The Value and Benefit of an Enlightened People for the Continuity of Democratic Societies

By Rocco A. Astore
2017, Vol. 9 No. 10 | pg. 1/2 |


Political philosophers and theorists alike continue to debate if more enlightened populations would be of value or not. This piece will contribute to that dispute by claiming that an enlightened populace is integral to the progress of free-societies. First, through Kant’s political and moral philosophy this piece will outline what being a free or enlightened person truly involves. Next, by drawing from Rousseau’s On the Social Contract, this essay will describe his vision of a citizen and how one can understand it as the political equivalent of what Kant would call an enlightened member of society. Then, by using Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom, this article will display why embracing beliefs like Kant’s understanding of enlightenment, and Rousseau’s concept of citizenship, are instrumental in paving the way for increased economic success for all in a nation. Finally, by arguing from Kant’s, Rousseau’s, and Sen’s shared perspective on the value of political freedoms and duties, this essay will attempt to demonstrate why an aware population is integral to the continuity of democratic civil societies.


Presently, the need for more enlightened populations is on the rise. However, what is the meaning of enlightenment? Moreover, how should people translate it into political reality? Also, what is its function and value? The purpose of this article is first to explore what being politically aware, or enlightened means through the lens of 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant. Afterward, this essay will compare Kant’s view of the autonomous person with Rousseau’s view of the citizen, to show how their similarities can help provide one with a more insightful understanding of how an enlightened population should assert themselves politically. Lastly, this article, by drawing from Amartya Sen’s understanding of the economic successes of countries which encourage the expansion of liberties, will help to make the case that he shares a view akin to Kant’s, or Rousseau’s vision of an enlightened populace, which is foundational to the continued evolution of free-societies.

Kant on Enlightenment

For 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant (1970, 54), an enlightened person is one who embraces intellectual maturity, or the ability to think for one’s self independently. The basis for this claim is that people possess a common ability to reason, making it their duty, as individuals, to cultivate that power so, ultimately, they can live together more harmoniously (Kant, 1970, 54-55). To do so, Kant (1997, 57-66) recommends that people should act only per moral maxims which preserve both the deciding individual’s choice and the agency of all other rational beings. In other words, when people maintain their right to decide for themselves while refraining from infringing on everyone else’s right to do the same, they are doing so in an enlightened way (Kant, 1997, 57-66). This enlightened disposition Kant (1970, 54-55) believes is reflective of an autonomous, or self-ruling person since those who are truly free apply their mindfulness to all decisions, especially those concerning the well-being of themselves and others.

Consequently, Kant (1970, 54-56) would claim that in society, it is of the utmost importance for people to embrace this view of freedom, or autonomy, or enlightenment. One reason for this is that no one person composes an entire population, and because of that, it is more accurate to view society as a domain in which rational wills coexists (Kant, 1970, 56-57). As such, a free, autonomous, or enlightened person recognizes this fact since the quality of being mindful involves the recognition of one’s right to assert freedom in a way which agrees with his/her will, while also satisfying his/her duty to respect the right of others to do likewise (Kant, 1970, 56-57). From this, Kant (1970, 58-59) would claim that one who is a good member of a community is one who lives in this enlightened way since when people recognize their right to liberty in conjunction with their duty to recognize the common bond of Reason they share with others, peace and prosperity unfolds. Hence, when a society functions in a way which preserves individual freedom while stopping none from enjoying theirs, it is operating properly (Kant, 1970, 56-59). Finally, a properly running society relies on autonomy, enlightenment, or dutiful freedom since it is the most logical and practical way to avoid ochlarchy, or mob-rule, as well as the divisiveness of rule by one or a few (Kant, 1970, 59).

Now, Kant (1970, 58-60) would agree that a populace should awaken, or become mindful of their responsibility to one another as innately rational and volitional beings who share a common reality; since it is only then that they can operate in the best way for one and all. To achieve such an end, Kant (1970, 55-57) recommends that a libertine atmosphere in which reason flourishes can help to refine or educate people to break free from ignorance and the prejudices, falsehoods, and superstitions associated with it. That is when people live in a place where honest and open communication thrives, and where they can freely use the power of their mind to scrutinize each other’s beliefs, for the common interest, that population is an aware one, and not one which faces the perils of blind dogmatism or wild speculation (Kant, 1970, 55-60).

In sum, one may claim that Kant (1970, 55-56) believes an enlightened population is an integral component of the functionality of a state for a variety of reasons. First, social cohesion which is the very fabric of political harmony remains intact when one embraces the logical assumption that no one’s capacity for reason is lesser or greater than another’s, and because of that all people rightfully deserve the respect fitting of a person (Kant, 1970, 59). Accordingly, a nation, which is a collection of rational wills coexisting in the same designated space, demands an enlightened populace because if there were no dutifully free people, who act only by what is best for themselves and their compatriots, society would slip into mob-rule (Kant, 1970, 55-57). Hence, to Kant (1970, 59-60), an enlightened populace is not only possible conceptually, but it is also necessary for the continuity of society since the alternative, ochlarchy, or mob-rule is what would ensue if no one lived dutifully free.

Also, one may claim that a national spirit or common ground that all people of a nation could identify and relate with depends upon an enlightened populace too (Kant, 1970, 56-59). First, rational beings can acknowledge one another’s shared ability to reason, and make way for that shared power to serve as a basic ground for respect between members of the same country (Kant, 1970, 55-57). Now, since all citizens of a nation have a common power to reason, will, and act it is not a right of any to prevent another from enjoying that natural ability (Kant, 1970, 56-57). Consequently, Kant (1970, 55-60) would claim that an enlightened population would help to conserve a nation’s spirit since the power to engage in enlightening, or rational dialogue aides in preventing small-minded aggression, and ultimately the reality of an unenlightened gang ruling oppressively.

