Emmanuel Kant on Enlightenment and Guardianship

Subject: Philosophy
Pages: 6
Words: 1937
Reading time:
7 min
Study level: PhD

The actual reason why Immanuel Kant is being considered the one of Western greatest philosophers is that, even in the light of the realities of today’s living, his philosophical legacy appears discursively relevant. The validity of this statement can be well illustrated in regards to Kant’s idea as to what can be considered the enlightened form of a monarchic governing, contained in his essay An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? This is because, there are good reasons to be believe that, just it was the case during the course of 18th century, the concept of an ‘enlightened monarchy’ remains thoroughly legitimate.

The line of Kant’s argumentation, in regards to what he believed represents the government’s foremost function (ensuring that the members of a concerned grow ever more enlightened), is based upon his conceptualization of an enlightenment as something that has ambivalent qualities. This is because, even though Kant discusses the concept of enlightenment in terms of people having reached a qualitatively new level of intellectual advancement: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another”, he nevertheless implies that it is only when being thoroughly supervised, the process of people expanding their intellectual horizons may prove beneficial, in a societal sense of this word. This is because, as it was noted by Kant: “The largest part of mankind (including the entire fair sex) should consider the (independent) step forward to maturity not only as difficult but also as highly dangerous”. The reason for this is quite apparent – according to Kant, there is a metaphysical dichotomy between a particular individual’s strive towards enlightenment, on the one hand, and his or her duty to act as the society’s productive member, on the other. After all, whereas the process of citizens becoming intellectually liberated (enlightened) naturally prompts them to disregard the values of a collectivist living, in order for a society to be able to remain its systemic integrity, society’s members must never cease being observant of these values: “In some affairs which affect the interests of the commonwealth, we require a certain mechanism whereby some members of the commonwealth must behave purely passively, so that they may, by an artificial common agreement, be employed by the government for public ends”. In its turn, this presupposes that the society’s proper functioning can only be ensured if the government adopts a proper methodological approach towards counterbalancing citizens’ enlightenment-related anxieties (public interest) against their socially imposed duties (private interest), because only the innately ‘balanced’ societies, which may remain thoroughly stable, while never ceasing to become ever more advanced.

The earlier suggestion explains the essence of Kant’s conceptualization of the role of a monarch. According to this German philosopher, even though a monarch is being responsible for establishing the set of objective social preconditions for citizens to be encouraged to strive towards enlightenment, he is also being responsible for ensuring that the citizens’ increased level of ‘cognitive maturity’ may never undermine the extent of their societal adequacy. This is the reason why in his essay, Kant stresses out that, in order for the process of citizens becoming increasingly enlightened to prove truly beneficial, it must be gradual: “A public can only achieve enlightenment slowly”. The very theoretical premise of Kantian metaphysics predetermined philosopher’s logic, in this respect.

Given the fact that Kant refers to the concept of enlightenment as such that organically derives out of the concept of freedom, which in turn is being theorized by him as something that people naturally aspire for, it subtly presupposes the fallaciousness of a suggestion that the effective governmental ruling can be conducted through a popular vote. The reason for this is apparent – if citizens were provided with an unrestricted freedom to go about expanding their intellectual horizons in just about any way they consider the most fitting, it would eventually result in them growing less and less observant of the concept of a ‘public good’. This simply cannot be otherwise, for if citizens are being preoccupied with exploring their rights, they naturally grow less aware of what constitutes their social responsibilities. The citizens’ lessened awareness of their social responsibilities, however, hampers the society’s proper functioning. And, the societies that do not properly function cannot remain on the path of progress, by definition. Hence, a certain paradox – even though that the heightened level of citizens’ intellectual enlightenment is being potentially capable of providing an additional momentum to the pace of social, cultural and technological progress, it also being potentially capable of slowing down such a pace. This is because, if being allowed to exercise an unbounded intellectual freedom, citizens naturally tend to chose in favor of adopting self-centered lifestyles – the more enlightened people are; the lesser is the necessity for them to remain observant of the values of a communal living: “A high degree of civil freedom seems advantageous to a people’s intellectual freedom, yet it also sets up insuperable barriers to it, Conversely, a lesser degree of civil freedom gives intellectual freedom enough room to expand to its fullest extent”. Kant’s line of logic, in this respect, is perfectly clear.

Nevertheless, even though that Kant’s awareness of the earlier mentioned paradox may be taken as a proof of his longitudinal conservatism (Kant clearly disfavors the idea that the considerations of people’s public reasoning always surpass the considerations of private reasoning, on their part), this is actually far from being the case. After all, throughout his essay’s entirety, Kant never ceases to accentuate the crucial importance of citizens being able to grow progressively enlightened: “The public use of man’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men”. Therefore, there is nothing utterly surprising about the fact that it is specifically the ‘enlightened monarchy’, which Kant considered the form of a political governing, capable of both: stimulating people’s intellectual advancement, on the one hand, and preventing them from being harmed by their newly acquired intellectual insights, on the other.

