Sapere Aude

2006-09-11

In yesterday's post Five Years On, I extolled the values of freedom and enlightenment. But what is freedom, and what is enlightenment? These are big concepts and they are not always well defined. Perhaps over time I'll work to explain them (or at least explain my understanding of them). Let us begin with enlightenment. One of the classic statements of the nature of enlightenment comes from Immanuel Kant's essay Was Ist Aufklärung? (translation), written on September 30, 1784:

Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's intelligence without direction from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of intelligence, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere Aude! Have courage to use your own intelligence! That is the motto of enlightenment.

A few points to note:

  1. By 'intelligence' here is not meant raw smarts, but your reason, i.e., your native intellectual powers however strong they may be. You don't have to be a genius to be intellectually curious or to seek a deeper understanding of yourself and the world. (At least that's how I see it, and I think this use of the word 'intelligence' is consistent with the German Verstand in Kant's essay.)

  2. The Latin motto sapere aude comes originally from Epistle I.ii of the Roman poet Horace, in which Horace urged his interlocutor to seek out the wisdom of philosophical study. Although sapere aude is often catchily translated as "dare to know", at root the Latin verb sapio means to have taste or discernment, to be wise, not merely to have dry knowledge of facts (I see a connection here to "la gaya scienza" of Nietzsche). So yes, venture forth in search of knowledge, but while you're at it don't neglect the pursuit of wisdom.


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