free”. In terms of enlightenment, Milton is saying here that the ability to speak freely is what can truly make man free. And, by way of Kant’s theory, the freedom to speak can lead to humanity’s enlightenment because man will be free and enlightenment will follow.
So the essential question is this: can humans achieve enlightenment? My answer: it depends. On an individual level, absolutely. As both La Mettrie and Descartes pointed out, individuals can achieve enlightenment using personal experience. Kant also emphasizes this. On a sociopolitical level, maybe. Enlightenment on a sociopolitical level seems to depend on the freedom of man and the willingness of man to release his collective nonage. Is this possible? Probably not.