Kant regards the reign of Frederic the Great as the actual exemplification of the concept of an ‘enlightened monarchy’, because this particular German monarch exhibited what Kant believed to be the observable indications of a particular ruler being indeed enlightened: “A prince who does not regard it as beneath him to say that he considers it his duty, in religious matters, not to prescribe anything to his people, but to allow them complete freedom… a ruler who is himself enlightened and has no far of phantoms, yet who likewise has at hand a well-disciplined and numerous army to guarantee public security”. According to Kant, an enlightened monarch is someone who is being thoroughly aware that allowing citizens to freely indulge in publically held disputes on the issues of socio-political importance, is the foremost prerequisite of an ongoing societal progress. In its turn, such a progress is the source of just about any society’s strength, because it is only in continually progressing societies where citizens may expect their living standards to grow progressively improved.

At the same time, an enlightened monarch is also someone capable of exercising a control over how his subjects become increasingly enlightened. This control, however, is not being concerned with the monarch’s ability to impose his will upon its subjects, but rather with his ability to make sure that the process of people becoming ever more enlightened does not undermine the society’s integrity from within: “So long as he (monarch) sees to it that all true or imagined improvements are compatible with the civil order, he can otherwise leave his subjects to do whatever they find necessary for their salvation, which is none of his business”. Hence, the actual difference between the concept of an ‘absolute monarchy’ (which presuppose citizens being ‘safeguarded’) and the concept of an ‘enlightened monarchy’ (which presuppose citizens being ‘prompted to advance’). Whereas absolute monarchs take an active personal part in designing socio-political policies, enlightened monarchs simply pick out the most professionally adequate and intellectually enlightened citizens for the job. That is, the concept of an ‘enlightened monarchy’ presupposes (what role of the comparison is serving here to elaborate your argument?) This is because, while referring to the notion of ‘guarding people’, Kant had in mind absolute (traditional) monarchies!

This, however, creates another paradox – given the fact that the very concept of monarchy implies that monarchs are not being subordinated to any higher powers, there appear to be no reasons why monarchs should be expected to think of ensuring their countries’ well-being, as such that constitutes their primary ‘professional’ duty. This is because monarchs’ ‘profession’ is being ‘duty-free’, by definition. Kant addresses this paradox by suggesting that the very concept of enlightenment changes the qualitative essence of a monarchic ruling, as a form of political governing, in a sense that it does assign the enlightened monarch with a duty of representing citizens’ collective will: “His (monarch’s) legislative authority depends precisely upon his uniting the collective will of the people in his own”. This has two important implications: a) an enlightened monarch may never consider imposing a totalitarian governing upon his subjects, as it would contradict people’s enlightenment-related aspirations; b) an enlightened monarch is being naturally predisposed towards serving his subjects, because due to being enlightened, he understands what accounts for the dialectical relationship between causes and effects (what does this mean?). It means that, an ‘enlightened monarch’ understands that there is a reason for him to be on the throne, in the first place, and that this reason is not being solely concerned with such a monarch’s ability to enjoy sensual pleasures 24/7. (in Kantian sense of this word), an enlightened monarch increases its chances to remain in power, without fearing the possibility of being overthrown, because as it was pointed out by Kant: “It is very harmful to propagate prejudices, because they finally avenge themselves on the very people who first encouraged them”. Moreover, by adopting a libertarian stance towards its subjects, an enlightened monarch increases the overall extent of society’s social, cultural and scientific advancement – without even having to apply much of an effort:(looks irrelevant?) It’s not irrelevant – this is the reason why ‘enlightened monarchy’ is superior to the other forms of governing “Men will of their own accord gradually work their way out of barbarism so long as artificial measures are not deliberately adopted to keep them in it”. This again will result in strengthening the monarch’s authority even further, because the economic well being of a particular society relates to the extent of its technological advancement in a positive geometric progression. And, for as long as citizens enjoy economic prosperity, they are being very unlikely to aspire to overthrow the government. Therefore, it is fully explainable why in his essay; Kant refers to the emergence of the ‘enlightened monarchy’ concept as such that has been dialectically predetermined by the very laws of history. (I’m lost here about what you are trying to convey). I’m not trying to convey anything – I’m just interpreting the main idea of Kant’s essay!

In this paper, I provided a ‘close reading’ analysis of Kant’s reasoning, in regards to what he believed represent a truly progressive form of a political governing. This analysis revealed that Kantian insights, in this respect, can indeed be considered as such that are being logically substantiated. I believe that the deployed line of argumentation supports the legitimacy of this paper’s initial thesis, as to the fact that many aspects of Kant’s philosophical legacy remain discursively relevant even today.