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Do We Presently Live in an Enlightened Age?

March 23, 2011

After reading Kant’s “What is Enlightenment,” I began to wonder whether we have reached an enlightened age in the 200 years since it was written.  To be enlightened, people need to be willing to use their own understanding, ask questions about how and why things work, and not be scared to do it. Enlightenment is the breaking away from the self-imposed immaturity of being afraid to use one’s understanding. As Kant said, the motto of enlightenment is to “have courage to use your own understanding!”

So do we have the courage to use our understanding, or even the courage to develop understanding?  My answer is no.  We live in a society that only looks at the bottom line; one that just wants an answer so they can move on.  Anyone doing math homework will ask his or her friend what the answer to the problem is, but rarely will you see someone ask why.  People are so often rushing through life that they fail to see why things work and never really understand what they are doing.  We commonly do things “because we’re supposed to” and never question why we are supposed to.   Once we become accustomed to something we tend to think there is no other way to do it.

The rules and norms of society are holding us back from becoming mature, in Kant’s definition. We are so dependent on everyone else that we would be doomed if left alone.   Whether this is good or bad is up for debate, but our dependence on others is undeniable.  The modern age we live in pushes us farther from achieving enlightenment and as a result we are becoming more and more immature.  People can ask any question on Google and find their answer immediately.  You can find an answer for any question on religion, history, school, and health by just typing it in on a search engine.  As technology continues to boom, we become continuously more dependent on it.  The internet has caused us to look for nothing but answers and led us to stop thinking for ourselves.  If you go to Yahoo and look through the articles of today’s news you will find more articles on topics such as where to live, ways to lose weight, and how to decrease your debt than actual news.  We seek answers from financial advisers, dieticians, and priests without ever actually understanding it because we just want to know what to do and how to do it, not why we are doing it.

Furthermore, our society is so interdependent that people are afraid to use their own understanding.  This may be partly because of the lack of understanding in the first place, but its most likely caused more so by our desire for approval by others.  Many people are scared of doing things on their own and making decisions because they are unsure of their actions, and this is the true source of our lack of enlightenment. People often ask for approval before making any decision, whether it is something as small as an edit on an essay or as big as picking a career. Granted, it is sometimes good to get a thumbs-up before proceeding on something, but for the most part people are simply too hesitant to act on their own.  But to become enlightened we need to break off the shackles and act on our own and learn from our mistakes: “Now this danger is not actually so great, for after falling a few times they would in the end certainly learn to walk; but an example of this kind makes men timid and usually frightens them out of all further attempts.”  We learn from our mistakes, and we can become mature and enlightened by making them and moving forward.

Enlightenment is something that we should all strive for as we try to better ourselves.  Unfortunately, in today’s world we are hardly in an age of enlightenment, and definitely far from an enlightened age.  I think we have moved backwards since Kant answered to the question of enlightenment.  We will continue to move in the wrong direction and when we are so often too lazy to exert ourselves, we will look to Google for guidance.

  1. Chris Lee permalink
    March 23, 2011 3:06 PM

    Very interesting blog. You make some very valid points. However, I don’t believe that humans have become more immature with technology. I feel we use it as an aid, and that true enlightenment is still achieved the right way.

    Now you say how any question can be answered for any school assignment using tools like Google. Heck, me personally, I go above and beyond and use places like and wiki.answer. But it is only for a petty math/organic compound reminder. True understanding of any academic concept can’t be obtained through search engines alone. They take time and effort with books and lecture to fully appreciate what you are learning, which I feel is enlightenment.

    Also, what of the other sorts of enlightenment? The kind that relates to human emotion and interaction. There are many but among the first to pop into my mind is how to properly talk to women, or coping with death, and even learning what to say/what not to say in varying social environments. These life lessons are key to how we live life. In order to achieve an thorough understanding of these things, people will have to go through failure, rejection, and sadness. Following this will be self-assessment to improve yourself for the next time. These lessons taught by yourself exhibits what Kant was saying in how “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.” “…and the courage to use it without guidance from another.” Google can’t do that.

  2. Rebecca Birnbaum permalink
    March 23, 2011 6:36 PM

    This was interesting, and I definitely agree with some of your points. The Internet can be seen as so many things (a information source, an interaction tool, entertainment, etc.) so it’s hard to really judge with certainty how it affects individuals and society as a whole. One undeniable function, however, is that the Internet connects individuals to the rest of the world. In this respect, I guess the Internet (and perhaps technology in general) does make it substantially more difficult to “become enlightened” only because it seems as though we’re all interconnected by default.

  3. emjaffe permalink
    March 23, 2011 7:52 PM

    I really enjoyed your blog- and I have to say, I feel the same way. In fact, my family often calls me “old grandma” because I can be so old fashioned in my beliefs about this topic.
    However, before I write more on this topic, I do have to admit that I am a bit hypocritical- I use the internet to google answers and constantly ask my family and friends on advice when making life choices. BUT in the past year I have found myself maturing, slowly beginning to figure out things on my own. I didn’t call my parents before I declared my major. Although I had heard their advice before, I made the personal decision to do PITE. I try to read about subjects I don’t understand instead of “wikipediaing” a quick answer. I have found myself wanting to UNDERSTAND my life and the world that surrounds me.

    I think college presents students with two strong poles of maturity- some choose to mature greatly, while others travel down the maturity roads backwards and seem to de-mature.

    Some students begin to deviate away from the religion they grew up believing in. Some students find a passion in new subjects and groups. Some students become immersed in new cultures. Some students hang out with different “kinds” of friends. Some students learn new languages. Some students find different reasons to be activists.
    To me (and I think Kahn would agree), these students are maturing. They are questioning what the customs they grew up in- and they are changing their daily lives to adjust to what they believe is best for them.
    Even the students who question, but choose not to change are still maturing.
    At least their eyes are open.

    I think the students that are de-maturing are unconnected from the physical and emotional world they live in. Their minds are stuck on the internet where new, quick, easy answers are constantly bombarding them. Their eyes are too focused on their iPhones to watch where they’re walking. How can one mature if they don’t even appreciate the environment we live in? How can one mature if they are connected with thousands of friends on facebook, instead of the two people they are studying or watching a movie with? How can we mature if conversations are constantly interrupted with texts and calls from outside people?

    I understand technology has helped us tremendously. But, like you said, it has taken a negative toll on our maturity. So- call me an old grandma… it really frustrates me that our minds struggle to think freely because they are swamped with waves of internet.

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