Posts Tagged ‘2000. 20-42. Print. Kant’

Although Kant’s essay, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” emerged in 1784, centuries after Plato’s “Apology,” both Kant and Socrates address the concepts of acceptable political discussion and disobedience. The philosophers each remark upon knowledge and agree that wisdom is furthered best outside of a civic post. Socrates states, “a man who really fights for justice must lead a private, not a public, life if he is to survive for even a short time,” (Plato 34; 32a) as he denounces holding a position in the Athens government. He believes that he cannot express his true political views and must conform to the majority. Similarly, Kant believes, “…greater freedom is afforded to those who are not restricted by an official post,” (525) in regard to the use of one’s reason. Like Socrates, Kant recognizes that expectations for those in civic positions differ from citizens, especially concerning matters of disagreement and disobedience of authority. However, despite this parallel, Kant and Socrates’ standards for proper political discussion differ and each has a distinct criterion for when personal opinions are permissible. Ultimately these philosophers have slightly disparate views on the process of reasoning and enlightenment.
Socrates supported the questioning of the Athens’ government. Although he says, “a man who really fights for justice must lead a private…life” (Plato 34; 32a) he does not defend the uniformity of opinions in the public authority. While on trial Socrates states, “throughout my life, in any public activity I may have engaged in, I am the same man as I am in private life” (Plato 35; 33a). He does not alter his opinions or actions depending on the audience or position. Socrates seems more anti-political than anti-public, as he testifies that the Athens representatives, “were ready to prosecute me…but I thought I should run any risk on the side of law and justice rather than join you…when you were engaged in an unjust course” (Plato 35; 32b-c). He does not believe that an individual should compromise his or her own beliefs according to the political majority. Useful discussion, according to Socrates, is not public conferences, “that path that would have made me of no use either to you or to myself” (Plato 38; 36c). He protests for his system of private enlightenment in which, “I went to each of you privately and conferred upon him what I say is the greatest benefit” (Plato 38; 36c). Although Socrates would like to speak his mind openly the Athenian government opposes contradicting opinions and so he must consult with others privately, not because he necessarily wants to, but because the majority makes public search of truth impossible.
Deviating from a purely free speech, Kant’s view of using one’s reason to discuss is dependent on the manner. He defines “public use of one’s reason…the use that anyone as a scholar makes of reason before the entire literate world” (523) and the “private use of reason that which a person may make in a civic post or office that has been entrusted to him” (523). Kant’s idea of “private” more closely resembles Socrates’ and the modern meaning of a public. This contrasting definition makes an exact comparison far less clear cut. But if Kant’s idea of public is roughly similar to what is designated as private, his standards for political discussion differ from Socrates. Kant believes in a civic position, “one certainly must not argue” (523). Instead of questioning authority and stating different views, individuals put their personal feelings aside for the majority. Also, when participating in administrative discussions, “members must conduct themselves in an entirely passive manner so that through an artificial unanimity, the government may guide them toward public ends” (523). He views a consenting majority as the best means to create public law. However, Kant also states that outside of this station an individual has, “an unrestricted freedom to use his own rational capacities and to speak his own mind” (523). Although a pastor must teach according to the church’s law and a soldier must obey his superior (523), they are allowed to disapprove of these institutions publicly. Citizens can, “set before the world their thoughts concerning better formulations of [the head of state’s] laws, even if this involves frank criticism of legislation currently in effect” (525). For Kant, one’s actions at a post need not coincide with the individual’s actual beliefs or personal actions.
In general, Socrates would agree with Kant that enlightenment is furthered best outside of a civic position, but he would not contest that authority must be blindly followed while under its command. Socrates encourages questioning the majority’s decisions, while Kant states that in politically one must not argue and only obey. Both believe that reason and enlightenment must begin with private discussions but differ regarding behavior at public posts. While Socrates’ criterion for wisdom is pursuing truth regardless of position, he believes that it is easiest to seek out privately. Kant considers the government an important agency to influence the public to think more for themselves. Overall, although the specifics of each philosopher’s argument differ, each considers, “the unexamined life is not worth living for men” (Plato 39; 38a).

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