The Enlightened Self: What Thinking Means


In his essay, “An Answer to the Question:  What is Enlightenment” written in 1784, Immanuel Kant encourages us to leave laziness and cowardice behind so that we can have the courage to use our own understanding.  Kant defines enlightenment as our emergence from our “self-imposed immaturity.”  Immaturity is defined as “the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another.”  We are to blame for giving our minds over to others who promise to think for us.  Kant says it is easy to be immature.  “If I have a book to serve as my understanding, a pastor to serve as my conscience, a physician to determine my diet for me, I need not exert myself at all.”  Kant claims “I need not think, if only I can pay:  others will readily undertake the irksome work for me.”  Kant’s warnings are prophetic.  The irksome work of thinking does not take place even when others do it for us.  Training has replaced education.  In Kant’s words, “Having first made their domestic livestock dumb, and having carefully made sure that these docile creatures will not take a single step without the go-cart to which they are harnessed, these guardians then show them the dangers that threaten them should they attempt to walk alone.”  Kant’s characterization of lazy non-thinkers as livestock who pull the cart of their master is a telling testament to how education has been hijacked by bureaucrats who have no interest in removing the leash of “the great unthinking mass.”

            Real thinking is not valued by those who manage others.  It is significant to realize that the word manage was first used in describing the training of horses.  Horses are trained by putting a bit in their mouths.  To be managed is to be under a yoke.  So many are under this yoke that Kant claims, “a public can only attain enlightenment slowly.”  Kant seeks a reformation in the manner of thinking.  Wisdom is not valued as an end to be pursued.  Instead, an examination of what passes for thinking in our society includes chefs who believe a meal can change the world, supermodels become self-help gurus, fashion designers dispensing life altering advice and make-up artists adding new masks for the bread and circus side show.  Instead of philosophers, actors now offer direction and instruction.  This “perpetuation of absurdities” is dangerous.  To be simply trained is to be constrained.  In Kant’s language, it is to act “under instructions from someone else.”  Krishnamurti in a number of essays points out that “education consists in cultivating intelligence.”  This intelligence has banished fear.  It embraces creativity, initiative and originality.

            Krishnamurti and Kant show us that the path of thinking and wisdom is difficult.  There is no quick fix to enlightenment.  But, in an age addicted to amusement, the quick fix results in a castrated mind.  The Buddhists argue that simplicity is the key to truth, wisdom and living.  When we rest are we really at ease?  When we eat, are we really nourishing ourselves?  When we eliminate are we really getting rid of what is unnecessary?  These are the Buddhists keys to enlightenment.  But, the Western world is addicted to pills.  We take pills to fall asleep, pills to keep awake, pills to help us eat, pulls to keep us from eating, pills to stop us from defecating and chocolate laxative to help us keep regular.  What can be done?  The Buddhist think that we must learn how to think and  master the basics before leaping to find God, ghosts and other alien creatures that haunt our sleep.

            Desire according to Chögyam Trungpa places us in an animal mentality.  The pig is symbolic of extreme ignorant desire.  The pig consumes whatever comes in front of its mouth.  In technological terms, the pig becomes a tank that crushes everything in its path.  It rolls along like a 65-year-old Rolling Stone still singing, “I can’t get no satisfaction.”  In politics, one becomes a war pig who cannot get enough oil.  Are we educating what is human or humanizing the animal by putting it into a zoo?

            Does humanize mean to make tame or does it means to set free that which has been confined for so long? Perhaps etymology can provide us with a creative clue.  Homo relates back to the word humus:  earth, dirt and soul.  Sapien relates to the word sapientia or wisdom.  Put together, we can define the human as the dirt that thinks.  What is the thing that humans hide from themselves?  The word animal while containing the word anima or spirit breath can also be read as ani-mal.  Ani is plural for anus, while mal means sick.  Animal can be read as “the sick anus.”   Dirt and soil surround us.  We are within the ring of dirt within the ground that we wish to escape from.  To be born means to have been earthed and grounded. It would seem that any theory of resurrection cannot accept the finality of death.  Religion dreams of a pure body without organs where the messy business of input, output and death are finally conquered.

            Philosophy teaches us to think with courage and passion so that we can become autonomous persons who are no longer bound.  Philosophy gives us the tools to analyze and to know the difference between truth and mere belief. Here I reject the claim made by Thomas Moore in his book Original Self.   Moore, a failed priest, turned pagan spiritualist writes, “Correct thinking gets us nowhere…  Being smart about life only keeps us from living it.”  He claims, “the meaning and purpose of life are great mysteries.”  I find his claims to be irrational and dangerous.

            Philosophy is revolutionary because it criticizes those who will not subject their beliefs to critical inspection.  Philosophy can free us from prejudice, self-deception and self-help lies.  Aristotle argues, “We educate ourselves o that we can make noble use of our leisure.”  “Education and the well-lived life are intertwined.”  Ignorance is never bliss, but extreme pain.  To be educated means to be provoked so that learning can take place.

            Kant’s motto was sapere aude or dare to know.  Daring to know is very different from “Here is what you need to know in order to get a diploma.”  Education is not cookie cutter training or on line learning.  Philosophy, in the words of Pierre Hadot, is not the study of thought, but a way of exiting in the world with the goal of becoming a human being.  Hadot sees philosophy as “a concern for living in the service of the human community, for acting in accordance with justice.”  This is what makes wisdom so difficult to obtain and philosophy so difficult to practice.

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About Mark Zlomislic

Philosopher. Writer. Artist. My Studio/Gallery Inscape Fine Art is located in Cambridge, Ontario. Viewing by Appointment Only. Please email: zlomislic@hotmail.com.
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