Furthermore, the progress of a nation relies on an enlightened population as well (Kant, 1970, 56-58). That is because if people were unable to reason, the discovery, application, and use of order, logic, and stability would be impossible, and the formation of society, an untappable potentiality (Kant, 1970, 55-57). However, the reality of orderly societies which move forward in time stably, give credence to the view that Reason is real and progressive (Kant, 1970, 55-58). From this, one may claim that an enlightened populace which recognizes and acknowledges that times change due to their inherent ephemeralness assists in moving a nation forward, in a rational way, and stops it from stagnating in comparison to other countries (Kant, 1970, 55-60). Hence, the progress of a nation depends on people’s inherent capacity to mature into a mindful understanding of history as a process of moving beyond the present just as time naturally, or rationally marches forward (Kant, 1970, 58-60). Finally, if it were not for people’s power to think of progress in this way, everyone’s understanding of history would be without meaning, which is key in the application of history to one’s way of acting as an enlightened political subject (Kant, 1970, 55-60).

Rousseau’s Vision of The Citizen

Through Rousseau’s (1987, 166-170, 205-207) lens, the meaning of a citizen is one who asserts his/her will at the ballot by deciding in a way which considers his/her wants and needs in connection with the wants and needs of other citizens who are to decide with the same general understanding in mind. In other words, one may infer that to Rousseau (1987, 166-170, 205-207) a functioning democracy depends on an intellectually knowledgeable citizenry or those who take into account what is best for themselves as well as others. Much like Kant’s (1970, 55-60) understanding of an enlightened individual, Rousseau (1987, 170), who pre-dated Kant, has a like-minded view of a citizenry, or those whom he believes free societies depend upon for their ability to operate properly, or per their namesake.

That is, the types of government’s which exist can only be true to their type if their populaces maintain them (Rousseau, 1987, 170-172). Accordingly, in a liberal society, when each vote reflects what is best for the individual as well as for the rest of his/her compatriots, that population is fulfilling the meaning of the form of rule they embrace (Rousseau, 1987, 178-181). Hence, an enlightened person in a Kantian (1970, 55-60) sense, or an authentic citizen in a Rousseauian (1987, 178-181, 205-207) sense, who considers their will and the will of all others whom they share society with, would best suit democracy. Finally, that is because a democratic mode of government which defines as rule by the people, or by one and all coheres with the reasoning and acts of enlightened individuals, or true citizens (Rousseau, 1987, 178-181, 205-207).

Also, Rousseau’s (1987, 197-201) view of a citizen matches with the social contract on which democracies rests. That is, the social compact, or that agreement which people and governments tacitly acknowledge as being the bedrock of their democratic societies, where people forgo untamed freedom for protection by government, is most fitting for a citizen in a Rousseauian (1987, 197-201) sense. First, a social contract involves the many recognizing a governing body to rule in their name, which is ultimately a dyadic relation, but in power and numbers, it is the many who submit to a few (Rousseau, 1987, 205-206). Accordingly, to maintain a balance of power between the ruled and rulers, it is necessary for the ruled to be in solidarity (Rousseau, 1987, 206-207).

Consequently, a true citizen, or one who decides with his/her interests and the interests of all others in mind, is helping to preserve the balance of power between the governed and the governors since that individual is choosing in a way which displays the union of his/her group, or the many (Rousseau, 1987, 205-208). Hence, by acting in solidarity, one can help to uphold the fundamental need for equal power between rulers and ruled so that the citizenry in which that person is a part can remain safe from government oppression (Rousseau, 1987, 202-207). Lastly, since a proper citizen is one who keeps these factors in mind, it follows that his/her enlightened disposition is the best suit for democracy or that form of government which revolves around social agreement (Rousseau, 1987, 197-207).

Moreover, Rousseau’s (1987, 166-170) vision of a citizen, like Kant’s (1970, 55-60) understanding of an enlightened person, is one who decides under no compulsion or coercion. That is, though there exists a general state of mind which one must grow into, to be on the same page with his/her compatriots for the common good of one and all, Rousseau (1987, 166-170) and Kant (1970, 55-60) would claim that that individual must want to do so himself/herself. From this, one may infer that Rousseau (1987, 166-170) and Kant (1970, 55-60) would argue that an enlightened person, or a real citizen, helps to preserve his/her nation’s spirit, or that general cultural outlook that all individuals recognize as being inherent and unique of their country.

One may make this claim because by authentically choosing to assert one’s will in the way that that individual sees fit for the well-being of his/her nation’s ethos, by considering one’s self and all others, that person is doing so both freely and out of genuine respect for one’s nation (Rousseau, 1987, 166-170). Thus, when one genuinely regards his/her will as a conduit to both safeguard and progress the culture that person identifies with and shares with his/her cohabitants, he/she is doing so in a way fitting of an enlightened being or actual citizen (Rousseau, 1987, 205-207).

From this, one may claim that Rousseau’s (1987, 166-170) vision of a citizen is the political equivalent of Kant’s (1970, 55-60) understanding of an enlightened individual. One reason why this claim is justifiable is that both Rousseau (1987, 166-170) and Kant (1970, 55-60) share in the view that people can reason for themselves, and conceptualize reasoning for others. As such, Rousseau’s (1987, 166-170) citizen, or Kant’s (1970, 55-60) enlightened individual, embrace individuality by dutifully recognizing other people’s right to do the same, which is only possible through using reason as a guide for how to treat others properly in a Kantian sense, or politically care for them as Rousseau would argue.

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