Sapere Aude! [Dare to know!] “Have courage to use your own understanding! – that is the motto of enlightenment. ” ~ Jean Jacques Rousseau
“Enlightenment is the project to make the world more of a home for human beings” is how Immanuel Kant described enlightenment. He also proposed the argument; “If it is now asked whether we at present live in an enlightened age, the answer is: No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment.” Using Kant’s definition, I intend to demonstrate that his argument is as valid today as it was in 1784.
Kant and Rousseau perceived struggles between the classes at the onset of the enlightenment period that Marx analyzed a hundred years later. According to Marx ‘The history of hitherto societies is the history of class struggles’. The struggle of the aristocracy to maintain their power, the rich to keep the wealth, and the people’s struggle for freedom and equality against tyranny is creating more divisiveness today than the world has ever known. Kant defined Enlightenment as the “ability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another.” Kant goes on to say that laziness and cowardice are the reasons most people don’t attempt to educate themselves. They even become comfortable and apathetic in their ignorance. They prefer to believe the dogma of others and remain undisturbed in their day to day existence.
Rousseau said “The first man, who, after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, ‘This is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. How many crimes, how many wars, how many murders, how many misfortunes and horrors, would that man have saved the human species, who pulling up the stakes or filling up the ditches should have cried to his fellows: Be sure not to listen to this imposter; you are lost, if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong equally to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!” But he also goes on to say that as people of prestige and power become enlightened they may decline to release their hold on the “great unthinking mass”. And as the many “incapable of enlightenment” already accept the “guardians” and their dogma as authority, there is incentive for those in power to impede the progress of enlightenment.
Freedom of speech and the free exchange of ideas is all that is required for this enlightenment according to Kant. Once the people accepted the myth of private property and were convinced that it important to protect the rights of the people that have property to keep it, equality ceased to exist. As people came to own more things they became attached to these things, surrendering themselves into a state of bondage to their property. But this property that no longer makes them happy would be very painful to lose, so it must have protection. The rich used their wealth to convince the people that the moral thing to do was to demand freedom to own property. Governments were empowered by the people to protect these property rights even though the people themselves had very little property. Those with larger portions of property used prejudice, promises of wealth, divisiveness, religion, fear, and patriotism to convince the “parcel of rustics” to insist their governments protect and perpetuate the myth of private property; “…and for the benefit of a few ambitious individuals subjected the rest of mankind to perpetual labour, servitude, and misery”.
Marx observed that for the population that demanded property rights ninety per cent had very little property. It was in the hands of the rich, the very people who control them with that wealth. This wealth took the form of capital and was accumulated through the exploitation of natural resources and wage labor. Wage labor represents a small portion of the total wealth and the capitalists have control of who gets how much. This system is then made legitimate by the government the people had been told they wanted and needed. Marx said “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”
The common thread is apparent. Marx’s ‘bourgeoisie’ use their wealth to influence the media and politicians and thus control Kant’s ‘great unthinking mass’ to convince Rousseau’s ‘people simple enough to believe’ to elect representatives and pass laws that are not in the best interests of the people. While we do live in a time of many wonders, we do not live in an enlightened age and we certainly are not creating a ‘project to make the world more of a home for human beings.